Agnosticism & Atheism
Promoting science, logic and reason as the best tools for understanding the world and fighting against the negative effects religions have on society are endeavors common to atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, naturalists, brights, skeptics and most secular humanists. There is a rather loosely defined online community of these individuals and they’ve been arguing since long before this blog was conceived about the meaning of the word “atheist”, whether atheists can be fundamentalists or extremists, what is the right way to promote science and reason, and what these different terms mean. This is my take.
First, let’s look at the terms “atheism” and “agnosticism” and what they might mean. “Atheism”, in popular use and many dictionaries, is the outright denial of the existence of any god, i.e. an atheist is a person who’s absolutely sure that there is no god. However, this is not how self-described atheists use the term. They use it to mean “lacking belief in god”, thereby including many who consider themselves agnostics. They support this by pointing out the etymology of the word, which stems from the greek “theos”, god, and the prefix “a-”, which means without. However, many feel that this is faulty logic. They, quite correctly, point out that the etymology of a word not necessarily denotes its current meaning. They might also point out the use of the word to mean any person that has a faith differing from the speaker’s. However, this line of thought doesn’t necessarily support the view that atheism is the positive belief in no god, because if the current usage is what defines a word, it can be convincingly argued that “atheism” has come to mean “lacking belief in a god” simply by atheists using the term in that way.
More helpful than looking at the etymology and usage of the word is to look at its semantics. All definitions deal with belief; none of them necessarily entail a knowledge of any sort. We can also point out that there are three possible answers to the question “do you believe in a god?”, yes, no and “the question is meaningless”. If theism is the first answer, for symmetry atheism could be the second, but then we lack a term for the third. Alternatively, some people have come up with the terms strong atheism and weak atheism. Strong atheism is the positive belief that there is no god, whereas weak atheism is simply the lack of belief. These terms come closer to describing what people actually believe. It follows that, if we are to use the term “atheism” without any qualifiers, we should use it to mean weak atheism, because it is the broadest (all strong atheists are necessarily weak atheists as well). It also its into the symmetry, where theism means belief in a god and atheism means the lack thereof.
Agnosticism is a claim about knowledge rather than belief. Agnostics claim not to have knowledge. They have also been associated with the stronger position that it is impossible to have knowledge about this particular thing. The term originated with Thomas Huxley, who describes it like this:
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis” — had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. […]
So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic”. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.
He combined the greek word “gnosis”, which means knowledge, with the “a-” prefix that means without, thereby professing his lack of knowledge about the subject. Huxley explains what he means by it:
Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.
This is certainly compatible with weak atheism. Weak atheists do not pretend they are certain of conclusions that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. Some self-described agnostics will of course object to Huxley’s use of the word “faith” to describe agnosticism and hold that, as the first sentence proposes, it is not a faith or creed but a method. Others will once again say that the origins of a term are unimportant and insist that the current usage is the correct usage. But the current opinion is that agnosticism is a third position, a middle point on the question “do you believe in a god?” This is inconsistent with both the way Huxley used the term, and the way agnostics use it. The third option on the question “do you believe in a god?”, if there is a third option, is not “I don’t know” but rather “the question is meaningless”. Perhaps we need to find a term for those who think the question is meaningless or meaningful but impossible to know. We must conclude that “I don’t know” is a claim about knowledge, and therefore can apply to atheists and theists alike. So, agnosticism is a claim about knowledge; the other option is “I do know”, which is what many theists and some atheists claim.
I can then call myself an agnostic atheist. There are some gods that I am absolutely, positively sure do not exist, either because they’re logically impossible or because they would leave evidence. Other gods I am not so sure about, either because they would not leave evidence or because the evidence they would leave is of such a kind that it is consistent but not conclusive with the evidence we do have.