Agnostic, Atheist… or Bullsh*t?

September 3, 2009 at 10:55 pm 27 comments

Much ink has been spilled in the skeptical community over the issue of labels.  What should we call ourselves: atheists, or agnostics?  Which term is more “justified”?  Here, I toss my own hat into the ring on this question… and then I will argue that this issue is unimportant, distracting, and, potentially, divisive.

There is at least a small upside to this issue, which is why I’m including my own reasoning.  The only potentially serious function it has, in my view, is that it provides a convenient arena in which to explore some epistemology.  “Epistemology” is that branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge – how do we know what we know?  Hashing out the atheist vs. agnostic question can be an entry way into how we approach questions of knowledge.  We can sharpen our critical thinking skills and learn some philosophy to boot. To the degree that they serve that purpose, such debates can be informative, maybe even useful.  There’s a serious downside, though, but I’ll save that for the end.  So, for what intellectual exercise it’s worth, here’s my take on this question:

I start by defining terms:  theism, of course, refers to belief in god(s).  Atheism, then, obviously refers to a lack of belief in god(s).  Agnosticism is the assertion that it is not possible to know the answer, and thus a refusal to opine (with any confidence) on the existence of god(s).

Now, some atheists define atheism broadly.  They suggest it can mean one who asserts, “there is no god”, but also one who simply lacks (by choice or happenstance) any belief in god.  This is a rather fine distinction, but real enough, I think.  The former position is sometimes called “hard” atheism, the latter, “soft” atheism.  However, since a “soft” atheist (a) does not assert “there is no god”, and also (b) does not assert “there is a god”, for my part I do not see any difference between this position, and agnosticism. So, for my usage of these terms below, I will restrict the word “atheism” to the “hard” variety: an atheist is one who asserts “there is no god.”

The Argument

It seems to me that this question hinges on what the baseline position is taken to be.  In other words, if we are convinced there is a god, we are theists.  However, if we are not convinced by theistic arguments, what position are we in “by default”?  As my first pass effort, I suggest that this, in turn, depends on whether you consider the question of god’s existence to be a philosophical question, or an empirical question.

If you think it is a philosophical question, then it would seem that the more natural position is one of Socratic ignorance.  Philosophy starts by saying “I don’t know”.  An argument that fails to convince simply fails to convince; that is not the same thing as demonstrating the opposite.  Thus, you will consider yourself as remaining agnostic.

If, however, you think it is an empirical question, then the failure to produce convincing evidence of a god would seem to suggest that we reject the hypothesis that god exists, and accept instead the logically opposite hypothesis, that god does not exist.  Thus, you will consider yourself as remaining an atheist.

So if we are more philosophically-minded, I suggest we are likely to be agnostics.  If we are more scientifically-minded, we are more likely to be atheists.  However, that is not the end of it.  I think I can show that, even if god’s existence is considered an empirical question, agnosticism still remains the appropriate position in a wide number of cases.

Unicorns and Aliens

Consider an example offered by many empirically-minded atheists themselves: unicorns.  If we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant belief in unicorns, as we do not, then we properly say we disbelieve in unicorns.  We do not remain agnostic about their existence.   To do so would be unnecessarily waffling, and kind of weird. Take a stand, already!  “There are no unicorns.”

However, I do not think it is that simple.  Consider an alternate example: extra-terrestrial life.  Currently, we have no good evidence at all for the existence of any non-Earth-based life.  None whatsoever – just like with unicorns.  So what is our epistemic duty in this case?  Are we somehow obligated to claim (and believe) “there is no extra-terrestrial life” until such time as evidence is produced?

It seems to me that clearly the answer is no.  It would be much more appropriate to stay agnostic and admit “we don’t know whether or not there is any extra-terrestrial life”.  The difference between these two cases, I suggest, is one of background expectation.  In other words, if there were any evidence to be had of unicorns/aliens, would we expect to actually have it?

The world is pretty small place. We’ve been all over it.  If there were unicorns to be found, it seems reasonable to suggest we would have done so.  The same cannot be said for alien life.  The universe is a very, very, very big place, and we have looked at almost none of it.  There are a gazillion reasons why the universe might be teeming with aliens (sentient or not), and we’d never know it, at least not now.

So: is god more like unicorns, or more like aliens?  If there were a god, would we expect to have evidence of him/her/it?  (If, on the other hand, you’re looking for evidence that aliens abducted all the unicorns I don’t think I can help you.)

Here again, I think it depends: what kind of god we are talking about?  In theology, there is a debate concerning “divine hiddenness”.  I.e., an omnipotent god could easily make his existence unmistakable to everyone, if he wished.  So if there is a god, why hasn’t he done so?

Fundamentalist conceptions of God have a hard time answering this question, I think.  If there is an omnipotent God, who is morally perfect and good, and who loves us infinitely, and has one singular message to us about how to be “saved” from our corruption, and thereby have a relationship with Him, it becomes hard to see why he does not once and for all settle the question of his existence for everyone.  This would not be hard, for a God.  Even we humans can do this without effort: I suspect that you, dear reader, spent very little time and effort convincing your friends that you exist.  Explanations can and have been offered to explain why, if there is a God, there can be such a thing as atheists. But these tend to be contorted and rely on positing things like the “noetic effects of sin” (you are so thoroughly corrupt you can convince yourself God doesn’t exist, so you don’t have to face your judgment – a problem the IRS somehow does not seem to have to overcome.)

Liberal conceptions of God, however, though much fuzzier and ill-defined than fundamentalist versions, have other options open to them.  Their God is not going to send you to hell for disbelief.  So, perhaps She might want to make Her existence unclear.  Some suggest there is virtue to be had in struggling with the question, or with uncertainty itself, or with doing the good work of “God” without knowing for sure that there really is one.  Others suggest that learning to do good for its own sake, rather than concern over punishment and reward, is intrinsically valuable.

I don’t mean to suggest I myself find these arguments convincing.  For me, the lack of a good, plausible answer to “divine hiddenness” was one of the main reasons for my de-conversion.  However, I would be willing to grant that we can’t be sure a liberal sort of God might not exist.  I think probably not, but who knows?  Such a God might have Her reasons for staying out of sight.  We can’t be sure we have a “right” to expect sufficient evidence for Her.  The universe is a very big place.

In the end, my conclusion is this: from a philosophical perspective, nontheists should be agnostics.  From an evidential/scientific perspective, we are justified in being atheists about the fundamentalist gods, and agnostics about liberal sorts of gods.

Why It Doesn’t Matter

So, that’s my take on the matter.  That an $4.95 will get you an venti iced mocha latte. That, and not much more, not even a biscotti. It was fun, for me, thinking it through.  But it’s an issue of very limited importance, in my view. There’s a downside to obsessing over this distinction, and it’s a doozie:

Those who prefer the term “atheists” and those who prefer the term “agnostics” have far more in common than not.  It is therefore crazy, I think, to go after each other when the goofballs who think the earth is 6,000 years old, and the truly scary people who want to reinstate “stoning” as a valid judicial sentence in U.S. courts, are out there doing their thing.  That is where our focus should be, not on silly semantic differences.

I think we in the skeptical community get way too invested in seeing ourselves as “rational” – and thus we get very nervous at any hint of being seen as “irrational.”  So we concoct these elaborate defenses of every stance we take about anything, no matter how inconsequential.  It’s almost as though irrationality is to us what doubt and heresy is to believers: an unforgivable admission of flaw, of imperfection.  And that’s a big mistake.

So atheists think agnostics are hopeless fence-sitters, wishy-washy and emotionally unwilling to take the final, logical step.  It’s irrational. You already don’t believe.  Why not just say it?

And agnostics think atheists are asserting with confidence something they cannot possibly know.  Isn’t that what the fundys do?  Isn’t an emotional need for certainty part of the problem?  It’s irrational.  And besides, humility is a virtue.

But so what? The truth is, we all have little pockets of irrationality.  Maybe I am a bit too hesitant to commit to a position (because fully “letting go” of religion makes me sad).  Or maybe I am a bit more confident than I have a right to be (because admitting uncertainty makes me anxious).  Or maybe both.  Is this really the end of the world?  We are all human, after all.  The non-believing community needs to let up on each other – and let up on liberal religious believers, too, but that’s another article – and get on with the business of what really matters: teaching critical thinking, fostering tolerance and plurality, encouraging open-mindedness, and promoting scientific education.

So: show me where my reasoning is wrong.  And then let’s each pick our own label, forget about it, and go watch Penn & Teller.

- Richard

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27 Comments Add your own

  • 1. pyridine  |  September 4, 2009 at 1:35 am

    You said the atheism/agnosticism hairsplitting depends on the question, is the liberal God more similar to aliens or more similar to unicorns? I think it’s neither. A liberal God is ill-defined. To say that “I can’t be certain if the liberal God doesn’t exist” is to say “I can’t be certain if this uncertain thing exist”, or “I can’t be certain if Tao (defined by the Chinese Taoist as the thing that cannot be characterized) exist”. Of course you can’t. A ill-defined concept cannot exist. It has nothing to do with the emotion need for certainty.

  • 2. Brandt  |  September 4, 2009 at 3:21 am

    Interesting post, Richard. For me, it stil feels important to clarify that I’m more of an agnostic than a “hard” atheist. But I like the way you chose to depict agnostics and atheists by referring to philosophy and science (not that atheists aren’t philosophical, or agnostics aren’t scientific, of course).

    What’s interesting is that in my own communications with others, I’ve described myself as an agnostic philosophically speaking, but an atheist practically speaking. I guess I just want to leave things open-ended.

    But it’s not really a huge deal. I don’t believe in God, and I’ll tell that to anyone. I think you are correct to point out that the real effort needs to be focused on dealing with the fundamentalist crazies, as opposed to arguing about our own little differences.

  • 3. Robin Lionheart  |  September 4, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    However, since a “soft” atheist (a) does not assert “there is no god”, and also (b) does not assert “there is a god”, for my part I do not see any difference between this position, and agnosticism.

    The difference: All soft atheists may be agnostics, but not all agnostics are soft atheists.

    A good friend of mine is a practicing Jew, yet will admit that he does not know whether God exists. He is an agnostic theist.

  • 4. SnugglyBuffalo  |  September 4, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I’m not sure the alien analogy is particularly apt. We see that life arose on our planet, so it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that it could arise on other planets as well. Likewise, we see nothing god-like on our planet, what reason do we have to expect it elsewhere?

    The space we have to search seems less relevant to me. In the same vein, perhaps unicorns exist on other worlds than our own. It seems incredibly unlikely, however, and so I have no qualms about rejecting the idea. Similarly, gods’ existence doesn’t seem very likely to me, here or anywhere else in the universe.

    Ultimately, I’m rather fond of the sort of atheism Richard Dawkins holds, where he makes the statement, “There almost certainly is no god.” I won’t rule gods out with complete certainty, but I don’t give the concept any more credence than any other mythical nonsense.

    I do agree that it’s ultimately not that important. It’s semantics. I really like the term “freethinker” for that reason, as it’s a label I think all non-theists can support.

  • 5. bloodyhell  |  September 4, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    “However, I would be willing to grant that we can’t be sure a liberal sort of God might not exist.”

    Yes, but then you also have to grant that we can’t be sure of the following statements:

    * God died shortly after the created the world.
    * Paris Hilton is in fact God in disguise (but God’s disguise is perfect so that you can never tell)
    * Steve Vai is God (Joe Satriani and John Petrucci are also God. That’s why they are called G3 – the trinity God)
    * I am God. I am revealing my identity, just for you, in this very forum.
    * We are all God
    * You are God. You don’t know it because you have amnesia (which is the only shortcoming of being God)

    This position demands that we take every whimsical idea about God seriously and acknowledge its validity uncertain, no matter how absurd it is. I won’t say I am uncertain that Paris Hilton is God in disguise, but it is not because admitting uncertainty makes me anxious. It is because there is no compelling reason to believe that she is God.

  • 6. LeoPardus  |  September 4, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    I took the title to be my choices. Don’t really care for atheist or agnostic. So I’ll be ordering a name tag with “Bullsh*t” on it.

  • 7. Joe  |  September 4, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    * Steve Vai is God (Joe Satriani and John Petrucci are also God. That’s why they are called G3 – the trinity God) (#5 above)


    Actually they are demi-gods in the guitar playing world. Steve Morse is god. LOL

  • 8. Richard  |  September 4, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks for all the comments!

    pyridine – Let me play devils advocate for the position you stake out, “an ill-defined concept cannot exist.” Imagine you are the first person to discover germs, what we call bacteria. You have no idea what they are, but it seems you can begin to establish what is initially an ill-defined concept about them — describe some observable properties and so on — and you can be sure that they exist. Why do we need to have a crystal clear concept about something in order to know it exists?

    bloodyhell- I would agree with those statements. You cant be sure those things arent true. Emphasis on “sure.” I dont believe them, nor do I think them likely, nor do I think theres any particular reason to think they are true. And I wouldnt say I would spend much time trying to refute them. But all that is very different from saying you can be sure they are wrong. Obviously there are some ideas you dont take seriously, but thats a practical matter, not an epistemological one, it seems to me. Would you agree?

    I guess it sort of depends on what you standard is for “knowledge.” If it is only probablistic, then we can “know” those things to be false. But I think probability as a basis for knowledge is problematic, IMO. Probably, anyway…

    Snuggly- So youre saying there are non-evidential reasons to think life might exist elsewhere. I agree. But shouldnt we still be agnostic about it?

    Leo – I meant to imply both that the debate is kind of bullshit, *and* that its better to go watch bullshit than focus too seriously on this question.

  • 9. SnugglyBuffalo  |  September 4, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    From the main post-

    If there were a god, would we expect to have evidence of him/her/it?

    Here’s how I see it: I would expect to have some kind of evidence of a God who interacts with our universe. Any other kind of god isn’t even worth spending my time thinking about and may as well not exist, whether or not it actually does.

  • 10. Anonymous  |  September 4, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Agnosticism is the assertion that it is not possible to know the answer, and thus a refusal to opine (with any confidence) on the existence of god(s).

    This seems reasonable.

    However, since a “soft” atheist (a) does not assert “there is no god”, and also (b) does not assert “there is a god”, for my part I do not see any difference between this position, and agnosticism.

    However, this does not, to me. I’m a “soft” atheist, but you say my position is indistinguishable from agnosticism. However, I don’t believe that it’s impossible to know whether or not god exists, only that we currently do not know. Nit-picky, yeah, but it’s what I’m sticking to.

  • 11. bloodyhell  |  September 4, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Richard, I’d say that I’m very certain, as certain as I can be, that Paris Hilton is not God!

  • 12. pyridine  |  September 4, 2009 at 10:35 pm


    Thanx for your reply. For the moment let’s set aside the issue of the practical and the philosophical aspects of knowledge. One point in your essay I think is very interesting. It has more to do with attitude. If I am not mistaken, you said that it is more humble to say we are not uncertain if God exist, than to say God does not exist. That is not so obvious to me. Given that we know our intellect is imperfect and we come up with crazy ideas that are completely divorced from reality (eg. the divineness of Paris Hilton) all the time, isn’t it more humble to say that the concept of God is more likely an ill-concieved, incoherent human invention, and therefore has nothing to do with reality, and therefore does not exist? From this point of view, isn’t atheism more humble, because it acknowledges our tendency to conjure up bad theories more than agnosticism? What is your take on this? Thanx.

  • 13. Joshua  |  September 5, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Richard, I got it. Well said.

    The point being that bickering over semantics is just adding to the problem when there are bigger fish to fry. Like little kids bickering over whose daddy could beat up the other kids daddy when they could just be having fun playing with their matchbox cars.

    Reminds me of this video.

  • 14. J  |  September 5, 2009 at 5:26 am

    Since leaving Christianity, I’ve considered myself agnostic. It makes more sense to me than to say that I’m atheist, for the very reasons you stated. I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading this article. Thanks!

  • 15. LeoPardus  |  September 5, 2009 at 10:59 am


    Dude, of course Paris isn’t a god. She’s a goddess. Shoulda thought that obvious. :)

  • 16. Joshua  |  September 5, 2009 at 11:27 am

    More like a fallen goddess. She hasn’t earned her brains yet.

  • 17. LeoPardus  |  September 5, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I thought she was just the goddess of smut and stupidity.

  • 18. Ubi Dubium  |  September 5, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Any good pantheon needs a god/goddess for everything. Even smut and stupidity. She’s certainly qualified for that position.

  • 19. Roy  |  September 6, 2009 at 3:53 am

    She’s qualified for any position. :)

  • 20. Jeffrey  |  September 6, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Excellent post! I especially like your distinction between god as a philosophical question and god as an empirical question. The way I had always phrased it in the past is that it depends on your background ideas of what “normal” is and consequently what the null hypothesis should be. If belief/non-belief start out 50/50, then without a reason to believe or disbelieve, then you should say you don’t know. But if the null hypothesis is that god doesn’t exist, then a lack of evidence either way implies atheism.

    To me, the significance of the discussion isn’t the in-house discussion of agnostic v atheist. The significance is how to respond when believers ask why I’m an atheist, as opposed to a non-Christian.

    My response to “but how can you be certain?” always begins with something like: “if atheism requires absolute certainty, then I’m not an atheist.” I’d rather communicate clearly within another’s definition of terms than correct their understanding of a term.

    My favorite way to define atheist is “someone who holds the position that there is no god.” You don’t need certainty to hold a position. I’m also a capitalist – I might be wrong so I’m not certain I’m right. But I also know a thing or two about economics, so this lack of certainty doesn’t prevent me from holding a position. So when I say I’m a capitalist, this is not in tension with my lack of omniscience. My definition of an agnostic is someone who doesn’t hold a position or doesn’t know what position they hold.

    The virtue of this approach is that atheist and agnostic now have definitions that are both tenable positions and are different from each other. With other definitions that I’ve seen, atheism either requires an unreasonable level of certainty, or agnosticism becomes “atheism without balls.”

  • 21. Jeffrey  |  September 6, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    *Append to end of first paragraph

    … But what I like about the philosophical/empirical distinction is that it explains why there is disagreement about the proper null hypothesis even purely among skeptics. As a philosophical question, god does/doesn’t exist are nearly symmetrical claims. As an empirical question, X doesn’t exist is always the null hypothesis.

  • 22. Richard  |  September 7, 2009 at 10:51 am

    pyridine – That’s an interesting angle. I hadn’t considered that. Let me think out loud about it for a minute.

    If humility consists in a disposition to recall that human belief formation is complex, messy, and frequently having to do with things other than reality — and therefore we come up with all kinds of goofy ideas — and, therefore, many of them are likely to be wrong…

    It seems to me that this could qualify as humility, as long as it is evenly applied. I would think we would also need to remember that we are predisposed to bias. We tend to hold ideas that may or may not have to do with evidence and logic. E.g., we often say in the skeptical community that one of the reasons people believe religion is simply that they were brought up into it. Well, we’re as human as they are, and so that sort of thing applies to us too. *We* might be disposed to accept some ideas with less criticism than others.

    So, yeah, I think I would tenatively agree that a high level of skepticism based on an awareness of the intrinisic irrationality we all have — so long as we do not reject some ideas out of hand, while giving others a free pass — would count as humility.

    I think that may be hard to apply in practice though. How many of us can describe in a lot of detail the experiments that led to, say, the discovery of DNA, and its role in biology? Can we honestly say we have **personally** been as skeptical of that idea as we are of religious ones? As in personally reviewing the experiments to see if we agree with the conclusion? Again, Im just thinking out loud here.

    And I do also still think that holding our ideas with something less than certainty is necessary for humility, for the same reasons.

    So, what do you think?

  • 23. Richard  |  September 7, 2009 at 10:54 am

    And if Paris Hilton is god then I’m going to be a satanist. I’m just sayin…

    Although a good Cthulu cult might suit me better. Cooler holy scripture that way.

  • 24. J.J.E.  |  September 9, 2009 at 4:56 am

    @Richard & Pyridine

    I like the way y’all are going with this line of reasoning. There are a few things that usually have in response to this issue:

    I think most skeptical/rational people are well-equipped enough to admit that:

    “I don’t know…”

    isn’t a badge of shame. This seems to add veracity to Richard’s perspective.

    However, as a professional scientist who respects philosophy from a distance, I am much more practical, but a bit self conscious about it. Personally, I think it is not shameful to append the following:

    “…but the glaring paucity of evidence and absence of any plausible avenue for collecting evidence leads me to conclude provisionally that, not only don’t I know, I don’t care.”

    This starts to fall pretty firmly into Pyridine’s perspective, with my own lens imposed on top of it. As for people that are truly “strong” atheists as well as people who are “fence sitting agnostics”, I tend to find their internecine conflicts peculiar. It seems as if they are arguing over trifles, and are dignifying religion with serious acknowledgment that it hasn’t earned. Of course, I see the importance of engaging religion, but ultimately, I come up with the practical solution that Richard argues, but it appear by very different means.

    And regarding the “verification of every experiment” that Richard alludes to… Of course, scientists do have something that might be called faith, but I think that is misleading and ignores the distinction between provisional faith (that may in principle be verified, but in practice might never be verified for any given individual) and dogmatic faith (in this case, verification isn’t relevant, as the truth is incontrovertible).

    What this leads me to espouse is the following:

    Science is a community endeavor that offers and encourages the skeptical verification of every principle. Each religion is also a community endeavor, but each one consists of incontrovertibly true tenets or dogmas that can neither be challenged on the individual nor the group level. Thus, while every practicing scientist may indeed die without having verified every tenet that comprises modern scientific knowledge, the scientist is at least permitted and indeed is encouraged to do so. On the other hand, believers who question or reject certain tenets of their faiths are branded heretics.

  • 25. ArchangelChuck  |  September 14, 2009 at 9:24 am

    @Richard: on the whole, i’m in agreement with bertrand russell, in that i would say it depends who you’re talking to.

  • 26. George  |  September 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm


  • 27. Joshua  |  September 30, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Moderation systems are a go.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.



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