Is agnosticism the midpoint between atheism and theism? If you don’t know if God exists but lean towards disbelief, does that make you an atheist, or an agnostic? Is it possible to be both?
I'm sure that many of you would have heard this kind of argument going on, or have even been involved, and arguments can become heated over what are really just semantics, and often unnecessary.
Here are a few examples found during a quick Twitter search:
I often hear the words atheist and agnostic misused, by both atheists and theists, so this is a basic guide on what they really mean, in terms of both dictionary definitions and common usage (which can differ from dictionary usage, but is not necessarily incorrect).
The most frequently assumed meanings that I hear are these: an atheist is a person who religiously believes that God doesn’t exist, and an agnostic is somebody who can’t decide if God exists or not. Heated arguments on this are common (and time-consuming). So I am writing this to give a background on the terminology used, and explain the different kinds of atheists out there, in an attempt to clear up any misconceptions that people have. One thing that often annoys me is when people say that there is no difference between not believing in God, and believing that there is no god. Another mistake is to think that agnosticism is fence-sitting, and a cop-out because it lacks conviction. A look at the definitions should resolve this, but I will attempt to explain it comprehensively.
There is a lot of contention as to the correct meaning of the word atheism, so let's begin with some simple dictionary definitions. The following definition is from dictionary.com:
Some theists argue that atheists are trying to redefine the meaning of the word by claiming that they are definition 2, rather than definition 1, implying that definition 2 was just made-up by atheists. This is a poorly informed, if not dishonest, accusation, and it seems to be often based on the assertion that the original meaning of atheism is the belief that there is no god. This argument takes advantage of the definition of atheism being the "disbelief" in god - the ambiguity of the meaning of "disbelief" in this case, leads to it being incorrectly assumed to mean the belief in the opposite proposition (positive disbelief) rather than simply the lack of belief.
For one more example, let's try the Oxford definition:
Definition of atheism
disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
Here the meaning of "disbelief" is a little ambiguous, and seems to imply the belief in the opposite (as the alternative "lack of belief" is also given), so let's also look at their definition of "disbelief":
Definition of disbelief
inability or refusal to accept that something is true or real:
Laura shook her head in disbelief
* lack of faith:
I’ll burn in hell for disbelief
So it seems that the Oxford definition might be leaving out the positive disbelief altogether. Yet, it is still commonly used in this way.
Because of the alleged dichotomy between belief and positive disbelief, the word agnostic has been used as a midpoint between atheism and theism – a position of non-commitment, lacking the conviction, and even the courage, to make a determination on the issue.
But this use is merely based on an oversimplification of meanings, used by people who prefer to generalise and pigeon-hole atheists into clearly defined groups, often to try and support their own strawman arguments (theists very often try to tell atheists what we believe, as if we don't know already), or by atheists who are concerned that agnostics are those who are afraid to let go of belief (and might revert to religious faith at any moment), or are smugly chiding atheists’ so-called closed minds from atop their self-righteous high-horses (and some of them do).
The two words do have similar meanings. They are not mutually exclusive, meaning that a person doesn't have to be only one or the other; it's possible to be both.
Atheist means "not theist" - "a" from the Greek prefix meaning "not". A theist is a person who believes in a god, whereas an atheist does not believe in a god.
The prefix "a" is also used in the word agnostic, in the same way. The word gnostic means a claim to know that a god exists, whereas agnostic means not claiming to know that a god exists.
Pretty simple, so why do people think that an agnostic is a fence-sitter, unable to decide if God exists or not? Probably because it lacks the conviction of either extreme. People usually use atheist for a person who believes that there is not a god, theist for someone who believes that there is a god, and agnostic for somebody who can't decide if there is a god or not:
This is an extremely oversimplified view, and it doesn't take into account any varying levels of belief or certainty of knowledge. If we look at the question "Does God exist" on a scale from -100% (that there is definitely not a god) to 100% (that there is definitely a god), it becomes clear that a person making no claim to knowledge or belief would be in the middle:
This is a bit better, but according to the definitions above, an agnostic isn't just a person who doesn't lean in either direction, only that they make no knowledge claim - there are varying levels of certainty in between. You can be 80% sure that a god exists without claiming to know it; or, you could be 80% sure that there is no god without claiming to know it. If you're fairly sure that there's no god, but don't make this claim of knowledge, you are still agnostic. Given this, we might begin to think the scale looks more like this:
But again, this would be incorrect, although we're getting closer. It is true that an agnostic would be a person who attributes anything short of 'certainty' * to the belief either way, but an atheist doesn't necessarily believe with certainty that there is no god. An atheist only lacks a belief in a god, and could concede some possibility that a god of some kind exists. So an atheist would be anything less than certain that there is a god.
*Note: my use of the word certainty here is a bit ambiguous; one might ask: what level of certainty would you call knowledge? It's difficult to define a threshold of certainty, which once surpassed would become knowledge. My thoughts on this would take a lot more time to discuss, and I plan to write another article to elaborate, so look out for that one coming soon.
This seems to confuse the issue, and because of this, the distinction between these terms is often misunderstood. I'll explain my own position to demonstrate what I mean.
I wasn't raised in a religious family, and was never told what I should believe in. I have also never seen any evidence that would convince me that there is a god, so I don't believe in God. But, I understand that it's not possible to know with certainty that a god (of some kind) doesn't exist, because it's not possible to prove absolutely. So even though I think it's unlikely that there is a god, I allow for the possibility, and avoid claiming this with certainty.
This is really what agnostic means - only that a person doesn't claim knowledge that a god does or doesn't exist. If a person is an atheist because they don't believe there is sufficient evidence to believe in a god, that person is an agnostic atheist. It means skepticism in regards to supernatural beings.
These are very similar terms, but not-mutually exclusive – it’s possible to be both, as in my case – and for most non-believers, they completely overlap. If we go back to the scale, it would now be necessary to show both on two separate scales - one for the level of belief and a second for the level of gnosticism, which can vary greatly depending on the degree of certainty.
It's fairly clear from this that a person's level of belief would most likely coincide with his/her degree of certainty. For example, it's not very common for a person to say that they are pretty sure that there is no god, but still say that they believe with certainty that there is a god. Similarly, it would be unlikely that a person would say that they are fairly certain that there is a god, but don't believe in a god. For most people, the two different terms coincide fairly closely.
Because of this overlap, the two words are often used interchangeably. A man who refers to himself as an atheist doesn't necessarily mean that he is convinced with certainty that there is no god, he would most likely be an agnostic atheist but uses only atheist for brevity, or because he assumes that the person he is talking to understands the difference and it's not necessary to further clarify his intended meaning. Or, he might call himself an agnostic, but he doesn't mean that he can't decide if god exists or not - he's most likely an agnostic atheist, who uses the term agnostic because he feels it better characterises his position of humility, by admitting that he doesn't know with absolute certainty, even though he thinks it's highly unlikely.
Note: If a person's level of belief and claim of knowledge both lie diretly at the mid-point, this would represent a person who identifies as an agnostic, rather than an agnostic atheist. I would call this person a strict agnostic (there may also be other terms used). When I hear people use the argument "are you also agnostic about unicorns?", this is usually intended to question this point of view. However, strict agnostics of this kind seem to be very rare, and I'm not even sure if they would assign the same certainty to a belief in God as they would for unicorns, fairies, etc. I'd like to hear from one to find out.
What, then, would you call a person who claims that it's possible to know that there is no god? The term I have heard used most is strong atheist, but I have also heard gnostic atheist, and has also been referred to as dogmatic, or positive theoretic, atheism. Alternatively, strong atheist might give the impression that it's one who is very vocal about his/her views, but it really just means that they have conviction that there is no god.
This can be confusing because there are different versions of god that can be conceived, so it's possible to be, for example, a strong atheist about Yahweh, but an agnostic atheist about a less specific idea of god such as pantheism or deism – a god of some kind that one might consider more likely to exist than a fixed dogmatic version of God.
For example, if we were to concede the possibility that some kind of intelligence could have been responsible for the beginning of the universe, this would be an agnostic point of view. Of course, this could only ever be speculative, so it's not a belief. But if we consider a depiction of god that is limited, that is, a god with some very specific characteristics, then these characteristics are dependent on the source. For example, the god of Judeo-Christian religions, Yahweh, is proposed by the bible, so if the bible was shown to be false, then this specific depiction of god has no basis. Evidence against the Old Testament is evidence against the Judeo-Christian religions being true. Because of this, we can be justified in being almost certain that Yahweh doesn't exist, as it is most likely, according to the evidence, a man-made myth. We don't need to claim that we are agnostic about Yahweh because we can "know" (based on evidence) that it is fictional.
It’s understandable that all of this can cause confusion. The variety of beliefs, and degrees of certainty and knowledge are not so easily categorised into one-fits-all terms. An agnostic doesn’t have to be agnostic about all gods, fairies and unicorns. To concede the possibility of an intelligence behind the universe isn’t assigned the same degree of certainty as the existence of Thor or Zeus. But to concede that possibility is to be agnostic.
So, what terminology should we use?
The most basic definition would be that if you fall short of saying that you believe in a god - if you lack anything you would call conviction - then you are an atheist. If you fall short of saying that you know with certainty that there is (or isn't) a god, then you are agnostic. From my experience in online discussions, most of us who call ourselves either atheist or agnostic are actually both, with varying levels of agnosticism.
To avoid confusion, the word atheist seems to be less ambiguous. If somebody asks me what my religion is, I say that I'm an atheist (although it's not a religion, it still answers their question!), because I feel that this describes my position the best - it just means that I don't have a religion. Unfortunately, there are those who become irate when the word atheist is used, because they assume the false dichotomy and strong atheism definition. This can’t be helped.
It would also be ok to call oneself a skeptic, because this would encompass a wide band around the 0% mark on both the belief and the knowledge scale. Unfortunately, skeptic is also often misunderstood, being taken to mean either somebody who just wants to deny (as in a contrarian), or somebody on the verge of belief, who just needs a bit of a push. Skepticism is another topic that I plan to write on soon.
Wow, such a long explanation for just a couple of words! I do believe, however, that if we all have a more thorough understanding of what these words mean, we will be better prepared for online debates, and won't waste time quibbling, even with people whose beliefs, or lack thereof, we actually agree with, over simple semantics.