July 28, 2005

Agnostic or atheist?

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it "weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic." But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that "an agnostic is a cowardly atheist."

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O'Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban "'coercive' public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools." (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its "Wedge" document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O'Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement's close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that "I have no need for that hypothesis."

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.


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Frankly, I think the definition that dictionary gives for atheism sucks, because it starts from the vantage point of theism. I think an atheist would define his/her belief system as "the belief that there is no god." I agree with you, however, that even this is awkward - because nobody goes around declaring his belief that there are no invisible pink bunnies on the lawn. It's not worth talking about unless you *do* believe in it, except in relation to other people who believe.

I've never viewed agnosticism as "soft" - in my younger days I thought of myself as a militant agnostic: "I don't know whether God exists, and neither do you, so shut it" - though I guess it runs into a similar problem of why it's worth talking about except in relation to other people who do believe. Saying "I refuse to take a position on the existence of invisible pink bunnies on the lawn because by definition I cannot know" gives equal linguistic weight to both possibilities, and if you did that for every unknown thing, you'd wind up with a very bizarre worldview!

Posted by Erin on July 28, 2005 08:35 AM

Mano -

I think one reason why people have a much more negative reaction to the word atheist than the word agnostic may also be related to a fear of the unknown. A Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu - they may not all get along or share the same culture, but they all share a belief in the existence of something beyond what we can see, hear, touch, measure, etc. An agnostic at least allows for something beyond the mortal plane of existence. An athiest does not - once we're done here, that's it, that's the only chance we've had, no angels, no heaven, no hell. Just nothing.

When one's entire culture accepts the idea of an afterlife and a "higher power", is it really that much of a surprise when a person who believes in neither is met with hostility? Atheists (at least the ones I've encountered) seem to hold a belief that religion is nuts because it is unprovable. Why would an atheist be surprised when a religious person turns around and declares the atheist must be nuts because the atheist demands proof for everything? One starts from the viewpoint that everything true must be supported by fact. The other starts from the viewpoint that not everything true can be irrefutably proven. Since it is in our human nature to be suspicious of differences, if that suspicion is reinforced by poor representation for a (non-)religious group different from "us" (evidence: Grand High Inquisitor during the Inquisition (Catholics), Osama bin Laden (Muslims), Madalyn Murray O'Hair (Atheists), King David (Jews), etc.), is it that surprising that the group that person claims is met with fear, anger, or any number of the baser human emotions?

~ Liz V.

Posted by Liz V on July 28, 2005 09:17 AM

I prefer the title non-theist for myself. I think it has a less combative connotation for believers in a god.

The second one, which you mentioned in one of your posts long ago, is philosophical naturalist. And of course, shafar has preference in my mind because it is similar to my last name. =)

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on July 28, 2005 09:18 AM

I think another reason the term agnostic is less threatening is that many people equate it with "undecided" about the existence of a god or gods. So according to their understanding, an agnostic might be more easily winnable than an atheist. I define myself as agnostic solely on the premise you present, that I can't really prove the nonexistence of god much as I can't really prove the existence of god.

It's also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

"I contend we are both atheists— I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well."
Stephen F. Roberts

Posted by Jim Eastman on July 28, 2005 10:34 AM


I feel a need to respond to your comment stating "one's entire culture accepts the idea of an afterlife and a 'higher power'".

The antagonistic nature of relations between the religious and the non-religious is a two way street, and comments like that only make reconciliation more difficult.

It's only been a few days since Mano discussed exactly what's wrong with statements like that in his Shafars and Brights Arise and Will the Real Americans Please Stand Up entries. While such demographics are politically unpopular, they still comprise quite a significant portion of the population, both in our country, and around the world.

The continued marginalization and exclusion of "non-theists", as Aaron puts it, only furthers that divide.

The problem is (and here I go off on a tangent not directly related to your comment), this is a good thing to many on the religious right who have worked long and hard to achieve exactly this (and eventually much more). There is little interest in compromise from either extreme because their goals are so directly contradictory because either side's goals leaves the other side feeling marginalized at best, and persecuted at worst.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on July 28, 2005 11:45 AM


Your comments remind me of my girlhood friend Martha (I grew up Catholic), who took offense at the phrase "non-Catholics," which of course we used to refer to everyone else. She said, "You're all non-Protestants." She was right. Defining athiesm in terms of those who believe in God seems self-defeating. But I do like the Laplace quote, Mano. Thanks. I don't know anything about him except his name.

Posted by catherine on July 28, 2005 12:39 PM

I sort of think of myself as an agnostic and a believer in spiritual things.

For example, I believe that there is a spiritual level to existence and I believe I've had very deep spiritual connections with some individuals -- we've been aware of things about one another without knowing how or why. This suggests there are aspects of life far beyond what we (currently) can sense and measure.

However, I'm the first to admit I can't prove any of what I believe.

There's a difference between believing and knowing. Isn't it called belief because it can't be proven? I seem to recall that there are passages in the bible to the effect that God requires belief in things unseen, trust in the unknowable.

Not being clear about the difference between knowing and believing seems to be one of the problems of "civil" discourse these days. Creationists refuse to believe scientific proof that doesn't support their beliefs. Etc.

Posted by Trish on July 28, 2005 01:23 PM

For what it's worth, let's throw two more concepts in:

Deism: "The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation." --(From, no OED access)

Anti-religionist: A person who refuses to begin the argument with what god(s) they believe in and instead holds that the surrounding institution is the source of separation and societal problem.

I'm not sure either of these are a great answer to your question, but I'm fairly certain that the former is what most (American, devout Christian?) people think of as an agnostic and therefore mourn the lost soul. Further they see the atheist as the latter and bristle at the attack perceived against themselves, their ideas, their beliefs, their community, and their God.

I seem to remember a great deal of the existential movement and the writing of Sartre and Nietzsche are commonly regarded as deist, but I'm no authority on that.

Finally, it is worth noting that, while most people wish they were rational at all times, they respond to perceived attack in varying ways that are rarely fully rational in the immediate sense. Some retreat to defense, others counter-attack, some become bullish and ornery, refusing to change on the basis of such 'threat'. If the words or concepts connote a perceived attack, the likelihood is that people will respond in ways they wouldn't condone when reading about the same situation.

Anyway, I've been enjoying your postings, and the many comments, for a few weeks, and wanted to sound off. Glad to see so many concepts analyzed and brought forth, and that students and other faculty are participating.

Posted by Michael on July 28, 2005 02:43 PM

My experience has been that (self-described) agnostics are often more open to discussion and debate, while (ditto) atheists tend to be more rigid and unwilling to accept faith or belief in others.

[I'm certainly not saying that every atheist falls in this pattern, but describing my experiences. It's possible this is a reflection of how people describe themselves, since it's been noted above that some atheists might choose the agnostic appelation. Just as it seems that only the conservative and evangelical branches of the church are in the media, perhaps the most strident voices are the ones that gather all the negative reactions and drown out the reasoned debate.]

In my view, rigid thinking, whether of the anti-theism or Christian varieties, limits communication -- because in order to have a productive debate or discussion, each side needs to be willing to speak and to listen. Sometimes we're so busy talking that we never hear or understand one another.

Posted by Jen ('05) on July 28, 2005 05:43 PM

Mano, I was surprised by the meaning of agnostic.  If we are to honor this definition, then we are all agnostic.  Regardless of how sure one's belief is, there is a core unknowing in all of us. 
I think the people that have a negative response to the term "atheist" are those that deny/repress this core unknowing within themselves.

Posted by Mary on July 28, 2005 05:47 PM

"The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable."

Actually, the definition of atheism is *disbelief or* denial of gods. Most people completely ignore those first two words. Why?

More here:

"I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative."

Depends upon how "god" is defined. If it has contradictory characteristics, denying it is easy.

Posted by on July 28, 2005 08:44 PM

Thanks for that link. It is really helpful!

I agree that "disbelief "in god works, at least for me. But my feeling is that most people take the "deny" part of the definition as the operative one.

The catch with contradictory characteristics is that most believers will say that at some level, we cannot totally know god, so that what we see as contradictory may be part of a hidden pattern

Posted by Mano Singham on July 29, 2005 10:43 AM

My understanding is that atheist has to do with belief, agnostic has to do with knowing. They are not to degrees on the same scale, although most people treat them that way. Many people consider themselves agnostic-atheists. They have no belief in any gods nor do they think (under most definitions) it would be possible to know.

I am not sure I understand the problem with defining atheism around *not* having a belief in any gods. That is all it does mean. It doesn't necessarily mean no religion, no spirituality or as some associate it with, communism or satanism. I find far more problem with how most people assume atheism means much more than it does.

I am atheist, but if someone asks, "what religion are you?" I say, "none." If they ask, "Do you believe in God?" I say, "no." If they say something ignorant about atheists, I say, "*I* am an atheist."

I like the term non-theist, but I try to use atheist because I want to try to shatter negative stereotypes about atheists so eventually our world where people feel the need to be "in the closest".

Posted by on July 29, 2005 03:19 PM

I also use "non-theist". Atheism always seemed too combative and too certain to me. Yet I'm not a agnostic because I think there is a lot one can deduce with high probability about the existence of supernatural forces.

I view religions as models of reality. So anti-religious seems similar to being anti-Newtonian physics after relativity. Theistic religions have their flaws, but in my view they're certainly better than nothing, and probably better than their previous incarnations.

Posted by Cindy C on July 30, 2005 10:20 PM

I don't know what Ashali is talking about. I am an atheist and am not searching for any sort of truth. I prefer the term atheist even though it has negative connotations because I really don't care what religious people think about me.

For me, the definition of atheist is okay because I don't care about proof. You can't prove or disprove the existence of god. I do not believe in god (or I believe in god's non-existence).

I was actually catholic once. I made the transition to being agnostic and then to atheist over the course of 2 years. It seemed to me that being atheist took more of a leap of "faith" than being agnostic. Even though many atheists disagree with me, I feel that believing in no god requires at least a little faith because of the absence of proof.

Posted by Jonathan Ward on August 3, 2005 11:40 AM

Personally I take being atheist as a moral position, it's fundamentally a renunciation of violence. For me it's not just a disbelief or denial of a god but an imperative to refuse (regardless of whether we can prove a gods existance or not) any god or higher being and to challenge belief in such a thing. Believing in a god is immoral because it fosters division between people. Such a belief can only serve to be a point of unresolvable conflict and therefor violence.

To those that would say "But aren't you creating conflict through your beliefs in the immorality of god?" Possibly, however, my belief really only leads to conflict or violence when those who insist on believing in a god decide to elevate it to such a level.

So how about this to try and resolve Erin's definition difficulty: I am an atheist, I believe that belief in an unprovable god is immoral and wrong.

Posted by on August 7, 2005 05:03 AM

I did not read too deeply into the commentary, however it seems to me that you have misread the OED's definition of atheism.

By the definition, one is STILL an atheist if one merely "Disbelieves" in god or gods. It is not necessary to "Deny" god or gods (Though that too will make one an atheist).

I disbelieve, I do not deny (For the obvious reason that has been mentioned many times before).

However I also do not deny the possibility of Unicorns, Leprechauns and Fairies. On the same grounds.

I do hold that all of these legendary and/or mythological beings are of an EXTREMELY LOW ORDER OF PROBABLITY.


Posted by Mark Hamlin on October 17, 2005 10:08 AM

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Posted by Tuki Medaber on October 4, 2006 03:24 AM