February 10, 2009

The puzzle of agnosticism

I must admit that I find agnosticism puzzling. For me, agnosticism is harder to understand than atheism or religious belief.

There is no doubt that religious people find agnosticism easier to deal with than atheism. You can see it in the way that those religious people who can get beyond the emotional reactions to atheism that I listed yesterday often argue that since one cannot prove that there is no god, one has to admit that one is unsure and that therefore one is 'really' an agnostic. They are right in their argument but wrong in their idea of what atheism and agnosticism involves.

All atheists will readily concede that there can be no proof of the non-existence of god because of the logical impossibility of proving such a negative. But having said that, we do live our lives assuming that there is no god and find that the world makes perfect sense and everything seems to work nicely. We are practically certain that there is no god just as we are certain that we can drive our cars without ever considering the possibility that a unicorn might suddenly run across the street or Santa Claus land in his sleigh right in our path, even though we are not 100% certain that unicorns and Santa Claus and flying reindeer don't exist either

What constitutes atheism should be easy to understand. What I find hard to understand is how the agnostic position differs from that of the atheist. Merriam-Webster defines an agnostic as "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable."

An atheist would have no objection to that statement. As I have said before, there is no possible logical argument and no conceivable evidence that could ever establish the negative conclusion that there is no god. So agnosticism and atheism seem to me to be logically equivalent, at least as far as that particular dictionary definition goes.

Some agnostics may be seeking to create a distance between themselves and atheists because they suffer from the same kind of misunderstanding about atheism as religious people, thinking that atheists are absolutely sure that there is no god, and thus they may wish to separate themselves from those whom they perceive as possessing an unjustifiable and arrogant certainty.

Or perhaps the difference between atheism and agnosticism lies in the secondary definition of an agnostic as "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god." (my italics)

It is true that while an atheist is not logically certain there is no god, he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They have no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason. Since atheists live as if there is no god, it is safe to say that atheists are committed to believing in the nonexistence of god.

So is that the difference? Is that why agnostics shun the word atheist and prefer the label of agnostic, because they are uncommitted on this question while atheists are committed? But what does being 'uncommitted' really mean? Is there a difference in the probabilities that atheists and agnostics assign to god's existence? Atheists assign the probability of god's existence to be infinitesimally close to zero. I doubt that the lack of commitment by agnostics to god's existence or non-existence means that they assign 50% probability to each option. Agnostics clearly think that god's non-existence is far more likely than his existence.

So are agnostics distinguished from atheists in that while they think that the probability of god's existence is very small, they give it a slightly higher value than the almost-but-effectively-zero value that atheists assign?

But that kind of difference is hard to quantify. One way to operationalize that vague notion and test the true beliefs of agnostics is to ask them if their lack of commitment to non-belief results in any observable behavioral differences when compared to that of atheists.

Atheists live as if they are sure that there is no god. Do agnostics behave in some way that is different from atheists as a result of being agnostic? Are agnostics nervous about being wrong about god's non-existence and only finding out after they are dead? Are they are hoping that their 'softer' agnosticism will result in god giving them a reduced punishment? Do they at least occasionally go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue or do other quasi-religious things? Are there some things they will not say or thoughts that they will not allow themselves to think because it is too risky, such as, for example, denying the Holy Spirit? After all, Jesus said: "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:32)?

If the answer is 'no' to all these questions, then they are atheists irrespective of what they choose to call themselves because they are living their lives as if they are committed to the non-existence of god. If they say 'yes' to any one, then I think we need to define them as believers who have serious doubts. (One wag unkindly described agnostics as cowardly atheists.)

I suspect that there are many agnostics among the readers of this blog. I would be curious to learn what they think on this question.

POST SCRIPT: The Blasphemy Challenge

I am not sure what "speaks against the Holy Spirit" exactly means but whatever it is, I want to be on record as having thus spoken, like all those who have done so as part of the Blasphemy Challenge.

Pat Condell says that he is so busy denying the Holy Spirit that he has hardly any time for anything else.


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The point that I want to make is that atheism is not agnosticism. To believe they are the same is wrong. Atheism is the absolutely certainty in the non-existence of god. Therefore, agnosticism is absolutely certain in nothing regarding the existence or non-existence of god. The two terms are not interchangeable. They are different and one is right and one is wrong and to say that one is right and the other is right as you pointed out in your post when you mention that atheists concede the point that it's impossible to disprove anything is wrong. You are wrong if you believe atheism is agnosticism.

Posted by William on February 10, 2009 09:05 AM


It seems to me that you either didn't read the entire article or you are setting up a straw man argument.

Where did you get the idea that atheism is the "absolute certainty in the non-existence of god"?

"To "set up a straw man," one describes a position that superficially resembles an opponent's actual view, yet is easier to refute."

Posted by Greg on February 10, 2009 10:04 AM

Well, whatever the practical difference between them, as you point out, there are different social stigmas attached to the two words, and that, in a sense, is difference enough.

The way I see it is that agnosticism is an easy way to transition from being religious to being athiest. At least for me, I billed myself as "agnostic" for a while, before I was comfortable enough to admit to being athiest (with which I now have no problem :)

Posted by Elizabeth on February 10, 2009 10:20 AM

I know a good number of people who say they're agnostic (or even believers) because of Pascal's wager. Others assign god's existence 50-50 probability and choose not to think about it further. Hard to imagine for those who are very devout, but this is actually not an important issue to everybody.

Posted by Shruti on February 10, 2009 10:40 AM

As an agnostic, I claim no percentage of God existing or not existing. It is completely beyond my realm of knowledge to even come up with a figure. However, I can say it's 90% probably that I won't discover him in THIS "lifetime."

Posted by on February 10, 2009 10:40 AM

I used to self-identify as an agnostic, and now I call myself an atheist, although my views haven't changed. I find that with either label, a bit of social confusion arises in the choice of definition. In using "agnostic", it was more common that people would think of the second definition - that I was someone who couldn't decide whether I believed in a god or not (and, often, therefore needed convincing!). Although this didn't apply to me, I found it fairly easy to correct people (using definition #1).

The alternative, using the label "atheist" in the same way that Mano does, is a challenge when encountering folks like William, who think that as an atheist I'm taking some leap of faith analogous to a religious person by "knowing" there is no god. (Or, that I have some evidence or proof of god's non-existence.) Part of the reason why I'm comfortable self-identifying as an atheist now is that I've found the "atheist about invisible unicorns" analogy and similar explanations to be quite successful in clarifying my outlook to others.

That said, I do still switch between "atheist" and something like "agnostic, in the literal sense" (or sometimes "militant atheist" after Adams), depending on the company and the extent to which I care to explain myself.

Posted by Jeff on February 10, 2009 10:49 AM

"Atheism is the absolutely certainty in the non-existence of god."

That isn't true. Atheism is not believing in a deity and NOT knowing that there is no deity.

Personally, I don't believe in a deity because I see no evidence for the existence of one, and yes, I live my life as if no deity existed.

But of course I can't say for sure that there is no grand organizing force of the universe that is beyond my comprehension.

As far as agnosticism: I think the original meaning of the word was as Mano said it was: the question of existence is unknowable. But its current popular use is to indicate that one doesn't "know" if the current deities exist or not.

In my case, I am reasonably sure that the "known" deities are false myths (e. g., I think that the god of the Bible is no more likely to exist than, say, Jupiter or Wotan) but acknowledge that there are things that I don't know about.

Posted by ollie on February 10, 2009 11:36 AM

I'm not entirely sure what the point of the blasphemy challenge is, because it really seems incredibly similar to the most annoying forms of religious proselytizing. If the creed's really worth something, shouldn't it sell itself regardless of how many others have gotten in on it or what sort of free tapes they're handing out?

With regards to the subject of agnosticism, I've always thought that atheists and theists actually care about the question of whether or not there's some sort of deity out there, whereas an agnostic is a disinterested party.

Posted by on February 10, 2009 12:13 PM

I'm guessing Mano that you wish to grow the ranks of atheism by dividing agnosticism into 2 branches - functional and philosophical. By doing this you can say that 'functional' agnostics are essentially atheists. Then you can say that the number of religious believers are X and the number of atheists are Y (atheists plus functional agnostics.)

If this is your motivation it is very clever. By introducing a new term, functional agnosticism, you can effectively increase the number of atheists with just the stroke of a few keys.

From where I'm sitting agnostics seem more accepting of believers while atheists are more militant. Agnostics seem to allow each person to find their own truth while atheists seem to think they have arrived at 'the truth.'

Posted by bob on February 10, 2009 01:47 PM

Allow me to throw a wrench into the works.

I don’t think atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. Nor do I think theism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. In my opinion, theism and atheism have to do with *belief*, while agnosticism deals with *knowledge* or more specifically, one’s ability to know.

In my mind, belief and knowledge are very different things. It’s quite possible to not believe in something but still accept the notion that attaining the knowledge to get to said belief is quite possible.

For example, I don’t believe in Sasquatch, but I acknowledge that criteria exists that could reasonably demonstrate the existence of one to me. Someone could capture one, kill one, produce a Sasquatch in any way and my “a-sasquatchism” would be at its end. Thus, I am an a-Sasquatchist, but not Sasquatch agnostic.

I tend to think of the atheism/agnosticism matrix as an XY scatter chart with four possible philosophy “zones”. Your Y value would be the level of belief (pure atheism at the bottom to pure theist at the top) and your X value would be your agnosticism value (“the knowledge is purely unattainable” on the left, “the knowledge is very attainable” on the far right). Using this matrix, my example above would put me in the bottom right corner of the chart; belief level low, attainability of knowledge level high. Someone else might currently *believe* that Sasquatch exists but think that we’ll never know for sure. Their data point would appear in the top left of the chart, opposite of mine. Someone else might currently not believe and also not think that the answer is knowable. Their data point would appear somewhere in the lower right quadrant of the chart. You see where I’m going with this.

The bottom line is that one's religious philosophy is a result of the marriage of belief and knowledge rather than investment in just one or the other.

Posted by Chaz on February 10, 2009 02:41 PM

Well said, Chaz.

Here is my dilemma: I don't know whether the existence of a deity is a solvable problem or not.

I can imagine evidence what would make me believe in a certain type of deity but I think it is possible for the existence of a different type of deity to be unknowable.

Posted by ollie on February 11, 2009 10:18 AM

I do not believe in a god or gods and therefore I call myself a nontheist.

Posted by Carla on February 12, 2009 09:49 PM

well, I classify myself as a "reluctant agnostic" meaning, I would prefer to believe in God, but I have found that there is enough doubt within me, as well as lack of evidence as to the existance of God, to prevent me from calling myself a believer. I feel that is very different than my definition of an atheist, being someone that believes there is no god. I just admit to myself that I don't know. That's different that saying I'm pretty sure there is no god. Maybe this was an over-simplistic description, but it works for me and I understand it.

Posted by Chris on March 4, 2009 10:53 PM