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On atheism and agnosticism

February 23, 2009

Ah, when I was younger…

It’s good to reminisce. I know that looking back on the times when I was younger, I am somewhat proud to find that from my earliest journal entries, from my earliest conversations with others, I was one to be proudly agnostic. I guess my father was concerned about this, but I don’t really know for sure (He seems to believe that a neutral look at all the evidence in the universe must point to some deity [even if its a deist construction], so atheists must be blind or deaf or both…go figure).

But as I was looking through some of my posts on the interwebs…of arguments with others…I realized I was one of those agnostics I hate. A fence sitter.

What is fence sitting agnosticism and why do I dislike it? I guess it’s for a different reason than most people dislike the idea of fence sitting…I dislike it not because it is so neutral, but because it is utterly impossible. Fence sitting agnostics deny (or do not realize) that they actually do take a position.

See, when I was an agnostic in those years…I had made statements like these: “Why be atheist? Agnosticism is most logical!”

…argh, my younger self!

I remember it wasn’t until much later that I owned up to the atheist monicker, but it was because of an epiphany of recognizing what atheism (and what agnosticism) truly are.

Check this out — in the words atheism and agnosticism, we have such a wealth of etymology. For example, in the agnostic part, we have a (without), and gnostic (knowledge, or pertaining to knowledge). So, agnostic is someone who lacks knowledge.

From this definition, we can actually become nuanced. We can be soft agnostic, and simply point out we don’t have knowledge, or we can be hard agnostic, and point out that not only do we not have knowledge, but it may be impossible to get any knowledge.

But…what’s missing from all of these definitions? It’s a belief regarding the deity!

See…agnosticism actually answers a different question from atheism and theism. If someone asks me, “Is there a God?” Or “Do you know if there is/isn’t a god?’ then even today, I will answer, “I have no freakin idea.” Because I am agnostic.

But if someone asks me, “Do you believe in a God?” I’m going to say, “No.” Because I’m atheist.

Belief is different from knowledge of course. Now, we’d like to have our belief grounded in knowledge, but sometimes, that just doesn’t happen. Do you believe that’s water? Oh, it’s clear, no carbonation bubbles (so it’s not sprite)…I guess I believe. *slurp*. OH, it’s CLEAR KOOL-AID. My favorite for sneaking into classrooms that only allow water! So, I was mistaken in my belief, but I still had a belief. If someone asks me if I believe in rained on Mar on July 9, 3029 BC, I have no pool of knowledge with which to make a belief…but I might be slightly swayed into not believing it did (does Mars even get rain these days?).

So, what fence-sitting agnostics fail to realize is that when it comes to belief, they cannot “not know.” They either have a belief or they do not…however weak or unfounded it may be. My life became so much more magical when I started realizing that my saying, “I simply don’t believe in god…” was an atheist statement, so I didn’t have to be held by theistic constraints.

Many people will try to say that if you simply don’t believe in God (which is a negative, or weak statement), then that makes you agnostic, But you have to believe there is no God (a positive, strong statement) to be atheist.

But I think this is silly. Once again, there is nothing in the word agnostic that has to do with the theistic claim…whereas atheism very succinctly covers the idea of lacking god. And in both cases, there is a lack of god, so I would say that both cases are, in different ways, atheism.

The first way, of simply lacking a belief in God, is soft or negative atheism. It is when someone asks, “do you believe in (some kind of) deity” and you say, “No.” They have set the positive belief (in the deity) and you simply negated it. Why might you not believe? It could be from agnosticism (because you don’t know and there’s no evidence that could bring you to knowledge)…it could be because of other things…but for whatever the case, you don’t believe.

But what does that make of the second case…? For those who actively believe there is no God, they are positive, or strong atheists. This comes about when someone asks right after they asked the first question…”So, do you believe there is no God?” and then the strong atheist says, “Yes.” (while the weak atheist does not necessarily have to.) Strong atheism is a different beast than weak atheism, and many fence sitters and theists would like to claim that atheism must be strong or else it doesn’t count (because really, there are different arguments toward someone with a positive belief like a strong atheist and someone who simply is not convinced by your belief…like a weak atheist.) I reject the idea that all atheism must be strong atheism, because I’m not a strong atheist, but I’m still certainly an atheist in any practical sense of the term.

I’d say, though…that the atheism/theism question, these are the only two options. This is a case of the Law of Excluded Middle. Why I dislike fence sitting agnostics is because, in reality, there is no fence. There is only P and Not P. Theism includes a wide variety of things (which I am willing to include spiritualism, deism, etc., in the theistic category), and atheism includes a variety of things (strong and weak, implicit and explicit, etc.,) but everything that is possible MUST be one (theism) or the other (atheism).

So, what about those who refuse to answer the question…our fence sitters? I’d say…they have to look at their lives and their actions. From a public standpoint, their refusal to admit belief makes them implicit weak atheists, because they publicly lack belief. But from a private standpoint, look at their lives. A second thing that secured me in my atheism was realizing that I am utterly apatheistic. Spirituality for spirituality’s sake is so unimportant to me, it doesn’t change the way I live or what I hope for. Heaven or hell is unimportant and meaningless to me. Effectively, I don’t live as if God has any impact on my life, and even if God does happen to exist, it seems like my life is effectively the same whether I believe or do not believe…so it matters much more if I can tell water from Clear Kool-Aid, but not if I worship the right god.

…But there are some who intrinsically hope for an afterlife. There are those who are swayed by religious reasoning and who I think genuinely feel something they call the spirit, even if they claim to be fence-sitting agnostics. These agnostics, I’d think, would be agnostic theists.

This article is too long. I’ll write more about it later.


From → Uncategorized

  1. Chris permalink

    Maybe you’ve already seen it, but this comic strip makes your point (with a little humor at the end).

  2. oh…there’s no link, Chris

  3. YES.

    I NEED THIS COMIC FOR MY LIFE. Just to hand out to people.

  4. The older aged people are less likely to be agnostic. This is because old people have weakened deteriorating bodies and also deteriorating brains and minds, which henceforth are less likely to be opened minded and reside to agnostic thinking.

  5. Waleed permalink

    I don’t think you are quite right about the excluded middle.
    Why do I have to believe in one or the other thing? Clearly I cannot believe in P and in not P, if my belief is to be related to truth, but I should be able to not believe in P and not believe in not P. That is just apathy.
    Why do I have to actively engage in belief?
    If I don’t actively engage, you suggest that my belief will be revealed by my actions, but those of my actions which could be interpreted one way or the other might be inconsistent toward just one interpretation.
    Why is it so important to establish that I have a belief, no matter how weak?
    Even if you are right that belief is always present and there is no middle, it could change from moment to moment at therefore not be settled.
    Why would it be necessary or important to pin it down?

  6. Waleed,

    I think you’re mistaking what the excluded middle is. It is NOT “believe in P” or “believe in not-P”.

    Instead, it is “believe in P” or “not believe in P.”

    If you do not engage in belief in gods, you are an atheist.

    Please note as well that apathy refers to the strength (or lack of strength) of whatever position (or lack of position) one takes…so an “apatheist” can be EITHER a theist or an atheist, but regardless, is not fervent or central in that position.

    The entire point, however, is that “believe” or “not believe” are the only two options *logically* possible. There is no conceivable third possibility, because every possibility is included within these two.

    Also, the point isn’t to pin things down. If these change frequently, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that at any given snapshot in time, it will be one, or the other. Not both.

    • Waleed permalink

      Hi Andrew,

      Yes, I was mistaken. Thanks for your clarification.

      But this means that a person might be atheist by default, without ever having had to think about it. I don’t think that accords with most people’s intuitions about what it means to be an atheist.

      I think that most people would agree that atheist is a label one gives oneself. I see the logical appeal, based on taking atheism to mean a lack of belief in gods, of your assessment of who is an atheist, but I think a more appropriate definition of atheist would be something like, one who espouses atheism.

      That kind of definition would make it consistent with other -ist words.


      • Well, there are popular arguments that argue exactly that: “people are atheists by default. They have to be taught theism.”

        I do not think this holds in all cases, and I don’t believe this is a sound argument for atheism (or theism, for people who argue the opposite). For example, there is also some research that suggests that — without thinking about it — children attribute natural events to an anthropomorphic cause. For example, when you hear little children say that rain is because “the sky is crying.”

        In either case, it’s not necessarily true that something is justified just because it is the “default,” and in any case, what is clear is that not everyone has the same starting position.

        I can say that for me, I was always an atheist in the sense that I have never believed in gods. It wasn’t that one day, I thought about it, and said, “Oh, I don’t believe.” Rather, it was that one day, I though about it, and said, “Wow, I have never believed. And until now, I didn’t have a word for it.” In that way, I can understand what you say about atheist being a label one gives oneself…however, I think that, despite the label, atheism represents a very minimalist description of a person in one facet of their lives.

        But let’s look at something. What does it mean to “espouse atheism”? I think that all this means is not to believe in god. If one does not believe in god, one espouses atheism in the same way that if one does believe in god, one espouses theism, or in the same way that if one harbors a belief in the inferiority and superiority of certain races, one espouses racism, or in the same way that if one represents the words and ideas of another as his own, one has engaged in plagiarism, or even in the same way that if one engages in courageous conduct and action, one has engaged in heroism.

        To be consistent with other -ist words, we have to recognize that people can fit the description of the -ist word without personally ascribing to the name. Most racists wouldn’t say they are racist, but racism still is a term that is used to describe an aspect about them or their conduct. An “espousal” of racism is from the beliefs, words, or deeds that one has…not the label one consciously takes.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mere Atheism « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. Thrilling apatheism « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  3. Coming to terms with atheism « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  4. Strong atheism vs. weak atheism part 1 « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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