A Discussion of Atheism and Agnosticism

I’m not sure why I’m writing this post now. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of reading YouTube comments with such obfuscated discussions on the matter. I’ll try to be brief and clear.

The main message of this post is that agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive terms. To understand this, consider the root parts that make up these words. The root “gno” comes from Greek, meaning “to know.” The prefix “a-“, also from Greek, means “not.” So an agnostic, one might conclude, is someone who does not know. I am agnostic to many things. For instance, I am agnostic as to the question “will I die tomorrow?” Some definitions go further, saying that an agnostic to a given question is someone who thinks the answer is unknowable. Note the difference; unknowable is much stronger than just unknown. The latter definition brings up more interesting discussions, but I do not care for it in this context. Let’s go with agnostic being related to not knowing.

Similarly, an atheist is someone who is not a theist. Well, that doesn’t explain much, does it? First we have to know what a theist is. The definition of a theist can be complicated, and so I will make a definition that is very broad and vague, yet simple. A theist is someone who believes that a god exists or has existed. So an atheist is someone who does not believe that a god exists or has existed. So, an atheist can be anyone who does not proclaim that any gods exist or have existed. Observe that these definitions are far removed from any specific religion.

As to the question of whether or not a god exists or has existed, there are four combinations to consider:
1. Gnostic Theist–one who claims to know that a god exists or existed..
2. Gnostic Atheist–one who claims to know that no gods ever existed.
3. Agnostic Theist–one who believes that a god exists or existed, but does not claim to know for sure.
4. Agnostic Atheist–one who does not believe that a god ever existed, but does not claim to know for sure.

I have not met a single atheist who is not also agnostic at some fundamental level. Notice above that both gnostic options are related to claiming to know the answer to the question. I think it is a misconception by theists that atheists take the gnostic position. This misconception breeds comments like “atheism is just another religion,” or “atheists are just as arrogant as theists in their claim that there is no god.”

Next is a subtle and important point. Belief in the claim “there is no god and never has been” implies atheism, since presumably one cannot believe that there is and is not a god simultaneously. However, the converse does not hold. Not every atheist believes that there is no god. In fact, very few do and none I’ve met do. It would take an extraordinary amount of evidence to show that there is no god. Atheists tend to formulate beliefs based on evidence, and there could never be enough evidence to rule out the possibility of a god. Many atheists, however, believe that it is very unlikely that there is a god, and for many good reasons. Probability of god, though, is not the question. Most atheists are atheists simply because there is not any good evidence that god does exist, and so they can’t bring themselves to believe it. It is as simple as that. If you want to know how likely they think it is, you would have to ask them individually. Atheism is not a belief system. “Atheist” is not a very descriptive word. It only tells you about a particular statement that the person doesn’t claim is true. The word doesn’t tell you anything about what the person actually does believe or why. Some atheists believe in karma, reincarnation, or many other things. I don’t believe in karma or reincarnation because of the whole evidence thing, but some atheists do.

Now, another subtle point is to be found by addressing the statement, “but there is no evidence that god doesn’t exist!” This statement mistakenly suggests that believing in god is just as rational as not. To see the absurdity of this proposed implication, just apply it to any question of existence for which there is no evidence. There are now literally infinitely many ridiculous things I have to believe. I now have to believe that the tooth fairy exists, since there is no evidence that it doesn’t. I also have to believe that an ancient Chinese teapot is in orbit around the earth. I have to believe that there is a planet that just happens to manifest the land of Tamriel from the Elder Scrolls series exactly. There are many more beliefs much stranger than I could imagine as well. But I have to believe them all because there isn’t evidence that discounts them. If I take absence of evidence as grounds for belief, then I have to believe too many things. It’s just not an efficient system for setting up beliefs. If, on the other hand, I require a preponderance of evidence before I believe, and a degree of belief according to the strength of the evidence, then I will find myself with beliefs that fit, by construction, much more harmoniously with the world I can observe. If one then declares that the more rational systems of making beliefs are those that are more harmonious with the observed world, then one concludes that the statement “but there is no evidence that there isn’t a god” is useless at best and an annoying red herring at worst.

I think that is all I want to say about this matter at this time. I hope anyone who reads this post can better understand the distinction between atheist and agnostic, and the fact that the two sentiments are not mutually exclusive. I also hope that any theistic persons reading this post understand the other side a bit better, and will perhaps ask what individuals actually believe rather than stopping at the word “atheist.”


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