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A Message for ‘Agnostics’ March 20, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.

I’ve met, in my travels, a number of people who call themselves ‘agnostic.’ In many cases, they contrast this position against my being an atheist, saying that they are not willing to say that there is no god, they just don’t know. They aren’t religious and they just don’t understand why we atheists can think that we know there isn’t a god. Well, I have a message for people who hold this point of view.

Agnostics, you are atheists too.

OK, allow me to clarify. When a person tells me that they don’t know whether a god exists, thus calling themselves an agnostic, they are trying to contrast their perspective with what they think mine–an atheist’s–is. What they do not understand is that in most cases, when someone calls themselves an agnostic, they mean exactly the same thing that I do when I call myself an atheist.

I call myself an agnostic-atheist in these conversations. This usually causes the self-identified ‘agnostic’ to look at me with some confusion. “How can you be both?” they ask, and I say that the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ address different questions and are not mutually exclusive.

Let me break it down for you:

Theist: One who holds a belief in some god or gods.

Atheist: One who lacks belief in any gods (a- = negation or lack)

gnostic: this is a Greek word for knowledge. Not to be confused with the ancient religious traditions generally referred to as the Gnostics. This term simply means knowledge, and in this context it implies that to be a ‘gnostic’ is to know whether or not there is a god.

agnostic: to either claim to not know whether there is a god or not or to believe it to be impossible to know whether there is a god or not.

Thus, if I am an agnostic-atheist, it means that while I do not know with certainty that there is no god of any kind, I do not currently believe there is one. That is, I am not convinced in the existence of a god. I do not claim to know that there are no gods of any kind.

Also, an agnostic-theist is someone who, while not having certainty, believes that a god exists. And while they may claim certainty, I believe that this is impossible. While one cannot deny the experiences they have, they can be skeptical about the interpretation of those experiences. Thus, a person’s ‘experience of god,’ while it may be a real experience, may have another explanation and thus cannot be used as certain knowledge of god, just of some experience that they interpret as god.

So, what would a gnostic-atheist or a gnostic-theist look like? This would be a person who was certain that they knew whether or not there was a god. Does anybody fit this criteria? I don’t think so.

And while an atheist might say that a particular god does not exist, whether due to logical impossibility or for any other reason, this does not address that larger question of whether any gods exist. Thus, ‘gnostic’ seems to be an impossible position to hold, for me, and thus agnostic actually becomes redundant, since everyone is an agnostic.

Agnosticism is not some fence position between atheism and theism. It is not some place where you can sit and feel superior to atheists because you aren’t being judgmental towards belief in god. Rather, it is what you call yourself when you don’t know what an atheist means when they say they don’t believe in god. It is a way to weasel out of answering the question of whether you believe in god or not. The answer “I’m agnostic” is answering a different question, not fence-sitting.

You either believe in some god or you do not. There is no possible middle ground on this issue.

If you are not sure or you are still thinking about it, it means that you don’t currently actually hold a belief in a god, and are, technically, an atheist. Similarly, if you believe but are still questioning, you are a theist. I’m sure that some people waver between being an atheist and a theist many times, perhaps depending on mood, the last argument for or against, and maybe even how their day is going.

But for you ‘agnostics’ who think that calling yourself an ‘agnostic’ because you have bought this BS about atheism being the absurd position of certainty that no god exists have swallowed it whole. You are likely atheists.



1. Marisa - March 22, 2009

Very nicely put. I am always a little surprised by the people that haven’t taken the time to think through the god proposition.

Still, there is a part of me that envies people that can give such a little amount of thought to religion. I think my upbringing and culture guarantee that the “god delusion” (pardon the pun) will always be close to the front of my mind.

2. Atheism and Agnosticism « Life Without a Net - March 24, 2009

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3. hambydammit - March 24, 2009

Great post. I linked to it in a short blog post today.

4. G Felis - March 26, 2009

A few years ago I wrote two long essays on “What Atheism Isn’t” (link if you’re curious). But there are so many common misconceptions and confusions about atheism to address that even in all that verbiage I *still* didn’t get around to specifically refuting this bullshit notion that atheism is a claim to certainty or absolute knowledge, nor the related bullshit claim to superiority implied by most self-proclaimed agnostics (because of course they’re far too clever to claim certainty about proving a negative). Good on ya!

5. Vincent - March 26, 2009

“You either believe in some god or you do not. There is no possible middle ground on this issue.”

Substitute “global warming” for “god” in the above quote, and you’ll see the problem with that statement. Someone could perfectly well refuse to commit to either side, because they believe there isn’t enough evidence to decide either way (yet). I am such a person, as regards global warming. The late physicist Sir Mark Oliphant (whom I once had the pleasure of listening to) was uncommitted on the issue of God’s existence: he didn’t think we had enough evidence to decide on the issue.

I’d like to propose the following set of definitions:

Atheist: one who believes that there is no god or gods.
Dogmatic atheist: one who claims to be certain that there is no God. (Plenty of examples: Diderot, de Sade, Stalin, Ayn Rand, to name a few.)

Theist: one who believes that there is a god or gods.
Dogmatic theist: one who claims to be certain of this. (There are millions of people who fall into this category.)

Agnostic: an undecided person, who neither believe in god(s) nor believes that there is no god(s).
Dogmatic agnostic: someone who claims that we will never have enough evidence to decide the matter.

That sounds like a fairer way of slicing and dicing the issue to me, as well as being more in accord with popular parlance.

6. Dan Gilbert - March 26, 2009

Nicely written! I always sigh when I hear someone make the assumption that atheists are just as dogmatic about the nonexistence of God as theists are about the existence of God.

You do a nice job of breaking it down and explaining the issue clearly and simply. Thanks!

7. Thomathy - April 2, 2009

“And while an atheist might say that a particular god does not exist, whether due to logical impossibility or for any other reason, this does not address that larger question of whether any gods exist. ”

No, but that does not affect the certainty of the knowledge that that particular god doesn’t exist. Therefor it is quite possible and even correct to be a gnostic atheist with regards to say, the Christian god.

” Thus, ‘gnostic’ seems to be an impossible position to hold, for me, and thus agnostic actually becomes redundant, since everyone is an agnostic”

So, I fail to see how it is an impossible position to hold, especially when above you admit that certainty can be had with regard to a particular god. Clearly, everyone must be agnostic with regard to some gods (if there were gods about which a person can be agnostic), but with regard to others an atheist can be gnostic. In fact, I think it might be more accurate to say that gnostic is a redundant affix for the atheist because there aren’t any coherent god concepts.

Anyhow, a part from that critique, you’ve written a succinct piece that clearly illustrates the meaning of the terms.

8. shaunphilly - April 2, 2009

Thomathy. I meant that it is impossible to be an ‘gnostic’ in the general sense, about any possible gods. Your point is valid.

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11. shaunphilly - July 7, 2009


You don’t explain where any contradiction exists. You simply spew tired old arguments that mis-characterizes atheists.

For you to claim that atheists contradict themselves, you would first have to know what atheism is. Your post makes it clear that you do not, so your criticism becomes much less valid.

12. Slater - February 15, 2010

“Substitute “global warming” for “god” in the above quote, and you’ll see the problem with that statement. Someone could perfectly well refuse to commit to either side”

Wrong. There really is not middle ground between believing and not believing. Either you believe something is true, or you don’t. Not believing something is *not* the same as believing the opposite.

In the global warming terms, you can either believe AGW is true or not believe it. The non-believers include both the undecideds and those who believe the opposite.

As for your suggestion to change the meaning of the words – why on earth would we do that? Why should we atheists suddenly start calling ourselves agnostics because someone else fails to understand the term? “Atheism” has exactly the meaning we intend it to: “without belief in god”.

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