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.