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Atheism vs. Agnosticism

In my experience, most agnostics are practically atheist. They don't believe in god or afterlife, they're not praying, they're not worrying about it all. There are exceptions, from the occasional "agnostic theist" to a more common agnostic who is "seeking", or struggling, or wistfully wishing X was true, or on their way from being Christian to being atheist. But even those could largely be seen as functionally not-theist.

Conversely, most atheists are philosophically agnostic. Some do say that they've proved God can't exist, or think that has been proven, but most, if pressed, will disclaim certainty. They don't need it, being happy with implausibility rather than impossibility, because their (our) key argument is not "I know you're wrong" but "there's no evidence that you're right."

So if the bulk of atheists and agnostics overlap, why pick one label over another? Part of it is beliefs about what the definitions are, or what "belief in no God" means: countless times I've seen agnostics say that they're not atheist because that would be claiming certainty "just like a believer", immediately followed by atheists saying "no, you've missed the point." Part of it's personal history and what one is comfortable with for subrational reasons; in my case, I once as a child answered that I was agnostic out of cowardice and promptly got called on it[1], leading to a vow to not sell out again.

But there's also what message you're sending. Agnostics aren't the only ones who think 'atheist' means faith-like certainty in non-existence, for believers often respond that way too. But that's not the only message in play -- what message does calling yourself 'agnostic' send, and is it one atheists would want? To my mind, agnostic isn't just making a philosophical point about lack of certainty, but says that various religions have a real chance of being right, that there's a level playing field between atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, Hinduism, Jainism, Shinto, Sioux beliefs, Mbuti beliefs, etc. Well, maybe most agnostics would balk at some point in that list, but certainly level playing field between atheism and Christianity is often implied, or at least inferred by me. And then the atheist asks why one should stop at any point on the list.

Whereas the atheist uncertainty is more on the order of "there's no proof the Sun will rise tomorrow; the laws of physics are just observed patterns which *could* be a big coincidence." A philosophical point, not a practical one. The message the atheist really wants to send is "So, what's your evidence, anyway? I'm sorry, let me rephrase, what's your *convincing* evidence? Why should I take Jesus any more seriously than Zeus, or than you yourself take Brahma or Mohamed? You don't believe in Islam, well, I don't believe in Islam *or* Christianity." Do you (for agnostics) really think general Christianity, Mormonism, Scientology, Shinto, and the latest cult are on a level playing field, and if not, if you feel able to rule out some of those, why not all of them?

Core agnostic message: "I don't know", with room to infer "and maybe I can be convinced."  Atheist message: "I may not KNOW, but damn am I skeptical."  Often with "and I've looked at other religions, and for that matter your own religion, more than you have" as a followup.

Of course, this all assumes that truth-value is relevant, as opposed to social-utility value.

[1] It was on the schoolbus, 8th grade probably. For some reason I got asked what my religion was, and surrounded by a bunch of not overly friendly kids, I said agnostic, despite thinking of myself as atheist. They asked what agnostic meant, and another kid answered "it's what atheists answer when they don't want to say they're atheist." Which isn't true in general, but was really specifically true of me, and I burned with shame.


( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 2nd, 2007 01:20 pm (UTC)
Definitely interesting discussion. A few thoughts from an agnostic.

Core agnostic message: "I don't know", with room to infer "and maybe I can be convinced." Atheist message: "I may not KNOW, but damn am I skeptical.

I bristle a little at the inference you added to agnosticism. To make a silly analogy, I'd be just as annoyed as a bisexual if people kept saying "oh, well, you just haven't had that one key experience" (ala religion) or "you just don't have the balls to say you are X or Y" (atheism's rant against agnosticism).

For me, I am comfortable with where I am and I don't intend to become more or less religious. Do I feel hinduism is more real than scientology? That catholicism is more real than mormonism? Not particularly. I don't interpret any of them literally, but I do find value in their various interpretations of living the good life. In fact, as a scientist, I find it much more valuable to do a sort of comparitive look at all religions than to focus on one.

For me, judging a religion by its religious text is like judging Western culture based on Hamlet. We are not all murderers and do not all commit incest, but the play still illustrates human qualities that are important. In this way, the Bible has lots of violence and crazy dictates, but it also has some wisdom. I don't mind so much its flaws. After all, it's not a work of God, it's a work of Man.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 02:59 pm (UTC)
I could have been clearer, as I dumped out my thoughts which were keeping me from sleeping. But note: inference, not implication. The message is as much a function of the recipient as the sender; it's not that the agnostic is meaning to say "I'm open to being convinced" but the religious perhaps hearing that, just as they often 'hear' "I think I've proved God's non-existence" when they hear "I'm an atheist". Part of the point of the thing was to elucidate why a lot of atheists don't want the agnostic label for themselves, even when it technically applies.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 08:38 pm (UTC)
This post is going to feel like a weird role reversal of us, and possibly I'll find that I've overly simplified or stereotyped or completely misunderstood your position. Be kind!

To me, your comments sound like, paraphrased into my own words: "I respect various religions, and value studying them for their commentary on human life, or for useful ways of living life, and don't insult them by getting hung up on their truth value."

Now, I'm happy to engage in cultural appropriation and miscegenation, even without respecting the source I'm stealing from. And maybe I'm projecting the whole 'respect' thing onto you -- but you do prefer agnostic to atheist, and you're more UU than I am, so I fill in somewhat from observed UU behavior.

But "after all, it's not a work of God, it's a work of Man" seems to be begging the very question under debate. (And a statement which sounds more atheist than agnostic in certainty.) Religions don't consider themselves the work of Man, but the work of God! The Christian martyrs didn't die for a better way of community or even stuff like loving your neighbor, they died for the salvation of their eternal souls. They may not even have had texts yet to take literally, but they had core supernatural beliefs which continue to be key to Christianity. Orthodox Jews will defend the beliefs that God appeared to Moses, and then to the entire Hebrew people, and that the laws they follow are literally the commands of God to his chosen people. Muslims will defend that Gabriel dictated to Mohammed; Hindus have their own claims to revelation. These aren't literalist freaks, but the historical mainstream of what their religion is based on. Without the truth of the Resurrection, or the dictation, a lot of them feel, reasonably, that there'd be no point to their religion, nice cultural practices notwithstanding. And certainly no point to their having suffered, or killed, for those practices.

I study other religions for fun, out of curiosity. I can imagine plundering from them too. And I'd say "it's the work of Man", but I'm the unabashed 'atheist'. And I know that they, or lots of them, would say "no it's not, by God!" (very crucial comma there) Seeing *you* casually throw out that line makes me think one of us is missing something, though I really don't know who.
(no subject) - fanw - Nov. 2nd, 2007 09:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 2nd, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 2nd, 2007 01:45 pm (UTC)
I'd note that the "and I've looked at other religions, and for that matter your own religion, more than you have" is a bit of a mistake. While a lot of Atheists tend to study religions for various reasons, there are just as many who are no better versed in religious history or philosophy than any other person on the street.

The core "may be convinced" vs "skeptical" issue though is something I would agree with as the fundamental difference between the two, if we're creating a intellectually valid split.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)
That's why I said "Often with ... as followup."

As for the split, to be clear, pace my reply to fanw I think it's a split less in the real attitudes than in the message being sent, intentionally or not. My-college-friend probably wasn't any more likely than me of being convinced or converted, but we chose the different labels...

This post stemmed from poking around atheist blogs recently, and the topic coming up again of whether it's rude or confrontational to call oneself atheist. It certainly feels that way to some believers, and some agnostics who give that as a reason for not being 'atheist'. "You're saying that everyone else is wrong." Yet that's the implication of being a believer, but somehow *that's* okay, while nonbelievers are supposed to stop at the "well, I'm not sure" level or be rude.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 02:40 pm (UTC)
There is virtue in maintaining communication. Why be dogmatic about what you don't know? If you wish to convince others of the validity of what you do know, why insist on the validity of what you don't when others find that a different concept of what none of them, you, nor I know works a whole lot better for them?

I am sympathetic to the boy on the bus, but that was a typical childhood bullying over nothing. The real danger is not getting beat up, but in not communicating.

I personally find, for one example, tales of the deeds of the angel Moroni unconvincing. I find the accomplishments of the people who believe in those tales impressive, again, for one example. Not that all of the deeds were virtuous, but that the society was strong and stable.

If you don't like current religions, what are you going to replace them with that will give the same strength and stability, given that not all of mankind is proficient with analysis, logic, and the scientific method, and seems to need some religious type of help to get along? That's a real question, not rhetorical, and I don't pretend to have an answer.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 03:05 pm (UTC)
It wasn't bullying really. I had no fear of getting beat up then, at least physically, just social fear of... something. And the guy who called me out, while snarky and inaccurate in the general case, nailed me perfectly.

As for atheist, I find it honest, not dogmatic. "not-theist". Out of atheist agnostics, the 'atheists' choose to emphasize the fact that they're not believers, while the 'agnostics' choose to emphasize their lack of certainty. I used to have arguments with a college friend: same views as far as I could tell, different labels. He wanted the label of open-mindedness and lack of certainty; I replied that I felt I was technically agnostic on everything, and saw no reason to distinguish religious matters in particular for a label of doubt, vs. a label which actually says what I think of said religious matters.
Nov. 3rd, 2007 10:47 pm (UTC)
I apologize, the comment you replied to was mine, I didn't notice that I wasn't logged in. (and, of course, did not get notices of the replies.)

Yes, I agree that technically atheism should mean just that one doesn't believe, but practically, agnosticism has come to mean that and atheism has come to mean that one believes in the non-existence. Going back to communication, there is virtue in thinking about how the listener will interpret.

I understand your point, and we had part of this discussion before - I just feel it is better trying to keep the bridges open. I admit I don't have any bridges that span to the far side. :<(
Nov. 2nd, 2007 03:15 pm (UTC)
If you don't like current religions, what are you going to replace them with that will give the same strength and stability, given that not all of mankind is proficient with analysis, logic, and the scientific method, and seems to need some religious type of help to get along?

Oh, see there I disagree! Take Europe for example. Not very religious. Also not sinking into the tarpits. People don't NEED religion, but they will always ask questions about the meaning of life. Now you can leave them as questions and let people find their own answers, or you can create a structure within which people can find out "what do 5 million other people think" (aka religion). You don't need a doctorate in philosophy to figure this stuff out, just like you don't need to understand electro-magnetic fields to use a microwave. We're all people and we all think and feel and live. No on NEEDS the answers in a book.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 03:56 pm (UTC)
> create a structure ... (aka religion)

Or create a structure in which people can find out "what answers have people come up over time, what have they said about each other's answers, and what might we see about how that all worked out?" Aka a comparative religion class, or a philosophy (more along the Greek philosophies of life than along ontology) class. Or maybe a UU religious ed class, but I expect that's similar to comp rel.
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 2nd, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tooth_and_claw - Nov. 3rd, 2007 08:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 3rd, 2007 08:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tooth_and_claw - Nov. 5th, 2007 11:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pompe - Nov. 5th, 2007 03:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 3rd, 2007 09:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Nov. 5th, 2007 11:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pompe - Nov. 5th, 2007 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fanw - Nov. 3rd, 2007 09:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pompe - Nov. 5th, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tooth_and_claw - Nov. 5th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 5th, 2007 04:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pompe - Nov. 5th, 2007 08:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 2nd, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC)
I was wondering about your last question. Fanw's answer is good, and prompted an expansion by me. I could also point to the Epicureans, who ran communities of well-nigh atheists (irrelevant gods, no afterlife) for centuries until the Christians stamped them out. Unfortunately we don't know much about how they worked (cf. Christians.)

What I'd been thinking of saying was that I don't think I need to answer that question for everyone. It's enough for me to say what I think the truth is and why; I can say how I live my life, as example. But it seems condescending to think I or anyone needs to craft a replacement way of life for people. Especially as, as Fanw noted, they seem to be working it out on their own. The non-US developed countries are generally less religious than the US; South Korea is said to be 50% non-religious (CIA Factbook). The US seems to have been getting less religious with younger generations, especially the latest. So, people can cope. Probably helps to have a good social support network.

I personally find, for one example, tales of the deeds of the angel Moroni unconvincing. I find the accomplishments of the people who believe in those tales impressive, again, for one example. Not that all of the deeds were virtuous, but that the society was strong and stable.

Nothing about being atheist prevents one from finding such accomplishments to be impressive. Being atheist means you don't believe in Moroni and all his relatives. It doesn't mean you have to hate Bach.

(Though I did have a roommate who found that learning German ruined his enjoyment of sonatas.)
(no subject) - countrycousin - Nov. 3rd, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 5th, 2007 09:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - countrycousin - Nov. 5th, 2007 10:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 2nd, 2007 06:41 pm (UTC)
We don't know if a modern society needs religion. We know that in old, non-democratic times of low science and little respect for human rights religions indeed gave hope, answers and strength to people. But perhaps we can give those things to people without using religion today.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 06:14 pm (UTC)
I don't really care for agnosticism. To me, atheism or theism is not an issue of conviction, evidence or proof, it is a matter of belief. I can't prove there is no God, but I don't believe in him/her/it/them. Not believing in God is atheism to me, regardless of how that non-belief is rationalized.

Religious people can't prove there is a God either, but they instead choose to believe. That I can respect. But I, to be blunt, don't respect the stance to be unsure about whether one believes or not to the same degree.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 08:52 pm (UTC)
Alright I'll pounce! I am an agnostic (normally I don't go around wearing a label, but for this discussion I'll adopt it) but I don't think I'm "unsure".

Here's why I choose agnostic instead of atheist. To me, and of course there may be different interpretations, atheist implies not just a lack of faith in a supreme being, but a similar lack of faith in many so called spiritual experiences which are not supported by scientific fact. Personally, I do not believe in an interventionist supreme being (no one's up there whom I can call to for help or hindrance). However, I have articles of faith. For example, I believe in the basic good nature of humanity, despite all evidence to the contrary! I also believe that there is a connection amongst all living things. And I believe there is much we do not yet know about the mind and spirit and consciousness.

So, while I'm pretty clear to myself on the evidence of God (there's none I can see), I don't want to align myself with the skeptics camp for topics related to the soul and such like.
Nov. 2nd, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)
Darnit, that comment was from me. I just wasn't logged in. Sorry!
(no subject) - pompe - Nov. 2nd, 2007 11:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 2nd, 2007 11:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Nov. 3rd, 2007 09:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 3rd, 2007 09:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 3rd, 2007 05:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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