Agnosticism vs. Atheism

October 06, 2008 By: erik Category: Complaining, Musings, Religion 3,513 views

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Bill Maher was on The Daily Show the other day. He’s a funny guy. He was promoting his new movie, Religulous (“religion” + “ridiculous”) that, as you might suspect, is all about making fun of religion. You can see part of his visit on The Daily Show on his website. He was great, but then he went and said the following.

“I’m not an atheist. I’m not certain, and I don’t think we can know for sure.”

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. Most people that say they are agnostic are really functional atheists, but they are making an epistemological argument to avoid confrontation and accusations of having faith or dogma.

Certainty

What are you really certain of? Anything that you can say you are certain of, I can claim that “I don’t think we can know for sure.” Do you think that the force of gravity will work tomorrow as it has so far today? Are you 100% certain? I think you are really only 99.999999999999% certain. You have no evidence that gravity has ever not worked, but anything could happen, right? How certain are you that you won’t die immediately after reading this sentence?

Still here? Good, let’s do some calculus. One of the things that surprises most calculus students is that 0.99999… = 1. How can that be? Well, the simple proof is that, if you agree that 1/3 = 0.33333…, which it does, then what do you get if you multiply both sides of the equation by 3? My point is that arguing the difference between “really quite sure” and “absolutely certain” is pointless and you’ll only end up in the big sticky semantic tar pit that’s called philosophy. When I say I am certain that there are no gods and that gravity will function tomorrow, I mean that I am as sure as anyone can really be about anything without being dogmatic.

To not believe, or to believe not

Let’s examine the subtle difference in meaning between the following two sentences.

  1. An atheist believes that God does not exist.
  2. An atheist does not believe that God exists.

I suspect that all people who call themselves atheists share my complaint about the definition of atheism. I’ve looked up the word in three dictionaries, and they all say that #1 is more correct. I really hate that. When I call myself an atheist, I’m using definition #2. The second definition better represents the scientific line of thinking, specifically the null hypothesis, that leads one to atheism. The null hypothesis states that any extraordinary claim must be assumed to be false and the burden of proof is on the claimant. If sufficient reason to believe the claim is not given, one should not believe it is true. Notice that…

not believe is true ? believe is false

Conclusion

It is a shame that the definition of atheism is worded the way it is. If “believe not” could be changed to “not believe”, I think all of you agnostics out there would have the courage to call yourselves atheists. As it is you get caught up in the meaning of certainty. In my mind, the difference between agnostics and atheists is the same as the difference between 0.99999… and 1.

 
  • http://www.thegradys.net Alan

    My captcha was “surreal” and that is what I felt as I read your blog. I don’t think that math and faith are great bed fellows. I think that Bill is like a lot of people that think it is silly that there is a great one in the sky has that nagging itch that there could be something out there that is beyond our imagination and math.

    my 2 cents

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    Of course there could be. There could be an invisible pink elephant1 behind you right now. But you’re not going to believe it’s there until you see some evidence for it.

    My point was that your position on the pink elephant isn’t “I believe there is no pink elephant.” Your position is, “I don’t believe there is a pink elephant.” Subtle, but different. However you will still live your life under the base assumption that you are not being followed by an invisible pink elephant.

    Talking about unimaginable incalculable things is like drawing invisible things. It’s silly and should be avoided.

    1Yes, invisible and pink. The transparent pachyderm’s ability to both reflect reddish light and allow light to pass through it unchanged is beyond scientific explanation and must be accepted as unexplainable.

  • http://www.chickengirl.net Chicken Girl

    What?! How dare you belittle my faith in the Invisible Pink Elephant! You just don’t believe in Her because you don’t want to give her peanuts!

  • Brian

    I whole-heartedly agree with this post. Good job …

  • Weapon X

    God made me atheist and who are you to judge his wisdom?

  • Andrew

    Nice post. I have often thought that agnostics were just spiritual fence-riders too chickenshit to take a stand one way or the other.

  • http://tonx.com tonx

    Hi. Take a step back for pure conceptual satisfaction. Choose to not accept the concept of god itself rendering belief, acceptance, non belief, whatever 100% moot.

    Ok I used to believe in santa claus. I started to question this concept around the time I was in second grade. In third grade I no longer believed 100% but clung onto hope. In fourth grade I was convinced enough to proclaim non-belief. Now I understand that the concept itself is and was flawed and I can reject it 100% without prejudice.

    The same is true of god. I reject the concept outright and cannot have intellectual debate around the sillyness of belief, proof, faith…YEECH!

  • Jeff

    Agnostic:

    a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

    Atheist:
    a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

    Stop trying to change the definition of the word and call yourself agnostic. Atheists have faith in that there is nothing, Agnostics do not. Don’t try and change the meaning of the word, reclassify yourself. True Atheists won’t like it.

  • Chris

    Gotta agree with Jeff :) I mark the difference along the lines that an atheist is willing to make a specific assertion that God does NOT exist, and provide arguments to support that belief. If you support your belief that God does not exist on a lack of evidence that he does exist, then you are really just saying you don’t know – playing Atheist when you are really agnostic.

  • Garth

    I agree with Jeff. You have no beef with people who call themselves agnostics. By your own description, you are, in fact, an agnostic.

    Although I agree that agnosticism is scientifically and philosophically more tenable than atheism, I myself am an atheist in the sense you label #1 above. (See, we do exist! :-) I don\’t aspire to atheism; in fact, it seems equally as silly as deism in a certain way. But when pressed, I have to admit that I actively and affirmatively believe that there is no god.

    The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is real and meaningful.

  • http://biochemicalsoul.com Irradiatus

    I, like many others, cannot use the term “atheism” for a very important reason.

    I definitely consider myself atheistic on all intervening personal Gods (by the “shading of probabilities” method of Dawkins). There is ALMOST no possibility of an intervening God in the same way that there is ALMOST no possibility of gravity not working tomorrow. I base this on the fact that no modern and reputable violations of the laws of nature have ever been found. Postulating such a God is unnecessary and falsified daily by simple empirical experience.

    However, no data whatsoever can shade the probabilities in either direction with regards to a deistic being that set the universe in motion and kicked back to let it play out from there. I can just as easily conceive of such a being as I can conceive of the opposite. There can be no evidence in either direction (and I admit that the whole idea is pointless except in stimulating the imagination – it’s fun).

    The problem is that the term “atheism”, when used in general discussion, does not make distinctions between these two types of entities. The standard definition and common usage, as you rightly pointed out, is active disbelief in all Gods. But since I don’t have any way of knowing, and in fact cannot know, about a deistic creator, I must remain AGNOSTIC about such an entity.

    “Atheistic” is too broad to use to define myself (and does imply an arrogant absolutist belief).

    Your 0.9999… does not and cannot apply to deistic entities.

  • Scott

    Have to agree with Jeff, its really simple

    Atheist’s dont believe in anything beyond our current existence

    Agnostics believe that there is something but they dont know what it is and dont believe anyone else does either.

    You are an Agnostic acting as an atheist – (most atheists I have met are actually Agnostic)

  • Paula

    I’m glad that you’ve brought this up. Philosophical Theologians technically define an atheist as someone who believes God does not exist; that there is no God at all, no higher power. It’s very hard to disprove the existence of something, be that God or a unicorn.

    So yeah, I’d say if you don’t believe that God exists, you’re agnostic. You don’t know, really, but you don’t *think* there’s a God.

  • http://bourbonasylum.blogspot.com Gonz

    Eric:
    Religulous is not all about making fun of religion. It’s about examining why we believe what we believe. We consider ourselves rational beings and everything yet there’s a large amount of people who believe some ridiculous thing. He’s pointing out the dangers that exist with The Big Three, all of which have an End of Days element to them (because, obviously, they are all derived from the same beginning).

    He wasn’t making fun of religion, he was challenging folks to think about what it is they’re signing themselves up for instead of just assuming that it’s all true.

  • Graham

    a = lack of, theism = belief in a god or gods.

    atheism = lack of a belief in a god or gods. Erik is correct.

  • Mr. Sir

    I\’m sorry you disagree with the meaning of the word. I\’m sure you are an informed etymologist or linguist, and not just some opinionated blogger.

    a theist = without god
    Therefore, an atheist believes in a world without God.

    a gnostic = without knowledge
    Therefore, an agnostic believes in a world without absolute knowledge.

    You, my friend, are an agnostic. The difference is faith. You have no faith that there is or isn\’t a god. If you did have that faith, you\’d be either an atheist or theist.

    A complication arises. An agnostic cannot really believe anything. He or she cannot claim to believe that absolute knowledge is impossible, because they doubt even that.

    Agnosticism is the most difficult of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs. \”Faith\” falls off the radar screen entirely. I don\’t have faith that the floor will be under me when I step out of bed in the morning, but it always has been, so I can reasonably hope that it will be again.

    As such, to call agnostics fence riders or wishy-washy is ridiculous and insulting. Our world view is much more difficult to express and adhere to than any other. It is my opinion that atheists are the ones too afraid to let go and recognize the unknowable, so they cling to a belief and feel very smug about themselves. This also allows them avoid being termed \”fence sitters\” by both sides.

    Your definition of atheist does not leave any room for an agnostic, so you imply that they are one and the same. Perhaps there is little difference in a practicing atheist or agnostic, but the term is implying cause, not effect.

    You can\’t go around changing what words mean on your every whim. If everyone did that, no one would ever understand anyone else. You\’re an agnostic. If you don\’t like it, tough.

  • http://www.markrushworth.com mark rushworth

    i’m not an atheist, i’m not agnostic, i just don’t care about anyone’s ‘religion’

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    Does anyone have any evidence that any of the authors championing the recent atheism movement (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, et. al.) adhere to the strict dictionary “believe god does not exist” definition?

    From what I’ve read, I think that they are clear to define their disbelief as “a deity is so incredibly improbable that we can talk about it as if we are certain”. That’s the point I was trying to make with the 0.999…=1 reasoning.

  • Michael Ferrier

    Erik’s argument only works for those who are “really quite sure” that there is no God. Agnosticism describes a broad spectrum of uncertainty, from “I’m pretty sure there’s a God” through “I’m pretty sure there isn’t a God”. Ben Franklin, for example, was (according to his autobiography) pretty sure there is a God, and willing to come to a few tentative conclusions about that God while letting the rest remain unknown.

  • guillaume

    I don’t really get your point about the certainty. Since no experiments will ever be possible, there will never be any certainty about God, whether 99,99..% or 100% certainty. It’s all about faith and beliefs (or non-beliefs).

    But I do totally agree that not believing it is true is not the same as believing it is false. For what it’s worth, here’s my reasoning:
    Not believing that God exists is just the opposite of believing that God exists. But it is not an opinion or faith. It’s just the negation of a faith (in God).
    Among the people who do not believe in God are, on the one side, the atheits (as defined by your dictionary, the ones who believe that God doesn’t exist) and the agnostiscs who just do not believe in one or the other.
    So when you say you do not believe that God exists, but you do not consider yourself an atheist in the meaning you called #1, then you fall in the group that just do not believe, the agnostics.
    Unless there’s a third group in the non-believers in God, but I can’t think of one.

    But other than that, I agree that most agnostics just behave as atheits since it’s extremely hard to know what to do with your life when you do not believe at all. You could think of an agnostic who lives by the rules of all the cults in the world, just not to be damned IF God really exists after all.
    About the probability that God exists, a French philosopher and mathematician from the 16th century, Pascal, proved mathematically that you should believe in God. His reasoning was flawed since he assumed the probability that God exists is 0.5, which we have no idea about, nevertheless it’s still very interesting to read today.

  • Ben

    >>The null hypothesis states that any extraordinary claim must be assumed to be false and the burden of proof is on the claimant.

    The only problem is, the nay sayers are are in the minority. A majority people believe in a divine being. So telling them “prove it” doesn’t make sense to them, because they have the numbers behind them to just say “let’s take a vote, who wants to say God exists”.

    One day, everyone thought the Sun revolved around the Earth. While we may be slightly more sophisticated in today’s day and age (very slightly), it’s still the same. If only one guy says other wise, he’s gotta prove the negative. It’s just the way it is. Majority rules until there’s proof.

    My biggest problem with all this is atheism is just as bad as any other religion. An atheist thinks he’s right about God, a christian thinks he’s right about Jesus, Jew about Moses…etc…when you think you are right and someone else is wrong about beliefs like this, you inherently think you are better then them. And that’s why the world is going to shit. People think they are better than someone else because they believe in something that has no evidence behind it, be it Theism or Atheism.

  • Jethris

    Just a note: From God’s standpoint, it doesn’t matter if you are atheistic or agnostic. Either way, you’re a non-believer.

  • _

    Your attempt to clarify the position and definition of atheism is clear, but your argument flirts with contradiction. You maintain that agnostics are really atheists because they are confused about certainty. Then a whole paragraph of math follows that is meant to appear definitive, but in reality solves nothing. Its purpose is to demonstrate the values of scientific reasoning, except is never defends those values. You declare that scientific certainty is superior to any uncertainty, and then seal the argument by labeling any contrary position as pointless philosophy. A clever tactic, but an empty one.

    Even though you are eager to redefine common words, I can only assume your definition of philosophy as “the big sticky semantic tar pit” is merely the symptom of a deceptive argument and not a sincere thesis. It would take an enormous fool to begin a philosophical argument extolling the philosophy of science, namely the values of efficiency and material certainty, and then deride the origin of those values. Luckily, I don’t take you for an enormous fool. Dismissing philosophy is an easy way to confine your argument within narrow boundaries that can’t possibly be challenged. Unfortunately, it gives rise to inherent contradiction.

    From my study of matter, I would define atheism as a scientific declaration and agnosticism a philosophical one. You must understand that science does not even attempt to address the matters of the soul. After all, science is a purposefully narrow and specialized discipline. It does not concern itself with art, politics, or humanity. Employing scientific reasoning outside of scientific pursuits leads to intellectual suffocation and greatly diminishes the unique purpose of science. Matters of words and gods are only found elsewhere.

  • Joe

    Wow… I’m glad I’m not your philosophy prof… having to read the stuff you turn in. Hopefully, by the time you’re a sophomore or later, you’ll construct arguments that are a little more thought out than this load that you’ve disgorged onto the web, here.

    Oy! Where to start…

    First, I identify myself as agnostic *not* because I want to avoid accusations of faith but, instead, because I really don’t have faith either way… in the existence or the *non*-existence.

    You seem to be hung up on this “we can’t be 100% sure” bit. You seem to hear “can’t be certain” and conclude that the person is 99.99999% certain and is just looking for an “out”. I count myself as an agnostic and I can tell you that I’m not 99.99999% sure. I’m not even 1% sure. I haven’t even seen any evidence that can be definitively construed as “for” or “against” existence.

    For example, some people look at how complicated the brain is and consider that it’s conclusive proof of a god. Now, not only do I consider it not *conclusive*, I don’t even consider it as weighing *in* on the side of there being a god… that it’s even *suggestive* of a god.

    I think your argument about gravity is pretty thin. With gravity, that’s kind of a bet that you *have* to make, one way or the other. Either you nail and glue everything to the floor the night before, or you don’t. There’s no course of action you can take if you really don’t presume to know either way. Also, with gravity, there’s a long-established track record of there being gravity the next day, so we have that to draw from. With a god, it’s not like there’s been a god all the time in the past and, now, we’re not sure.

    Maybe a better analogy would be a roulette table. You just walked up to it, and have no idea about what numbers/colors have come up in the past. You can either bet on red, bet on black, or not bet at all. *I* will not be betting.

    So… you’ve decided the evidence of there *not* being a god is overwhelming. I get that. Good for you. You’ve decided to go “all in” and call yourself an atheist and subject yourself to a lifetime of all of the torment and persecution that agnostics don’t have to go through but atheists do. I get that, too. You think we’re pussies because we don’t care to stand up on the soapbox with you and try to convince people that there’s no god. Well, that’s your prerogative.

    Keep in mind, however, that there’s no “functional” difference between an atheist and an agnostic. We both ditch church service, so I don’t see how I’m a “functional atheist”.

    P.S. I hope your professor gives you extra credit for using “epistemological”. It makes you sound philosophical.

  • Mike

    @Jethris (specifically) and all (generally)

    The only reason the word ‘atheist’ exists is as opposition to ‘theist’. The words (discussed etymologically above) mean:
    theist – believer in god, supreme being, etc..
    atheist – non-believer

    All people are either theistic or atheistic. You either believe in god(s) or you don’t. Whether you think you can ‘know’ one way or another is what defines you as an agnostic or not.

    Jethris makes the point clearly but not completely. Philosophically speaking, there are diffent types of agnostics (those who don’t ‘know’ – which is an epistimelogical state rather than a statement of belief or non-belief):

    atheistic agnostics – those who claim that ‘knowledge’ as to the existence of a supreme being is beyond human capacity but nevertheless have no belief in such a god

    theistic agnostics – again, they make the same claim as to ‘knowledge’ of god but they believe he/she/it/they exist(s)

    To sum up: atheism/theism answers the question “do you believe in god?” and agnosticism answers the question “do you think that you can ‘know’ whether a god exists or not?”

  • http://www.samlown.com Sam

    Do I really have to call myself anything? All seems a terrible waste of effort when the only things I really know about are those I can see, hear, spell, and touch, with a bit of logical interpretation of reason in-between. My brain is capable of that much, may as well use it rather than coming up with strange classifications of social groups, and faith in things I’m told by other people who probably want something from me.

    sam

  • Jon

    I’ve been bringing up the does not believe vs believes not for years now. What I think we need is new terminology. I’ve been using active atheist for people who believe there is not god and passive atheist for people who do not believe there is a god. I also like nontheist, but that takes a little more explanation.

    As an agnostic, I take offense that you’re basically saying we’re too pussy to go with what you believe. Agnosticism isn’t watered down atheism. It’s the belief that god’s existence is unknowable by definition. There are three answers to “do you believe in god?” A theist answers yes. An atheist answers no. And an agnostic answers with mu [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mu_(negative)].

  • Steve

    //
    //

    First of all, your “calculus” is wrong.

    3/10 + 3/100 + 3/100 + … = 1/3
    [Sigma(i=1 to infinity) 3/(10^i)] = 1/3

    Now, multiply that sum by 3, and as i goes to infinity, the sum will become 1 (at infinity). Nice try though.

    Secondly, why do you care about the definition of a title? You’re not even comparing Atheism to Agnosticism at all here, you’re just complaining that the definition of atheist is “wrong”. So call yourself something else and get over it.

  • http://bone.com Justin

    Sam said it best. All arguments like this basically come down to a discrepancy in definitions. Who cares? Religious beliefs are like finger-prints and sports teams. Unique to everyone and at the end of the day fundamentally pointless who’s is better.

  • http://www.didjuneau.com Patrick

    “…the courage to call themselves atheists.” ??? That is like saying I should have the courage to call myself fundamentalist. Atheists claim an absolute (no god) when any thinking person knows we have no way of proving an absolute. All our truths are dependent on context. Gravity, as we know it, is contextual to our experience. Even the places that we think may be unaffected by gravity, could very well be affected, just on a scale we don’t yet recognize. Is it possible that we could wake up tomorrow with no gravity? Ummm. Yes. It is. It isn’t very likely. It is extremely unlikely. But it is possible.

    That is the problem with the atheist argument. It gloms onto the same failure as the fundamentalist one–namely, close is good enough.

    We have no way of knowing what exists beyond the realm of our experience. God may exist out there somewhere. Agnostics simply state they’ve not seen proof of it/her/him HERE. Atheists, on the other hand, are so egocentric they think that all of any possible universes are dependent on the scant knowledge we have acquired here. That sounds a little too much like religious fervor to me.

  • Jeff

    One Additional note:

    In 99.99999…% of the possible states of the universe we do not exist. Yet here we are. If an atheist encountered a Diety it would throw them for a loop. Atheists should be absolutely floored that we exist based on random chance. If I, as an agnostic, encountered a Diety I would simply try and introduce myself and thank it for answering my questions. That is of course if it doesn’t immediately torture me for eternity. Maybe knowledge will simply flow into me through nirvana. Maybe I won’t even know I don’t exist. In any event, I won’t be surprised.

  • http://emanic55.today.com Gus O. Davis

    How true it is. Christian vernacular used to describe those who are not Christian. Atheism is a Christian definition used to degrade and humiliate those who want no part of this group of \”faith based thinkers\” sic.
    Any one who starts a conversation with \”I believe\” is tying themselves to a group of people who need to be told what to say and think.
    I believe is stupid. It\’s what your belief is based on that has validity.
    Most Christians have no idea where the heritage of Christianity comes from. Christianity is about history. The history of the western European world is wrapped around Christianity and it\’s many sects.
    \”Huh?\” You say? If you had this thought, you are a typical North American Protestant Evangelist Christian. Like most of your type, you think all Christians are like you. You have no idea what the history of your Bible and your religion is.
    Your variety of Protestantism and your Bible are only one of many varieties and versions.
    I won\’t take it any further than that for now because I know this is being read by mostly numnut church people who think I\’m a devil for writing this.
    Guess what..all Christians think anyone who is not a member of thier particular variety is a devil.
    You despise Jehovah\’s Witnessess, Mormon\’s, Baptist\’s, Lutheran\’s and etc. and they hate you for your heresy.
    Very, very few of you know that the Catholic Church wrote the original Bible and devised all the Christian ritual\’s most of you are familiar with.
    According to the Catholic Church you are all heretics. History tells me that the Protestant\’s did indeed steal the basic Christian culture from the \”church\”.
    What a joke it all is to someone who has the ability to think for him-herself. I look at all of you from outside the forced mindset you all need to keep from being afraid of all the things you don\’t understand.
    Oh well. My beliefs are based on what I can verify and understand and share with other reasonable, rational thinkers.
    The universe is much more fantastic than any religious doctrine has ever dreamed up. Religious Dogma is for simpletons, thank you very much.

  • Larry

    I’d like to take that one step further.

    To me, being an atheist means that I have a

    “Lack of a belief in a god or gods”.

    Considering a theist is a person who has a belief in a god(monotheist) or gods(polytheist).

    The real issue is that it’s pointless to argue with a theist because you cannot prove that god does not exist, nor should you even try. I support my friends right to believe because that’s what America was founded on. Unfortunately, the first amendment states “freedom of religion” instead of also “freedom from religion”, so until there is a SC ruling along those lines, we basically are “forced” to believe by the wording of that. This also pertains to “freedom of the press”. You aren’t entitled to “freedom from the press”, which can be very unfortunate sometimes. Same with Speech. You have the freedom of it, but not freedom from it.

  • Paul

    Can’t I be an atheist who acknowledges the uncertainty of making such a judgment? I agree with many of the posters here; thinking in terms of absolutes is just ridiculous. I am human and I realize my limitations. So, what I am left with is a judgment based on limited information. If I had to make a decision as to whether a god exists, I would say that it does not. In my opinion, THIS is what makes me an atheist.

    The author is saying that there is no way to be certain of anything. So, he is denying the hard-lined definition that atheists, with 100% certainty, deny the existence of god. Doing so would be to step in the same pitfall as religion’s faith.

    Do people disagree with my calling myself an atheist even though I acknowledge uncertainty in such a decision?

  • Filksinger

    And this is a pet peeve of *mine*. Atheists who want to redefine atheism because it bothers them to admit they have an actual belief, as if “belief” were something dirty, and insist on having the definition changed to include others who it doesn’t apply to, and get offended when those others object.

    If the definition found in the dictionary doesn’t fit you, why call yourself an atheist? Is it somehow cool, and you’d rather change a 500-year-old definition than admit you aren’t an atheist, or that you have a belief? (Here’s a hint: You are human. You have unproven, and even unprovable, beliefs. All humans do. There are no exceptions.)

    Overall, the blog was a bit amusing, as all of these gyrations to avoid the word “belief” being applied to you, while admitting you were “certain there are no gods”, a *far* stronger statement, was entertaining. I really don’t get it: “belief” is a word so weak that it could legitimately apply to estimated 60/40 odds, yet you are desperate to avoid it, while “certain” is so close to dogmatic that probably half the Christians I know are leery of it.

    But, really, was the gratuitous accusation of moral cowardice aimed at agnostics actually necessary? Should I return the favor, and accuse you of avoiding admitting to belief by “making an epistemological argument to avoid confrontation and accusations of having faith or dogma.” Because, quite frankly, if that isn’t it, I’m completely confused as to why you would demand to be called an atheist while avoiding admitting to “belief”.

  • http://www.xanga.com/lsbva Llance

    An excellent distinction drawn between what a ‘believer’ thinks is an atheist, and how atheists should describe their lack of gullibility.

    The devil is in the details after all :)

    Llance (A type 2 atheist and damned happy to be so)

  • Kevin

    As far as I’m concerned, by definition, agnosticism is just a classification of atheism. Atheism, by definition, is not believing God exists. Agnostics just take it a step further by saying, “I also do not believe God DOESN’T exist” Like “atypical” and “asexual,” “atheist” means “not theist.” It means there is no active believe in God. So you can have an atheist, and an agnostic atheist. They’re not the same thing, but they’re of the same classification.

  • Uncle Neil

    I believe the definition is written that way because when that type of written definition was first developed or invented the only humans who could write were sitting in a religious type of building of some kind but I can’t proof it.

  • http://www.reasonablecomics.com Brad

    Erik, you are absolutely right far more than you even know.

    You know what? All of you claiming atheism means certainty, just go here:

    http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/smithdef.htm

    George H. Smith does it way better than I do so you are better off reading his work.

    I don’t care what you people call yourselves, but when you spread lies about what others believe that makes me sick.

  • http://www.thewaronbullshit.com Kavan Wolfe

    An excellent post. Here is the difference as I see it. Suppose someone believes in a god that interferes with our world based on prayers. With respect to this god, a am an atheist: I believe this God does not exist. My belief is based on evidence: lots of basically good people pray for things and don’t get them; lots of other people don’t pray for things and do get them instead. I am an atheist with respect to this God because we have evidence against this god.

    With respect to a supposed god that simply created our universe and that sat back to watch, I am agnostic. I have no evidence for or against this god, because this god is a purely metaphysical (not empirical) subject.

    As far as I can tell, everyone is both an atheist and an agnostic, depending on what god we’re referring to at the time. Since theists do not agree on the nature of the god they believe in, I can be atheist with respect to one god and agnostic with respect to another god.

    I am well aware that most people don’t see it this way, but it works for me.

  • Just a thought

    An atheist does not believe in any gods.
    An antitheist believes there are no gods.

    I am an antitheist.

  • Alonso Perez

    Erik, you don’t get agnosticism at all. I’m an agnostic. I am by no means a fence-sitter, and I’m not trying to avoid confrontations with anyone. I’m confronting you right now, for instance.

    Here is your mistake: You state that agnostics are hiding behind uncertainty at the nth decimal point. Well, perhaps some are, and those are functional atheists. But any real, USDA grade A agnostic isn’t 99.99999% sure of God not existing, or even 50% sure. The null hypothesis is totally irrelevant. Let’s look at it again:

    The null hypothesis states that any extraordinary claim must be assumed to be false and the burden of proof is on the claimant.

    The null hypothesis has no bearing, because:

    1. The universe is an extraordinary thing.
    2. There is no ordinary explanation for it to measure an “extraordinary” claim against.

    Hence, up to our current level of knowledge, any speculation about the origin and purpose of the universe is equally valid so long as it does not contradict established scientific knowledge. So we know the Bible creation story is bogus, and we know pretty much every creation myth out there is incorrect. But our ability to discard ancient tribal myths is less significant than one might imagine. Given our current knowledge, it would be rather surprising if 20th century civilization was unable to falsify ancient myths.

    So let’s look at the universe and what science tells us about it:

    One thing we notice is that while old, it has a moment of creation. Science says nothing about t < 0. In fact it doesn’t say much about t = 0. In terms of the standard model, t < 0 is simply undefined. There are some ideas out there, such as brane theory, but these don’t really explain anything (Where do the branes come from?).

    A second item worthy of note is the anthropic principle. It’s been noted that if any of the known physical constants would vary by a small amount, the universe would not be able to support anything close to our kind of life, if any life at all. So far as we know these constants are all independent. If this is random, either we are luckier than a family of lotto winners, or there are or have been billions of universes. I’d say that either idea is extraordinary.

    A third idea that has been noted is that we are, in scale, at the center of the known universe. If you zoom down to Plank’s constant or up to the observable universe, you are about the same number of orders of magnitude away from the size of humans or other large animals here on Earth. This could be an artifact of our situation. On the other hand, if you’ve ever built a 3D world for a game or an architectural walk-through, you might have noticed that you split your rendering power between size and detail roughly equally. So if all the world is a kind of stage for living creatures of our kind, this is what you would expect it to look like.

    So I suspect there is some purpose behind it all. I think it has little, probably nothing to do with our personal lives. I certainly don’t think there is anybody to pray to, except to pacify ourselves. I speculate that the Creator might be a kind of artist, since aesthetics seem to be a big deal in this universe. Perhaps more of a scientist, experimenting. Or maybe some entity playing a game. Probably none of these, maybe all of them together. Maybe the universe itself is a sort of being, or a machine, or something.

    Maybe the whole thing is just a random, meaningless event. But I can’t really wrap my head around that idea, which is why I’m not even close to being an atheist.

    Atheists, like the religious, are smug with their 99.9999% ideas. Agnostics wake up every day to a puzzle. I’d argue that takes real courage. It’s certainly harder than having already decided you know what the answer is.

    I used to be an atheist, when I was 10. Then I grew up.

  • romanisti

    Atheist = not believe in God (like Marx, Freud, Nieztche)

    Agnostic = believe that God can not be proven by science or phylosoph (like Kant)but may be they beleive in God.

    So comparison of Atheist vs Agnostic to 1 vs 0.99999…is failed

  • kevin

    0.999 != 0.999…

    the right side is equal to 1, on the left its 0.999

    there really is a difference between thinking something is impossible and thinking something is impossible to understand.

    i enjoyed your second part,
    but when you say “The null hypothesis states that any extraordinary claim must be assumed to be false and the burden of proof is on the claimant”

    the notion of “extraordinary claim[s]” is exactly what the scientific method tries to avoid. what determines a point of view is on the extra-ordinary side and which is ordinary??
    That’s NOT how you use the null hypothesis at all

    in conclusion i disagree with most of what you said but it was interesting :)

    you’ll probably never end up reading this tho. lol oh well.

  • Adamus

    What a load of bullocks here in the comments. “Atheists are really agnostics.” “Atheism is also faith.” “Atheists don’t know what they are.” “Atheism is as fundamentalist as religion.” “Atheists want to redefine atheism because they don’t like it.”

    Armchair philosophers abound here.

    The core of the matter is that we like to label things. We want people to fit into neat little boxes, and if they don’t then we get all silly-willy and invent new boxes just so we can put a label on it and make everything in the world right again.

    Call me whatever you want. I do not believe that God exists. Atheist, agnostic, fundamentalist, stick your labels on me and pretend you understand. You don’t.

    If you did, you’d be standing here right next to me.

  • http://costarossa.blogspot.com/ costarossa

    Having read all the comments, I’d never even dare to step out with a puny attempt at defending my positions which is agnosticism. :)

    However, I have a comment to Adamus’ post, totally in style with my blondness. I found labelling to be quite convenient and even necessary sometimes. For example, for registering on a matchmaking site. :) Knowing the person’s religion or lack of it helped my decisions. :) I might have not asked someone directly about their religion on a first date in real life but on those sites, there it is, plain and clear. Now, not that I am prejudiced or mind having friends of any confession, but I wouldn’t want family arguments about baptizing children in the future.

  • darin

    Erik:
    Please explain to me what, in light of your claim to be an atheist, does the phase “OH MY GOD!” (posted on this very page by you) mean to you?

  • darin

    Me and my short fingers — phrase ;)

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    Darin, is it so strange that an atheist might blaspheme? The concept of god is ingrained in our culture and language. Expressions from “goodbye” to “damn it!” to “oh my god!” (and it’s internet-oriented abbreviation, “OMG!”) are commonplace. I don’t think that using them weakens my position on the existence of a deity.

    MHNATY, Darin.

  • darin

    Oh no, of course it doesn’t weaken your position. That is not at all what I was trying to imply. I was just trying to point out the obvious irony of you making such a remark on the same page where you where denoucing God. I found it quite funny is all – thanks :)

  • darin

    Also, I forgot to say – Congratulations on your impending parenthood. It is definitely fun and never what you can imagine. Best wishes to you.

  • candy

    great posts and arguments. my Spanish husband is a 100% atheist. i’ve clung to the term agnostic, i think mainly because i was raised in a family that basically told me since i was a baby–believe in jesus or die in hell. (yikes, that sounds so harsh!) silly, i know, because i don’t believe in god or allah or buddha or isis or any diety.

    anyway, he (Spanish husband) introduced me to Richard Dawkins who has really enlightened me in so many ways. But I have to say, I like the interview he gave to Bill Maher when he said that he was not 100% atheist because, as a scientist, he could concede that anything could happen. (I saw this clip a while ago, so don’t pounce on me if I am quoting it slightly wrong, as i am pretty sure i got the gist of it).

    i really think you guys have some interesting arguments here and am glad to see them.

    by the way, my favorite phrase of my husband’s is “thank god i’m an atheist!” that just cracks me up!

  • Andy

    Strong atheist here. I personally have more respect for devout Christians than I do for those who claim to be agnostic. The agnostic (under the definition of one who believes there is no god, but can’t be certain), is a person who possesses and understands the argument but is too weak (or possibly frightened) to commit wholely, or as stated above, “on the fence.”

    How absurd. How can one not take this debate seriously enough to make up their minds? These are the type of folks that go into politics. Ewwwwwww.

  • atlantropa

    Sorry for my english.
    The representation of a number as a digits aligment depends on the basis you choose (commonly 10) and is not unique; two different sequences may represent the same number, so are simply two different “names” or “symbols” standing for the same object; in your example, 0.999… and 1=1.000… are two ways to represent the same exact number, the unity, which is that unique number (let’s call it e) that leaves unchanged any other number when multiplied to it: e*x=x*e=x.
    So there’s no difference between 0.999… and 1, and this is not to be surprising.

  • http://heidishideout.blogspot.com Heidi

    Yeah. Labels are restrictive and completely unnecessary IMO.

    I am doing a series called God Idols that takes a satirical look at religion. Won’t you have a looksie?

  • J

    My issue with this is that the terms are not mutually exclusive. Atheism refers to a lack of belief, agnosticism refers to a lack of knowledge. You can be an agnostic atheist (which i am)or an agnostic theist.

    Yes it is possible to believe something is true, and yet still admit that you don’t and can’t know for sure.

    The two terms are what separates two groups of people who should speak together as one.

    Peace

  • http://lehjani.blogspot.com Ken

    I’m an agnostic in that I don’t know if I believe God does or doesn’t exist.

    It’s a pet peeve of mine that people have to believe one or the other.

  • jack johnson

    I have read with interest some of above comments…. Very confusing. I was bought up a Catholic in the 50s and from the first day at school when the nuns tought me about Heaven and Hell I just accepted there was a God without really thinking otherwise. Now, I cannot really accept the notion of an almighty and merciful God who apparently every day condemns thousands of people to an eternity of never ending torture.However, I am terrified that this God does actually exist and some day eternal torture will be my destiny for NOT accepting the existance and therefore loving this God. Am I an agnostic or what? appreciate any comments.

  • http://www.mbay.net/~jmejia/index.htl Jairo Mejia

    Atheists and Gnostics are right in most of their thinking

    It has been common among religious believers to look with misgiving to atheists and Gnostics, and to think that they are mistaken; however, in many instances the opposite is the truth; some religious beliefs are not just irrelevant, but baseless. The “God” of main line traditions simply does not exist. I accepted the challenge of finding the One who may be recognized even by Gnostics and atheists: the Existence itself, “All-That-Is.” If something is there, that is God. Look at the book “Christianity Reformed From ist Roots – A life centered in God” (Amazon.com). I am confident that some of your friends will be relieved of the illusion, as I did myself.

    Jairo Mejia, M. Psych., Santa Clara University
    Retired Episcopal Priest
    Carmel Valley, California

  • Flourishing_bloom

    The fact is that all positive claims of knowing that something does not exist need arguments, they can not be assumed just because of the absence of evidences.

    This would hold true for all popular examples of the new atheists: there is almost certainly no teapot around Mars because teapots are the product of intelligent human beings and no man has been ever there, a Spaguetti monster could not exist because Spaguettis are a recent human (delecious) invention, they are an inert stuff which could not possibly have the properties we associate we life.
    If unicorns existed on the earth, after all the knowledge we have accumulated over the centuries, they should have let evidences like bone remains.

    Now, they are many things about which we have no evidence at all that could well exist: unicorns on an other planet somewhere in our vast universe, intelligent beings looking like lizards, a paralell universe with laws radically differing from our owns and I could imagine lots of further examples.

    Certainly, everyone claiming we can be pretty sure none of these things exists would look completely silly, at least to my mind.

    Defined as an intelligence at the origin of all things, God is not improbable as the three popular icons of atheism: his existence would be compatible with all our knowledge, and many very clever folks like Albert Einstein would be led to believe that there is an intelligence being the universe transcending our universe.

    In fact, the three most virulent horsemen of theism, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchen, each recognize that it is very likely there exists a whole reality beyond our understanding conditioned by a biological evolution only caring for useful beliefs.

    Nevertheless, they would go on to argue that the primitive, anthropomorphic God given by the Coran and Bible is entirely at odd with the wonderful things we may observe in the cosmos.

  • [email protected]

    Belief without evidence is stupid. If you believe there’s a chance for God, then you believe that God exists, plain and simple. I take the axiom that God does not exist (as well as the millions of other things that do not exist) and ask for proof for the claims of existence. Until they can be shown to exist, they do not exist. Agnostics do not understand this, which is why they fail at logic. Something either exists or it doesn’t. There is no gray area for existence.

    • http://letterstosg.com Lance

      So if a field of science predicts the existence of synchronistic infundibula in deep space, and then 20 years later experiments reveal the presence of a synchronistic infundibulum in deep space, you’re saying that the synchronistic infundibulum did not exist until it was observed? That for 20 years the scientists were walking around failing at logic? That’s silly.

      Also, there’s all kinds of gray area for existence. Altruism exists. Maybe. Free will exists. Maybe. As does the Higgs boson.

      Query why anyone would care whether anyone else calls themselves an atheist or an agnostic. Is there some kind of membership threshold above which atheists get a discount at national hotel chains? If 1-0.99999…= the difference between “atheist” and “agnostic”, can’t we just agree that they’re synonyms? Wouldn’t our time be better spent encouraging all those self-proclaimed petty criminals to admit that they are guilty of misdemeanors?

      • [email protected]

        For thousands of years, humans thought the earth was flat. This was “knowledge”. It was considered “obvious”. After it was shown that the earth was spherical, then the “common knowledge” altered to reflect that position. It cannot be “possibly” one or the other. The earth *is* either flat or spherical. If tomorrow there was substantive evidence for a claim that the earth was flat (again) or even pyramidal, then those we would have no choice but to examine that evidence and accept it as a replacement for knowledge. “Knowledge” changes in science all the time, this is what science does. It changes in science far faster than religion. Religion changes at a dreadfully slow rate, but it does change. Science has empiricism on its side.

        If you’re agnostic, you’re either an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. Agnosticism in its purest form is ultra-rare in society.

        Your comment about self-proclaimed petty criminals, as you so elegantly put it, shows ignorance in how the criminal justice system works. We have a 5th Amendment protecting self-incrimination.

        • http://letterstosg.com Lance

          See, now I can’t tell if your comments are sincere or parodic. If the latter, my hat is off to you, as this is some pretty good stuff.

          • [email protected]

            Why would think it’s parodic? All that I said was factual. Once we believed in spontaneous regeneration, but now we know better. And so on and so forth.

            Do not bother with philosophy or pseudoscience. Deal with facts only.

            Fact: God does not exist. Zeus does not exist. Fairies do not exist.

            No philosophy behind it, just yes they do exist, or no they don’t exist. No grey area.

    • GF

      By your own logic, a version of Popper’s theory of falsificatability, you could simply take the axiom that God does exist and then ask for proofs for the claims of non-existence. Agnostic skepticism resolves this otherwise insoluble dichotomy through an axiom of metaphysical neutrality. Stop trying to assign probablities to a matter which, while not meaningless, is impossible to resolve through the prism of human experience.

  • Piff

    I’m not trying to be hostile, but you are so sensitive any comment I make honestly is going to upset you. You’re complaint about the two definitions is petty and you’re idea that those who won’t cop to atheism when they don’t believe in god is weak. Why should something like agnosticism that is essentially the same as what you believe bother you so much? Why the atheist pride? You’re superiority of thought is diminished by your inferiority of character. Grow up.