Thursday, February 01, 2007

Atheist or Agnostic?

Personally, I don't care all that much if nonbelievers prefer to call themselves agnostics rather than atheists. I think by now most everyone knows these are the same thing (after all, either way, you don't believe in God). And eventually the social stigma attached to the latter will float over and latch onto the former anyway, leaving no place left to hide. Well, okay, maybe the squeamish atheists will once again invent some new word to call themselves, so they can confuse a prejudiced society into not realizing they are (gasp!) really atheists. But that will just go the same way. In the end, the advantage will be lost, yet another word will have to be invented to hide behind, and 'round and 'round it goes. Good luck with that.

For me, this is all just a social game, semantic trickery, that is hard to have sympathy for, but I can't honestly criticize nonbelievers who want to avoid the social stigma falsely attached to a maligned word. Prejudice in this country, in some places and situations, is certainly real and harmful enough to justify a desire to dodge it. If black people could pretend to be white, I'm sure some of them would. This is frequently enough true for gays that they have a whole terminology of social disguise (like "in the closet" and "beard"). You can't condemn this until you've walked a mile in their shoes.

There is also a silly and heated debate (even so far as to cultivate outright rage) between atheists and agnostics as to who is really what. Of course, these terms don't even have a single meaning. Just as "atheist" can mean "denier" or "unbeliever" (generating the rather lame, confusing, and misleading terminological distinctions of "hard" and "soft" atheist or "positive" and "negative" atheist), so can agnostic mean "undecided" or "dunno!" The latter is more etymologically and historically correct, since agnosticism is supposed to be the formal position that one cannot know whether God exists or not (whether by definition or as a contingent fact of a particular agnostic's limited access to relevant evidence), but the former meaning is still very common in actual use, and both have crept into other contexts (so, for example, you can be an "agnostic" now,
in either sense of the term, as to whether Robin Hood actually existed).

I say more about all this in Sense and Goodness without God (see pp. 253-56). Beyond what I say there, technically I would prefer "undecideds" to call themselves anapophasists (the actual Greek for "without a decision"), so agnostics can be identified as those who formally claim not to know (since a-gnostikos means "without knowledge"), but you can probably see how these overlap a great deal. The line between them is certainly blurry. And at any rate, I have no illusions about my prospects for changing linguistic convention. My prospects are better in the other direction, since I prefer "atheism" to be used in its equally literal sense: a-theismos, without theism, i.e. without a belief in god. For in actual practice, this is how it is almost always used. And, as far as I see it, any other usage rhetorically violates the Law of the Excluded Middle.

Some theists, however, who are often fond of playing word games, have tried to act the linguistic imperialist and insist (contrary to any etymological or historical or philosophical precedent) that "atheism" means only the positive denial of every god's existence. In my opinion that's just verbal thuggery, since it does not agree with English usage or actual fact and is basically a "special" definition invented solely for polemical purposes, not for any authentic aim, like knowledge or practical application.

But even some atheists (or, I should say, "nonbelievers") jump into this fray, usually with "agnostics" accusing "atheists" of playing verbal games when they deny this religiously contrived definition of "atheism," or with atheists accusing agnostics of accepting it. It gets even crazier when either side starts rambling on about babies being either "atheists" or "agnostics" because they've never even heard of God and certainly have no "belief" in one, and eventually fictional cultures get invented where no one has ever heard of or thought up any notion of any god. No one seems to notice (or care) that examples like these constitute a kind of category fallacy, since there is a mountain of difference between someone who has a belief-state (of either belief or disbelief in some proposition) and someone who has no corresponding belief-state at all. You might as well argue that stones and trees are atheists. Sure, in a sense that's true, but why should anyone care?

This merry-go-round isn't very common. The whole tussle is limited to a rather small segment of nut-headed youths and grumpy old men within the atheist community. But it's all so silly that I find the whole "who really is an atheist?" debate rather pointless. In actual fact, every unbeliever is both an atheist who denies God and an atheist who merely doesn't believe in God. So there is no sense in which anyone can just pick one and deny they are the other. Shocking thing to claim, you say? Well, it can be demonstrated quite

Let's invent two gods, extreme cases each, but you should be able to see how all other gods fall on a continuum between them:

Bumpypoo is a supremely powerful God, creator of the universe, who uses his powers to make sure you never have any reason to believe he exists.
Can you deny the existence of Bumpypoo? Or do you merely lack belief in him? Assuming there is a difference, you can only assert the latter. Because you can never, even in principle, have any evidence against Bumpypoo's existence. By definition he will ensure that the evidence always misleads you, therefore evidence of his absence is not at all predictive of his non-existence. This is true even for a devout Christian: it is logically impossible for you to deny the existence of Bumpypoo. You can only disbelieve in his existence. This constitutes what I call a "Cartesian Demon" in Sense and Goodness without God, so to learn more about that you can check the index there. But my point here is, everyone is an agnostic with regard to Bumpypoo. They haven't any choice.

Okay. Now consider this:
Monkeybutt is a supremely powerful God, creator of the universe, who uses his powers to make sure you have tons of clear and undeniable evidence that he exists.
Can anyone say they don't outright deny the existence of Monkeybutt? It would be patently irrational to say you "merely" don't believe in Monkeybutt, because you would have the vast evidence of your own direct experience against the existence of Monkeybutt. The absence of evidence in this case is not only highly predictive of his non-existence, it virtually entails his non-existence. Hence you can be as certain of his non-existence as of anything you claim to know about anything.

Therefore, everyone is a soft/negative atheist vis-a-vis Bumpypoo and at the same time a hard/positive atheist vis-a-vis Monkeybutt. Therefore, there is never any real separation between an atheist and a formal agnostic. Any atheist who denies one god's existence will also be an atheist who merely doesn't believe in some other god's existence, and vice versa, since everyone, always, does both. Ergo, no agnostic can ever claim they are not an atheist and no atheist can ever claim they are not an agnostic. Bumpypoo and Monkeybutt dash any hopes atheists or agnostics might have had of avoiding each other's label.

Of course, even Christians are, in a limited sense, atheists of both types, with regard to Bumpypoo and Monkeybutt (and thus agnostics with regard to Bumpypoo). So the only thing that separates believers in God from the rest of us is a belief in at least one god. Ergo, the only thing that can ever logically matter in distinguishing theists from "atheists" is whether we believe any god exists. Hence all that matters in defining an atheist is that an atheist does not believe in any god. Whether there are some gods atheists also deny is wholly irrelevant--because there are some gods everyone denies, even believers! And as long as we don't believe in any God, we are not theists, and are therefore atheists. Unless you want to invent some new stupid word. But until you invent a mind-altering machine that can insert this new word into the brains of billions of people, your new word won't be of any popular use. Indeed, even if you could accomplish such a thing, I doubt your stupid new word would even be useful.

At most you can bicker about "which" gods certain atheists deny and which ones they merely disbelieve (again, assuming you can actually identify a difference). But how can that ever matter for whether you are an atheist or a theist? Even if Atheist A disagrees with Atheist B as to which gods can be denied and which merely disbelieved, it remains the case that the only thing distinguishing both Atheist A and Atheist B from all theists is that neither A nor B believes in any gods. Otherwise, both A and B deny some gods and both A and B merely disbelieve in some gods, and since we have no terminology in the English language to distinguish Atheist A from Atheist B (or from atheists C, D, E, etc., ad infinitum), there is no sense in trying to deny that A or B is "really" an atheist, or trying to claim A or B is "really" an agnostic, or really "not" an agnostic, or debating whether it's Atheist A or Atheist B who's the hard or soft atheist. T
hey are always both. Because of Monkeybutt and Bumpypoo, they're all of the above.

Therefore, there is simply no such thing as a "soft atheist" who is not also a "hard atheist," or a "hard atheist" who is not also a "soft atheist." If you don't believe in any god, then you will always be both.
The only difference will be which gods you put where. Hence all unbelievers are both atheists and agnostics, and neither can deny either name. They can never be separated. Though these categories aren't synonymous, you still can't sort unbelievers into "atheists" and "agnostics" any more than you can sort them into "persons" and "people." Thus it is simply stupid to debate which you are.
Sorry, but I have to call it like I see it.


The Science Pundit said...

I agree. I find that most self-identified agnostics are really only talking about a deity or deities that are derivations of western monotheistic tradition. I'm not really fond of the word--whenever I get shy (for whatever reason) about the term atheist, I usually say something like "I'm not religious." My 2¢

Laurence Boyce said...

The question I prefer to pose is:

Is there a God who makes the slightest difference to the way we should order our lives?

The answer to this question is a resounding “no.” The concepts of good and evil exist independently of God (as Plato showed) so we should seek to act in a moral way in spite of God, who in any case tends to set the worst possible example.

elwedriddsche said...

I prefer to call myself an apatheist or an apathetic agnostic atheist. I don't believe, I don't know, I don't care.

Given that I've never heard of a coherent definition of god, it's a pointless definitional tug of war anyway.

Explicit Atheist said...

I have witnessed, and participated in, some of this silly strong versus weak (I prefer explicit versus implicit), atheist versus agnostic versus this or that alternative. This commentary is the best clarification of this issue I have so far encountered. I can see no flaw in Carrier's argument here that all unbelievers are, on purely logical grounds, both a strong and weak atheist and formal agnostic because they are context sensitive terms. I have always argued that atheists are implicitly agnostic since atheism is a belief, as opposed to a proven fact, so the expression agnostic atheist is redundent. Lots of atheists object to that initial assertion, claiming that atheism is not a belief, that it is a lack of belief. I have always thought this to be a mistake because lack of belief in X is itself a belief about that X, the belief that the X lacks sufficient merit to take seriously and an implicit rejection of arguments made otherwise (which in the case of X=God everyone in a predominantly theistic society encounters sometime during their life, usually early on).

That said, clearly there are different variations of atheism. I identify as an explicit atheist because I find the argument that belief in god is unjustified to be very compelling, much more compelling than the arguments otherwise. As a philisophical\metaphysical naturalist, on this question I am neither undecided nor apathetic.

Doctor Logic said...

Such clarity. Brilliant!

FreeThinker said...

Congressman Pete Stark plays this game too: He calls himself a nontheist and does not use the term atheist. What's the difference? Why not settle and use the clearest term available: atheist?

I've met many people who will tell me something like this: "Oh, I don't believe in God, but I'm not an atheist." Huh?

Then again, in my own "enlightenment," I did not embrace the term "atheist" for several years. I had to warm up to the word, using "Secular Humanist" or "nonreligious" or "thoroughly secular" and such. Looking back, I'm not sure why this was the case, but I observe it in many others who are in that post-believer, pre-atheism embracing phase.

Richard Carrier said...


Pete Stark is in a different situation than most people. Every word he uses has measurable consequences upon his re-election prospects, and therefore upon his ability to influence policy. A difference of vocabulary, even though having no semantic difference, can have large causal effects upon his ability to do his job. This is the point made by George Lakoff in his recent books: politicians need to choose words according to those words' statistical effects on the voting public.

That is a testimony to the bigotry and stupidity of the American people more than anything else. Hence like I said: I can't honestly blame Stark or anyone else who dodges words this way. I'm not in their shoes.

David said...

First, terrific article. I'm thankful for the brain food.

I wonder what Mr. Carrier would say about ignosticism ( Would he think it at all unique, or just another word game? I've read that some philosophers consider ignosticism to be distinct from atheism/agnosticism. If ignosticism is accepted, the question about god can't even be asked because you can't get to that step before the process breaks down.

Anyhow, I have no problem being called an atheist and readily acknowledge the silliness of caring much which near-synonym each of us prefers to be called by. But i think it can be fun to chat about the subtle differences in why or how we are nontheists as long as no one takes it too seriously.

But the idea of agnosticism tickles me and I don't think it came up in the article. To my puny reckoning, there has never been a definition for god that seemed satisfactory to me. Rather, all those I've encountered seem to rely on faith at some point where their definition breaks down.

Or am I making no sense at all?

I certainly do avoid the term "atheist" sometimes and sympathize with someone like Pete Stark. But I really only avoid it insomuch as I usually don't give myself a title like atheist/agnostic/secular humanist, but instead i simply make it clear that i don't take any god-belief seriously, usually with a coy or sarcastic few words and a suggestive facial expression.

In large part, I think a lot of agnostics just aren't ready to "go all the way" to explicit atheism. Its a psychological barrier. Of course agnostic and atheist are nearly synonymous, but to people who have recently left religion behind its a good mid-way station. They're ready to leave their god behind but not quite ready to take the next step.

Richard Carrier said...

David: Ignosticism is an artificial word (though all words are at first), and it is not synonymous with either agnosticism or atheism, but if someone is an ignostic, they will still be an atheist (in each sense) with respect to some gods, an agnostic (in each sense) with respect to other gods, and a theist with respect to none.

This is because there are coherent, falsifiable definitions of God, even if no one believes in such a God (and one might question if anyone does, but just because everyone worships the wrong god wouldn't mean some other god doesn't exist). For example, Aristotle defined God coherently and argued from evidence and reason to every element of it, not relying on faith at all. He was wrong, but he at least understood how do to it properly, and there are many similar definitions one could construct today that would be even more defensible (although still false or incredible, at least on present evidence).

ffuege said...

Yes, agnostics and atheists are both atheist about all human defined gods. However, I do not see that thought to be the end of the subject.

The problem I have with the argument is that it is typically framed from the viewpoint of the human defined god itself instead of pulling back to the whole reason why people invented those gods, which is the question of the creation of the universe. The atheist either doesn't really say anything about creation or continues to the logical conclusion that denying the supernatural gods implies that a natural creation could be the only answer. I think the true atheist denies the god concept completely and must come to the conclusion of a natural creation.

The agnostic does not deny the concept of a supernatural creation and instead acknowledges that humanity has no clue on the subject. This profession of not knowing ends up being an active claim that a supernatural creation that we do not understand is still a possible source for our creation. I think this remains in contrast to the atheist belief.

I see it like this:
Theist - universe created by a supernatural creator of my definition
Atheist - supernatural creators are false; this may extend to a denial of anything existing outside of the natural universe
Agnostic - human defined supernatural creators are false because we don't know such things - we also don't know where the universe came from or why it came to be, so a supernatural cause remains a possibility even if we may never understand it.

Huxley created the word agnostic. I turn to this explanation from him for the final word:
The theological "gnosis" would have us believe that the world is a conjuror's house; the anti-theological "gnosis" talks as if it were a "dirt-pie" made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.

Richard Carrier said...

Note: I deleted Kold_Kadavr_flatliner's post for violating my relevance policy.

Ffuege said... I think the true atheist denies the god concept completely and must come to the conclusion of a natural creation.

In practice that is commonly the case, i.e. most Western atheists are naturalists (whether they are aware of the term or not). But this is not logically necessary. There are even atheistic supernaturalists (especially in the East), who hold that the universe was brought about and/or is sustained by no God (and that in fact gods don't exist) but nevertheless the world is in origin or at root supernatural or has a supernatural cause (e.g. most forms of Taoism, some forms of Buddhism, etc.). In fact, one can even be a theist and also believe in natural creation, since there can logically be gods that did not create the universe.

Therefore, if you are now defining people in terms of what they believe about the origin of all being, you are no longer talking about theism and atheism per se, since these are not synonymous with divine creationists and natural creationists, respectively (to coin crude terms for the present purpose), since it is possible to be a natural creationist and still believe in some god or other, and it is possible to have no beliefs about the origin of being and still also have no belief in any god--and these people will always be an atheist toward some gods and an agnostic toward others, leaving no practical distinction.

In other words, since we are all agnostics, your dichotomy doesn't work in any useful way. For example, I am an agnostic with regard to the god I describe on pages 253-54 of my book Sense and Goodness without God. And yet I believe in natural creation. I am still an agnostic because I cannot prove the god defined there doesn't exist. For it is impossible to have evidence against it, just as it is impossible to have evidence against the God Bumpypoo. I just have no reason to believe these gods exist. But I do have reason to believe the observable universe ultimately has a natural cause, or no cause at all.

That same evidence is entirely compatible with Bumpypoo, and with the God of Page 153, and therefore does not rule either of them simply doesn't give any reason to rule them in, leaving the simplest explanation that fits all the facts, which is naturalism, since it requires fewer unsupported assumptions. We are thus more warranted in believing naturalism than Bumpypooism, even though we can't ever know with any certainty that Bumpypooism is false.

Ffuege said... The agnostic does not deny the concept of a supernatural creation and instead acknowledges that humanity has no clue on the subject.

There is no such person. "Monkeybutt Created the Universe" is clearly not true. Therefore it cannot rationally be said that we have no clue on the subject. For we all know for a fact that Monkeybutt did not create the universe. Even the staunchest agnostic knows this. Conversely, even if we conclude the origin of all being is probably natural, we must still be agnostics (e.g. with regard to Bumpypoo and hence with regard to "Bumpypoo Created the Universe"), and yet could even be theists, too (if we believe in gods that didn't create the universe), and will in any case always be atheists (with regard to some gods, like Monkeybutt).

Hence even if we conclude that we don't know whether the origin of all being is divine or nondivine, we are still atheists with regard to some gods and agnostics with regard to other gods, and might even be theists with regard to yet other gods (i.e. noncreating gods). So how do you plan to tell the "agnostics" here apart from the "atheists"? The most you can do is separate naturalists from both supernaturalists and worldview agnostics, but each one will still be an atheist with regard to some gods and an agnostic with regard to others, so you don't end up with any distinct group who can uniquely call themselves "agnostics."

In actual fact you are not describing agnosticism regarding god, you are describing agnosticism regarding cosmogony, which is a different thing. Indeed, when you quote Huxley, you have him talking about worldview agnosticism, which is an entirely different matter altogether and is rather a philosophical forerunner of logical positivism. But limiting the question to cosmogony as you do, your special-case agnostic is still also an atheist (with regard to Monkeybutt at the very least), so why are we to prefer the term agnostic for him? We could just as well call him an atheist. In other words...Why focus only on his cosmogony? Why not his soteriology? Or his position on miracles? Or on divine inspiration or communication?

In effect, you are trying to create multiple categories of agnostic, ignoring all categories but one, and then claiming that one is the only "true" agnostic, which is just a word game that gets us nowhere. It's still nothing but a "bicker about 'which' gods certain atheists deny and which ones they merely disbelieve," which I already demonstrated was pointless if your aim is to distinguish "agnostics" from "atheists." Because it remains logically impossible for any agnostic to not also be an atheist, or for any atheist to not also be an agnostic. Focusing on someone's cosmogony will never change that fact. And for that reason your cosmogonic agnostic is no more an agnostic than I am. He's just agnostic about different things.

ffuege said...

I consider myself a "devout" agnostic and like the meaning of the word even if there isn't a neat and tidy classification system that puts me there. I actually went from thinking I'm an atheist to a realization that I firmly believe I am an agnostic. It's not a matter of an unwillingness to commit to atheism, but just my belief for what I think is true. I'm not trying to truly change your mind on this, but just want to share what I believe on this subject.

Your focus on specific definitions of a god/creator and how we can have different levels and labels of conviction for our belief/disbelief about them can be a bit confusing, not to mention your funny god names. :-) Most people are atheistic towards Zeus, so a Christian is an atheist when we're talking just about Zeus. That shouldn't give them an overall atheist tag though and just confuses the subject just like when you talk about agnostic and atheist views towards a list of god definitions. Our views toward a specific god you've picked doesn't define our overall view.

If an atheist is atheistic about the whole god concept then that's what makes them an atheist, otherwise they would be a theist for whichever god they aren't atheistic about. I agree that soft and hard atheism is meaningless. You said that all that matters in defining an atheist is that an atheist does not believe in any god. When you say "any god", I take that to mean any concept of a "god", supernatural creator, or even the noncreating "superbeing" you mentioned. Any god includes all definitions as well as the overall concept, which would include the undefined or not yet defined like when you created a name and definition for Bumpypoo.

I see the atheist as the purist that simply does not believe in any god (no matter the degrees of disbelief) including any vague concepts of gods all the way to an undefined creator (or even noncreating god). As an agnostic, I see the distinction as having an active belief that we do not know. I believe the concept of a god, deity, or any kind of supernatural phenomenon in that realm is beyond us and our understanding. I believe any such thing exceeds our intellect and our place in the physical universe. I don't lack a belief in the overall god concept and weigh in with an emphatic "it is not known." In contrast, a theist believes in such things and I think the atheist rejects them all or at least passively lacks a belief in them all as a weak form of rejection.

How about this lame attempt at a breakout? ;-)
Defined god (Christian, pantheist, etc.) - theists obviously believe, agnostics and atheists do not believe
Undefined god (god concept) - theists believe, agnostics believe it as a possibility that we know nothing about, atheists do not believe

Richard Carrier said...

ffuege: You're missing my point.


Let's call your definition of Agnostic "Agnostic A." Then comes along someone who makes exactly the same argument, only instead of splitting the distinction between "defined" and "undefined" gods, he bases his distinction on "active" and "inactive" gods and says anyone who "just doesn't know" whether an inactive god exists is really an agnostic. Now we have "Agnostic B." Then someone comes along and says, no, the distinction should be between "caring" and "uncaring" gods, and we get "Agnostic C." Then another comes and says the distinction should be between "defined" and "undefined" gods after all, but that the agnostic is really the one who "just doesn't know" about the defined gods but more emphatically doesn't believe in undefined gods (the exact opposite of you), and they say they are the real agnostics, producing "Agnostic D."

And so on. Ad infinitum. For there are as many kinds of agnostics as there are ways to demarcate possible gods. So why are you "the agnostic" and not any of these other people? The difference is purely arbitrary. Even the word itself fails to contain any such distinctions--you are just making them up (just as B, C, and D would be). Everyone can split the gods up any way they want and call themselves the real agnostics by simply claiming the gods they are agnostic toward are the only ones that count (when it comes to calling someone an agnostic). Hence the distinction you draw is so arbitrary that any other distinction (in fact, every other logically possible demarcation) is equally valid.

So what's the point?


I would say there is less than a 1% chance Bumpypoo exists, but not because I have any evidence against his existence, but only because I don't need to posit his existence to explain any of the evidence I do have. That's very different from, again, Monkeybutt, against whom I have a vast amount of evidence.

Hence I think agnosticism is more about why you don't believe than how much or which gods. And that is exactly how Huxley coined the word, to demarcate reasons. In his case, lack of knowledge was grounds for unbelief, rather than knowledge of the proposition being false (which he implied would be atheism). And that's in fact my position regarding Bumpypoo: I have no knowledge that warrants believing he exists, therefore the probability that a belief in his existence is true is, to me, vanishingly small.

Thus I hold we are agnostics toward Bumpypoo not because a belief in Bumpypoo is more or less probably true than Monkeybutt, but because we lack any reason to believe in Bumpypoo, whereas for Monkeybutt we actually have evidence directly supporting unbelief.

Perhaps even this distinction becomes meaningless on further analysis, but if so, then I would say there is no meaningful difference between the words agnostic and atheist. But insofar as there is any meaningful difference, it is far more likely to be a difference demarcated by why we disbelieve, than a difference demarcated by which gods we're unsure about.

The downside is that there is no longer any basis for preferring one word to the other to identify yourself, as my original blog shows, since again any such demarcation would become arbitrary, groundless, and effectively useless in common discourse. For when demarcated by reasons (disbelief due to ignorance vs. disbelief due to knowledge), everyone is an atheist and an agnostic, except (broadly speaking) theists, who differ in one categorical respect: they believe in at least one god.

In contrast, the downside of your alternative is that although you can invent ways to split people into agnostic and atheist camps, your criteria of demarcation become arbitrary, groundless, and effectively useless in common discourse. So there isn't really any reason to prefer it. Indeed, there is reason to reject it, since it isn't what the word was coined to mean, and isn't what most educated people understand it to mean, but is just what you (one lone guy) want it to mean, while everyone else will draw the line differently than you, and there will be no reason to prefer one demarcation from another, getting us nowhere. I see no utility in that. And if words aren't useful, we're better off without them.

ffuege said...

You bring out the root difference that I agree with since it is the meaning of the word (which I didn't think needed to be argued) even though you appear not to believe it accurate:

Hence I think agnosticism is more about why you don't believe than how much or which gods. And that is exactly how Huxley coined the word, to demarcate reasons. In his case, lack of knowledge was grounds for unbelief, rather than knowledge of the proposition being false (which he implied would be atheism).

I don't think there is a perfect line in the sand for demarcation that gives us an exact athiest versus agnostic. However, I think the demarcations that have been discussed are good enough to be useful. I know you see no utility in it since it isn't exact and perfect but I don't think belief and disbelief are exact sciences.

The "why" of what I believe is important to me and I use the agnostic label to communicate that. With an atheist that doesn't agree that agnosticism is legitimate I would use the agnostic atheist label since agnostic as adjective isn't usually rejected and we do agree on atheism about defined gods. However, I see no need to use the atheist label at all in normal circumstances because the agnostic's lack of knowledge is the reason for my atheistic view towards any gods defined by my fellow humans.

I am not completely without theism nor am I a theist. In binary math, my belief is not a one or a zero, but is an unknown variable.

I may be one lone guy but I'm not creating something new by claiming the agnostic label. I've seen all of these variations of definitions argued in this same fashion so I'm not some lone kook as you appear to paint me to be by using those words.

You can claim agnosticism itself as not being valid and distinct in definition but I don't believe it's valid to dismiss the word as useless and without utility just because you disagree with it and what Huxley was trying to define. It appears to be the best word to me to describe what I believe. Most people understand the essence of what it means when I say it so I still see it as valid and useful. What do most educated people understand agnostic to mean since I appear to have it all wrong?

Richard Carrier said...

Ffuege said... I don't think there is a perfect line in the sand for demarcation that gives us an exact athiest versus agnostic.

I agree.

Ffuege said... What do most educated people understand agnostic to mean since I appear to have it all wrong?

I don't argue that you have it all wrong, rather you are wrong to limit and privilege the term "agnostic" to one specific category of gods (obscure cosmological creators, per your own description). It is both misleading and lexically inaccurate to do that.

Ffuege said... I see no need to use the atheist label at all in normal circumstances because the agnostic's lack of knowledge is the reason for my atheistic view towards any gods defined by my fellow humans.

First, since "the agnostic's lack of knowledge is the reason for everyone's atheistic view" regarding Bumpypoo (et al.), why aren't we then all agnostics?

That question lies at the heart of what's wrong here. For if atheism means lack of belief (and it does), and agnosticism means lack of belief due to lack of knowledge (as you concede), then everyone is both an agnostic and an atheist. Hence my point. There is no sense in preferring either term. The only way to avoid this outcome is for you to arbitrarily (and contrary to etymological history, linguistic convention, and common understanding) limit the term "agnosticism" to certain specific kinds of gods of your own choosing. That is perverse, for the reasons I have already stated.

Second, even attempting this arbitrary and idiosyncratic redefinition of the word, when you say "the agnostic's lack of knowledge is the reason for my atheistic view towards any gods defined by my fellow humans," you are changing tunes, and thus demonstrating the folly of your attempt. For the "gods defined by your fellow humans" are the actual gods they believe in: Yahweh, Christ, Allah. Yet that is the exact opposite of what you were saying originally, that you were an agnostic with regard to nontraditional cosmological gods (of a more deistic variety).

I do not know of any rationally defensible reason to be an agnostic about Christ, for example, the most commonly believed-in God in the U.S. (by a margin of 80%), since the evidence against the Christian God is, IMO, overwhelmingly strong (see Why I Am Not a Christian). Are you now claiming to be an agnostic with regard to Christ? You actually don't know if the Lord Christ exists?

That your use of the word has now resulted in my being unable to answer even so basic a question about you is a clear demonstration of the failure of your attempt to redefine it. Your effort has left only confusion, and any word that only increases confusion is useless.

Ffuege said... I am not completely without theism nor am I a theist. In binary math, my belief is not a one or a zero, but is an unknown variable.

Belief is measured in epistemic probability, which like all probability has a definable value between zero and 100%, which is in effect what you believe to be the probability that you are right. Since all empirical beliefs are potentially erroneous to some degree, no one has a binary belief of one or zero. Everyone has some probability of belief in everything (even the logically impossible, since there is always a nonzero probability that we are wrong in our assessment of any particular claim as logically impossible).

Thus, no one can be defined as "completely without theism" in your sense, not even the staunchest atheist. For you either believe or you don't, but your degree of belief or unbelief can be variable. In mathematical terms this means an epistemic probability of 50% or less entails you don't believe, and any epistemic probability above 50% entails you do believe. You can hover near the border, e.g. with a 50% epistemic probability, where you believe there is literally a 50/50 chance that at least one god exists, but you cannot then say you believe that some god exists, because belief means confidence, to some degree, that a proposition is true, and you can have no rational confidence in a claim that has an equal chance of being true or false (and I doubt this describes you in any case, since I suspect you wouldn't say the probability of any god's existing is quite that high).

Now, what you could do is to get rid of this untenable attempt to demarcate agnosticism according to a specific, arbitrarily chosen category of gods, and instead demarcate it by degree of belief regardless of what kind of god is meant. For example, on this reckoning, an agnostic is anyone who believes there is at least one God-claim that is (let's say) as much as but no more than 40-50% likely to be true, whereas if you believe the epistemic probability of every god-claim is less than 40% then you are more appropriately called an atheist.

On this reckoning, however, everyone is an atheist even with regard to Bumpypoo (since we have no knowledge of the probability of his existence being anywhere near as high as 40%), and it would require actual knowledge to get any probability up that high (Paul Draper style, seeing arguments and evidence on both sides that are nearly equally balanced for and against some god), which renders the word agnosticism not only a mere synonym of "weak atheism" (and thus getting us back to the problem above), but actually redefines it into the exact opposite of Huxley's intention (since now it is an uncertainty based on knowledge, not ignorance).

I don't see any practical way out for you. If you define agnosticism in this way, then...

(1) The word is problematically arbitrary, i.e. why draw the line at 40%? Why not 25%? or 10%? Etc. The word will thus fail to communicate much, since people won't know how you are using it, i.e. where you are drawing the line (at 40%? 25%? 10%? Or what?), even if they know this is how you are demarcating the word to begin with (which is not even certain).

(2) This approach breaks with the actual convention of the word's invention and use (this was never, for example, what Huxley meant by coining it). However, this at least corresponds (as I noted in my original blog) with what the word is now commonly taken to mean (which I term anapophasy). That may be where the word's meaning is going in English usage.

(3) Per above, this approach eliminates any contrast with "atheism" in more common use, since atheism means merely lack of belief, not exclusively a strong lack of belief (hence the feeble attempts to demarcate weak from strong atheists, etc.). In other words, all agnostics are (weak) atheists, leaving little reason to distinguish the terms.

Except possibly...

I can see the utility in trying to reconstruct "agnosticism" as an economical replacement for "weak atheism," provided this is communicated successfully and thus becomes conventionally understood. In that case, it would be like demarcating mountains and hills--arbitrary, yes, but it is still possible to come to an agreement on where it would be most useful to draw the line. And then an "agnostic" would be anyone who believes the epistemic probability of at least one god is at least (say) 25% but no higher than 50%, whereas if you believe there is no god-claim that is any more likely to be true than 24.999...%, then you are more effectively described as an atheist.

The only problem with this (besides not yet being a widely understood convention) is that it butts against the linguistic trend in the word "atheist," which is soundly being used of all unbelief (a-theism, no-theism, as I described in my original blog, given that theism as a belief means some degree of confidence that at least one god exists). Hence, again, even if we accept this new proposed redefinition of agnosticism, we are still all agnostics (by one definition) and all atheists (by another definition). I see no escape.

Somebody said...

I would normally agree with you. But this article is terrible. Sorry to say, perhaps you ought to read more threads on where these definitions are often explained.

Cheers, Deleet.

David said...


I don't understand why you posted your comment. Why bother if you give no details and no explanation?

Just seems a big waste. I suppose that goes for this post as well.

Richard Carrier said...

Oh no, David, your post was spot-on, and communicated useful information about Somebody's useless communique (which was useless in just the way you pointed out). So, thanks.:-)

odrareg said...

There is really no need to invent hypothetical names of God and then talk about whether people can believe in them or not.

If you are brought up in the West, then you know that the God being talked about is the Christian God.

So, from already the very first century there was already a very short description of this Christian God, in this short line from the Apostles' Creed:

"I believe in God the Father almighty creator of heaven and earth."

You can remove the Father which of course Freud talked about even though he might not have thought about the Father stated in the Apostles' Creed.

Now you are left with almighty creator of heaven and earth.

That is the God which atheists born and brought up in the West don't believe in the existence of.

Now, suppose Richard Carrier just tell us in five hundred words or less why he does not or cannot believe in the existence of an almighty creator of heaven and earth?

Just in five hundred words, no need to use so many more words; if you really know what God you don't believe in -- being a human of the West you know which one, then you can limit yourself to not more than five hundred words in English to tell people why.

Otherwise I am inclined to suspect you are muddling up the issue with so many words and more words and more words and more words...

Or you can just say I don't believe, period; because I am exercising my free will to not believe.

Is that possible? Physically possible insofar as speech is concerned, like you can say that you don't believe in being born from a man and a woman, and when you are challenged you can insist that who can deny that you could have been cloned from a human cell.

So, Richard Carrier, please, in just not more than five hundred words, tell us why you don't or can't believe in God.

Or just state it in just four words: I just don't, period.


Richard Carrier said...

Odareg: I'm not sure I follow your point.

(1) "I believe in God the Father almighty creator of heaven and earth" is not the Christian God, but a generic God. Try a definition that actually has Christ in it. Then you'll be talking about the Christian God. If you want to know why I disbelieve in the Christian God see Why I Am Not a Christian.

(2) Even the most parochial of Christian apologists acknowledge that atheism must defined with respect to a generic God and that one can distinguish belief in God from belief in Christ. Hence Muslims are not atheists.

(3) So if the question is, "tell us in five hundred words or less why you do not or cannot believe in the existence of an almighty creator of heaven and earth" the short answer is: (a) all known evidence is better explained as the product of a godless natural universe than as the product of any intelligent creator (even aliens, much less gods) or governor, as I show in my book Sense and Goodness without God and argue in my debate with Tom Wanchick (etc.), (b) there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in the supernatural at all (much less a supernatural God) and yet abundant evidence that only the natural exists (per my book above and my blog on Defining the Supernatural), and (c) all evidence of religious belief is better explained by scientific facts (of psychology and sociology) than by any such belief being true.

(4) This was not the question of this blog entry, so I don't see the relevance of your point here. This blog entry was about defining the word "atheist," not about why I am one. See the books and links above for the latter.

Buckster said...

Enjoyed the blog post a great deal, and it's something I've pondered myself. Here's my take on it:

loneknight30 said...


I wonder why it is that people like you think Richard, or other atheists should have to explain why they are atheists. To me that's like asking someone to explain why they don't believe in goblins.

I think it's far more pertinent to ask why you, or anyone else, does believe in a god.

Seriously. I'm not just saying this for the sake of argument. I struggled to believe in god in the past, but disbelief is virtually no effort at all.

Richard Carrier said...

Loneknight30 said... I wonder why it is that people like you think Richard, or other atheists should have to explain why they are atheists. To me that's like asking someone to explain why they don't believe in goblins.

But what if you found yourself in a society in which 95% of its members believed in goblins and considered it morally frightening to even suggest there are no goblins?

Having to explain why we don't believe in goblins in that society is an entirely different scenario than having to explain it in this society (where no one believes in goblins). By analogy, I am expected to explain why I don't believe in a soul, despite so much "evidence" that we have souls; to explain why I don't believe in trickle down economics, despite it being so "obvious" that it would work; and to explain why I don't believe in ghosts, despite network "documentaries" proving they exist.

I think it's far more pertinent to ask why you, or anyone else, does believe in a god.

We do ask that.

Indeed, almost every argument for atheism begins by asking that.

But this is all off topic. This blog entry was about demarcating atheism and agnosticism, not arguing for them.