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livelaughlove21's avatar

Is agnosticism and religion (or non-religion) mutually exclusive?

Asked by livelaughlove21 (15099 points ) January 11th, 2013 from iPhone

My own response on a recent question got me thinking. I don’t consider myself religious. I never saw a point in labeling myself a Christian or Athiest or anything else because nothing seemed to fit. So my response when asked my religion is usually to dodge it by saying “I believe what I believe.”

As I stated in the aforementioned question, I think it’s naive to believe that only one group of people is correct about their beliefs and the rest of the world is dead wrong. How could I ever really know anything that’s impossible to know? I know religion is based on belief, not necessarily knowledge, but I have a hard time believing things that we know so little about in reality.

This makes me think I may be agnostic. This was actually a little surprising to me because I didn’t know much about agnosticism until recently and, what do you know, something finally seems to fit.

I know agnosticism is not considered a religion, but what’s the distinction? The term “agnostic athiest” (which I hear a lot) confuses the hell out of me. If you don’t believe or not believe there is a higher power (or whatever), how can you ascribe to any religion or even atheism?

Then there’s the debate on whether atheism is a religion at all.

So, for those of you that are agnostic, or even if you’re not, what are your thoughts on this? Is there something I’m missing? Any gems of wisdom to instill?

Forgive me if this is a stupid question. I’m admittedly unversed (pun intended) on religious issues.

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69 Answers

tom_g's avatar

You’re making this way more confusing that it should be. For starters, I’ll jump to this:

@livelaughlove21: “Then there’s the debate on whether atheism is a religion at all.”

No. There is no debate at all. Baldness isn’t a hair color.

Think of it this way: Do you believe in a god or gods? What is this question asking? It’s asking if you are a theist. Let’s investigate our options here….

1. Yes
2. No
3. I don’t know.

Ok. So, if you answered “yes”, you are a theist. That is, you hold a belief in a god or gods. If you answered “no”, then you are an atheist, right? That is, you do not hold a belief in a god or gods. So what about “I don’t know”? If you don’t know, do you hold a belief in a god or gods? The answer is no, you don’t. Therefore, by definition, you are an atheist. Without belief in a god or gods.

Now, where does agnosticism fit into this? Well, it’s not about belief. It’s about the level of certainty. I am an atheist because I have not accepted any claims of the existence of a god or gods. But I am agnostic in the sense that I have no way of knowing for sure if a god or gods does not exist. So I am an agnostic atheist.

A few years ago, “strong atheism”, “weak atheism”, “strong theism”, and “weak theism” were common terms used to describe the same concept. They were somewhat useful and didn’t carry the confused baggage of “agnosticism”. You are either a theist or an atheist regarding the question of theism. But that doesn’t describe everything concerning your certainty and how you arrived there, etc.

Anyway, this might be helpful and probably describes it all much better than I can.

ucme's avatar

I’m agnostic, but it’s just a word. My theory is that there’s almost certainly no god, but hey…what if there is? May as well hedge my bets, you never know, may come in handy one fine day.

wundayatta's avatar

I think agnosticism is a reasonable position for people who don’t know. But you have to ask yourself what not knowing means? Usually it means you don’t know enough. So if you want to be in a better position to make a choice, you need to educate yourself. Not everyone wants to or has time to, but it is the only cure for agnosticism: learn more.

Seek's avatar

Agnostic: a = “no” + gnosis = “knowledge

Atheist: a = “no” + theism = “belief in god(s)”

No, they are not mutually exclusive.

I am technically an agnostic atheist. I don’t believe there is a god, nor do I know that there is any good reason to believe there is one. However, I don’t claim to know with 100% certainty that there is no god.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I’ll probably get crap for this answer, but it makes sense to me.I don’t think they’re exclusive at all. I don’t believe in a God, as in the bible at all. But yet, there seems to be something out there that I can’t put my finger on. I kind of lean toward the belief in a Great Spirit of some type, in all of nature. Some of Islam makes perfect sense, some doesn’t. Same with the other religions. It’s kind of like the question “Is there really a Santa Claus?” There’s isn’t one, but yet there is one, in a little place in all of us. And no, I’m not high.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@tom_g I’m not convinced that option 3 makes one an atheist by default. I don’t consider myself an atheist because I can’t say “I don’t believe there is a God” – which is what atheism is. On the other hand, I can’t say “I do believe there is a God” – therefore, I’m not a theist either.

I get the situation @ucme and @Seek_Kolinahr describe, but I’m not at the point where I can say “there is most likely no God”. I just don’t know.

@wundayatta I wasn’t aware that agnosticism was a disease that needed curing. I’ve done a fair amount of research and I don’t think we can ever really know no matter how educated we are, because of the limitations on our knowledge. There isn’t enough evidence out there for me to truly believe either way, because none of it is completely irrefutable.

Perhaps I’m just on the journey to atheism and just haven’t reached it, who knows? But I’m still not confident that it’s all black and white.

wundayatta's avatar

@livelaughlove21 I do think ignorance is kind of like a disease that needs curing. This is what drives science forward. We want to know things. Eventually, we learn enough to believe we know something.

I’m not saying that you will ever learn enough to cure agnosticism, but I do know that if you stopped learning things, you would never learn enough. On the other hand, there’s nothing that says you have to learn more. It’s not like settling the issue will change your life. It really won’t.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@wundayatta So agnosticism is not only a disease, but a sign of ignorance. Yikes. Is it possible that some people are just harder to convince?

If one is so invested in their beliefs either way, doesn’t the search for more knowledge eventually stop? If I’m absolutely convinced there is no God, what reason would I have to continue searching?

tom_g's avatar

@livelaughlove21: ”@tom_g I’m not convinced that option 3 makes one an atheist by default.”

The jury’s not out on this one. I just haven’t explained it well enough. Let me try again. How about a different approach…

Theism is the ”belief in one or more gods”. This is a condition. Things either meet this condition or they don’t. A newborn baby can’t possibly meet this condition. Someone who isn’t sure certainly doesn’t meet this condition. Therefore, they are a-theists, or without a ”belief in one or more gods”.

Are you with me so far? I bolded the word belief, because I think you might be missing this part. You do not have a belief in a god or gods. You don’t know whether or not a god or gods exist. You do not believe that a god or gods does exist.

This is really the least of the controversy regarding religion. This is really just a definition that we need in order to discuss the concept of belief. Think like a social scientist for a moment. You’re tasked with determining how many people in a particular town hold a positive belief in a god or gods (theism). If 5000 people in the town of 6000 hold a positive belief in a god or gods, the number of theists == 5000. The rest are not theists, whether or not they are convinced there is no god or have no idea whether this is one or not. Those “not theists” are referred to as “a-theists” (without a belief in a god or gods).

Seek's avatar

I don’t search for god. If there is a god that thinks it’s important that I know about them, they can contact me.

If they don’t think it’s important, then they might as well not exist anyway.

wundayatta's avatar

@livelaughlove21 Pretty much all lack of knowledge is a sign of ignorance. That’s not a big deal. You’re acting like it’s a pejorative. Willful ignorance is a pejorative. Ignorance you are seeking to address is not.

The search for knowledge stops at death.

For a scientist, all knowledge is provisional, so the search to know more never stops.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@tom_g Perhaps I’m under the false impression that atheism is the belief that there is no God. This is not because I don’t know the definition, but because most atheists I’ve encountered seem very convinced there is no God. If this is not always the case, which it seems it’s not, then that is my mistake.

@Seek_Kolinahr Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I meant searching for knowledge, not for God. And I don’t mean to imply those who are convinced of their beliefs either way are ignorant. I was just replying to the notion that those that aren’t convinced are presumably (willfully) ignorant. Either could be said, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true.

@wundayatta In that case, there’s no one that is not ignorant regarding religion, no? And I acted as if it were pejorative because you referred to it as a disease, leading me to believe you meant willful ignorance.

jonsblond's avatar

@livelaughlove21 I think it’s naive to believe that only one group of people is correct about their beliefs and the rest of the world is dead wrong. This is exactly how I feel and why I consider myself agnostic. (Don’t let @wundayatta try to convince you that there is something wrong with your beliefs. I have a feeling you won’t, but he will try his hardest.)

Seek's avatar

Don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty convinced there is no god. I relate the likelihood of god existing right up there with the fairies that sit on toadstools and Bertrand Russell’s proverbial teapot.

However, if convincing evidence were presented, I would be willing to change my position.

Do I think that evidence is forthcoming? Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

wundayatta's avatar

@livelaughlove21 I only referred to it as a disease because you did. You were the source of that idea. I was just being agreeable, but I don’t think of it that way. Do you?

livelaughlove21's avatar

@wundayatta I was the source?

You: “but it is the only cure for agnosticism: learn more.”
Me: “I wasn’t aware that agnosticism was a disease that needed curing.”
You: “I do think ignorance is kind of like a disease that needs curing.”

Could’ve fooled me. :)

tom_g's avatar

@livelaughlove21: ”@tom_g Perhaps I’m under the false impression that atheism is the belief that there is no God. This is not because I don’t know the definition, but because most atheists I’ve encountered seem very convinced there is no God. If this is not always the case, which it seems it’s not, then that is my mistake.”

To be fair, it’s not an unusual misunderstanding. And it’s not accidental that we have it. Christian apologists make their living creating straw men “atheists” that are defined as holding a positive belief in the “non-existence” of a god or god. Note that I have been surrounded by atheists for nearly 25 years and have yet to meet one who believes that they can prove that a god does not exist. Every single one – myself included – is an agnostic atheist.

That said, remember that the only reason this term exists is because theism’s ubiquity and dominance. We don’t have terms to describe people who lack a positive belief in fairies, palm reading, or big foot. Skeptic might be somewhat related, but we don’t have a specific term.

Anyway, it’s important to clear up such a term because if you meet an atheist and assume a whole bunch about his/her atheism.

But just to be redundant…

@livelaughlove21: “Perhaps I’m just on the journey to atheism and just haven’t reached it, who knows?”

You are describing yourself as an atheist but not comfortable with that term. That’s fine. Nobody needs to walk around saying, “I’m an atheist!”. Technically, you are. But that’s the least interesting part. The interesting part is where you go from there.

mazingerz88's avatar

@livelaughlove21 Imo, you’re like me, agnostic. I define it as someone who does not know whether God exists or not, yet does not discount the possibility. To me, an aetheist does not believe and discounts any possibility.

@tom_g said, Nobody needs to walk around saying, “I’m an atheist!”. Technically, you are. But that’s the least interesting part. The interesting part is where you go from there.

…the interesting part is where you go from there…this is probably what @wundayatta was referring to with getting more education…continuous reflection on things maybe?

livelaughlove21's avatar

@tom_g Even if I was comfortable with it, unfortunately most of those I’m surrounded by would not be. I live in the Bible Belt, and the word “atheism” is often synonymous with “satanism” here – which, yes, is painfully ignorant, but it’s my reality. Another hurdle to take on, I suppose. The perception of the word seems to stump the definition, as with many things. C’est la vie.

So, if one can be an agnostic athiest, can one also be an agnostic theist? What would that look like? And which would be more culturally acceptable (let’s say, in the West)?

tom_g's avatar

@livelaughlove21: “So, if one can be an agnostic athiest, can one also be an agnostic theist? What would that look like?”

Absolutely! I know a few of these.

They hold a belief in a god, but they are far from certain. They really don’t know.

What would it look like? In my experience, there are a few Unitarian Universalists (and even some New England style Catholics) I have met who are comfortable with this.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@tom_g That sounds like me on some days. I’m just a big confused mess, huh? :) I guess I’m at that age where people start to “find themselves” and decide what they do and do not believe.

tom_g's avatar

^^ good luck. Sounds like you are open enough to really explore this.

mazingerz88's avatar

Uncertain belief. Does not seem to jive. If people don’t know, how can they hold a belief?

wundayatta's avatar

@livelaughlove21 If you read through what you just quoted, you’ll see you were the first person to mention “disease.” I never said it was a disease until after you did. I was just echoing your term. Never let it be said that I am not suggestible. ;-)

Jaxk's avatar

Here’s an interesting graph to help define your label. Personally, I have trouble defining what a god is, let alone whether I believe they exist or not..

tom_g's avatar

@mazingerz88: “Uncertain belief. Does not seem to jive. If people don’t know, how can they hold a belief?”

I believe that my father is my biological father. Am I certain? No.

How certain are you of any of your beliefs? Maybe certainty is a whole other topic, but I think certainty can be dangerous.

mazingerz88's avatar

It is dangerous. Certainty. It got lots of people killed through centuries, “faith in a God” wise.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@wundayatta Semantics. If there was no implication of disease then why, pray tell, would you use the word “cure”?

JLeslie's avatar

They estimate abut 40% of Jewish peopleidentify as Secular Jews, many of whom call themselves athiest Jews or agnostic Jews. I am an atheist Jew, so I assume that means I don’t believe in God, but identify with a religion. There a orthodox Jews who are atheists.

wundayatta's avatar

@livelaughlove21 That was your assumption. Diseases are not the only thing that can be cured.

There’s sopressata, for example.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@livelaughlove21 Agnosticism about the existence of God is not mutually exclusive with religion or a lack thereof. The clearest proof of the first part of the disjunction is that there are religions in which belief or non-belief in God is immaterial (e.g., Buddhism). Since one can be a member of those religions regardless of whether one believes God exists (theism), believes God does not exist (atheism), or suspends judgment with regard to the question of God’s existence (agnosticism), one can be both agnostic and religious.

As for the other side of the disjunction, suspending judgment with regard to the question of whether or not God exists is clearly not enough to make one a member of any particular religion. Therefore, being agnostic cannot be mutually exclusive with being non-religious either. Agnosticism might even be one’s reason for being non-religious in certain cases.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

First of all I think the term “agnostic athiest” is a bit of a contradiction. Unless I have been misinformed, “agnostic” is someone who wonders whether or not there’s a god and an “atheist” is just someone who does not believe in a god.

I don’t think aethism is a legitemit (sp?) religion. I think in order for it to be a religion, it has to be based on the worship of whatever higher power you believe in. Since aetheist don’t believe in a higher power, they obviously wouldn’t worship one.

I don’t know if this helps at all but this is what I believe (pun intended) to be correct. I personally think if you worship whatever higher power you believe in (if any) you are religious; if you don’t then you’re not. But it should be noted that just because you don’t actively worship doesn’t mean you don’t believe. I know a lot of individuals who seem to fear God, but don’t worship him (that’s kind of dumb if you ask me—to fear him but not to worship him).

I wouldn’t really look at atheism or agnostic as anything more than what they seem to be; a word. One is a single word that states you don’t know whether or not you believe in a god, the other states that you don’t believe in a god.

This is accurate to the best of my knowledge. I hope this helps.

JLeslie's avatar

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal I think some people feel comfortable with agnostic atheist, because they don’t believe in God, don’t live their life as though a God exists, but arewilling to say they don’t know everything and could be wrong. As opposed to what one jelly termed the evangelical athesist, who think there is no God and everyone else should think the same. I call myself an atheist, because I think it best describes how I live my life in regards to a God or lack thereof, but could there be a God? I guess maybe. Calling myself an agnositic would mean most people think I waffle and wonder about God. I don’t.

Seek's avatar

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair colour. Like abstinence is a sexual position.

Agnosis and atheism are not mutually exclusive because you can believe in god but not know he’s there (those who take that leap of faith) believe in a god and know he’s there (fundamentalists), not believe and be willing to admit there is (however slight) a possibility you could be wrong (agnostic atheists, such as myself and Richard Dawkins), or not believe and be damn certain that there is no god whatsoever (these people… well… whatever. They are few in number, that’s for sure).

jonsblond's avatar

@livelaughlove21 haha. I picture this right now. ;)

JLeslie's avatar

Are we really going to argue about the word ignorant? Ignorance just means not knowing, I say I am ignorant on many topics, it is not an insult. Ignorance is not synonomous with stupid. The way I interpret @wundayatta saying ignorance needs curing, is we can seek more knowledge. You guys are being too easily offended by word choice like cure. He just means move from being unsure to being sure through seeking knowledge.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@tom_g I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with the decision procedure you give in your first post, and as such the definitions you provide. While they are common among the pop-atheist movement, I find them philosophically unsatisfying.

First, there are only two answers to the question “do you believe in a god or gods.” You either do or do not, so you are either a theist or a non-theist. But a non-theist is not an atheist. Babies are non-theists in virtue of lacking a belief, but they are not atheists. As such, we need a way of distinguishing non-theists from one another. We do this by understanding the various reasons one might have for not affirming the existence of a god or gods in response to the previous question.

One might refuse to affirm the existence of a god or gods because one rejects the existence of any of them (that is, because one says that no gods exist). That would be atheism. Alternatively, one might refuse to affirm the existence of a god or gods because one has suspended judgment on the matter, saying neither yes nor no. That would be agnosticism (and indeed, this is how the term “agnostic” is traditionally used). Then again, one might simply be uninterested in answering the question in either direction because one thinks it has no bearing on life. That would be apatheism. Finally, one might think that the question is not asked in such a way that it can be cogently answered. That would be ignosticism.

Thus the related question “Does God exist?” has at least five possible answers:

1. Yes.
2. No.
3. Suspension of judgment.
4. It doesn’t matter.
5. The question cannot be answered as asked.

The matter of agnosticism is separate from the matter of the epistemological strength with which one asserts the existence or non-existence of God. The former concerns whether or not you give an answer at all, whereas the latter concerns the degree of force with which one asserts one’s answer. If you asked me whether or not there is any ice cream in my freezer, I would say that there is. That I would also admit that I might be mistaken—perhaps my wife ate it while I wasn’t looking—doesn’t mean I am agnostic about the presence of ice cream in my freezer. It just means that I’m a fallibilist about the matter. If you’re interested, @AdamF and I had a conversation about this previously (starting here).

And we haven’t even gotten into the issue of what sort of epistemological warrant is necessary for one to be able to rationally assert that one knows something.

Seek's avatar

Maybe we should remind ourselves of how Socrates felt about ignorance.

ucme's avatar

They call me Mister Agnostic ;¬}

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

@JLeslie In my opinion, agnostic doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you wonder about god it could also mean that you just aren’t sure if he/she exits,

@Seek_Kolinahr I don’t know if you misunderstood me or or if I’m misunderstanding you. But I stated I don’t believe aethism is a religion and going by your response directly to me, you sound like you feel the same. So do you disagree or do you feel the same and was just “Amening” (pun intended) my answer?

Seek's avatar

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal It was a sincere R’amen.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr Ok. I’m just not used to people agreeing with me on here. LOL Especially when it comes to controversial issues. By the way I thought your aethism/agnostic “breakdown” was exceptionaly well written and thought out.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I think you are making the same mistake as @tom_g, albeit with an additional fallacious appeal to etymology. Just because the word “agnosticism” comes from a negative prefix and a word meaning “knowledge” doesn’t mean that the word is used in a way that means “without knowledge.” Etymology is not meaning. The keyboard section in a piece of music may be labeled obbligato, but that does not mean we have a moral duty to learn how to play the harpsichord.

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal I agree with you about how to best use the term “theist” and “atheist,” but I disagree with you about the reason why atheism is not a religion. You say it is a matter of a higher power, but that cannot be sufficient. Many religions either do not believe in or do not revolve around the worship of a higher power, yet we have no trouble calling them religions. You seem to have a rather ethnocentric view in which only something that fits the typical model of a Western religion can count as a religion at all.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

@SavoirFaire I don’t study a lot of religions, but all the ones I know of do worship a higher power.

What religions do you know of that don’t worship a god of some sort and if they don’t worship anything, how do they “practice” their religion?

JLeslie's avatar

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal What I mean is if I say, I don’t beleive in God, but I acknowledge I could be wrong, others might label me an agnostic.

tom_g's avatar

@SavoirFaire: ”@tom_g I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with the decision procedure you give in your first post, and as such the definitions you provide. While they are common among the pop-atheist movement, I find them philosophically unsatisfying.”

I’ll defer to you on this (philosophically). Maybe this is an area that demands some new words that don’t carry all of the baggage. I’m leaving work in a minute – I’ll try to read your post again later.

Admittedly, I am not sure about the pop-atheist culture as much as just how it makes sense for us lay people to be able discuss these matters without having to describe to people that it is not my job to prove a negative. I’m an atheist not because I have considered every possible god and proven that it couldn’t exist. I’m an atheist because I have not accepted the god claims that I have been presented with, along with a few others that I could cook up. I’m not claiming that a god or gods can’t (or doesn’t) exist.

The philosophical use of agnosticism is still a mystery to me. Ignore all words for a moment as though we were starting over. Don’t we have a need to separate belief and certainty in any way so that we can reasonably discuss such matters? Sure, languages are not created like this and evolve in a messy way. But if we were to start from scratch, we would need words (or I would, anyway) to discuss those who believe in a god or gods. Right? Let’s call them “godists”. Now, if I meet someone and want to know the answer to the question, “are you a godist,” wouldn’t the answer either be “yes” or “no”? If the answer was “well, I refuse to answer that question because I have suspended judgement on that matter”, am I standing face-to-face with a godist? The answer is no, right?

So, what would we call these people who are not godists? We could call them “nogodists” (or “correct”, bahdum dum). This ability to describe the condition of belief seems binary. Withholding judgement on a condition == not true. Heck, maybe I’m thinking too computer programmer…

if (has a belief in a god or gods)
{
godist
}
else
{
nogodist
}

That’s not to minimize the importance of all of the other stuff. It’s just addressing the question of belief.
What am I missing? Your description of the traditional use of agnosticism, apatheism, and ignosticism all seem to have one thing in common. They do not hold a belief in a god or gods.
Maybe that’s all I’m asking for – a way to describe a simple condition in a way that doesn’t require a few paragraphs. But maybe atheism is too polluted a word to serve this purpose….

livelaughlove21's avatar

@JLeslie It remains unseen whether one can be sure of anything, no matter how much they “know”. I only briefly argued with @wundayatta about the meaning of the word. The rest was him being evasive. :)

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

@JLeslie Does it bother you that people may label you agnostic?

Rarebear's avatar

Jewish atheist here.

zensky's avatar

I consider myself to be a God fearing atheist Jew.

Edit: Rarebear and I did not co-ordinate this.

Rarebear's avatar

LOL. No. Zensky was typing while I was typing. I just had fewer words. Oh, and if God really exists, I entirely agree. I’m God fearing also. I’ve read the Bible and have seen the havoc he can cause.

zensky's avatar

Exactly. I’m just being cautious.

hearkat's avatar

Too many answers to read right now. I take the definition of Agnostic literally:
ag·nos·tic [ag-nos-tik]
noun
1. 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.
2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

- adjective
3. of or pertaining to agnostics or agnosticism.
4. asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge.

That describes me exactly. There is no way to know which deity, if any, is the real god, or which religion, if any, is the ‘right’ one.

I do have a sense that there is an unnamable power or force that is greater than we can conceive. However, I do not think that which is unnamable is a anthropomorphic being that plays ‘The Sims’ with us, so I have non-theistic leanings. I am also anti-dogma, so most religions offend me.

JLeslie's avatar

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal I think it is incorrect to say I am agnostic. In my own life I do not acknowledge God in any way. It doesn’t really occur to me. The only people who usually try to put me in the agnostic label are people who believe in God and think there is something wrong with being an atheist, or think there are no atheists in fox holes, that sort of think. So, when they are asking me if I am an agnostic or labeling me that, I think they perceive me as searching, or unsure, and I never feel as though I am searching or unsure. I am an atheist in my mind, I completely behave as one internally and in my actions.

It’s not so much it bothers me, but I think it sends an incorrect message about me. I guess it depends on how a particular person specifically defines agnostic. I identify myself as Atheist, Jewish, Female, American, those are my big identifiers, not in any specific order. I think we should allow people to identify themselves as they say fit.

tom_g's avatar

@SavoirFaire – I went back and read this again, and I’m confused. What terms or language cover the concept of belief?

@SavoirFaire: “Thus the related question “Does God exist?” has at least five possible answers:
1. Yes.
2. No.
3. Suspension of judgment.
4. It doesn’t matter.
5. The question cannot be answered as asked.”

Am I making too big a deal of belief? Isn’t the question really “Do you believe a God exists?”? If so, then #1 and #2 directly answer the question. #3 suspends judgement, therefore not answering in the afirmative. #4 doesn’t care about the implications of his belief or lack of belief. That’s fine, but again, he hasn’t accepted the belief. #5 claims the question cannot be answered as asked. But if it is about belief, then what is the problem? This person again does not believe a god exists.

So, #3, #4, and #5 all believe that they are not answering the question, which I believe is as harmless and simple as “do you believe that I have a dinosaur in my back yard?” We could get all of these responses. But when I go to count how many people I questioned believe that I have a dinosaur in my back yard, only those that answered “Yes” will be counted. Right? Not accepting my claim that I have a dinosaur in my back yard isn’t claiming that I do not have a dinosaur in my back yard. They just don’t believe it – for reasons which could include #3, #4, or #5.

** Like I said, I am not a philosophy major (and I went to public school). So, I am probably abusing so many concepts and terms here. I am curious though. And I’m completely willing to admit that my approach to this might be colored by my work (coding). I have been accused of thinking in objects. That is, I will reduce real-life objects and concepts into entities as though I am doing object oriented software design. Non-programming language is not as sharp.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@tom_g The difference between your example and the God issue is that you can see a dinosaur and prove its existence or non-existence in your backyard. You can’t see God, if he exists. So it’s not all black and white. “I don’t care” or “it doesn’t matter” does not mean “no”. I think the mistake is thinking there are only two answers to the question because all that don’t fit into category 1 belong to category 2 by default. I don’t think that’s the case here.

I find the distinction between atheist and non-theist really helpful. That makes more sense to me than atheism vs. theism.

Religion is like sexuality – lots of gray area.

Fly's avatar

I won’t get into details as both @tom_g and @SavoirFaire have made excellent points and they have explained them far better than I ever could, so I’ll just add my two-cents.

Like @tom_g, I see agnosticism as a level of certainty in a belief or lack thereof. One can be an agnostic theist if one holds a religious belief but does not claim to be certain of said belief; one can be an agnostic atheist if one does not believe in any gods or higher powers but does not claim to be certain that they do not exist; and one can also be just plain agnostic, if one does not have any level of certainty whatsoever as to whether gods/higher powers do or do not exist.

As the whole, though, I tend to agree with @SavoirFaire regarding the whole spectrum of religious beliefs/lack thereof that are possible and the differences between atheism and non-theism. Religion, like most things in life, is not so black and white. I’m a perfect example- I’m a loosely practicing half-Jewish agnostic atheist. It doesn’t get much more confusing and muddled than that.

Even when we expand the potential answers to the question of god(s) as @SavoirFaire demonstrated, lots of people don’t quite fit into the confines of religious labels. You may very well be one such person (at least at this point in your life), and I don’t see anything wrong with not knowing what you are or not identifying with any of the generalized facets of religion. Really, these labels are more to help other people to understand your views than they are for your own benefit- if you prefer not to define your beliefs for others anyway, there’s really no rush to label yourself and your own fulfillment is all that really matters.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

@JLeslie I agree that people should label themselves as they see fit considering no one knows you better than you. Unfortunately people will judge (whether it’s good or bad judgement) and act like they know you just from small bits of information that they can acquire from you.

How worried are you about someone’s ignoratnt assesment of you?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal Buddhism and Jainism are the stock examples. Buddhism is more or less apatheistic (there may or may not be gods, but Buddhists takes the matter to be irrelevant to our lives and how we live them). Jainism is explicitly atheistic. Neither takes worship of something else to be the essence of religion. Instead, each focuses on ways of living to achieve a spiritual task (viz., “enlightenment” or “liberation”).

@mazingerz88 I’d like to go back to something you said earlier: “Uncertain belief. Does not seem to jive. If people don’t know, how can they hold a belief?” Your answer here assumes two things, both of which I think are false.

The first assumption is that one must think one knows something in order to believe it. This, however, is at odds with many ordinary ways of expressing our beliefs. “I can’t remember it very well, but I think he said he wanted to meet at 4:00” and “Her apartment number is 27, right? I don’t know. I think it is, though” both express beliefs, yet they both clearly indicate a lack of knowledge as well. Thus it seems to me that the first assumption is false.

The second assumption is that certainty is necessary for knowledge (a position known as “infallibilism”). To recycle an example I used just recently, however: you and I cannot be 100% certain that we are not both figments of Cthulhu’s dark imagination, but no reasonable person would think that meeting me in person was not adequate proof that I exist. Thus it seems to me that the second assumption is false. Using knowledge talk does not require us to discount the possibility that we could be mistaken. Knowledge requires justification, but not certainty (a position known as “fallibilism”).

SavoirFaire's avatar

@tom_g Let me start by explaining why I take “do you believe in at least one god?” to be a different question from “does at least one god exist?” (note that I have altered the questions from the original forms we were using; I take it that these have the same logical force as the originals). An affirmative answer does little to distinguish them, but a negative answer does much more. To say “no” to the first question is only to say that one lacks a belief. To say “no” to the second question is to state a negative belief (i.e., that no gods exist). They must be different questions, then, if answering each in the negative yields different results. Moreover, each result deserves its own term.

The first question is the belief question, and I do not think it is a mistake to ask it. Nor do I think it is a mistake to find it important. My contention, however, is that it only that it does not distinguish theists from atheists. Your original post presented the belief question as if it had three answers. It seems to me, however, that we now agree that it has only two answers: one either has or lacks a belief in at least one god, thus the answer to the question “do you believe in at least one god?” can only be “yes” or “no.” These two possible answers distinguish two camps: those who are theists, and those who are not theists.

It is true that denying the existence of at least one god, suspending judgment with regard to whether or not at least one god exists, not caring whether or not one god exists, and rejecting the question as lacking a cogent answer all entail not being a theist. There are many ways of not being a theist, however, just as there are many ways of being a theist. My suggestion is that the belief question distinguishes theists from non-theists, but does not yet distinguish what sort of theist (monotheist, polytheist) or non-theist (atheist, agnostic, apatheist, ignostic) one is. Those further distinctions require further questions (“just one, or more than one?” in the first case, “for what reason do you lack a belief in at least one god?” in the latter case).

In short: your “godists” are theists, but your “nogodists” are not atheists—they are non-theists. Atheism, I want to say, is what we get when we say “no” to the second question. To answer the question “does at least one god exist” in the negative is to say that no gods exist. This is a much more robust position than mere lack of belief, but it is not so robust as to rule out the possibility that one could be mistaken. One can assert that no gods exist without appending “and nothing could possibly show otherwise,” thus we need not think that this understanding of atheism involves an assertion of certainty that no gods exist.

Here we might ask several epistemological questions: is the claim that no gods exist merely a belief, or is it something known? if it is merely a belief, is that because it cannot be known that no gods exist? if it can be known, can it be known with certainty? Here, if we were starting over with words, is where I would suggest that talk of “weak” and “strong” atheism would be useful. Not with their past meanings, but to address these subordinate issues. Were I rewriting the lexicon, I would make the following preliminary suggestions:

• Very weak atheism: “I merely believe that no gods exist, and I do not think it can be known that no gods exist.”
• Weak atheism: “it is/may be knowable that no gods exist; but at present, I merely believe it and not claim to know that no gods exist.”
• Strong atheism: “it can be known that no gods exist, and I do know it; but while I claim to have knowledge that no gods exist, I do not claim to have certainty.”
• Very strong atheism: “it can be known with certainty that no gods exist, and I do know it with certainty.”

To sum up, then: we can fulfill your need for words to describe those who believe in at least one god and those who do not with the terms “theist” and “non-theist,” and these are the terms that cover the concept of belief as such (that is, considered as a binary of “has belief or lacks belief”). “Non-theist” has the advantage over “atheist” for this purpose because “non-theist” implies only a lack, which is precisely what we are trying to indicate. It also allows us to keep the word “atheist” in its traditional role while giving us a way of expressing what atheism, agnosticism, apatheism, and ignosticism have in common without conflating any of them with one another.

zensky's avatar

@SavoirFaire GWOT (Great wall o’ text) I usually can’t sit through a five pager – Lurved it.

JLeslie's avatar

@Self_Consuming_Cannibal I don’t think worried is the right word. There is a part of me that wants people to know there are atheists all around us who are good, moral, trustworthy, even “conservative” people. I don’t mean conservative in the right wing sense as we use it in politics today, but I mean people who care deeply about family, stable environments for children, who dress conservatively, who aren’t partying to all hours, etc. I don’t know all that they think in their heads these people who have a lot of assumptions and trouble with atheists. So, I think atheists need to all start coming out of the closet. Show we come in all shapes and sizes, and you can’t guess who is an atheist by knowing us or just looking. As long as religious theists try hard to prove everyone really does believe in God in the right situation unless they are bad people, they might continue to think atheists are a certain kind of bad people. Saying all that, I live in the bible belt now, and I admit I avoid telling people I am an atheist. I don’t do what I describe above, I don’t really try to actively help the cause.

mazingerz88's avatar

@SavoirFaire In the example you gave with regards to expressing our beliefs in ordinary ways, I’m not sure if those people really expressed their beliefs about that appointed time or an apartment number. They sounded as if they’re guessing at that point. So, do you mean to say that the act of guessing is the same as the act of believing with uncertainty-?

tom_g's avatar

@SavoirFaire – Thanks for the great response. My first take when reading this is that we may not be in disagreement here (I could be wrong) about the concepts at all. I agree with the full range of belief, and the complexities that exist when describing theism and (!= theism). I suspect this might be simply words being abused in the general public that mean something different traditionally or in professional/philosophical fields.

@SavoirFaire: “My suggestion is that the belief question distinguishes theists from non-theists, but does not yet distinguish what sort of theist (monotheist, polytheist) or non-theist (atheist, agnostic, apatheist, ignostic) one is. Those further distinctions require further questions (“just one, or more than one?” in the first case, “for what reason do you lack a belief in at least one god?” in the latter case).”

I have no problem with this at all. Just like declaring that “I am a Christian” says little about what sort of Christian I am. It doesn’t declare denomination, my adherence to the beliefs, how I got there, the level of certainty, etc. I believe that we’re in agreement that the incomplete or partial descriptive quality of the term “Christian” doesn’t render to the word useless. In fact, I think the core of our apparent disagreement lies here.
You are using the terms “theist” and “non-theist” as buckets to catch the complicated array of positions on theism. These buckets work, and I suppose I have no problem at all with these. My only contention (I think) is that the terms “theist” and “atheist” mean the same thing, and serve the same purpose.

Again, I am finding little to disagree with here, including your explanation of weak/strong atheism.

@SavoirFaire: “To sum up, then: we can fulfill your need for words to describe those who believe in at least one god and those who do not with the terms “theist” and “non-theist,” and these are the terms that cover the concept of belief as such (that is, considered as a binary of “has belief or lacks belief”). “Non-theist” has the advantage over “atheist” for this purpose because “non-theist” implies only a lack, which is precisely what we are trying to indicate. It also allows us to keep the word “atheist” in its traditional role while giving us a way of expressing what atheism, agnosticism, apatheism, and ignosticism have in common without conflating any of them with one another.”

I suppose theist/non-theist makes sense. But at this point it seems that all of these terms have evolved into something quite different from the “traditional” use. From a purely anectodal/unscientific perspective, everyone I have met or meet who identifies as an “atheist” fits well into your description of the “very weak atheist”: “I merely believe that no gods exist, and I do not think it can be known that no gods exist.”. And I am not trying to appeal to authority or dictionary by any means when I point out that Wikipedia defines all of these terms in very messy ways and describes them as controversial. Rather, I’m just pointing out that language – the fluid, evolving beast – is occasionally affected greatly by the unwashed masses in such a way as to render tradional use unrecognizable (or simply ambiguous or blurry). Apatheism is described as another term for “pragmatic atheism” or “practical atheism”. And the wiki on agnosticism is rife with the use of “agnostic atheism” and “agnostic theism”.

I’m curious about the implications of much of this dicussion and how it relates to the burden of proof. It has always seems to me that the “default” position is to not accept a claim until sufficient evidence/argument has been met. The god claim seems to place the burden on the theist making the claim. It’s not my job to have to prove the non-existence of that god or any god or fairies. If I am correct (and seriously, I could be way off here), that our primary disagreement is language, does that have any affect on burden of proof?

tom_g's avatar

^^ effect, not affect.

Paradox25's avatar

I’m assuming what you’re really asking in short words is something along the lines of: what is the difference between agnosticism and atheism. Correct me if I’m wrong there. I’ll admit that all of these various labels do make this confusing, and even after reading about what they mean I still get confused.

I struggle myself with trying to define the concept of God, because like Jaxk said above: how do we define such an entity to begin with before we can even start debating it exists or not. There are even secular scholars who make arguments for the existence of a higher power. Generally the secular/nonreligious side claims that what reductionists refer to as mysticism is actually a part of science, while many theists on the religious side take mysticism as a transcendental concept outside of space or time. The latter view indeed makes it virtually impossible to determine whether there is a god or not.

I consider agnosticism to be a philosophy more than a religion, but a philosophy with many facets. Atheism essentially means that there is not enough evidence to convince me there is a god.

mattbrowne's avatar

I’m an agnostic theist. Belief is not the same as stating a fact.

zensky's avatar

I am a G-d fearing atheist.

Woody Allen said that he is an atheist, his wife an agnostic and they couldn’t decide which religion not to raise their children.

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