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Mariah's avatar

Attention agnostics and atheists: what constitutes a belief (see details)?

Asked by Mariah (25301points) May 20th, 2011

Agnostics and atheists sometimes challenge each other, but I think that oftentimes, many of these people’s viewpoints are the same in all ways except their definition of belief.

In terms of religion, I think there are two general definitions of belief that people use, without realizing that others don’t see it the same.

The loose definition of belief. If you think that one explanation is more likely than the alternative, that constitutes a belief. Believing is nothing more than recognizing probabilities. To draw an analogy, if you toss a penny twice, you might say “I believe I won’t get tails twice in a row” since the chance of getting tails twice in a row is only ¼, so it’s not very likely to happen.

The tight definition of belief. You recognize that one explanation may seem more probable than another, but that the less probable explanation still has some value of probability, and therefore may still be true. You don’t feel confident enough in any explanation to so far as to throw your belief behind it. Beckoning back to the penny analogy, “tight believers” wouldn’t say that they believe that the penny won’t land on tails twice in a row, because they know that it may well do just that, even though it’s more likely it won’t.

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that all probabilities involved are not known numbers, but conjectures made by humans given their interpretation of the available information.

Which definition do you follow? Or do you fall somewhere in between? Do you think these different ideas of what belief is could be the only thing differing between some atheists and some agnostics?
More thoughts to come from me in the comments. This is long enough. XD

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43 Answers

SavoirFaire's avatar

A belief is something one holds to be true or would be willing to assert.

If you think that one explanation is more likely than the alternative, that is a belief. It’s not necessarily a belief about one of the two options, but it is a belief nonetheless—a belief about probabilities. If you aren’t willing to assert either option, you are suspending judgment. This is not a belief, though the decision to suspend judgment may be made in part due to other beliefs.

I don’t think that atheists have to disagree over anything said in the OP. Atheists are willing to assert that God does not exist, agnostics suspend judgment regarding the question. This might be due to a disagreement over what the proper standards for endorsing some proposition should be, or it could just as well be a disagreement over whether or not those standards have been met. In neither case, however, must the atheist and the agnostic disagree over what a belief actually is.

ETpro's avatar

Every time a question of word meaning comes up, I consult the dictionary. I believe that communication would become difficult to impossible if we all feel free to invent our own meaning for words. We would need to define every word we utter, and what but other amorphous, undefined words might we use for the definition?

Merriam Webster says *belief: means:
1 —:a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
2 — something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
3 — conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

Working withn that, in answer to your details, I would never say that I believe a penny will not come up tails twice in a row. In fact, after any number of successive tosses coming up tails, the chance of tha next throw being tails is 50/50—or at least should be. If the fdarned thing just kept on coming up tails time after time, I would probably begin to believe it was somehow weighted or rigged. :-)

I classify myself as an atheistic agnostic—one who feels the likelihood of there being a supernatural divine creator is extremely low, but not zero. But that’s really splitting hairs because religion is such a hot-button topic and on it, I want to be prefectly clear. I live in a 4 story condo with a basement. I obviously believe the building will not collapse into the basement, or I wouldn’t live in it. But I believe the likelihood of their being a god is less than the likelihood my building will collapse. In fact, I know that someday this building will collapse. I just don’t think it will do so anytime soon. So it’s a good question. Here I am admitting the word has different meanings in different contexts for me.

Mariah's avatar

Perhaps I am mistaken, but the impression I have gotten by debating many people who call themselves atheists is that they fully accept that there is no definitive proof against the existence of a god and that therefore the possibility exists, but upon weighing the clues themselves, they have decided that the existence of a god is extremely unlikely. Having no given magnitude of probability to base their belief upon, it seems to me as though their belief is based on the recognition of a probability disparity itself. In other words, their definition of a belief stipulates that a belief is not really something you can choose to have: it’s simply a reaction to one occurrance being more probable than another. In noticing that they think (as @SavoirFaire astutely pointed out, even these self-assessed probabilities are conjecture) that a godless universe is more likely, they conclude that they must believe there is no god.

This would imply that agnostics must think that the probability is 50/50, otherwise they’d have their minds made up. But this isn’t true, because many agnostics label themselves as agnostic atheist or agnostic theist to indicate the way they “lean” – the option that they consider more likely. But they still do not choose to commit – belief, for them, is something they can choose to or not to have.

I am an agnostic atheist and I’ve been told before that because I do have an opinion on what is more likely, that I am really an atheist. I don’t think this is so, however. I can only conclude that the atheist who said that to me must be of the mind that thinking one circumstance is more likely than another automatically means that you believe that that circumstance is true.

Mariah's avatar

@ETpro My opinion on this is very much like yours, except I hesitate to guess at the magnitude of the probabilities. I think a godless universe is more likely than one with a god, but I don’t even know how to begin assessing just how big that probability disparity is. Not knowing anything about the actual numbers involved, I couldn’t possibly commit one way or the other.

If someone were to somehow find out that the existence of a god is one in a googel, I’d probably start calling myself an atheist. My argument is not that any amount of possibility must be considered, my argument is that we really don’t know just how big that possibility is. If we knew it was teeny, I’d be able to commit.

JLeslie's avatar

I feel I have a belief system and I am an atheist. I believe there is no afterlife, I believe there is no God, I believe there is no masterplan, I believe in free will, I believe it is up to us to determine our life for the most part, I believe bad things happen to good people.

I call myself an atheist, because I live as an atheist and I do not question whether God exists or not. But, I do not say it is impossible for Him to exist, and do not care if people believe in God. I don’t need proof he exists to allow for the possibility.

iamthemob's avatar

@Mariah

My opinion on this is very much like yours, except I hesitate to guess at the magnitude of the probabilities. I think a godless universe is more likely than one with a god, but I don’t even know how to begin assessing just how big that probability disparity is. Not knowing anything about the actual numbers involved, I couldn’t possibly commit one way or the other.

I think that this issue shows how proper agnosticism works (I’m not trying to be pejorative here, but I think that agnosticism is best understood a certain way). The above is essentially what my position is. I go a little further to claim that I don’t really know if there’s going to be a time where we know a sufficient amount about the nature of existence and the properties of the universe to be able to conclude that there is or is not a God, as we never know, particularly for the big question, exactly what information is not included, because we may not have the tools or even the ability to conceive of that information.

Agnosticism for me is is an exercise in admitting how much you potentially don’t know…and how much there might be that you’ll never know. So it’s not so much a decision to reserve judgment, but a claim that there are certain subjects that most likely do not lend themselves to clear, objective truth claims.

I think that’s the difference between atheists (or those willing to assert that there is no God even when they admit a possibility of existence) and agnostics (those who do not assert one way or the other – and do not think that such assertions are warranted).

Atheists in the first sense are willing to base a conclusion on present tools and knowledge. Agnostics are not and, i would argue, do not see the validity in doing so as neither side works with evidence.

ETpro's avatar

@Mariah It sounds to me like we are on the same page. I too have no way of quantifying the probability. I do think that the likelihood the Abrahamic God described in the Torah and Bible exists is so remote as to be dismissed an not credible. It’s clear to me that if there is a god, S/he doesn’t intervene in human affairs or tweak cause and effect. We do not observe instances whrere a cause fails to produce the expected effect, but instead produces something wildly different. So it would seem to me that if there is a God, it is more the Watchmaker God of the deists, who set the Universe in motion and now just sits back and lets it run.

Rarebear's avatar

Neither, I think. I don’t believe a penny will land on either tails or heads. I know that it’s a 50% chance that it will land on either. Similarly, if I toss a penny and I get 5 heads in a row, it’s still a 50% chance it’ll land on heads. I think, perhaps, I’m missing the point.

I don’t “believe” in anything. I trust data and I trust probabilities. I accept that improbable things will happen. And I take a different view than @JLeslie about an afterlife. It’s not that I don’t believe in an afterlife, it’s that I see no evidence of an afterlife, so I do not hold that to be a true statement about the world. It’s a different way, sort of, of saying the same thing. But my worldview is all about best evidence.

JLeslie's avatar

@Rarebear So you believe there is an afterlife? How do you picture it?

AdamF's avatar

If someone asks the question: “Do you believe there is a god?”: I don’t understand how “I’m an agnostic” is seen as an answer to the question.

Agnosticism is a statement about what can or cannot be known. An agnostic can still be a theist or an atheist, as they aren’t mutually exclusive positions.

If you don’t actively believe in any gods, you’re an atheist. Depending on the definition of god being discussed, you may be agnostic or gnostic with respect to their non-existence.

If you believe in one or more gods, you’re a theist. You may be agnostic or gnostic with respect to your certainty of their existence.

So in my limited experience, almost all people I’ve met who claim to be agnostic, don’t believe in god. So they’re atheists with respect to their actual beliefs.

I don’t believe in any gods. So I’m an atheist. I vary between gnosticism and agnosticism with respect to my certainty of their non-existence depending on the specific god being discussed and the specific attributes assigned to that god. But as a general rule, I’m agnostic with respect to the existence of god.

thorninmud's avatar

I have a more functional definition of belief: I think of belief as being one’s “working hypothesis”; it’s having a sufficiently high degree of confidence in a proposition that one feels one can base one’s actions and decisions on it. If one believes something, one will act as if it’s true.

By that definition, both agnostics and atheists would be way beyond belief.

downtide's avatar

The description in the OP is confusing me, and I can’t figure out the difference between a “loose” or a “tight” belief.

To me, a belief is simply a conviction of mind in something, whether there is evidence for it or not.

I believe the coin might land tails twice in a row but I wouldn’t believe that it will or won’t.

crisw's avatar

@downtide

“To me, a belief is simply a conviction of mind in something, whether there is evidence for it or not.”

This is a good point- and then the presence or absence of evidence for that belief can be used to judge if it is likely to be a valid or invalid belief. I think the really crucial difference isn’t between types of beliefs, but whether or not people are willing to drop invalid beliefs and search for valid ones.

comicalmayhem's avatar

@AdamF You ended your answer saying you’re agnostic as an explanation for your belief/disbelief in God. All you said before was explain what agnosticism is, so therefor if someone asks, “Do you believe there is a God?”, “I’m an agnostic” is appropriate if they know what agnosticism is. You could say, “I am uncertain that God exists. He could and he could not. There’s no way of knowing.” But that’s the same as saying, “I’m an agnostic.”

comicalmayhem's avatar

@downtide Right, just like agnostics believe that there might be a God. But they don’t believe there isn’t or is.

ETpro's avatar

@AdamF I class my self as an atheistic agnostic because I do not believe we currently know whether there is a god or not, and I have run into too many people, some of them atheists themselves, who define atheism as having absolute certainty there is no god.

If you asked me, “Do you believe there is a god?” the short answer would be no.

Likewise, if asked, “Are you certain there is no god?” my answer would be no.

I will say that I find the notion, held by many, that the truth of fallacy of god’s existence is unknowable by man to be foolishness. If there is a god capable of creating this entire Universe and intelligent enough to have designed all the rules it runs by, I have no doubt whatsoever that such a being could reveal themselves to me should s/he want to do so.

That gets to the heart of the philosophical question about whether it is possible to know anything with certainty. Can you know that you know? If you can’t, then how can you know that you can’t? :-)

AdamF's avatar

@comicalmayhem “You ended your answer saying you’re agnostic as an explanation for your belief/disbelief in God.”

No, I ended my argument with the very clear statement “I’m agnostic with respect to the existence of god.” not, with respect to belief in god. I think you need to re-read my post, as I was emphasizing that agnostic doesn’t actually answer the issue of belief.

@ETpro As you know, Atheists can be gnostic or agnostic. Any atheist who claims to know that atheism is by default the certainty that there is no god, needs to read more.

Most (if not all when pressed) atheists are agnostic atheists, like (it appears) you and me. I’ve never met a gnostic atheist with respect to all gods, as the definition is far too broad and fuzzy to claim with certainty that none exist (considering some define it god as loosely as “universal energy”).

Rarebear's avatar

@JLeslie No. I have not been presented with evidence of an afterlife so it is not part of my worldview. It’s not a question of belief or disbelief.

JLeslie's avatar

@Rarebear Oh, because I don’t believe in one and you said you differ with me.

Rarebear's avatar

@JLeslie I was just splitting hairs. You say you “don’t believe”. I say, “I see no evidence of.” It’s basically saying the same thing but your saying that you “don’t believe” implies a more active disbelief than I have.

comicalmayhem's avatar

@AdamF I read it twice and I still say it’s an acceptable answer IF the person asking knows what an agnostic is. It’s the same as saying “I’m a Christian” except a totally different answer.

“I’m a Christian” = Yes
“I’m an agnostic” = Maybe
“I’m an atheist” = No

comicalmayhem's avatar

@Rarebear The only evidence of afterlife is the chemicals in your brain given off when you fall asleep that cause dreams would be given off when you die as well. But I would think that eventually you’d stop dreaming and the ‘afterlife’ is nothing but an quick 5 minute illusion after you die. I still don’t think there’s enough evidence to even prove there’s a 5 minute afterlife.

But with that being said, it’s really irrelevant whether or not you’re good on Earth decides if you go to heaven or hell. In theory, heaven is a good dream and hell is a nightmare. So it depends if your last thoughts on Earth were good or bad. If you died tragically, you’re probably going to ‘hell’ for 5 minutes then into complete darkness/death.

Death is weird though, hard to think about because if you are in complete darkness after you die, it’s a hard feeling to even imagine.

JLeslie's avatar

@Rarebear I see the difference now.

AdamF's avatar

@comicalmayhem

Read here for further explanation
http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutagnosticism/a/atheism.htm

Or here
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnosticism

Or watch this
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2Py1Bz8XOo

Let me try an example and forgive the repetition, but Im trying different pathways:

AdamF is not a real person, but is an alien indisinguishable in any way from a real human.

Do you believe this or not? There is no “maybe” you believe it or not option. You might sway between belief and disbelief as different lines of evidence are provided for and against, but you can’t simultaneously believe and not belief, or by association, sit in neither camp. Belief is something active. If you’re not there, then you don’t believe. You might believe at some future point, but the “Im still making up my mind” is not belief. So, still making up your mind = not believing at that given moment. Hence, you have two choices with respect to believing something, not three.

To answer “agnostic” is by defintion nonsensical when it comes to belief or non-belief to a given propostion about your beliefs. All it informs the listener about is whether you think something can’t be known either way, ie whether or not I am an alien. I still don’t know whether you believe or not that Im an alien.

“Maybe” does not equate with “agnosticism”. No matter how often that is mistakenly asserted. Similarly, “Im an agnostic” does not equate with being more “open minded” to the possible existence of god than saying “I’m an atheist”. Because being an atheist, doesn’t tell you whether or not that person is open minded to the possible existence of god. Only their stance with respect to “gnosticism” or an “agnosticism” on this question establishes this.

Most importantly, this is an issue about the actual definitions of these words, not what we think these words mean.

ag·nos·tic –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.

AdamF's avatar

@Rarebear “No. I have not been presented with evidence of an afterlife so it is not part of my worldview. It’s not a question of belief or disbelief.”

Dictionary definition of belief is as follows: “Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.”

If you don’t hold the proposition that “there is an afterlife” to be true, then you don’t believe in an afterlife. By “not believing”, you’re not asserting the non-existence of an afterlife, you’re merely pointing out that you have no evidence from which to justify belief that an afterlife exists. Which seems entirely consistent with your view.

Or am I missing something.

JLeslie's avatar

@Rarebear I think I have run into that problem many times with doctors. Science has not proven it yet so it must not be so. That kept me sick a long time.

comicalmayhem's avatar

@AdamF
“Maybe” does not equate with “agnosticism”. No matter how often that is mistakenly asserted. Similarly, “Im an agnostic” does not equate with being more “open minded” to the possible existence of god than saying “I’m an atheist”. Because being an atheist, doesn’t tell you whether or not that person is open minded to the possible existence of god.
Maybe does equate with agnosticism. “I’m an agnostic” does equate with being open mined. “I’m an atheist” says that you are not open minded to the existence of God because you believe he doesn’t exist. Why are you stating things that are clearly false?

AdamF is not a real person, but is an alien indisinguishable in any way from a real human.
Do you believe this or not? There is no “maybe” you believe it or not option. You might sway between belief and disbelief as different lines of evidence are provided for and against, but you can’t simultaneously believe and not belief, or by association, sit in neither camp. Belief is something active. If you’re not there, then you don’t believe. You might believe at some future point, but the “Im still making up my mind” is not belief. So, still making up your mind = not believing at that given moment. Hence, you have two choices with respect to believing something, not three
There is a maybe… that’s what agnosticism is. The maybe option. Whether you believe that ‘maybe’ is a logical choice or not is irrelevant. It’s still a choice. The belief is that “we can’t know this for sure, so it could go either way”. Agnosticism is not “still making up your mind”. It’s already made up to saying “it could be true and it could be false”. It’s a “maybe”. Hence, you have 3 choices. A yes, a no, and a maybe.

If I react to the definition of agnosticism, I’d be repeating myself.

Rarebear's avatar

@AdamF No, you sum it up pretty correctly. Like I said, I’m just splitting hairs. I guess it’s a question of emphasis. I have many religious friends who believe in an afterlife. If the concept of an afterlife comes up (which it rarely does), I don’t like to say, “I don’t believe in an afterlife.” To me that seems a little argumentative and dismissive of their own beliefs. If I say, “I just am too much of an empericist, and I see no evidence of it,” it’s more passive. Seems more polite to me. But I’m probably wrong.

@JLeslie That’s a discussion for a different question.

comicalmayhem's avatar

@Rarebear For the question “Do you believe there is an afterlife?” would you argue that “maybe” could be the short answer for agnostics?

AdamF's avatar

@comicalmayhem Belief or non-belief in something is not the same as acknowledging what can or cannot be known, or what could or could not exist. Do you agree with that or not?

@Rarebear No worries. I understand the point, and to sensitive ears I guess “I don’t believe” can sound confronting….and if the chocolate mousse is just about to be served, probably best to keep the peace.

comicalmayhem's avatar

@AdamF I do not agree. If you acknowledge what can or cannot be known or can or cannot exist, you could have that as a belief that it just can’t be known so it could go either way. You can believe something could go either way.

AdamF's avatar

@comicalmayhem You don’t agree that it’s possible for someone to not believe in god, but concurrently acknowledge that it is possible god does exist anyways?

Mariah's avatar

@AdamF See, it always seems to come down to semantics. My OP was about a semantic difference in the meaning of belief; my response to you is going to be semantic difference in the meaning of agnosticism.

You seem to be saying that agnostics necessarily believe that the existence of god is unknowable. I define agnosticism differently. I believe it might be unknowable. Basically my view is that, I don’t know if there’s a god or not, and I don’t even know if it’s knowable or not. Agnosticism for me is basically an admission that I don’t know shit, and refuse to try to claim that I do. Agnosticism is the withholding of forming an opinion due to a lack of information.

You make a good point: Agnostics don’t believe in a god, so perhaps a more useful response to the question “do you believe in god?” would be “no,” rather than, “I’m agnostic.” But, the reason I would be tempted to respond with “I’m agnostic” is that, the questioner is going to glean, from your answer of “no,” that I am an atheist. They won’t ask the vital follow-up question: “do you believe there is no god?” which would differentiate me from an atheist. I would say no (since I have no belief either way, I am suspending my belief) and an atheist would say yes. To me, saying “I’m agnostic” is a useful answer because it says “No, I don’t believe in a god, but I also don’t believe the opposite is necessarily true.”

It seems to me that you would consider my beliefs to be a category of atheism (an atheist who admits she might be wrong), whereas I consider them to be a category of agnosticism (an undecided person who leans towards atheism). Again – semantics.

@Rarebear @downtide I had a hard time articulating this question, and it shows. The penny analogy wasn’t the greatest. Yes, there is a 50% chance with each throw that it will be tails, but there is a 25% chance that it will be tails twice in a row. A tight believer acknowledges that this outcome isn’t very likely, but does not go so far as to say that they believe it won’t happen. A loose believer sees that acknowledgement itself as an admission of what he believes will happen (I completely made those terms up).

@thorninmud “I think of belief as being one’s “working hypothesis”; it’s having a sufficiently high degree of confidence in a proposition that one feels one can base one’s actions and decisions on it.”
This statement, to me, fall somewhere on the spectrum between my two definitions. One’s “working hypothesis” could be thought of as something he thinks has a high probability of being true. This sounds closer to a loose believer, who believes in something that he thinks has higher than a 50% chance of being true. But then you qualify it as being a hypothesis with a high degree of confidence, indicating that you won’t declare “belief” until that probability is much higher than 50%, making you more of a tight believer. Do I make any sense at all? I do apologize. XD

I’m not the only one who understands what I’m trying to convey here, right? I’m having a terrible time trying to be clear about what I mean. Perhaps this whole post question is a bunch of hogwash; I apologize.

thorninmud's avatar

@Mariah Actually, I said ”...having a sufficiently high degree of confidence…”. In other words, enough confidence that one bases one’s decisions and actions on the hypothesis. There’s a tipping point, I think, between believing in the plausibility of something and adopting it as a basis for action.

AdamF's avatar

@Mariah Unknown doesn’t equate with unknowable, as unknown indicates the potential for a change in status in the future. The deinfition of agnostic includes either those who think the existence of god is something unknown or unknowable (either is correct). So we don’t disagree on this point. I see it as unknown.

“You make a good point: Agnostics don’t believe in a god, so perhaps a more useful response to the question “do you believe in god?” would be “no,” rather than, “I’m agnostic.”

Exactly. If you don’t believe in god, you are an atheist. That’s not an opinion, that’s the definition of an atheist.

“But, the reason I would be tempted to respond with “I’m agnostic” is that, the questioner is going to glean, from your answer of “no,” that I am an atheist.”

See above.

“They won’t ask the vital follow-up question: “do you believe there is no god?” which would differentiate me from an atheist.”

No it would not. An atheist can be someone who does not believe in god (ie you), believes there is no god, or knows there is no god. You’re narrowing the definition of atheism to make it more restrictive than it is.

“I would say no (since I have no belief either way, I am suspending my belief) and an atheist would say yes.”

An atheist would not by default say yes. See above.

“To me, saying “I’m agnostic” is a useful answer because it says “No, I don’t believe in a god, but I also don’t believe the opposite is necessarily true.”

I’m sorry, but once again, agnosticism doesn’t not say that you don’t believe in a god. You could be also be a theist. This is easy to demonstrate by looking at the wiki link on agnosticism. There are two options. Agnostic theist and agnostic atheist. You are not telling someone that you don’t belive in god by saying agnostic. You are however acknowleging that you think the existence of god is unknown to you. If you don’t believe in god, then the answer is atheist. But you could preface it with agnostic-atheist, or “soft-atheist” if you wish to be precise.

“It seems to me that you would consider my beliefs to be a category of atheism (an atheist who admits she might be wrong), whereas I consider them to be a category of agnosticism (an undecided person who leans towards atheism).”

On issues of semantic disagreement the dictionary wins. As such, yes you’re an agnostic-atheist.

Same as me by the way.

Frankly, I acknowledge that by common usage agnosticism has often swerved well away from the textbook definition. Hence these discussions, and my emphasis on returning to the dictionary to determine what a word means or doesn’t mean.

hey, and sorry, I didn’t mean to derail this discussion of belief to a discussion of agnosticism, but I hope it’s somewhat relevant

Mariah's avatar

@AdamF I feel that people will draw false conclusions about my beliefs if I introduce myself as an atheist. Maybe I’m technically wrong, but I will continue to call myself agnostic. Sorry if that bothers you.

AdamF's avatar

It doesn’t bother me at all. I hope I don’t give the impresson that it does. All I can do is say, “Hey are you aware that…”

Also, I completely understand the hesitation to say that you’re an atheist. The word sucks. The baggage sucks, and you are right to assume that people will draw false conclusions about your beliefs. They’ll probably think that you claim to know there is no god.

So feel free to use any label you wish…goes without saying.

Anyways, in between posts I just did a google, and found another link to add to the one’s above that might explain better what I am trying to.

http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutagnosticism/a/what.htm

Mariah's avatar

@AdamF Well in truth, I wasn’t aware that my views weren’t entirely compatible with the dictionary definition of agnosticism, so I do appreciate you pointing that out and apologize for getting a little snippy there. Ideally I would follow dictionary definitions in trying to find the words to “label” my views, but social stigmas on the term “atheism,” and knowing the conclusions that people will jump to upon hearing that word, make me hesitate to call myself that. I wish it weren’t that way.

After reading your link… I am so confused, haha. So agnosticism, technically, is the belief that the existence of god is unknowable. Do they mean unknowable now, given our current set of information, or unknowable forever; there’s no way we’ll ever be able to know? Because I could say that I believe the former, but not the latter.

But I have to admit that the article you linked is only making me feel more sure that agnostic is the proper label for me. For example:

“Those who disclaim any such knowledge [on the existence of any god] or even that any such knowledge is possible are properly labeled agnostics.” This is me. Does the quote imply that I cannot even have suspcions one way or another, though?

“An agnostic is not simply someone who suspends judgment on an issue, but rather one who suspends judgment because he feels that the subject is unknowable and therefore no judgment can be made.” This fits me, if by unknowable they mean currently unknowable, not unknowable forever.

“It is possible, therefore, for someone not to believe in a God and yet still suspend judgment (ie, be an agnostic) about whether it is possible to obtain knowledge of a God. Such a person would be an atheistic agnostic.” This also fits me, so long as “not to believe in a god” doesn’t imply actively believing there is no god.

“If a person cannot claim to know, or at least know for sure, if any gods exist, then they may properly use the term “agnostic” to describe themselves; at the same time, this person likely insists that it would be wrong on some level to claim that gods either definitely do or definitely don’t exist.” This is also me.

So, @AdamF, what you have accomplished is making me severely confused. I don’t mind that, though. Good discussion. :)

Rarebear's avatar

@comicalmayhem ”@Rarebear For the question “Do you believe there is an afterlife?” would you argue that “maybe” could be the short answer for agnostics?’

I can’t speak for anybody but me, but I would say no. As I mentioned above, I live my life by evidence and probabilities. You can say “maybe” for practically anything since science doesn’t ever know anything for 100% certain. It’s all about evidence. I see no evidence of an afterlife, so I see it as highly improbable. But is it a “maybe”? I suppose, technically, yes.

AdamF's avatar

@Mariah No worries with respect to the “snippy” bit… :)

“Do they mean unknowable now, given our current set of information, or unknowable forever; there’s no way we’ll ever be able to know? ”

unknown or unknowable. The definition covers both, so as “unknown” acknowledges a present state of affairs (ie it is currently unknown, not unknowable), it covers that we could know whether or not god exists tomorrow. So you are perfectly safe calling yourself agnostic with respect to a view that at present the existence of god is unknown. At the same time, if you thought it was unknowable, you’d also be safe calling yourself an agnostic.

“Those who disclaim any such knowledge [on the existence of any god] or even that any such knowledge is possible are properly labeled agnostics.” This is me. Does the quote imply that I cannot even have suspcions one way or another, though?

Not at all. All it describes are people who regardless of what they suspect, don’t know or think they can’t know with any certainty either way. You might believe one way or the other, but you acknowledge the limits of human knowledge on this topic (or others). Frankly considering the range of gods out there, and the impossibility of demonstrating the non-existence of anything (other than logical impossibilities), I don’t understand how anyone could be “gnostic” with respect to all god options. We simply can’t know…although we can certainly have our feelings one way or the other (which may lean either way depending on the god in question), which is where belief steps in.

“An agnostic is not simply someone who suspends judgment on an issue, but rather one who suspends judgment because he feels that the subject is unknowable and therefore no judgment can be made.” This fits me, if by unknowable they mean currently unknowable, not unknowable forever.

Yeap. Some sentences may use unknowable rather than unknown, but “unknown” is a standard part of the definition of agnosticism (whether or not they use that term in every sentence).

“It is possible, therefore, for someone not to believe in a God and yet still suspend judgment (ie, be an agnostic) about whether it is possible to obtain knowledge of a God. Such a person would be an atheistic agnostic.” This also fits me, so long as “not to believe in a god” doesn’t imply actively believing there is no god.”

Exactly! :)

“If a person cannot claim to know, or at least know for sure, if any gods exist, then they may properly use the term “agnostic” to describe themselves; at the same time, this person likely insists that it would be wrong on some level to claim that gods either definitely do or definitely don’t exist.” This is also me.”

Same here!

Gotta sleep. Nice discussion! Happy to chat more but it’ll take a while before I can respond

JLeslie's avatar

@Rarebear I agree. I agree it is a discussion for another thread.

ninjacolin's avatar

@ETpro said: “Every time a question of word meaning comes up, I consult the dictionary. I believe that communication would become difficult to impossible if we all feel free to invent our own meaning for words. We would need to define every word we utter, and what but other amorphous, undefined words might we use for the definition?”

The problem is, as you then proceed to demonstrate, that dictionary definitions are too restrictive and often (at least in this case) entirely wrong. A good definition is one that is entirely suitable for the context. The dictionary definitions you listed for Belief from Merriam are lacking beyond lacking.

I’ll give you a much better one. Well, I hope you see it that way anyway.. I do mean to be competitive and would love your approval: Beliefs are propositions remembered as being true.

Now to apply to to @Mariah‘s great question, here’s what I would say:

“What constitutes a belief between agnostics and atheists?”

Atheists believe/remember it being more worthwhile (today/now) to wager against the possibility that there is a god than to wager for it.
Agnostics believe/remember not having sufficient evidence (today/now) to wager one way or another.
Theists believe/remember it being more worthwhile (today/now) to wager for the possibility that there is a god than to wager against it.

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