Atheist Versus Agnostic October 18, 2008

Atheist Versus Agnostic

Lisa Faires and Brad Pritikin question why people use the word “agnostic” when they really mean “atheist.”

The full comic might make your head hurt, but the conclusion seems to nail it. Some people are just too afraid of the word “atheist.”

It’s nothing to be ashamed of!

As Stephen Colbert says: Agnostics are just atheists without balls.

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  • Richard

    It may be that i just dont have the balls to stand up to people and tell them that they are wrong, or it may be that the same thing that scares me about Theism also scares me about Atheism.

    The belief in God, or gods, is just as scary as the belief in the lack of a God, or gods. not scary as in, what the heck happens to me when i die, scary. But Scary like; how can you be so sure about something? scary.

    Atheists sometimes scare me just as much as Theists do, simply because of the Faith it takes to believe that there is no God, or that there is one. In my opinion (prove me wrong, please. i would love to actually be sure about something) There is no way to prove, without reasonable doubt, that there is no God, and there is no way to prove, without reasonable doubt, that there is a God.

    I think Agnostics tend to over-analyze things, and then have trouble making up their mind once they are done thinking about something. But that is just me.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I don’t believe that there’s life in the Andromeda Galaxy. But I also don’t believe that there’s not life in the Andromeda Galaxy. Either seems possible, and I don’t have strong feelings, or concrete beliefs, in either direction. In other words, I’m agnostic about life in the Andromeda Galaxy.

    As an atheist, I’m pretty sure that there’s no god or gods. But I don’t see any reason to believe that people can’t be genuinely agnostic about them.

  • Jasen

    A problem is that there are at least two sets of definitions in circulation, both of which work but are overlapping and different.

    Atheist – someone who claims to know that god(s) and the supernatural don’t or can’t exist.

    Agnostic – someone who isn’t sure if god(s) or the supernatural exists.

    Theists – someone who is sure god(s) and/or the supernatural exists.


    Atheist – is simply someone who is not a theist (hence a – theist). This means that they lack a belief in any god(s), but it doesn’t mean that they deny the possibility of god(s) or supernatural forces.

    Agnosticism – literally means without knowledge. The agnostic position is that there is no evidence, or at least no good evidence, to suggest that god(s) exists or that god(s) dosen’t exist. Agnosticism also has a strong and weak division. Strong agnosticism states that the existence or non-existence of god(s) is unknowable. Weak agnosticism states that existence or nonexistence of god(s) is currently unknown (in the “weakest” view, perhaps merely unknown to the specific agnostic in question), but is not necessarily unknowable.

    Theist – simply someone who has a belief in god(s).

    I am an atheist by the second set of definitions but not by the first.

  • BZ

    @ Richard

    The definition of atheist is someone who lacks a belief in god. They don’t necessarily have to be sure that there is no god. There are two types of atheists, strong atheists who believe there definitely is no god, and weak atheists who don’t have a belief either way. Your criticisms don’t apply to those who are weak atheists, which is a considerable portion of atheists.

  • Jamie G.

    @ Richard:

    Let’s take what you said and change it up a wee-bit.

    It may be that i just dont have the balls to stand up to people and tell them that they are wrong, or it may be that the same thing that scares me about BIGFOOT-ism also scares me about A-BIGFOOT-ism.

    The belief in BIG FOOT, or BIG FEET, is just as scary as the belief in the lack of a BIG FOOT, or BIG FEET. not scary as in, what the heck happens to me when i die, scary. But Scary like; how can you be so sure about something? scary.

    A-BIG FOOT-ists sometimes scare me just as much as BIG FOOT-ists do, simply because of the Faith it takes to believe that there is no BIG FOOT, or that there is one. In my opinion (prove me wrong, please. i would love to actually be sure about something) There is no way to prove, without reasonable doubt, that there is no BIG FOOT, and there is no way to prove, without reasonable doubt, that there is a BIG FOOT.

    I think Agnostics tend to over-analyze things, and then have trouble making up their mind once they are done thinking about something. But that is just me.

    Weak atheism (or just Atheism, period) is the lack of belief. Personally, I reserve the right to be skeptical of any claim and until sufficient evidence is presented to change my mind….call me what you want, atheist or whatever. I don’t have time, nor do I wish to waste years looking over the scholarly and philosophical treatise to find out if the Christian god exists or not. If “He” does, then he knows what to convince me to believe in “Him”. “He” ain’t done it so far, so I’m not wasting my time.

    As for Big Foot, I am an A-Big Foot-ist until he comes knocking on my door and introduces himself.

  • tonyc2001

    @ Richard:

    The belief in God, or gods, is just as scary as the belief in the lack of a God, or gods. not scary as in, what the heck happens to me when i die, scary. But Scary like; how can you be so sure about something? scary.

    I’m not an atheist because I believe there is no god. I’m an atheist because I’ve never seen a reasoned argument for a god that doesn’t involve some unsupportable leaps in logic. However, I have seen many well-reasoned arguments that have “no need for that hypothesis.”

    If I don’t need a god to explain what is known about what happens around me and no prospect of needing one to explain the currently unknown. I accept that some things *may* be ultimately unknowable. However I also have no need for a god to explain these because “god did it” explains just as much for me as “Jim did it” or “blue did it”, i.e. it explains nothing.

  • Although I’ve called myself an atheist in times past, I’m really not. I’m open to the idea that everything I know about the universe could be wrong, that the seemingly obvious (un)supernaturality of it all is in fact the opposite. The idea that atoms exist and stick together in Angelina Jolie shaped clumps is supernatural enough for me to entertain the idea of a creator. But at this stage of the game I’m yet to see, hear of feel anything that truly convinces me that the Christian god exists and gives a damn about me.

  • I like to say that I am an atheist because I lack god belief, but I am also an agnostic because I lack god knowledge. But it is the word “atheist” that best describes me because it is an indication of my position in relation to the actual theism.

  • Oh yeah, THAT’S what I miss about being a Christian.. dealing out severe beatings. *sigh* Good times.

  • AV

    I’m an agnostic atheist. I don’t claim to know whether or not god/s exist. But I lack belief in god/s, there being no evidence that god/s exist, and thus no good reason to believe.

  • Jasen got it. Unfortunately the (in my opinion) superior “lack of belief” definition is relatively unknown outside of atheist circles.

  • I am an atheist with respect to the “known” gods; I don’t see any evidence for them and the available evidence points to an existence without supernatural interference.

    I am agnostic with respect to some supernatural “spirit of the universe” that may well have organized things in ways that we don’t understand. I am unaware of convincing knowledge in either direction.

    But I am definitely an atheist with regards to deities that alter our current universe.

    I should point out that many make the mistake that “belief” and “disbelief” are somehow symmetrical; they aren’t.

    For example, if someone claims that eating red delicious apples prevents a certain type of cancer, the reasonable position is to not believe the claim until proper evidence is presented to back up the claim.

    It would be nonsense to say “maybe so, maybe not”. So when it comes to believing in any of the standard claims, the reasonable position is disbelief until evidence for belief is presented.

  • JohnB

    Agnosticism is an epistemological position.

    Atheism is an ontological position.

    They are not degrees of certainty in the non-existence of god. One can say they don’t believe in god or gods while maintaining that it can’t be known whether or not they actually exist.

  • Jon

    I think you can answer “Do you believe?” with “I don’t know.” Do I believe the next coin toss will produce heads or tails? Don’t know. When you consider each option to be about an equal likelihood then you don’t know.

    If the coin was rigged so that it produced heads 90% of the time, then you’d say that you do believe it will be heads. I take the atheist to be saying that he’s weighed the evidence and found that the atheist position is far more likely. The agnostic finds that there is close to an even chance of either option.

  • I’m with BZ above… even someone like Richard Dawkins doesn’t give himself a high number on his atheist rating chart in his book “The God Delusion”

    I called myself an agnostic for years and sometimes still do to some people, but I’m atheist without a doubt. It takes time for some of us that were religion ingrained for years to meld into that label.

  • Thanks again for linking our comic.

    “Do I believe the next coin toss will produce heads or tails? Don’t know.”

    You can answer the question that way, it just doesn’t make sense.

    It’s true you don’t know what the coin will land on, so you also don’t believe it will be either specific result right? You don’t believe BECAUSE you don’t know.

    Saying you don’t know implies an answer to the question because most of the time we don’t believe what we don’t know.

    But some people do. Theists, for example. 🙂 So when we are talking about god-belief the distinction is a little more significant.

  • Tyson

    I think all atheists are agnostics on some level. If you ask me if I believe in unicorns, or if I believe that unicorns exist (the magical type, not just a horse with a mutation) I would have to say, I honestly don’t know. I can’t prove to you that they don’t. However, this is where probability comes in. The probability that unicorns exist is so small, that you can generalize this idea into “no they don’t exist.” It isn’t necessary for me to say, “no, the probability that they exist is so small, but if you show me evidence to the contrary, then I can be proven wrong.” It would be interesting to ask an agnostic on how they weight the options. What is the probability that you think a god exists? People who say “I don’t know” kind of imply that it’s 50/50 and I’m pretty sure they don’t feel that way.

    Do black swans exist?

  • J. J. Ramsey


    “Do I believe the next coin toss will produce heads or tails? Don’t know.”

    You can answer the question that way, it just doesn’t make sense.

    Except that people still get what one means when one answers “I don’t know” to “Do you believe?” It means that one doesn’t appear to have enough info to form a belief one way or the other. Essentially, the problem with your comic is that it assumes that the only appropriate answer to “Do you believe?” is yes or no. Sometimes the correct answer is mu.

  • Web comics=WIN

  • If you ask some Fundamentalist Christians whether they believe in ghosts you’ll see a similar phenomenon–they’re afraid to admit absolutely that they believe in something subversively occult and they usually waffle.

    Peer pressure.


    If you take the God issue down a few paranormal notches, it seems the importance of declaring a position gets more pointless.

    Why all the pressure to declare belief in something (or lack thereof) about something so unrelated to your experience?

    Also, Jews feel like this when Christians ask why they don’t accept Jesus?

    Why should they think of him at all? Why give Jesus the power of being worthy of conversation at all, in their eyes?

    Granted, there is political discrimination that atheists have to deal with so they must beg the question, but socially? I don’t see the point of caring at all, engaging the conversation about a fantasy at all, giving it more life.

    (Yeah, sorry for the rambling…..)

  • Jeff Satterley

    The problem is saying “no” to the question is ambiguous. You could be saying one of two things:

    1) I believe that god does not exist.
    2) I do not believe that god exists.

    The first asserts a positive belief of knowing that this being, known as God, does not exist. The second asserts that you don’t hold the positive belief that God does exist. Note that that pragmatically, many people interpret the second as if it means the same as the first. However, it can also mean what I described above, which does not say anything about believing that God actually does not exist. The be more clear, the two statements could be presented this way:

    1) I hold the belief that god does not exist.
    2) I do not hold the belief that god exists.

    If we consider the meaning of atheist, it is simply “not a theist.” A theist would hold the belief that god exists. Therefore, the second statement is a more accurate definition of a belief sufficient or being an atheist.

    To be more generic, we can use a semi-logical form the represent these three statements to be clearer:

    Theist: p = I believe x

    Atheist 1) I believe not(x)
    Atheist 2) not(I believe x) = not(p)

    So I think its fairly clear that logically, the second statement is the negation of being a theist, while the first is only a subset of atheists.

    Of course, colloquially, many people have different ideas about what an atheist is, so in reality its more complicated. And of course atheists themselves also discriminate between what we believe in a strict ontological sense, and what we practically believe.

    For instance, I understand that in truth I can’t know for sure that there is no god, but I also believe that the probability that he exists is about the same as the probability that unicorns or leprechauns exist. Thus, in an everyday, practical sense, I can say that I believe god does not exist.

  • Axegrrl

    There’s a simple little chart here that should clear up any misconceptions about atheism/agnosticism:

    atheist vs. agnostic

    If I hear that ‘Bill Maher isn’t an atheist’ one more time, I think I’ll scream! Maher mistakenly thinks that atheism = certainty. argh.

    Anyway, personally, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be ‘gnostic’ about the existence of god(s).

    Also, on this board, awhile ago, someone said something to the effect of: “not all atheists think it’s impossible to ‘know’ whether or not God exists.” Which prompted this question in me:

    if there are atheists who think it could be possible to ‘know’ whether or not God exists, how or through what method of ‘knowing’ would this be possible and/or plausible to these atheists?

  • I disagree with the comic (and most of the commenters above). You can say, “Agnostic means X and atheist means Y,” all you want, but word definitions are not objective truths. If I wanted to, I could say “With reference to your definitions, I would be a [blank]”, but why should I stick to that label in general? The whole line of argument is useless. Useless when agnostics do it, useless when atheists do it.

    I far prefer “atheist”, because I’ve found that your typical self-identified agnostic has some serious misconceptions. They tend to think they are the only ones in the world who are unsure about themselves. Sometimes it makes for some irritating self-righteous humility. No, it is not profound, not even interesting, to say that we cannot know things for certain.

  • What should I call it when I believe that there “was” a god. (That created the universe) but that he no longer exists or is simply uninvolved with this universe.

    I don’t find good enough scientific evidence that there is infinite time or that we can get something from nothing. It seems best to presume that the universe was created, and it also seems best to assume that the creator is inactive or no longer in existence.

    That probably just qualifies as wierd-istic.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Brad, Jon’s example seems spot-on. The problem with your comic, and your response to Jon, is that you’re not using very sensible definitions of agnostic and atheist. Jasen gave two possible ways to define agnostic and atheist, both of which are reasonable. I prefer his first pair of definitions, but either pair is good. But you seem to want to define atheist as “someone who doesn’t possess a belief in a god or gods,” regardless of whether they “believe that there are no god or gods.” (ala Jon’s example, the first doesn’t imply the second.) Then you want to define agnostic in exactly the same way. If those are your definitions, then yeah, I guess you could complain that agnostics should really call themselves atheists. You could equally well complain that atheists should call themselves agnostics. But it doesn’t make much sense to choose definitions for two words that make them equivalent, and then complain that people should only use one of them. Whatever definition you pick for the two words (again, see Jasen’s post) should allow “agnostic” to indicate more uncertainty of some kind (ontological, epistemological, whatever), than “atheist.”

    BTW, Brad, while I haven’t agreed with the logic of either of your comics that have recently been posted here, your comics are generally great. This one was awesome. Build up larger archives! Quit your job, and dedicate your life to making comics for me, if need be.

  • Richard Wade

    As others have pointed out here, atheism is a position about belief while agnosticism is a position about knowledge, or more accurately, knowability. They are two separate things that only in certain cases can overlap.

    So in the correct use of the term agnostic, an agnostic is not “an atheist without balls.” Some people who are actually either weak strong atheists (I hate those terms) might substitute agnostic that way because they don’t want to be attacked over the other “a” word, but they’re using it incorrectly. I think my dad called himself an agnostic because of this. It just had less potential for social stigma than “atheist” at the time.

    As long as atheists and agnostics feel that they are at risk for persecution, some will hedge about their stances and may either misuse these terms or invent new, euphemistic terms to avoid bad consequences, and as long as theists who don’t ever actually talk to us keep misusing these terms to define us to fit their bigotry, we will have to continuously and endlessly correct them.

  • It is unacceptably common for somebody to use I’m agnostic” as an arrogant position, to belittle both theists and non-theists. Generally, these individuals are brutally ignorant of the subject at hand.

  • I, personally, don’t find the word “atheist” to imply any sort of certainty at all. It’s just a characterization of one’s position on the probability of the existence of god.

    I’m not ABSOLUTELY OMG CERTAIN that no gods exist, but I do find it really really improbable. I go about my life as though there aren’t any gods, because that seems like the most reasonable working conclusion. If new evidence presents itself, I shall reconsider.

    I call that “atheism”. If you think my use of that word entails some sort of absolute certainty on my part, or that I think I can prove the non-existence of god, that’s your problem. I assert neither.

  • mikespeir

    Ditto what jtradke said.

  • Jeff Satterley

    if there are atheists who think it could be possible to ‘know’ whether or not God exists, how or through what method of ‘knowing’ would this be possible and/or plausible to these atheists?

    I think it is absolutely possible to prove that a specific God does not exist, if the definition of this God entails a contadiction. (Take that everyone who says “You can’t prove a negative!”)

    For instance, I believe it is contradictory to claim that God can be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good. If God is all-knowing, he obviously knows everything that will happen throughout all time. If he is all-good, his actions must be the most moral actions possible (and since he is all-knowing, there is no possibility for unforeseen circumstances). Therefore, his actions are predetermined (since he can’t choose not to be all-good, by doing something that is less than perfectly moral), thus he has no free will, and cannot truly be all-powerful. (Obviously this is a pretty rough argument, I’ve seen it executed much more eloquently, but I hope you get the idea.)

    Of course, theists are very good at changing the definition of their God, or claiming that in “Supernatural-God-Land”, contradictions are allowed. But most respectable thinkers agree that logic holds in all domains.

  • stephanie

    Funny, because I have discussions with my atheist friends who can’t understand why I am both agnostic and atheistic. If I have to pick the one I am sure of to the point of faith, it’s that our little monkey brains can never grasp the magnitude of the universe and all the myriad of wonders it contains. But do I believe some god or gods control it? Only if you can equate the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics to gods. Hence I believe that it’s all natural not supernatural, but some of the mechanisms are unknown and even unknowable given the teensy amount of time and grey matter and time we have to parse them.

  • wwyoud

    Funny how you can be ‘friendly’ to those christians who are properly respectful, yet demean agnostics, who usually align with and support atheist causes, with childish comments about missing anatomy. Is the Republican divisiveness re: “pro-Americans” starting to trickle down?

  • @Autumnal Harvest:
    See George H. Smith’s treatment of the subject as linked on my comic. I didn’t come up with these definitions, I’m relying on the scholarship of the atheist authors and thinkers of the past 500 years.

    That being said it seems to me this is the situation.

    There is a very inclusive definition of atheist, and a very exclusive one.

    The vast majority of atheists do not claim certainty of the non-existence of god.

    So to use the exclusive definition leaves you with a large inconsistency. Living in a world populated with literally millions of atheists that you don’t want to call atheists.

    If you stick to the exclusive definition, you can’t read any of the most important atheist authors without getting confused.

    The definitions I’m using are also simply more useful than the others.

    So when there is a more accepted, widely used, useful, logical, and cogent definition with the force of historical usage behind it why bother with the other definition?

    Why choose a definition that leaves you without context to interpret atheistic works? Why choose a definition that’s at conflict with the vast majority that actually label themselves with the word you are defining? It just seems counter-productive to me. Like saying “bald” should now mean only people who have lost their hair naturally, not those that shave their head. Why adopt this exclusive attitude?

  • @J. J. Ramsey

    The only answer is “yes” or “no” because to say otherwise is a contradiction, as I explain in the comic. 🙂

  • @Autumnal Harvest

    Oh, one more thing. If you want us to keep making comics… check out our sponsors. 🙂

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Brad, your claim that Smith’s/your definition of “atheist” is THE “accepted, widely used” definition is simply not true. It’s one of a number of definitions out there. Heck, just check the dictionary, and you’ll see definitions of “atheist” and “agnostic” that correspond to those given by Jasen. (My unabridged collegiate dictionary lacks one equivalent to Smith’s, so Smith’s is certainly not the definitive one.) All definitions are fine, so long as they’re useful. My problem with your position, as I said before, is that it’s silly to pick definitions for “agnostic” and “atheist” that make them identical—that’s the most useless way to define words that I can think of.

    I find it ironic that you’re complaining that I want to adopt some definition of “atheist” that excludes people from claiming that they’re atheists. Where does this complaint come from? I’ve not promoted any definition of “atheist.” (I’ve certainly not claimed that to be an atheist you must be able to “claim certainty of the non-existence of god,” since I’m an atheist, and claim no such thing.) I’ve stated that there are several definitions of “atheist” in common usage, and they’re all reasonable defintions. I have no problem with people with beliefs substantially different than me calling themselves “atheist,” or people with beliefs substantially similar to me calling themselves “agnostic.” Whatever definitions they want to use (so long as they’re not patently silly) to classify themselves are fine with me. In contrast, you’re the one who want to claim the right to define “agnostic” in a way “that’s at conflict with the vast majority that actually label themselves with the word you are defining.” You’re the one “Living in a world populated with literally millions of [agnostics] that you don’t want to call [agnostics].” As a well-known lunatic once said “why do you see the mote in your neighbor’s eye, but not notice the plank in your own eye?”

  • I like the comic, but I think it just misses the point (or maybe stops just short of the point), which is that knowledge and belief are best treated as separate continua. I’m an atheist, but I’m also an agnostic. I don’t believe in God, but I also don’t claim certain knowledge on the matter. In this sense, “agnostic” might seem redundant; but it’s not. There are almost certainly atheists about who claim certain knowledge that there is no god. Indeed, if we define God as an omniscient and omnipotent all-benevolent being who has the will to stop human suffering, a lot of us would probably say we know no such being exists. But if we define God simply as some kind of creator, then most of us, I think, would be less ready to claim certain knowledge, but would still define ourselves as atheists; not knowing for certain doesn’t mean you have to believe.

    Interestingly, I suspect that most atheists are also agnostics in this sense of not claiming certain knowledge about their beliefs. Theists are a more varied bunch. My mother claims to be an agnostic Christian (in fact I think she’s really a humanist with a veneer of anglicanism painted on the top — though anglicanism itself could be called humanism with a veneer of Christianity, at least in Great Britain); many more theists claim to know that there is a God.

    So I’m an agnostic atheist, though if anyone asks, I do tend to just say atheist.

    PS: I notice I committed the sin of not reading through all the comments before posting. So I’m repeating what other people have said. Sorry!

  • Atheism is a binary state. You either have a belief in gods or you don’t.

    Agnosticism is looking at the question of whether it is possible to know if there are gods.

    I am an agnostic atheist because I do not believe in gods but I am utterly unable to provide proof that would satisfactorily be called knowledge.

    Most Christians would be agnostic theists as well. If they didn’t believe that “agnostic” was a dirty word like “poo”.

    Plenty of people are agnostic but unwilling to commit to theism or atheism. They may be Laodiceans or apatheists who are indifferent to religion (as I wish to be in my perfect world) or there may be people who are deferring judgment until further evidence comes about.

    “Atheist” and “agnostic” simply don’t work on the same scale.

  • TXatheist

    ditto to what AV said, I’m agnostic atheist.

  • @Autumnal Harvest:
    Don’t take it so personally. My “you” is a royal “you.”

    Most dictionaries are updating to use the more inclusive definition. Even Merriam-Webster (which at one point defined it as wickness or something) now has the inclusive definition.

    But anyhow, I think the reason you’ve somewhat misinterpreted me is that as others have said knowledge and belief are two different issues.

    The definitions of atheism you are talking about, the ones the other guy gave, do not conflict. Most dictionaries define atheism as “Denial or disbelief in god.” Both are included because both are positions atheists take and both result in the same thing, a lack of god belief.

  • T’s Grammy

    Aargh! This same old tired argument.

    Jeff said it better than I will so I’ll just do my usual speaking off the cuff.

    As a “hard” atheist, I gotta say I find it utterly ridiculous that if I do have the balls to say there is no god (which I do, all the time; I like to say when something bad happens, there is no God in the same manner believers say there is a god when something good does) that the burden of proof falls on me for saying something so “unknowable”.

    Unknowable? My ass. It’s about as unknowable as santa, the tooth fairy and the easter bunny. And I’m required to prove the ridiculous assertion isn’t true about as much for God as I am Santa. But short form: god just doesn’t make sense and to misquote Judge Judy, if it doesn’t make sense, it ain’t so.

    I am Atheist; I am not Agnostic. I used to be Agnostic but that was when I was in my chickenshit stage of breaking away from my childhood indoctrination.

    I don’t say all Agnostics are like this but I think the majority are. And there seems to be a new class of them, like Mahr, who are just calling themself Agnostic to be both snobby and PC.

    Mahr is highly over-rated. Mainly, I find him a horse’s ass. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. Mainly, because, so far, he’s done nothing to change my mind.

    Oh, but thanks for the link to the great comic page!

  • I just have to ask. Why all the quibbling over what a person chooses to call him/herself?

    If I want to call myself agnostic because I don’t care for the social stigma attached to the atheist label, if it’s more psychologically comforting to call myself one than another, if I want to suspend personal judgment pending further data, if I want to soften the blow when delivering the news to my very devout family members, then as long as I’m not behaving in a condescending manner to those who choose to adopt the atheist label, why all the outrage over the preferred label of one non-theist or another?

    If I want to adopt a label that’s easier for me to reconcile with a philosophy of, hey, if you have faith I don’t think less of you, if you don’t that’s cool too, why does that automatically make me cowardly, condescending and self-righteous? That’s quite a tall order to be leveling at an entire group of people.

  • Richard Wade

    Derek, you asked

    Why all the quibbling over what a person chooses to call him/herself?

    Your point about using whatever terms help you to get through your day with the least hassle I can easily understand, but look at the fact that several of your reasons have to do with mitigating or avoiding the lack of acceptance or understanding from people around you. It illustrates the problem:

    I think the quibbling is because we often have spent many years feeling isolated with few if any friends who share our views, feeling that we are at risk in a hostile environment, and frustrated by being defined and described by people who do not understand us at all. Many of us yearn for some kind of fellowship and it can be doubly frustrating when we find people who seem to share our views but who disagree over what identifying label we can share. Isolated and misunderstood again.

    You might have noticed that the posts on this site that are about definitions of atheism and agnosticism, or the threads that go off on that discussion are among the longest, collecting well over a hundred comments in the first couple of days.

    We-Who-Do-Not-Fit-In, if we can be called “a people” at all, are a people in search of a definition that is ours, not somebody else’s, but we often have little in common other than our shared hurt at the hands of Those-Who-Fit-In. So we struggle with our natural independence and individuality, united only by what we are not. I think that is what makes us so picky about definitions and eager to finally find some kind of agreement at least about our name.

    I have no idea if we ever will.

  • I’m in the camp that has agnosticism separate from atheism.

    Whether or not there is a god or god-like beings somewhere is not knowable – by definition, they are beyond science’s ability to detect or deny. So I am agnostic in that I cannot know for absolute certain one way or another.

    However, I am also atheistic in that I do not believe there is a personal god (or, more properly, adeistic, in that I do not believe there are any gods).

    So, most completely, I call myself an agnostic atheist (“adeist” not being common enough to do anything but confuse people). I cannot prove there are no gods, but I do not believe they exist.

  • JSug

    We have this book. It’s called a dictionary. It can be used to look up what the generally accepted meaning of a word is:

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

    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.

    There is a very distinct difference between the two words. Atheism is defined as a position of absolute certainty. I never understand when people who claim to be skeptics can also call themselves atheists, then go on to admit that the existence of a god can not be proved or disproved.

    The question, in my mind, is why don’t more atheists call themselves agnostic?

  • Jeff Satterley


    disbelieves != certainty

    If I say that I disbelieve something, that does not mean that I must also believe the opposite. I can say that I disbelieve that God exists, and I disbelieve that God does not exist. It’s a perfectly rational position to hold (equivalent to uncertainty). You can’t stick to a dictionary definition of atheism, and then use a colloquial meaning for a term in the definition: “belief”. In colloquial terms, one wouldn’t normally say they don’t believe X and not X, but according to a strict definition, that is what uncertainty is.

    Perhaps you should read some of the earlier posts before commenting, or actually consider the meaning of what you copied from the dictionary, which is detrimental, rather than supportive, of your position…

  • JSug, my dictionary says something different.

    atheism -ee-iz-zum N
    the belief that there is no God
    Greek a- without + theos god
    atheist n

    agnostic N
    1 a person who believes that it is impossible to know whether God exists
    2 a person who claims that the answer to some specific question cannot be known with certainty ADJ
    of or relating to agnostics
    a- + gnostic having knowledge
    agnosticism n

    I do not believe in gods of any kind. I do not believe in fairies or ghosts or leprechauns. I do not believe in magic or the power of wishes. Any of these things might exist, I cannot prove otherwise, their lack of existence is no certain. I simply do not believe in them.

    Far from being certain atheism is simply the statement of an opinion. I can hold an opinion without absolute certainty. In fact I think that it is important to reserve at least some judgement in case some new evidence come to light. Agnosticism simply affirms that ability to never be absolutely sure.

    As for why atheists don’t call themselves agnostic I think it is simply down to expediency. Why state an opinion and then introduce an element of doubt into it? It’s like saying “I’m an atheist but I’m not really sure”. Isn’t it difficult enough already without weakening our position at the outset?

  • JSug

    f I say that I disbelieve something, that does not mean that I must also believe the opposite. I can say that I disbelieve that God exists, and I disbelieve that God does not exist. It’s a perfectly rational position to hold (equivalent to uncertainty).

    Okay, then let’s try this again:
    1. to have no belief in; refuse or reject belief in

    Disbelief is the opposite of belief. It is a denial of existence or veracity. If you say you don’t believe God exists, you can’t turn around and say you don’t not believe God exists. Well, I suppose you could say that, but aside from the fact that this is a double negative, you’re cancelling out your disbelief. You can say you haven’t made up your mind either way, and that is agnosticism. Atheism is not the state of having no belief, it is defined as the state of having a belief that God does not exist.

    I did read many of the posts above, but not all of them. All I saw was a lot of people saying things like “I define X as…”. Well, I just thought I’d point out that the words have actual definitions, regardless of how you choose to define it personally.

    Now, if you want to argue that the definition needs to be updated, I’m all ears. Technically, the latin roots of the word “atheism” literally means “without religion.” That could certainly be a broader definition of anyone that doesn’t choose to worship a god or gods. Perhaps those who don’t believe god exists should call themselves adeists.

  • JSug


    Look up the definition of “belief” in your dictionary. It should say something like this:
    confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof

    A belief is not something you think is just the most likely scenario. It is something you accept as true. “Theist or atheist” is a false dichotomy because it assumes that you either believe God exists or else you believe He does not (for the sake of brevity I’m just talking about the Judeo-Christian God). The undecided middle ground needs a different term. That’s where agnosticism comes in.

  • Jeff Satterley

    belief = “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof”

    This undermines your position once again. According to the definition, *not* holding a belief would mean “*not* being confident in the truth or existence of something…” Thus, I can say that I am not confident that God exists, and I am also not confident that God does not exist. This is consistent with the definition of atheism, and still does not espouse any certainty.

    Thus, if I say:
    “I’m not confident that God exists” =
    “I do not believe that God exists” =
    (According to your definition)

    It does not entail that I must be confident that God does not exist.

  • Maria

    Funny how you can be ‘friendly’ to those christians who are properly respectful, yet demean agnostics, who usually align with and support atheist causes, with childish comments about missing anatomy. Is the Republican divisiveness re: “pro-Americans” starting to trickle down?

    I agree. I expected a little more from you Hemant, than to blatantly attack agnostics like this. Does everyone HAVE to be the same label as you now? Sounds like some Christians I know.

    I just spend a month in Europe and people are much less uptight about labels over there. Many just call themselves skeptic or non-religious, and that is more than good enough as Europe is beautifully secular (although that is under threat with the influx of Muslims, something that American atheists seem to ignore too much). Your “everyone must call themselves an atheist” attitude wouldn’t fly over there, nor with lots of skeptics and humanists I’ve met, and certainly not with me.

    no, it’s not that I don’t have the “balls” or don’t like the word atheist. I’m very open that I lack belief with people, to the point that it’s cost me friends, so I resent the implication that agnostics are weak. I choose to call myself that because I go back and forth, sometimes I think there is something, other times I don’t. I really don’t know, and yes, one reason I won’t use the word atheist is b/c how many atheists have you met that sometimes believe in something? Not many. Some have called me a “part time atheist” but this is essentially an agnostic. Also, there are some atheists that go around saying “there is no higher power of any kind” like they know for sure, and no, I don’t want to be associated with that b/c I don’t know either way and I’m not arrogant enough to say I do. Yes, this is arrogance. I am sort of a pantheistic agnostic, I go back and forth between pantheism and agnosticism, yes, agnosticism, not atheism. The words “skeptic” or “non-religious” sometimes apply better to me.

    I have to say I really am surprised at how strident your post is. There are non-religious who are NOT atheists and we’re getting a little sick of atheists trying to force us to label ourselves as atheists. We might be more involved if things weren’t so “atheist centered” in skeptic circles in this country. The skeptic societies in Europe are great-if you’re non-religious, you’re welcome, atheist, agnostic, humanist, pantheist, whatever, no exclusions. How would you like if I told you have to call yourself an agnostic or else you have no guts? I’ve met many Humanists who feel this way as well. Next are you going to say Humanists are chicken shit atheists too? Seriously, isn’t it enough for you for people to just be non-religious and skeptical? Does everyone HAVE to be the same label as you? Tsk tsk. No one has the right to tell us we have to call ourselves something that we are not. Period.

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