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Atheism Versus Agnosticism

The largest intellectual battle of recent times has actually not been one religion versus another or even atheism versus any conception of theism…but instead a battle between people who should be friends.

It’s the battle between atheists and agnostics.

Only through a definitional battle can these two groups be placed on different sides, when actually, agnosticism does not necessarily disclude or exclude atheism. Atheism does not necessarily disclude or exclude agnosticism.

Some agnostics and theists will point to the dictionary and then triumph: “ah, our definition of atheism is correct! It is a faith like any other and we refuse to be a part of it!” Indeed, I see two major definitions for atheism as per dictionary.com1.the doctrine or belief that there is no God.

2.disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings. Theists and some agnostics will point to the first definition and point out then, that atheism is a positive belief that requires a positive faith. How can one believe there is no God without proof, either side will say? So, atheists are hypocritical and they actually require the same faith that theists do. This seems to help agnostics, who claim to be above the fray of both theism and atheism.

However, with this is a willful (or maybe not) ignorance of the second definition…while yes, a positive belief that there is no God would suffice for atheism, the second definition is critically important: it simply calls for the disbelief in the existence.

This requires more specific prodding on what exactly the nature of “disbelief” is. Going by the same definition from dictionary.com

1. the inability or refusal to believe or to accept something as true.

This appears to be a strong definition and unflattering to disbelievers of…well…anything…if one “refuses” to believe, a theist might say, that means they are set in stone and unable to change…they have decided that god doesn’t exist and they will never change their ways. Some agnostics would go on to say, “Ah, but our position once again reigns supreme over atheism, because we don’t “refuse” to believe…we simply don’t know and don’t make a decision.”

However, things aren’t so clear-cut…really, there are two questions to be asked:

1) Do you believe in a god?

2) Do you believe there is no god?

To characterize the positions…a theist would believe in the first statement…in other terms, they ACCEPT this claim as true. An atheist does NOT believe in the first position. They do not accept…they reject this claim.

But what about the second claim? It is true that a theist does necessarily reject and disbelieve this claim…but an atheist does NOT necessarily have to believe the second proposition. An atheist who followed the first definition of athiesm would indeed accept that second proposition, but an atheist of the second variety simply disbelieves the first position…he has never taken upon himself the metaphorical cross (to use a theist, Christian metaphor) of the second position.

Can atheism reconcile the two groups?

Why, yes it can! This is why there are actually subdelegations of atheism: Strong (positive) atheism and weak (negative) atheism. The weak/negative atheist simply disbelieves…so his atheism is a negation of a positive belief (of theism). The strong atheist, on the other hand, actually does take an active positive belief – they positively believe there is no god.

So, what are agnostics really going up against? Some would like to think that all the atheists they are going up against are of the strong variety…that’s what culture has led us to sometimes believe is the only legitimate form of atheism. However, atheism, as it comprises ALL atheists, cannot use the rigid definition of strong atheism…on the other hand, it IS true that ALL atheists at least disbelieve (or reject, or lack a belief…all of these are synonymous) in god, even if they don’t actively believe there is no god.

So, where does agnosticism fit into this? This is a curious fight indeed, because as mentioned before, nothing about agnosticism necessarily must exclude atheism. The definition of agnosticism, which is embedded in the very construction of the word (like what is true for atheism) 1.the doctrine or belief of an agnostic.

2.an intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertainty of all claims to ultimate knowledge. Agnosticism is an *epistemological* position. In other words, it is a position concerning *knowledge* and whether we can or cannot know it…the a- part suggest that we are without knowledge.

However, the important thing to note is that there actually is nothing in agnosticism that doesn’t preclude them from answering the two questions before that were asked of atheists:

1) Do you believe in a god?

2) Do you believe there is no god?

Agnostics might say, “Oh, I don’t know,” but this doesn’t answer either questions. They might say, “I don’t know…and I can’t decide,” but this doesn’t specifically answer any questions…however, it does *implicitly* answer a few.

Keep in mind that the minimum requirement for atheists was a disbelief in the first proposition, but there was no requirement for the second…some atheists do not believe “there is no god” specifically, but strong atheists do positively believe that. So…when agnostics think they are refusing to answer the question, they actually may be answering the questions indeed…1) They don’t believe in a god. Why? Lack of evidence, perhaps. They just don’t know. This is the same reasoning, note, that a negative or weak atheist might use.

Do agnostics believe there is no god? Of course not necessarily. Why? Lack of evidence, once again. They don’t know…so they actually can’t believe in this second consideration – that there is nothing…but this could be, ONCE AGAIN, the same reasoning that a negative or weak atheist might use.

In fact, atheists can be agnostic. One can be an agnostic atheist. One need not be gnostic and *know* there is no god to be atheist, because atheism isn’t a question on knowledge, but is simply a question on beliefs.

Is this to say that all agnostics are atheist? Well, this is a curious question. Until they do establish some belief in a proposition proposed by the first belief question, which is the pivotal turning point, yes they are. Weak atheists, perhaps. IMPLICIT atheists, even more likely (implicit atheists do not proclaim atheist statements such as “I don’t believe in god,” but they implicitly must be atheists because they also NEVER express theist statements of believing. In one never says anything about magic gnomes, whether he believes or not, one wouldn’t ASSUME that he believes. One would assume implicitly that he does not believe.)

But unlike what agnostics might suggest, that they are out of the fray of beliefs and don’t have to make a choice either way, agnostics can and do make a choice on belief. You can often hear, “I really don’t know for a surety if my religion is true, but I have faith and hope that it is…I still believe in it.” This is an intrinsically agnostic, yet theist position. One doesn’t know (agnostic), but one believes (theist.)

So, where’s the famed and heralded battle between atheists and agnostics? It appears it was a case of friendly fire after all. Really, the battle was between agnostics and strong atheists…or even agnostics and gnostic atheists. The differences between these two groups is subtle, but major. As pointed out before, atheism is a question about beliefs, but gnosticism and agnosticism are questions about knowledge. A strong atheist simply believes there are no gods…but a gnostic atheist somehow *knows* there are no gods.

It clear to see why agnostics would oppose these two groups. Why should we so strongly believe either way we go…whether theist or atheist? And how can we elevate our level of belief to a level of knowledge?

A common atheist defense that fails is the burden of proof argument. So they say, because the burden of proof lies on theists to provide evidence of existence and you cannot prove a negative, this allows atheists to safely believe there is no god.

This is problematic though. The burden of proof only backs up the first question of belief: Do you believe there is a god. So, without proof, one can only, AT BEST, reject that proposition and *disbelieve* in god…a weak atheist position. But strong atheism, a belief there is no god, is not defended by mere burden of proof. It is POSSIBLE, for example, that there could be a god who hides himself on the other corner of the universe, making himself completely undetectable. The utter lack of proof for him would give us a reason to reject belief in him…but it would neither give us reason to solidly assume he does not exist (unless we are only speaking by probabilities of what we have seen in the past) and it would certainly not give us reason to KNOW he does not exist.

But these fights against strong atheism are not agnostics’ alone to bear…even weak atheists sometimes disagree with strong atheists on how strongly atheism can become without becoming itself dogmatic.

Quite simply, atheism and agnosticism as general ideas don’t necessarily necessitate combat and conflict among the two groups. While agnosticism may be up against a *subset* of atheism, this does not justify villification of the whole group.