I say Atheist, you say Agnostic  

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Trevor Burrus at Symbolic Order has an article up titled In The Beginning Was the Word: Separating the Atheists from the Agnostics - Rescuing the Agnostics from the Theists where he points out the misconceptions of the words "agnostic" and "atheist."

“Agnosticism” has been greatly misunderstood by modern audiences. The original meaning of the term has essentially been completely lost. Originally coined by Darwin’s attack-dog Thomas Huxley to describe himself as one who did not believe that God’s existence was knowable, agnosticism has been converted to mean one who does not know. The two definitions are worlds apart. The former is a claim on the epistemological status of a belief, the latter is a reluctance to accept a claim. Somehow we moved from the belief that God’s existence is something that humans cannot be sure about to not being sure about God’s existence.

He goes on to talk about how atheists are the most mistrusted group of people in America and how agnostics often claim the term agnostic out of a desire to not be part of the atheist group. He also talks about how some Christians can't understand atheism, using Ray Comfort as an example.

But it's how he defines atheism that I find most interesting.

Comfort’s argument rests on his confusion - a confusion that is now a pandemic - about the meanings of the terms “agnosticism” and “atheism.” The argument only makes sense, if it makes sense at all, if his definition of atheism is the one stated earlier in this essay; that atheism is “belief in no God.” In fact, atheism is properly understood as “no belief in God.” The difference is subtle yet very important. The distinction can be pointed out by this question: “Do you believe that FDR did not eat any oranges during the week following Pearl Harbor?” Assuming that we are all ignorant of this claim it would be absurd to answer in the affirmative to this question. The proper course is not to believe that FDR did not eat any oranges during that week but rather to take the position that you have no belief that he did. Sufficient reason has not been given to believe the proposition.

Other, non-religious, conceptions of God – the scientists’ Gods, the prime mover, first cause, “higher powers,” God as essence rather than God as being – are pushed towards irrelevance. As scientists continue to explain more about the universe the burden of proof continues to be placed in the lap of the theist – particularly with regards to teleological “arguments from design.” Cosmologically, however, the question of “why is there something instead of nothing?” will always be insoluble. If you choose God to be your answer to such an abstruse question so be it. But, for any characteristics you wish to instill in that God beyond “first cause” – i.e. personal, interested, omnipotent, good etc. – the burden of proof will once again lie in your lap. These anthropomorphic characteristics are the ones that the majority of theists care the most about – whether God knows, cares, acts, desires, is angry etc. However, they are also the hardest to justify. Despite the many nuanced and opaque philosophical debates to be had about the status of identifying and clarifying who has the burden of proof and why, I am quite sure that miracle working, resurrected god-men, floods and floating arks, multi-armed androgynous deities, and mountain-moving prophets are not close to the gray-area of these difficult distinctions. Whatever else it may be, the burden of proof at least rests in the hands of those who claim the magnificent.

But don't take the purpose of the article to bash agnostics because the point is to unite atheists and agnostics together in a common understanding of each other and show that they're not really that different.

But, it may be time for many agnostics to step up to the plate. Perhaps this essay will convince some that a name-change is in order. The broader purpose of this essay is to clarify terms and unite sides because, in reality, the agnostic and the atheist are on the same side. Both believe the Christian (Muslim, Hindu et. al.) hasn’t made their case. Either way, it is certainly time for both theists and atheists to stop equivocating their definitions and clarify what is meant by “atheist” and “agnostic.” Yes, they may be just words. But remember, in the beginning was the word.

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3 comments: to “ I say Atheist, you say Agnostic

  • Vistaluna
    Thursday, May 31, 2007 at 5:12:00 PM CDT  

    Good points. :)

    There is a lot of confusion out there. There is also not sufficient distinction between "Theist" and "Christian".

    Too many people think this is a Christian nation because many founding fathers believed in God. In fact, they were Theists. They believed that there was a higher power, but that the Bible was the work of man.

    Being a Theist was common among educated people in the 18th century. Educated people could clearly see that the Bible was human fiction, but they had no explaination for the diversity of life, or the creation of the Universe, so they still tended to believe in God.

    But over the next 200 years, Darwin, Hubble, Watson & Crick, and other scientists deflated the Theistic position. They provided explainations for everything around us, and so there is no need for non-Bible-believers to still believe in a god.

    And this pretty much forced people to either be Atheists or book-worshipers.

    And being an Atheist is just to upsetting for most people, so people who would otherwise be reasonable Theists have become Bible literalists.

    If you are a book-worshiper, then all the evidence you have for your God comes from your book. All external arguments for Gods back a Theistic causal-God. Not the God of the book.

    There is no way to link a book-God with a causal-God...unless the causal-God himself came to Earth in person to prove his existence, and THEN pointed to the book and said "That's me!"

    If there is one thing that Creationists got right, it's this: If any small part of the Bible can be proven to be false, then the whole religion falls apart, because the Bible is the only evidence Christians have for their version of God, and thus the Bible must support itself through perfect internal consistency (like a math proof). If any part is fiction, then the whole thing could be fiction.

    If making the jump from Christian to Atheist is too far for most people, then at least they should make the jump from Christian to Theist. They need to admit that their best last hope for evidence of God comes from causal sources, and not any book.

  • SmellyTerror
    Friday, June 1, 2007 at 2:06:00 PM CDT  

    The thing that bugs be about the official meaning of agnosticism - that god's existence is not knowable - is that it's a fundamentally atheist point of view. If god existed, he could choose to be known. The only way you could conclude that he's unknowable is by assuming he doesn't exist.

    In fact, a rational atheist must conlcude the same, that the question will never be settled, since the non-existence of god can't be proven. So all atheists are necessarily agnostic(?).

    But could a theist conclude that god is not merely unknown, but also unknowable? No. Absolutely not. It's not god if it's powerless. Even a god-as-first-cause could have left evidence that could be found some day. The possbility remains.

    So all atheists are agnostic, and all agnostics are athiests. Seems like a pointless word game to me.

  • ordinarygirl
    Friday, June 1, 2007 at 2:35:00 PM CDT  

    SmellyTerror, I think you miss one of the points. If an atheist has no belief in a god, then he has no belief that a god exists or doesn't exist. Just as most people have no belief on a purple dragon existing in the earth's core. There's no proof that a purple dragon doesn't exist, but most people probably do not believe anything either way about the purple dragon.

    Whether or not an atheist can prove a god exists is immaterial. The burden of proof isn't on the atheist, it's on the theist.

    I'm not sure where your argument comes from about a theist believing that a god is unknowable. It doesn't make much sense to me.


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