Friday, June 14, 2013

Agnostic or atheist?

Every now and then, the topic of atheist vs agnostic will come up. Sometimes it will be a self described agnostic that claims that atheists are just as close-minded as theists. But usually it is the theist that will try to claim that the atheist really isn't an atheist at all, but is actually agnostic. However, both of these situations simply reflect a common misunderstanding...

In the example where the agnostic is making the claim, the usual argument is that atheists are just as defiantly sure that God doesn't exist, as believers are that he does. But is this really an accurate argument?

In the example where the believer claims that the atheist isn't really an atheist, there is a question they usually ask first. The theist may question if the atheist can be absolutely sure that there is no God. That there is at least some small chance that they could be wrong about there being a God. When the non-believer admits that they can't know with 100% certainty, the theist will declare, "Ah,ha! You're agnostic, not atheist!". But is that true?

In both cases, the conclusions are false, and stem from a misunderstanding as to what the terms atheist and agnostic really mean. But is that not to be somewhat expected when the church has claimed atheists to either be angry with God, worshipers of Satan, outright deniers that God exists, certain that God doesn't exist, or just don't want there to be a God. Considering that none of those are what 'atheist' means, I can see where there could be some confusion.

When you get right down to the simplest meaning, an atheist is simply a person who lack a belief in gods. No need to be certain. No need to claim to know if there is or isn't a God. Quite simply if your answer to the question "Do you believe in God?" is anything other than 'yes', you are an atheist. But shouldn't you be an agnostic if you don't 'know' there is no God? No...

The term atheist is about belief, and agnostic is about knowledge. So the terms really answer two different questions. If you don't believe in any gods, you are an atheist. If you do, you are a theist. If you claim knowledge that there is or isn't a God, you are gnostic. If you don't claim certain knowledge, you are agnostic. This means that most agnostics and atheists are actually 'agnostic atheists'. I actually fall into that classification. I do not believe in God, therefore I am an atheist. But I also don't claim to be absolutely certain that there are no gods. Therefor, I am also agnostic.

Some may ask if there is still room for a standalone agnostic classification. A classification for those that don't believe, and also don't disbelieve... The problem is, that I don't feel that there is an existent position between belief and lack thereof. Remember, if your answer to a question of belief is anything other than 'yes', then you lack belief. If you claim that you 'don't know' if you believe, then you do not believe. Belief is an affirmative stance. Lack of an affirmative stance leaves you with the negative classification. So no, on the question of belief, I do not feel there is a classification between belief, and lack thereof.

All that said, I can understand that some prefer to call themselves simply 'agnostic'. As I said before, the term 'atheist' has an (undeserved) social stigma. In some cases, calling yourself an atheist will land you in a tougher position than calling oneself an agnostic. But remember that the most accurate classification for most non-believers is 'agnostic atheist'. You can be both, and be proud of it. I know I am.

-Brain Hulk

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