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Atheists and agnostics

Mark T made a comment on a post a couple back saying this:

Thing is, I don’t think any of us know enough to make the leap. OK? I’m cool with humans being a cosmic blip of no consequence, but the larger questions – we’re not equipped for answers. We can only speculate, and to speculate that there is nothing is as foolish as all of the other inventions throughout history.

Agnosticism and atheism have an odd relationship. I typically classify myself as a weak atheist: I don’t believe in a god. I consider this to be the default position; I am withholding belief until some evidence arrives. Mark’s beliefs can be described in the same way, but our positions still appear to be different.

Part of the problem is that “god” is so ill-defined. When I think of a god, I may think of something completely different than a Catholic, a Muslim, or an agnostic. It’s even worse than that, though. There are certain conceptions of god that I move into strong atheist territory on (I believe that conception of god does not exist and I have to provide an argument for that position). For example, I believe the argument from evil is a good argument against certain Christian conceptions of God, so I would be considered a strong atheist regarding those conceptions. I would bet that Mark and other agnostics move into this territory occasionally, as well: if my conception of god is one that everyone can see, I suspect that Mark believes that god doesn’t exist.

This is a problem in the other direction, as well. Most people who consider themselves strong atheists confine their position as believing certain conceptions of God do not exist. It’s difficult to find someone who believes every conception of God does not exist. The person doesn’t believe in any of them, but doesn’t have an argument against all of them, either.

So, is there a concrete different between atheism and agnosticism? It doesn’t seem like it. Agnostics occasionally seem to take such a position because of an irrational discomfort with the clarity and forthrightness of saying you’re an atheist. On the other hand, some strong atheists see agnosticism as weak and wish-washy when it isn’t necessarily. I guess it’s all just a matter of emphasis.

Categories: Religion
  1. Lina
    March 3, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    It’s this line that speaks to the difference:

    “We can only speculate, and to speculate that there is nothing is as foolish as all of the other inventions throughout history.”

    By no means is it “just as foolish” to think there is no God than to think there is. (Correct me if I misunderstood him.)

    And I’m pretty confident that someone who hadn’t grown up in a society where believing in God is the default position would never say such a thing. So it frustrates me that agnostics/Unitarians/etc listen to their inner logic, but only up to a point — the point at which, oh horror, they might come across as arrogant or they might upset their loved ones or they might step too far out of societal acceptance or…whatever their reason is for giving the religious equivalent of: “And now we’re going to turn to someone who doesn’t believe in global warming.”

    I agree with the point in your last paragraph. But in his case, as someone who identifies with a particular church which does promote the idea of “God,” however open to interpretation, I think our beliefs are sufficiently different.

  2. March 4, 2008 at 9:20 am

    This is getting to be an interesting point; it is ironic that agnostics and atheists might prove to be more enemies than allies. I would hope that there is a significant line between what we can’t explain (yet expect others to believe) versus what we can’t explain where we don’t care if others listen to us.

    I mean this: most agnostics believe in the existence of god, despite their inability to prove it any more than the most pious Christians. The difference is that no agnostic expects anyone else to believe it, because there is no proof. I can believe that it is going to rain today, just because of a gut feeling, but I don’t get mad when someone else thinks it is going to be sunny; that is the definition of a personal belief.

    That said, everybody has moments where, as Lina puts it they “listen to their inner logic, but only up to a point”, even Atheists. Everybody has feelings they cannot explain; the difference is whether or not everybody expects those feelings to be heeded by others. That marks the asinine Evangelical from the agnostic.

    If anyone is going to try and tell me that they operate solely on logic, with evidence, and never act upon emotion or ‘gut’ feeling, then I would call that person a liar.

  3. March 4, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    @Liz

    And I’m pretty confident that someone who hadn’t grown up in a society where believing in God is the default position would never say such a thing.

    I tend to agree with that, but religion has been a part of every society (even if it’s essentially gone away in some). You’d think that if belief was all the fault of societal influences, we’d some society pop up without religion.

    @Colby

    I mean this: most agnostics believe in the existence of god, despite their inability to prove it any more than the most pious Christians. The difference is that no agnostic expects anyone else to believe it, because there is no proof.

    So far as I know that’s a relatively uncommon strain of agnosticism. The common forms are some variant of “I don’t know if there’s a God or not,” either a weak version that claims there’s simply not enough evidence to make a determination or a stronger version that says the question isn’t answerable. In both cases there’s no belief, there’s abstention. I’ve honestly never encountered someone claiming to be agnostic who wasn’t either one of those and nearly every definition of agnosticism I’ve seen excludes your definition.

    That said, everybody has moments where, as Lina puts it they “listen to their inner logic, but only up to a point”, even Atheists. Everybody has feelings they cannot explain; the difference is whether or not everybody expects those feelings to be heeded by others. That marks the asinine Evangelical from the agnostic.

    I would say that’s a pretty minor and unimportant difference between an evangelical and an agnostic. It’s faith in a god either way, but evangelicals (and any Christian, really) have built a belief structure on top of that faith that prescribes certain actions. Religious agnostics have that faith, but don’t go beyond that. Evangelicals then go a step further and believe that there personal belief structure should prescribe actions for everyone. Even if you were certain, it’s not clear that you would build any beliefs, which you’d have to do first, before telling anyone what to do. So I think there are two other steps to get to your difference, which seems less important than the other two.

    And again I’ve proven that we can disagree about the most insignificant claims. 🙂

    If anyone is going to try and tell me that they operate solely on logic, with evidence, and never act upon emotion or ‘gut’ feeling, then I would call that person a liar.

    No one’s perfect. 🙂

  4. March 5, 2008 at 8:03 am

    Wow – Lina – am I kicked out of your church? You seem to be saying that my abstention from non-belief is weakness. I very explicitly said that I don’t think the question is answerable. So why bother?

    I will say this – a “God” who doesn’t care about us might as well not exist. I have no doubt in my mind that the personal and ‘caring’ that religious people pray to God does not exist. Whatever the source of the cosmos (and who can look at it and not be filled with wonder?), our existence on this planet is not something that is being closely monitored. Furthermore, when we die, we are dead. These things I hold to be self-evident.

    Isn’t a “weak atheist” the same as an agnostic?

  5. March 5, 2008 at 8:05 am

    Should have read:

    “I have no doubt in my mind that the personal and ‘caring’ God that religious people pray to does not exist.”

  6. Lina
    March 5, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    “You seem to be saying that my abstention from non-belief is weakness”

    No, not weak, just illogical. But that wasn’t really my point. I disagreed with your assertion that it’s *equally* likely there IS a God than there isn’t. None of us has the ultimate explanation, but that doesn’t mean anything and everything is in the running as plausible.

  7. March 5, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Isn’t a “weak atheist” the same as an agnostic?

    I guess it depends. Colby’s agnosticism most certainly isn’t the same as weak atheism. Yours essentially is. As I said, it’s somewhat a matter of emphasis. That’s where Lina’s point about agnostics not quite going all the way comes in.

  8. March 5, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    Lina – I don’t recall saying anything like there being an equal chance that God does or does not exist. I said it’s unknowable. I don’t know what the probabilities are. That’s like dividing by zero – it’s not defined.

  9. March 5, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    As the self-proclaimed agnostic here, I think I need to defend how my view fits in to the atheist party here 🙂

    I think it is perfectly acceptable to look a situation where you cannot have knowledge of a ‘proper’ choice, yet you still choose. I certainly agree that when presented with sufficient evidence, clear choices present themselves; certainly religion does not present a situation with sufficient evidence. I would agree with the strong-agnostic claim that we cannot have absolute or certain knowledge about the existence of god. (The weak variety is normally that while I might not have such knowledge, others could).

    Given that, and the fact that I do not find a belief (or lack thereof) in god to be either intrinsically helpful or harmful, I see no compelling reason, on the whole, to outright accept or reject the notion of god; neither one, automatically, presents positive benefits. I can’t understand strong atheism, since rejecting unprovable notions doesn’t please me. I also cannot understand subjecting wholly to belief, as the inability to defend my views would make it impossible for me to expect others to follow me.

    It might snow tomorrow, it might be 55. If I can have proof of either, then I will react accordingly. However, if I have no evidence to help me choose (my internet is down and I can’t find the weather channel), then I am going to go with gut; probably follow hope, and put on some shorts.

    I fail to see how, when there is no more compelling reason to make a choice, that method of choosing harms anyone.

    Assuming of course, that I don’t demand others follow me as well…

  10. March 5, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    I can’t understand strong atheism, since rejecting unprovable notions doesn’t please me.

    Well, I don’t understand that statement. 🙂 Some people have a misguided sense that things need to be proven to believe (or disbelieve) them. I believe government run health care would be better for this country. Can I prove that? Not even close. I still believe it, will try to convince others of it, and will vote based on that belief. We don’t generally prove things about the natural world. We accumulate evidence, sometimes to the degree where it would be perverse to deny its implications, and we believe accordingly. I don’t believe a caring God exists because I believe the existence of suffering is evidence against that. I have an argument for that and I think it’s convincing. Do I think it “proves” anything? Nope, I just think it’s a good argument. It could be wrong. There are arguments against a more watered down version of God. For example, any definition of God usually includes some kind of ability to break the observed laws of nature and exist outside of the natural world. All of our observations of the natural world indicate that such abilities aren’t possible. Does that prove anything? No, but it’s an argument that you can judge either way and incorporate it with the other arguments you’ve heard. If someone found it convincing, I would expect that person to be a strong atheist and I would completely understand, even if I myself wasn’t convinced.

    I fail to see how, when there is no more compelling reason to make a choice, that method of choosing harms anyone.

    Assuming of course, that I don’t demand others follow me as well…

    Who said anything about harm?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be implying in your post that the consequences of belief in a god factor into your decision whether to believe or not. That I very much don’t understand. Sure, I’m aware that it will be a factor in any person’s belief – we’re all human, after all. But we shouldn’t embrace it, we should try to correct for that and decide based on information that’s actually useful in determining truth.

  11. March 7, 2008 at 8:39 am

    Once all of the ethereal questions are answered, and we are settled in your own skin and comfortable with the idea that we’re pretty much left to our own will on this planet, what are the consequences? Some say that is the purpose of belief in a higher power – to convince people they are being watched so that they behave themselves. That’s why many people who don’t believe themselves think it a good idea for others. You know, like ministers.

    I’m not settled on this question, but I do notice this: We are a people that reproduce exponentially and are fighting over limited resources. Those fights are inevitable and will go on for so long as our population expands. But we very seldom confront the truth about ourselves. We are greedy and want what others have. So we attack them. But we lie to ourselves, and often use religion as a justification for our avarice.

    But if not religion, it would be something else. Point is, we will fight in perpetuity, no matter our belief system. So not having religion would have no adverse impact on our condition.

  12. Lina
    March 7, 2008 at 10:36 am

    “But if not religion, it would be something else. Point is, we will fight in perpetuity, no matter our belief system. So not having religion would have no adverse impact on our condition.”

    Except that religion has the distinction of being unchallengeable, which therefore makes it far more dangerous than other “opinions” people hold.

  13. March 8, 2008 at 7:12 am

    How much more dangerous can we get? Patriotism is as incendiary a motive, and achieves the same result. But at the base of it all is greed and survival. Nothing will change that, no matter the masks we wear.

  14. Confused.
    December 20, 2009 at 11:05 am

    What would i be considered an atheist or agnostic.

    I think that a god or some higher being does exist because the whole universe cant just be created out of nothingness something had to create the universe.

    Our conciessness has to go somewhere after we die, whether call this place heaven hell or purgatory.

    Then again i wonder what if they universe existed forever? And that our conciousness is just altered or moved to a different part of the universe?

    Our brains are like powerful batteries or machines, if anybody has ever seen the movie the “matrix” our minds have an incredible amount of electricicity. The electricity has to be transferred somewhere, and not into nothingness.

    I think it is possible for god to exist but not like anything on earth. The idea that Jahova, Moses, God, Jesus, Allah, or Mohammed were gods prohpets or god themselves is total ignorance. Yes jseus mohammed and moses may have been real people but they are certainly not to be portrayed as gods prophets.

    You see the pope or Dallai LLama. They cant possibly have a conenction with god, they may fool themselves that theyre holy but its lies.

    What would i be agnostic or atheist?

  1. March 7, 2008 at 11:03 am

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