Sunday, November 4, 2012

Agnostic versus Atheist

Moon
Welcome,  agnostics.

I'm here today to discuss the differences between agnosticism and atheism. It's a semantic argument that's annoying enough to be addressed for the Nth time.


Let's first talk about belief. Belief is generally about accepting a claim is true. One can have varying degrees of confidence in accepting a claim as true. I may accept evolution 98%, but accept string theory 2%.

Disbelief/Belief spectrum with knowledge at the end
For any particular claim this is true - such as, the claim that the moon exists (and I choose moon because I have a photo of it). Not only do I believe the moon exists, I also know the moon exists. Knowledge is a subset of belief. It's a special kind of belief. It's belief that's demonstrably true.

Knowledge isn't being really really really confident that something is true. If a claim cannot be demonstrated to be true, it's not knowledge.

There's two main types of agnosticism.

  1. About whether something is hypothetically knowable.
  2. About whether one knows a particular thing.
For #1, those people already understand the actual differences between atheist and agnostic, so I'm not talking to them. It's the people who fall into #2 who I'm speaking to now.

A misconception exists that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive, and that's not the case. There's a lot of overlap.

A diagram depicting the relationship between atheism, theism and agnosticism
See if you can figure out this diagram.
Click to embiggen
One can believe a claim, without having knowledge of that claim.
One can believe a claim, and know it's true.
One can disbelieve a claim, and not know it's true.

Atheism is a question of belief - that spectrum from non-acceptance to complete acceptance. Agnosticism is a question of knowledge - whether the belief is demonstrably true.

In this way, one can be an agnostic atheist - one doesn't know and one doesn't believe. 

To those of you who who are a self-proclaimed "agnostics" - you are atheists. The problem is that you've bought into this idea that atheism is believing positively that there is no god. While that can be true of an atheist, it's not necessarily what an atheist is.

Just like the claim "God exists" is subject to belief/disbelief/knowledge, the claim "God doesn't exist" is also a claim that is subject to belief/disbelief/knowledge. One can disbelieve both claims. Disbelieving the first claim makes one an atheist. Both believing and disbelieving the second claim is consistent with atheism.

If your answer to the question, "Do you believe in God" is anything but "yes", you're an atheist. A theist is one who believes in God. An atheist is "not a theist." - literally.

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