Agnostic & Atheist

In a debate between the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowland Williams, a particularly eye-opening moment occurs. The moderator, Anthony Kenny, presses Dawkins about his professed “atheism,” asking him, “You, I think, Richard, believe you have a disproof of God’s existence…?” Dawkins responds, “No, I don’t, I don’t—you were wrong when you said that, and I constructed in the God Delusion a seven-point scale, of which one was I know God exists, and seven was I know God doesn’t exist, and I called myself a six.” Kenny then asks, “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic then?” To which Dawkins responds, “I do!” Kenny then chuckles, along with much of the audience, and chides, “But you’re described as the world’s most famous atheist!” “Not by me,” Dawkins retorts, and then a second time for good measure, “Not by me.”1

It is far too easy to see how some might misconstrue the above exchange; the world-renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins, recanting his alleged atheism and effectively coming out of the philosophical closet about his agnosticism—but this is by no means what happened here. Richard Dawkins is most certainly an atheist, and the apparent conundrum that he (and perhaps others as well) finds himself in during this exchange can be easily avoided by clarifying the etymology and definitions of the terms at hand.

Atheism

To begin, let’s consider the notion of atheism. It is believed that this word was first used in its Greek context (atheos) as a derogatory label for those who did not accept, or who were accused of not accepting, the official gods of the time. Initially then, the labeling of someone as an “atheist” did not necessarily indicate that said person was without the belief in a god per se—just that they didn’t believe in the right god. In fact, it’s not until late into the 16th century that this concept was formally brought into our English language, eventually giving rise to modern-day atheism.2

The letter “a” in atheism is a negation, meaning without or not, and the rest, “theism,” refers to belief in a god or gods, derived from the Greek word, θεος [Theos], meaning “god.”3 In terms of strict nomenclature, therefore, the word “atheist” simply means one who is not a theist, or perhaps, one who does not have belief in a god.

Modern day atheism, however, is far more complicated than this. Some atheists, for instance, simply claim to be without belief in a god (so called “soft” or “weak” atheists) whereas other atheists claim to believe that there is no god (“hard” or “strong” atheists). If the difference between these two positions isn’t obvious at first glance, consider as an analogy one’s position on the existence of extraterrestrial life forms; just as we can reasonably distinguish between a lack of belief in extraterrestrial life forms, and the belief that extraterrestrial life forms do not exist, we can at least in principle do the same in regard to deities. The difference, of course, comes from the fact that one has to take an additional step beyond the first position (that one doesn’t think that aliens do exist) to the second (that one thinks that aliens do not exist); these positions are not necessarily one and the same. After all, many of us are perfectly reasonable in our skepticism towards the existence of aliens, but in no way, shape, or form does this mean that we have knowledge that they do not exist (after all, it’s a really, really, big universe). Similarly, the soft atheists merely claim that they have yet to be convinced by any of the arguments or evidence put forth by proponents of theism, but they do not take their atheism a step further and claim to believe that there is no god, full stop.

In addition to abstract philosophical distinctions of this nature, the word atheism has also managed to pick up a slew of interesting but misplaced connotations/associations. Some people, for example, associate atheism with amusingly outlandish things such as devil worship and communist Russia; other people, not so amusingly, believe that atheists by their very nature are amoral and without ethical principle. Indeed, the fact that poll after poll continues to indicate people’s general distrust in atheists serves as a powerful reminder of this last sentiment in particular.4 I, for one, can attest firsthand to the social stigma that seems to surround contemporary atheists, as I’ve all but grown used to the occasional double-take or slight-but-noticeable-pause that almost inevitably occurs whenever I happen to tell someone that I’m an atheist.

And finally, beyond these rather unfortunate stereotypes, atheism in its present state also tends to be associated with naturalism. This is to say that many people see atheism as being the outright rejection of the supernatural in general (ghosts, psychic phenomena, etc.), not solely the rejection of divine beings. Though this may ring true intuitively, and though most atheists, at least in the West, are naturalists, it is important to recognize that atheism in itself does not necessarily preclude naturalism any more than it necessarily precludes Satanism, communism, or immorality.

Agnosticism

In turn, the word “agnostic” was coined in 1870 by Thomas Henry Huxley5, a man also known for his role as Charles Darwin’s Bulldog. Huxley simply took the Greek word gnosis, or respectively, knowledge, and placed the same negative prefix that is used in atheism (“a”), at the head of it, thereby indicating a state of not knowing or not having knowledge. Huxley himself writes:

“When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.”6

Huxley’s agnosticism can therefore be said to have been two-tiered: the first and most fundamental level being the mere state of not having “gnosis” (knowledge) about the existence of any gods (again, as the word itself suggests), and the second, higher, level consisting of a metaphysical stance on our (human beings) epistemic or epistemological limitations—that is, our ability to know—about the existence or nonexistence of gods.

The problem for Huxley seems to be that he was surrounded by people, whether believers or nonbelievers, who seemed absolutely certain about their convictions concerning the existence or nonexistence of a God. Lacking this degree of certainty, Huxley opined for a word that might capture his attitude on the matter—so he made one. He was agnostic, that is, he didn’t know, whether or not there was a god, and moreover, as he himself mused, he was pretty sure that “the problem was insoluble” in the first place.6 However, Huxley was a very skeptical man; he was almost certainly not insinuating that, in terms of rationality, belief in God was somehow on par with disbelief. Instead, he was attempting to reject the whole game of belief and disbelief entirely.

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Regardless of Huxley’s original intentions, agnosticism has since taken on a life of its own. While it’s certainly true that some do still use the term in its original Huxlian context, many others now use it to merely indicate that they are without knowledge of a god’s existence (we’ll call them the “I don’t know” agnostics), foregoing the second and more consequential level of Huxley’s agnosticism all together. Others may use the term in order to indicate that they are squarely in the middle of the debate between atheism and theism, a sort of “equal probability-agnosticism.”

It is this last deviation that is particularly troubling though because it is so far removed from the sort of agnosticism that Huxley had in mind. The fact that one does not, and furthermore, the fact that one cannot, know if a proposition is true or false, does not mean that by default, the two propositions have equal probability. Otherwise, this rule would also apply to the proposed existence of leprechauns, fairies, celestial teapots, and so on, none of which can be known to be or true or false in the very same facile way. Furthermore, this 50/50 probability would of course need to apply to virtually all gods, not just the deity with the most worshippers, or the most prominent theologians/philosophers.

Atheist and Agnostic

Now then, with these refined definitions in tow, let us return to the exchange between Dawkins and company. To refresh your memory, here is the salient part again:

[Kenny asks of Dawkins] “You, I think, Richard, believe you have a disproof of God’s existence…?” Dawkins responds, “No, I don’t, I don’t—you were wrong when you said that, and I constructed in the God Delusion a seven-point scale, of which one was I know God exists, and seven was I know God doesn’t exist, and I called myself a six.” Kenny then asks, “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic then?”1

What we can infer from this question posed by Kenny is that he already assumes from the start that an atheist is someone who claims to know that no god of any sort exists; that is, someone who claims to have proof, that there is in fact no god. The problem with this assumption is that anyone who has ever seriously dwelled on this matter recognizes that such a proof is simply impossible to construct. Don’t get me wrong, we can certainly prove some negatives; if I tell you there is an extravagant art museum in my hometown of East Peoria, Illinois, you can prove me wrong pretty easily in a couple hours, but there are nevertheless other situations where there is quite literally no way to craft a proper disproof. The concept of god, defined vaguely and carefully enough, unfortunately, is one of those situations. There just is no possible way to prove someone wrong if they tell us that there is an invisible and untraceable being that exists outside of space and time (whatever that even means). Even the problem of evil, what is perhaps considered theology’s most formidable foe, if successful, would really only serve to disprove a very specific type of god, and therefore leave open the possibilities of an evil god, or a committee of quarreling and equally powerful gods.

Kenny’s mistake, therefore, is his assumption that atheism deals in terms of knowledge; in reality, it deals in terms of belief. Remember, to be an atheist is to either not believe in a god (weak), or to believe that there is no god (strong), and to be an agnostic (in the original sense that Huxley intended), is (a) to not know whether there is a god, and (b) to claim that such truths are ultimately unknowable—like it or not, none of these four definitions entail any logical contradictions with one another.

Furthermore, if, say, you don’t buy into the semantics of soft atheism vs. hard atheism and choose instead to define atheism as the belief or even the conviction that there is no god, note that there is still no contradiction here. Think about it for a moment; we believe a plethora of things that we simultaneously recognize are ultimately unknowable to us. In fact, this is the most common definition of belief; not knowing but having a conviction in something all the same. Every morning, for instance, many of us get into a car and drive to work, or school, or whatever it is that fills our respective time slots; do we know that we are going to make it to our destination safely, as opposed to becoming just another fatality statistic, or do we instead just believe that we are going to make it to our destination safely, for what are usually relatively justifiable reasons? How about when we get on a plane? Or, to go a bit deeper, do we know for certain that what we are experiencing right now by means of our nervous systems is really real? We certainly know that we are alive, in some sense, as we are currently experiencing something at the moment (or at least I know that I’m experiencing something right now), but perhaps this is just a dream, and none of this is really happening in terms of an external, objective reality. Maybe, the thing that I refer to as “I” is actually just a brain in a vat, with my every thought, feeling, and sensation being nothing more than the products of a computer program fashioned by inconceivable minds.

What these hypothetical, and admittedly ludicrous, scenarios help illustrate is that, although we cannot know for certain the truth or falsity of some propositions, this does not mean that we do not and cannot still have beliefs about them all the same. I, for one, believe that I am not just a brain in a vat; that I am not currently just experiencing a particularly interesting REM sleep at the moment; and that, in spite of popular opinion, there are no divine beings hiding in another dimension. I’m willing to bet that I am not alone in these beliefs. Yet, at the same time, I fully recognize that I do not know these things for certain and, furthermore, that they are perhaps ultimately unknowable to me; am I thereby banned from having an opinion about them all the same? Of course not. I see no reason, therefore, apart from stubborn inclinations about what the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” should or should not mean, that one cannot be entirely reasonable in saying that they are both atheist and agnostic.

*Final Note: for the record, I’m well aware of the fact that some prefer to use the terms agnostic, gnostic, atheist, and theist, interchangeably (i.e. gnostic/agnostic theists, and gnostic/agnostic atheists). My reason for not adopting this terminology (which one can find elsewhere at Atheist Republic) in this article is that I honestly know of no atheists who genuinely claim to know, or to have proved, that there is no god, full stop. With all due respect, such an atheist would remind me of the young Mormon missionaries that I have been engaged in conversation with for the last few months, who, as they repeatedly tell me, know that their god is real; it seems to me that people like this simply have not thought about this issue carefully enough to be taken seriously by the rest of us.

Works Cited:

  1. The Telegraph. “Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, February 24, 2012. Web. 10 Jan. 2014.     
  2. "Atheist." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 02 Mar. 2015. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atheist>.
  3. Neufeldt, Victoria E., and David Bernard Guralnik. "Theism." Def. 1. Webster's New World Dictionary of American English. Cleveland: Webster's New World, 1988. Print.
  4. Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. "Atheists as Other: Moral Boundaries & Cultural Membership in American Society." American Sociological Review. University of Minnesota, Apr. 2006. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.
  5. Neufeldt, Victoria E., and David Bernard Guralnik. "Agnosticism" Def. 1. Webster's New World Dictionary of American English. Cleveland: Webster's New World, 1988. Print.
  6. Joshi, S. T. "Thomas Henry Huxley: Gladiator-General For Science." The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011. 24. Print.

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