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11/19/2006                                                                                       View Comments

Agnosticism and its relation to religion

By Mattias Lehman

Often I hear people claim that they are 'Agnostic.' However, this is a misnomer, due to misunderstanding of Agnosticism. What such people mean to claim, is that they are weak atheists, or negative atheists, who lack belief in god. Such a description applies to babies, or people who have never heard of the idea of a god. Some would argue that it applies to people who simply don't know what they believe yet. However, not knowing implies a lack of conviction. A belief is a conviction in some thing's truth. If they lack that conviction in the existence of god, that means that they are at least an implicit atheist. Furthermore, that claim of simply lacking a belief in a god, does not take somewhat of a middle ground. The fact that they lack belief in all gods they know of, means that they have rejected all the gods possible, which is a position of strong atheism, or disbelief, at least of all gods they know of. Therefore, all people who have no specific belief in god are strong atheists, at least towards the deities they know of. Thus, the only people who are complete weak atheists are babies, or people with no knowledge of any supposed deities.

Agnostic, being an epistemological belief, does NOT refer to belief in god. As the coiner of the word, Thomas Huxley, emphasized, it deals with KNOWLEDGE of god, and is opposed to the "Gnostics", who claimed knowledge of the divine (and also limited it to their initiates/acolytes). It is not a medium between Atheism and Theism. The problem with this misunderstanding of Agnosticism is mainly due to this common scenario. Somebody asks 'do you believe in god?' and receives the answer 'I'm agnostic', meant 'I don't know'. However, the original question was not about knowledge, but about belief. However, as to the question 'is there a god?' I can remain agnostic. I cannot know of every possible god, and thus cannot know that one does not exist. However, I still do not believe in that god, making me an atheist in respect to it. Should I be asked if I believe in a specific God, then I can say 'I'm an atheist', as I have my own reasons for believing that such deities do not exist, but furthermore, my atheism can be Gnostic(given I can provide evidence for why I lack such belief, and show how it contradicts itself, or creates a paradox/impossibility).

Agnosticism has two general meanings. One is that knowledge of the divine is impossible. This definition is not to be mistaken with an alternative to atheism. Atheism and theism deal with belief, agnosticism and Gnosticism deal with the basis for such belief. For example, Agnostic Atheism holds that knowledge of the divine is impossible (or currently unavailable) and thus belief in God is unjustified and illogical. On the other hand, have you ever heard a theist say 'just have faith'? That is an agnostic position, as they are admitting that they have no knowledge of whether God exists, and yet still believe despite their lack of such knowledge. Gnostic atheism and theism are pretty much self-explanatory given that the definition of Gnostic to be 'believing that knowledge of the existence or nonexistence of the divine is possible or currently held'.

On the other hand, Agnosticism can be also used in a general sense, in which case it refers to not believing in something without evidence. For example, I am agnostic about the existence of invisible immaterial pink leprechauns inside my computer, causing it to work. I have no evidence that they do not exist, yet nobody would call me presumptuous for assuming they don't exist. As there is no evidence for them, the logical answer is that they don't exist. The amount of things I am agnostic about is infinite, including the infinite possibilities of extraneous things I have yet to even think of. Yet, dis-believing in such things would clearly be considered logical, while dogmatically believing in things that are without evidence, yet possible, would usually be considered illogical. Thus too, is belief in a god bounded. Unless strict and clear evidence is provided, non-belief is not illogical, in fact, it is the default logical choice

The Agnostic Theist position is an especially ironic stance. Many religious people condemn Agnosticism, but when those same people admonish others to "just have faith", they are unwittingly making a declaration of agnosticism.

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22 comments:

Harlequin said...

TBH, when I use the word 'Agnostic' I mean I just don't know

DO I think there's a God? No idea. Doesn't matter. It's like was the universe turquoise or a nasty beige at 4 minutes in, or do exploding stares cause an E-flat or E-neutral wave in the attenuated gas... IT DOESN'T MATTER...

I find most religions, however, somewhat like Pornography; I'll know the real thing when I see it.

I do hate it when people try to tell me that I'm a 'weak' anything... I'm a rock solid agnostic... Anything I say is an opinion not a belief

Love and hugs

Grandpa H

Bentley said...

The word title "Atheist" was put in a bad light solely by Madalyn Ohara!

I believe that woman was completely mad and evil and I also believe that she thought there was God that was posing totally completely against her.

If anything she managed to accomplish was, people's wrong perception of the word Atheist.

I think she would say things like "I hate God", meaning she believed there was a God that she had the luxury of hating.

I think if she had not shown herself to have been so insanely mad and took time to think her opposing views and applied them in a different light, then the word Atheist would not have had such a negative connotation.

Having to display such hatred for a fairytale has profound reverse implifications, especially to the believer, so much that her own son became a God believing fundy.

I think Madalyn Ohara did more damage to the Atheist movement than it did for any good.

I have no respect for what she did and her way of turning people against Atheists.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I prefer the term "agnostic" to "atheist" is that the latter often evokes the type of response that famed attorney Vincent Bugliosi gave when asked whether he believes in God.

He answered: "I'm not in a position to believe or disbelieve in him. You know, the atheists, who not only believe but know there is no God, are just as silly as those who seem to have no doubt that there is."

And the last thing I want to be viewed as is being as silly as the fundamentalists.

.:webmaster:. said...

"I'm not in a position to believe or disbelieve in UFOs. You know, the A-UFOligists, who not only believe but know there are no UFOs, are just as silly as those who seem to have no doubt that there is."

"I'm not in a position to believe or disbelieve in BigFoot. You know, the A-BigFooters, who not only believe but know there is no BigFoot, are just as silly as those who seem to have no doubt that there is."


"I'm not in a position to believe or disbelieve in the great Spaghetti Monster. You know, the Apastas, who not only believe but know there is no great Spaghetti Monster, are just as silly as those who seem to have no doubt that there is."

Hmmm....

Next time, it might be a better tact to actually read the article before posting a comment.

Just a suggestion.

Piprus said...

Over the years, I think the lines between atheism and agnosticism have become somewhat blurred, especially in the minds of believers. Of course they think of all of us as reprobates, but as I've come to understand it, agnostic refers to the principle that since we live in a natural world we are unequipped to fathom anything "supernatural" such as a deity. And I don't like the term "weak" atheist because of its connotation. I don't think there is anything weak about declaring that I have no belief in any gods because I see no clear evidence they exist. I use the term "soft" atheist to describe my own state of non-belief. The so-called "strong" atheist is one who declares "there are no such things as gods". But that would imply a certain knowledge, allowing for no alternative.

boomSLANG said...

And the last thing I want to be viewed as is being as silly as the fundamentalists.

Understandable. Then don't be that silly. That is, don't get "belief" confused with "knowledge". Agnosticism can apply to the faithless; it can also apply to the faithful. Hell, for all we know, you are an agnostic/Christian trying to bring non-belief down to your own level, which, A) in no way substantiates Christianity, and B) basically says that Christianity is on shakey ground, but so is the position of non-belief/neutrality. In other words---"neener-neener-neener!.....Atheism is bad too!"

To make it clear---I "don't know"(agnostic) if Poseiden exists or not, absolutely. He may be deep in the undiscovered depths of the Atlantic ocean somewhere. However, until his existance can be confirmed or denied, absolutely.... I have "no belief"(atheist) in such a god. So....am I on "shakey ground" by taking that position? Is one "silly" for lacking belief in Poseiden? Right....'didn't think so.

Lorena said...

Well, I am still a proud agnostic.

Because I believe there is something out there greater than myself. I just don't know and don't care to know what that Power is like. I don't believe the Power cares to be known by me either.

In the eyes of a Christian, I am an atheist, because my view of "God" is so out-there that they think I am referring to Satan. But I still think of myself as an agnostic.

As for the article, I refuse to be ashamed of my agnosticism. I left Christianity because they wanted me to surrender my brain, labelling everything as stated by the credo.

As an ex-christian, I will call myself whatever I want, whenever I want, and won't be shamed by semantics or etymological definitions. I have taken back my right to have an opinion from the brainwashers and I won’t give it to anyone ever again.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any reason to believe in UFOs, Big Foot, the Spaghetti Monster, Poseidon, or the innumerable other figments of human imagination.

We do know, though, that the universe exists. But we do not know how it came into existence. Nor do we know its ultimate fate.

That being the case, a supernatural explanation remains a possibility. As to what that explanation would consist of, I have no idea. I have no reason, however, to think that it would look anything like Poseidon or the Spaghetti Monster.

But to say that because we have no evidence for Poseidon or the Spaghetti Monster, we can therefore rule out the possibility of there being some type of supernatural explanation for the universe: I agree with Bugliosi that that's just silly. It's comparing apples to oranges.

Besides, a little more humility might help the image of some nonbelievers. Certainly some of the ones I know.

Signed: a rock-ribbed agnostic

boomSLANG said...

We do know, though, that the universe exists. But we do not know how it came into existence. Nor do we know its ultimate fate.

Understood. But the unknown is not unknowable. We may, one day, actually discover the evidence needed to say that the cause of the universe was/is a perfectly natural event. Who knows...maybe it'll be called the "Theory of the Singularity". Nonetheless, it'll make an agnostic position toward the universe, obsolete. Yet, I bet there will still be those who will deny this evidence, just like some deny the evidence for the "Theory of Evolution"---doing so, because of their religion, and/or, their want for there to be something "greater than themselves". And anyway, even if there is some "thing" that is "greater than ourselves", does that mean that this "thing" and immoratlity for humans are mutually inclusive? I think not. IMO, it's draws an irrelevant conclusion.

I have no reason, however, to think that it would look anything like Poseidon or the Spaghetti Monster.

You have no reason to think that it would, nor do you have a reason to think that it wouldn't. A "supernatural" or meta-physical entity would be undefinable in this physical universe. You would have to put limits on it just to define it. To say it wouldn't, or couldn't, look like Poseiden, you would have to put limits on "God".

But to say that because we have no evidence for Poseidon or the Spaghetti Monster, we can therefore rule out the possibility of there being some type of supernatural explanation for the universe: I agree with Bugliosi that that's just silly. It's comparing apples to oranges.

Comparing agnosticism to atheism is comparing apples to oranges, as well---much like comparing "belief" to "knowledge". One can still believe something contrary to knowledge.

Besides, a little more humility might help the image of some nonbelievers.

The only ones saying the non-believer's image needs "help", are generally the people who disagree with them. Nothing shocking.

Signed: An agnostic-atheist who holds a postion of neutrality until evidence is put forth.

Andrew said...

I am a Christian. I rejected the Church, as I was forced to go to Church every week and when old enough twice a week (fortunately not mid-week).
I got thrown out of Church and told by the minister that he never wanted to see me in his church again.
Like many of you on this site I became a Christian after making my own conscious decsion.

Boomslang signed off with
"An agnostic-atheist who holds a postion of neutrality until evidence is put forth."

I hold the postion that there is a God and that He is knowable, I will continue to do so until evidence is put forth to prove there is no God.

.:webmaster:. said...

Andrew, you will be a Christian until death.

There is really no way to prove a negative. I know a man who believes with all his heart, mind and soul that aliens from another planet are visiting Earth on a regular basis. He absolutely believes this, and nothing said to him shakes his conviction.

There is simply no way to prove that aliens from another planet are NOT visiting this planet, and until that proof is presented to him, he will continue to believe.

As animate as he is that other-worldly visitors are sneaking about, I do not believe him. He holds down a job, has a wife and children, and is a generally congenial person. Still, I don't believe in his mysterious visitors. However, if he were to ever present evidence that there really are aliens from somewhere out there coming to town, then I'd have to change my mind.

You see, Andy, my position isn't one of faith. I don't believe something until someone disproves it to me. I accept things that are verifiable by evidence. If at any time there is new evidence presented that would contradict what I think, then I'd be willing to adjust my thinking. To do otherwise would be to embrace ignorance, or worse, fanaticism.

You have every right to believe in whatever deities or myths you like, but don't expect others to simply believe for the same reason you do, which is because no one has disproven your belief.

However, if you can, I'd like you to disprove that Allah is the one true God. I'm thinking there is no evidence to disprove that Allah is the one true God, so perhaps I should convert to Islam.

boomSLANG said...

Boomslang signed off with
"An agnostic-atheist who holds a postion of neutrality until evidence is put forth."


Andrew counters: I hold the postion that there is a God and that He is knowable, I will continue to do so until evidence is put forth to prove there is no God.

The later paragraph is not only non-sensical, it is a thinly veiled conviction, which again, shows the difference between a religious conviction, and a position of neutrality. Read it again.

For example, Andrew, you "know" that your biological father exists, so obviously, he would be "knowable". True. The difference is, there IS no evidence that can be put forth that will "disprove" your biological father's existance---therefore, analogously speaking, if you were to say that you will continue to believe in your father "until" evidence is put forth that he doesn't exist, it would be non-sensical, as well as hilarious: "I believe in my dad, and will continue to believe in my dad, until you prove he doesn't exist, then, I won't believe in my dad".

In other words, you didn't think your "position" through before you wrote it, and as it stands, it is an admission that you don't "know" for sure that God exists.....which of course, isn't telling us anything we don't already know.

gahdangsonbit said...

Anonymous 11-19-06 1:02 PM stated, “…a supernatural explanation remains a possibility.”

I must admit to repulsion at such bald statements of faith.

What is “supernatural”? There is no more evidence of the reality of something beyond the natural, real world than there is of the existence of any particular deity.

With great effortlessness, some reject certain gods but, at the same time, allow themselves to remain bound to belief in the supernatural.

Being exchristian is all well and good. But holding on to mysticism is not praiseworthy. That's holding jesus-god to a higher standard for belief than some do their underlying mysticism.

“Belief” in the supernatural—through temporary suspension of disbelief—is appropriate for Halloween because it’s fun. Mature minds, however, ought to rely upon real evidence here in the real world.

To hell with mysticism.

Anonymous said...

I read the article several times. I read all the comments posted before I started writing this some time ago, some of them more than once. I am totally confused. There are a lot of gods I have heard about that I don't believe in. Examples are Zeus and biblegod. I cannot prove their nonexistence or existence any more than I can prove or disprove pink leprechauns inside my computer without taking it apart, but I seriously doubt their existence.

It would be possible to take my computer apart and prove or disprove the existence of pink leprechauns inside of it. (If they are pink, obviously they are visible.) I don't know how to prove or disprove the existence of God/Higher Power/Force of the Universe.

I have heard from reliable sources that phenomena exist that cannot be explained by existing scientific knowledge. I don't know if there is a natural or supernatural cause for it. I think that makes me agnostic.

However, differentiation has been made in this discussion between belief and knowledge. I cannot know that my sources are reliable but I have no reason to think they are unreliable. That, I think, would be belief. I believe in them because I know what kind of credentials they bring to the situation. That, of course, could be termed knowledge. Yet not everyone with certain credentials is a reliable source.

For example, my grandmother used to be a reliable source for certain kinds of information. However, the last 20 years of her life she became increasingly less reliable due to Alzheimer's. There came a time when she obviously saw pink lepricauns or what have you that none of the rest of us could see. However, she wrote some family history decades before Alzheimers set in. We believe that history is reliable. Thus, Elizabeth Rudy was a reliable source depending on the time in her life we are looking at.

According to that kind of reliability, the sources for the phenomena without scientific explanation are reliable. Thus, I believe that phenomena exist that have a very mysterious cause. I don't know if that "mysterious cause" can one day be scientifically explained or not. It may be evidence for God's existence or it may not. I don't know. Nor do I know of a way to find out.

It has taken me decades of heavy-duty thinking and searching to arrive at this place. Thus, I don't think my not knowing is due to lack of rational thought, or to softness or weakness. It is the open confession of the limits of human knowledge. Does that make me atheist or agnostic?

Anonymous said...

[Origin: < Gk ágn?st(os), var. of ágn?tos not known, incapable of being known (a- a-6 + gn?tós known, adj. deriv. from base of gignskein to know) + -ic, after gnostic; said to have been coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869] - Dictionary.com

Best to check your original Greek before one starts spouting off. Agnostic means, literally, "CANNOT know."

It does not mean, "I don't know," or "I'm wishy washy on this issue," or "I'm a weak Theist." These definitions are clearly personal opinions, related to the word "Agnostic" only in the opinion-maker's mind.

Agnostic means, as the original Greek defines, "I cannot have enough information to be a theist or a non-theist. If there is a god creator deity, I am incapable of wrapping my head around it."

No more, no less.

- 28 Years Agnostic

Dano said...

On issues pertaining to "God," it matters little what you call yourself.
Everybody's definition of God is different.

If my definition of God was the Christian God of the bible, I would have to say that he is pure mythology.

If my definition of God was the Prime mover or creator of everything, I would have to say that I am an Agnostic, because I don't know if there is a prime mover or creator of everything,
Everything may have always existed.

I don't know, and I believe it is impossible for us to know. There may be a part of us that returns, or rejoins, or becomes part of the prime mover, or force that created us, and the billions of worlds in the universe, when we die. What ever happens to us here and in the hereafter will have to be the perfect solution as far as we are concerned, because we are what that force created us to be, that is, if there is a force that created us.
Dano (agnostic, semanticist)

boomSLANG said...

Best to check your original Greek before one starts spouting off. Agnostic means, literally, "CANNOT know."

At the risk of getting caught up in a semantics war---if you "CANNOT know" certain "information", then it can stand to reason that you "DO NOT know" that very same "information". So I think the Greek lesson is a distinction without a difference.

Nonetheless, it's almost like it's now Atheists vs Agnostics, when in fact, again, the comparison is apples and oranges. You can still lack the knowledge of a supernatural creator(Agnostic), but NOT "believe" that there is one(Athiest)...OR, again, you can lack the knowledge of a supernatural creator(Agnostic), AND STILL "believe" that there is one(person of "Faith"). Yes, the lack of knowledge is the common denominator, because again, it cannot be known, absolutely, if a supernatural creator exists. It's when we start talking about what it more likely---when we start speculating---that people start falling on opposite sides of the fence. Nonetheless, Atheism deals with belief; Agnosticism deals with knowledge.

boom'(Agnostic since birth; 7 years, Athiest)

Sophia Sadek said...

The Elder Pliny has the most interesting existence proof that I have seen. He said that we know that the gods exist because we observe people being punished for their transgressions. Of course, that's a pagan view on divinity. According to the Church Fathers, those aren't gods doing the punishing, but evil demons. One man's god is another man's evil demon.

Specter-130 said...

Where am I going when I die? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Theism is the universal response to insecurity based on perpetual perplexion and needs. Considering all humanity equally capable of tuning into the universal god channel.

Can theists make valid universal declarations?

Ahteism is the response to the theist's universal declaration(s). Considering all humanity equally capable of rendering evidence to support a universal question &/ declaration - even if the expectation going into the discussion is that universal question(s) &/ declaration(s), require the originator to present the constraints of what constitutes universe and universal ideals/beliefs.

Can humanity make valid universal declarations?

Agnosticism is the response to all of humanity's universal declaration(s). Considering all of humanity equally incapable of rendering evidence to support a universal question &/ declaration - even if the expectation going into the discussion is that all universal question(s) &/ declaration(s), are inherently invalid/uncreatable. However, the agnostic places themselves in a "position", of universal knowledge, to support their universal declaration(s).

Two of the three positions, make universal declarations. One, places the burden of proof on the originator of the question, or the presenter of the universal declaration.

I don't have enough knowledge to make universal declarations, I just have what people present, and I experience. From there, I decide if the declaration being made, makes sense in my little part of this reality. I suppose, in theory, if I can corroborate another persons' universal declaration based on my perception and experience, and other people can support the claim as well, it will become more universally understood and perhaps accepted over time.

Making universal declarations from an individuals' point of view, for everyone... appears presumptious. Socrates stated on more than one occassion, that the question is the most important factor to consider in life. Making universal declarations, prevents or stagnates the questioning process...

Today, I choose a belief system, that does not require me to be knowledgeable of "all" things in the universe, but allows me the opportunity to say... no one else does either, until they can provide the evidence. And... everyone gets to hold onto their own personal truths.

tigg13 said...

I wondered as I read this if it was possible to be politically moderate or if all non-democrats were republicans and all non-republicans were democrats.

For a long time, I liked to call myself an agnostic - not because of my beliefs or what I knew or didn't know - but because I simply wanted to avoid getting into any serious debates on religion.

I realize that having rock solid definitions helps to fend off bible-wankers who want to demean and discredit non-believers by describing us in their own terms, but as soon as you begin to generalize and label people you can't help but to objectify and dehumanize them.

Specter-130 said...

tigg13: "I realize that having rock solid definitions helps to fend off bible-wankers who want to demean and discredit non-believers by describing us in their own terms, but as soon as you begin to generalize and label people you can't help but to objectify and dehumanize them."

Politics, religion, life, and the universe have something in common. They all rely on processes/sub-processes.

Philosophy is a means by which one can best "define" their process. As well, philosophy is both a "proecess", and a "product".

You spoke of political parties, democrat, republican, and moderate. To me, these are the results of a process - these parties are the products by which we choose, as if we are on a shopping spree in a grocery store.

What is lost many times, in debates, is the process by which one uses to support their truth. Politicians, run on the "product" they can sell, not the process by which they will use to obtain the product. It's a shame really, but... at this time, we have politicians who are having to take a step back, and "formulate" a process, because they didn't have one to begin with, or at least not one that was "complete". No matter how well intentioned, the processes of politicians are usually left out of political debate, from the time they run for office, until the day they leave the office.

I agree, that using labels/titles is a means to separate the wheat from the chaff, but as well can be used to dehumanize a person and their beliefs. However, if a person wants to dehumanize someone, they don't necessarily need to focus on just a title/label. I see children being verbally abused continuously because of the "shoes" they wear, or the house they live in. If someone wants to abuse another person, they will find a means to achieve their end, labels/titles are just a few of the possibilities to use.

Are labels/titles necessary to discuss beliefs? I would suggest no. I can easily articulate my belief, based on process alone. Many times, like... this thread, the process is not discussed, the "product", i.e., agnosticism, etc., if placed on the stage for inspection.

Christianity for example, has a process that begins with a universal declaration/conclusion, "god is real", and then, they go about trying to create a process around the "ideal". The "product" leads the "process", the proverbial, cart before the horse idea.

In contrast, a process could lead the product (which could easily change if allowed). My current belief/philosophy is in such an array. My "process" is typically the center of argument, because I refuse to provide a "product" as an "absolute". Change, if accepted as a constant, will conflict with that absolute "product", if I presented it as such.

In short, anyone who establishes themselves as "x", absolutely, is probably going to be targeted, because of their "label/title", as you suggest. The ones who are tolerant/educated of such differing views than theirs, will most likely question the process involved... not the person, nor their title.

There are so many "types" of religious labels, but they are all typically following some underlying process, with a small twist on "one" attribute somewhere. People spend an inordinate amount of time, defining themselves by their "niche" twist, and like business, novelty brings buyers. I try not to buy on "product" labels, I try and buy on "process" and quality.

Thanks for sharing your post, take care.

Just Me said...

Wow, exciting. My article has officially been posted on the internet by someone aside from myself. I would like to address the above point. Weak and strong agnosticism or atheism are not terms of endearment. They in turn refer to positive and negative agnosticism or atheism. The difference between positive and negative is not of good or bad, it refers to the type of belief. If I disbelieve in God, that is a positive belief. However, if I simply lack belief, that is a negative belief. Therefore, a negative agnostic would say there is currently no knowledge of any god's existence, but I won't rule it out, whereas a positive agnostic would say that knowledge of any god's existence is fundamentally impossible.