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.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)