Someone contacted the list with the following claims:
Assertion 1: An agnostic is someone who is neither a theist (someone who believes a god exists) nor an atheist (someone who does not believe a god exists OR someone who denies a god exists).
While I agree with this, I soon found out I have different reasons for doing so. I go by the theologically classical definition of agnostic as someone who addresses knowledge regarding god, and finds it lacking, versus the Gnostic, who believes that knowledge about god is accessible and perhaps even that he has such knowledge. The person making claim 1 above, however, asserts that an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves that a god exists. They wished to use that definition alone because it is what their friends agreed was right, and it was listed as a “colloquially” acceptable definition in his dictionary, some version of Merriam-Webster.
I already knew the dilemma this person was creating for himself. To define the agnostic off the bat as not being a person who believes a god exists leaves little room for then trying to defend that the agnostic is someone who does not believe a god exists. I think most people would see the problem with the position even before it unfolds:
If a “senior” is defined as one who is at or over 65 years old, and you assert that I am “not a senior,” there is no escaping that you have just indicated I am not at or over 65. And the writer does agree that a theist is a person who does believe a god exists. Thankfully he understands at least one significant definition in theological terminology.
I knew he was going to encounter difficulty, then, in defending his claim that this agnostic is no atheist. Literally, anyone who is not a theist (someone who does believe a god exists) is an atheist (someone who does not believe a god exists). And this person who contacted us, let’s call him “J,” for brevity, agreed that the atheist is correctly defined as “someone who does not believe a god exists.” In fact, he agreed to this during a call to the show–on the air–recorded for posterity, before he wrote to us.
So then, his argument begins with this:
The agnostic does not believe a god exists (or else he’d be a theist), but he also does not, not believe a god exists (or else he’d be an atheist). So that this magical being, the agnostic, both does “not believe” and also does not “not believe”–which is a logical impossibility. I can no more accomplish this as a human being than I can both be a senior and not be a senior.
I accepted the writer as merely a person who is ignorant regarding where the term “agnostic” originated and how it is used in actual theological discussion of these issues. The Gnostic movement is one that concerned itself with knowledge about god. Certainly knowledge is a subset of belief, but one that was the focus of the Gnostics that separated their ideology from broader definitions of belief. And I do not claim this distinction is without problems.
The term that defines the response to Gnosticism, “agnosticism,” was coined by Thomas Huxley, in the mid-1800s, to describe his rejection of Gnosticism, and subsequently all claims to knowledge regarding gods. He was not claiming that no one has belief in gods and that belief in gods is unavailable to people. He was making a statement about a subset of belief, knowledge–which is usually far more narrowly (and problematically) defined.
The idea that an agnostic is simply someone who is wishy-washy about their belief in god is a misconception that has grown as discussion of “atheist issues” has become more common. And the reason it grows is that people love to talk about religion, but they don’t seem to like to actually research it or inform their opinions before they open their mouths.
In short, it’s like the word “founder,” which means to have trouble staying afloat. The word fell out of common usage and began to be “replaced” with “flounder”–a type of fish. One suggestion is that people equated it to “flopping around” and being unable to move well, and that’s why they began to describe something that doesn’t progress well as “floundering,” more and more often. Today, when you look up the word “flounder,” it actually does generally have a secondary definition that makes it synonymous with “founder.”
Dictionaries are wonderful tools. They inform us both of classically correct usage, but also must reflect common usage–which can become correct usage over time. With “agnostic,” we have a common misconception that may one day find its way into a secondary form of correct usage. But it carries with it the problem of making all such defined agnostics atheists. And there was a moment when J began to realize this as a necessary conclusion, when he accused me of trying to say that all agnostics were, in fact, atheists. I honestly replied that I do not use his definition of “agnostic,” and that I know many agnostic theists; but that if I am compelled to use the term “agnostic” by defining it off the top as a person who is not a theist, and, by necessity, then, a person who does not believe a god exists, then I cannot agree to the second half of the definition–which is logically impossible–that he also is not an atheist and not someone who does not believe a god exists. A human cannot be both someone who does “not believe” a claim and someone who does not “not believe” a claim.
So, this, I chalked up to ignorance and misconception on J’s part. I did so, at least, until it went on for more than a few exchanges and I began to suspect there was more here than just simple correction of a misconception required. J was defending, not honestly communicating. A person honestly communicating would have, at or before this point, pretty well have said, “Maybe I hadn’t thought this through, and it appears I might be working under some misconceptions.” But not J. J has something to prove, which leads to his next assertion:
Assertion 2. The atheist is making a positive claim and we can extrapolate other atheist beliefs from the position “I do not believe a god exists.”
Specifically, when J first called us, J wanted to be able to say that we can know what atheists do believe, by knowing what they do not believe. And that is simply not the case. And I should add that it’s no more the case than me claiming I can know what someone believes when they claim they do believe a god exists. I have no idea what they mean by “god” nor what impact their god has on anything, including on themselves. But, more specifically, he thinks he knows what an atheist thinks of universal origins, according to his call. His argument is along the lines of this: Either a god created the universe or a god did not. If you don’t believe in a god, then you must believe in naturalistic origins (and I assume that would lead to the common misconception that all atheists believe big bang, which I know to be false).
The idea here goes something like this: “I assert that fairies created the universe. If you do not believe in fairies, then I know how you think the universe was created.”
Obviously that would be ludicrous. But as is so often the case, the theist can’t see how absurd it is when you use “god” instead of “fairies.” But using fairies, anyone should be able to see how ludicrous this claim becomes. Of course you could assert you know that however I believe the universe came to be, it is a non-fairy model. That much is fair–but as far as asserting tha
t you have some insight into what I do think pumped out the universe (if I’m not obstinately holding to steady-state theory, and asserting that the idea it was “produced” at all is nonsensical to me)–what I do believe about it–is unjustified.
Here I should note that J does not dispute the broad definition of atheist on the surface. If you show him a dictionary that indicates that the atheist either does not believe in the existence of gods OR believes no gods exist, J will say “OK.” However, I don’t think J really comprehends what he’s agreeing to here–or at least he didn’t at first.
The idea that I say you can be “one or the other” means that the “one” is not the “other.” And while I think anyone could understand that, J is, apparently, not just anyone. I happened to pull a definition that read “disbelieve” rather than “does not believe,” and J decided to fly with this. In fact, he tried to fly this to the moon. “Disbelieving,” he asserted, is not at all the same as “not believing” something. I kid you not. This was his response.
Bear in mind that if I knew “disbelieve” would trip him up so badly, I’d have pulled a valid authoritative dictionary from the start that said “does not believe”–because they are out there. But since J had agreed during our call that an atheist is one who does “not believe” a god exists, it did not occur to me he’d now try to claim “does not believe” isn’t valid since this one dictionary I pulled had “disbelieve.” So, back-peddle number one is that he tried to duck out of his initial agreement that it’s fair to label someone who does “not believe” a god exists is an “atheist.”
And here we have a lesson in definitions. And by that I don’t mean that there are not myriad dictionaries that will support than an atheist “does not believe” (if it’s “disbelieve” that is all that is freaking you out) or that there are not myriad dictionaries that assert that “disbelieve” does include “not believe,” but we need to see something here about broad and narrow definitions, in general, and how they must be understood by any fair and honest person:
If I assert that Word-X means “A” and you assert you are using it as “B,” and I say you are wrong to claim it means “B,” and we look it up in 6 dictionaries, and some say “A” and some say “B” and some say “A or B” or “A, B and sometimes C,” then I am wrong even though “A” is not incorrect. I did not assert I use it as “A” and you use it as “B.” I asserted it is incorrect to use it as “B.” And I am wrong. And in our discussion about agnosticism, despite my knowledge that he was abusing the term by using a definition that represents a common misconception, I still agreed to accept it and roll with it. That’s what people do when they are trying to have a fair and honest dialogue to understand what you think and why.
It is possible to find dictionaries to support that “disbelieve” means to reject belief in a way that condemns the claim (in this case, “a god exists”) as false. But to claim that “disbelieve” does not mean “not believe” is to ignore all of the other dictionaries that assert that “not believe” is an acceptable usage of the word disbelieve. It is to tell me I am wrong to use “B”, while “B” is supported by myriad authoritative sources. In order to stop me from rightly using a valid definition, the burden would be on you to demonstrate why those definitions are incorrect and the sources are faulty, or to demonstrate why those definitions might not apply in the context of our particular discussion. In this particular case, however, I even used J’s own dictionary–Merriam Webster–to demonstrate “disbelieving” as “not believing.” And he was still unwilling to to admit the words can validly be said to carry the same meaning.
At this point I could not give the benefit of the doubt–that this was ignorance rather than pride– any longer, so I asserted rather that dishonesty might be involved in some way as a motive. But it would be more true to say the motive for his unwillingness to accept what was in front of him was defensiveness. This, in my book, includes being willing to make ridiculous assertions in the face of rock-solid, contrary evidence, by way of lying to oneself and/or others. I think J was insulted by the “dishonest” comment–but it was that or “stupid,” and of the two, I would think “dishonest” would be the more complimentary. However, admittedly, I might have gone for duplicitous, hypocritical or disingenuous.
Eventually J stated that the agnostic does not believe god exists “on the face of it”–and I have no idea what difference it makes. If he does “not believe” a god exists, he is an atheist. If he does “not believe” because he’s uncertain what to believe, because he’s investigated and found it to be unjustified to believe, because he’s drunk and it’s Wednesday–it really doesn’t matter. As long as we can honestly say this person does “not believe” a god exists (and if we agree, as J and I did, he’s no theist, then we can), and as long as we can say that an atheist does “not believe” a god exists (and J agreed to this initially, and a dictionary survey and history would support this), then we cannot deny that this person is an atheist, while he is not a theist.
It no more matters why I don’t believe in god than it matters why I do believe in god. And here is where we get into the sort of hypocrisy that could stir me to righteous indignation if I were to allow it.
Can you imagine how ridiculous and presumptuous it would be, if I went to a theist e-list and began asserting that only theists who believe a god exists because god has personally spoken to them are theists–and that anyone else doesn’t really “believe” and is an “agnostic”? What if I asserted that those at the e-list who believe only because of what they’ve read in their Bibles can’t be labeled “theists”?
Where do I sign up to cherry pick for theists which reasons for “belief” are valid reasons under the theist definition, “someone who believes a god exists”? Would J think that was rational of me, to go and tell theists that if their belief is based on “A,” then it counts, but if they believe for reason “B,” then their belief isn’t really “belief” under the theist definition? The reason they believe is not relevant. All that matters is that they believe. The definition of “theist” doesn’t have an asterisk leading to a note indicating that “if you believe for the following reasons, then ‘theist’ is not what you are.” You can believe for any reason. And a you can not believe for any reason. You still believe or you still disbelieve. And whether you believe or disbelieve is all that matters to these definitions–not “why.”
In a context of a particular field, it is possible for definitions to have agreed upon meanings. For example, the term “stripper” in publishing used to mean a person who worked in preparing materials for pre-press. This is very different than what the general population thinks of when they think of “strippers.” And I think we understand this pretty well. In theology, where theists equate “belief” with things like “faith,” we are often confronted with models of the martyrs–those who exhibited such deep conviction to their views that they would suffer and die for
them. Theists make quite a verbal dog and pony show, often becoming offended at any slight to their “deeply held beliefs” or their “god,” in which they believe and whom they “revere.” This “belief” they speak of is important, sometimes life-altering, something they teach their children, something to spread to the far corners of the world, something that brings them great “joy” and “peace” and “happiness.” Theists make it known that “belief” is no small thing. In fact, in the Bible it says that if a person “believes,” they can be saved–receiving eternal bliss with god.
This is how the theist frames theistic “belief.”
Further, during our call with J, Matt said belief was “acceptance of a claim as true,” and J agreed. Later, the e-list exchange, we used a definition of “conviction of the truth of a claim,” and J did not take issue–at first. The definition went along, accepted by both parties for a few exchanges. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, J decided that the sort of “belief” we were discussing, the belief in god that distinguishes a theist, was this sort of “belief”:
Me: “Where is Tammy?”
You: “I’m not sure. I believe she said she was going to the store–but I might have not heard her correctly.”
His point was that you can have varying degrees of belief in god–that not having conviction doesn’t mean not “believing.” So, the agnostic is like this–he is unsure and sort of “believes.”
Beyond back-peddling–literally going back and saying that a definition he accepted twice isn’t working out as well as he’d hoped, so he’s now going to just reject it and claim I’m the one being unfair–there are two huge problems with J’s assertion:
First of all, if this truly is “belief,” then we have a problem with J’s Assertion 1: If I believe a god exists, I’m a theist by definition–using any source you want to pick. And that means that, according to J, this person is no longer an agnostic, because he has belief in god, and, therefore, must be a theist (which J asserted his agnostic is absolutely not). If there can be “little” belief–then his agnostic would be correctly labeled a “theist”–and J must say there is no such thing as an agnostic. He would actually be saying that anyone who has doubts about the existence of gods has some small “belief”–and those who have no doubts and think a god does not exist, are atheists. So, rather than defend his agnostic, he has successfully defined his agnostic right out of existence.
But secondly, and even more pathetically and dishonestly, J is now taking his belief in god (he is a theist) and throwing it under the bus, in order to salvage his sorry position. No longer is “belief” a conviction or accepting a claim as true. No longer does god require deep faith and the courage to live and die by that conviction that He exists and came to save the world from sin. No longer does god demand worship and reverence and commitment. It seems that when the Bible talks about believing and being saved–it only means not being sure god doesn’t exist. If that’s the case, many atheists will be thrilled to learn they’re saved according to the Bible–for they believe. And that’s apparently what theists mean by “belief”–according to J.
Why is this surprising though? Why should it be a shock that when it supports a theist’s argument for how wonderful it is to be a theist, belief is a conviction that can fulfill your life, but the moment you want to say that without that conviction, a person can’t be said to “believe,” then belief becomes nothing more than the thinnest shred of a doubt about the false nature of the any claim? In other words, I should say I “believe” fairies exist, according to J, because I have to admit that, logically speaking, I cannot “know” they do not exist, even though I really, really, really, really doubt they exist, and feel fair saying “I do not believe in fairies.” I still “believe fairies exist” according to J, because I have to acknowledge that it would be logically unsupportable for me to assert that I know they absolutely do not.
And J keeps asking me why this is so hard?
From where J stands, it isn’t possible that he’s twisting in the wind. I sometimes have pity on him because it’s hard to see a person humiliate himself repeatedly on this level; but then he acts like this is a debate or honest disagreement we’re having, rather than me trying to educate an ignorant, defensive individual, and I get my perspective back.
This brings us back to “one OR the other.” If these doubts constitute “belief,” then we have a problem with the definition of atheist, with which J took no issue. J agrees that the atheist is either someone who disbelieves/does not believe a god exists OR someone who believes no god exists (denies a god exists). And here’s the rub: If “disbelieve” means to accept a claim is false, and if “believe” means to be anything but 100 percent sure the claim is false–then what is the difference between “disbelieve/not believe” and “believing no god exists/denying god exists”?
J, who does not claim to take issue with the definition of “atheist” that reads, someone who disbleieves a god exists OR someone who believes no god exists (denies a god exists), is now trying to say that “disbelieving” and “believing the opposite” represent the same condition, thus rendering the “OR,” and the definition of “atheist,” nonsensical. In other words, while he claims to take no issue with the definition, J is actually trying to assert that an atheist is only someone who denies a god exists, and that a person who disbelieves a god exists is actually no different. In my last communication, I asked him what he imagines the dictionary (his Merriam Webster) is trying to demonstrate as the difference between “disbelieve” and “believe the opposite”? I just sent it this morning, so I can’t report on the answer to that head-scratcher.
But I must say that I reject any claim that it is honest to assert that I “believe” fairies exist. I am unable to logically defend that it is impossible for a small race of magical woodland winged creatures to exist. Do I believe fairies exist? If you think it’s reasonable to say I do, I know this guy, J, you really need to meet, because I suspect the two of you will really get along. But I do not expect anyone will ever find a fairy. I do not accept that all the writings about fairies are a compelling reason to think they exists. And if someone presented me with one, I would have to admit I have been “wrong” regarding the existence of fairies. But why? If J is correct, I always believed in them, since I always was willing to admit that I could not be 100 percent certain they do not exist.
Also, J rejected that agnosticism had anything to do with knowledge. And I submitted that theism and atheism addressed belief, not knowledge. And he never took issue with this. Meanwhile, he seems to be saying the atheist has to assert knowledge (certainty), and I don’t see that in the definition. Surely an atheist could feel certain there is no god. But I simply note it is not necessary to be an atheist.
I sent J, several e-mails back, a link to a wonderful series of articles written by Austin Cline, who has been for many years the host of about.com’s Agnosticism/Atheism section. I don’t think J read the articles. That’s too bad. If this is an issue that interests any of you, I encourage you to do some further reading at Cline’s site. Here are a few links you might enjoy:
At his main page is a link to “Atheism 101,” a series that talks about these same misconceptions.
h1 = document.getElementById(“title”).getElementsByTagName(“h1”);h1.innerHTML = widont(h1.innerHTML); Here are a few quotes I thought were very appropriate to this discussion:
“Atheists are simply those who do not accept the truth of this claim — they may deny it out right, they may find it too vague or incomprehensible to evaluate properly, they may be waiting to hear support for the claim, or they may simply not have heard about it yet. This is a broad and diverse category and there is no particular counter-claim made by all atheists.”
“Many have trouble comprehending that “not believing X” (not believe gods exist) doesn’t mean the same as “believing not X” (believe gods do not exist). The placement of the negative is key: the first means not having the mental attitude that proposition X (gods exist) is true, the second means having the mental attitude that proposition X (gods exist) is false. The difference here is between disbelief and denial: the first is disbelief in the broad or narrow sense whereas the second is denial.”
“A belief is the mental attitude that some proposition is true. For every given proposition, every person either has or lacks the mental attitude that it is true — there is no middle ground between the presence of absence of a belief. In the case of gods, everyone either has a belief that at least one god of some sort exists or they lack any such belief.”
“A person who is an agnostic, who does not claim to know for sure if any gods exist, still either has some sort of belief in the existence of some sort of god (believing without knowing for sure is common in many subjects) or lacks a belief in the existence of any gods (not believing without knowing for sure may be more common). Confusing the definitions of atheism and agnosticism is a popular tactic with some religious theists because it allows them to essentially define the territory of debate in their favor. They should not, however, be permitted to misdefine and misrepresent basic categories in this manner.”
I still am stunned at the presumptuousness of a theist calling an atheist public outreach program to argue with the hosts about what an atheist is, writing to an atheist educational foundation to assert they don’t understand the definition of agnostic or atheist, and potentially going to Austin Cline’s section to say that a person who has dealt in atheist issues for longer than I’ve been an atheist (and who has extensively handled this question particularly) doesn’t have a clue about atheism. I would never dream of contacting the Baptist Convention to say they don’t know the first thing about what a Baptist is. In fact, if I did get into a discussion with the president of a Baptist educational foundation (as J disputed with Matt D as well), and he told me that I misunderstood some aspect of what it means to be “Baptist,” and dictionaries and reference sources largely supported his assertions–why wouldn’t I back down and own up to my misconception? Austin Cline has a thought on that in one of his Atheism 101 articles:
“Another reason for insisting that only the narrow sense of atheism is relevant is that it allows the theist to avoid shouldering the principle burden of proof. You see, if atheism is simply the absence of a belief in any gods, then the principle burden of proof lies solely with the theist. If the theist cannot demonstrate that their belief is reasonable and justified, then atheism is automatically credible and rational. When a person is unable to do this, it can be easier to claim that others are in the same boat than to admit one’s own failure.”
I think this pretty well nails it.