Agnosticism

September 12, 2008

I think I should clear up my position somewhat. This train of thought started on a Liverpool-based forum I frequent, where two members decided to have an online debate spanning several days on evolution vs creationism, and they would each try and prove the other wrong. I was pleasantly surprised because normally they discuss things like the city council’s latest gaffe and nothing of much interest is said. At the start of the thread there was a poll asking people’s opinions on how they thought life had come about, with the options “Creationist”, “Intelligent Design”, “Evolutionist” and “Unsure”.

Maybe about ten posts into the thread, one member said “I’d like to meet anyone who votes anything other than ‘unsure'”, implying of course that everyone should be unsure about it because if we knew that there would be no controversy on the issue. Now of course literally speaking none of us can be completely sure about anything, you can’t prove anything to the absolute level, but it reminded me of several conversations I’ve had in the past about the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’.

In this situation we should all be unsure about it in the strictest sense of the word, but saying that is completely unhelpful for the purposes of the poll, it says nothing. Now there are people like Sam Harris who have campaigned against the use of the word ‘atheist’ because we don’t use other words like “non-racist”, it’s just assumed we’re not, so saying we’re atheists doesn’t really say anything. That may be true but I think calling yourself an agnostic is even more useless. It literally doesn’t say anything other than “I don’t know”.

The thing is there’s such a wide spectrum of agnosticism. There’s people who claim they don’t know but believe in God anyway as a sort of safety net, and then at the other end there’s those who call themselves agnostics purely because they can’t be absolutely sure there’s no God, but in practice they live their lives as though they do. Let’s face it, nobody except full-on fundamentalists at either end of the spectrum can say definitively that they are not agnostics, so calling yourself agnostic means next to nothing, and it’s only useful to say it if you are literally in the middle of the fence and don’t know one way or the other. Such people tend to be the kind of people who don’t really care (which is fair enough), so it’s a term that doesn’t often get used.

Anyway, that’s my two-pennies worth on agnosticism. Bit of a ramble but whatever.


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January 27, 2008

I’m reading ‘Farewell to God’ by Charles Templeton (don’t buy it, it’s rubbish), and one of the first things he does is point out that he is an agnostic, and then describes his position, that he’s not sitting on the fence, it’s just that he cannot prove there is no god, so he cannot be absolutely sure there is no god, therefore he cannot be an atheist.

This got me thinking. His is very similar to my own perspective (and I think the majority of non-religious people would put themselves there too), but when people ask, I call myself an atheist, not an agnostic. It’s not that I’m absolutely certain there is no god, but I have no reason whatsoever to believe there is a god, so I live my life assuming that there isn’t.

The reason I don’t call myself an agnostic is because to many people it implies that I’m 50/50, sitting on the fence, with no idea whether there is a god or not. This is not the case. In my own mind I’m fairly sure that there’s no god, I just can’t prove it.

Of course, as widely pointed out, ‘atheist’ is a term that should not exist. All it means is that you don’t believe in a god. We don’t have terms like ‘non-socialist’ or ‘non-racist’, or ‘non-postman’. It’s a negative term that doesn’t really mean very much at all.

When people ask me to define humanism, one thing that I invariably bring up is that, in a way, it is ‘positive atheism’, in that saying you’re an atheist is saying what you don’t believe, whereas saying you’re a humanist is saying what you do believe (skeptical inquiry, rationalism, objective morality etc). I think this illustrates that humanism is not just another word for atheism to escape the stereotyping often associated with the term. In fact in the strictest sense you don’t even have to be an atheist to be a humanist. I’ve yet to meet a single religious humanist, but I imagine there are some.