Putting the Misconception to Bed: Why Atheism and Agnosticism are Not Mutually Exclusive

June 13, 2008 at 5:57 pm 6 comments

Originally written May 5th, 2006

Recently, I’ve been forced to defend my atheism. That doesn’t come as a big shocker to me, given that I live in the ‘south’ but what does surprise me is why I’ve been forced to defend it. It all started when a pack of youth missionaries asked me “How can you be so certain that there is no God?”. I told them I wasn’t. For all I know, there could be a God but I simply don’t believe there is one. Like sharks smelling blood, they jumped all over that one for my apparent self-contradiction.

Such ignorance (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion) isn’t relegated to the square walls of the coffee shop I frequent, nor does it fall within the confines of the Mason-Dixon line. Indeed, I’ve read several blogs and forum posts that seem to have a point confused. That point is, namely, that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. In other words, many seem to think that either you are an atheist or an agnostic – you can’t be both. It would be like saying you’re a married bachelor or a compassionate conservative (just kidding…sort of).

So let’s get something straight: agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. One can be an agnostic atheist (hey, if I can do it, you can too). My reason for saying that is fairly straightforward – agnosticism and atheism make completely different claims regarding completely different levels of cognition.

Agnosticism (from the Greek – a (without) gnosis (knowledge)) is a claim concerning itself with knowledge, or more put more aptly, the lack of knowledge. One can be agnostic about a great number of things: the number of jelly beans in the jar, the number of cars on the road at a given time, or the true rationale for war with Iraq. In these circles, however, agnosticism usually refers to the existence of God. Someone who claims that they are agnostic when it comes to God is simply stating that they don’t know. Could be. Could not be. More specifically, many agnostics (myself included) hold that it is actually impossible to know whether or not God exists.

While agnosticism makes a claim regarding knowledge, atheism makes a claim regarding belief – namely, I don’t believe God exists (or you can put it into the affirmative if you prefer, e.g. I believe God doesn’t exist). However you want to sexy it up, you’re basically saying the same thing: we’re godless creatures in a godless universe.

The key difference between these two notions is the difference between knowledge and belief. Belief is a sort of substitute for knowledge with respect to things that are not yet known or are inherently unknowable. In other words, one can believe something without having knowledge. For example, I can believe that there are one-hundred fifty four jelly beans in the jar, or that there are two point six billion cars on the road, or that the real rationale for war with Iraq was to feed the military-industrial complex.

The things one can know, however, is a bit trickier. If you really examine what knowing something means, you’ll come to the conclusion that the scope of things we can actually know is somewhat limited when compared with the popular use of the word ‘knowledge’. Perception can be in error. Memory can falter (see Elizabeth Loftus for some interesting work on implanting false memories). We can be mistaken in our reasoning. But, of things we can know, it would seem odd to say that one believes them. For example, I know that two plus two equals four (I got an ‘A’ in pre-algebra). It would seem odd for me to say that I believe that is the case. Or, an old argument that St. Augustine used to trash the Skeptics – I know that I do not want to be in error. It would likewise be odd to say that I believe I do not want to be in error.

The point that I’m trying to get at here is this: belief and knowledge are different operations that are concerned with different levels of epistemic certainty. If you don’t believe me…well, I guess I can’t make you.


Entry filed under: Agnosticism, Atheism, Moldy Oldy. Tags: , .

Religion: Blight Upon Humanity? The Anti-Life Movement

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Grant  |  August 4, 2008 at 1:29 am

    This is the most clear and well thought out description I have come across. Thanks. I have just written a sci-fi short story about atheism and would really appreciate you comments: http://scifiwriter.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/faith/

  • 2. freidenker85  |  August 30, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I agree… almost.

    Well, your definition of agnosticism is perfect: to be an agnostic is to be as fair as possible. It IS impossible to know if god exists or not.

    However, atheism, as it is in several (and unfortunately, not in all) dictionary and encyclopedia definitions, is not “the belief that god does not exist”. A definition like that is ridiculous. Believing that something does not exist is absolutely absurd. I can’t believe that something does not exist because in order to believe that, I have to know what that thing IS, and since it doesn’t, to my opinion, exist, then I cannot know what it is that I do not believe in.

    As an atheist, what I am is a person who LACKS the belief in God and not because of a faith in his non-existence. I lack belief in God because there is no good reason, not even a wee-bit of evidence, to justify such belief.

    Belief, to my opinion, is the middle-ground between knowledge that is absolute and that which has any extent of evidence for. Since God has no real-life evidence for its existence whatsoever, then my belief in this god is none-existent. That said, I can also say that, for example, since there’s mountains of evidence for the theory of gravitation, then I “believe in gravitation” and for a very good reason: this theory has withstood the test of reality. God does not.

    So I oppose your definition of atheism as “the belief in the non-existence of God”. But I’m 100% behind you on the other definition you gave.

  • 3. Tommy Blanchard  |  October 1, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Bill Maher, in a recent interview on The Daily Show, said he “doesn’t like the certainty of atheism”. I was pretty upset by this – you don’t have to be certain of anything to be an atheist! Any reasonable atheist would say that they would be willing to begin believing if there was sufficient evidence to warrant belief.

    I found it really upsetting that Maher, who has a movie critical of religion coming out soon, contributed to the misunderstanding about what atheism is.

  • 4. Kelly  |  January 10, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    What a great essay–very clear and concise, and it includes humor! Nicely stated!

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