I alluded to this briefly in my most recent post about Humanism, but I don’t like that our definitions of atheism and agnosticism are conflated and confused. The language and labels we use ought to tell us something substantive about what we believe. But as it stands, the words “atheist” and “agnostic” don’t really tell us much at all. Many atheists often argue that everyone who isn’t a believer is an atheist, including babies and many who identify as an agnostic. But this muddles and confuses what really should be two separate positions on the existence of God, and I think we’re better off keeping them separate.

Knowledge vs. Belief

The argument goes that atheism and theism describe what you believe, while agnosticism and gnosticism describe what you know. Since most agnostics don’t actively believe that God exists, then they should be considered atheists—even if they don’t know one way or the other. But even though people treat knowledge and belief like they’re very different things, they’re really not. People like to construct infographics where belief and knowledge are orthogonal to one another, but knowledge is actually just a specific kind of belief.

This conversation often gets confused by our degree of confidence in our beliefs, but knowledge isn’t determined by confidence—knowledge is simply a belief that is both true and justified (Gettier thought-experiments notwithstanding). It just so happens to be that we tend to be confident in beliefs that we think are true and justified. So confidence isn’t a criterion for, but rather a consequence of, knowledge. Similarly, many like the distinction between strong and weak atheist, or gnostic and agnostic atheist, because they reflects degrees of confidence. But why should we capture confidence with our labels? We don’t do this with any other ideology—there are no specific labels for a strong Catholic and a less certain Catholic—they’re all just Catholics.

So knowledge about God’s existence isn’t useful in a label at all, because it doesn’t tell us anything about your belief—few people would admit their beliefs aren’t justified, and whether or not God exists is completely independent of your beliefs about it. Whether it’s knowledge or belief, your attitude towards the existence of God is exactly the same.

Attitudes towards an idea

There are really only three ways to describe an attitude toward an idea—you can think it’s true, you can think it’s false, or you can have no idea at all.

Take the following statement: there is an even number of women named Mary in the state of Connecticut. You can believe that this is true—maybe you did a census or something. You can also believe that it’s false, because maybe the census showed an odd number of Marys. But you can also have no belief about the number of Marys at all—I’d imagine this is where most of us stand on this issue. Colloquially, you’d just say “I don’t know.” In other words, you could say you’re agnostic about it.

We talk this way all the time, so why make it more complicated for God?

Agnostic-atheist is a clunky, awful and vague label

I’ve often seen atheists argue that agnostics are really just atheists, based on an awkward definition of atheism as “a lack of belief in a deity.” This is sometimes based on something of an etymological fallacy, noting that the prefix “a” signifies negation, therefore “a-theists” are simply those without theism. Agnostics would technically qualify as atheists since they aren’t believers. But I suspect few making that argument would also argue that atoms are thus indivisible because the suffix “tom” refers to the word “cut” in Greek. The etymology of a word shouldn’t strictly dictate how we ought to define it.

Historically and philosophically, atheism has distinctly been the belief that God doesn’t exist (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines atheism as such, which is about as definitive a source as you could want). There have often been those that have argued for atheism to capture everyone except explicit theists, and this might make sense from a theist’s perspective—it might be helpful to have a word to capture everyone who isn’t you.

But it seems useless to group people who think there are an odd number of Marys in Connecticut with people who don’t believe one way or the other, so why do we lump atheists and agnostics together? If you tell me you’re an agnostic-atheist, I don’t learn much about your attitude towards God—assuming I don’t lump you in with the somewhat archaic idea that agnostics are those who think that the existence of God is in principle unknowable. I really only learn that you’re not a theist—how can an ostensibly more specific label tell me less about what you believe?

Atheism is better as a label for a specific position

Do you think atheism can be right or wrong? Then you can see where I’m coming from. There’s no sense that “lacking a belief in a deity” can ever be true, because it doesn’t make a specific claim. But if we stick with atheism as the belief that God does not exist, then it does. It’s specific, concrete, and, most importantly, potentially true or false. It puts something at stake for atheists. Instead of simply saying “there is no evidence for theism, the burden of proof is on them” we have to say “here’s what we believe, and here is our evidence.” It’s what atheists have been doing for centuries, and it’s a cop-out to define away responsibility for our position, just so we can artificially bolster our numbers with vague labels.

That leaves us with three commonsense, simple, and (somewhat ironically) more specific words for our religious discussions. Theists believe that God exists, atheists believe that God doesn’t exist, and agnostics don’t believe one way or the other—there’s no reason to make it more complicated than that.Of course, this post isn’t meant to be definitive, but I think it captures everything we’d want our labels to capture. I’m open, though, to being convinced otherwise.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

8 Responses to “Simplifying our language: a defense of agnosticism”

  1. timberwraith Says:

    Thanks for the post, Vlad.

    I think the root of all of this lies in a kind of tribalism which drives people to say, “Hey, look at all the people who I can claim as members of my group!” And while I understand that atheists, as a disliked minority, would be eager to claim as many fellow members as possible, this doesn’t excuse muddying the waters around language.

    I can just imagine the resulting howls of protest if religious people tried to claim agnostics as part of a larger group of “spiritually inclined” people who are open to the possibility of a god’s existence.

    Trying to subsume the positions and identities of a group of people into your own group out of a need to appear more popular is disingenuous at best and is rather disrespectful to group of people you are trying to manipulate.

    If your system of labels fails to capture important distinctions between
    different populaces of people, then you need to rework your system of
    labels. As it stands, we already have a perfectly workable set of labels.

  2. VladChituc Says:

    I definitely agree, thanks for the comment, Tim (I was going to respond to your comment on my last post, but I got it while I was writing this one, and this was a lot of what I wanted to say).

    I definitely think there’s this prevalence of wanting to have it both ways. I think most atheists want to consider atheism a distinct position that can be true—God doesn’t exist—but they want to try to bolster their numbers and reduce any kind of burden they might have to support their position.

    I definitely agree that the labels as they’re traditionally understood (and that I think I laid out) perfectly capture what we need them to. And there’s no sense in messing with a good thing

  3. JM Says:

    I’d just like to point out that in order to have a robust, intelligent conversation about topics like this, you need to be very clear on what you mean by the word God; i.e. that which will be potentially rejected. That’s another critical ambiguity in these terms which I find demonstrates itself most vividly in atheist/agnostic-theist disagreements.

    Probably, that subject is worth a separate post.

  4. timberwraith Says:

    I guess, the question I’d ask is, “Are you looking for a definition which satisfies your own notion of divinity, or a universal definition meant to encompass all understandings of the phenomenon?”

    I don’t think a universal definition of a divine force, god, gods, “universal spirit”, or related phenomena is truly possible. Given that there are over 40 religions on the planet, each with subgroups potentially numbering in the thousands, the definition of divinity is as varied as human beings are. How do you take all of the cultural variations on divinity across all of humanity and reduce them down to a single definition without over-generalizing?

    That’s one of the problems I see that recurs in a lot of contemporary dialog between atheists who are critical of religion and believers. The believer often says, “But that’s not what I believe! That’s not how I see God.” Atheists’ criticisms have utilized notions of divinity (and religion) that are so over-generalized that they have little impact upon many believers. The believer sees their faith and their notion of a divine being rendered as a hollow stereotype and consequently, they easily dismiss the other person’s ideas as unfair and “missing the mark”.

    I know that many atheists have looked at the high degree of variability of people’s notions of divinity and have seen this as further evidence of god’s non-existence. “If people can’t even agree on what God is, then the concept is meaningless and is unworthy of serious consideration.” Ironically, I suspect this variation in the understanding of divinity actually leads to the notion being more resilient and adaptable than a single, rigidly defined concept. This might not satisfy the scientifically minded non-believer, but it does serve to form the basis for a robust, widely occurring facet of human experience.

    Simply put, many atheists seek out a narrowly defined, scientifically testable notion of divinity which then fails to encompass the full range of individual and cultural understandings of the concept. How do you quantify a highly culturally variable phenomenon into a simple set of variables?

    For this reason, I suspect that it’s a lot easier for an atheist to personally disprove the notion of divinity that s/he grew up with and/or the dominant notion that is present in her/his native culture. It’s much more difficult to tackle the concept across denomination, geographic region, culture, ethnicity, history, and so on.

  5. ChristopherBlackwell Says:

    I think what he is saying is that no one can define themselves by what they don’t believe and what they don’t do. Instead you best describe what you do think and what you do instead.

    As a Pagan I say much the same, do not defend yourself from the claims of your detractors, because in doing so you keep those claims upper most in everybody’s minds which is the last thing that you want to do.
    So instead you say what you think, and what you do and leave the false claims out of it and only describe what you actually are.

    I pay attention to Viad, because he has a good mind and some of his ideas would be useful to my community as well. Also it helps me understand his views as well. That is something anyone who is curious and has an open mind wants to do to keep their mind working properly.

  6. JM Says:

    This is very good, and very illuminating. Thanks.

  7. JM Says:

    I’m mostly just interested in the general framework that people use to approach the problem of god(s) and how they may be rejected.

    I assume, then, that should any criticisms of any particular conception of “God” be launched, the atheist will then use that specific conception of divinity as the starting place?

  8. timberwraith Says:

    As with most matters, JM, I would imagine that the approach chosen depends upon the particular atheist in question. Given human variability, I’d think individual approaches to non-belief in divinity are as varied as approaches to belief in divinity. And given that many non-believers started out as believers in their more youthful days, I would also guess that one’s approach to non-belief tends to grow out of a reaction crafted in response to the model of divinity (and religion) that one experienced as a believer.

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