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The Phoenix Atheists Meetup Group Message Board General Discussion Forum › Atheism VS Agnosticism

Atheism VS Agnosticism

user 10079649
Carlsbad, CA
Post #: 174
It is generally accepted that the difference between an Atheist and an Agnositc is that the Agnostic will not deny the existence of a god, where the Atheist will, on the grounds that there is no absolute proof that god DOES NOT exist.

The Agnostic stance is appealing to people because it seems, on the surface, to be the most rational..although I as an Atheist feel that this is a fallicious (the fallacy of false compromise, the fallacy of negative proof) . While there is indeed NO proof of the non-existenece of god, rationality is actually violated for inferring that this means there COULD be a takes more analysis than agnostics usually give it.

If anything made me switch from Agnosticism to Atheism, it was Bertrand Russell's "Teapot Hypothesis". He argued that a things disprovability does not give that thing a 50/50 chance of being true. There is no way to prove (or there wasn't when Russell wrote it) that there is NOT a teapot orbiting mars, but that doesn't mean we should therefore not deny there is one, nor does it give that teapot a 50/50 chance of existing. If it did, we could come up with ANYTHING our imaginations wanted and ascribe potential existence to it because we cannot demonstrate that it doesn't exist.

He was speaking of a sliding scale of probability in rationalism, to deal with things that could not be disproven, things that might theorhetically/rationallly suggested and are yet to be proven (like black holes, dark matter), and things that are arbitrarily suggested that cannot be disproven (god, giant dragons, teapots orbiting mars).

Although i cannot prove the non-existence of god, as I cannot prove the non-existence of a giant purple horse wrapped in cellophane in a golf hat at the end of the universe, I CAN say with rational appeal to a sliding scale of probablility that I have a lack of belief in god, and do not belive god exists. While there may be a technical mathematical chance I am wrong, it is so low that I cannot rationally belive in it.

Agnositicsm must take into account that it is not only speaking of god as we in the west understand it, but ALL gods as well as all scientific suggestions of the origins of the universe, falling victim to the contradictory problems that pascal's wager did: to be consistent, it must account for contradictory gods. If it accepts that there MAY be a god, it also has to accept that there MAY be a giant purple horse wrapped in cellophane in a golf hat just as easily. I wonder how many are willing to do so.

It also seems to me that agnosticism declines to answer the question or get into the issues, preferring instead to say "I don't know" and avoiding philosophical reflection...which is fine until they make your kids say the lords prayer in school
A former member
Post #: 587
Good point Dan.

I say that I'm technically an agnostic because I know that I cannot prove or disprove that there are any deities. But I am a de-facto atheist because to believe in some claim that is so extremely improbable, and for which there is not one bit of evidence, is just foolish!

Religious people have tried to argue that everyone must believe somethings. For example that we "believe" that life evolved, or more specifically that humans evolved, or some will say that we "believe" our cars will work. But the fatal flaw in the religious person's thinking is to assume that we are opposed to "belief" itself. That simply isn't the case and many just don't get it. The question is not belief, but rather what is being believed. Some things have a good reason to be believed and other things do not. I believe that my mother loves me. That is not unreasonable. My mother has been very good to me, she has helped me so much in life even after I became an adult, she has shown that she loves me. So I have a good reason to believe that my mother loves me. But there is no evidence whatsoever to believe that there are any deities in reality. I do believe in the variety of gods in that they are fictional characters, much like I believe in Hamlet! There is evidence that people throughout history have thought of these fictional characters, but no evidence that they actually exist outside of imagination.

Additionally, if a religious person tries to argue that so many people throughout history have believed in a god that person is committing a logical fallacy. The fallacy of "appeal to popularity". Just because a fishtian can argue that about 2 billion people alive today believe, and billions more through history have believed, in jesus cannot mean that fishinsanity is the "one true" religion. Muslims could argue, just as well, the exact same case for islam. For that matter so could buddhists and hindus.
user 10079649
Carlsbad, CA
Post #: 175
A good response to "Appeal to popularity" is to remind the person guilty of it that at one time, everyone on earth thought the Sun orbited the planet. The fact that everyone belived it did not make it so. Yes, a billion chinese CAN be wrong!
user 8948450
Mesa, AZ
Post #: 15
Before I get flamed, please understand, this is my Opinion, nothing more.

The way I see it...

We have Theism/Atheism. These deal with belief.

We also have Gnosticism/Agnosticism. These deal with knowledge.

I believe the terms "atheist" and "agnostic" are mutually exclusive; they are not interchangable in regards to belief.

I consider myself an agnostic atheist - I lack belief in any deities, and I do not believe anyone KNOWS for certain.

Consider that there are gnostic atheists (those who proclaim "there is no god!") as well as agnostic theists.
user 10079649
Carlsbad, CA
Post #: 176
A good point Don!

I still however, KNOW there is no god the same way I KNOW there is no purple unicorn appearing in my closet when I close the door. Of course, Schrodinger and his cat may disagree, but I adhere to a probability margin so small that claiming knowledge would not be unreasonable in any practical way or application.

The problem is not gnosticism, but epistemology, or what constitutes "knowledge". In the epistemological sense, NOTHING can be known due to a matter of subjectivity and perception. Because a reasonable contrary argument can be made against any claim of knowledge, one tends to disavow having it.

Nevertheless, people claim they "know" things all the time: what their names are, if they feel pain in their arm, that they are in Arizona and not Mozambique at this moment, that they are one gender or the other. All of those claims could have a matter of doubt and a degree of uncertainty suggested (It's all a hallucination or you are in an alien simulation for example).

But how many of us, were we in an out of control car, would waste time arguing with ourselves about the uncertainty of direct, unrefutable knowledge and not hit the brakes for fear of making a direct claim?

Still, that is not my problem with agnosticism, and you are right, agnostics do not claim a lack of belief.
A former member
Post #: 119

We have Theism/Atheism. These deal with belief.

We also have Gnosticism/Agnosticism. These deal with knowledge.

According to this definition theism/atheism is a subjective matter of personal "choice"
While gnosticism/agnosticism is an objective matter of fact.

If a theist claims "I know god exists" he is outright lying and is making a false and easily falsifiable statement
whereas if the same theist proclaims "I believe god exists" he is likely making a true statement. After all we are "free" to choose what we believe in regardless of its probability.

The popular usage of the world agnostic is then inappropriate. When people say "I do not know if God exists" they really mean "I do not know if I believe that God exists". The latter is the position that Atheists scorn because of the implication that the person holds probable and improbable beliefs on the same footing.
A former member
Post #: 164
I credit Richard Dawkins with my choosing the atheist branding. I agree with him in his interpretations of the two words and their meanings for us. Even though he freely admits he cannot absolutely know if a god/gods exist, but that that does not mean they have equal probabilities. That pretty much sums it up for me.
Jim L.
user 4873956
Phoenix, AZ
Post #: 352
There are lots of ways to define these terms, to the extent that you can't be sure how people are using them unless you ask.

The general population of English speakers understands atheism to be equivalent to what Michael Martin calls "positive atheism" and what used to be commonly known among Internet atheists as "strong atheism"--an active disbelief in the existence of gods. That's a position which does have a burden of proof over mere nonbelief, also known as weak atheism or negative atheism. George H. Smith made the same distinction using the terms explicit vs. implicit atheism. Richard Dawkins complicated matters by redefining "strong atheism" as absolute certainty that there is no God (position 7 on his scale). I wish he had chosen a different term, as I think it's a mistake to associate positive atheism/strong atheism with certainty, proof, or even knowledge.

I used to like this distinction, but am less enamored with it because "weak atheism" or "negative atheism" or atheism as mere lack of belief in gods has a few logical problems as a basis for anything. A lack of belief is not a position, it cannot be used to motivate action or to infer conclusions from. Those who say that they are only atheists in the weak sense, however, do join groups and appear to draw inferences and conclusions as though they are using the nonexistence of gods as a premise, which means either that they are really implicitly using strong atheism as a position, or they are drawing those inferences based on other meta-beliefs.

The advantage of equating atheism with weak atheism is that theism and atheism then become contradictories which cover the entire space of logical possibilities--you either have a belief in one or more gods, or you don't. Under that definition, there's no space for agnosticism except as a subset of one or both of atheism and theism.

The definition of "agnosticism" that was given earlier in this thread as pertaining to the possibility of knowledge about the existence or nonexistence of gods then gives you two dimensions, on which you can have agnostic atheists (I don't believe there are gods, and it's not possible to know), agnostic theists (I believe in at least one god, but it's not possible to know), gnostic atheists (I don't believe there are gods, and it is possible to know there aren't), and gnostic theists (I believe there's at least one god, and it's possible to know). Of those positions, I think agnostic theism is difficult to make a case for with respect to most conceptions of God, except for deism and other forms of uninvolved gods.

But most people who call themselves agnostics aren't using that definition, they're using a notion that is a particular form of weak atheism, that holds to something like there is a parity between arguments for and against the existence of gods, or that there is no way to effectively compare their evidential weight, or similar. They might agree with agnosticism regarding the possibility of knowledge for the existence or nonexistence of gods, but they go further and say that there is some parity on the case for mere belief in either direction, as well.

I'm generally in favor of allowing people to choose their own self-identifying terms and defining them as they see fit, so long as they can give a legitimate reason for their classification and it's not completely at odds with ordinary usage. One example that goes beyond ordinary usage and I think just indicates some kind of confusion is that 21% of self-identified atheists in a Pew survey reported last October said that they believe in God. Sorry, but that's not a definition of atheist that I think can get off the ground.

My own position is strong atheism/positive atheism with respect to most traditional conceptions of God, and weak atheism/agnosticism with respect to certain rarefied/unempirical notions of God. I'm comfortable calling myself an atheist in general, and dispute claims that it's impossible have knowledge that at least most gods do not exist. "You can't prove a negative" is a widely expressed canard, which I argue against here:


That also contains links to a few other essays which make the same point in a way that is probably more clear, including one by Jeff Lowder which argues for the possibility of disproofs of God's existence.
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Founded Feb 23, 2003

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