My Defense of the Term “Agnostic”

Often on Twitter and even in this blog I have been questioned and/or criticized for my use or definition of the term “agnostic” and “agnosticism.” Some atheists read that I am agnostic and they think that I am “one step away” from becoming an atheist. Others believe atheism and agnosticism are one in the same. The final group states that agnosticism is about knowledge, where as atheism is a conclusion.

Regardless of which group one falls in to they are often dissatisfied with my definition or use of the term agnostic. They question my credibility or intelligence because of my inability to use a dictionary and they argue that I cannot make up my own definition. There is an example of this here in this blog where I am talking about my transformation story…

https://stern255.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/how-i-went-from-atheist-to-agnostic/

People point me to a dictionary and explain etymology the word “agnostic…”

“ Agnostic (from Ancient Greek ἀ- (a-), meaning ‘without’, and γνῶσις (gnōsis), meaning ‘knowledge’)…”-Wikipedia

They also use dictionary definitions, but the problem with that is they the definitions vary…

Agnostic-

a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.-Google

a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.-Dictionary.com

a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not-merriam-webster.com

Even if one uses a dictionary definition, they have to actively choose which dictionary or which definition they are going to use and why.

They also point out agnosticism is about knowledge and show me pictures like this one…

Agnostic v Gnostic v Atheist v Theist

Besides the fact that the Merriam-Webster definition says NOTHING about “knowledge,” who created this picture and what makes it an authority? Is it simply accepted because a lot of people post it on Twitter?

Either way I am questioned and criticized about my use of the term for the reasons above. The final thing they say is that I cannot make up my own definition for words, there is a reason we have language. Actually I can and people do all the time. The key is providing of the details and reasoning behind a working definition.

When I am criticized for the reasons above, people are actually showing their shallow knowledge of the topic. I have studied religion, atheism, philosophy, and science and based my definitions and opinions on that. The people criticizing me demonstrate that their knowledge is limited to Googling the definition of a word or passing pictures around twitter. Let me explain why this makes their knowledge on the term shallow. Using only Wikipedia, I can show their lack of ability to look up the history of a term.

Above I quoted something from Wikipedia…

“Agnostic (from Ancient Greek ἀ- (a-), meaning ‘without’, and γνῶσις (gnōsis), meaning ‘knowledge’)…”-Wikipedia

This is actually the entire quote…

“Agnostic (from Ancient Greek ἀ- (a-), meaning ‘without’, and γνῶσις (gnōsis), meaning ‘knowledge’) was used by Thomas Henry Huxley in a speech at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1869 to describe his philosophy, which rejects all claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge.”-Wikipedia

If we go to the top of the page, it explains this…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnosticism

“Thomas Henry Huxley, an English biologist, coined the word agnostic in 1869. However, earlier thinkers have written works that promoted agnostic points of view. “
See, the term was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, who created his own definition for the term. His definition is the definition I go by because he is the person that coined the term. The question is, what exactly did he say about the term?

To keep it simple, here is some of the stuff from the Wikipedia link above…
Agnostic views are as old as philosophical skepticism, but the terms agnostic and agnosticism were created by Huxley to sum up his thoughts on contemporary developments of metaphysics about the “unconditioned” (William Hamilton) and the “unknowable” (Herbert Spencer). Though Huxley began to use the term “agnostic” in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time before that date. In a letter of September 23, 1860, to Charles Kingsley, Huxley discussed his views extensively…

“I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter …”

Of the origin of the name agnostic to describe this attitude, Huxley gave the following account:

“When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion …

So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic”. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. … To my great satisfaction the term took.”

Bertrand Russell even agrees with my definition…

In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell states:

“An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.”

My final quote comes from the intro on the Wikipedia page…

“According to the philosopher William L. Rowe, in the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God, whereas a theist and an atheist believe and disbelieve, respectively.”

I know about Huxley because I studied the history and philosophy of science but my transformation, which I speak about in that blog, was written (not posted) BEFORE I ever read anything Huxley wrote (other than his short definition which was mentioned in a class), oddly enough, our stories are very similar and we come to many of the same conclusions. Like Huxley, the more I learned the more I evolved and the more I realized how much we do not know. I went from being an atheist to growing to the point of understanding that we cannot know the big answer. We both also noticed the “gnosis” in atheists claims. They fight tooth and nail and play semantic games, but many atheists certainly APPEAR to be making a truth claim. Agnosticism is not the same as atheism and Rowe (in the quote above) explains this. Both Huxley and I read much of the same arguments and philosophers, made the same observations, and came to the same conclusion. This is due to my studies in the area and observations of engagements with atheists.

I often hear the term “agnostic atheist,” and I too have used it to describe myself. The important part to that is that I state the “atheist” part is simply my opinion if I were forced to make a guess. It is not based on science. However, I personally do not like the term and I feel the terms are contradictory or redundant when used together.

They are contradictory because agnostic is about not knowing and not being able to know where atheism is essentially making a truth claim. It is literally saying “I don’t know if there is a god or not and I do not believe there is a god. If one does not know, there is no reason to attach the disclaimer that one does not believe. The reason the term agnostic atheist is used is because adding “I do not know” allows atheists to avoid providing evidence for their claim.

Huxley intended, and made clear, that atheism and agnosticism are different. When I say I am agnostic, I do not need to attach another label to the end. I do not need to specify that I do not believe in a god because I have already stated I do not believe we can know. Agnostic is also not the “transition” to becoming an atheist when I reach “enlightenment,” it is actually the opposite.

To suggest that I am making up a definition or using the definition incorrectly is ignorant. It is not that I lack the ability to look at a picture or use a dictionary, simply that I actually understand the origin and meaning of the term as opposed to having abilities limited to looking at a picture or looking up a definition. Use the term as you choose and give it the definition you desire, but do not suggest that my definition is less correct than yours or that I somehow lack your amazing intellect.

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9 thoughts on “My Defense of the Term “Agnostic”

  1. I’m an agnostic atheist. I don’t believe in any of the gods I’ve heard of and see no reason to believe in one. I just shorten it to atheist most of the time for expediency when discussing religion. I find by using the term agnostic, many religious people would see it as if I am one short step from theism. I’m not.

  2. You bring up a couple of interesting points. I agree with your first two sentences. I have not seen a reason to believe in any of the gods/religions ever presented to me, but being an agnostic, I do not believe we can know, so that point is obvious.’

    You say that religious people see you as being one step away from theism if you call yourself an agnostic. As I pointed out in the blog, this is the same case for atheist, they see agnostics as one step away. I ask you, who cares? Just like the atheists I am calling out in this blog, those theists are just as clueless as to what an agnostic is. This blog could serve them equally well.

    Based on your statement, can I assume you discuss religion on a regular basis? If you do, I ask, what is your goal? I talk about religion because it is my passion, it is what I went to school for. Obviously I want people to see things my way but I am just as happy if they find God because of what I am telling them. I am encouraging critical thinking and reasoning. My stance on religion in a science class room is completely different, but that is another topic.

    If you goal is to get people to see your point of view, that there is no evidence for a God, which is the better stance to take? If they believe you are “one step away” from becoming a theist, are they not more willing to engage than if you call yourself an atheist? Taking the extreme view often deters people from listening. No Christian is seriously going to consider what Dawkins, Hitchen, or Harris has to say because they are extremist bigots. When you call yourself an atheist, that is who they think of. For this same reason I do not engage with religious fundamentalists. We are too far apart, there is no middle ground. If they are “agnostic,” loosely religious, or liberal Christians, I would certainly engage.

    Once again, what is your goal? Like I said, there is a reason people are actively choosing to use a term. Yours appears to be that you are making a statement, that you do not believe in a god, and do not forget that.

    Thank you for reading and thank you for your response. It speaks to what I am saying in the blog. I encourage you to think about why you care about how people define you, and what is your goal? If you would like to expand on your statements, I would love to hear it.
    -Kevin

  3. Reblogged this on Hailey's Comments by the Cosmic Authoress and commented:
    I am an (agnostic) atheist; I do not believe in anything that can’t be scientifically proven, however, I do not claim that such things do not or can’t exist. I believe it is foolish to say that you 100% know that a God does (or does not) exist.

    Some people choose to identify as an atheist, an agnostic, an agnostic atheist, or an agnostic theist.
    But what truly is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?
    Some very rude atheists would say agnostics are just closeted atheists and fear the backlash associated with the term “atheist.”
    Some very rude agnostics would say atheists are just as bad and radical as religious folk.
    What these people don’t understand is that we are all on the same side.
    Technically, we are all non-believers and likely share the same views.
    In my opinion, the two groups are separated due to political mind sets. Atheists tend to be more of activists against superstition, while agnostics seem to be more neutral. Obviously, this won’t be the case for everybody- but I do think that the forms of activism they take separates them.

    • Thanks for your point of view. You are right, people’s opinions vary greatly whether they are religious, agnostic, or atheists. I intend to do a post on the different types of atheists. When you ask what is the difference between agnostics and atheists, many certainly share your view. As I explain in this blog, Huxley intended a clear difference and he is the man that coined the term. This blog was due to repeated claims that I lack an understanding and cannot read a dictionary. I believe people should be allowed to define themselves as they choose, and I was defending my definition. I certainly agree that politics and activism play roles, which is why I brought up the reasons for someone using a certain definition.

      The big reason for creating this blog was due to my frustration of constantly being attacked by the people that are on my side. You pointed that out, we are on the same side. We certainly are and I simply try to point out when atheists are wrong because it betters us. I believe a more neutral approach is better not only because I majored in Religious Studies, but when people are more respectful of each other and understand each other, they are more willing to engage and have civilized conversations.

      Thanks for reblogging and thanks for adding to the discussion, you brought up some important points.
      -Kevin

      • I agree with you- we should be critical of ourselves, as atheists and agnostics. I’m a science major, and the my experience with different religions extends so far. Typically, I push the scienctfic mindset and don’t address the philosophical or poetic side of religion.
        I think if more skeptics addressed this issue, we’d get a lot farther when reasoning with theists.
        I do enjoy your work. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • I wanted to comment on a statement you made…

      “Typically, I push the scientific mindset and don’t address the philosophical or poetic side of religion.”

      Let me ask you what your success rate is? I assume nearly 0. Like you, I have the “scientific mindset” but how does that translate in talking to people that do not share it? Most religious people are using faith based arguments and existentialism. They are using abductive (yes correct spelling) reasoning, not inductive reasoning. Though I prefer one, I am not going to say the other is wrong. The point is that you are talking about apples and they are talking about oranges. You are speaking two different languages. Proof and evidence is different in their head. I enjoy promoting science also, but it is not the way to convince a religious person. You need to address them on their grounds. I believe I make a very good argument FOR evolution using their line of reasoning. Have you read it?

      • My goal is not to change the minds of religious people, don’t think I’m wasting my time in doing that. I want to educate people, particulary younger generations, on science. My goal is to also push for a secular government. People can believe whatever they want; as long as that doesn’t interfere in our laws, politics, public properties, and our public schools.

  4. In fact, findings in modern science points directly to the existence of God.

    Additionally, it is more reasonable to believe that the universe has a Creator then to believe that everything happened all by itself.

  5. People exist at different levels of certitude in their epistemology about God. People choose different labels. I think those who can’t accept these two simple facts need to cut back on the caffeine.

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