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.

How I went from Atheist to Agnostic

Whenever atheists hear that I am an agnostic, they assume I am just one step away from becoming a true atheist. Then comes the bombshell…I was an atheist but moved to what I consider a true agnostic. Before I move on, I will explain the definitions that I am using. Opinions on these definitions vary and in some cases, there is no “correct” definition, but I go with the following, based on related studies.

 

Atheist-One that claims know there is no god or higher power. (This will be the more controversial definition because I know many atheists would not agree with this. This is however the popular definition that Christians or other believers would use.)

 

Agnostic-One that does not believe we can know whether or not there is a god/higher power/force or what have you. Many consider agnostic to mean simply “I don’t know.” This is not the definition I am using because it is an unsure and lazy view. I do not know because I do not think we can know.

 

Deist-One that believes in some type of higher power or god, but one that is not a personal god that can produce revelation or interfere in life in anyway. This would be what many would call the “first mover” or “unmovable mover,” the thing that set the universe in motion.

 

Theist-One that has a belief similar to the deist god, except it is a personal god that can become involved in our world. This is generally the god of their favored religion such as Christianity.

 

To continue, do not freak out and think I went from atheist to theist, or something more in that direction. I went from atheist, to agnostic because of intellectual and scientific reasons, because of the knowledge I gain. I actually consider myself an agnostic atheist. I am a true agnostic because I do not think we can know. This is the only honest intellectual position that is based on observable, empirical evidence. Agnosticism is my conclusion, atheism is my opinion. I find it more likely that there is no god as opposed to their being one. I believe we can reasonably conclude there is probably not a god, though not logically.

 

What is the reason I went from atheist to agnostic? I will explain the brief story of my change in opinion.

 

 

(I will tell my story of Atheism to Agnosticism next, but at the end of this I will also provide my story of Christianity to Atheism)

 

Atheism to Agnosticism

That experience led to my “conversion.” I had concluded that God did not exist. Using my logic, I reasoned that even if God did exist, and I was standing in front of him in heaven, being all-knowing, he would know that I did not really believe. I figured that I had given ample opportunity to see a sign or feel something and did not. This is when my fear of hell disappeared. I was no longer afraid of not believing. Overcoming this fear allowed me to proclaim myself an atheist.

 

Like many atheists, I was bitter and mad. I disliked the military’s favoritism of Christianity. I always brought up that the way they were running things favored Christians, even though we had Muslims and atheists in the military. I continued on like this. I never really disliked Christians, but I saw their reasoning as inferior. Simply put, I saw myself as smarter or better.

 

After getting off of active duty and working as a personal trainer for a year, I decided to go to college. I enrolled at the University of Minnesota with plans of majoring in Kinesiology. Being a new student, I was at the bottom of the list for signing up for classes, so I took some stuff for fun. I ended up taking Ancient History (Western) and History of the Crusades. To make a long story short, I switched from Kinesiology to Religious Studies and Ancient Mediterranean Studies. I loved history and religion plays such an important role in it. It would also give me the chance to look at the Bible as a historical work. Around this time I also became interested in Ancient Astronaut Theory. This is an important point which I will address in a bit.

 

I figured the best way to validate or invalidate the Bible was to actually study the context and history of it. I thought the most logical place to start with the beginning, so I started with the study of the Hebrew Bible. I started learning about the historical context of the Bible and the link to other cultures and religions during the time. Another thing I studied was how religious beliefs in general came about. I started to see Ancient Astronaut Theory a legitimate possibility. Remember, I considered myself a pretty smart person.

 

Over the next few semesters I took additional classes in philosophy (of religion, morality, logic epistemology, and others, ) science, history of science and the philosophy of science. I also started interacting with a campus atheist group called CASH (Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists.) During this time and continuing on, I really had my eyes open on a number of things and come to come conclusions.

 

First: The God of the Hebrew Bible does not exist. There is nothing extraordinary or unique about the Bible. I have another blog about this topic… http://athans-athansblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/rejection-of-god-due-to-bible.html I also learned that pointing out contradictions in the Bible is childish because if one actually understands what it is, we would expect this.

 

Second: Ancient Astronaut Theory is a joke. I know most of you already know this, but let me explain my errors. First, they doom themselves by coming out with more and more material. They think it is evidence, but it is all just contradictions. But here were the big errors in my reasoning. Logic, Ignorance, Authority.

 

Logic

Their entire argument is not a logically sound argument and uses deductive reasoning from a flawed premise. They start with the premise that aliens exist. As is the case with arguments that begin with “God exists.” THIS is the exact premise they need to prove. They assume it to be correct and work backwards. This is not a logical argument.

 

Ignorance

They made claims such as “we don’t know how the pyramids were built, therefore aliens built them.” Well actually, we do know how they were built. We actually have answers to nearly every single question they ask and ways to explain their points. Their entire argument is dependent on an ignorant audience. They need people that do not know much about history. When I realized this, I became upset and tried to figure out if the proponents were trying to deceive people, or if they were just idiots. This leads to the finial bit.

 

Authority

I made the assumption that the people talking about this stuff were actually in the position to be talking about it. When I looked into it, almost none of their “experts” even had degrees. Of the ones that did, they were in a totally unrelated field. But all of a sudden these people know more than Ph.D.s in the area? There is a reason Ph.D.s have spent their entire lives studying a topic…

 

Third: Logic, Epistemology, Scientific Reasoning, History, Science. I learned that we actually have methods of knowing things and logic is actually more than someone’s opinion of what makes sense. Logic is very different than one’s reasoning ability. I also took classes in biology, philosophy of science, and the history of science. We have very precise ways of doing science and knowing things and also that scientific thought has changed over time. It is this part that led me to my agnosticism. To start, the question of a god is not a scientific question. God falls into the realm of supernatural. Supernatural things cannot be scientifically tested because they cannot be falsified. We simply cannot prove there is no god. That being said, I see no reason to invoke a god and I have not seen any reason to NEED a god. Historically, the idea of a god is not unreasonable and actually most of the smartest people did believe in a god. Newton and Darwin both believe in a god. It has not been until fairly recently that we could make the conclusion that a god is more unlikely than it is likely. On that same note though, there are VERY important details that have yet to be answered.

 

If we are scientifically honest, we cannot conclude that the universe has a creator or a purpose, or does not. To quote astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

 

Does the Universe have a purpose?

 

“Not sure. Anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations. This remarkably persistent way of thinking, common to most religions and some branches of philosophy, has failed badly in past efforts to understand, and thereby predict the operations of the universe and our place within it. …

So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random. Whenever events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us, then intent is hard, if not impossible, to assert. So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong, and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.”

 

You can read the full answer herehttp://www.templeton.org/purpose/essay_Tyson.html

 

Besides not being able to answer THE question, we cannot even answer all of the questions here on earth. Another thing that has never been demonstrated or observed is how exactly the first life came about. We can show that the foundations of life can be created from non-living elements, but we have not shown how we can go from simple proteins to life.

 

Though I believe we have enough evidence to reasonably conclude there is no need for a god, the fact of the matter is that we have not answered the two biggest questions that need explaining. This is why I went from an atheist to an agnostic and that is why that should be the correct progression. It was not due to the need or want of a god or some personal revelation, it was science. Though atheism is my opinion, many people that are much smarter than I, would disagree with that opinion. (Click on that link above for opinions of other experts.)

 

I will end this bit here, but I do want to talk about what I learned about atheists from the CASH group and other interactions. That will be posted in an attached blog in the near future.

 

As promised, Christianity to Atheism…

 

Christianity to Atheism

Like many reading this, I was raised Christian. But I was raised a “liberal Christian.” I do not mean this in political terms, rather the degree of Christianity. My parents and Church were pretty open to progressive views. I was baptized, went to Sunday School, and was Confirmed. My family went to Church mainly only for the holidays and even less after my sister was Confirmed. My dad now makes the claim that he does not believe in God. I did occasionally go on Church trips and youth nights at the Church (mainly to see the girls though.) These experiences actually started leading me AWAY from the Church.

 

I remember asking Jesus into my life during a Church camp thing. You know what I felt? Nothing. Numerous times I asked God for a sign or feeling…anything at all. Again, nothing. It irritated me that God would not give me an answer and I started to doubt him, but was still afraid of not believing because of the possibility of hell. I also took a World Religions course in high school that exposed me to different views and religions. I found Wicca interesting, but I did not become a Wiccan like many rebellious teens decided they were.

 

After graduation I went straight to Active Duty Air Force. Like many, I sought after religion for comfort while in basic training. I had some ups and downs. I acquired a Rosary. Not knowing what it was, I simply wore it like a cross. Apparently someone in my flight was extremely offended by that and went off on me. I remember thinking what an asshole he was. I meant no disrespect, but was simply looking for comfort, yet he could not see this. Naturally this made me bitter. At the same time I was forming a friendship with another person. He was a Mormon. I started to go to the Mormon services with him and reading The Book of Mormon. Like many, I found their beliefs laughable. At the same time, I enjoyed spending time with them because they were good caring people.

 

In Tech School I was a Chaplin assistant. Not much to say about it, it was a good experience. My first station was Ramstein Airbase in Germany. Naturally I started going to the Chapel on base. I was rubbed the wrong way there, especially after hearing about the crimes the previous Chaplin had committed. I went to a couple different Churches, one being a place off-base. This Church was off base, but was generally made up of Americans. This place was the final straw for me. Being a new member, he singled me out (I was a very shy person.) He asked me if I had ever sinned. I said of course I had. He told me that it is possible for me to live a life without sin. I told him that was not possible (this is what I had always been taught.) He still continued to single me out and assured me I could. I left very bitter. I went back to my dorm and asked God for a sign. Guess what happened? Nothing…