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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A Response to Atheism and Belief

I came across this blog and I felt like it was worth posting here. I am posting this because I have heard this argument more than once. It is in regards to atheism being a belief. Here is a link to the entire blog…

http://whatisatheism.blogspot.com/2014/09/is-atheism-belief.html

I am going to post the entire blog post here along with my response…

Is Atheism A Belief?

Is atheism a belief? If you are an open atheist on social media, you have probably come across this question more than once. I have personally been told that “you believe that there is no god, so therefore it is a belief.” This is incorrect. I have disbelief in a god or gods, which is a subtle, but important difference.

Let’s take a look at this. Here are the definitions from dictionary.com.

Belief:

    noun

1.

something believedan opinion or conviction:

a belief that the earth is flat.

2.

confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediatelysusceptible to rigorous proof:

a statement unworthy of belief.

3.

confidence; faith; trust:

a child’s belief in his parents.

4.

a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith:

the Christian belief.

Disbelief:

noun

1.

the inability or refusal to believe or to accept something as true.

2.

amazement; astonishment:

We stared at the Taj Mahal in disbelief.

Not only does the word disbelief fit the description better, but the term “belief in no god” is in and of itself contradictory. I think “no belief in god” would be more accurate, but still is still a bit clunky.

You might ask yourself why I have taken the time to even write this post. The answer is simple. There are many theists out there that are trying to prove that atheism is a religion based on the idea that if they can manipulate words, they can prove their point. This is idiotic and goes to show how desperate they are becoming to try and prove that they are right.
If you come across someone spouting this nonsense, feel free to post this link. It will save you a bit of trouble.
Here is my response to their blog post…
Part 1
Hello there. I too am an atheist. Oddly enough, I double majored in History and Religious Studies (if you do not know what this is, I suggest Googling it, because it is not the same as theology, it is the scholarly study of religion.) I look forward to reading the blog and wanted to comment on this topic.To start, and I think this post shows it, atheists are afraid of the word “belief.” They see it as something negative, it is not. To not have a belief is the same as not being able to coherently reason their way through an issue.

You use a definition from dictionary.com which I believe still supports my argument, but here are some definitions from Merriam-webster.com…

be•lief
noun \bə-ˈlēf\
: a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or that something is true
: a feeling that something is good, right, or valuable
: a feeling of trust in the worth or ability of someone

I believe a lot of things, such as evolution, because of the overwhelming scientific evidence. I am often corrected that I “accept” evolution. Here is the problem with that statement…

Here is a definition of the word “accept…”
ac•cept
əkˈsept/
verb
1.
consent to receive (a thing offered).
“he accepted a pen as a present”

2.
believe or come to recognize (an opinion, explanation, etc.) as valid or correct.
be•lieve
verb \bə-ˈlēv\
: to accept or regard (something) as true
: to accept the truth of what is said by (someone)
: to have (a specified opinion)

We can cherry-pick definitions and play a semantics game, but many definitions of “believe,” “belief,” and “accept” mean the same thing and have the “opposing” words in their definitions. There is not harm in believing something, it is not a negative thing. What is important is WHY you believe something. I believe things because of science and history, while others believe things based on faith.

Part 2
To your second point, you state that theists argue this point to show that atheism is a religion. This is not a pathetic attempt by theists. Though most atheists are clearly not religious, SOME are clearly religious or portray the traits of a religion. The most militant atheists are the more religious ones, those such as the New Atheists.The reason they are being called religious is not because they “believe” something, it is because how scholars of religion define religion. Contrary to popular belief, religion is not define as “believing something” or “belief in a god.” In the scholarly world, there is no universally accepted definition of religion, but most scholars of religion have a working definition that is not so narrow. One of the top scholars of religion, Stephen Prothero, defines religion as displaying the four Cs…

“ ‘Religion is now widely defined, by scholars and judges alike, in functional rather than substantive terms. Instead of focusing on some creedal criterion such as belief in God, we look for family resemblances’ (p. 324). Members of the family of religions typically exhibit Four Cs: creed (statements of beliefs and values), cultus (ritual activities), code (standards for ethical conduct), and community (institutions).”

In his book, God is Not One, he makes the argument that SOME atheists display the characteristics of religion. This is not the “theist view” this is the SCHOLARLY VIEW, which atheists get butt-hurt about. Atheists always point to the scholars and experts but they tend to want to ignore them when it does not support their previously held opinion-dogma. We see dogma in many atheists. Richard Dawkins, a biologist, for example, states that religion is like a virus or disease. This is not a scientific statement. This argument dates back to Freud, nearly a century ago. It was not science then and is not science now. Freud believe in Lamarckian evolution for Christ sake…When you present claims that are clearly not supported by scientific evidence as fact, and cannot change an opinion on the topic, it is a dogmatic belief.

I am an atheist, this is not a manipulation of words, this is the opinion of scholars. Atheists are much better at manipulating words, “believers” just use the word “faith” to make their arguments. This entire argument is a semantic battle. There is nothing wrong with believing something. There are two things atheists need to do…

1. Realize you are arguing apples vs. oranges
2. Focus on what beliefs can be scientifically supportedEvolution can be scientifically supported, Genesis cannot. There are also questions we cannot answer in a lab, such as, WHY/HOW the Big Bang and the origin of life. Though there is no reason to suggest “God did it,” it does leave the question open to debate.

I hope this reply helps atheists and theists a like and adds to your blog.
-Kevin

I will update this post with any response or reaction they have. Thanks for reading!