Conflated and Misunderstood Terms terms atheist science morality belief

It is very common to hear folks use the term agnostic atheist to describe themselves, and others. Let me say that you are free to identify how you like, though I would suggest you don’t be prescriptive with your identification on to others. If you wonder why; consider if you are the sort to tell others what their gender is. Yes, gender is a more sensitive topic, but we are speaking about identity here.

That said, I think it is fine to discuss a position, definitions etc and point out any problems with logic you might find.

Both the terms Agnostic and Atheist are polysemous, and their multiple meanings are actively used everywhere. With language, there is no invalid use of a word, but there are more logical/rational/sound uses of words.

I’m an atheist, by pretty much all definitions out there that I have heard, but my position on Agnostic Atheism is that, depending on the definition used, it is either nonsensical or superfluous. I’d like to invite you to consider my thoughts on this matter and put forward your own.

One of the biggest issues of ‘agnostic atheism’ is that there isn’t even a consistent definition among agnostic atheists, as demonstrated by a post my friend put up on the 4th of February.

Word Use – Agnostic Atheist

Firstly, we have to examine word use. What I mean by that is; how people are using both agnostic and atheist as well as the ‘agnostic atheist’ identifier.

The most common definition

Many contemporary internet atheists without much knowledge of epistemology lean on an etymological [fallacy/misunderstanding] for both terms. A word’s etymology is not the same as its use.

They are commonly described as Agnostic = ‘without knowledge’ and Atheist = ‘lacks belief in gods’. This is the one I usually hear from my fellow atheists on the internet, but not the only one.

Knowledge is a subset of belief, so if you are saying you lack belief in gods you are already saying you don’t have any knowledge – therefore the modifier is superfluous (unnecessary).

If you only ‘lack belief in gods’ and you don’t ‘believe gods do not exist’ then you are in no different of a position from what is known as the psychological state of being agnostic, or weak agnosticism.

To clarify further, within philosophy, agnostic as a psychological state is suspending judgement. So if we consider a proposition, which is by default true or false, it means you’re not convinced it is either true or false. If you are agnostic towards the proposition ‘God exists’ it means you’re not convinced either way.

This is strange because I am not an agnostic atheist, but I will change my mind with evidence. Agnosticism doesn’t deal with ‘possibility’… but fair, language is fluid… so his definition of agnostic atheist is ‘It’s possible I am wrong but I don’t believe God exists’.

The issue with this statement is that ‘one term deals with belief and the other deals with knowledge’ – knowledge is a subset of belief, so both are actually dealing with belief, just different kinds of belief.

Your confidence in a position says nothing of actual knowledge either. If you are 100% psychologically certain that doesn’t mean you have epistemic certainty. Equally, even if you are 100% psychologically certain, you may still change your mind, I know I have been that certain before and evidence/arguments have changed my mind.

^As we can see, again we have a similar issue between knowledge and belief. This ties in as well to the first one addressed, “I don’t know, I don’t believe”

So this comes close to the definition of ‘hard agnosticism’ – ‘The theory that gods or the supernatural are unknowable.’ – this is potentially one of the better definitions of agnostic atheist, but still is a bit superfluous. We are speaking of your specific ontological position here and atheist is being used to ‘I don’t believe’ so you’re already saying you’re without knowledge, the only difference is the addition of the claim that nobody can know if god or gods do or don’t exist.

I think in general, no, we cannot know. Specifically, about certain gods, at least the way they are written; they are as illogical & incoherent as a square circle. So, we can know that SOME gods do not exist, at least as described by their holy books or believers.

 ‘Agnostic atheism is a philosophical position that encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity, and are agnostic because they claim that the existence of a deity is either unknowable in principle or currently unknown in fact.

The agnostic atheist may be contrasted with the agnostic theist, who believes that one or more deities exist but claims that the existence or nonexistence of such is unknown or cannot be known.’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_atheism

This is much the same as before – it seems to be superfluous again… ‘I do/don’t believe this thing but NO ONE CAN KNOW!!!’

When you’re answering a proposition such as ‘god exists’ saying ‘no one can know’ is pretty much irrelevant, what is being asked is your attitude towards the proposition being true and false. After that, you might be asked to justify your reasoning (aka Epistemic Justification/BoP on a belief position).

No one is asking if you know, nor are they asking if it can be known in general.

This is an interesting one, I like how they realise it is largely redundant but they are saying that they use agnostic atheist to be weak atheist vs strong atheism.

Now when someone uses weak/strong atheist we also have another issue… some use weak atheist to be the same position as an agnostic, suspending judgment, lacking belief both ways, vs a strong atheist, one that holds the belief gods do not exist… or it can be used to describe an atheist the holds the belief gods do not exist and the strength (psychological certainty) of that belief.

Some even describe a strong atheist as one that claims to ‘know’ gods do not exist… which can be an issue for someone like me. If a weak atheist ‘only lacks belief in gods’ and a strong atheist ‘knows gods do not exist’ then where am I as someone who believes gods do not exist?

(followed by a gif of Denzel slamming the door on someone)

This is an interesting take – I asked them to clarify how they were using atheist and theist in this sense, though I do realise they said atheism and theism, the original question by my friend was about the definition of ‘agnostic atheist’.

However, it seems like they are complaining about someone being a fence sitter – so to me it would seem they see both an atheist and a theist as one that holds an active belief rather than a lack of belief…

The curious thing here, though, was his response…

So… it’s not up to him how he is using his words? Ok then…

I had a separate conversation (on another thread) with him about how it is better to let your partner in a conversation define words, but the point was he himself had an idea of agnosticism, atheism, and theism based on his post, so I was asking him for his use… but no clarification.

What we can see here though, is there is no consistent definition of agnostic atheist among theist agnostic atheists. A few others chimed in talking about how it is a nonsense position, but of those arguing for the use of agnostic atheism, there wasn’t an accord on use.

There was, however, another post later in the evening that is worth addressing.

This post speaks of utility and rationality. Something I have said myself about the lacktheist definition in conversations online. Whilst it is open to issues as described in ‘Definitional Problems With Lacking Belief’ there is still utility to the lacktheist definition of atheism as that is it is how it is commonly understood (among certain circles on the internet and in America). Whilst it is not an irrational definition exactly, it is less rational because it doesn’t follow the rules of logic to give a clear and precise answer to the proposition ‘God Exists’ or the question ‘Does God exist?’.

It still has utility, and there is an argument for the rationality of conversation if you’re not going to be understood. If we used atheist to mean someone that picks their nose, we are all atheists at some point in our life and the definition is so broad it loses meaning. Not to mention, no one would understand me until I explained my use. So, there is a different kind of rationality to using that term.

Similarly, this comment shows an acknowledgement that the average person doesn’t actually understand much about knowledge and beliefs and is likely just recycling what the in-group says about the matter. ‘Other atheists say it’s only a lack of belief’ for example. This is, of course, an ad populum but many atheists won’t accept that and will reject any philosophical material.

The one thing that one should note though is ‘In a more philosophical conversation…’ – what is meant there is by someone that actually understands and is discussing epistemology. The thing to note, though, is when you are discussing knowledge and beliefs you are having a philosophical conversation… much in the way that if you are discussing evolution you are having a scientific conversation. We correct creationists using the colloquial ‘change in kind’ – so why do we not hold ourselves to the same standard in matters of philosophy? It seems fairly close to, if not exactly, special pleading.

Bloody Semantics

In a conversation, I find it always better to learn how your partner is using terms and as long as there are no serious glaring issues you can proceed with the conversation from there. I do sometimes enjoy discussing definitions and the best use of a word, but if there is a more important conversation to be had, it is best to agree on definitions and move on.

The post from my friend came about because I was discussing how agnostic atheist is either superfluous or nonsensical depending on the definitions of the words used… not to mention that even agnostic atheists define it differently, so not only have the muddied the water adding unnecessary words but they also don’t have a consistent definition.

I’m an atheist. I hold the belief gods do not exist. I am open to changing my mind. I am fairly certain gods do not exist, some more than others because they are illogical…  using the philosophical definitions, it is easy to infer what people do and don’t believe from their ontological position.

Using colloquial ones like an agnostic atheist, it is not… as can be seen from the samples of the post.

What’s more ‘Agnostic Athiest’ doesn’t really answer the proposition ‘God Exists’ or the propositional question ‘Does God Exist?’.

“Does God Exist?”
“I Lack knowledge and belief about gods”
“So Do you think gods Exist?”
“I lack knowledge and belief in gods.”
“So is that a No? And I am not sure? What are you saying?”

Replace God with something else, use something simple like “It is raining” or the propositional question “Is it raining outside?” – when you start to apply these incomplete answers to other things, you start to see the problems with trying to discern folks attitude towards the proposition with their vague and broad usage.

Polysemy of Agnosticism and Atheism

Both agnostic and atheist are polysemous, that is to say, they have many meanings/definitions.

I have descibed how people are using the terms above, and felt perhaps we should address the most common uses of these terms individually and how they might work together

Agnostic/Agnosticism

I cover of the history and various uses in more detail in What is Agnosticism? How does it relate to knowledge and beliefs? but I will summarise the positions here.

  1. Epistemic Principle
  2. Psychological State
  3. Knowledge of God
  4. Colloquial Use

1. Epistemic principle

We should not say we believe or know that we do not have sufficient evidence for.

TH Huxley

Coined by the late TH Huxley to be a cornerstone of the scientific method. This is sometimes now referred (or is very similar) to as evidential agnosticism.

2. The Psychological State

Agnostic as a psychological state is where you don’t believe a proposition to be true or false. You are suspending judgement.

This is sometimes referred to as weak agnosticism.

3. Knowledge of God

The theory that gods or the supernatural are unknowable.

This is sometimes referred to as hard agnosticism.

4. The Colloquial

Based purely on etymology, it is often claimed that agnosticism only means ‘Without Knowledge’.

This is sometimes referred to as an etymological fallacy… but it is a common use that needs addressing.

Atheist and Atheism

Dave has laid out how atheism is defined in many different ways in his article Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism.

There are only 2 I regularly hear brought to the table, although they may have a various number of modifiers as part of their description.

Let’s call them philosophical atheism and colloquial atheism for now, or PA and CA. If we think of the ISM as the concept and the IST as the person that ascribes to/believes the concept.

  • PA – the belief god does not exist
  • CA – lacking belief in gods

Excluding the issues with how vague and broad CA and the arguments around it being open to either contradiction or special pleading let’s focus on the interaction with both PA and CA, and the various definitions of agnosticism.

Agnostic Atheist

Now we have our grounding of the most common uses for agnostic and atheist we can see if any of these uses actually work together. We must remember that this should be giving us an answer to the proposition ‘God Exists’.

1. Epistemic Principle

This is probably the easiest to address… The epistemic principle is one of the cornerstones of science. It’s basically saying to suspend judgement until you have evidence, and even if you do believe one way or another, discursively suspend judgement until you can demonstrate your position.

Therefore if you identify as either PA or CA you should have some evidence to support your position and will no longer be agnostic on that proposition though you could still say you were a Huxlian Agnostic.

2. The Psychological State of being Agnostic/Weak Agnosticism

When used as the psychological state of suspending judgement it means you neither believe the proposition to be true or false. There are a few issues combining it as a modifier to agnostic in this sense.

If you say agnostic atheist you’re technically saying you’re suspending judgement on if you’re an atheist or not, or suspending judgement on whether you believe God does not exist or not or suspending judgement on if you lack belief in God or not.

It’s superfluous/nonsensical not to mention if you are of the CA variety of atheist, your position is no different.

3. Knowledge of God/Hard Agnosticism

It’s often said that ‘nobody knows’ and that ‘everyone is agnostic’ which reduces the position to being irrelevant.

That’s like saying “every homosapien is human.” <– it is kind of irrelivant to point this out, no?

It’s also a bit of a claim itself rather than answering the proposition God exists.

“Is it true God Exists?”
“That’s unknowable”
“Right but I’m asking for your attitude, what’s your actual position, belief, disbelief, suspense of judgement?”
“The supernatural is unknowable”
“Ok, so can you demonstrate that claim if you won’t answer the proposition?”

If we use it combined with either PA or CA it still isn’t much better.

You’re left with: “The supernatural is unknowable but this is my belief position (Inc lack)” for either.

The agnostic label here is again superfluous, especially if you apply it to everyone, but even with yourself being the only person you are talking about when asked for your attitude towards a proposition speaking of how “it can’t be known” is completely surplus to requirements. You’re actually having a different conversation than the one on the table when you go down that route.

4. The colloquial “without knowledge”

Knowledge is a subset of belief. A more rigorous, certain, true, justified belief. (There are many types of belief, justified, unjustified, true, arational etc)

When you believe something, you don’t necessarily know it.

When you have knowledge, you also have belief.

Consider “I know I am human, but I don’t believe I am human” – ridiculous right?

But the other way round “I believe I will wake up tomorrow, but I don’t know I will wake up tomorrow” – that makes sense, yeah?

So, knowledge entails belief because it is a subset of belief.

It follows that if we understand to have knowledge we have to have belief, we can also understand if we lack belief we are lacking knowledge.

With CA being defined as a lack of belief, the agnostic modifier is superfluous, as lacking belief already denotes lacking knowledge. I also don’t see CA as a position being any different to weak agnosticism.

So lastly, we have PA – we do have a belief here, so we could have knowledge… But there isn’t a claim of knowledge being made by anyone holding a belief.

If I say “I believe I will wake up tomorrow” do you really want me to also qualify that with “oh, but I don’t claim to know that.”

So why with believing gods do not exist do you want that qualified?

Clear and Concise Definitions

I described above how these terms are polysemous. As such, it can be hard to know which is ‘best’ to use, but I prefer the ones that are the clearest and most logical. If we can, we should apply the rules of logic. In this instance, we are speaking of propositional logic.

When you are discussing a proposition, it is binary, true/false, 1/0.

A belief too is binary, you either believe or you don’t.

When many people consider a proposition like ‘God Exists’ they will say ‘I Don’t believe God Exists’ – this is giving a read of a psychological state, but they are not actually answering the whole proposition.

I mentioned before that with something like ‘God Exists’ there are 2 options, True or False. What has been done above is simply an attitude to ‘God exists = True’ they have not considered ‘God Exists = False’ and thus not provided a clear answer.

God exists – I do/don’t believe
God does not exist – I do/don’t believe

If you believe God exists, it follows that you don’t believe God does not exist, and you are a theist.

If you believe God does not exist, it follows that you don’t believe God exists, and you are an atheist.

If you believe neither proposition is true, you are suspending judgement until convinced one way or another, this is the psychological state of being agnostic.

If you believe both are true, you’re holding contradictory beliefs that cannot be justified rationally.

For more info check:

Obviously, I do understand the words are polysemous and are described differently by others, I am simply providing the normative definitions within philosophy and how they are defined using propositional logic, but even in philosophy, the definitions are polysemous.

So, regardless of if you agree with those identifiers, I think you can see how using them does give a clear and concise position in which we can in accurately infer what folks do and don’t believe rather than an array of disjointed definitions.

There are a couple of philosophical papers worth reading on the matter:

The Normative Use

When discussing a proposition, the normative use of agnostic is the ‘weak agnosticism’ aka ‘the psychological state of suspending judgment’. Regarding the proposition ‘God Exists’ they neither believe God does or does not exist.

Atheist is used as ‘one who believes God does not exist’.

There is a clear split between the positions, but they both share a lack of belief in gods. The agnostic also shares a lack of belief in gods not existing with the theist.

Throughout the conversation some folks mentioned certainty, but holding a belief can be any degree of psychological certainty 1%-100% – and no matter what, none of that psychological certainty is necessarily the same as epistemic certainty (knowledge).

So using the normative uses of both words you’re basically saying ‘I’m unsure if I am an atheist or not’ or ‘I don’t know if I hold the belief god does not exist or not’.

This is what I mean by the agnostic atheist is nonsensical under some definitions of the words.

Mixed/Confused Definitions

Now if we mix up the definitions people gave above a bit we could have ‘I Don’t know if I lack belief in God or not’ or ‘I suspend judgment on if I lack belief in gods’ etc.

You can see what I mean about the terms being superfluous/nonsensical.

If an atheist is one that only lacks belief in gods but doesn’t hold the belief gods do not exist, that is the exact same position of the psychological state of agnosticism.

When someone holds the belief god does not exist, they are not saying how certain they are, they are not making a knowledge claim and unless they do say ‘I know no gods exist’ it is pointless to even consider anyone is actually making that statement. It’s akin to a strawman.

Consider if someone said, ‘I believe gods do not exist.’
The response given is ‘Well you can’t know that!’

What someone can and can’t know is irrelevant to their belief position, unless something is known and their belief is in contradiction with the facts.

What’s more the ‘Gnostics’ were once a sect of Christians said to have special knowledge of god… but I digress.

Certainty

To bring things back into focus of certainty for a moment.

Excluding moral certainty, there are 2 types of certainty. Epistemic and psychological.

Epistemic certainty is knowledge (in fact some will say it supersedes knowledge), knowledge is a subset of belief, a more rigorous and conclusive belief, it is binary, you have it or you don’t. Psychological is how strong your belief is, it’s a sliding scale.

I can be 100% certain of something, but not have epistemic certainty/knowledge. Being shown I am wrong or contrary evidence might alter my psychological certainty for example.

I could have epistemic certainty, let’s say I am about to take an exam, but the worry, stress and all that has made me doubt myself. I have very low psychological certainty, let’s say 5% that I will pass.

As it happens, I score 100% on the test, thus showing I had epistemic certainty for every single question, even though my psychological certainty was lacking.

Adding agnostic in as a modifier doesn’t clear up the certainty issue, it actually makes it more confusing.

Knowledge and Certainty – Fresh AiR – S03:E02:C02 (AUDIO)

The Fallacy Issue

One big issue with the statement ‘atheism is only a lack of belief in gods’ is that we very rarely describe anything purely based on what it lacks, and never by one thing it lacks. Even when we consider something like someone being bald, there are often hormonal issues or similar that go into that, which is different from someone who chooses to shave their head etc.

But if we can describe one ontological position as being defined on what it lacks belief in then we have to allow others too. Otherwise, if we are holding positions to different standards, we are guilty of the special pleading fallacy.

So that means theism can also be described as ‘a lack of belief in gods not existing’.

Of course, then we have a logical contradiction. Those that suspend judgement and do not believe gods do not exist and do not believe gods do not exist are now both theists and atheists, which breaks the law of identity and therefore is an illogical position.

One atheist’s answer on Twitter was ‘just choose which you think is most likely and go with that’ – if you think god existing or not existing is more likely than the alternative, you are not suspending judgement… you are holding a belief that way. So no, that does not work.

Summary

There is utility to using agnostic atheist, and we shouldn’t tell people they can’t identify as such, but we can discuss issues with the term.

There is an issue with the term because there isn’t really much of a consensus of what it means, even among agnostic atheists.

Depending on the definitions used, the term is either superfluous or nonsensical. To summarise below:

  • I don’t know if gods exist but I lack belief in gods – is superfluous because lacking belief already tells us you don’t have knowledge.
  • I suspend judgement on/don’t know if I am an atheist or not – is nonsensical, because why wouldn’t you know your own position?
  • It’s possible I am wrong but I don’t believe God exists – is again superfluous because the atheist position doesn’t claim absolute certainty of correctness.
  • No one knows if gods exist but I don’t believe in them – is superfluous because what does it matter if no one knows, and how does that help answer the proposition ‘God Exists’.
  • Agnostic deals with knowledge, atheist with belief – shows a lack of understanding of the relationship between beliefs and knowledge.
  • An agnostic atheist is an atheist that is open to possibility – is nonsensical as under no definition of agnosticism does it speak of possibility and even with 100% certainty one can change their belief if provided a convincing argument/evidence.
  • Agnostic atheism = weak atheism adds clarity – except it doesn’t because we don’t actually know what folks mean by weak atheism in this sense.

As I mentioned, you’re free to identify how you like, and there is utility to both the lacktheist definition of atheism and agnostic atheism, but they are not the most rational terms.

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