I’m an atheist, I believe gods do not exist, though atheism is polysemous so not all atheists use it that way and I want to address a term some atheists use known as agnostic atheism.
This article is the written form of the video, so, if you prefer to watch, please check the below:
Agnostic atheism is a term popularised on the internet, though does have roots much older than the internet, and whilst linguistically valid, poses a number of different issues that collectively make a larger issue.
Below are my “Top 10 Issues” with agnostic atheism/agnostic atheists.
- 1. Isn’t That Just Agnostic?
- 2. Epistemic Confusion
- Contradiction or Special Pleading?
- 4. Lack of Consistency
- 5. Misunderstanding how the term Agnostic was Coined and Used in other Circles.
- 6. Agnostic Atheist Behaviours
- 7. Agnostic Atheism is superfluous
- 8. False claims about Agnosticism
- 9. Epistemically Unclear Answers
- 10. Certainty and Changing a Mind
- References and Links
1. Isn’t That Just Agnostic?
Many agnostic atheists will say they don’t claim to know if gods exist or not but they don’t believe in gods, whilst maintaining they don’t hold the belief gods do not exist.
This seems to operate the same position as an agnostic.
When one is agnostic towards a proposition, it means they suspend judgement, they neither think it is true or false.
For example, If one is agnostic about evolution, they are not sure if it is true or false. They suspend judgement.
To that end, it also looks like you are saying you are agnostic about atheism, you’re not sure if you’re an atheist or not. I know that’s not what you mean by this, but that is how it looks, especially to those that understand the way these words are normatively or commonly defined, especially within philosophy and outside of these internet atheist circles.
2. Epistemic Confusion
Agnostic atheism, or agnostic atheists, often confuses knowledge, claims, and beliefs. Believing gods do not exist isn’t the same as claiming gods do not exist, and neither is it the same as knowing or claiming to know that gods do not exist. Often there is this confusion of belief and knowledge and certainty. Just because you believe something to be the case doesn’t mean you’re absolutely certain or claiming it to be the case.
I believe gods do not exist, specific gods with varying levels of certainty, there might even be specific claims I know to be false due to the contradiction contained within them, but simply stating I believe gods do not exist is not providing any information other than what I think is most likely the case.
Contradiction or Special Pleading?
The agnostic atheism position can lead to a contradiction or special pleading. If atheism is only a lack of belief in God existing then theism is only a lack of belief in God not existing at least to prevent the special pleading. Special Pleading is essnetially a fallacy of double standards. You must do x and I don’t have to. I can do Y but you can’t.
Of course, allowing this both ways we then end up with an issue for the person that only lacks belief in gods without believing gods don’t exist, they also lack belief in gods not existing so under these definitions end up in a contradiction of theistic atheist or atheistic theist.
- Theist/Affirming proposition: (Bp ^ ¬B¬p)
- Atheist/Denying proposition: (B¬p ^ ¬Bp)
- Agnostic/Suspending Judgement: (¬Bp ^ ¬B¬p)
If Atheism = ¬Bp
And Theism = ¬B¬p
Then an Agnostic Atheist or anyone suspending judgement in the god proposition: (¬Bp ^ ¬B¬p) is both theist and atheist.
4. Lack of Consistency
There is a Lack of consistency between agnostic atheists and what they mean by it – both agnosticism and atheism are polysemous and this seems to carry over to agnostic atheism.
Some might use hard agnosticism, the claim that no one can know whether gods or the supernatural exists or not with some form of atheism, often the “don’t believe” kind… Some take direct translations of the roots without an understanding of their uses at the time, or today, and end up with don’t know without gods or mix and matches of the terms and various uses.
For an example of some of the different takes on this please check the following article:
5. Misunderstanding how the term Agnostic was Coined and Used in other Circles.
There is a misunderstanding, or perhaps even some ignorance, of how the term agnostic came about and is actively used today outside of the circles that use agnostic atheism as a term. Agnostic was originally coined by TH Huxley as a response to both the theists and atheists of his times that acted like they were “gnostics” – the gnostics were Christians that claimed to have a special knowledge-of god.
Huxley felt both the theists and atheists of his time were so arrogant and certain in their positions that they were right and the others were wrong that he wanted a label that described his specific position. Hence agnostic.
He described agnosticism as the epistemological principle in which we should not say we believe or know that which we have no scientific evidence for. Essentially, suspend judgement, at least externally, if you are without a sufficient warrant for the position. It was also used for topics people were uninformed or ignorant of.
Perhaps one was agnostic about evolution if they hadn’t had the time to view the evidence. Over time this term seemed to take a variety of paths, with evidentialism being a more strict and restrictive form of agnosticism and there being two forms of agnosticism dealing with gods existence.
Hard Agnosticism is the claim that no one can have knowledge of God or the supernatural, and weak Agnosticism is being uncertain if we can have knowledge of God or the supernatural and therefore suspending judgement.
Agnostic is also used in propositional logic as the suspense of judgement position. If you “don’t know” or are “uncertain” or “not convinced” if the proposition is true or false, you are agnostic.
6. Agnostic Atheist Behaviours
There are also problems with some agnostic atheists and the behaviours they demonstrate.
- they will make contradictory statements, like they ONLY lack belief in gods rather than believing they don’t exist, then say gods are imaginary or use dismissive and condescending phrases like magical sky daddy. Something imaginary has no objective reality, therefore if you think something is imaginary you believe it doesn’t exist. Own it.
- They will claim to be logical or rational whilst ignoring the rules of logic and having little understanding of rationality.
- They claim to be sceptics but only know scepticism as doubting things they don’t agree with rather than what scepticism is supposed to be, and never apply it to things themselves.
- They reel off fallacies in conversation but often apply them incorrectly or be guilty of them themselves. When you point this out they might “other” you and claim you’re a theist or make a hasty generalisation or ad populum a out other atheists they know. They might even claim you “don’t know anything about atheism” if you point out it is polysemous and there are various valid uses.
- Often take this position as a way of avoiding the burden of proof, which actually shows they misunderstand the burden of proof and should spend some time looking into epistemic justification, or how the burden of proof applies to discussion.
7. Agnostic Atheism is superfluous
Agnostic Atheism is superfluous, especially if you think atheism is only a lack of belief. You’re within your right to use it that way, atheism is polysemous – but as we’ve been discussing in the series about Epistemology and various theories of knowledge, knowledge is a subset of belief and if you don’t believe something you’re already saying you don’t have knowledge.
Knowledge, a subset of belief (shorts)
Part 3 (1): https://www.youtube.com/shorts/WcRPpaIy-Yo
Part 3 (2): https://www.youtube.com/shorts/qCPDFfxdGMw
8. False claims about Agnosticism
Claims about agnostic “only dealing with knowledge” or statements like “one answers what you know the other what you believe” – knowledge is a subset of belief, and if you look to the etymology of Agnostic – it was coined by Huxley, as mentioned in point 5, to deal with knowledge and belief as a response to those that acted like the Gnostics… and if you look into the etymology of Gnostic it has a number of iterations from the original Gno which all seem to be speaking of certainty, awareness or knowledge-of rather than the epistemological form, knowledge-that which has its root in Episteme.
9. Epistemically Unclear Answers
If agnostic atheism is “Don’t know if gods exist but don’t believe in them” It makes your answer unclear in an epistemic sense, that is to say, you are not providing an epistemic answer to the proposition “god exists” and therefore we cannot accurately infer what you do and don’t believe without follow up questions and it seems to negate a lot of the other positions that people might hold, making everyone, and to some people everything, not theist an atheist.
10. Certainty and Changing a Mind
It’s often said that they say they are agnostic because they are open to changing their mind… They are not certain, which is fine but certainty doesn’t mean you’re not open to changing your mind. A good sceptic ought to always be open to changing their mind even if they feel absolutely certain about something.
For example, they are clearly not open to changing their mind on agnostic atheism or the polysemous nature of these terms (many still maintain only one definition of atheism for example) or how their statement is somewhat unclear.
None of these points are supposed to be taken in a way of telling you that you cannot use agnostic atheism or atheism how you want, it’s just to draw your attention to the fact that there are other ways the language is used and draw attention to various behaviours that should perhaps be avoided.
References and Links
- What is Agnosticism? How Does it Relate to Knowledge and Beliefs?
- Definitional Problems with Lacking Belief
- Evidentialism (IEP)
- Atheism and Agnosticism (SEP)
- Defining Atheism and The Burden of Proof (Academia)
- Agnostic Atheism (Wikipedia)
- Agnostic Atheism
- Why Agnostic and not Agnostist?
- Discussions and The Burden of Proof
- Knowledge, a subset of belief (shorts)
Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/shorts/6KuuMv0KlgM
Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExyCrtZq25A
Part 3 (1): https://www.youtube.com/shorts/WcRPpaIy-Yo
Part 3 (2): https://www.youtube.com/shorts/qCPDFfxdGMw
- The Gamification of Atheism
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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