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Meditation 45
Agnosticism vs. Atheism and "The Happy Heretic"

by Tom Adam

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Having recently read The Happy Heretic, by Judith Hayes (Prometheus Books 2000), I must, and happily do, admit I am an Atheist with regards to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic gods. I don’t believe in a single one of them; I believe they do not exist. The debate as to whether or not God (in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense), while still raging, is settled for me. This has nothing to do with her book, but is only background explanation.

In Chapter 7 of her book, Judith Hayes asks and answers twenty-one questions, sort of an F.A.Q. for Judith Hayes. Question Twenty is “What is an agnostic?” I quote her answer:

"A nonexistent person. I should know. I used to be one. I don’t mean I was a nonexistent person, but I called myself an agnostic. Why? The same reason people do it today - to avoid using that awful “A” word. Atheist. What ought to be a fairly simple, straightforward task - defining the word “atheist” - has turned into a philosophical nightmare requiring postgraduate courses and a thesis advisor. And it isn’t just the religionists who have screwed things up so royally by heaping undeserved, malicious baggage onto that little word. (Atheist = immoral, communist scumbag.) No, we nonbelievers are wrangling over it ourselves, and the whole thing is just plain silly.

The word “agnostic” means literally “without knowledge” or, more simply, “I don’t know.” But it is really just a cop-out word for atheist. It is a word that society has not yet blackened with foul adjectives. It is safer to utter in mixed company. However, it’s impossible not to “know” whether or not you acknowledge a deity. If you do, you know it. If you don’t, you know that too. And if you don’t, you are an atheist - a person without theistic beliefs.

To say, “I am an agnostic” is to say, “I don’t know whether I believe in God or not.” Which is nonsense."

Even my hero, the late Carl Sagan, spoke of atheism as a position that couldn’t be justified because no one can provide any “compelling evidence,” as he puts it, that a God does not exist. His full statement: “An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God.” This is simply not true. This is not the definition of an atheist. Neither I nor any atheists I know make the claim of having “compelling evidence against the existence of God.” Nor are we required to have such evidence! The burden of proof lies squarely with those who claim knowledge of the existence of God. I do not believe in a God. That position requires no demonstration or “proof.” If you claim there is a God, you are making a claim that absolutely requires demonstration. As Sagan himself used to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

No one can provide any “compelling evidence” that leprechauns do not exist. So what? Does that mean then that we have a-lephrechaunists and agnosti-leprechaunists, with the former claiming leprechauns do not exist an the letter withholding judgment until all the evidence is in? No. You either do or you do not believe in leprechauns. So it is with Gods.

But the problem lies in the hairsplitting that goes on about whether or not someone simply does not acknowledge a god, or goes further and actually claims there is no god. Agnostics do not make this claim. When we agnostics emphatically state that we do not believe in a god we will sometime say, “Oh, Bull! There is no god!” But what we’re talking about are the human creations such as Jupiter, Thor, Jehovah, Krishna, Jesus, Allah, and so on - the gods we’ve been spoon-fed since childhood but still find thoroughly unconvincing. So we lump them all together and pronounce them all nonexistent, and here is where the confusion comes in. When we claim nonexistence for a god we mean of those so far offered as candidates.

No one can claim a god absolutely does not exist unless he can claim infinite knowledge of the universe. I have never heard any atheist make this claim either. In fact, if any atheist reading this can make the certain claim that no god does or could exist, and can back it up, I would like to hear about it. It would be fun to meet someone who possesses infinite knowledge of the universe.

My reply:

  1. The atheist position is that there is no god. A-Theist, without god.
  2. The agnostic position is that there may or may not be a god. Without knowledge.
  3. Many people are agnostics not from fear of the “A” word (atheist) but because there is no “compelling evidence” for the non-existence of God.

To say, “God exists,” is to state an objective assertion. An objective assertion is one that reflects the “real” world. It is not a matter of belief, but of fact. ȁGod exists” is the same as “Tomatoes exist.” If a person had infinite knowledge they could prove or disprove God’s existence (likely anyway), and that is what makes this an objective assertion. It can, theoretically, be proven.

To say, “I believe in God,” is to state a subjective assertion. It does not in any sensible way reflect “reality,” merely thoughts. A belief is not a “thing” that can be prove. It simply is, rational or otherwise. The belief itself is not open to proof of falseness. A statement such as “I believe my name is not Tom,” is only provable as false if I do believe my name is Tom, but lied, and that reflects not the belief, but the Statement. A statement is an objective (though not material) thing, and is subject to objective arguments. (My name is Tom, and I do believe it is.)

A theist or atheist would say the subjective assertion, “I believe in God,” is true or false, dependent upon personal belief. An agnostic would say true or false, also based upon personal belief. I disagree with her in I consider “I don’t know” is perfectly acceptable an answer to this question. Either extreme skepticism or extreme confusion could yield this answer.

The objective assertion, “God exists,” would also result in the atheist or theist agreeing true or false. Their basis can be intuition, rational arguments, or what ever proof they see in the world. The “proof” argued in these debates is not “definitive,” but more often follows the proof needed in courts of law, either preponderance of evidence, or beyond a reasonable doubt. Different people, however, will interpret the evidence differently and come to different conclusion.

The lack of certitude is what leads an agnostic to answer the question, “Does God exist?” with, “I don’t know.” For most agnostics, “Does God exist?” is far more important than, “Do you believe in God?”

Therein lies most people’s confusion between atheism and agnosticism. One requires falseness to the objective assertion “God exists” (atheists) and one does not (agnostics). The agnostics disregard of belief is based upon a simple idea. Belief does not precede existence. The two are independent of each other. Whether I believe in God or tomatoes has no effect upon their existence.

Hence, while I do not believe in Judeo-Christian-Islamic gods (not mentioning any other theistic systems) and may be Atheist-ic in regards to them, I am not an atheist. I reject any answer to “Does God exist” and that is what defines Atheism and Theism.


A short postscript:

I find it amusing to note that Judith Hayes says no atheist says “an atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist…” is not what atheist believe, when she later says, “… We lump them all together and pronounce them all nonexistent…” And that is a direct contradiction to her previous statement. Perhaps she needs to clarify her terminology better, because I see a conflict.

A second short postscript:

The concept of God radically differs from that of leprechaun. A leprechaun is not supposed to exist outside of the universe and time and existence as we know it. Leprechauns are supposed to be physical beings. And while it is unlikely that leprechauns exist, we cannot know that they do not. Have we searched all of Ireland and found not one pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It may well be superstition, but…