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Meditation 796
The Atheism Vs. Agnosticism “Debate”

by: PsiCop

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about the difference between “Atheism” and “Agnosticism”; whether atheists can be agnostic, or agnostics atheists, and so on. This discussion often rides on a lengthy discussion of, bordering on quibbling over, the difference between “knowledge” and “belief” or between “belief” and “certainty,” and so on. This is, however, a pointless distraction, and moreover, something that was already dealt with long ago, in a manner that ought to have put it to rest definitively.

Let’s start by looking at the meaning of “Atheism.” Standard dictionary definitions coincide along the lines of the following samples:

Merriam-Webster’s: (Atheism) a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity[1]

Compact Oxford English Dictionary: (Atheism) the belief that God does not exist[2]

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: (Atheist) someone who believes that God or gods do not exist[3]

Other dictionaries have these or something very similar. In other words, “Atheism” in these definitions means “an affirmative belief that there is no deity.”

More recently, and by contrast, a lot of folks who consider themselves “atheists” have taken to using a different definition. They say that “atheism” means “a lack of belief in a deity.” This is a much wider range of meaning than the former definition.

Now, are they correct? According to Merriam-Webster’s and other authorities, they aren’t. It’s true that some dictionaries offer this second, wider meaning as an alternative, however, not all do (the three I listed, for example, do not). The only definition that all the authoritative English dictionaries have in common, is one along the lines of “an affirmative belief that there is no deity.”

Nevertheless, definition-revising atheists beg to differ, and say that a wider definition is required in order to accommodate the difference between belief and knowledge as well as other factors. One of the complaints they have, is that these traditional dictionaries were written by theists, and therefore the definitions those theists have come up with, are unacceptable. An example of this is:

One reason why a misleading definition of atheism exists in popular traditional publications can be traced back to the religious roots of those in the dictionary publishing business.[4]

This objection, while it seems emotionally compelling, is actually pretty silly. Given that the English-speaking world has long been, and still is, majority-theist, all definitions in all dictionaries can be assumed to have been devised by theists. Are we to dispense with all definitions of all words and redefine the entire English language for ourselves? If we do, how sensible would this be? Who would understand it?

That said, these folk are correct in that there ought to be a word, or words, which embrace the amorphous gray area lying between affirmative belief in a deity (i.e. theism) and affirmative belief that there is no deity (i.e. atheism). However, they are wrong to assume the solution to that problem is to throw open the meaning of “atheism” to be much wider than it had been. At it turns out, that problem has already been solved!

That solution was devised by T.H. Huxley in the 19th century, when he coined the term “agnostic.” He described the meaning of this word and its genesis rather specifically:

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; a 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 that 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 ...[5]

Given what Huxley did by coining “agnosticism,” no useful purpose is served by fostering the notion that “atheism” = “agnosticism” or that all agnostics are also atheists. If you are what Huxley describes as an “agnostic,” then you are, in fact “an agnostic” and not “an atheist” by the traditional dictionary definitions of that word. If on the other hand you are what those dictionaries describe as “atheist,” then you are “an atheist” and not “an agnostic.” Huxley defined “agnosticism” in such a way as to exclude atheists: Those who “know” either that a deity does not exist, have — as Huxley put it — “attained a certain ‘gnosis’” and therefore are rather specifically not what he envisions as “agnostic.”

It really is that simple, and there is no need to go any further. Redefining “atheism” by widening its scope, and quibbling over the difference between knowledge and belief, only confuses the meanings of words as they’re widely understood, and provides ammunition for theists, who really need not be given any more than they currently do.

That said, I quite understand the effort here. Atheists are trying to force open the term to include as many people as possible in their “club,” if you will. But opening the definition of “atheism” really will have only one ultimate effect, which is to make it so wide that it no longer means anything at all. If the solution is to create a “club” of non-theists and non-theism, the terms “freethinker” and “freethought” are available, and more than suffice for that purpose. Redefining “atheist” and “atheism,” on the other hand, won’t help, especially when dictionaries don’t uniformly support it.



  1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheism
  2. http://www.askoxford.com:80/concise_oed/
  3. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?
  4. http://freethoughtpedia.com/wiki/Atheism#
  5. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/