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Atheist or Agnostic?

Aug 23 2004
the `Atheist or Agnostic' question

I am perfectly comfortable calling myself an atheist. It means that I do not believe in deities (singular or plural). Or, to try to put it in positive terms, I believe that no such things as deities actually exist. At a recent SHL meeting I attended, there was some discussion to the effect that since I cannot be certain that there is no such thing as God, I should say I am an agnostic rather than saying I am an atheist. Can we get a discussion going on this debate here? I'd be happy to participate but I need at least one person with the opposing viewpoint in order to have it be at all interesting. Please, join in!

Jan 31 2005

Alex, I agree that we are justified in thinking of ourselves as atheists. (And so do 100% of the four people who took the poll!) So, unfortunately, there's not much for us to debate on this point. However, I'd like to share something that has happened to me recently that I find rather curious.

In my debates with Christians, I often concede that I don't "know" for a fact that there is no God (singular or plural). However, I try to explain that this is different from "believing" there is no God. So while there is a component of agnosticism to my understanding of supernatural beings including God (as I think there is for all people, whether they're willing to admit it or not) I don't think there is any (or at least enough) evidence to support the God hypothesis, and am completely comfortable calling myself an atheist.

A few of my Christian friends have had a hay-day with this information. For them, this is all too exciting! Clearly I'm not the hardened skeptic/atheist that I claim to be. Clearly there is room for doubt that atheism is the proper course to take. Clearly there is room for the possibility of God's existence. On a number of occasions, despite my attempts to explain the difference between my knowledge claim of agnosticism and my belief claim of atheism, these Christians have attempted to insist that I should really call myself an agnostic and cease describing myself as an atheist.

This really bothers me. Every atheist I know and have read (as I've pointed out elsewhere) has made the concession of agnosticism, yet felt comfortable with being called an atheist. I don't understand why this is so difficult for my Christian friends to accept. (Although I think it might have something to do with their own psychology. Perhaps they see agnosticism as being a little closer to theism, and it gives them hope to think I'm on my way back to being a good little Christian boy! Especially if they had a hand in my re-conversion!) And I don't know how to make it any clearer to them.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? How do you deal with such "well-wishers"?

Billy Kelly

Jan 31 2005
Atheist with respect to the god of the Bible


I am not brave enough to enter into conversations like this with my Christian friends and family, but if I was, I would say that although I can't say for sure that no god-like creature exists in the universe, I do know for sure that no all-loving, all-powerful, all-benevolent god that loves humans exists. Why? Because if there was, the world couldn't look like this. (As someone wittier than I once said, "This is a reality that Bart Simpson could improve on"). Therefore I am an atheist when it comes to the Christian god, and my agnosticism with regard to other god-like beings is no credit to their religion.

Of course the rejoinder to this is that (a) this world and everything in it ARE good, we just are too puny to understand god's design or goodness or plan, etc. or (b) it is because I have closed my heart to god that I cannot see how everything god does is good.

To which I have to say, okay. I will grant you that I am incapable of understanding what is good in the sight of god. But how is it that I was made this way (by god) and yet I am told I will be punished for eternity for not doing what is good in the sight of god? It is like burning a blind person at the stake for not being able to tell red from blue. This situation is incompatible with the existence of an all-good, all-loving, all powerful god.

As for point (b) I have noticed that people who spend a lot of time praying and opening their hearts to god have as a hard time seeing the good in many every day occurrences as I do. In fact I challenge any Christian out there to explain the good in the recent tsunami disaster that balances out the terrible loss of life and horrendous suffering of the survivors.

Feb 2 2005

Laura, thanks for your intelligent and humorous remarks!

Unfortunately, with regard to the tsunami, I've already heard the crass rationalizing from some of my Christian friends. Some of them actually said this was God's way of dealing with over-population! Can you believe that?! Is that really the only way he can deal with the problem of over-population? And, of course, there's the vague blanket-statement that (as you noted) we simply can't comprehend God's plan, and because we are so limited, we can't appreciate the good that has come of this tragedy. Still others, who apparently aren't so limited, have said that God used this horrible event to bring us all together in charity, love, and caring. (Similar statements were uttered in the wake of the attacks on September 11.) You're right, though; despite such generalities, I've not heard anyone with a specific explanation for how the good outweighs the bad in this situation.

I guess I really am limited, because I can't fathom how people can have such a disregard for the suffering and death of all those people. Also, I don't get how the believers who say such things come off as the truly moral ones, while we atheists are (by definition!) evil, immoral, and hell-bound. Sorry, I'm ranting now. This just really bugs me.

As for your statement about being punished for eternity for your beliefs...A number of believers are backing off from this position nowadays. Many of them are pretending that such a doctrine of hell-fire and brimstone was never the intention of God, but rather humans misunderstood what was being said. Now, they say, hell should be understood merely as "separation from God." I think this is just a PR stunt to make Christianity seem a little less cruel. Still, it seems to be pretty popular. Do you (or does anyone else) know where this line of argument came from? What do you think of this argument? Sounds like a cozy vacation from God to me; no different from this life. I'll take two!

Thanks again for your comments. I hope I can remember what you said next time I'm bombarded by theistic nonsense!

--Billy Kelly

Feb 3 2005
Atheist or agnostic

Heres my take on the whole 'atheist or agnostic' question. I consider myself an agnostic, mostly because my philosphy on life is pretty simplistic. It goes something like this 'I am completely comfortable in saying I have no idea how we got in this world or what happens when we get out' & heres the important part to me 'I dont go around pretending like I do' because anyone that says they know 1 way or the other is doing just that. There is no evidence to imperically prove there is or isnt a god or gods. Although, in my mind, the 1 in the bible seems a bit far-fetched if there really is a god.

So with that belief I have to say im an agnostic, because saying im an atheist rules out that there is a god, or some type of creator, which cannot be proven factually. But usually when someone asks me what I am, I tell them how I believe followed with teh caveat of 'whatever label you want to put on me is fine'.

Jul 1 2005
Re: Atheist or agnostic

So with that belief I have to say im an agnostic, because saying im an atheist rules out that there is a god, or some type of creator, which cannot be proven factually.

No, saying you're an atheist doesn't "rule it out", it just indicates your belief on the matter. For example, I might say that I think the Mets are going to win the big game tonight. That doesn't rule out the possibility that they'll actually lose, and I wouldn't even be all that surprised if they did. Still, if I had to place a bet on it, I'd bet that they will win...hypothetically, that is.

In the same way, I really believe that there is no such thing as "a god". I've certainly not seen any evidence that there is...and even though the absence of evidence doesn't prove that there are no gods, it is a bit suspicious if there are! (In other words, I think if there were gods it would be sort of noticeable. It would be a remarkable coincidence if these gods made and run a universe that just so happens to look like one that seems to have no need for gods in order to explain anything that happens in it.)

True, I cannot prove that there are no gods. As Billy already said, this stops me from saying that I know there are no gods, but it doesn't stop me from saying that I believe that the universe exists without any gods or supernatural beings at all. That's why I'm n-atheist.

Unfortunately, with regard to the tsunami, I've already heard the crass rationalizing from some of my Christian friends. Some of them actually said this was God's way of dealing with over-population! Can you believe that?! Is that really the only way he can deal with the problem of over-population?

Yes. You would think that stopping droughts, increasing the yields of crops, and promoting birth control (or simply controlling it himself supernaturally so that each family had only one child) would be more effective and more ethical ways of dealing with the symptoms and causes of overpopulation than killing the people who happen to be on the coast in a few countries.

Oct 9 2005
beliefs equal faith or claims without evidence

Webster falsely defines Atheism as a denial of an alleged deity "god." This presumes such a deity by such a name exists & we are scoffing off an allegedly proven fact.

The burden of proof always rests upon the alleging party.

I as an American Atheist am completely open minded to the possibility of some future defined deity when the evidence is presented & the rationality of the claim stands tests of reason, scrutiny, utility, replicability etc....

YET ALL ALLEGED DEITIES to date save for pantheistic gods like Gaia or renaming the universe "god" itself, all such other deities I've hear of are question begging sophmoric or completely groundless.....

Gaia or the claim that our biosphere is a closed coherent system has some logic to it and obviously the universe exists but as an ancient Greek Materialist, I maintain that our universe holds no conscious immanent purpose broadly, locally, our minds do but the stretch that we are inseparable from a greater mind called a pantheistic deity is so vague that it defies meaning.

Gravity is more testable and a rational concept theorized about.

Jehovah, Jesu, Krishna or Baha u lah all fail the tests of omnipotence and utility, making them all under achievers or monsters who

allow their creation to suffer & die.

I as a parent have protected my children much better than the King James Alleged deity Yahweh. Jesus slaves minds while has saved none. What good is it if he allegedly survived an execution?

I refuse to accept the proposition that life is mere preparation to die & be punished with hell or be bribed with heaven.

As an Ethical Culturist, I hold alleged deities to a higher standard.

Webster was a counter-revolutionary, hated Deist Thomas Paine and defined Paine's philosophy as synonymous with Atheism

Atheism is noble, unambiguous & simply means to have no theism.

Nov 7 2005

The heart has reasons that reason does not know.

Dec 19 2005
Pascal sounds like Al Pacino in Frankie & Johnny

We can know if alleged deities exist. We test for supernatural evidence in alleged miracles. We test for utility in deciding whether an alleged baby god grew to an adult carpenter & faith healer & was executed by crucifixion, only to allegedly survive the execution 33 hours later? Just what if all of that is true, how does such a claim benefit the current living human population of 6 billion plus the untold dead humans of all history, prior to this alleged event 20 centuries ago? Huxley in his classical agnosticism claimed we can not know the above. He, in effect cast a pox on both houses of faiths and fact. Huxley & the evasive Agnostic are declaring the faithful are deluded and the Atheist dogmatic. It is deceptively appealing to pretend that a fair minded person can't know if a god exists on the far side of the planet Uranus. Nathaniel Brandon argued that demanding proof of a negative is worse than demanding proof from the claimant believers. Of course we can not prove all alleged gods can not possibly exist any where. But where is the proof that any god alleged does exist? Indeed, what does the word g o d mean? Alleged deity is a more useful redundancy rather than yield on the topic of faith versus fact. Love exists. Religion exists in the minds of believers. The Pascal line is also spoken by Al Pacino in a screenplay remade from Broadway of Frankie & Johnny in the 'Claire de Lune'

Sep 7 2006

I'm an atheist.

Sep 7 2006

PS - why doesn't the avatar upload function work?

Mar 10 2007
Book Club discussing God Delusion by Dawkins

Ok, this famous book is ripe for discussion this month at Barnes & Noble... I'm wondering if Reza Aslan has read it as he must have read much of what Sam Harris has written, maybe Aslan could debate Dawkins at MUSC?

Apr 29 2007

I like Sam Harris' explanation relating to this subject found in his recent book:

"Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheist" is a term that should not ever exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non astrologer" or a "non-alchemist". We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to "never doubt the existence of God" should be obliged to present evidence for his existence-and, indeed, for his BENEVOLENCE, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day."

--Sam Harris, "Letter to a Christian Nation"

Nov 24 2007

I am not religious, I am spiritual!

Give me a break! I just have problems even comprehending the term "supernatural". Spiritual, as in something not made of matter/energy? If there is something that scientific method can not approach to explain, analyze, research, I would like to know what that is? A lingual construct of someone's imagination? Is science expected to explain peoples' illusions?

Fantasy and imagination are wonderful things if one can just use them for creativity and entertainment, but are not to be mixed with reality.

We have more important survival problems for science to deal with.

But fears, illusions, lack of information have filled our language up with terms that cloud our thoughts. They were there and imposed by those who dictated what language was, and are there from the first day we learn a few words to communicate. It must be a conscious effort to clean language from imaginary constructs as soul, and god, etc. Those terms were once tools of totalitarian management and were used to reinforce authority structures. Some are still using those tools. GW always finishes his speech with God bless America, infering that god exists and has supported GW and his gang of robing the treasury. God forbid those who would question god's will. Maybe he should say directly God bless Haliburton!

Ok, I'm getting carried away, I always make leaps from philosophy to political action, but isn't it what it is all about! Solving real living problems?

Nov 25 2007
wonderful post by a Greek Atheist

I'm an American Atheist who applauds the Greek Atheist post above. The timidity of some who'd let theocrats & thieves rule the roost is unreasonable. It may protect you from being jailed by the worst of them or shot at by a mob of KKK christians, but timidity is not going to remove government signs which imply whites only, xians only or heterosexuals only.... the primary justification for all three bigotries is religion & King James Bible quotations. An American Atheist quotes the same book which exposes the falsehood of Christianity per se. Alleging a virgin can give birth & celebrating such an allegation at City of Charleston Firestation 12 is also such a sign. Homosexuals & Atheists take a back seat. Perhaps 30 percent of the adults & advanced students locally are Atheists, most of them led to believe the closet, ongoing silence is the way to be. Agnostics or freethinkers or objectivists or any name other than the American Atheist outright repudiation of alleged deities are dangerous concepts to base action upon. & too often led to violence & repression, NOW MORE THAN EVER, Sam Harris & many many other Atheists are calling free minds to action, maybe not the "A" word in all situations but confront religious violence, confront religious delusions & confront gov't evils shielded by theocracy.

David Agnew
Apr 28 2009
Re: the `Atheist or Agnostic' question

Having the good fortune to have had an agnostic mother and an atheist father, I grew up an agnostic, figuring it was less arrogant than claiming 'there is no god' (I think religious views, like political affiliations, are mostly inherited). But over time, agnosticism began to seem wimpy - so I doubled-down and called myself an agnostic agnostic (I didn't know if I didn't know... 'tho I tended towards a belief that there was no god). Then, thanks to the recent New York Times article, I stumbled upon this forum. Lucky day! I found several pearls similar to this snippet from a 8/23/04 post by Herb Silverman:

Since I believed beyond reasonable doubt that there is no God, and was beginning to think of agnostics as no more than gutless atheists, I quietly converted from agnosticism to atheism. I still felt a bit uncomfortable defending my new appellation, because I couldn't prove God's nonexistence. Reading more about atheism, I learned that a-theism (without theism) simply means "without a belief in a God or gods."

At age 62, I've come to realize that not believing in the existence of dieties, doesn't imply any certainty that no god(s) exist. It's simple and not arrogant. Funny how a subtle misunderstanding of the meaning of a word can be of such consequence! Thanks, secular humanists!

I do confess to some disdain for faith - believing something (often something quite preposterous) in the absence of any reasonable evidence. Basing one's beliefs upon reason and experiential evidence strikes me as commonsense, not arrogance or dogmatism. Of course any attitude of superiority is generally quite unhelpful.

BTW, I DO believe that there are 'forces more powerful than (wo)man' - gravity, fire, and rain, to name a few. And Buddha's four noble truths sometimes helps me regain balance when attachment makes me blind to compassion. But these things have nothing to do with an omniscient, all-powerful 'being' (often alleged to be 'all merciful' as he sits on his all-powerful hands while innocent children are slaughtered).

May 11 2009
Re: the `Atheist or Agnostic' question

I think the schism between Atheists and Agnostics follow more social and political lines than spiritual. The issue is that from the time we were able to walk most of us were indoctrinated with the concept of original sin, a myth that does an amazing job of explaining away the darker sides of human psyche and were told the only way to free ones self from this horrible affliction was through the divine and merciful love of our creator. Now we can all agree that all the gods that have been proposed throughout recorded history have been false. They were contrived stories meant to explain the seasons, the movement of the stars, or even the existence of plagues; with our science and reasoning we have found the basis behind all such occurrences and have exposed the superstitions and myths for what they are. We have not, however, found a cure for the darkness that resides in the human heart. Rationally or scientifically explaining away genocide, war, infanticide, rape these things that are beyond our capacity so the world remains dependant on something greater than ourselves to justify and perhaps cure the human condition. This is where Atheists and Agnostics differ in our various outlooks on the universe.

Atheists often times see the plight of humanity and pessimistically (or rationally depending on your view point) determine that this is the best we can hope for. Humans have waged war and committed atrocities upon one another since the beginning of recorded time and the progress of science while raising the overall standard of living has also enabled events like world wars, atomic bombs, and concentration camps.

Agnostics on the other hand still hold the last glimmers of hope that something may still be out there and that god or gods may one day find us worthy of saving and free us from the darkness that inhabits our hearts and minds. Summarized this may seem condescending but rationally with 6 thousand years of human history all the various religions how many have to be wrong, how many made up gods before you call it quits? It's impossible to PROVE a negative but with each passing day the PROBABILITY of a god decreases after 2 million days worth of searching we are approaching the theoretical 0. The main problem I have with Agnostic thought is that it supports a status quo, continue your life being open to possible religions but skeptical of the established. The result is a person without any solid conviction or belief and while fanaticism is harmful compliancy and disinterest is equally counterproductive.

Agnostics will always consider Atheists to be arrogant and Atheists will call Agnostics cowards.

May 11 2009
Re: the `Atheist or Agnostic' question

Agnostics will always consider Atheists to be arrogant and Atheists will call Agnostics cowards.

Considering that atheism addresses belief, I think it is arrogant to call Atheists arrogant. Everyone is entitled to their belief. How can believing something be arrogant? Atheists do say that they "know" there is no god. They "believe" that there are no gods, or lack a belief in a god. Would theists be arrogant as well?

I also don't think that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive, since they address two different issues - belief and knowledge, respectively. I would consider myself both an atheist and an agnostic. I don't "believe" in any gods, but I do not "know" whether gods exist or not (I also believe that the very non/existence of gods is unknowable). If I had to choose one label, though, I would call myself an atheist.

I think the term "agnostic" can be troublesome. Some people use it to mean somewhere in the middle of theism and atheism, neither one nor the other. Others would say that it addresses knowledge only, and therefore can overlap with either theism or atheism. I agree with the second, that it addresses knowledge, and further that b/c the existence of a god is unknowable, that everyone is agnostic, whether or not they admit it. B/c of this (that everyone is agnostic), I think that the term is somewhat meaningless.

Jun 12 2009
Re: the `Atheist or Agnostic' question

It is Huxley who invented the word Agnostic, literally meaning we "can not know" whether an alleged deity exists or not.

While Atheism & Atheists have been around for 27 centuries, as Greeks used the word to mean "Atheos" or "I have no such god in my head." To be free from theism is to be free from racism or free from patriarchy. I affirm my fellow human beings and I refuse to give credence to males who oppress females.

Huxley tried to create a 3rd position when Darwin got so much heat from creationists. Either believers have no proof of their alleged deity or not. Atheists have demanded such proof and received none. Agnostics in the classical Huxley position, try to put a pox on both houses of belief & Atheists. Faiths & facts are not equal. Atheists rely upon facts, beliefs are more often unrelated to facts. IF someone wants to stand on the agnostic label, for what ever reason, let them. If someone says directly to an Atheist "you can not prove a negative" that assumes we are. Atheists are free from theism, we demand proof of theist claims. We can know if such claims are rational, based on evidence or mere belief. The letter "A" means "without" or freedom from. Theism means alleging deities. Put the "A" in front of Theism and you get Atheism. While putting the "A" in front of "gnostic" means you can not know. Gnostics in religious history are regarded as heretics to the Vatican & Nicene Creed. Gnostics claimed to know about Jesus & faith. It's all about which side to cheer for & who is trying to avoid taking sides. It's ok if someone is still evaluating the history of faith and facts, but when taking on leadership in the war of theocrats against reality and our freedom from theocracy, Agnosticism is not inclusive of Atheists & believers who defend our secular Constitution. I've always declared I'm an American first and an Atheist second. We all have a right to be wrong. Trial and error. No one should be told by the government they are not allowed to go to heaven. Nor should the government tell us Atheists or minority religions we have to subscribe to the Christian heaven or any other icon or belief. Neutrality is not the same as calling both sides wrong. Neutrality means freedom to choose, freedom from one favored belief. Freedom not to believe too. The government of the US is neither "xian, mehomitan nor musslemen." That is from the Treaties of Tunis, Tripoli & Algiers. Freedom from and freedom of religion leaves the government obliged to remain neutral, no pogroms, no crusades, no religious tests, no required number of alleged gods, 3, one, 500 or none. I just do not get it why neutrality is so hard for Agnostics, Atheists, or Believers. When I walk down the street, I neither assume the person is religious or Atheist. It is so personal. It's like expecting to ask about a persons funeral plans at any age. I'm not going to ask people if they are wanting to be cremated, embalmed, expecting heaven, hell or Buddhist nothingness. Not my job to run a religious survey in every chance encounter. Just like it is not my job to ask someone if they are gay or straight. Unless I'm single & I'm asking for a date, why should it matter?

Oct 27 2009
Re: the `Atheist or Agnostic' question

I have no problem in saying I am an atheist. If we get into semantics no christian can say they "know for sure" that there is a god either. I FIRMLY believe there is no god. When you die you are dead period!! I have no part of myself that says "I don't know for sure", therefore I am not agnostic I am an atheist.

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