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Atheist or Agnostic?

Aug 23 2004
reply to Marty Fields

The suggestion of Marty Fields' is that since it is very difficult to "know for certain that God does not exist", it is reasonable to weaken the word "atheist" to mean simply someone who does not have an active belief in God or gods. I personally appreciate the difference between the word "atheist" and the word "agnostic" and would not want to go so far as this...though it is all just semantics and I wouldn't worry to much about it either way. More interesting -- and more serious -- to me is Marty's use of the phrse "know for certain". It is very similar to the phrase that an agnostic member of the SHL used in arguing against the usefulness of the word "atheist".

I think most people are in agreement that the word "agnostic" generally refers to someone who does not make claims about the existence or non-existence of deities. If by "atheist" we were to mean someone who knows for certain that there are deities, then I agree that it is a useless term since I have not met anyone who makes such claims. However, those claiming this as the definition of atheist are either being naive or deceitful. Obviously, there is SOMETHING between making no claims and claiming absolute knowledge. All of the atheists I have ever spoken to, myself included, would say that they BELIEVE that there is not such thing as a "god", that based on our experiences and observations we have concluded that the idea of a "god" is a fantastical creation of human imagination without any counterpart in reality. We believe this WITHOUT making any claims of absolute knowledge.

Perhaps we should consider, by analogy, the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Probably, O.J. himself is the only person who can be said to KNOW FOR CERTAIN whether or not he murdered Nicole Simpson. However, this does not stop people from having a wide range of opinions, from thinking that he is probably innocent to thinking that he is almost certainly guilty, based upon the partial evidence which we have seen and heard.

Similarly, there are a range of opinions on the question of the existence of God. I have met theists who claim to know for certain that God exists. This certainty is a sure sign, in my opinion, that they are not being sufficiently skeptical of their own beliefs, but let's not get into that here. Many more of the religious people I have met are honest about their belief in God being a belief in the absense of any proof, and therefore the absense of certainty. Perhaps we ought to have words to distinguish these two different situations. Then, there are agnostics who make no claim one way or the other. Those who find the evidence to weigh more heavily on the non-existence of a deity -- again, this is the group in which I count myself -- can honestly say that they believe that there is no God even in the absense of Marty's "proof of a universal negative". To me, it seems a good use of the word "atheists" to use it to describe that group of people without including the agnostics as well.

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