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What is an Agnostic?

by Noah Lugeons

First, let me get the easy part out of the way. The dictionary definition of the word “agnostic” goes like this:

A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

But when you try to pin the meaning down by observing the actions of those who call themselves agnostics, you arrive at a less flattering and more cynical definition:

A person who recognizes the inherent vapidity in the concept of revealed religion but lacks the conviction to assert such a belief.

I was recently sent a graphic that sought to dispel the misconceptions about the meaning of “agnostic” and in so doing managed to further muddy the waters with a definition that lacks internal logic. The first image shows the common “misconception” about agnostics. It presents a line of belief with theist on one side and atheist on the other and a space in the middle that is marked “agnostic”. This chart seemed acceptable to me, but for the words “Not This” branded below it.

That intrigued me, as I see little way to deny the utility of such a chart, so I continued. The second image showed a Venn diagram with atheist and theist overlapping and “agnostic” in the common field. This also included a “Not This” disclaimer, which I was happy to see. My first reaction to the chart was that it represented more of a misunderstanding of Venn diagrams than agnosticism.

And finally, the third graphic, the one that earned the artist’s seal of approval, showed four boxes in a grid. The upper left read “gnostic atheist”. Below that was “gnostic theist”. To the right of these boxes “agnostic atheist” and “agnostic theist” were stacked one on top of the other. And this was supposed to be the graphic that made sense.

The whole point of the exercise was to assert that agnostics are not the “undecided middle”, but rather a method of examining thoughts on metaphysics. They attempt to create a dichotomy that has the gnostic believers as certain of their beliefs and agnostics leaning one way or the other while conceding that nothing can truly be known about the nature of the metaphysical.

This is not a new concept. Many self-professed agnostics would agree whole-heartedly with this description. But those of us in their “gnostic atheist” category would beg to differ.

Let me start with the easy part. Obviously, no statement but a tautology can assert something with absolute certainty. At best, we’re leaving off the “all the evidence I have at hand leads me to believe…” whenever you make a statement for the sake of brevity. When I say that my favorite show is about to come on, I’m simply saving myself the trouble of saying “assuming that it hasn’t been preempted by an unforeseen news story and that the TV works correctly and that the cable isn’t out and that no unpredictable variable intercedes and renders it otherwise, my favorite TV show is about to come on.”

If one wished, one could claim that they were agnostic about my favorite show coming on. They could point to chaos theory and point out that nothing can truly be known about my favorite show and that at best we can only whittle down the likelihood that it will fail to come on to an infinitesimal fraction and move on accordingly under the assumption that it will come on. You could do that, but you would only do so if you were a douche.

The same is obviously true of the division of “agnostic atheist” and “gnostic atheist”. There are no “gnostic” atheists if that term implies that no amount of new evidence could convince that person that they were mistaken in their beliefs. I’m atheistic enough that if god appeared before me and jumped my ass for not capitalizing his name, I would assume first that I was delusional, but given a long enough stream of corroborating evidence, I would eventually begrudgingly cede the argument and accept the existence of god.

But that is a damn long way from being “agnostic” about the deal. I agree with the definition that Webster provides. I agree that nothing definitive can ever be known about the nature or existence (or lack of nature or non-existence) of god. I would, of course, make the same concession if pressed on the question of invisible fairies that remind the flowers to open every morning. I can never know anything at all about their nature and I can never prove with absolute certainty that they do not exist. In a technical, english-majory kind of way, I’m agnostic about fairies and I’m agnostic about god.

So strike one against the “agnostic atheist” is that it’s ultimately a meaningless term unless you actually are 100% on the fence about the issue. When someone claims to be an “agnostic atheist”, they are creating a straw man of the rest of the atheist movement, painting us as though our beliefs are received on the same faith-based level as those of the theist.

Another strike against it is the simple lack of internal logic. If by agnostic one means that nothing can be known about the nature or existence of god, an afterlife or a universal spirit, it is quite meaningless to use it as a modifier for atheist or theist. If nothing can be known for certain then no evidence can exist on either side of the argument and thus no preference can be reached except by relying on information known to be insufficient to draw a conclusion. To then stake your agnostic flag on one side or the other of the issue is an admission that at least something can be known about the issue, as you have clearly been influenced by one data set or the other.

But the final nail in the coffin of this fictional division is the fact that many people refer to themselves as “passionate” or “strong” agnostics. How can one be passionate about not knowing? How can one have a strong lack of opinion?

Agnosticism is the middle ground. It is the “undecided” vote. It is the removal of oneself from the argument.

To be clear, I have no issue whatsoever with true agnostics. If nothing else, they are intellectually honest. My issue is with the atheists that mistakenly take the title to avoid being called atheists. But if you believe that there is no god and operate your life as though there is no god, you are an atheist. If there is no active doubt in your mind, you are no more agnostic about god than you are about Count Chocula.

Before I get accused of being a bitter jerk about this (though I’m sure I’ll still be called a bitter jerk and worse by a few agnostics), I should point out that there is an important and unintended consequence of atheists in agnostic’s clothing. If you call yourself an agnostic, you’re actively placing religion in a special category, as though nonsensical claims about this single field of study are more valid than the nonsensical claims about any other.

Not to belabor the point, but consider holocaust deniers. Before you flinch, I’m not comparing agnostics to holocaust deniers. In this analogy, the holocaust deniers will represent religious people. Okay… now you can flinch.

Let’s say we did a poll. We asked the country if they believe that the holocaust occurred. A small group of people would say “no”, they did not believe it and a large group would say “yes”. But suppose that we worded the question a bit different. Let’s say we asked “Are you certain that the holocaust occurred?” The small group of holocaust deniers would still say no and the vast majority of people would still say yes.

But could you really say yes to that question? What direct, tangible evidence do you have that could not possibly have been counterfeit? You weren’t there (I’m assuming) and even if you talked directly with someone who was there, there’s no way to say with absolute certainty that they’re not lying. Even if you managed to speak with every surviving witness of the atrocities you still couldn’t rule out large-scale deceit with unquestionable certitude.

So what if we approached this question with the same ineffectual, vacillating manner of the “agnostic atheist”? We know nothing for certain and thus we must answer this question “I don’t know”, regardless of our level of conviction. We still hold on to the possibility, however remote, that our assumptions can be overturned. We must answer all binary questions with an “IDK”, of course, short of questions like “Do you believe that cats are felines?”

But imagine the actual result if a significant number of people did choose to be “agnostic but damn near sure” about the holocaust. The numbers in these surveys would suddenly skew and leave the impression that people are far less certain about the holocaust than they actually are. The results, once published, would lead the fringe deniers to mistaken believe that their point of view was more widely expected. It would empower them.

So please, when they offer both “atheist” and “agnostic”, check the box that’s more intellectually honest. I can’t say which box that is for you, but know that the theists are seizing on that “agnostic” number the way that politicians hone in on the undecided voters. It’s not because they misunderstand the term, it’s because too many “agnostics” do.

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