The Meaning Of Atheism, Part 3: The Meaning Of Agnosticism

In both Part I and Part II of this very intermittent series, I argued that the terms “agnosticism” and “atheism” were best used to describe distinct and mutually exclusive, though vaguely delineated, positions regarding the existence of deities. An atheist would tick the “no” box when asked whether at least one god existed, whereas an agnostic would tick “don’t know”. However, thinking clearly about the boundary between those two viewpoints requires thinking clearly about the viewpoints themselves, so in what I expect will be the final two posts in the series – this one and the next one – I’ll focus on each of them in turn. I think it will work out better if I start with agnosticism.

Thomas Huxley as drawn in Vanity Fair, 1871

Thomas Huxley as drawn in Vanity Fair, 1871

Unlike the word “atheist”, whose precise roots are lost in the mists of ancient Greek notions of impiety, the word “agnostic” has a reasonably well-documented origin: it was coined by Charles Darwin’s friend Thomas Huxley in 1869. Two decades later, he got around to explaining his reasons, in an essay called simply “Agnosticism”. The core of the explanation began with a statement about his general perspective:

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; 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 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.

Thinking in terms of “gnosis”, the Greek word for knowledge, must have led quite naturally to the next step:

This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious memory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.

Huxley’s tail, however, was a protean one. He considered agnosticism to be an intellectual attitude, rather than a set of fixed beliefs:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good” it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

 

The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science. That which is unproven today may be proven by the help of new discoveries to-morrow. The only negative fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demonstrable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted is to have the mind always open to conviction. Agnostics who never fail in carrying out their principles are, I am afraid, as rare as other people of whom the same consistency can be truthfully predicated. But, if you were to meet with such a phœnix and to tell him that you had discovered that two and two make five, he would patiently ask you to state your reasons for that conviction, and express his readiness to agree with you if he found them satisfactory. The apostolic injunction to “suffer fools gladly” should be the rule of life of a true agnostic. I am deeply conscious how far I myself fall short of this ideal, but it is my personal conception of what agnostics ought to be.

The language of non-belief, of course, has evolved since Huxley’s day, a development Huxley himself probably would have welcomed at least in principle. His conception of general methodological “agnosticism” is very similar to what is now usually described as “skepticism”, and being an “agnostic” has come to mean professing uncertainty about the specific matter of whether gods exist. Such uncertainty can be divided into the “strong agnosticism” of believing that the question of the existence of gods is unanswerable in principle and the “weak agnosticism” of believing that an answer is presently unavailable but might eventually emerge. Huxley’s statement about being convinced “that the problem was insoluble” rather suggests strong agnosticism, whereas his optimistic assertion that new discoveries can reduce the domain of the unproven perhaps opens the door to weak agnosticism.

My own view is that strong agnosticism has already been falsified to a degree (and in the real world, falsification of complex ideas is rarely if ever an all-or-nothing affair) by scientific and philosophical progress over the last few millennia. London mayor Boris Johnson, who is a bit like an articulate and erudite version of our own Rob Ford, said in 2004 that his faith was “a bit like Magic FM in the Chilterns [“a chalk escarpment in South East England”, according to Wikipedia], in that the signal comes and goes”. That’s at least a weak agnostic position, if not a terribly reflective one, but I’ll bet Johnson would agree that our advancing knowledge of the universe has both constrained the kinds of deity that might plausibly exist and weakened the traditional justifications for believing in deities at all. We (as a species) know that Zeus and Hera aren’t hanging around at the top of Mt. Olympus, because we’ve been up there, and we know that any divine intervention in human affairs must be so subtle as to have escaped convincing documentation even in an age when some people can’t seem to eat breakfast without snapping a photo for social media. We also no longer need religious explanations for thunderstorms, comets, epileptic fits, and biodiversity, because science has provided much better ones. Even if your faith is currently like Magic FM in the Chilterns, rather than Magic FM at the top of K2, why try to set boundaries on how far that process of pushing the gods to the margins might eventually go? If we can push them at all, they have a presence in the realm of the knowable and testable, and we might as well keep pushing and see how far we can get. Embracing strong agnosticism amounts to giving up on that process before it has run its course.

Admittedly, there’s no objective answer to the question of how far we need to get before it makes sense to tick the atheist box rather than the agnostic one. Agnostics, in fact, are like bisexuals in that they face definitional boundary problems in both directions. If you’re mostly attracted to people of the opposite sex, but find yourself drawn to people of the same sex just occasionally and in highly specific ways, are you heterosexual or bisexual? If your faith comes through clearly once in a blue moon before fading again to meaningless static, should you really call yourself an atheist? Or are you a mere agnostic, like that notoriously squishy Richard Dawkins?

William Hincks of the University of Toronto

William Hincks of the University of Toronto

There’s no objectively correct answer to the question of where to draw the line between agnosticism and atheism, and ultimately it’s not that important. Labels are only what they are, handy heuristic descriptors, and if you can explain your views cogently then it doesn’t much matter which label you choose to hang on them. However, some labelling schemes are still more useful and practical than others, and in my opinion people who are pretty sure that no gods exist should grasp the nettle, bite the bullet, cross the Rubicon and just declare themselves to be atheists. Huxley was never prepared to take that step, but even Huxley didn’t know everything. However, I must hasten to point out that I mean no disrespect to the man by urging that we should all move beyond his cautious views. Huxley was a brilliant scientist and thinker, and it’s well-known that he was so outspoken and effective as an early advocate of evolutionary theory that he acquired the nickname of “Darwin’s bulldog”. Less well-known is that he applied for a job at the University of Toronto as a young man in the early 1850s, only to see the position go to a locally well-connected botanist and former Unitarian minister called William Hincks. Huxley did all right for himself, and so did the University of Toronto, but it’s a shame they passed one another like ships in the night.

13 thoughts on “The Meaning Of Atheism, Part 3: The Meaning Of Agnosticism

  1. You entire essay depends on adopting a meaning of the word “atheist” that most us us don’t share.

    You might at least point out that if “atheist” means not believing in gods then the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” are not “distinct and mutually exclusive.”

    When asked if I believe in gods, I tick the “no” box. Thus, I am an atheist.

    When asked whether I know for sure whether gods exist or not, I have to rely “no.” Therefore I am agnostic.

    I know this isn’t your position but when setting up a premise (e.g. definition of atheist) you should acknowledge that lots of people don’t accept your premise and, therefore, reject your argument on logical grounds.

    • You entire essay depends on adopting a meaning of the word “atheist” that most us us don’t share.

      Is it really “most of us”? How confident are you that your preferred definitions are really the prevailing ones among whatever group you’re referencing with the word “us”? I’m pretty sure the definitions I’ve been using are the ones I’ve come across most frequently, but of course that doesn’t mean much outside the limited sphere of opinions I’ve encountered personally.

      Nevertheless, I’m well aware that quite a few people disagree with me on the issue of definitions, so your point about acknowledging that my premise isn’t universally accepted is a fair one. I just thought this post was long enough without rehashing the disclaimers and caveats I put into the previous two posts in this series, both of which I did link to at the beginning.

      • I can’t be sure which definition is most common among atheists but I don’t know many atheists who use the definition that you use. It seems to be a definition used mostly by others to describe atheists.

        The Wikipedia article …

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism

        is informative.

        American Atheists say this … [http://atheists.org/activism/resources/what-is-atheism?]

        “Atheism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.”

        Here’s an article by Austin Cline on the atheism website [http://atheism.about.com/od/definitionofatheism/a/definition.htm]

        “There is, unfortunately, some disagreement about the definition of atheism. It is interesting to note that most of that disagreement comes from theists – atheists themselves tend to agree on what atheism means. Christians in particular dispute the definition used by atheists and insist that atheism means something very different.

        The broader, and more common, understanding of atheism among atheists is quite simply “not believing in any gods.” No claims or denials are made – an atheist is just a person who does not happen to be a theist.”

        My point is that the both definitions are very common. So, when you say ….

        “An atheist would tick the ‘no’ box when asked whether at least one god existed, whereas an agnostic would tick ‘don’t know’.”

        you are choosing only one of the definitions even though you (probably) know that many atheists would disagree. That’s not a very good way to write about agnosticism, especially since your description of “agnostic” depends entirely on your definition of atheist.

        • you are choosing only one of the definitions even though you (probably) know that many atheists would disagree. That’s not a very good way to write about agnosticism, especially since your description of “agnostic” depends entirely on your definition of atheist.

          Except that I presented the reasons for my choice in the two earlier posts in this series, and linked to those earlier posts at the beginning of this one. It was necessary to pick one definition in order to move forward with the discussion, unless you think I should have essentially presented two alternative versions of the last couple of paragraphs of the present post (the only ones, following the introductory paragraph, in which the definitional issue is critical), but I did at least explain myself. I agree that both definitions are common, but that doesn’t obviate the need for a writer to adopt one or the other in order to keep his or her prose tolerably concise and intelligible. If you want, however, you can mentally substitute “agnostic atheist” where I’ve written “agnostic”, and “non-agnostic atheist” where I’ve written “atheist”, and it should more or less work out.

  2. Atheist for most people means someone who believes gods do not exist. All the finely refined definitions are only relevant when talking to another atheist, people you meet daily do not know or care about an atheists definition of atheism.

    It is binary for most people, you believe gods exist or you don’t, anything else is to complicated.

    Re:Zeus

    A strong agnostic can argue that Zeus exists but when man made his way to the the top of Mt. Olympus Zeus left to dwell in the heavens. This goes to the problem that someone can make anything up (see scientology) and when confronted by a skeptic ask the skeptic to prove them wrong.

    The creationists are a good example of this, their clarion call of “WERE YOU THERE” is an outstanding example. Remember earth is 6,000 years old!

    This is why debates are useless, you make any claim then ask your opponent to refute it. Then when they give some evidence you make up more nonsense and ask them to refute it.

    • Hmmmm ….

      So, when Corwin says “An atheist would tick the “no” box when asked whether at least one god existed …”

      He should have said, “A nonexistent, hypothetical, atheist that the average person thinks of (incorrectly) when they use the word “atheist,” would tick the “no” box when asked …”

      Right?

      Does that really make sense to you?

    • A strong agnostic can argue that Zeus exists but when man made his way to the the top of Mt. Olympus Zeus left to dwell in the heavens.

      Sure, but in that case evidence is at least constraining where Zeus can plausibly live – in other words, it’s having an impact on the beliefs a Greek (neo-)pagan can hold without being demonstrably wrong. As knowledge about the universe continues to accumulate, Zeus becomes even more circumscribed, until eventually continuing to call him Zeus seems like either mockery or obfuscation. At that point, one had better stop being a Greek (neo-)pagan.

  3. “Embracing strong agnosticism amounts to giving up on that process before it has run its course.”

    I don’t think the admission that our puny little brains might not have the processing power to understand the universe is equivalent to giving up. Even the very fact we need…. such a rigorous approach to learning, like science, seems to indicate we aren’t really built for certainty on the large scale.

    It seems very likely, to me, that our ape brains will reach a hard limit where even our collective understanding falters. And #notalldeities are anthropomorphic meddlers in human lives. Zeus and Hera were not the creators of the universe after all, they were merely the most recent in a line of bratty children. Yahweh is somewhat exceptional in this regard, the ultimate micromanager, as creators go…

    Even serious scientists in our modern age contemplate things like multiverses…. And strings.
    Sisyphus is the heroic fool of our modern age… And I think we should own that. Shying away from the likely absurdity of our grail quest devalues the greatness of the goal. We should be in awe about what we have achieved, and inspired to even greater acts of ridiculous defiance of our perceived limits.

    “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”
    — Ulysses

    The context of that quote is important, it was not the beginning of any story…

    • I don’t think the admission that our puny little brains might not have the processing power to understand the universe is equivalent to giving up.

      I agree, but a fully paid-up strong agnostic would presumably substitute “don’t have” for your “might not have”. Surely that makes a very big difference.

      A complete understanding of the universe, or at least of the laws that underpin the universe, probably will remain forever out of reach. However, I think striving defiantly to get as close as possible to that goal is indeed exactly the right approach. I also think, as I’ll argue in the next (and probably final) post in this series, that we’ve already got close enough to pretty much rule out the existence of any entity worthy of being called a deity.

      • Sounds a bit too no-true-scotsmany. Why would someone claiming uncertainty about the universe, turn around and claim certainty about the limits of the human brain, when neither is well understood?

        You seem to be demanding hypocrisy.

        I don’t see any reason to believe in a conscious purpose behind the universe, and I don’t see any reason to believe that a bunch of glorified chimps have the wherewithal to divine it, even if there is one. Both seem like houses built on sand.

        As to deity, if a giant space turtle vomited our universe into existence, after a hard night of drinking in the multiverse, it would be god… by definition, regardless of how worthy, or flattering, we find it.

        I would in fact, find such a beast quite worthy of our particular universe, but I just binge watched two seasons of Rick and Morty… So my level of cynicism might be abnormally high. Heh.

        • Why would someone claiming uncertainty about the universe, turn around and claim certainty about the limits of the human brain, when neither is well understood?

          Beats me, but strong agnosticism is usually (as far as I’m aware) defined as the position that we can’t know whether deities exist. It sounds like you and I have similar objections to that claim, however one might label it. I have more time for weak agnosticism, but I think it’s a needlessly cautious position given current knowledge.

          As to deity, if a giant space turtle vomited our universe into existence, after a hard night of drinking in the multiverse, it would be god… by definition, regardless of how worthy, or flattering, we find it.

          By some definitions, sure, but it would be an extraordinarily pathetic kind of god compared to the ones that were worshipped almost universally until just a few centuries ago when newfangled ideas like atheism and deism began to gain traction. Proper gods have functions beyond creating the universe and then leaving it alone, and vomiting out a universe barely qualifies as “creating” it anyway. And is it really credible that an entity capable of vomiting up (or otherwise producing) a super-concentrated blob of matter primed to undergo a big bang would be at all like a turtle, or like anything intelligible to humans? We’re left with, at best, something that doesn’t walk like a god or quack like a god, given what all religions tell us gods should be like. But I’m getting somewhat ahead of myself.

          • “Beats me, but strong agnosticism is usually (as far as I’m aware) defined as the position that we can’t know whether deities exist. ”

            But that is a different claim. Of course we can’t know whether dieties exist, not because of lack of processing, but because you can’t prove a negative. If a god doesn’t want to be found, its not likely we would win that game of hide and seek. So the simple fact of not finding a deity proves nothing. Not a reason to believe, but also not knowledge that none exist.

            This is why I try and stick with Huxley’s definitiion, he gave context for what he meant. He wasn’t just talking about knowledge in general, but gnosis, that is, a very specific form of spiritually aquired knowledge, which he claimed simply not to have, but which was a standard claim by his contemporaries.

            He did no go so far as to be anti-gnosis, as that would deny the experience of others. He kept it personal. And that, aligns well with the philosophical tradtion, Descartes demon, and Hume’s problem of induction.

            “Proper gods have functions beyond creating the universe and then leaving it alone, and vomiting out a universe barely qualifies as “creating” it anyway”

            But that is actually the very nature of most creator gods.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmogonic_myth#Classification
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Turtle
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiamat
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norse_cosmology#Creation
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_(mythology)
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma

            The gods that get worshiped tend to be much more local and derivative in nature, monotheism is much more of a recent phenomena.

  4. I tick the no box.

    If definition of atheist is essentially the same as an agnostic, I don’t know if there is a god(s), why are there atheists or conversely why are there agnostics?

    Is anything possible? This is the problem, we can make up innumerable gods and no one can prove they don’t exist. It is absurd to accept the juju up the mountain or allah until there is a shred of verifiable evidence, until then gods do not exist. Show me the money!

    The only rational and practical approach is to accept gods exist when they are shown to exist or we could just keep chasing our tails.

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