Friday, December 6, 2013

Is "agnostic" a useful concept?

I've fallen behind with my blogging, not that it matters since nobody reads this blog anyway. But here are some thoughts on a subject I've been thinking about lately.

In everyday language, an agnostic is someone who is "halfway" between being an atheist and a religious believer, or perhaps someone who sits on the fence and makes a virtue of refusing to take a stand one way or the other. Of course, popular usage is quite different from the sense originally intended by Thomas Huxley: the position that humanity can never know one way or the other whether a god or gods exist. Either way, I question the usefulness of the term.

Huxley's claim might strike one as being rather sweeping and dogmatic in itself. After all, at one stage scientists might have said with confidence that humans can never know whether there was a big bang, whether there are black holes, and so on. But since then, observational evidence has piled up steadily to the point where it is overwhelming.

On the other hand, Huxley's claim is vacuous in a sense. You can never know with 100% certainty that the chair you're sitting on right now exists, or the computer or device you're using to read these words. Your brain could be floating in a vat in an evil scientist's basement lab, connected to electrical cables which feed inputs generating the illusory universe you perceive.

Not to mention that a chair and a computer are more or less well-defined entities; most people can agree on whether something is a computer or not. God, however, has never (as far as I can see) even been defined well enough that a debate concerning his existence is worth having. God is an incoherent concept. The old-style image of a bearded man in the sky is simply wrong, but the vague, abstract god of "sophisticated theology", who vanishes behind a smoke screen of semantic masturbation, is what a scientist would call "not even wrong".

Anyway, Huxley's claim suffers from a serious problem. How would you test it, even assuming you had a satisfactory definition of the god-thingy to which it referred? How could you show it to be true or false? It seems to me you would need to know whether God's existence was the true state of affairs or not, thus violating the premise unless you are either God himself, or some sort of highly advanced alien.

A claim that can never be tested, even in principle, is not a useful claim in my opinion. Is the popular usage of the word "agnostic" any more useful? I'm not convinced it is.

In western society, when people call themselves agnostics, it's very likely that it's specifically the christian god they want to avoid taking a stand on. They feel as free as everyone else, christians and atheists alike, to dismiss out of hand the existence of Thor, Ra, Zeus, Ahura Mazda, Quetzelcoatl, and so on. So in a sense, if you call yourself an agnostic, you are giving the christian god a free pass that other, equally imaginary and discredited gods don't get.

It seems to me that many self-described agnostics are simply atheists are lack the guts to come out of the closet. Of course this could be a wise decision if they live in the bible belt (which encompasses a great deal more of the US than the Deep South). Then there are the agnostics - thankfully less common - who lack intellectual curiosity and love to intone sophomirically, "A pox on both your houses." (Vince Bugliosi's wretched book "Divinity of Doubt" is an exemplar of this attitude.)

Of course, in this as in many other areas of life (including feminism), labels don't really matter - actions do. Don't judge people by how they choose to label themselves, but how they live their lives.

I would guess that many people who call themselves agnostics, and a surprising number of self-proclaimed christians, are functional atheists - they live their lives as if there is no god.They don't act like there is some cosmic tyrant looking down on them 24-7 and preparing to toss them into the Lake of Fire to scream forever in infinite agony after they die, if they fail to cross and dot all their T's and I's while on earth.

Of course you are free to label yourself as you please, but when you use that label in public, you have a responsibility to think about whether you are accurately presenting yourself to the world, and if not, why not? Are you using the term "agnostic" simply to avoid the perceived stigma of atheism? Or are you hedging your bets, genuinely unsure whether a god or exists or not? In the latter case, how does your belief affect your behavior? What is the point of a belief if it makes no difference to your behavior?

I strongly believe that the more atheists who come out of the closet, the better. The US has a severe case of atheist phobia and needs desensitization therapy. It needs to see as many ordinary, everyday people as possible coming out as atheists.

For me, being an atheist does not mean I claim absolute knowledge that no god exists. It simply means that in the total absence of evidence for the supernatural, I am entitled to live my life on the working assumption that it does not exist. If you're a functional atheist, I would encourage you to think about what your working assumption is. Are you in fact a closet atheist? Then come out of that closet!


  1. Good post. Theism and atheism are labels of belief (or lack of belief) and they can also be labels of what one thinks they know. Theists often think they know about supernatural matters, but they fundamentally can't. The supernatural is, by definition, outside the realm of natural explanation and knowledge--and that's all any of us have to apply. The supernatual might as well be ignored since it could very well not exist at all.

  2. When presented with new god knowledge and/or belief claims, agnosticism and atheism come to the same conclusion of falsehood using two different default positions. Agnosticism starts from a default position that we don’t know about such things without verifiable evidence using common standards of knowledge. Atheism starts from the position that we don’t believe based on faith alone, without verifiable evidence, just cause, or however it is we generally establish disbelief. I’m actually not sure what atheism uses as a default standard for disbelief. Atheism only means lacking belief so I don’t see it as a useful starting position for why we should disbelieve and that’s why I’m primarily agnostic in my response to god claims and use it as my primary label for describing where I stand regarding gods.

  3. So you're agnostic about the tooth fairy?

    The tooth fairy doesn't deliberately and flawlessly hide itself from people. There's valid theological reasons why a God might do so.

    I am an agnostic - I do not know whether God exists and, because we're talking about an omniscient entity with a vested interest in neither confirming or denying, I can't know whether It exists or not. Agnosticism is the only intellectually truthful path.

    However, I am functionally an atheist in that I don't believe it exists, and I can kick holes in the traditional Christian idea of a revealed God.

    I'm agnostic about God in the same way I'm agnostic about life around any particular star in the sky - almost certainly not, but to be honest I don't know, and can't know, and am not particularly bothered by this state of affairs.

  4. Well, when I say I'm agnostic I mean I reject religious POVs of the world of any type, but I allow for the possibility of some aspect of reality we haven't (or even cannot) perceive. No idea what form it could take, but I don't feel qualified to outright reject the possibility. It's not something I spend a lot of time dwelling on.

    Not sure I'm making myself clear, but, you know there's no need to call people cowards or other names. The whole hubbub about different types of agnosticism has been hashed out for a long time now. Wikipedia had a decent entry on it last time I looked. Religion is the big ticket problem. Leave us agnosty types be. We're not hurting anyone.