Are Agnostics Just As Bad?

Agnostics without a clue.

Late last night on Twitter, I had a debate with an agnostic.  Oh, I didn’t plan on it, I just stumbled into it when @LogicalBeing from the Reason Being Blog included me in a tweet discussion that I sort of took over.  I tend to have that happen a lot, people who get frustrated in a debate will just mention me and silently drop out of the fray.  I have no idea if that was the case this time but anyhow, that’s how I got involved.

So anyhow, this woman, I’ll assume it was a woman based on her Twitter avatar, was an adamant agnostic with wrong ideas about pretty much everything.  The religious were all dangerous fanatics, lunatics who were going to destroy us all.  Atheists were just behind them with fanatical disbelief.  The only way to go was agnosticism for the win!

Yeah, except it doesn’t work that way.  For anyone who has read this blog for a while, you’ll know I’ve had to spell out the difference between agnosticism and atheism many times because most people just don’t get it.  Agnosticism is not some magical mid-way point between atheism and theism, where people who feign ignorance can hang their hat.  Agnosticism and it’s counterpoint gnosticism, deal with an entirely different question, that of the availability of knowledge.  Is it possible for an individual to know anything about the existence or characteristics of gods?  Atheism and it’s counterpoint theism deal with belief in one or more gods.  Not only is it possible to be one option in both positions, it’s necessary, absolutely everyone is, yet far too many people, afraid of embracing the “atheism” label, have taken to stamping the softball label of “agnostic” on themselves to keep from pissing off theists.

I spent a good half hour trying to calmly explain to this woman that agnostic didn’t mean what she insisted it meant and that atheists were not dogmatic fanatics who hated imaginary friends.  It did utterly no good, it was no different than debating a theist who couldn’t see the forest through the trees of their own indoctrination.  Therefore, I foolishly tried another tack.  She kept stating that the only honest answer was ignorance, that we simply could not ever know anything about gods.  Alright, let’s try that one.  I asked exactly how she came to the conclusion that we could not ever know anything about any gods?  I pointed out that there are primitive cultures that worship nature, bow down to trees and offer sacrifices to rocks.  We certainly can be sure those gods are real, can’t we?  No response.  Not even an attempt.  Okay, second shot.   I asked her how she knew that gods were unknowable?  What evidence brought her to that conclusion?  Again, not even a feeble attempt, just more repetition of the same initial claim.  Sounds very theist-like doesn’t it?

That was pretty much when I gave up, although she feigned being tired because I was asking questions that were too hard for her tiny little brain and then went on for another 20 minutes with her original “we’ve got to stop the fanatics!” nonsense.  I didn’t care, I was done.

I learned a couple of things from this little encounter.  First, that there are a lot of crazy fanatics out there and they fall into all categories.  It’s not just the lunatics who believe in imaginary friends, it’s the lunatics who have complete and utter faith, for no good reason, that nobody can know anything about gods whatsoever too.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, that I wasted a ton of time explaining the same old tired nonsense over and over and over again.  I tend to have to do that a lot because I talk to a lot of different people.  I do get tired of having to explain what an atheist is for the 5,231 time, to people who are going to send it in one ear and out the other, wholly unprocessed by their few working brain cells.  So what do I do?

Well, I figured I could host a general-purpose “Answers to Commonly Asked Questions” section, if such doesn’t exist elsewhere, where I and others could submit articles that explain, in detail, with references.  I know that doing so risks theists completely ignoring it, but hey, at least we don’t have to waste time typing it in over and over and having the same thing happen.

So, anyone else want to help, or at least talk about it, or is this just a colossal waste of time?

24 thoughts on “Are Agnostics Just As Bad?”

  1. “I pointed out that there are primitive cultures that worship nature, bow down to trees and offer sacrifices to rocks. We certainly can be sure those gods are real, can’t we?”

    Well, actually they’re worshiping the spirits that inhabit trees and rocks, slippery creatures whom, like anything non-existent, we can never know anything about. Ya know, ’cause there’s nothing to know.

    Everyone is an agnostic. It’s just that, not everyone knows it. No one can know the nature of beings, or things, which don’t exist. Few adults believe in Santa, but good luck proving he doesn’t exist. We’ve got satellites covering the North Pole? Santa has magic. And so on… But ok, some people like to use that label as a hedge, or to avoid taking a position. Or, they want to believe, “there’s something out there,” but they just don’t know what it is. You can no more argue with them than you can with a full-on religious nut. Neither science nor logic can ever have anything to say about non-existent things – of any sort. The human brain is wired for magical thinking, so we’re all guilty of it.

    Is atheism a belief? To me, it’s more of a default position. That is, it’s a lack of belief. It’s when your beliefs drop away. You have to be taught these things. The one true religion is usually the one your parents taught you, or that dominates your culture.

    Think of when you lost your belief in Santa Claus, or what have you. You didn’t become a Santa atheist, (well, maybe for a little while), you learned it was another of the many fairy tales you’ve been told, and moved on. Same with religion. But, as they used to say in the old Cracker Jack commercial, “Some kids never grow up.”

      1. Agnostics believe that existence of god is unknowable OR unknown.
        ''We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know.''
        Atheists have a belief that they have no belief in God. Agnostic say they neither believe nor disbelieve in god.

        1. Which really isn't possible. Belief is an active state. If you do not believe in a thing, you automatically disbelieve in it. If you don't believe in Bigfoot, you disbelieve in Bigfoot. There isn't a middle ground. Agnosticism deals with knowledge and the ability to discover same. Atheism is about belief. The two are entirely different questions, agnosticism isn't some bizarre middle ground between atheism and theism. Virtually all atheists are also agnostics.

    1. You misunderstand the nature of belief. To believe, you have to be personally convinced that a claim is factually true. If you are not convinced, it cannot be a belief. Therefore, you are either convinced and have a belief or you are not convinced and lack a belief in a particular proposition. It's not possible to have a belief that something might be true. Sorry.

        1. Of course there might be different levels of certainty inherent in any claim, but in order to profess belief in a claim, you still have to think that the claim is true. That's why we separate theism from atheism the way we do. If one believes in the existence of a god, they are a theist. If they have any other answer, including "I don't know" and "I don't care", they are an atheist. It is a binary proposition. It is not between "I believe X is true" and "I believe X is false", it's between "I believe X" and "I do not believe X".

          In your example, do you believe your neighbor saw Bigfoot or not? If so, then you believe that proposition. If you do not, even if you have no idea if it's true or not, you do not. These are binary ideas, you either believe or you do not.

          1. So it is impossible for someone to both believe that a god exists but at the same time question wether or not that is true.

          2. Yes it is. If you question the validity of a god-claim, you cannot believe that a god-claim is actually true. That's an oxymoron.

          3. Sorry if my question sounded stupid I am 15 and was unsure of what exactly to call myself since I don't believe in god but I don't believe that it is impossible. So I guess that I would have to call my self an atheist then.

          4. Atheism isn't about positively believing that there are no gods. I think it's remotely possible that there might be a god out there somewhere, although as science learns more, that becomes a more and more remote possibility. I just don't believe in any gods, therefore I am an atheist.

            It really doesn't matter what you call yourself, so much as the fact that you question everything and demand evidence and critical thinking for anything and everything that you believe. If you do that, you're on the right track. Good luck to you.

          5. omg what a contradiction x) you dont really sound like an atheist to me . you sound like an agnostic whos confused, you either do beileve or you dont

            agnotic- "An agnostic wouldn't answer "I don't know."

            They would most likely say "No" or "It is impossible to know."

            atheist -" I think it's remotely possible that there might be a god out there somewhere, I just don't believe in any gods, therefore I am an atheist. "

            incorrect way to be an atheist .

            stop confusing people because your confused

  2. How about this: I find it very irritating when self proclaimed atheists wish to categorize me and my views as their own. No: Stating that there is not enough information to make claims about god's existence is not atheism. Its not the gnostic belief idiocy tossing random claims about the existence of (a) being(s) that may or may not exist.
    By definition i categorize my standpoint, since its mine. Its not for you to tell me whether or not i believe.

    Furthermore: One can believe even while admitting that you or anybody else for that matter, does not have the information required to prove or disprove the existence of the subject of your worship.

    1. Nobody is proving or disproving anything, proof is for mathematics and alcohol. There is no proof of anything, only evidence. We also have a collective language because the whole purpose of language is to facilitate clear and concise communication. That means that people don't get to just make up their own meanings to words and expect to be understood by the majority of people who speak that language. No one is saying you can't come up with your own ideas, I certainly encourage that, but when you do, at least invent a new word to refer to them, don't just co-opt an already existing word that already has a different meaning. It only adds to the confusion.

      I am not accusing you of doing this, but the "borrow a word and change the meaning" thing is a well known and very dishonest tactic done by the religious, they have taken words like "atheism" and "faith" and "religion" and tried to twist them to their own agenda. There are also an unfortunate number of people who have an emotional reaction to particular words, even words that are perfectly applicable, so they pretend that they belong to some other emotionally-comforting class instead of just sucking it up and dealing with the reality. Everyone is atheist or theist. You cannot be both. You cannot be neither. Everyone is also agnostic or gnostic. You cannot be both. You cannot be neither. Just because you don't like the word doesn't mean the word isn't applicable. You seem to misunderstood the terminology. You need to go do some more research.

  3. In my opinion, self-proclaimed "agnostics" are the worst kind of people to have a debate/discussion with because they seem to treat certainty as a black and white paradigm rather than a series of differing levels of trust in a given factual statement.

    However as soon as the conversation turns away from the subjects of gods/supernatural/religion and instead towards a topic they're sympathetic with they will toss around phrases like, "you can't really know so it could be possible" or "try to be more open minded, not everything is about facts". I am not even joking with that last one; I literally was told that by a friend. For example I know a few people who are sympathetic towards the ancient astronaut theory bull-sh*t that the History Channel loves to show to its gullible audience. They consider themselves agnostics but their skepticism seems to take a dramatic pitfall down a cliff because they 'want to believe' in that nonsense.

    Lastly they don't seem to have a problem with "spiritual" things such as ghosts, reincarnation, or anything that is "mysterious". I have many family members who always talk about these kind of things as though they have any factual credibility to them. Of course when I question them and ask why they believe they divert the conversation to why I should be more ‘open minded’. Very Frustrating.

    I’ve come to believe that agnosticism might just be a smokescreen to avoid calling oneself what they are (depending on their beliefs or non-beliefs). This seems to provide a socially strategic position where they can agree a little with everyone as to no alienate themselves with positions that may be regarded as extreme or unpopular. I suppose when it comes down to it the main beef I have with agnostics is they don't seem to understand the difference between 'possibility' vs 'probability'.

  4. Well I'm just going to be as simple as possible because it seems that no one truly knows anything about agnosticism at all.
    I am an agnostic and if I wanted to introduce my philosophical opinion to another person I would simply say it is of course Skepticism which simply means :
    Certain knowledge is impossible ( So in our opinion , believe or disbelieve with CERTAINTY are verdicts of lesser minds )
    we are also skeptic towards matter ( seeing doesn't always mean knowing . well mostly it is not! )
    is there a need to believe in anything? ( when you deal with scientific facts there is no such thing as believe so we are not middle ground between theism or atheism )
    Skepticism do not relate to any specific time or philosophy ( fortunately ) : from ancient philosophers of Greek like "Socrates" to somewhat Gnostic ( because of his frequent humors with Gnostic believes in his poems I'm not sure what to call him ) philosopher "Khayyam" or "Avicenna" of middle age Persia. From Analytic philosophers like "Russell" to scientists like "Erwin Schrödinger" or "Charles Darwin"
    So I am going to ask sincerely from my friends here: Do read PLEASE!!
    And to begin with I suggest "Bertrand Russell" articles on this matters such as "Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?" or "What is an Agnostic?" and you can find them totally free on the internet 🙂
    If you ask me , there are lots of arrogant atheists ( unfortunately ) just as there are lots of arrogant theists because hating or loving something without a rational cause or fact is just stupid. ( Although some of the greatest minds of our time are wise atheists like "Stephen Hawking" or "Christopher Hitchens" or "Richard Dawkins" ) – So I'm going to beg you: please do read 🙂

    Anyway I'm going to finish my comment with some quotes :

    “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
    ― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

    "There is exactly the same degree of possibility and likelihood of the existence of the
    Christian God as there is of the existence of the Homeric God. I cannot prove that either
    the Christian God or the Homeric gods do not exist, but I do not think that their
    existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious
    ― Bertrand Russell, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?

    "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."
    ― Socrates

    If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
    ― Francis Bacon, The Advancement Of Learning

    “In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
    ― Bertrand Russell

    “I believe in intuitions and inspirations…I sometimes FEEL that I am right. I do not KNOW that I am.”
    ― Albert Einstein

    “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
    ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

    “Let go of certainty. The opposite isn't uncertainty. It's openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.”
    ― Tony Schwartz

    "Is there a God?
    I do not know.
    Is man immortal?
    I do not know.
    One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be."
    ― Robert G. Ingersoll, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol 1: Lectures

    “Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong."
    ― H.L. Mencken

    “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.”
    ― Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty

    1. It seems that everyone has their own definition for what an agnostic is, so there is no "you don't know what an agnostic is", it's just that what one person thinks about agnosticism is not the same as what you think about agnosticism. There is no single correct definition. That said, I'll let you know what my definition is, for whatever that may be worth. Everyone is either an atheist/theist *AND* an agnostic/gnostic. You can't be one, you can't be the other, you are both by definition. Atheism/theism answers the question of belief. Belief is an active state, you must be internally convinced in some fashion that a proposition is true. In this case, the proposition is the existence of one or more gods. You must be actively convinced in the existence of one or more gods in the real world in order to be a theist. If you are not, then you are an atheist. Note that atheism is not the *DISBELIEF* in gods, only the lack of belief thereof. "a" as a prefix denotes "without" not "in opposition to". If you do not have an active belief in any gods, then you are, by this definition, an atheist, no matter what terminology you happen to prefer.

      On the other hand, agnostic/gnostic is a position based on knowledge, or more properly the availability thereof. "Gnosis" = knowledge. It is how you view the question of gods, whether you can actually know if gods exist, or at the very least, infer the existence of gods. Virtually all atheists are also agnostics, in fact, pretty much by definition, all rational people are agnostics because proving that something does not exist, except as a logically contradictory statement, is pretty much impossible. I'm agnostic on the question of unicorns. I do not believe unicorns exist but I couldn't possibly prove that somewhere in the universe, on some remote planet, there aren't horses with horns with magical powers running around. However, until I actually have evidence of their existence, until I have "gnosis", I will not believe that they do. In fact, I don't think that any rational person can, pretty much by definition, hold any belief without having some evidence for said belief beforehand. As I said, you have to be internally convinced that a proposition is factually true before you can have a belief in it and people who are rational expect evidence or reason or some other demonstrable factor before they accept something as reasonable or factual, hence agnosticism just does not apply to any rational belief.

      I don't know if that answers your question or not, but there you go.

      1. Well you actually re-state what I previously commented here and I didn't really ask anything by the way.

        "Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?" is a great article on this matter.

        And I also would like to share a critical point I read in a book by "Wittgenstein" called "On Certainty" :
        “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.”
        well it kinda speaks for itself …

        1. You really can't act with any kind of objective certainty unless you have objective evidence to support it and if you're only acting with your own certainty, meaning with subjective certainty, that's not really certainty at all, is it? The best you can do in that situation is express an opinion. Of course, that's the best anyone can ever do, which is why atheism/theism is just about belief, not knowledge.

          1. No it's not certainty at all and that is exactly the point!
            Let me put it this way: You can't perceive what you don't experience and your experience is mostly influenced by your perception.
            There are evidences that our mind [ at least in part ] is composed of innate neural structures which we can not control. (ex. Müller-Lyer illusion) and we may call it dogma , belief or etc ( even scientific revelation for some people ) . And what I perceived so far is that I can never be free of dogmas but I can choose from them and this kind of "temporary" certainties are mostly uncertain.
            Apart from mere obvious philosophical meaning of these words there are situations concerning a human being which we can't really bring into words. you can't just know what the world ( and human ) really is through philosophy and I myself came into this opinion that philosophy only teaches us that we know nothing and that's a great thing to know.
            So I will ask you this ( and I urge you to just forget about some of this meanings given to you for a moment ) :
            What is belief? is it really something unrelated to knowledge?
            what is freedom of thought and do we posses it? ( knowing knowledge will give you freedom of thought to some extent )
            Can you deny that the way you were educated or raised, your "Modularity of mind" and even your perception create beliefs?

            Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
            there is a field. I'll meet you there.

            When the soul lies down in that grass,
            the world is too full to talk about.
            Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.

            Rumi – 13th century

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