Do you consider yourself an agnostic, freethinker, or atheist? If so, please let me know. And if don’t want to out yourself to your friends and family, then feel free to send me a private message.
Agnosticism is often thought of as scientific because it appears open to new ideas. It implies that there is a possibility that evidence might exist that would prove that deities are real; we just haven’t found that information yet and we may never find it. Well, atheists aren’t that different. They haven’t seen evidence for deities and therefore they do not believe in them. But every true atheist is philosophically scientific, and new evidence will lead to new conclusions. So, if ample (and credible) evidence was uncovered that proved that deities do exist, then all true atheists would become theists. That’s no different than people claiming agnosticism.
There is, of course, that old argument that the difference is over belief and knowledge. Well, if you believe there are no gods, that makes you an atheist. If you believe the answer can’t be discerned, that makes you an agnostic. Though one claim refers to belief, the other claim refers to a belief about knowledge. And if you truly believe that there is even a possibility that deities might exist, then you are not an atheist. One cannot claim “I know X” and “I can’t know X” at the same time without being logically inconsistent.
Having personally gone through theism and agnosticism, I fully understand why people would want to call themselves agnostic atheists. It has a (slightly) better connotation to it than atheism, it sounds more open-minded, and it appears to be more scientific. But the truth is that claiming agnosticism gives credence to the idea of theism, and that is the polar opposite of what a true atheist believes.
We are all born atheist. Once I hit my teenage years I became as devout of a Christian as I could possibly be. I went to church, prayed, and all the usual stuff. When I was in 10th grade I met a guy that had no qualms saying things like, “If there’s a Hell — and I highly doubt it — I’m going there.” I remember saying it once, laughing, and then realizing how liberating it was. I realized that all that religion was just me attempting to find myself as a young boy.
After that point I considered myself agnostic, and I remained this way for several years. Though deep down I didn’t believe in the existence of gods, I had this unshakable feeling that something was there, watching my every move and listening to my every thought. No matter what evidence I heard/saw/read, I didn’t see proof of God’s existence. But I also didn’t see proof of God’s non-existence, so it was easy to claim agnosticism. Though I was essentially atheist, my inability to shake that feeling left me referring to myself using an inadequate term.
And then I discovered Carl Sagan.
A friend gave me a copy of Cosmos and I consumed the whole thing in just a few days. Before I’d even finished the first chapter, my whole life had begun to change. It pried my third eye wide open and allowed me to begin my intellectual awakening. Before the year was over, I’d read over 30 books about science, biology, evolution, skepticism, physics, and astronomy, including almost every book written by Sagan. The whole process of rediscovering the beauty of nature and the purity of science didn’t just change my beliefs, it reshaped the way my mind worked. I can honestly say it made me into a smarter, more critical, more humble, and more compassionate person.
Right in the middle of all this, I read Sagan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Dragons of Eden about the evolution of the human brain. Sagan never once told people they should be atheists. What he did was reveal the world to you in a way that made you realize where the whole deity thing comes from. We have always been a part of hierarchies, and we have always had alpha males. I don’t remember the exact line but I do remember the point he made: being part of a hierarchy and submitting to alpha males is an integral part of our biological heritage. It explained why people all over the world and in every culture believed in higher powers, why we elect supreme leaders (almost always male) even in nations that call themselves democracies, and why we literally worship sports like football and soccer.
When I realized that the feeling for God and other higher powers is a naturally occurring aspect of our biology, my whole world changed. I suddenly found that proof that agnostics were always claiming didn’t exist. I suddenly felt that assurance that I’d never felt when calling myself atheist. And, most importantly, I no longer resented religious people for believing in higher powers. Though I don’t wear my atheism on my sleeve (because of the stigma attached to it), I finally have complete confidence in my beliefs. No uncertainties, no doubts, and (most importantly) a sensible explanation for the existence of all spirituality.
I’m not an atheist because I have yet to see evidence that God exists; I’m an atheist because I understand the biological explanation for it.
This is an old paper I wrote for a religion class, and I’m only leaving it here for posterity. I may replace it with a more concise version (because this one is too academic) once I feel the motivation. This version does not fully represent what I believe now.
Agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible to determine whether or not deities exist. Many people, including those who call themselves agnostic, believe that it is somewhere between atheism and theism. At first glance this may seem like an acceptable assessment, but that is incorrect. The purpose of this paper is to show how putting agnostics in the middle of the theistic belief spectrum is a problem, and furthermore, to propose a solution. This paper will not address the validity of agnosticism (or a/theism for that matter). It does not matter what the answer is for the purpose of this paper. There are a trillion pages on the subject that need not be addressed here. I will merely attempt to show that the word is being improperly used.
Agnosticism, which has developed out of the schism between the belief and the disbelief in deities, is fundamentally flawed. According to the definition of the word, it is impossible to know whether or not deities exist. According to logic, which is undeniable, either deities exist or they do not exist. Agnosticism, on the other hand, implies that there is a third answer to this binary question. If it is impossible to know the answer, then there is no point in claiming agnosticism. It is a non answer to a non point. But, the truth is that it can be determined. There is an answer to the question. Many people say they are agnostic when they are actually undecided. The way they use the term, it implies they have not made up their mind. But they have made up their mind. They claim that there is no way to find out the answer. Even considering that we are limited beings with finite capacities to understand the infinite universe, this argument is based on the objective truths of basic logic.
The solution to this problem is fairly simple, but implementing it is probably the most difficult part. First of all, people need to be made aware that the term is flawed and that the vast majority of people who say the word are using it improperly. Secondly, we (as a culture) need to develop another word that properly represents what people mean when they say agnostic. If someone is undecided, if they have serious doubts about the existence of deities, or if they cannot convince themselves that deities do not exist, there should be a term for each of these situations. Agnosticism is none of these. As far as wordsmithing goes, I will only suggest that new words be chosen. I do not presume to be important enough to create the words for everyone else to use.
Some might argue that this is merely a discussion over semantics and discussing it is pointless, but this is less about the meaning of the word and more about how it is used. If we are going to discuss our religious or spiritual beliefs, then it is important that we all use proper terminology. When discussing something of such importance, the less confusion the better. There are also some people who might say that changing the definition of a word is practically impossible. That may be true, but once people start to understand the true meaning of a word, the definition does not need to change. They will simply start using another word, or start using the original term properly. Then there are those who might claim that this whole discussion is irrelevant, that the term agnostic is fine the way it is and is always used correctly. If after reading this paper they still feel that way, then I have not succeeded in making my case.
Ironically, the intention of this paper was not to change anything except the way people think about the term agnostic. Discussions, debates, and conversations about spirituality happen all the time, and it is important to have people on the same page, even if they are reading from different books.
© 1999-2023 Eric P. Metze