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Meditation 810
Defining Agnosticism and Atheism (and about that definition in the "Agnostic Bible")

by: JT

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Massimo Pigliucci wrote in the New York Skeptics blog[1], referring to a talk given by Michael De Dora:

I think Michael is correct in defining atheism as a lack of belief in god, and as such, yep agnostics are also atheists.

I think it is timely to revisit this issue which was discussed by PsiCop in Meditation 796 a couple of months ago.

My own working definitions of agnosticism and atheism come from the dictionary I had in college, Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition, 1962.

agnosticism: n. the doctrine of an agnostic, distinguished from atheism

All right - that's not much help except that it clearly states there is a distinction between atheism and agnosticism. So, to know what the doctrine of an agnostic is, we have to turn to the definition of an agnostic.

agnostic: n. a person who thinks it is impossible to know whether there is a God or a future life, or anything beyond material phenomena.

Now while that is not the definition I use for this web site (simply, a person claims not to know whether there is a god [dropping the "impossibility" and other supernatural elements), it still represents my own personal agnostic views.

On the other hand, the same dictionary has the following definitions:

atheism: n. the belief that there is no God

atheist: n. a person who believes that there is no God

Now I have not cherry-picked definitions here - those are the complete definitions (less pronunciation and etymology) provided by Webster's.

Can someone be both agnostic and atheist? Let's consider another perspective - can someone be both agnostic and a theist?

There are theologians, Christian and Jewish,[2] who would state that the truth of God's existence cannot be known, the question is a matter of belief. This idea is also reflected in the thinking of more liberal Christian denominations. So, for those believers who distinguish between belief and knowledge, a claim could be made that they are indeed agnostic theists.

But that claim is almost never made. While believers recognize that they cannot know, that is not what is highly important to them. What is important is their beliefs. And that's why they simply continue to call themselves theists.

What of the person then who believes there is no God, but also recognizes they cannot know this for certain? I would say that the same logic applies. Which is important - the knowledge? or the belief? I suggest that only if these two issues are in reasonable balance for the individual would he or she be justified in identifying as an agnostic atheist.

I would say, contrary to Massimo Pigliucci's statement, for most agnostics - nope - we are not atheists.

As I noted earlier, for the purpose of this site, I have accepted the broader definition of agnostic (to be more in accordance with common usage) as a person who does not know whether or not there is a god. But there has to be a limit to how much a definition is broadened. Now in the Agnostic Church's Agnostic Bible in the archived sites section of this site, you will find agnostic defined[3] differently:

"By definition, an agnostic is a person who believes that the nature of God is unknown, and probably unknowable."

Note that the writer is talking about the nature of God, not the existence of God. And of his definitions, he says: " Most unattributed quotations herein come from either: Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Copyright 1971 by G. & C. Merriam Co; or the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, Copyright 1993 by Random House, Inc."

Uh - no. While I was not able to track down those specific editions of those dictionaries, I tracked down other editions. Between the local library and my own collection, I checked a dozen dictionaries including the full Oxford Dictionary and not one has that definition. It's pure invention which the author of the Agnostic Bible declared dogma.

So what's wrong with this definition? It moves agnosticism into meaninglessness. It allows the author of the so-called Agnostic Bible to write a chapter titled God Exists, According To Me.

Not only that, the unknowability of the nature of God is core theology to many believers, including the Catholic Church. The unknowability of the nature of God is a core reason some atheists reject God as a concept - they consdier this makes God a term without identifiable meaning. Basically, defining agnostic as per the Agnostic Bible redefines agnostic to the point that everyone can be an agnostic.

Definitions do slide with time. Their meanings change. But if words are to maintain meaning, a line has to be drawn. Agnostic, atheist, theist and all the other words relating to variations in religious belief and knowledge exist to distinguish between those variations.

Footnotes:

  1. The Gotham Skeptic
  2. But, not Islamic theologians. In Islam, God is considered as known to exist
  3. Glossary of Terms, Agnostic Bible