The idea of agnosticism has won
by: John Tyrrell
As I close out my regular contributions to this site, I thought I'd use my final few Meditations to return to some recurrent themes.
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If I regret anything over the past 20+ years I've been doing this, it is getting involved in the agnosticism vs. atheism discussions, of which there are too many. In the end, they have been largely a waste of time with the issues being more definitional than anything else.
But 50 years ago when I determined that I was agnostic, there really wasn't a problem of definitions. As my 1962 Websters differentiates the terms* in a brief summary following the definition of atheist: an atheist rejects all religious belief and denies the existence of God; an agnostic questions the existence of God, heaven, etc. in the absence of material proof and in unwillingness to accept supernatural revelation.
To me in the '60s, that summary along with the definitions below was sufficient for me to see a clear distinction and apply agnostic to myself.
Over the years, the definition of agnosticism has remained consistently the same. On the other hand, that of atheism has expanded and changed.
In 1976, the philosopher, Anthony Flew (while he was still a leading atheist) came up with the terms positive and negative atheism where positive atheism reflected the traditional "God does not exist" position and negative atheism reflected a lack of belief in God, without asserting nonexistence. These terms got largely supplanted by hard and soft atheism, and those in turn were supplanted by strong and weak atheism - terms which were in common use at the time this web site was started. Since then, these have largely disappeared, and in common usage, amongst atheists at least, is that atheism is simply what was once called negative atheism, soft atheism, and weak atheism. Atheism today - in the atheist community - is a lack of belief in God, without asserting nonexistence.
Other than perhaps a choice of emphasis between belief or knowledge, there is today no that much to distinguish between atheism and agnosticism.
While we may have lost on terminology, I'd say from my 50 year perspective, the ideas of agnosticism have won.
* The two relevant definitions are as follows
atheist: a person who believes there is no God.
agnostic: a person who thinks it is impossible to know whether there is a God or a future life, or anything beyond material phenomena
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