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Ask the Patriarch 226
The difference between atheists and agnostics.

from: Kyle Rutland

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An old friend took great exception with my (former) habit of referring to myself as an Atheist. He rightly pointed out that this required faith, just as being a "believer" did. I used "Atheist" primarily because more people understood that term than Agnostic. So, my question to him, and now you, is:

What does an Agnostic "do" that differs from an Atheist? Both live their lives without regard for any god, so is the difference merely semantic, or am I missing something?

I would appreciate your opinion.


The Patriarch replies:


The issue of atheism vs agnosticism was once one of my hot-button topics. But it's something I try not to let bother me anymore.

I think the last time I wrote in this issue was a little over a year ago in Meditation 810, and in the first discussion to that meditation - my exchange with atheist Massimo Pigliucci. I think I laid it out pretty clearly there that I consider there is a meaningful distinction to be made between agnosticism and atheism, and that distinction merits retention. Massimo disagrees.

You'll find a simiar position to mine expressed by PsiCop in Meditation 796.

In practice, most atheists today embrace the definition of atheism used by Massimo Pigliucci. That is perhaps why on so many atheist websites, you'll find extensive extracts from the writings of Huxley, Ingersoll, and Russell - all of whom chose to identify themselves as agnostics rather than atheists.

Obviously, given the changing definition of atheism, there is room for overlap and a person using todays terminology can consider herself to be both an atheist and an agnostic. I suggest agnostic is the term to use to describe yourself if your emphasis is on what we can and can't know about a deity; atheist is the term to use if your emphasis is on belief.

And as to whether we "do" anything differently - there is probably little difference in what most of us do in our day-to-day lives, regardless of label