Said Simon

My thoughts as a Secular Humanist and student of politics

What really is the difference between being an ‘agnostic’ and being an ‘atheist’?

Most people I speak to about this seem to think that they actually refer to positions on two different spectra. The first spectrum is between ‘gnosticism’ and ‘agnosticism’, or ‘knowing vs not-knowing’. The second spectrum is between ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’. Thus we can end up with something like the following 2×2 matrix:

(A)theism/(A)gnosticism Theism Atheism
Gnosticism Gnostic Theist Gnostic Atheist
Agnosticism Agnostic Theist Agnostic Atheist

We could define the four possible options as follows:

  1. Gnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god and that it is possible to know this.
  2. Gnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods and that it is possible to know this.
  3. Agnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god and that it is impossible to know this.
  4. Agnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods and that it is impossible to know this.

The idea behind dividing the positions like this is to allow for differences in opinions as to whether divine entities exist, but also differences in opinions as to whether or not it is possible to know whether divine entities exist.

The main problem with this typology is that it contains a contradiction, a tautology, and a false premise.  The contradiction is to assert a belief while simultaneously asserting that there is no reason to accept this belief as true. I should clarify that this is more of a pragmatic contradiction, in that while it may be formally possible to assert ‘I believe that P’ while also asserting ‘I believe there there is no reason to believe that P’, almost nobody would do this. Rather, the vast majority of people are likely to claim that they have a justification for every belief — that there is a reason to think that their beliefs are true.

Thus 1 and 2 are trivial, while 3 and 4 are contradictions, because basically everyone who makes a claim about the world believes that this claim can be justified and if someone didn’t, they’d appear pretty irrational.

Of course, the reason why this typology looks so broken because a core premise itself is false.

The false premise is that ‘(a)gnosticism’, as the possibility of knowing/not-knowing, can condition atheism in the way outlined above. Rather, let us for a moment instead say that (a)gnosticism refers to the degree of certainty that one has in their belief. Almost everyone is capable of meta-cognition, of looking at some belief P and coming up with an answer to the question, ‘how confident am I that P is true?’ This necessarily admits that it is possible for P to be true, but also that there are conditions, more or less likely, under which P would also be false.

This gives us a different range of possibilities:

  1. Gnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god, with high confidence.
  2. Gnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods, with high confidence.
  3. Agnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god, with low confidence.
  4. Agnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods, with low confidence.

However, this excludes one important position: the position that no justification exists for any belief about the divine. Hence:

  1. Theism (T): (it is warranted to claim that) at least one god exists
  2. Atheism (A): (it is warranted to claim that) no god exists
  3. Agnosticism (X): (it is warranted to claim that) no belief about the existence of gods can be justified*

As we can see, 3 is not simply a matter of knowing or not knowing that T/A, but is a substantively different proposition. One in which we can have more or less confidence. That is, we could believe that ‘agnosticism is true’ but with low confidence. So if we’re going to propose a typology, I propose this one:

  1. Theist, high confidence (by definition, ‘gnostic’ aka not-agnostic)
  2. Atheist, high confidence (by definition, ‘gnostic’ aka not agnostic)
  3. Theist, low confidence
    1. tends towards agnosticism
    2. tends towards atheism
  4. Atheist, low confidence
    1. tends towards agnosticism
    2. tends towards theism
  5. Agnostic, high confidence
  6. Agnostic, low confidence
    1. tends towards theism
    2. tends towards atheism

Besides all of this, though, there is another method. One that is a bit less complicated. That is, while I have just outlined what I think is the most logical way to break down the question, this is not necessarily a description of what actually is the case. Thus I advance two empirical hypotheses:

H1: There is often a significant practical difference between how people who would identify as theists or as atheists live their life, in terms of regular attendance at a place of worship, rituals such as prayer, or justifying fatalism or lack thereof in terms of God’s will.

H2: There is often very little practical difference between how people who would identify as agnostics or as atheists live their life, in that both will not attend places of worship, church, not engage in prayer, or refer to divine will in any way.

I believe these hypotheses are largely true, and I believe, therefore, that the main difference between atheists and agnostics is, practically, how much they care about beliefs about the divine and whether or not they, within the context of their community, really want to be associated with other people who call themselves atheists – something seems to matter a lot, actually, in places where declaring oneself to be an atheist can lead to marginalisation or punishment.

 

*Note that while A is not the same as Not-T, A nevertheless proposes something that is contradictory to what T proposes, and thus A XOR T rather than A OR T.

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3 responses to “What really is the difference between being an ‘agnostic’ and being an ‘atheist’?

  1. Lucas March 31, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Interesting! One question. When you say, “There is often very little practical difference between how people who would identify as agnostics or as atheists live their life”, does that account for people that would call themselves agnostic but are somewhere between 1. pretty open to conversations about faith and 2. very interested, maybe searching out, spiritual ideas or experiences? I think these would maybe be the “6. Agnostic, low confidence, 1. tends towards theism” people. From what I can tell, this is a pretty popular category of people, whole churches and movements of churches gear themselves towards them (the churches call themselves or get called, I’m sure you’ve heard, “Seeker” churches). Also, when you align agnostics with atheists, it seems to be mainly in terms of their mutual lack of practice of religious activities. But my hunch is that 6.1-ers actually occasionally practice religious activities, though still define themselves as agnostics. Do you think they are really doubting theists in agnostic’s clothing and thus not the “agnostics” that get aligned with atheists? I’ve sometimes employed the adjective “soft” to describe these 6.1 agnostics, but I’m wondering what you think.

    • Said Simon March 31, 2014 at 2:45 pm

      This is a good point! Yeah, I think when I associate agnostics with atheists, I am talking more about the 6.2-ers. Those described by 6.1 may indeed involve themselves in theistic religious communities – note that I generally conceive of humanism as a religion as well, though not according to the ordinary language way most people use ‘religion’. What I’m particularly interested in criticising is first the tendency of some atheists to call themselves ‘agnostic atheists’, which I take to be a contradiction in terms, and second the tendency of some atheists to call themselves ‘agnostic’ because they simply want to avoid certain pejorative connotations or social implications associated with accepting the label of ‘atheist’.

  2. Lucas March 31, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for clarifying!

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