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Switch to Forum Live View Atheism/Agnosticism: What's the difference?
6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 10:35AM #1
artboyz
Posts: 293
I can't wrap my brain around the "philosophical" difference between agnosticism and atheism. It all seems symantic. I've read in these forums every gradation of philosophy applied to both terms. I don't wish to belittle anyone's beliefs, but isn't it possible that the term only exists as a negotiation for acceptance from believers? I've provoked a lot of hostility with this perspective, but have never been satisfied that there is any real difference between the two that does not include bargaining.

When we say Christian we know what that means. When we say Hindu we understand that. When we say agnostic we say those are the ones who are uncertain. But isn't a level of uncertainty inherent in any question with no definitive answer.

I've applied the term atheist to myself, but how can anyone know the unknowable? In every area of study science acknowledges that the body of knowledge is incomplete, does that make them agnostic about science? It seems to me that that just inspires them to learn more.

The crevasse between believers and non seems so wide that it forces a position that rationalizes building a rhetorical bridge to facilitate coexistence. And since believers see no need to build that bridge it forces the responsibility to build it on non-believers, because it is the more inherently flexible position.

What do you think?
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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 11:39AM #2
Sailorlal79
Posts: 1,365
This is an easy one. Agnostics are not sure if there's a god. Atheists do not believe any gods exist.
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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 11:46AM #3
hortonthrockmorton
Posts: 3,497
[QUOTE=Sailorlal79;677061]This is an easy one. Agnostics are not sure if there's a god. Atheists do not believe any gods exist.[/QUOTE]

To expand on that a little, I believe the better usage of 'agnosticism' relates to how one approaches knowledge.  An agnostic is one who says that God's existence (and non-existence) is unknowable.

A non-agnostic Christian would claim to 'know' there is a God.

A non-agnostic Atheist would claim to 'know' there is not one.

An agnostic Christian would believe in God, even though he could not know there is a God.

An agnostic Athest would believe there is no God, even though he could not know there is no God.
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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 12:08PM #4
artboyz
Posts: 293
"This is an easy one. Agnostics are not sure if there's a god. Atheists do not believe any gods exist."

"A non-agnostic Atheist would claim to 'know' there is not one."

It is precisely these definitions that have led me to the query. The former is the semantic argument, since the two statements could be read to mean the same thing. And, the ladder seems to be a straw man, because who could claim to have proof of a negative? Can one make that assertion from the standpoint of experience? If not, isn't that position as irrational as believing in a deity.

Not so easy. Can we talk about viability of the premise that agnosticism is in fact a rhetorical compromise geared toward sowing peace in the family? Or am I the only one in the world who sees it that way?
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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 12:14PM #5
mountain_man
Posts: 38,049

artboyz wrote:

I can't wrap my brain around the "philosophical" difference between agnosticism and atheism. It all seems symantic. I've read in these forums every gradation of philosophy applied to both terms. I don't wish to belittle anyone's beliefs, but isn't it possible that the term only exists as a negotiation for acceptance from believers? I've provoked a lot of hostility with this perspective, but have never been satisfied that there is any real difference between the two that does not include bargaining.


I have even a lessor opinion of 'agnosticism.' Most of those that claim the label do not have a belief in a god. What's the term we use for those that lack a belief in gods? Many do not use the label 'Atheist' because of some strawman argument against Atheists. They like the less definite sounding 'agnostic.'

When we say Christian we know what that means. When we say Hindu we understand that. When we say agnostic we say those are the ones who are uncertain. But isn't a level of uncertainty inherent in any question with no definitive answer.


It is also not what the word was intended for. Agnosticism is not a position for a fence sitter, or one that is unsure of the answer. It originally meant that the question of a god existing or not is unanswerable.

I've applied the term atheist to myself, but how can anyone know the unknowable? In every area of study science acknowledges that the body of knowledge is incomplete, does that make them agnostic about science? It seems to me that that just inspires them to learn more.


Exactly. How do they know the question is unanswerable? How do they know gods are unknowable? If they know the answers, or even make the claims, then they know something about which they claim is unknowable. And once you claim the answer is unknowable or unanswerable all further inquiry stops. That's not a good thing.

The crevasse between believers and non seems so wide that it forces a position that rationalizes building a rhetorical bridge to facilitate coexistence. And since believers see no need to build that bridge it forces the responsibility to build it on non-believers, because it is the more inherently flexible position.

What do you think?


Why build a bridge? If they want to fall into the crevasse of ignorance and myth, then let them. If they want help out, we'll extend a hand.

Dave - Just a Man in the Mountains.

I am a Humanist. I believe in a rational philosophy of life, informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by a desire to do good for its own sake and not by an expectation of a reward or fear of punishment in an afterlife.
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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 12:26PM #6
mountain_man
Posts: 38,049

artboyz wrote:

"This is an easy one. Agnostics are not sure if there's a god. Atheists do not believe any gods exist."

"A non-agnostic Atheist would claim to 'know' there is not one."

It is precisely these definitions that have led me to the query.


Those definitions are just made up. I've seen many such 'definitions' and they're all different and all based on strawmen.

The only one that counts is that Atheists lack a belief in gods. No statement like; "there are no gods" needs to be made. All you need to be an Atheist is a lack of belief in gods. If you do not know if there is a god or not then you automatically lack a belief in a god. By default, you would be an Atheist.

The former is the semantic argument, since the two statements could be read to mean the same thing. And, the ladder seems to be a straw man, because who could claim to have proof of a negative? Can one make that assertion from the standpoint of experience? If not, isn't that position as irrational as believing in a deity.


No. Read, study, think, and learn about mythology. Are the characters in Greek mythology real? Would you say it is irrational to say that manticores and gryphons do not exist? Is it irrational to say that Zeus does not exist? Why do the characters in the christian myth get special consideration? Why is it irrational to say that those characters are not real?

Now, about gods in general... where is there any scientific evidence that one should even consider the possibility that such a thing might exist? Until such scientific evidence is presented there is absolutely no reason to believe one exists. Based on the best evidence, or extreme lack of evidence, the only logical, rational, position is that gods do not exist.

Not so easy. Can we talk about viability of the premise that agnosticism is in fact a rhetorical compromise geared toward sowing peace in the family? Or am I the only one in the world who sees it that way?


many do use the term that way. They believe it is less confrontational than 'Atheist'. Also, many are unfamiliar with the history and actual meaning of the word 'agnostic', but I guess it's too late to change it back to the original now.

Dave - Just a Man in the Mountains.

I am a Humanist. I believe in a rational philosophy of life, informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by a desire to do good for its own sake and not by an expectation of a reward or fear of punishment in an afterlife.
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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 12:37PM #7
Agnosticspirit
Posts: 9,253

hortonthrockmorton wrote:

To expand on that a little, I believe the better usage of 'agnosticism' relates to how one approaches knowledge.  An agnostic is one who says that God's existence (and non-existence) is unknowable.

A non-agnostic Christian would claim to 'know' there is a God.

A non-agnostic Atheist would claim to 'know' there is not one.

An agnostic Christian would believe in God, even though he could not know there is a God.

An agnostic Athest would believe there is no God, even though he could not know there is no God.



As an agnostic atheist, this pretty much sums it up for me.

Since I lean towards atheism, at times I use agnosticism and/or atheism  interchangeably but to be honest, that's a pretty lazy approach on my part.  The time taken when describing my position often depends upon who I'm talking to and whether or not they'll appreciate these differences or start rolling their eyes in boredom over the "alleged" hair-splitting.  :)

Agnostic atheist is much more accurate and more than mere semantics.

I've actually known a few agnostic theists as well; those who profess a belief in god(dess) (this is the THEIST part) but will admit they don't have provable, verifiable KNOWLEDGE that h/she exists. (That would be the agnostic portion)

Tribalism, ethnocentricism, racism, nationalism, and FEAR is the Mind Killer... >:(

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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 2:03PM #8
artboyz
Posts: 293
[QUOTE=mountain_man;677199]No. Read, study, think, and learn about mythology. Are the characters in Greek mythology real? Would you say it is irrational to say that manticores and gryphons do not exist? Is it irrational to say that Zeus does not exist? Why do the characters in the christian myth get special consideration? Why is it irrational to say that those characters are not real?[/QUOTE]

Because I don't think it's necessary. Their existence is a red herring. I don't feel obliged to make factual claims about someone else's fantasy. While I agree that there is not the slightest basis for believing in any gods, it is intellectually dishonest to say you know they don't exist. Besides, doing so opens the door for the believer to ask for proof of their non-existence. I say that's besides the point.

The reasons religion came to be still exist. Human conceit demands we know everything. The next step in our philosophical evolution is to allow the gaps in our knowledge to be just that. It is not necessary to describe the world in terms of what it is not.
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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 2:16PM #9
hortonthrockmorton
Posts: 3,497
[QUOTE=artboyz;677151]

"A non-agnostic Atheist would claim to 'know' there is not one."

...seems to be a straw man, because who could claim to have proof of a negative? Can one make that assertion from the standpoint of experience? If not, isn't that position as irrational as believing in a deity.[/QUOTE]

I would submit the example of the strict materialist.  A strict materialist might claim to 'know' that there is no God, because according to the strict materialist, there is no reality outside the material universe.  It would be similar to 'knowing' that there's no such thing as a square circle.  Positing an 'existence' that is not material would be in that point of view a contradiction in terms.
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6 years ago  ::  Aug 08, 2008 - 2:20PM #10
artboyz
Posts: 293
[QUOTE=mountain_man;677168]Why build a bridge? If they want to fall into the crevasse of ignorance and myth, then let them. If they want help out, we'll extend a hand.[/QUOTE]

The majority of the people in the world hold irrational beliefs. They are our friends, family and coworkers. They hold on to these beliefs, in many cases, more tightly than they do to the laws of the physical world. The desire to find a way for non-theists to relate to them is intense. So intense I believe it has forced many of us into an intellectual compromise.

The crevasse of which I speak is between us. It is not that they are in it, but on the other side, and sometimes it seems like all the "good stuff" is on their side.
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