Definitions: Atheism and Agnosticsm.

Discussion in 'Religion Archives' started by Cris, Aug 3, 2003.

  1. Cris In search of Immortality Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    9,199
    Atheism and agnosticism defined.

    The arguments over what ‘atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ mean have been raging here since sciforums began. Newcomers often have erroneous pre-conceived ideas and have to be re-educated within each debate and many dictionaries especially older ones are simply not in touch with current usage.

    The definitions here I believe are fairly simple to understand and represent the majority view (of those who have seriously considered the issue). However, there are variations on the definition of agnosticism which involve the concepts of theist agnosticism and atheist agnosticism, but I find that these subtle variations are not widely held and attempts to use them here have simply been met with confusion. But if anyone disagrees or has further comment then please post your concerns and definitions in this thread and I’ll evaluate then and give consideration for including them in this opening post.

    The other primary contentious issue is the subject and definition of ‘faith’ but I think that deserves its own sticky thread.

    The source for the following definitions is –

    http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/intro.html


    "What is atheism?"

    Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This absence of belief generally comes about either through deliberate choice, or from an inherent inability to believe religious teachings which seem literally incredible. It is not a lack of belief born out of simple ignorance of religious teachings.

    Some atheists go beyond a mere absence of belief in gods: they actively believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Just lacking belief in Gods is often referred to as the "weak atheist" position; whereas believing that gods do not (or cannot) exist is known as "strong atheism".

    Regarding people who have never been exposed to the concept of 'god': Whether they are 'atheists' or not is a matter of debate. Since you're unlikely to meet anyone who has never encountered religion, it's not a very important debate...

    It is important, however, to note the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. "Weak atheism" is simple scepticism; disbelief in the existence of God. "Strong atheism" is an explicitly held belief that God does not exist. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming that all atheists are "strong atheists". There is a qualitative difference in the "strong" and "weak" positions; it's not just a matter of degree.

    Some atheists believe in the non-existence of all Gods; others limit their atheism to specific Gods, such as the Christian God, rather than making flat-out denials.

    "But isn't disbelieving in God the same thing as believing he doesn't exist?"

    Definitely not. Disbelief in a proposition means that one does not believe it to be true. Not believing that something is true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea whether it is true or not. Which brings us to agnosticism.

    "What is agnosticism then?"

    The term 'agnosticism' was coined by Professor T.H. Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He defined an agnostic as someone who disclaimed both ("strong") atheism and theism, and who believed that the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether God exists. Some agnostics believe that we can never know.

    In recent years, however, the term agnostic has also been used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against God is inconclusive, and therefore are undecided about the issue.

    To reduce the amount of confusion over the use of term agnosticism, it is recommended that usage based on a belief that we cannot know whether God exists be qualified as "strict agnosticism" and usage based on the belief that we merely do not know yet be qualified as "empirical agnosticism".

    Words are slippery things, and language is inexact. Beware of assuming that you can work out someone's philosophical point of view simply from the fact that she calls herself an atheist or an agnostic. For example, many people use agnosticism to mean what is referred to here as "weak atheism", and use the word "atheism" only when referring to "strong atheism".

    Beware also that because the word "atheist" has so many shades of meaning, it is very difficult to generalize about atheists. About all you can say for sure is that atheists don't believe in God. For example, it certainly isn't the case that all atheists believe that science is the best way to find out about the universe.

    Have fun
    Cris

    Edit 9/5/3

    Reference to Christian Apologetics and Research.
    A fair site for Christians about atheists.

    http://www.carm.org/atheism/atheism.htm
     
    Last edited: Sep 6, 2003
  2. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  3. wesmorris Nerd Overlord - we(s):1 of N Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    9,844
    Well put Cris, thanks a lot. I'm glad to see this addressed. I hope it will save everyone some time in the threads.
     
  4. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  5. ConsequentAtheist Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    1,579
    At the same time, Drange poses the question in a somewhat different manner ...
    I suspect that much of the argument about terminology conceals a more fundamental disagreement about burden of proof. The theist sees an admittedly uneven playing field. It is, after all, relatively easy to cast stones at Christian doctrine so long as the atheist has no fear of being forced to defend his or her 'doctine' in return. To make matters worse, too many of these atheists are recognized by theists as little more than frenetic bible-bashers no less dogmatic and superficial than the most ignorant of fundametalist. Given all this, the frustrated theist views debating "atheism as the absence of belief" a bit like wrestling a foul smelling ooze. This will continue to be the case so long as one or both contenders are discussing/debating ontology rather than epistemology.
     
  6. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  7. MarcAC Curious Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    1,042
    Quite interesting. Why not just say I'm unsure to avoid the confusion? Crap you guys are so technical when it can be avoided.
     
  8. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Messages:
    33,118
    The brief summary, as I understand it:

    <b>strong atheist</b>:
    "I believe there is no God." (i.e. positive belief in the non-existence of God).
    <b>weak atheist</b>:
    "I do not believe there is a God." (i.e. lack of a positive belief in non-existence, but not necessarily a negative belief).
    <b>strict agnostic</b>:
    "It is impossible to know whether God exists or not." (i.e. belief that the nature of God is undecidable.)
    <b>empirical agnostic</b>:
    "God might exist, but the evidence so far is inconclusive." (i.e. truly undecided, on the basis of the evidence.)
    <b>theist</b>:
    "I believe there is a God." (i.e. positive belief in at least one God.)
     
  9. Cris In search of Immortality Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    9,199
    MarcAC,

    Because a disbelief is not an expression of uncertainty.

    E.g. I am quite sure that I do not believe theist claims.
     
  10. okinrus Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    2,669
    Pretty soon atheism is going to have more sects than christianity.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

     
  11. ConsequentAtheist Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    1,579
    But far, far fewer myths.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

     
  12. LucidDreamer Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    81
    The rhetorical difference between disbelief and belief in a negative is not relevant to the definition of Atheism.

    Theism/Atheism deal with belief. The Theist believes that a deity exists. The Atheist EITHER does not believe in the existence of a deity OR believes that deities do not exist.

    Gnosticism/Agnosticism is a separate school of thought from Theism/Atheism.

    Gnosticism/Agnosticism deal with knowledge. A Gnostic is one who claims to know that a deity exists. An Agnostic claims to have no knowledge about the existence of a deity.

    Confused yet?

    A Gnostic Theist is one who believes in a deity and claims to know that the deity exists. Typically devoutly religious people fall into this category. They claim their knowledge comes from fulfilled prayer, prophecy or miracles.

    An Agnostic Theist is one who has a belief in the existence of a deity but does not claim to know this for sure. They are often skeptical about religious documents, such as the Bible, but refuse to accept the idea of an uncaused first cause, i.e. the Big Bang, without divine intervention.

    A Gnostic Atheist is one who does not believe in a deity (or believes that no deity exists) and claims to know that no deity exists. This is sometimes referred to as Strong Atheism. Their knowledge derives from scientific evidence that refutes religious claims.

    An Agnostic Atheist is one who does not believe in a deity (or believes that no deity exists) but does not claim to have knowledge regarding the existence of a deity. This is sometimes referred to as Weak Atheism. The Agnostic Atheist is content to leave the burden of proof (knowledge) on those who make the claims regarding the existence of a deity.

    Reposted from this thread at the request of Wesmorris.
     
  13. Jade Squirrel Impassioned Atheist Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    394
    Excellent explanation, LucidDreamer. I just want to clarify two things.

    A gnostic atheist is a strong atheist, but not necessarily vice versa. See below.

    An agnostic atheist can be either a strong atheist or a weak atheist. An agnostic atheist who simply lacks belief that God or gods exist is a weak atheist. An agnostic atheist who holds an explicit belief that God or gods do not exist is a strong atheist. One need not claim knowledge that God or gods do not exist in order to have an explicit belief that they do not.
     
  14. LucidDreamer Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    81
    I agree. However the claim of knowledge is what distinguishes a strong Atheist from a weak one. Knowledge implies certitude.

    I really think that people are getting too hung up on the distinction between disbelief and belief in a negative. While I agree that there is a difference rhetorically, it plays no role in the definitions of strong or weak Atheism or Atheism in general. Atheism can be either disbelief in a deity or belief that no deity exists.

    It is important to note that Agnosticism is not a third option to Theism or Atheism, but rather a subset of the two.
     
  15. wesmorris Nerd Overlord - we(s):1 of N Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    9,844
    Damnit are you sure? Shit i think I might have it backwards. Straighten me out please. I was thinking that Theism and Atheism are two non-intersecting circles within in the intersection of agnosticism and (what do you call someone believes in knowledge from authority?) (trying to describe it like a Venn Diagram).
     
  16. okinrus Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    2,669
    Most people live in a state of apathy except for a few rare moments.
     
  17. wesmorris Nerd Overlord - we(s):1 of N Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    9,844
    hehe.. okay, jcarl.. if you're watching. THIS IS A NON-SEQUITER. Use the example to understand the pattern then use that to improve your arguments.
     
  18. atheroy Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    383
    seeing this is a thread for clearing up misconceptions- atheism is in no way a religion. it never has been. if it was, it would indeed have many more sects than christianity as you would be hard pressed to find a group of atheists who agreed on a substantial set of beliefs.
     
  19. Jade Squirrel Impassioned Atheist Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    394
    That is not true. The claim of knowledge is what distinguishes a gnostic from an agnostic. Atheism has nothing to do with the field of epistemology (gnostic vs. agnostic), but deals only in the realm of belief.

    Yes, this is why gnostic atheists would all be strong atheists as well. Certitude does not, however, imply knowledge, which is why strong atheists are not necessarily gnostic atheists.

    Disbelief and belief in a negative not only have a role in the strong and weak atheist positions, but they are the very qualities that distinguish these two philosophical stances. Yes, atheism in general can encompass either of these two standpoints. However, it is important to keep these distinctions in mind because many people have misconceptions about atheism (the very reason that Cris appropriately posted this subject as a sticky). A notable example is the erroneous belief that all atheists are strong atheists, i.e. they hold an explicit belief that God or gods do not exist, when they may simply be skeptics.

    Correct. Agnosticism is not a third option to theism or atheism. However, it is not a subset of those two views either; it is a completely different philosophical field (epistemology).
     
  20. okinrus Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    2,669
    Atheism can be considered a religion. "2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices" (Webster) So you have your beliefs in varying degree of the nonexistance of God and your beliefs constitute your own personal religion.

    That was supposed to be a joke.
     
  21. Cris In search of Immortality Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    9,199
    Okinrus,

    Nice try, but no that doesn’t work. For your statement to be true atheists must maintain a “religious attitude, belief and practice”.

    From Webster - Religious: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.

    Therefore for atheists to be considered religious they must acknowledge an ultimate reality or deity. Since atheism is specifically disbelief in such things then the two conditions are mutually exclusive, i.e. an atheist cannot both believe and disbelieve in a deity.

    Atheists cannot be religious.
     
  22. LucidDreamer Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    81
    I agree entirely. I don’t think I said anything that contradicts that.

    All right, let me clarify what I meant. Perhaps the use of the word subset was confusing. Theism/Atheism and Gnosticism/Agnosticism are two separate schools of thought. However, one cannot be either Gnostic/Agnostic without also being either Theist/Atheist. The two schools of thought are in that sense connected.

    Let us examine three statements:

    Statement # 1: “I know that God exists.”

    Statement # 2: “I know that God does not exist.”

    Statement # 3: “I do not know that God exists.”

    The first statement is pretty straightforward. The person is clearly a Gnostic since he is stating that he has knowledge about God. We can conclude that he is also a Theist because with his knowledge comes belief. If I know that something exists I must also believe that it exists.

    The second statement is also straightforward. The person is also a Gnostic for the same reason: claimed knowledge regarding the existence of God. We can conclude that the person is also an Atheist. If I know that something does not exist then I must also believe that it does not exist.

    The third statement is not so clear-cut. All we can conclude is that the person is an Agnostic because he is not claiming any knowledge regarding the existence of God. The statement says nothing about his belief in God. Never the less he must be either a Theist or an Atheist since he either has belief or he has no belief.
     
  23. LucidDreamer Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    81
    I think that I should clarify my above post further. Knowledge is not a prerequisite for belief; however one who claims belief must also take a position on whether or not he possesses knowledge.

    To use a non-religious example, the scientists who operate the SETI program believe that intelligent alien life exists else where in our galaxy. However being good scientists they would never claim knowledge regarding the existence of aliens without first having proof in the form of the radio signals that they are searching for. Their lack of knowledge does not affect their belief. They believe but claim to have no knowledge regarding the existence of aliens.
     

Share This Page