Why do so may atheists look down on agnostics?

Basically why do atheists often feel the need to “convert” an agnostic to full blown atheism? It seems that most sites which mention both agnosticism and atheism, the atheists mock the agnostics for not taking the next step. Of course I could just be taking the opinions of a few as the whole. In my opinion, decent arguments could be made both for and against a deity. I should probably list them out here but that would take too much time and others have done better that I could possibly do. In the end, I think the opinion I’d most likely take is one of unknowing.

I’ll quote Huxley now, his words are far better than mine.

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,“–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.

I know nothing concerning a deity with certainty. I’m fairly convinced that there is no correct religion and we can’t know anything about the existence or non existence of a deity. Why is that wrong or a cowardly position to take (as people such as Dawkins would say)? Personally I think it’s the most reasonable one.

Posted: March 1st 2012

Tauriq Moosa www

I’ll add to Blaise’s excellent reply by noting two things.

1. We can’t know for certain that the tooth-fairy, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny aren’t real since we can’t prove a negative. Yet we don’t say “I don’t know” as an appropriate response. Pragmatically speaking we can clearly and confidently claim disbelief, since no evidence exists for them – just as no evidence exists for the theistic god.

Also, don’t be fooled by the slipperiness of the target. Once you know which god you are focused on in your belief or disbelief, you can seek arguments and evidence for his existence. If we’re talking about a god who loves, designed and cares, there’s clearly no evidence. And we can go as far as to say, there’s little reason to accept his existence. There’s more reason, however slight, to accept a deistic or pantheistic entity (though there’s also little reason to believe this true). But you must be specific about your target.

2. You can go the whole hog and make a logical argument for the non-existence of god. For example, it is simply impossible for there to be an entity that loves, cares and is able to do anything, yet allow so much evil in the world. Thus, by definition, this kind of entity cannot exist. So, you can completely and with certainty deny his existence.

We don’t say that we’re agnostic about 1+1=3: we’re absolutely certain it doesn’t. Similarly, if you can show with the same logical certainty that such a god can’t possibly exist, you will by definition be unable to have a middle ground since a middle ground doesn’t exist. I’m not sure what for you would count as a logical proof for the non-existence of god, but they do exist (the problem of evil, if set out correctly, would be one I find convincing).

Posted: April 5th 2012

See all questions answered by Tauriq Moosa

Blaise www

You aren’t wrong. There are a lot of examples of this kind of ignorance!

However, the ignorance being displayed isn’t what you think. The problem isn’t that so many atheists (and, to be fair, so many theists too) look down on agnostics for not committing to a path, it’s that they don’t understand that atheism/theism and gnosticism/agnosticism are unrelated terms that do not affect one another. To be fair, those who call themselves agnostics are often making the same mistake!

Gnosticism refers to the belief that you can know the absolute truth of a belief by looking inside yourself and feeling if it is true, regardless of the lack of any evidence. By contrast, agnosticism is the lack of that belief, aka the position that it is difficult or impossible to know the absolute truth of anything, especially in the absence of any evidence.

Atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods. It makes no statement as to the evidence for, or even the truth of, the god hypothesis, except by implication (i.e. if you knew of evidence you would probably believe). To clarify, it is possible to lack a belief in something that is very real. The lack itself has no bearing on validity.

Therefore, it is possible to be a gnostic theist, an agnostic theist, an agnostic atheist, or a gnostic atheist. This is the problem. Almost all people who call themselves “atheists” are agnostic atheists, and many, if not most people who call themselves “agnostics” are agnostic atheists. The whole argument is usually people who don’t understand the terms well just talking past one another.

Look at it like this: You say “I know nothing concerning a deity with certainty. I’m fairly convinced that there is no correct religion and we can’t know anything about the existence or non existence of a deity.” Unless I am misunderstanding you, this means that while you don’t feel that you can rule out the possibility of a god or gods, you personally do not believe in any of the ones you’ve been told about. By definition, this means you are an atheist.

By contrast, the next time someone accuses you of a cowardly position in this regard, ask them to show you their proof of the non-existence of a god or gods. When they respond with “It’s impossible to prove a negative!”, or something like that, tell them “OK so you’re an agnostic too!

What you are arguing over are poorly understood labels, not a real difference in opinion. Tell them that.

Posted: March 2nd 2012

See all questions answered by Blaise

donsevers www

Our ignorance is not complete. For some conceptions of God, we can rule them out for logical reasons or failing to fit the facts. For example, a loving, powerful god is ruled out by the fact of horrendous suffering of innocents.

For possible, but implausible, conceptions of God, we can say we’re agnostic, but we are agnostic about them in the way we are agnostic about flying pigs. For example, Thor and Zeus are not logically impossible, but absent social conditioning, none of us feel the need to admit they might be real.

It is only in religion that people hedge their bets so carefully. This is simply a dodge. Most people are willing to say they don’t believe in orbiting teapots. There is no reason we should refrain from saying we don’t believe in other things for which there is no good evidence.

Agnosticism is reasonable in many things, and technically is the most defensible position. But there are gradations of it and there is no reason to treat god claims differently than other baseless claims.

Posted: March 2nd 2012

See all questions answered by donsevers

brian thomson www

If all self-labeled “agnostics” properly understood the origins of the word, and what it means (and not), then you probably wouldn’t have this question. The main problem I have with many “agnostics” is that they think it’s a kind of “halfway step” to atheism, when it’s actually (as you described) an answer to a particular question about what is knowable or not.

So the proper definition of “agnostic” is someone who doesn’t think that the question – of the existence of gods – can be answered. Which is a different question to “what do you believe?” – and therefore, by calling yourself “agnostic”, you haven’t answered the 2nd question at all.

Logically, however, if you don’t think a question can be answered, then you should not believe any of the possible answers to the question. Atheists do not believe any of them. (Remember – most atheists do not believe (with any certitude) that gods do not exist: but neither do we believe the claims that they do exist!) But theists claim they do know at least part of the answer – what is faith, after all without a claim of certainty about a god’s existence?

So: atheism and agnosticism are entirely compatible, and I think I can reasonably say that most “atheists” are “agnostic atheists”. The point that I think Dawkins was trying to make was based on the logic above: if you really are an agnostic by Huxley’s original definition, then you can not logically be a theist – and so you may as well “bite the bullet” and call yourself an atheist. Any less is just pussy-footing around the question!

Posted: March 2nd 2012

See all questions answered by brian thomson

jonecc www

To me, being an atheist doesn’t exactly mean that I am claiming that there is definitely no god.

More precisely, it means that I think metaphysical speculation is futile. This is because there are an infinite number of propositions that might or might not be true, but are untestable. Any single one of these would do to illustrate the principle, and beyond that illustration nothing of value can be achieved. As Wittgenstein said (in, it must be conceded, a rather different context), “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

Unfortunately, non-silence is forced upon us by the immense volume of non-silence emanating from the other side. This is a shame, because on the specific subject of the existence or non-existence of a sentient creator the only thing to be usefully said is a constant reiteration of the principle that there is nothing useful to be said.

Ground can be covered. Where the metaphysicals make demonstrably false claims (intelligent design, chi energy, the Great Jerusalem Zombie Uprising), they can be refuted. Claims involving a mixture of fact, falsity and the untestable can be picked apart. Attempts to skirt round the evidential hurdle can be scrutinised, and the intellectual sleight of hand involved can be highlighted.

We can discuss the politics of religion, the sociology of religion, even the biology of religion, as these subjects are “real”. We can argue for political positions and debate the fine points of secularism if we like.

But on the core argument, we are reduced to repeatedly pointing out the futility of it to people who we already know are adept at refusing to notice. If we are occasionally a little testy, the tediousness of this task may account for it.

Posted: March 2nd 2012

See all questions answered by jonecc


Is your atheism a problem in your religious family or school?
Talk about it at the atheist nexus forum