Isn't "agnostic atheist" an oxymoron?

There is no proof there is no god, and no proof there is a god; and, in fact, there’s no proof that there is no proof (silly as that sounds). The only strictly logical conclusion is strict agnosticism. So how can one consider himself a “weak atheist” or “agnostic atheist” when agnosticism implies neither belief nor disbelief (as atheism is a belief in “no god”)?

Posted: June 22nd 2007

George Locke

It’s just a question of word usage, nothing more. American Heritage seems to agree with you, explicitly differentiating agnostics from atheists.

If we look at the construction of these words, a-theist, and a-gnostic, one naively understands the first to mean lacking theism, belief in god while the other seems to mean lacking gnosis, knowledge/experience of the supernatural. With this understanding, the two worldviews are compatible.

Wikipedia has an interesting classification of different kinds of agnostics. Some interesting remarks precede the classifcation:

The fallibility of human beings means that they cannot obtain absolute certainty except in trivial cases where a statement is true by definition (as in, “all bachelors are unmarried” or “all triangles have three angles”). All rational statements that assert a factual claim about the universe that begin “I believe that ….” are simply shorthand for, “Based on my knowledge, understanding, and interpretation of the prevailing evidence, I tentatively believe that….”

With this in mind, one can be an atheist while acknowledging the limits of his knowledge. 'Strong agnosticism’, in which the claim of god is deemed totally unanswerable, might seem incompatible with atheism. However, strong agnosticism is in fact a rather extreme form of skepticism which seems incompatible with certainty on such questions as whether the sun will rise or if humans have two hands etc.

If we take the quote above as granted, strong agnosticism seems unnecessarily strong. It seems quite clear that if God were to appear and turn coke to pepsi before our eyes then the question would be answered. In this sense, the question isn’t 'unanswerable’: there’s just a lack of positive evidence for God.

It seems reasonable to conclude from the failure of ongoing searches for such evidence that the appearance of such evidence in the future is unlikely. Nobody’s ever seen a unicorn, and although there’s no evidence that a unicorn doesn’t exist, no one insists that we much allow for the possibility. I’m pretty much an 'atheist’ when it comes to unicorns: I believe they don’t exist. However, since I have no positive knowledge that unicorns are impossible, I acknowledge the (tiny) possibility that I might be wrong. So I’m also agnostic about unicorns.

God seems as real to me as unicorns, leprechauns and the tooth fairy, so I’m an atheist.

Posted: December 8th 2007

See all questions answered by George Locke

SmartLX www

It’s actually a possible tautology. Most atheists are agnostics.

The only atheists who are not agnostics are those who are absolutely certain that there is no god. Since this is impossible to prove, not many atheists are this certain.

What makes an agnostic an atheist is that he/she takes the position that because there is no reason to believe in any particular god, there is no reason to believe in any god existing at all. A god is a tremendously exotic and unlikely thing, and without evidence it’s just not plausible to me.

What keeps an atheist an agnostic is the acceptance that nobody knows jack. At any time some evidence could come along that conclusively proves the existence of a god. I think it’s telling that this evidence has not yet emerged, or even been convincingly faked.

Posted: November 30th 2007

See all questions answered by SmartLX


No, it is not an oxymoron. I am an atheist when it comes to any god/gods ever defined by humanity. The evidence for the existence of any of them is simply not there.

However, I cannot completely discount the possibility that there may be something out there somewhere. The universe is a big place, after all. I just don’t know.

Therefore both terms apply, but I usually call myself an atheist when the subject comes up.

Posted: June 23rd 2007

See all questions answered by Seshat

bitbutter www

The words 'agnostic’ and 'atheist’ deal with different vectors in a persons worldview and as such, are not mutually incompatible. Agnosticism simply means that you lack knowledge about a claim, (in some forms it also means that you think that the knowledge in question is unobtainable by anyone) but it says nothing about whether belief or lack of it will follow.

In fact people describing themselves as agnostics are almost always atheists too since they lack positive believe in gods, though a significant proportion seem unwilling to describe themselves this way.

My suspicion is that this has to do with a failure to understand the full breadth of the term 'atheist’. I think that in the mind of the person preferring to call themself an agnostic, the meaning of the word has been limited to what’s called strong atheism—while 'strong atheists’ actually seem far less common than those of the weak variety.

Posted: June 22nd 2007

See all questions answered by bitbutter

Akusai www

You’re misusing and conflating the definitions of “atheism” and “agnosticism.” Agnosticism says nothing whatsoever about belief.

Atheism is a statement about belief, or, more accurately, lack thereof. An atheist lacks belief in a god or gods. Theism is a belief in a god or gods, atheism is the denial of that claim.

Agnosticism (from the Greek “gnosis,” for “knowledge”) is a statement about epistemology rather than belief. An agnostic does not claim to know whether or not a god or gods exist. The claim of agnosticism says nothing about the agnostic’s belief about said deities, only his knowledge.

Thus it is hardly contradictory to claim the mantle of “agnostic atheist,” as the two labels deal with completely different things. An agnostic atheist (“weak atheist”) is one who makes no claim to know whether or not a god or gods exist, and also lacks the belief that they do.

Given this definition, it becomes clear that many people who self-identify merely as “agnostics” are probably weak atheists as well.

By contrast, an “agnostic theist” makes no knowledge claim about the existence of his chosen deity, but possesses a belief in this deity.

Completing our little Punnet Square of meanings are the “gnostic theist” and “gnostic atheist,” the former who claims to both know and believe that a god or gods exist, and the latter who claims to know that there is no god/gods and (quite obviously) lacks a belief in it/them.

Moreover, your claim that “There is no proof there is no god” ignores that, lacking evidence for god, there is no reason to believe she/he/it exists; the onus of proof is on those claiming the phemonemon. There simply cannot be conclusive “proof there is no god,” but the complete lack of evidence in favor of the god-proposition is a pretty good tip-off. Are you agnostic towards Bigfoot? The Loch Ness Monster? Mothman? All of these phenomena lack any real evidence for their existence, but no critical thinker will tell you that you should remain “strictly agnostic” (in your sense of “suspending belief”) about the claims. Inherent in your question is the idea that one must suspend belief about any claim made in the absence of evidence, which means one must remain “agnostic” about the great majority of possible propositions, be it unicorns, celestial teapots, or child-devouring monsters who live under beds but disappear whenever anybody looks for them there. This is a fairly ridiculous claim to make.

Posted: June 22nd 2007

See all questions answered by Akusai


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