The UK Guardian has been exploring the question of the difference between agnostic and atheist and have thus set out to define agnostic and agnostic beliefs and define atheism and atheism beliefs.
What is the difference between agnosticism and atheism?…are agnostics merely people who lack the courage of their lack of convictions?
Is there a real difference between someone who thinks that the question of God’s existence is undecideable in priciple and one who supposes merely that the evidence to settle the question has not finally come in?
Or is the whole distinction between agnostics and true believers, or true unbelievers, really one of temperament? Perhaps some people just don’t like feeling certain, and others feel uncomfortable any other way.1
They then posted an article by Jonathan West entitled, “I’m an atheist, OK? The debate over who should call themselves ‘agnostic’ is muddled by imprecise and conflicting uses of the word itself,” UK Guardian, May 18, 2009.
Jonathan West attempts to remedy the confusion as to atheism and agnosticism and the definition of agnostic and definition of atheism by, in part, writing:
The cause of the confusion is that atheists and theists have different definitions of the words agnostic and atheist, and adamantly refuse to accept the validity of each other’s definitions.
Here is a short form of the definitions from the two separate points of view.Theist version: An atheist is certain there is no God, an agnostic is not certain.
Atheist version: An atheist believes there is no God, an agnostic doesn’t know.
But why bring theists into it? Atheist have enough problems attempting to figure out the difference between agnostic and atheist and defining atheism and agnostic.
_the “atheist” movement keeps shooting itself in the foot by failing to reach a consensus regarding the meaning of “atheism.”
Jonathan West attempts to elucidate further:
The two versions are only subtly different, but a great deal of hot air has been expended on this difference.Let’s look at the two definitions of atheist first, because this is where the cause of the confusion really resides. It is the distinction between “believes” and “is certain”. In choosing the two different forms of words, I am trying to convey that the theists’ definition of atheism suggests that atheists know beyond any possibility of doubt that they have proof of God’s nonexistence.
The self-described atheists tend to use the word “believe” as meaning a very high degree of confidence, sufficient to live their lives on this basis, but falling short of 100% proven certainty.
Yet, his “short form of the definitions” of agnosticism and atheism are limited and merely add to the muddling. They certainly are limited due to being “short form” but perhaps he should not have referenced “short form.”
What of strong atheism, positive atheism, explicit atheism or critical atheism? What of weak atheism, negative atheism or implicit atheism? What of Naturalists, Materialists, Rationalists, Humanists, Skeptics, Brights, Freethinkers, Philosophical Skeptics, Universists, Ethical Culturalists, etc.? What of anti-theists, militant atheists, activist atheists, etc.?
Part of the confusion is that Jonathan West thinks that,
A Christian is somebody who says he is a Christian, and an agnostic is somebody who says he doesn’t know. If we all accept each other’s self-applied labels, we can all get along much better.
Such concepts are convenient to atheists who can then say things such as, “That idolater, fornicator, leader of a violent regime says that he is a Christian so; he is a Christian.” Yet, Christianity is a concept defined within certain well defined parameters and so one is not a Christian by mere claiming to be one: such “self-applied labels” are irrelevant even while it is important to consider how those with whom we are having a discussion defined their “self-applied labels.”
Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnostic” in 1869 because he noted two extremes:
1) Atheist who positively affirmed God’s non-existence (claimed to know that God did not exist).
2) Theists who positively affirmed God’s existence (claimed to know that God exists).2
Concluding that he did not posses enough evidence to positively affirm either position Thomas Huxley coined a term which he saw as a middle position which was that of lacking knowledge to go either way (whether such knowledge actually exists outside of his personal knowledge or may someday be discovered is another issue).
It was after this coining that Charles Bradlaugh (circa 1876) popularized the definition of “atheism” as some define it today; words to the likes of “lack of belief in god(s).” Or what EvilBible.com’s author refers to as the “few morons” who are “so damn stupid” for defining atheism as such (see History of Atheism).
This post was meant to provide a heads up to the centuries old issue with which atheists have had to deal which is how to define their own position. Some will merely say, “All Atheists merely lack a god(s) belief” and yet, this is merely another self-serving and restrictive attempt to bypass the issue.
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