Thursday, January 22, 2009

Agnosticism is not a Fence

Words are our servants, not our masters. I fully understand and appreciate this.

On the other hand we can not allow the misuse of words to guide people to faulty conclusions. If you want a good example of logical failure through the abuse of language, Anselm's "Ontological Argument" is always fun to read.

And so it is with a heavy heart that I hear people often "refusing to take sides" on religious issues by declaring themselves "agnostic". The misuse of the term "agnostic" even reaches in to technical fields where devices which can use many interfaces or protocols are referred to as "agnostic".

"Agnostic" is used to mean ambivalent or unsure. It is taken to mean that there are believers in god on one side and those who declare that there are no gods on other side. To avoid taking a side, one calls oneself "agnostic".

That's not what agnostic means and, furthermore, it shades atheism with meanings it doesn't have either. So let us turn to the dictionaries, every one of which agrees on the meaning of agnostic.
ag⋅nos⋅tic –noun
1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

Agnosticism is statement that it is impossible to achieve certainty on the issue of god's existence. It is not a position relative to belief in god. That's not how most people use it, though, is it?

The idea that agnosticism is a fence between theism and atheism, and that you can sit on this fence, is clearly false.

But, if we grant that both a theist and an atheist may simultaneously be agnostics (in that they acknowledge that there is no certainty) then we can't use "agnostic" to refer to the fence-sitters. What then do we call the people who sit on the fence between the two positions?

The answer is that we don't call them anything at all because - and this is the tricky part, so I'll put it in italics and bold - there is no fence between theism and atheism. There is no place for such people to sit.

A believer in god, a "theist", is a person who would agree with the statement, "I believe that at least one god exists". Atheists are those without this belief by which I mean to include every person who is not in the first group. An atheist is a person without belief in god. That person may additionally firmly believe that there are no gods, but that is a stronger statement than what is required to win the title of "atheist".

Simply put: Do you believe in god?

If your answer is "yes", you are a theist.

Everyone else, from "I haven't decided" and "I'm not sure" all the way to "no way, gods are for the weak-minded", is an atheist.

Welcome to the club. You probably weren't aware that you were a member but that's our fault for basically never having any meetings.

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