We’ve all come across that person. “Are you one-hundred percent absolutely certain that God doesn’t exist, with a water-tight logical mathematical proof to back it up? No? Well then. You’re not an atheist. You’re an agnostic.”
Or, that other person. “I’m an atheist because I lack belief in gods, but I’m not certain, so I’m an agnostic. I’m an agnostic atheist.”
Or, that rare thing, the self-professed ‘agnostic theist’. “I believe there’s a God, but I might be wrong. I’m an agnostic theist.”
I’m not railing against its implied uncertainty. It’s more that I absolutely despise the word – it needlessly divides people on the basis of who likes the word or not, rather than who the word accurately describes, and I think it has done more harm than good to non-believers qua socio-political force.
What does ‘agnostic’ mean?
The definition of ‘agnostic’ will change depending on who you speak to. Some will tell you that ‘agnosticism’ describes a mental state – that of not being certain of your opinions. It is a recognition of fallibility; an expression of humility. We don’t know everything after all, and what we think we do know we might be wrong about. So, when we consider questions like the existence of God, we must recognise that we don’t have all the answers.
Others will tell you that, in fact, that isn’t the true definition of ‘agnosticism’. An agnostic is one who makes an epistemological claim – that we cannot know whether or not God exists.
There are other differences. Some use it to talk about evidence “there is no evidence either way” – that is a sort of fence-sitting position. Others mean that there’s no ‘proof’, often meaning some incontrovertible reason to think that God does or does not exist. Others just mean that they themselves don’t know, or don’t themselves have a reason.
The ‘common usage’ method of determining a word’s meaning fails us, therefore, as there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus. The dictionaries don’t really help, as you can find all of these definitions depending on which dictionary you look in.
Huxley’s coinage doesn’t really help us either:
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.
In fact, this is perhaps more confusing. Is an agnostic merely someone who doesn’t think they’ve ‘solved the problem of existence’ or someone who also believes it to be ‘insoluble’? It also seems that Huxley intended the word to denote a rejection of all other epistemological positions, rather than just those relating to theism. An ‘agnostic’, according to Huxley, should not only refrain from calling herself a theist or an atheist, but also materialist or idealist. This might be troubling for some self-proclaimed ‘agnostic’s. While it might be palatable to claim that they do not have enough knowledge to make a claim about theism, would they also be happy to state that they do not have enough knowledge to claim that there are corporeal objects extended in space?
We don’t need agnosticism
Huxley, in juxtaposing ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ is assuming that an ‘atheist’ is someone who makes a knowledge claim, i.e. someone who ‘knows’ God doesn’t exist. This is often called ‘strong‘ or ‘positive’ atheism, and contrasted with ‘weak’ or ‘negative’ atheism. Huxley makes no such distinction, however. For him, what I call ‘strong atheism’ is just ‘atheism’, and what I call ‘weak atheism’ is ‘agnosticism’. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what you call something so long as the meaning is clear, but the meaning of ‘agnosticism’ isn’t clear. ‘Weak atheism’ is much clearer. It means that you are not a theist, or that you don’t believe (or lack belief) in a god. No fuzziness with regard to other epistemological positions, or confident claims about such things being ‘insoluble’. Weak atheism is not believing in a god. Strong atheism is believing that there isn’t a god.
What about ‘agnostic atheism’? Of course, if agnosticism is just a form of atheism, then ‘agnostic’ is just redundant, though I think that when used in this way the speaker means that they don’t claim certainty. But how many philosophical positions require an auxiliary adjective as a caveat about its epistemological status? We don’t say “I’m an agnostic idealist” when we want to express that we don’t yet possess a mathematical proof for idealism. It’s partly taken as a given, and partly just not very interesting. It would be far more interesting to say “I’m an idealist and I have a really great argument that allows me to hold such a view with near-certainty!”, and given the scarcity of such arguments it would be better if we stopped using the term ‘agnostic’ and, unless stated otherwise, assumed that we all hold our views with the proviso that we might be wrong.
‘Agnostic theism’ is possibly the closest I can come to accepting that there’s some good reason for keeping the word ‘agnostic’ around. Most believers seem to claim their views with certainty, based on their claimed experiences. If a theist comes along who states ‘I might be wrong’, then that’s a little more interesting, but they could just say ‘I might be wrong’.
Why I’m banning it
Sagan, Russell, Tyson, Hawking, Einstein, Huxley, Darwin etc. are/were all atheists. We might be able to tell this to theists, in order to convince them that (though it doesn’t prove it is true) atheism is at least a respectable position and atheists should themselves be respected. But what usually happens is the theist will pull out some quote where each person says that they are an ‘agnostic’ or ‘not an atheist’ or something similar. The term ‘agnostic’ only exists because lots of atheists don’t like the term ‘atheist’ or have a misconception that atheism is necessarily dogmatic, or just another religion. The continued existence of the term ‘agnostic’ perpetuates this misconception, and leads to atheists not putting ‘atheist’ in polls or censuses. This can have political ramifications against atheists as a group, a group that is often ignored or maligned (particularly in the US). This is a needless division between many people who, at least with respect to theism, all believe (or don’t believe) the same basic thing.
Therefore, I think that I have good reasons to ban the term ‘agnosticism’.