2016-03-29

Atheist vs Agnostic

That theist drivel in the Times reminded me of a talk I heard where Aron Ra argues that one is either theist or atheist, and that there's no agnostic third choice.

I think he's mostly right, and highly recommend reading the entire thing.


Revisiting the previous post, it seems both Aron Ra and William Irwin are lumping what are commonly referred to as agnostics into the atheist camp. Which is valid, but there's an imprecision of language that is problematic.

There are, in fact, three categories one can be in regarding the belief in the existence of a bearded magical sky fairy:

  1. That the fairy doesn't exist
  2. That the fairy does exist
  3. Uncertain.
The language we use to describe these three states is theist for number 2 and atheist for 1 and 3 collectively.   The reason for this is these words describe what one is, not what one is not.

One is a theist if one believes in the existence of invisible pink unicorns, or whatever euphemism one wants to use in place of the 'g' word.

Conversely, an atheist is one who does not positively believe that flying spaghetti monsters are floating around, spiritually molesting us with their noodly tentacles.   So those who remain uncertain, are atheists.

Aron is right that agnostic is useless, but what we need is a word to describe those in category 1 as distinct from category 3, because they are different populations.

[and as an aside, really, what William Irwin was arguing is that we need a dialogue between categories 2 and 3 to the exclusion of category 1 with the "honest atheist" argument.  This exploits a confounding of the precise meaning of atheist with the colloquial meanings of atheist and agnostic in order to rhetorically present the idea as inclusive, when it is anything but.

And that's what really irked me about that article. ]

Aside, aside; Aron's own words on the why agnostic isn't really useful:

 Gnosis refers to knowledge of God rather than belief in God.  Most theists are gnostic in that they pretend to know what no one even can know.  There are also many theists who are agnostic, saying that they believe in some vague concept of god, but “who can say for sure who that god is or what prophets he really spoke to?”  Most atheists are agnostic, saying that since it is impossible to test any knowledge claim relating to anything supernatural then no one really knows anything about gods, devils, ghosts, psionics or any other purportedly paranormal thing, and that is certainly reason enough to reject such beliefs.
So when we boil the atheist vs agnostic argument down, we're left with the term agnostic applying to both sides.  Nobody is gnostic.  Period.  People can believe at anything as hard as they want, but sincerity and persistence don't make something true.

Aron calls himself a gnostic atheist in that his experiences and knowledge of how the world works make the existence of a god exceedingly unlikely.  Basically, by recognizing how arguments for the existence of god are flawed, they are rejected. The problem is like Russell's teapot, a negative can't be proven, so one can't really claim to be gnostic either way.

We have the same problem if we use the terms believe and non-believer. Since both still combine the uncertain and negative populations into a single set relative to the positive.

So how do we refer to the three distinct populations?  Our language is good at binary, either-or logic, but doesn't do so well when there are more than 2 states.


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