Saturday, November 2, 2013

Atheists vs. Agnostics (Yet Again)

Aron from the Atheist's Bible Commentary ( posted the following on Facebook today:

People who claim agnosticism as their theological position are basically admitting they don't know what they're talking about. It's a lame cop out. Do you believe in God? Yes or no?

No= atheist
Yes= theist

"I don't know" is an answer to a different question.

All agnostics are either theists or atheists. That's true. Either you believe in a god or you don't. There's no tertium quid. However, I think atheists pick on the self-proclaimed agnostics way too much. Yes, for many, the label "agnostic" is definitely a cop out, because they would rather not admit their non-belief in a god.

There is a distinction that should be made between lack of belief and the positive belief that there are no gods. "I don't believe in a god" is much different than "I believe there is no god." While the latter implies the former, the former certainly doesn't imply the latter. "Atheist" simply means "no god," as in, "no god in my current belief system." A lot of people think the label atheist necessarily implies "I think there is no god," but that's not the case. I am certain many agnostics shy away from the atheist label because they don't want to deal with incorrect assumptions and baggage that goes along with the label.

Relevant to this is the distinction that should be made between descriptive labels and cultural labels. A descriptive label is meant to describe or help other people understand a person better. "I'm a vegetarian." "I'm pro-choice." "I'm a Christian." Labels are often used in an attempt to help other people know where we stand or how we think. Sometimes labels confuse as much as they clarify, and oftentimes they help segregate members of society, but the pure intent of a label is to communicate a position or a belief. A cultural label has connotative associations, and like-minded people use a cultural label to identify each other and form bonds of community and shared social norms. "Atheist," for example, as a cultural label implies a group of people who usually take issue with religion, uphold evolution and the scientific method, and promote skeptical inquiry. Of course, not everyone who uses the atheist label uses critical thinking or skeptical inquiry, but I'm referring to a generalization. "Christian" as a cultural label carries its own presuppositional baggage as well. We use such labels to identify ourselves as "card-carrying" members of a group or movement. A lot of self-proclaimed agnostics don't use the atheist label because they don't see themselves as associated with that particular subculture. Neil deGrasse Tyson is that kind of agnostic.

Our language fails us in our present time to provide a clear distinction in our labels. People have used the adjectives "strong" or "positive" to describe the atheism in which one holds a positive belief that there is no god, and "weak" or "negative" atheism to refer to simple lack of belief without the belief or conviction that a god does not exist. Moments like this one are when I like to dig up this old chart, dust it off and put it on display, because it continues to be relevant:

Here we see that "agnostic" and "atheist" are not different options in the same category, but different labels referring to different categories altogether. "Atheist" deals with the realm of ontology, or reality, whereas "agnostic" deals with epistemology, or what we know (or don't know) about reality. Agnosticism says, "I have no knowledge about a god." Atheism says, "my view of reality doesn't include a god." There might be - and often is - correlation between one's agnosticism and one's atheism; i.e., "I don't know, therefore I don't believe." But calling oneself an agnostic doesn't answer the question of whether one's current view of reality contains any kind of god.

Likewise - and as an aside - agnosticism can be separated into two categories: "strong" agnosticism, in which one believes no one can have adequate knowledge of the divine, and "weak" agnosticism, in which a person simply speaks for oneself - "I don't know" - without claiming that knowledge of god is impossible. One could say that weak agnostics are agnostic about strong agnosticism.

Then we must consider what I call the "God Grading Scale" (GGS), which is a way of taking into account how we view the varying god concepts out there, and the idea of a god in general. For example, most people in our world today are strong or positive atheists vis-à-vis Zeus and the other gods of Olympus. In other words, most people have a positive belief in the non-existence of such deities. All the people I know rank Zeus pretty low on their GGS. Christians, Muslims, and Jews rank the God of Abraham highly on their respective GGS, and rank gods like Zeus, Vishnu, Baal, and Quetzalcoatl fairly low on their GGS. Some atheists rank all god concepts low on their GGS, but not all do. I met an atheist who was a strong atheist concerning the God of the Bible, yet said he "wouldn't be surprised" if he were to discover that the divine concept found in Hinduism were true. Clearly, my friend ranks Yahweh much lower than he does Brahman on his GGS.

More often, atheists either give all god concepts a similar (or similarly low) grade on their GGS, or they grade the current competing god concepts low, yet leave room for at least the possibility of the existence of a god of some sort; thus, they may give this "unknown god" of the Areopagus (ἄγνωστος θεός) a somewhat higher grade than the other "known" gods of humanity. Many atheists are strong atheists concerning the known god concepts, yet weak atheists concerning the idea of god in general (the unknown god, si vous voulez).

I began this entry by voicing my opinion that atheists pick on agnostics too much. I understand why: many atheists feel like they're on the front lines, enduring the negative stigma associated with the label while they feel agnostics are hiding behind their label. I can sympathize with agnostics as well. Many of them want people to understand why they think the way they do. They want their label to communicate what matters most to them; namely, the search for knowledge, and the conviction that belief should be based on logic and evidence. Labels carry with them the intrinsic property of generalization, which runs us close to the edge of overgeneralization. I think people on either side of the label fence can do better, given a little more effort. I think more understanding and more open communication is in order.

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