Misuse of “agnostic”?

At times like this it’s frustrating that we weren’t able to salvage the entire body of articles from the old version of the site. I did at least two pieces solely on this distinction.

Question from Pritchard Hotpocket:
I see a common error perpetually appear on this site. You misuse the term “agnostic” a great deal. You seem to treat agnosticism as some sort of middle ground between atheism and theism. This is incorrect. Atheism and theism are metaphysical positions of whether you believe in any deity or lack a belief in all deities. Agnosticism and gnosticism are each an epistemological position on whether you think you “know” whether a deity exists or not. So you could be a gnostic theist and believe that you “know” that a god exists or an agnostic theist and believe you don’t know whether a god exists or not but you believe in one regardless. Likewise you can be an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist, sometimes described as “weak” and “strong” atheists. Do you disagree with me or have you simply never been notified of the distinctions?

When was the last time we said something like that, if you don’t mind?

At times like this it’s frustrating that we weren’t able to salvage the entire body of articles from the old version of the site, because I did at least two pieces solely on this distinction.

I’ll argue with you on one point: I don’t think “agnostic” as a prefix for atheism or theism is equivalent to “weak”, or “gnostic” to “strong”. I’ll use atheism to explain: a gnostic atheist knows (or, more accurately, thinks he knows) that there are no gods, whereas a strong atheist merely believes this is true. You can be “strong” without being certain. A weak atheist is any atheist who isn’t a strong atheist, in other words someone who doesn’t positively believe in the absence of gods any more than in their presence. An agnostic atheist admits to not knowing one way or the other, but despite this could either be weak or strong by believing in absence or not. I for example am an agnostic weak atheist, though I generally just call myself an agnostic atheist because that captures most of the meaning. (And frankly, who likes to be called “weak”?)

We could also get into explicit and implicit atheism, the distinction between those who know they’re atheists and those who haven’t thought about it, but…well, I guess I just did.


5 thoughts on “Misuse of “agnostic”?”

  1. You too misuse the term agnostic. It isn’t simply not knowing whether or not there are deities. Agnosticism at its roots is knowing it is impossible to know whether there are deities. Those are no where close to being the same thing.

    Example: The person you describe only needs proof to be convinced there is a god. A traditional Huxlean Agnostic will tell the creature that shows up claiming to be the almighty prove you are god by making me believe you simply aren’t a higher more advanced being. Fancy tricks don’t make you a deity.

  2. Do you ever get embarrassed when you think about how you belong to a group where individuals see themselves as more intelligent than others, yet they’ll spend literally years debating whether

    You’re someone who doesn’t believe in God, or

    You’re a non believer in God

  3. Brad, by referring to specifically Huxleyan agnosticism you’ve reminded us all that regardless of its roots, agnosticism nowadays comes in different types, some of which are going to fall outside a given rigid definition.

    Whether the existence of gods is unknowable or simply unknown is one of the major divisions between varieties of agnosticism, specifically between strong and weak agnosticism (and again the meanings of “strong” and “weak” change). I use “unknown” in general because while those who think it’s unknowable also (obviously) think it’s unknown, the reverse is not always true.

    Broader still, many people who think of themselves as agnostics simply haven’t reached a conclusion on even the probability of a god’s existence one way or another, or think it’s about 50%. (On Richard Dawkins’ scale, they’re about a 4.) If unaccompanied by any specific belief, this by some definitions is a kind of atheism, though such people would not self-identify thus. Significantly, these people often DO think of themselves as being between atheists and believers, in the sense of having extremes either side of them. If what Pritchard initially objected to is really a mistake, agnostics often make it too.

    Makarios, the two options you’re using to mock us are entirely equivalent, so there’s not much of a debate going on there. The issue is whether an atheist has no belief in gods, or a belief in the absence of gods.

    That’s not terribly important in everyday life, but it can become very important when arguing with religious folks. Believe me, many of them love to pounce on the idea that atheists have an equivalent faith in absence to their belief in presence, and denounce us as hypocrites. That’s why I question strong atheists about their belief, just as I question strong theists.

  4. Can someone explain to me in plain English what’s the difference between a Huxleyan agnostic and a “regular” agnostic? Didn’t Huxley coin the term “agnostic”? When I’ve researched this, I get the basic idea that a Huxleyan agnostic is basically a “skeptic”. But this describes agnosticism anyway! I think what I’m driving at here is – why the qualifier “Huxleyan”? What is special about a Huxleyan agnostic that qualifies them to be described as such?

  5. Huxley may have coined the term, but it quickly got away from him.

    Here are his own words on the subject:

    “Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle …Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

    That’s been equated variously to modern definitions of skepticism and rationalism.

    The “not demonstrated or demonstrable” bit implies something we not only don’t know, but can’t know. This is akin to what’s sometimes known as “strong” agnosticism when applied to gods in full, but Huxley didn’t unambiguously say he thought that whether there’s a god is unknowable.

    So “Huxleyan agnosticism” isn’t specifically a position on gods at all, though it can lead one to a position on them – usually some form of agnosticism as more commonly understood.

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