I know this has been hashed and rehashed across the Internet ad nauseam, but a) I wrote most of this out for a friend recently, and b) I like to think of the blog as an archive. If someone stumbles upon this site and they are generally unfamiliar with non-theistic thought then I would hope we have a lot to offer. Onward!
Agnosticism/Gnosticism is about knowledge. One either has knowledge or they do not. Additionally, agnosticism may also state that certain claims are unknowable.
Atheism/Theism is about belief in god(s). One either holds that belief or they do not.
These terms are not mutually exclusive and in fact do not function properly without each other.
Properly understood one should classify themselves as either:
- Gnostic Theist (“I know God exists.”)
- Agnostic Theist (“I don’t know that God exists but I believe that “He” does and I act accordingly.”)
- Agnostic Atheist (“I don’t know if god or gods exist and I see no reason to believe that they do.”)
- Gnostic Atheist (“I know god does not exist.”)
This is somewhat different than Dawkins ‘Spectrum of Theistic Probability’ which I also accept, but I have two problems with it. First, it is cumbersome for self-labeling as I do not think that the nomenclature is self-evident. With a little thought someone could figure out what an “agnostic atheist” is. I am not sure someone that never heard the terms before would have a correct idea of what a “weak atheist” or “strong theist” is. Second, I reject the concept of impartiality in a thinking adult; which I will explain below.
I do not accept the concept of “complete impartiality” or “pure agnosticism” as Dawkins seems to do. Not because one cannot claim to not know one way or the other or that a claim is unknowable, but because one has to choose to believe or not believe once the proposition is put forth even if subconsciously. It is either accepted or it is not. Someone that claims pure agnosticism, I think, is an agnostic atheist by default (this does not mean that I think they must be proactive about it or even care about expressing it that way). If they are claiming that they do not know and therefore do not accept the belief then they do not believe. Similarly, if they are claiming that one cannot know then it follows they do not hold that belief. Why would anyone that claims to not be able to know then claim that they believe or ever have reason to believe? To help illustrate this point we can look at agnostic theism. While not claiming knowledge, it is still making an assertion via belief. The lack of—or the rejection of—that assertion due to lack of knowledge is agnostic atheism. A-gnostic A-theism: a lack of knowledge or an unknowable premise which results in a lack of belief in god(s).
The only individuals one could claim as pure agnostics are infants. They simply have no knowledge either way, are unable to understand the choice, and are unable to formulate a belief or non-belief. Related to this point, I don’t particularly care for the saying that babies are atheists for the reasons I just stated. While it may be technically true is also means nothing. It’s like saying infants aren’t liberal and are therefore conservative. They are incapable of taking any stance.
Personally, I also think anyone claiming to “know” on either side is kidding themselves. What knowledge does one have? I self-label as an Agnostic Atheist as I have no empirical knowledge of a deity and therefore have no reason to believe in one. Although I admit that I am 99.99% of the way to the Gnostic Atheist since I think god is entirely man-made and I do not entertain the possibility of a god existing. There is no reason to.