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Agnostic or Atheist?

I apparently threw a few people for a loop yesterday when I referred to myself as an atheist. Several readers responded, wanting to know if I had changed my views, since I have publicly stated that I am an agnostic.

I posted on this issue a while back – possibly a long while back – but since I don’t expect everyone to read everything I’ve ever written on this blog (!), I thought maybe I should explain my views again. So – apologies to those of you who have heard this before.

When I became an agnostic – 17 or 18 years ago? I’m not even sure any more – I thought that “agnosticism” and “atheism” were two *degrees* of basically the same thing. My sense is that this is what most people think. According to this idea, an agnostic is someone who says that s/he does not *know* whether God exists, and an atheist is someone who makes a definitive statement that God does *not* exist. Agnostics don’t know and atheists are sure.


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  1. Avatar
    DanielBastian  May 30, 2013

    I like this framework. I’ve never heard agnosticism described in terms of epistemology before. I’ve always simply described myself as a negative atheist. That is, simply an absence of belief, as opposed to a positive atheist who makes a positive disaffirmation of the existence of a deity.

    Given your analysis, I’m inclined to affirm myself as an agnostic negative atheist!

  2. Avatar
    Cygnus_X1  May 30, 2013

    I totally agree. No one knows the truth so how could anyone be a true atheist. I don’t like having any labels applied to me but I like agnostic atheist and I’m going to stick with that.
    Live long and prosper brother Ehrman.

  3. Avatar
    toejam  May 30, 2013

    The problem with the terms is that there are the dictionary / word-origin definitions (atheism = lack of belief, agnosticism = lack of knowledge), and then there’s the “street” understandings (atheism = a positive statement that no God exists, agnosticism = undecided). So which is best to use? Makes no difference I think, provided one is willing to clarifys his/her position if requested beyond simply using the labels (as you’ve done here, LOL). Like all labels, they are a necessary evil. Language couldn’t function if we didn’t categorise things. But where we draw those lines is where the controversy is a lot of the time. Labels such as atheism and agnosticism are convenient in some ways, and inconvenient in others. I call myself an atheist because I lack a belief in a God. If people want to get technical and say I’m really an agnostic, then great. It’s just a word at the end of the day. I’m pretty much in alignment with your assessment over the question of the existence of the Biblical God.

  4. Avatar
    tcc  May 30, 2013

    I’m an agnostic ignostic atheist. I don’t know that there’s not some panentheistic or deist god, I don’t really understand what people mean by the word “god” most of the time (especially theologians), and I don’t believe in any of the concepts I’ve heard. The problem of evil also makes the god concept seem pretty damned trivial–even if some hypothetical entity exists outside time and space, what impact does that have on the kind of shit that happens here and now, and why should I care?

    This “god” stuff can give you a headache. People can believe in some pantheistic or panentheistic “ground of being” or they can believe in Paul’s supernatural magician god who can build spirit bodies. This stuff’s so varied it’s hard to figure out what any of it’s supposed to mean.

  5. Avatar
    toddfrederick  May 30, 2013

    Remember, Pope Francis recently said that atheists who do good will go to Heaven (that’s you my friend)…I guess that includes agnostics as well….but the Catholic doctrinal officials, in response to the Pope, quoted the Churches officially true position: atheists don’t go to Heaven. Sorry (^O^)

    My wife knows very little of the Bible so is attending Bible study at two different churches, but, in our rural area there is nothing more progressive than the Methodist church and even that is fundamentalist/pentecostal.

    So, today she asked me about The Rapture !!! God save me from your followers.

    Do you know of a good DVD (has to be a DVD) that gives a basic Bible study that’s in “The Middle Way?” I’ve tried giving her books but she won’t read them. I get too upset trying to answer those questions calmly.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 31, 2013

      My course on the New Testament (or the Historical Jesus, etc.) for the Great Courses (formerly: the Teaching Company) stake out the typical positions that scholars today hold; almost nothing in the 24 lectures is just my weird opinion, it is mainly consensus stuff. There are also courses on the Old Testament (Amy Jill Levine), archaeology of NT Palestine (Jodi Magness) and lots of others. Just one thing: ALWAYS buy the courses when they are heavily discounted!!

  6. Avatar
    Jim  May 31, 2013

    Whew … glad you cleared that up.
    I was thinking the worst; namely that you had given up drinking beer, wine and scotch.

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    eppic  May 31, 2013

    Then there’s Deism, which I profess to be. Seems that both agnostics and atheists don’t care much for Deists either. Funny as it was my assumption when I was a Christian that they all got along together and had more respect for each other. The Atheists to Agnostics mentality reminds me of the attitude Vegans have towards Vegetarians.

    • Avatar
      tcc  June 1, 2013

      Where’d you hear that atheists and agnostics don’t like Deists? I’ve never encountered any of that, and Deists like Thomas Paine and Herman Reimarus wrote the closest thing to atheistic literature you could get back in their day (well, them and Spinoza, who was a panentheist). Herman Reimarus was one of the early proponents of the idea that Jesus was basically a failed revolutionary/doomsday prophet.

      One thing I think all these “groups” of people share is that we don’t like religion intruding on people’s rights and liberties. I don’t really care if people think a “god” or some kind of intelligence caused the Universe–nobody could ever prove that, and it seems like that “being” doesn’t affect every day life, so I don’t really care.

      I personally think the infinite Universe has probably always existed, and The Big Bang was the origin of our known Universe–it didn’t need a cause. But whatever.

      • Avatar
        eppic  June 6, 2013

        We get it on our facebook group page from time to time. No big deal as long as we all respect each other’s reasonings.

  8. Avatar
    stephena  May 31, 2013

    Personally, I believe you’re over thinking it, but kudos to you for thinking about it at ALL!

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 31, 2013

    Interesting two blogs. I admire your critical examination of crucial questions, your honesty, and your courageous willingness to discuss your views. I agree that there are many problems with the concept of the “Biblical” God. That there is a God makes no sense and that there is not a God make no sense either.

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    dennis  May 31, 2013

    Pardon my presumption , Bart ,in offering a suggestion to a Phd whose both knowledge and experience vastly exceed my own , but I have to ask if perhaps your ” options for belief ” might be more numerous than you have thus far considered ? Have you considered any of the Process Theology writers such as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan ( founder of the Reconstruction Movement in Judaism ) or on a more popular level Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen To Good People ? I suggest the latter because your writings suggest that Theodicy was the deal breaker for you ( me two ! ) .My understanding is that God is a verb not a noun i.e. It is something we do ( such as establish charitable foundations ) rather than Somebody entirely outside ourselves who we ” believe in “. No doubt I have mangled the description ; Kaplan and Kushner don’t . If I have spoken out of line feel free to delete my comment-simply trying to be helpful .

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 31, 2013

      Yes, I’m familiar with Kaplan, though I haven’t read him. And of course I know Kushner’s book. I used to use it for one of my classes. I heartily disagree with it, but I appreciate it’s candor and honest approach to the question. If you’re interested in my own thoughts on the question of theodicy, they are in my book God’s Problem.

  11. Avatar
    Muzicindi  May 31, 2013

    I thought atheism has more to do with the god of monotheism (the god of Jews, Christians, and moslems); who by the way; happens to be a predominantly western concept of god. You can’t therefore be an atheist as far as a higher power is concerned; because a higher power has got nothing to do with theism necessarily?
    I heard Richard Dawkins say that He does not have any second thoughts regarding the god of Jews, Christians and Moslems — BUT He DOES have second thoughts regarding a higher power.
    This puts you, Richard and myself on the same “box”. My only inspiration comes from THE NOW; this is God for me!
    Thank your for your insights!!!

  12. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  May 31, 2013

    I’m sure that BibleGod does not exist. As for some other ulterior ‘truth’ or existence or whatever … who knows? And even if it does it’s probably totally different from anything we could imagine. So I prefer to focus on this life 😉

  13. Avatar
    samchahal  May 31, 2013

    great analogy, however IMHO one can be an agnostic without the atheist overtone simply because being agnostic is saying I do not believe in religion as being anything but a human invention and I dont believe that there is a “God” who controls everything, however as I am just a primate on this vast planet logic suggests that there are higher powers at work than me ie. energy fields, natural selection, garvity etc etc….
    Therefore, there is no need for the atheist add on in terms, IMO.


  14. Avatar
    JohnBradbury  May 31, 2013

    I think your original idea is OK. There is a spectrum of likelihood about the existence of a god from 100% certainty that a god exists to 100% certainty that a god does not exist. I think agnostics estimate this uncertainty at something between 40% and 60% and choose neither to believe nor disbelieve the existence of a god. Atheists think the likelihood of the existence of a god to be less than 40% and choose not to believe it and some choose to believe the exact opposite. Even most religious people have some uncertainty about the existence of a god, but it’s less than 40%. I describe myself as an atheist but I cannot prove the non-existence of a god any more than I can prove the non-existence of mermaids, fairies and Santa Claus, so I cannot believe in the non-existence of a god. Religious people abstract their beliefs in an effort to make them sound reasonable but fundamentally it is believing in something that we have imagined for which there is no evidence.

  15. Avatar
    Scott F  May 31, 2013

    When I first faced the agnostic/atheist question, I was in the same place you were – unknowable versus non-belief. My solution was two-fold. First I acknowledged that the existence of a higher being was unknowable so we should all be agnostics. But then I tried to imagine what life as an agnostic would be like. It seemed to me that one would either act as if there is a god whose existence makes certain demands on your behavior or one would live as if there is no god and one must be the author of one’s own actions. So I am functionally an atheist even though I acknowledge the agnostics’ philosophical point. My other position on this is that, given the available information, belief in any of the gods posited by the world’s religions is unjustified. Reality just behaves as one would expect if driven wholly by impersonal forces.

  16. talitakum
    talitakum  May 31, 2013

    Then you’re atheist full stop.
    Your definition of “agnostic” is applicable to any situation where something cannot be neither proved nor disproved: since the existence of God falls into this category, then I would be an “agnostic Christian” 😉

  17. Avatar
    maxhirez  May 31, 2013

    I’ve been working through Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and he covers this perceived dichotomy as well, but I have to say I like your take on it as well. Just don’t get a bumper sticker to this effect unless you want your car vandalized.

  18. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 31, 2013

    The way I’ve thought of it for many years is that it’s theists and atheists who are alike: alike in being (IMHO) presumptuous enough to claim they “have all the answers.” I think none of us can actually “know” anything beyond good old *cogito ergo sum*. With everything else, we’re dealing with degrees of probability – for some things, of course, very high degrees of probabiity!

    I consider myself an agnostic because I don’t presume to claim I know the truth about ultimate reality. I have ideas (which some might see as pantheistic), but no certainty. If “atheism” is defined simply as belief that the Judaeo-Christian God doesn’t exist, I’d be an atheist; but I’ve never defined it that way. I think I was taught at some point to think of “atheism” as a rejection of anything beyond the visible, material realm.

  19. Avatar
    bobnaumann  May 31, 2013

    What caused the big bang? A superior being? A cosmic fluctuation? Clearly forces beyond our understanding. I suppose we could call whatever these forces were a Creator God. Does this Ceator God change the laws of nature to intervene in human affairs? if so, I see no convincing evidence other than anecdotal tales in the Bible, so I have to remain skeptical. I supposed this makes me a Deist. However, I do acknowledge some sort of spiritual connection between us human beings that gives us love and empathy for each other and makes feel as part of this marvelous creation. I suppose you could call this the Holy Spirit. And although Jesus may appear to be a failed Messiah, he did bring a unique message for his time of love, forgiveness, tolerance, and acceptance that, if followed, could bring us closer the Kingdom of God his followers expected. So maybe I’m a Trinitarian Deist if such a thing is possible.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 31, 2013

      If I knew what caused the Big Bang I would be very rich indeed!!!

    • Avatar
      JohnBradbury  June 1, 2013

      There is no need for a cause. That is just putting our limited perspective on events needing causes. Even as I write this, quantum fluctuations are creating something from nothing known as virtual particles. There is really no such thing as empty space. These particles occur in matter anti-matter pairs and annihilate after a very short time. However Stephen Hawking has proposed a mathematical model of such a fluctuation being able to create space and energy which could be an explanation for the origin of the universe. The problem is that such a model cannot be scientifically tested so we will probably only ever have untestable hypotheses. But other cosmologists have proposed other hypotheses and, as Laplace said to Napoleon when asked about his pertubation theory of celestial mechanics, there is no need for a god hypothesis. I have far more difficulty with terms such as spirituality and soul. There is no explanation for such terms that I find comprehensible.

  20. Avatar
    NOSFERATU  June 1, 2013

    my understading is there are two kind of agnosticsm … agnostic theis and agnostic atheist
    ag theis is person who belive that there is god but lack of knowledge of that god he believe
    andvice versa

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