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Am I an Agnostic or an Atheist? A Blast From the Past

I have been talking about how the problem of suffering led me to become an agnostic, and some people have asked why I’m not an atheist.  My short answer is: I am!  But how can I be both?  That was an issue I addressed in the very early days of the blog, and I thought it might be useful to repost that response here.  I pretty much agree with everything in it, now five years later, with the exception that as time goes on and the years go by, I have fewer and fewer doubts about my (agnostic/atheist) views (by which I mean: my older “I don’t know” has increasingly become “I really don’t think so.”)  But again, I’m not trying to push these views onto anyone else.  We all have to decide what makes sense to us the most!

**************************************************************************

QUESTION:

If you don’t think God exists, why do you refer to yourself as an agnostic? If this is your perspective, why not refer to yourself as an atheist? Could it be that you don’t believe the Christian God exists, but are open to the possibility that some kind of higher power exists (this is my perspective) and this is why you call yourself agnostic?

 

ANSWER:

I have been getting this question a lot, and so I’ve decided to try to explain my position a bit more fully here in this post.

The first thing to say is that I had no idea how militant both atheists and agnostics could be about their labels, until I became an agnostic myself!

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Is Suffering Our Fault?
Why Was Marcion Declared a Heretic?

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Comments

  1. Denglish1020  July 4, 2017

    After spending 37 years as a believer, I am now a firm agnostic, but I am still having a hard time crossing over to become an atheist. I an clinging to more of a deism as my belief. I see no evidence of a personal and loving God and that has made me an agnostic. However, I still struggle with how a vast universe came to be without the work of a creator. Were you ever in this same place in your journey?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2017

      Yup. But if it’s hard to imagine a universe coming into being without a Creator, I don’t think it’s any easier to imaging a Creator coming into being without its own Creator.

      • Wilusa  July 6, 2017

        And if we were forced to choose between those two possibilities, the *simpler* – and thus more likely – explanation would be the one assuming less parts: the universe (or a larger Cosmos) did indeed “come into being” on its own.

    • Mdoldon  July 6, 2017

      Denglish, sorry to interrupt your discussion with Bart, but why is there any ‘crossing over’ required? As Bart explained, atheist simply means lack of belief. You can still have doubt, you can still question. The term says nothing about whether your version of God is a personal deity or a universal life force.
      You are an agnostic because you do not know. Probably you do not think we CAN know? But nevertheless, UNTIL you believe that it is most likely that there is/was a God of some sort, you are ALSO an atheist. You will find that most people identifying as atheist are also agnostic, since nobody can reasonably claim to KNOW.

  2. anthonygale  July 4, 2017

    Do you have an opinion on what level of certainty is required to “know” if God exists or not? Experts in all sorts of fields, including the “hard” sciences disagree on things and have been proven wrong decades after receiving awards for research. I had a professor in college who’s tests consisted entirely of reading the conclusions of published papers and asking to explain why the authors were wrong. In my own field, I’ve read blatant errors in textbooks and, in many cases, noted a clear emotional bias when noting the errors. I agree that there is a distinction between faith based belief and reason based on the best available evidence. But the objectivity and certainty of any intellectual endeavor is limited by the capability of people to be objective and to avoid error. That being said, what does it mean to “know” if God exists or not?

    I’ve always thought that part of the point of having faith was that you didn’t know. Doesn’t faith, by definition, require doubt? Does that mean that believing requires some degree of agnosticism?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2017

      Yup, these are highly complicated questions, without obvious answers. The word “know” is multivalent and nuanced — I can know my wife, know that I like Chateauneuf du Pape, know that I better hurry up, know the square root of 81, know… what? Know God? What would it mean?

      • Wilusa  July 5, 2017

        All anyone can *absolutely know* is good old “Cogito ergo sum.” When I want to indicate I know something other than that as surely as anyone plausibly can, I think (or say, if I have any reason to) that I know it as surely as I know Australia exists. Australia being a random choice of a place I’ve never seen, even from the air.

        And I wouldn’t say I flat-out “believed in” something as important as the existence of a deity unless I actually *thought* I “knew” it to be true. As true as the existence of Australia!

        With lesser degrees of certainty about possible beliefs as serious as that, I may say I “incline to” or “incline strongly to” belief.

    • Mdoldon  July 6, 2017

      A rational belief requires evidence of some sort. That may be a more useful question: “What evidence would convince you?”. That is a very personal question. I’ve always liked Matt Dillahunty’s view that “I don’t know what would convince me, but if a God existed, HE would know”
      Faith, being belief WITHOUT evidence is simply not a valid path to truth. Is there anything that you could NOT believe through faith? If not, how can you possibly decide what is true or not true? Or do you care?

      Personally, I hope to seek that which is true over that which is not true, and the only way that I can see to do that is to rely upon evidence that can be repeated and demonstrated. No internal experience can ever do that. I cannot for the life of me come up with any process by which I can differentiate an internal delusion from something real. If it is only internal, such as a ‘feeling’, and ‘communication with Jesus’ or the like, I cannot evaluate it. In my more introspective thoughts it worries me slightly that even external experiences, verified by others could in theory be false, delusional. But since I can’t evaluate that, I have to make some decision that ‘this is real, confirmed by external sources’ and “that is internal, I could be imagining it”. With that basis, faith is worthless in determining reality and can’t be part of my decision making process.

  3. rgilmour1719  July 4, 2017

    The term atheist has so many negative and false connotations associated with it that it has almost become a block to reasoned debate in many circles. To many theists, whether they are conscious of it or not I don’t know, atheism seems to mean (to them) “the opposite of everything I personally believe about god and faith”.
    To a lesser extent the term “skeptic” also has negative connotations, many theists have been able to change the meaning of this word to basically mean “a biased, miserable cynic who won’t look at the other side of the arguments who holds to a strict materialistic worldview”. Most apologists introduce you Bart as a skeptic and I believe they do this as a tactic to portray you as the above (just a theory).
    That is why I like David Eagleman’s “possibilian” term. Which is basically atheism and skepticism without the restrictive baggage.

    • Wilusa  July 5, 2017

      I go with “non-theist.” (But yes, I also think “atheist” has negative connotations. In my youth, it was widely understood as implying *militant* opposition to the idea of a God.)

  4. godspell  July 4, 2017

    I used to be a vegetarian. I was listening to Gary Null on the radio, and I just decided. No more meat. Eventually, I decided vegetarianism wasn’t enough, and I went full vegan. Didn’t even eat wheat. Lost a lot of weight, but part of that might have been B12 deficiency. Then I went through a period of backsliding, started eating eggs and dairy again. Pizza isn’t the same without real cheese (or wheat). I was with the Ovo-Lacto sect for a time, then The Devil in the form of a beautiful woman offered me a slice of ‘organic’ ham, and I ate of it.

    So now I’m a flexitarian.

    You see how silly this all is?

    Well, you should.

    😀

  5. Wilusa  July 4, 2017

    I agree that you have the right to call yourself anything you want, as do the rest of us! But since I’m guessing many of us will express our own opinions, here’s mine.

    I call myself an agnostic and non-theist: an agnostic because I don’t presume to claim certainty for my hypotheses, and a non-theist because I do have hypotheses, and they don’t include any kind of deity.

    I especially dislike the term “atheist.” Consider: We have the terms “Christian,” “non-Christian,” “anti-Christian.” Or to be more specific, “Catholic,” “non-Catholic,” “anti-Catholic.” It’s understood that a “non” doesn’t have to be an “anti.” That gives people a much clearer way to describe themselves! Some who call themselves “atheists,” because they see no alternative, may even be *less* critical of theistic religions than I am. (I expect and hope they’ll die out within the next millennium, though I’d never try to convert anyone to my way of thinking.)

    • godspell  July 5, 2017

      And I still want to know why the term ‘Freethinker’ fell out of favor.

      It’s just so much more flexible, not to mention, cooler-sounding.

      I don’t even like saying the word ‘agnostic.’ It’s got a bad mouth-feel.

      • Wilusa  July 6, 2017

        Maybe because many people, when they heard the term “Freethinker,” didn’t understand it as referring to beliefs about religion? (I don’t recall *ever* having heard it.)

        Yes, a person can call himself or herself “agnostic” in some matter other than religion; but we rarely do.

    • Mdoldon  July 6, 2017

      Call yourself what you want, but atheist MEANS without a deity. Non theist and atheist are direct synonyms. The ‘a’ literally means a negative prefix.

  6. gwayersdds  July 4, 2017

    I too have occasionally worshipped Dionysis exuberantly and later found myself on my knees making an offering to him in front of the great porcelain god. On a more serious side it does seem to me that we have as a nation become much more intolerant of differing beliefs. Each side seems unwilling to compromise or bend or accept the fact that others “dare” to not believe the same way that “they” do. A little love would go a long way but that concept seems to be politically incorrect. We seem to want to put a label in black and white on others, not accepting that most things exist somewhere in the gray range in between.

    • godspell  July 5, 2017

      Intolerance is just insecurity.

      If everybody doesn’t believe the same thing you do, maybe you’re wrong.

      If you truly believed in what you profess, you wouldn’t give a damn if you were the only one who professed it.

      More truth for you, right?

      😉

      • gwayersdds  July 6, 2017

        I hold your truths to be self evident, to misquote the declaration of independence. lol

  7. RonaldTaska  July 4, 2017

    I love the way you worded this: moving from an “I don’t know” to a “I really don’t think so” position.

    I have read a number of books, such as “Atheism: The Case Against God,” “The God Delusion,” and the books of HItchens and Sam Harris, advocating the atheist position. I am not interested in crusading for such a position, but such books are important because they outline important issues that Christians need to address and analyze in order to give more credence to their religion. Such atheistic authors often summarize the important issues better than Christian authors do.

  8. Hormiga  July 4, 2017

    The two-tier approach has been my preferred one for a long time:

    – With regard to the traditional religions, atheistic because it seems beyond reasonable doubt that the supernatural order of things they’re based on is wholly imaginary. Thus no traditional gods, devils, angels, demons, heaven, hell, etc.

    – With regard to larger questions concerning the nature of reality, agnostic, because there’s as yet no recognizable evidence for a large-scale role of intelligence and consciousness in the universe. On the other hand, it’s clear that there’s an immense amount we don’t know and surprises could pop up. So best to keep an open mind and critically evaluate new evidence as it becomes available.

  9. hasankhan  July 4, 2017

    What would constitute knowledge? Seeing God? Touching him? What if God is outside the universe and we by our biological composition/limitation are unable to see or touch him. If God communicates with us through a person, would that be considered knowledge?

    So if God sends a scripture to establish the proof of His existence. Would that be knowledge? What we believe about that knowledge could be another thing.

    For example I see a person is levitating. That’s knowledge. I could believe that this is an optical illusion and the person appears to be in air but he is not really levitating or I could believe that this is genuine levitation and super natural capability of the person.

    For us Muslims, the knowledge is the scriptures. God has communicated with us via prophets throughout history. Some corrupted the message and some corrupted the belief of message.

    Also knowledge is inherently built into us. Such as new born knows how to cry or suckle milk. Similarly the recognition of higher power is in us that’s why people living in jungles and far from civilization also worship something. They inherently know that there is a Creator.

    So my question is that what would you consider to be knowledge?

    Also I’m just curious have you ever read the Qur’an? It’s only 600 or so pages.

    • godspell  July 5, 2017

      Question–if God communicates with us via prophets, why did he only do so in the Middle East? There were many who could never have possibly heard the messages he sent, for many centuries afterwards. And when they did hear those messages, how often did they come in the form of invading armies, and a demand to either accept the Christian idea of God, the Muslim idea of God, or a brutal painful death (or colonization and cultural as well as sometimes literal genocide).

      I agree the message is often corrupted, but suppose it was corrupted from the very start? Can a finite mind every fully grasp what an infinite mind is saying to it?

      Perhaps you have heard the saying “If a Lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him.” Can we ever truly understand God? Even if you believe Allah spoke to Muhammad, suppose Muhammad garbled the message, mingled his own beliefs and prejudices with it? You don’t believe Muhammad was perfect, any more than Jesus was. You believe men can make mistakes. Only Allah is perfect. Yet words written down by a man are perfect, beyond question? This seems contradictory to me. In any religion?

      Did you hear the story of Muhammad and the date trees? This is a story told by devout Muslims, that Muhammad passed some men one day, who were climbing up the date palms, to stuff pollen from the male trees into the waiting receptacles of the female trees.

      The Prophet found this unpleasant–men doing the work of nature. He said something along the lines of “It would be better if you did not do this.” Being faithful adherents of the Prophet, his least word constituting law among them, the practice was ceased. And the date crop–tremendously important to the economy there–failed miserably.

      The Prophet was forced to back down. The practice resumed, The date crop prospered.

      Why didn’t Allah tell Muhammad it was okay to hand pollinate date trees?

      Faith and dogma are not the same thing, as I see it. Conscience and a desire to do good in the world is more important than words in a book, however sacred, however inspiring.

      The most important book my country has produced is called Huckleberry Finn. A boy has been taught by his elders that slaves are property, and that helping them to escape is theft, and punishable by hellfire. But a black man who he has befriended, who has been a true friend to him, wishes desperately to be free. The boy helps him, but is torn by doubts. His society, his religion, has told him this is wrong. But he is free to make his own choices. He says “All right, I’ll go to hell.” He helps the man to freedom.

      I think many a Sufi writer would have approved of this. Sometimes to be worthy of heaven, we have to be ready to enter hell. We have to do what is right, no matter what the consequences. Only this is true submission to God.

      Blindly accepting the words of another is never right. Conscience can never be surrendered. And only God can speak for God.

      • hasankhan  July 6, 2017

        God is all wise and all knowing. He always choses the best of people to deliver his message. All prophets have been intelligent, wise and sinless people. They did not corrupt the message, it is the people who came afterwards that corrupted the message.

        If you as a person want to send someone to deliver a message, you being a wise person would chose the best person according to your limited knowledge, God is wisest of all that exists and He knows what the hearts conceal. He does not reveal his words to a corrupt heart. This has been emphasized in the Qur’an at many places.

        Prophet Muhammad shared his personal opinion on a worldly issue and it turned out to be wrong. Divine revelation is for guiding humanity to get closer to God, Allah is not obliged to send revelation for every matter of worldly nature that concerns human beings. He is all-wise and all-knowing and knows what needs to be revealed and what human beings can figure out on their own and even if they do not, it has no bearing on there hereafter.

        Purpose of revelation is to secure a peaceful life on earth, a life of submission, thereby gaining the eternal peace in the hereafter. Submission is only applicable in matters that God has given some guidance on. We’re open to do as we please in matters that God or His prophet has not legislated anything. The reason why those men obeyed the Prophet because they thought this opinion is coming out of divine wisdom. We have other instances in the life of the Prophet where he suggested something and they asked him whether it is revelation or his personal opinion and when we told them it is personal opinion then they suggested a better approach which he accepted. Part of leadership means seeking council and advise from followers. Only Allah is all knowing and all wise, not the prophets.

        As for how can human being correctly understand / comprehend the infinite wisdom? Think of example of a parent speaking to a child. Child often wants something that they think is good for them but parent prohibits it and sometimes parents try to explain to the child why it is not good for them but sometimes they don’t because the parent know the child is not mature enough to understand.

        That’s where the submission to God comes. Sometime God gives us a law and out of his mercy also explains to us why we need it i.e. intoxication will keep us away from remembrance of God and sometimes God doesn’t explain the reason for a prohibition or a legislation. In those cases we trust His wisdom and follow Him.

        God does not ask us to use our mind to try to comprehend and contemplate on his laws, rather He asks us to contemplate on His signs and His guidance try to reason how can it be from other than their Creator. How can we come into being out of nothing? How can there by more than one God? How can a human being be a God? etc. Once we’re convinced that there is only one God and this message is indeed from Him then we submit to His guidance and trust His wisdom.

        We’re open to investigate and critically analyze the text of the Qura’n to see if it has been altered since revelation and whether there are patterns suggesting they are from multiple authors or if there is even a contradiction in it. God presents us the challenge to produce another book like it, if it is from a human being. So once it has been established that the Qur’an is not altered since revelation and it is from Him, then we have no option except to follow it because God Himself tells us that success in hereafter only lies in believing him and worshiping Him alone and submission is the essence of worship. If we slip up, He offers us repentance and forgiveness as well. So following the text of the scripture is where the success is because we’re not smarter than God and we don’t know any better.

        Finally God says that He does not punish a people unless He sends a messenger to them. So those who did not receive the message or did not receive the message in its pure form, will be tested again on day of judgement. No one will be put in hell fire without going through some sort of test that they failed. No one will be treated unjustly and thrown in to hell fire straight away.

        All prophets did not come only in arab lands. God has sent thousands of prophets and only handful of them are documented in Bible and Qur’an. God has been sending Prophets since the beginning of humanity (Adam) to different groups of people.

        • dragonfly  July 7, 2017

          “God is all wise and all knowing.”
          I’m still waiting to see evidence of that.

    • catguy  July 5, 2017

      Hasankhan, speaking as a regular guy, not any kind of professional, I think there is too much emphasis on knowledge when it is really faith that is the beginning of understanding of God. In the history of the early Christian Church there was a lot of what came to be known as heresy from the Greeks pushing Gnosticism. Some to the point they felt flesh was evil and what mattered was the persuit of some special knowledge that would elevate them perhaps in another life to a higher being. There are plenty of highly educated atheists in the world. All their knowledge will not get them closer to the God of the Bible or perhaps to Allah. I am not familiar with the Quaran and what it might say about that. Paul in the NT in one of the epistles speaks directly to that innate understanding that there is a God. Some things people know is wrong such as murder and adultery. Even if they never heard of God. And they know a higher power is responsible for the wonders of Creation, “so that they are without excuse.”

      • hasankhan  July 6, 2017

        In Islam, we do not believe in blind faith in existence of God. God throughout the Qur’an tells us to reflect on His sign and come to the conclusion and testify that He exists and He asks us to analyze his revelation to see if it could be from other than God.

        Qur’an (6:116) Allah created the heavens and the earth in truth. Indeed in that is a sign for the believers.

        Knowledge of the world does help in seeing the wonder of creation. The knowledgable atheists often dismiss those signs in favor of ‘conjecture’ and ‘theories’ without evidence because that appeals to them more than existence of God. God does not ask us to believe in Him without evidence. He has been giving evidence to the prophets in form of divine revelation or in form of miracles to help people believe.

        Qur’an (6:116) And if you obey most of those on earth, they will mislead you far away from Allah’s Path. They follow nothing but conjectures, and they do nothing but lie.

        Only God knows the past and future. Only He knows the world of unseen. He has been establishing the evidence or us. He asks us to study nature as well and come to conclusion that this is all from Him.

        Qur’an (3:191) Those who remember Allah (always, and in prayers) standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and think deeply about the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): “Our Lord! You have not created (all) this without purpose, glory to You!. Give us salvation from the torment of the Fire.

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  July 4, 2017

    The way I explain the distinction to most people is that an agnostic is someone who no longer has the requisite faith to believe there is a God, but they also question whether there’s enough empirical evidence to know for sure one way or another whether there is a God apart from faith. An atheist, on the other hand, is someone who notices that when they don’t pray to God, don’t worship God, don’t attend a house of God, don’t express specific tenets of any religion, and even doubt that any of this God stuff is true, that the sky doesn’t suddenly start raining fire, that they aren’t struck by a bolt of lightning, that the earth doesn’t open up and swallow them whole, that life appears to continue the exact same way it did before, that the sky isn’t any less blue, that jokes aren’t any less funny, that human tragedies aren’t any less sad, and that life isn’t any less fulfilling.

  11. cjeanne  July 4, 2017

    Somewhere I read that “agnostic” is the only honest intellectual position because we can never prove nor disprove the existence of God. I think that pretty well sums it up. Calling atheism a faith position makes it very clear.

    • Mdoldon  July 6, 2017

      Atheism is the complete LACK of a faith position.

  12. john76  July 4, 2017

    We can make knowledge claims about the naturalistic system of causes and effects, but we (currently) have no basis for making knowledge claims about what does or does not go on outside of that system.

  13. Todd  July 4, 2017

    I think that atheists are as arrogant as absolute theists, claiming that there is no greater power in the universe without any proof for such a claim.

    I have come to an agnostic position as you described it, based on the limited nature of human intellect to attain a knowledge of a greater power.

    I think the best we can do in this life is to be as compassionate and as caring for humanity and for the welfare of this planet as we can be.

    For me, I try to follow the compassionate teachings of Jesus and I have also gained great insight through Buddhist teachings on suffering, happiness, and following a compassionate life to the best of my limited ability.

    That’s the best I can do. You stated your ideas very well. Thank you.

    • Mdoldon  July 6, 2017

      Did you read Bart’s original post?? He clearly explains that atheism is not such thing as you describe. Rational atheists are agnostic, they admit that they cannot KNOW. The two terms are not levels of belief, you can (and should be) both, just as you can (and should be) agnostic if you are a theist. To me, gnosticism is a false claim, it is impossible to KNOW everything. Everyone is, whether they know it or not, agnostic about the big world question. It’s not intellectually honest to claim perfect knowledge. It is intellectually honest to express a belief, even though that belief may be unsupported by evidence. We call beliefs without evidence Faith. A LACK of faith means only believing something supported by evidence.

  14. Charmaine  July 4, 2017

    After long thought, I chose the term Agnostic, because I think it’s as impossible to know if there ISN’T a God as there is to know if there IS. So Dr. Ehrman I really appreciate this distinction. Disheartening to know that Atheists can be as unforgiving of other opinions as the strongly religious.

    • HawksJ  July 8, 2017

      Actually, it’s not impossible to know if a god exists.

      One could easily make itself known. All of the gods worshipped by humans have, coincidentally enough, chosen to remain hidden, for whatever reason.

      It is, however, impossible to know one does NOT exist, as it is impossible to prove a negative.

  15. jwesenbe  July 4, 2017

    Dionysus/Bacchus makes more sense than the rest.

  16. catguy  July 4, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Thank you for sharing your perspective on these two definitions and how they relate to you individually. I suspect, or at least I speak for myself, as someone who is not around academia my exposure to atheists and agnostics would be quite different from your encounters. I have probably known two avowed atheists in my life and both were young college guys who took a couple of philosophy courses and found all the answers to life. On the other hand I have known a number of agnostics and for a variety of reasons ranging from those who don’t like organized religion because churches are full of “hypocrites” to people who just had bummer lives and think that if there were a God then He should have been there for them. And I would add maybe God should have prevented them from making bad choices. I concur with you that at least in my youth Bacchus was alive and well-even if I wasn’t at times. I am not familiar with Dionysus so I will have to research that one.

  17. Pegill7  July 4, 2017

    Bart,

    In your penultimate post you mentioned Romans 1:3 which reads “…:the gospel concerning the Son , who was descended from David according to the flesh….” Does this mean that Paul was ignorant of the role of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2017

      Not necessarily. In Matthew and Luke he is born of the Spirit but is still related to David.

  18. doug  July 4, 2017

    I’m an atheist (I’m virtually certain there is no God, as God is commonly conceived in my western culture). But saying what I don’t believe says almost nothing about me, nor can I live my life based on what I don’t believe. So I would say I’m a secular humanist. I want what is good for myself and others. And I think it’s up to us to make things good, rather than hoping a God will do something.

  19. ErikdenTuinder  July 4, 2017

    My position always depends on what somebody is claiming is out there. I really need to know what somebody means when they’re using the word “god” before I can tell them whether I am an atheist or an
    agnostic.

  20. Tony  July 4, 2017

    The term “atheist” has been thoroughly vilified in the United States. It was the cold war with it’s rhetoric of the evil godless commies again the righteous God trusting Americas that set the tone. Suddenly, there was a need to put “in God we trust” on coins to differentiate Americans from the atheists hordes. Atheists became suspicious people. The senior President Bush has been known to muse that no atheist should be eligible for US citizenship. The American public will vote for a – gasp – Muslim before they’ll vote for an atheist as President.
    http://www.gallup.com/poll/155285/atheists-muslims-bias-presidential-candidates.aspx

    It’s likely in that context that some atheist will sneer at a declared agnostic for being reluctant to come out and show true colors. Agnostics are seen as fence sitters who are playing it safe.

    Technically, I think all atheists are also agnostics. There are no absolutes. Therefore, if asked if it is “possible” there is a god, I must answer “yes” – but I’ll hastily add that a god existence is highly improbable.

    As an atheist I object to calling atheism faith or an belief. I do not “belief” in anything. The reason I am an atheist is that I see no evidence for a god. Natural processes explain why the universe is, our planet exists, and we are. Does that mean that we know all natural processes and fully understand them? No, and we likely never will. But there is no reason to believe that the currently unknowns equites to a supernatural god. That approach results in the God of the (knowledge) gaps. And, as human knowledge has expanded the God of the gaps has become the incredibly shrinking God.

    A third category are anti-theists. These are atheists who will actively confront theism. Some theists call them “angry” atheists. Anti-theists have the audacity to actually call theism what it really is.

    • catguy  July 5, 2017

      I have not noticed atheism being vilified in the past decade or so. Perhaps you live in the Bible Belt or some region where religion is more a part of the culture. I don’t know from my personal view if agnostics are fence sitters. I know several and they all were once church going people who tired of the hypocrisy or organized religion, the politics of the churches, etc. And maybe they had bad lives and thought there might not be a God because their lives were miserable. People seem to have an innate need to believe in something higher than themselves. So I do think atheism is a belief system. You believe in the natural processes and possibly you believe in evolution. There is plenty to believe in besides a particular god or any special holy writings.

      • Tony  July 6, 2017

        “People seem to have an innate need to believe in something higher than themselves”.

        The only people who I’ve heard making that claim are theists and Christian apologists. I’ve never felt that need, and also never met an atheist who did.

        Maybe there are semantics about the word “belief”. I do not “belief” in evolution by natural selection on faith. I do consider the evidence for evolution to be overwhelming. Therefore, evolution by natural selection is – to me – a fact.

        Facts are completely unrelated to faith based beliefs.

  21. falter  July 4, 2017

    Hello Bart:

    This is not for the public… This is a personal letter to you.

    For some time I have been in contact with Gary Habermas [He has been very slowly reviewing my previous published text]. As a matter of fact, I spent one week at Liberty University continuing my research on Jesus’s purported resurrection and afterward I spent 10 days at Princeton Theological [I also meet Dale Allison – a really great person, down to earth and intellectually honest]. While at Liberty I had lunch with Gary. Your name popped up during the conversation. Without divulging an extensive amount of our conversation, it seemed like Gary was not totally sure about your status [agnostic, atheist, etc.] So much for my impression.

    If you grant permission, I would like to send Gary a copy of this blog [Am I an Agnostic or an Atheist? A Blast From the Past] to resolve any discrepancies that he MIGHT have on your status. It is best to hear /read your words than those of someone else. I know he is NOT a paying member, although, obviously, I am and have been for about two [or three?] years… Your schedule is full and so I will understand if you do not have time to reply. In that case, I will NOT send him a copy of your blog. If you grant permission, I will inform Gary of my written request to you and your affirmative reply.

    I hope you had a good July 4…

    Thank you.

    Mike Alter

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2017

      I”m afraid I don’t know how to reply without it being public, but yes, feel free to send him my post.

  22. cheito
    cheito  July 5, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    An “atheist” is literally one who does not believe in a divine being. That is, s/he does not believe in God and so is “without God” (the literal meaning of the term).. An “agnostic” is one who says s/he does “not know” if there is a God (the literal meaning of that term; it’s about knowledge, not faith). And so they are dealing with two incommensurate entities: faith (atheism) and knowledge (agnosticism).

    My Comments:

    I have a knowledge and understanding of God that is only possible through faith in the things that have NOT been made by humans i.e., the universe, the earth, my body, etc. Therefore my knowledge of God is correlated by my faith in God and in His creation.

    By faith I understand that God created the human genome. (“A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes. Each genome contains all of the INFORMATION needed to build and maintain that organism. IN HUMANS, a copy of the entire genome—more than 3 billion DNA base pairs—is contained in all cells that have a nucleus.”)

    I can’t prove to you that an intelligent being designed the genome contained in my cells that have a nucleus, with all the INFORMATION needed to maintain my human body, but innately in my innermost being, I know that I know, that an intelligent being, i.e., God, is in fact, precisely, the one who encoded the information in my genome, so that my body could function. Therefore my knowledge is derived through faith in the things, e.g., my body, that have NOT been made by human hands, but by God, the encoder of my genome. Information just doesn’t happen! Code must be written by an intelligent being. Software programs are encoded by programmers.

    My point is that my KNOWLEDGE and UNDERSTANDING of God is commensurate to my FAITH in God and in His creation! If one does not believe in God, one can not understand God!

    Note: There are plenty of reasons to believe in God, e.g., the human genome with it’s genetically encoded INFORMATION .

  23. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 5, 2017

    I tend to identify as an agnostic these days. Nothing more, nothing less. I know people who identify as atheists, but when a crisis comes their way, they pray and want others to pray for them too. I have no qualms with that. If that makes them feel better in their moment of need, then so be it. And then there’s some Christians who attend church every time the doors open but think nothing of cheating a person out of money or spreading hurtful lies. Beliefs and behavior don’t always coincide with each other, so when somebody says they’re a devout Christian or an atheist, that doesn’t tell me much until I see how they live.

    It does seem that some people want to pin you down with your words or place some type of label on you and hold you to it for life. They act as though you’re not allowed to change your mind, forget something, or make a mistake.

    • RVBlake  July 5, 2017

      Those Unbelievers who pray in times of crisis are obviously of the Reformed Atheist sect, not the Orthodox Atheists.

  24. Wilusa  July 5, 2017

    I was surprised to learn from the posts here that some people understand “belief” as meaning acceptance of something you *don’t* “know” – while to me, it means just the opposite! Being *convinced* that the thing is true.

  25. wawawa  July 5, 2017

    Agnostics lack knowledge.
    Atheists lack belief.
    That is my understanding.

    • dragonfly  July 9, 2017

      Everyone lacks knowledge.
      Agnostics are willing to admit it.
      That is my understanding.

  26. Sharon Friedman  July 5, 2017

    I think perhaps as you said, Christians have focused too much on “beliefs”. I look at it differently. I think different people have different “spirit sensors” like eyes and ears, but of the soul. IMHO, the role of religious leadership should be to help people polish their “spirit sensors” not to tell them what their sensors “should” sense, if that makes sense ;).

    Beliefs and practices may resonate with your soul and not with mine, but that’s the way (we are made, we are born, whatever). Then you don’t have to take anyone else’s word for anything. So I think of myself as Judaeo-Christian in orientation, Agnostic in what I think of as “details” (whether Jesus is God, nature of God or Goddishness, nature and kinds of supernatural beings, Biblical stuff, and so on).

  27. John Uzoigwe  July 5, 2017

    Dr Bart I would like to know the view of most Bible scholars about the resurrection of Jesus whether it be in body or spirit.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2017

      Most of the Biblical authors maintain that the resurrection was of the body.

      • RVBlake  July 6, 2017

        What do you think? A bodily Resurrection?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2017

          I’m not a Christian, so I don’t think there was any kind of resurrection.

  28. JerryJ  July 5, 2017

    I’m a believer.

    I think this is one of the clearest (although brief) explanation of the difference between atheists and agnostics that we have out there. Marvelous job on helping us understand how the two can co-exist in the mind of the same person.

  29. Hume  July 6, 2017

    I think if there is a Christian God then I’m in trouble for being an agnostic. He has commanded all of us to believe in Him or face the everlasting fire. Scary stuff! How do I get rid of that thinking?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2017

      For me it helps to think through the logic of a position and then ask whether I really want to accept it or not.

    • Sharon Friedman  July 9, 2017

      Different Christians have different views… Universalism is a Christian belief with a rich history. You can choose what (feels right) or as Bart says (makes sense) to you. Remember, Christians inherited the Psalms as in 145 JPS Tanakh 1917
      “The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion;
      Slow to anger, and of great mercy.”

      The big secret of religions with scriptures is that you get to decide how to interpret them and what they mean to you.

      Whatever God exists, I feel sure that like Her/His/Its good followers, the pastoral outweighs the theological. Or as Rob Bell says, Love Wins.

  30. billw977  July 6, 2017

    I have 2 quick unrelated things to say: I liked your definition of your position. I’m a little different, what do you call someone who definitely believes in some kind of a ‘higher’ being but doesn’t necessarily believe he is the one in the Bible, or Qur’an or ‘fill in the blank’? The other thing has to do with your debate with Robert Price. Something you said didn’t feel right. It’s one of the arguments you used to prove the likely existence of Jesus, the fact that there are 4 independent sources (the gospels) writing about Jesus. It occurred to me that one could also use this same argument to prove the existence of the miracles ascribed to Jesus (which you say you don’t believe they happened). Yet we have at least 4 independent sources writing about them. In actuality, if you include the whole Bible, we have many independent sources ascribing to miracles. Should you consider striking this argument from your list? It could be used against you…..

    • Bart
      Bart  July 7, 2017

      I suppose that kind of person would just be a theist. Yes, independent attestation does not prove that something actually happened; it’s simply one piece of evidence, to be taken in conjunction with other pieces. If you want a fuller discussion see my book Jesus: Apocalpytic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  31. billw977  July 6, 2017

    Seen a funny meme about the subject of being an atheist. Kind of loses a little without the pictures but here it is:
    Q: So you’re an Atheist?
    A: Yes
    Q: Why don’t you believe in God?
    A: I don’t believe in silly magic.
    Q: So who created the universe?
    A: It came from nothing.

  32. Mdoldon  July 6, 2017

    Bart, I think a lot of the problem is that you are, for better or for worse, seen ans somewhat of an expert on the issues. Theists love to claim authority from ‘scholars’ and your position is seen by many as important. That you for a number of years at least demonstrated the illogical basis of biblical writings, accuracy of the texts and the like, and yet still declined to declare yourself ‘atheist’ made it look like you were indeed, afraid to admit your own beliefs. You were seen by many theists as actually supporting their position, and just seemed like another apologist, if only by omission.

    We add onto that the whole lack of understanding that most people have about the terms at all. So many people take atheist as “I believe in no god” and agnostic as “I don’t know”. As a new reader, this is the first time I have come across one of your writings on YOUR use of the terms, so (to me) you always appeared as not fully committed. I now see that your meaning does match with the literal meaning of the terms.

    I think the truth is that by a literal definition, you are an agnostic atheist, as are most atheists (at least the relatively educated kind). We do not know, we cannot know, but we do not believe that there is any evidence for such a belief to be rational. In other words, your writings match you claims of belief, which is what we expect.

  33. Seeker1952  July 14, 2017

    I think most philosophers would argue that it’s impossible to “prove” that God does or does not exist. It’s extremely difficult if not impossible to “prove” anything outside the realm of logic and mathematics. So the real issue is how much evidence there is for and against God’s existence, and also whether God or something else is the best explanation of that evidence.

    Atheists I think tend to say that there is a lot of evidence against God’s existence, very little for his existence, and that there are better explanations than God for what evidence there is of his existence. Based on that they are confident that it’s reasonable to conclude that, for all practical purposes, there is no God or, at the very minimum, the evidence for God is negligible and insufficient for belief. Of course, if they are empiricists, they have to allow that new knowledge could lead to a different conclusion.

    Atheists I think see agnostics as hiding behind the impossibility of proving whether or not God exists, and the possibility that new knowledge could strongly support his existence. These are only possibilities. The current state of knowledge provides little reason to believe God exists and much reason to believe he does not exist. Do agnostics refuse to reach a conclusion in other areas of their lives where the state of the evidence is comparable?

    An agnostic position might be reasonable if the evidence was roughly equal for and against God’s existence. But atheists argue that’s not the situation we’re in. Agnosticism might also be reasonable if there was simply not enough information on which to base a reasonable conclusion, or that the evidence is ambiguous and difficult to really understand. Atheists argue that that there is more than enough information and knowledge to reach a reasonable conclusion.

  34. GreggL10  July 15, 2017

    The idea that atheism “only means lack of belief” is a minority opinion. Most people, other than atheist activists, use the word to denote a denial of the existence of god or gods. The same is true for the vast majority of analytic philosophers (including atheists who make up a large part of that field).

    So while I accept that some may hold to the minority definition, I still refer to myself as an agnostic to maintain clarity. (When I am alone with my atheist activist friends, I have also used their language to be respectful of their preferences.)

    BTW, we already have a word for a person who lacks belief: nontheist.

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