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Why Would I Call Myself Both an Agnostic or an Atheist? A Blast From the Past

My personal beliefs came up in my debate with Dinesh D’Souza that I posted last week, and I received several questions about how I classify myself: agnostic or atheist?  I’ve talked about that on the blog a couple of times, but as I am constantly reminded, many of the people who are on the blog now were not on it a year or two ago, as there is turnover and our numbers continue to grow.  And certainly no one (well, almost no one) goes back and reads everything from, say five years ago!   So I thought it would be fine to repost my earlier comments.  It was in response to a question I received back then, very similar to the questions I’ve received over the past week.

 

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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:

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!

Before that, when I was a believer, I pretty much thought atheism and agnosticism were two amicably related positions, one saying that there is no God and the other saying that s/he doesn’t know if there is a God.  But when I became an agnostic, I started getting some very spirited emails from atheists who were incensed that I called myself an agnostic, as if I were being intellectually dishonest (that’s not the case with the person who asks the question above – he is good spirited about it and just curious).

What I came to see is that many agnostics and many atheists think they have a corner on the truth.  And they think the other side just won’t come clean.   In short, many atheists seem to think that agnostics are just wimpy atheists; and many agnostics seem to think that atheists are just arrogant agnostics.   That is to say: atheists think that agnostics are afraid to follow the truth of their convictions; and agnostics think that atheists claim to know far more than they could possibly know.

I’m not sure that’s the best way to think about the terms.  For years I thought that an atheist was someone who said there was no God, and an agnostic was someone who said they didn’t know.  I’ve changed my mind about that in the past year or two.   Now I think that “atheism” is a statement about faith and “agnosticism” is a statement about epistemology (the “science of knowledge”).

If someone has a better way of explaining the terms, I’m open to it.  But for now, for me, the way it works like this.  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).

When it comes to faith, I am an atheist.  I don’t believe in the traditional Judeo-Christian God (or in Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Apollo, etc) (I sometimes believe in Dionysus/Bacchus, but that’s another story…).   But as to whether there is some greater spiritual power/intelligence in the universe, I’m agnostic.  I don’t know if any such being exists.  And in my opinion, either does anyone else!

That means that I’m not sure what to call myself.  I suppose I lean toward “agnostic” rather than “atheist” simply because as a scholar and professional thinker I am, at the end of the day, more interested in “knowledge” than “faith.”   Moreover, the term does seem to me to convey a greater sense of humility in the face of an incredibly awesome universe, about which I know so little.   I happen to think that humility is a good thing in these circumstances.  At the same time, I can understand why others may want to emphasize what they do not believe rather than what they do not know, and so call themselves atheist.  (Why they are so incensed that I don’t follow suit, however, continues to be a mystery to me.)

 

 


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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?




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    • 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.




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      • 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.




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      • Yoel  December 26, 2017

        In my own simplistic way, over the past number on decades I have come to think of atheism, theism and agnosticism as follows;

        Theism is the belief that god created everything and that god has always existed (i.e. god was not created)

        Atheism is the belief that every thing came from nothing (i.e. there is no god or prime mover. Note, I see an equivalance between “god created everything” and “big bang created everything”)

        Agnosticism is the realization that “I don’t know” 

        The relationship between these three concepts is categorical (i.e. not ordinal). I consider these three concepts, at their core, to be mutually exclusive.

        I think that both atheism and theism are equally incomprehensible and as such, both require the same leap of faith. I believe that the only “true faith” is through agnosticism; i.e. when we finally realize that “we don’t know”, then we are free to choose to be either a theist or atheist. In this regard, I like the following quote by Immanuel Kant; “Thus,” Kant says, “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/

        Therefore, I consider myself to be an agnostic-theist because it feels good. 🙂

        Here is a quote from the english biologist Thomas Henry Huxley who coined the word “agnostic” in 1869. “Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle… the fundamental axiom of modern science… In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration… In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable,” Thomas Huxley,  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_He




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    • 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.




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  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?




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    • 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?




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      • 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.




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    • 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.




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  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.




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    • 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.)




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  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.

    😀




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  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.)




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    • 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.




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      • 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.




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    • 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.




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  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.




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    • 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?

      😉




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      • gwayersdds  July 6, 2017

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




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  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.




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  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.




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  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.




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    • 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.




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      • 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.




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        • dragonfly  July 7, 2017

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




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    • 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.”




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      • 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.




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  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.




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  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.




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    • Mdoldon  July 6, 2017

      Atheism is the complete LACK of a faith position.




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  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.




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  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.




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    • 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.




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  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.




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    • 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.




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  15. jwesenbe  July 4, 2017

    Dionysus/Bacchus makes more sense than the rest.




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  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.




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  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?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2017

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




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  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.




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  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.




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  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.




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    • 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.




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      • 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.




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