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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. Avatar
    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.

  2. 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 .

  3. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      RVBlake  July 5, 2017

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

  4. Avatar
    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.

  5. Avatar
    wawawa  July 5, 2017

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

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  July 9, 2017

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

  6. Avatar
    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).

  7. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

  8. Avatar
    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.

  9. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  10. Avatar
    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.

  11. Avatar
    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.

  12. Avatar
    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.

  13. Avatar
    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.

  14. Avatar
    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.

  15. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 17, 2017

    The more I revisit Jesus’ healing the leper in Mark ch. 1, the more sense your preference for the “anger” over “compassion” reaction makes to me. I was following up some parallel and other references in two different study Bibles today and noticed that both Matthew and John (big surprise, when I think about it) portray Jesus as being intensely emotional at times. But not Luke, from the lack of citations. I know you have written that Luke’s image of Jesus is as detached, in control, unaffected by what is happening to or around him,
    1) but how does John’s concept of Jesus being an eternally pre-existent divinity square with the grief or frustration he experiences in connection with the death of Lazarus? Which do you think it is —
    a) is he grieving for his friend, or
    b) empathizing with the grief of the two sisters, or
    c) frustrated with everyone’s lack of faith?
    2) Finally, do you think these multiple references to emotional outbursts constitute sufficient attestation to assert that Jesus was somewhat volatile?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      2) Great question. Maybe they do! 1) John’s Gospel is inordinately complex because of the multiple layers of its traditions from various sources. THe final redactor’s theology (something like what is found in the Prologue) is not that of earlier sources that he incorporates (e.g. 1:35-51). And so it’s hard to specify just one view, even within a specific pericope. But my guess is that he is showing human emotion in respect to both his dead friend and the grief of those around him. Still, notice: the REASON he stayed away for four days instead of going right away was SO THAT Lazarus would die (see vv. 5-6!!) An amazing story.

      • Avatar
        Seeker1952  July 26, 2017

        A couple years ago, for a graduate level New Testament course, I wrote a (very) short paper speculating that Jesus’s anger was at the demon causing the leprosy. The leper seemed the only other possible object of Jesus’s anger yet it did not seem to delay Jesus healing him. Also, there are several other exorcisms preceding and (I think) following the leper story.

        Has anyone given serious consideration to a leprosy-causing demon as the object of Jesus’s anger?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 27, 2017

          It’s an interesting idea; as you probably know from your research, there are lots of reasons given by those who prefer the reading. I believe I have seen an “anger-at-the-demon” argument before, prompted, among other things, by the εκβαλλω at the end of the story. But I don’t recall off hand who made the argument.

  16. Avatar
    Apocryphile  August 2, 2017

    Wow – after reading all this I need a Tylenol! (or at least a couple of low-dose 81 mg aspirin) 😉

    I think we’re getting hung up on semantics in trying to figure out the exact meanings of ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’. Like the term ‘Christian’, they have, and will always, mean different things to different people. If science is any guide, what it has to tell us, to put it very simply, is this: One of two possibilities – if our universe is all that exists, it is impossible to explain without invoking a creator of some kind (known in cosmology as the ‘fine-tuning’ problem, especially as it relates to the cosmological constant). If, however, our universe is but one ‘bubble’ among an infinite sea of other bubble universes (the multiverse), each with its own random set of physical laws, through the anthropic argument our fine-tuning problem nicely goes away. At least on the face of it — there remains, in my mind at least, the question of in what ethereal realm these random possibilities themselves exist(?)

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