A reader emailed disagreeing with Bertrand Russell’s view of the difference between Agnostics and Atheists that you find on the Answers page of this site. He goes on to say that Agnosticism is the “Atheistic mormonism” and is an offshoot of Atheism. His main objection appeared to be Russell’s view that Atheists disbelieve in God as a positive rejection based upon knowledge.
My response was that he was arguing with Russell’s quote even though he directed to rebuttal to this site. Russell’s writings are presented as historical ponderings of Agnosticism. There is no bible or authoritative source to tell anyone what is exactly right or wrong concerning what anyone may think Agnosticism is or isn’t.
In my view, Agnosticism is not the same as Atheism even though they share the same bottom line that neither believes in the gods of the theists. Atheism is the lack of a belief in gods and makes no real statements about a natural creation. Agnosticism is a broader acknowledgement of the ignorance of mankind concerning the creation of the universe and our place or purpose in it. It is a belief that we have no true way of knowing anything that may be supernatural (like a creator of our universe) because we are natural. This lack of knowledge would leave the possibility (slim as it could be) that the Christian God or something similar does actually exist. But this is the same kind of possibility to me that unicorns, winged horses, or other mythical creatures exist on the planet. I haven’t explored the entire planet to prove they’re not there, but it doesn’t make sense to me that they would exist even though some people have imagined them and written about them in books.
Agnosticism is still relatively young for humanity and only became a word in 1869. Thomas Huxley picked it over the term atheist because he lumped atheism in with a group of “-ists” that believes they have the answers to questions of existence in the positive or negative sense:
“When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”?had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.”
Huxley did not say he had any view of his belief as an offshoot or derivative of Atheism. He simply lumped Atheism in the lists of things he was not. He also took the view that Atheism had solved the problem of existence as a positive rejection of the supernatural.
Definitions of atheism from dictionary.com are 1) Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods 2) The doctrine that there is no God or gods.
The reader that wrote me replied to my first response to say that this site should not state that Atheists have a positive denial for the existence of gods. It sounded like he was trying to say that the definitions for Agnosticism at this site is really Atheism and that Agnosticism is nothing unique or separate from Atheism.
If Atheists do not “believe that there is no god” then why do our definitions of it say that it is a positive denial? Here we arrive at the various arguments of strong versus weak Atheism as well as Agnosticism. I think the weak versions of both are the true fence sitters and source of confusion here. A weak Atheist should commit to the idea that their belief is a belief that no gods or supernatural creators exists. If you are truly “without theism” then you reject the whole notion of it, correct? Likewise, a weak Agnostic should commit to the idea that we cannot truly know or understand anything of the supernatural. This should mean that you can’t call something God or creator in any sense of knowing such things enough to put a name to it. Creation and our “creator” is unknown and undefined.
Atheists have a belief in the lack of existence of a type of definied entity, namely supernatural creators defined by mankind. All gods that Atheists reject or simply do not believe in are supernatural creators. Agnostics do not reject the idea 100% that a supernatural creator does not exist, though we tend to agree more with the Atheist than the theist on the matter of gods as defined by mankind.
Here is a simple summing up: Atheists view the universe as existing naturally, Agnostics view its existence as being beyond our understanding. The Christian God and all its stories is silly to both views. Atheists reject that God on a belief that it is wrong and that an intelligent creator doesn’t make sense. Agnostics reject that God on belief that humanity can’t have that kind of information about creation or our creator.
I do not believe that Agnosticism is necessarily an offshoot of Atheism because that implies that it is a variation of a parent belief. I prefer to look at them each as their own specific view of existence. They are compatible in their lack of belief in theism, but they are not the same view with the same conclusion.