Richard Carrier replied to my reply on his blog entry: Atheist or Agnostic? Not surprisingly, he defended the argument that there is no difference between agnostics and atheists. Not surprisingly, I still disagree and see a clear difference even though the result of that difference is that we are essentially the same in our nontheism. The difference is still important to me though because it is what I believe to be true.
I focused on divine versus natural creationists as part of the difference since it is a part of my view of the obvious difference between us. He thought I had that as a mandatory part of the definition and threw in the notion of non-creating gods to confuse the subject even more. That’s fine, atheists would not believe non-creating gods are possible and agnostics would leave it as a possibility even though they don’t actually believe in specific definitions of them because it is still part of the supernatural that we have no knowledge about.
He then used the phrase “we are all agnostics” based upon the original argument that any given person could be agnostic in respect to “god x” and atheist in respect to “god y”. These views towards specific god definitions have nothing to do with your overall view though and doesn’t help you figure out a label for yourself. A Christian that is atheist toward “god z” is not an atheist.
I think labeling ourselves is an important point actually. These are labels that we figure out for ourselves just like the religions and their labels attached to their belief. It’s hard to argue about these things because it does come down to a matter of personal belief even when we talk about our own disbeliefs. I don’t imagine Richard will change his view, but that’s fine by me since I don’t need his approval to keep my agnostic label and hold to it. The beauty of being a freethinker is that there isn’t a Church of Freethought that we have to receive a blessing from to participate. Obviously we want to use the same sound definitions to describe things, but I think I am doing that. If there were no difference between atheists and agnostics then we wouldn’t have two words that do not carry the exact same definition as a synonym of each other. The roots of the words are different and speak volumes to me as to their underlying difference of viewpoint.
The following paragraphs are my reply back to Richard in an attempt to clarify my view:
I consider myself a “devout” agnostic and like the meaning of the word even if there isn’t a neat and tidy classification system that puts me there. I actually went from thinking I’m an atheist to a realization that I firmly believe I am an agnostic. It’s not a matter of an unwillingness to commit to atheism, but just my belief for what I think is true. I’m not trying to truly change your mind on this, but just want to share what I believe on this subject.
Your focus on specific definitions of a god/creator and how we can have different levels and labels of conviction for our belief/disbelief about them can be a bit confusing, not to mention your funny god names. Most people are atheistic towards Zeus, so a Christian is an atheist when we’re talking just about Zeus. That shouldn’t give them an overall atheist tag though and just confuses the subject just like when you talk about agnostic and atheist views towards a list of god definitions. Our views toward a specific god you’ve picked doesn’t define our overall view.
If an atheist is atheistic about the whole god concept then that’s what makes them an atheist, otherwise they would be a theist for whichever god they aren’t atheistic about. I agree that soft and hard atheism is meaningless. You said that all that matters in defining an atheist is that an atheist does not believe in any god. When you say “any god”, I take that to mean any concept of a “god”, supernatural creator, or even the noncreating “superbeing” you mentioned. Any god includes all definitions as well as the overall concept, which would include the undefined or not yet defined like when you created a name and definition for Bumpypoo.
I see the atheist as the purist that simply does not believe in any god (no matter the degrees of disbelief) including any vague concepts of gods all the way to an undefined creator (or even noncreating god). As an agnostic, I see the distinction as having an active belief that we do not know. I believe the concept of a god, deity, or any kind of supernatural phenomenon in that realm is beyond us and our understanding. I believe any such thing exceeds our intellect and our place in the physical universe. I don’t lack a belief in the overall god concept and weigh in with an emphatic “it is not known.” In contrast, a theist believes in such things and I think the atheist rejects them all or at least passively lacks a belief in them all as a weak form of rejection.
How about this lame attempt at a breakout?
Defined god (Christian, pantheist, etc.) – theists obviously believe, agnostics and atheists do not believe
Undefined god (god concept) – theists believe, agnostics believe it as a possibility that we know nothing about, atheists do not believe
UPDATE: There was another reply to my reply. He helped explain my belief on this well with this:
Hence I think agnosticism is more about why you don’t believe than how much or which gods. And that is exactly how Huxley coined the word, to demarcate reasons. In his case, lack of knowledge was grounds for unbelief, rather than knowledge of the proposition being false (which he implied would be atheism).
I agree with this as well. Why you don’t believe helps you decide what your overall view is of the supernatural and the gods people think they see there. Richard was able to show the “why” as a breakdown he didn’t agree with as well. He was still able to communicate this and I believe shows the reason for both words to continue to exist and be used even though he still claims no utility in the existence of the word agnostic.