A Criticism of Agnostic Theism

I use the agnostic label to describe my viewpoint concerning the possibility of intelligent creators. I sometimes clarify my viewpoint as an agnostic atheist when communicating with picky people that insist agnosticism is only descriptive of knowledge and doesn’t say anything about beliefs in gods. Agnostics are logically de facto weak atheists lacking theistic beliefs. I say this only if you must insist religious beliefs are worthy of consideration even though they aren’t “justifiable true beliefs” under the common definition of knowledge. Faith isn’t a sufficient justification for belief. The world’s religions aren’t worthy of consideration as faith based claims of knowledge, therefore theistic beliefs aren’t compatible with the agnostic acknowledgement that we lack such knowledge.

I continue to agree with the logic of the historical agnostics when they first invented and promoted the term. You can use the Library link at the top of the page to read some of their writings. Agnostics see knowledge as the standard for evaluating supernatural claims and believe we “lack knowledge” concerning such things as definable gods. The agnostic term means without knowledge, so an agnostic that believes in gods using faith has dismissed the primary reason for defining agnosticism in the first place. Theism is belief based on faith so it really has nothing to do with agnosticism or being an agnostic.

You may then wonder what the agnostic response is to agnostic theism as it’s presented on some websites. Austin Cline over at about.com writes about a myth that agnostic theism doesn’t exist by boiling down a criticism of the term to “no religious faiths allow a person to believe without knowing for sure.” This is a false premise unless religions are gnostic and claim to have justified true beliefs. I haven’t encountered such religions and have only experienced promoters of faith as proof of their beliefs. They may make some knowledge claims about their god but when they’re put through scientific scrutiny they fall back on faith as their justification. Religious belief claims don’t often try to live up to the standards of human knowledge except in circular logic like the Bible proving that the God in the Bible exists.

The about.com article argues that agnostic theism is valid but doesn’t present a good argument for these words to make sense together other than to refute a poorly crafted myth. Admittedly agnostic theism can be claimed just as much as as any combination of terms such as a left-handed man where being left-handed has nothing to do with gender. I could claim to be an atheist Christian if I want to twist logic and insist on a non-belief view of Christians as a tribal label passively accepted from our parents.

The same is true for claiming to be agnostic Christian or agnostic theist in the more general sense. They only work if I insist Christianity and theism aren’t making knowledge claims with their religion or beliefs. They would have to strictly be about their beliefs and not knowledge… but beliefs in what? Religions and theism consists of beliefs in supernatural claims that may or may not be justifiable as truth. These beliefs are weak knowledge claims even if they’re not claimed to be verifiable knowledge statements.

Being a theist is making an unverifiable statement about knowledge and being an agnostic takes a negative position regarding that knowledge. Agnostic theism would be a twisted logic way to say a person fully acknowledges their religion is completely unjustified but they choose to believe in it anyway. Theism already says this simply by using belief instead of knowledge.

Agnosticism doesn’t describe or qualify a belief in supernatural knowledge claims. On the contrary, agnosticism is as contradictory to those claims as the atheist position of lacking theistic beliefs. When presented with new god knowledge/belief claims, agnosticism and atheism come to the same conclusion of falsehood using two different default positions. Agnosticism starts from a default position that we don’t know about such things without verifiable evidence using common standards of knowledge. Atheism starts from the position that we don’t believe based on faith alone, without verifiable evidence, just cause, or whatever it is we generally establish disbelief. I’m actually not sure what atheism uses as a default standard for disbelief. Atheism only means lacking belief so I don’t see it as a useful starting position for why we should disbelieve and that’s why I’m primarily agnostic in my response to god claims.

What’s the Deal with Atheism?

I guess I can’t get away from this subject so I’ll explain it again to answer this video from Hemant Mehta on his blog post titled What’s the Deal with Agnosticism?

Agnosticism isn’t in the middle of a spectrum for belief because it concerns knowledge of gods and not god beliefs. In response to this video I have to ask: what’s the deal with atheism? I could say atheism is a reactionary term that just means you reject theism. Why not use a term that better describes the limits of human knowledge concerning the supernatural? This is what agnosticism provides and isn’t a “wishy washy” middle ground on beliefs. I don’t recall reading anything from Huxley about it being a “wishy washy” middle ground term when he created it. If you read what he wrote about not identifying with atheism, it was the strong anti-theist form of atheism of his time that he was referring to and not the weak atheism many claim today. This is causing much confusion with agnosticism since agnostics and weak atheists are agreeable and overlapping positions. They have essentially the same result even though they answer the god “question” from two different questions for belief and knowledge.

Who are these theists anyway? I’ve known people that calls themselves Catholics, Methodists, Hindus, Christians, etc., but I’ve never met anyone that called themselves theist. Theism is the collective term that unbelievers call the religions. Christians, etc. (those theist people) believe what they believe based on faith alone. Atheism only exists as a term to describe those that don’t have a religion. There would be no atheism without religions so why do people think this term is such a wonderful term when all it means is you disbelieve?

The religious say to us that they believe and the “atheist” term only says that you don’t believe in response to their belief claim.

Agnosticism isn’t about belief at all. Yes, let’s stick to the basic definition of agnostic. It’s not that you don’t take a position on god since the term for that is secular. Agnostic literally means without knowledge and was created to speak of being without knowledge of gods. If we’re without knowledge then we don’t assume gods might be there since there’s no knowledge for it. Belief doesn’t enter into at all. We don’t know so don’t bother me with your religious nonsense. I don’t know where the universe came from or why because nobody knows that.

Christian beliefs without knowledge is still just a Christian. Throwing agnostic on faith-based beliefs doesn’t meaningfully modify the term just like female theist is accurate but doesn’t change the belief term. Agnosticism speaks of knowledge instead of belief or disbelief. The agnostic that evaluates current human knowledge honestly would most likely agree with weak atheism. I can’t guarantee all agnostics think that way because we don’t all agree on standards of human knowledge. We are human after all. Regardless, agnosticism is a description of open-minded skepticism and not a permanent destination of proven disbelief.

Agnostics aren’t digging in and hardening their minds against the possibility of anything supernatural ever being true. This is why atheism is unappealing to some agnostics because they think atheism means any potential god concepts is proven false and disbelief is permanent and eternal. I know this isn’t true of all atheists just like it isn’t true all agnostics are wishy washy. Personally, I’m a weak atheist today and don’t care if you call me one. Agnosticism does imply that I may not always remain a weak atheist if some knowledge of the supernatural were ever discovered. I’m sure if it is then the truth will be nothing like the primitive religions people believe today. I’ll probably be a weak atheist until I die but I honestly don’t know if we’ll always remain ignorant of the origin for this universe.

Strong atheism should just leave agnosticism alone if you don’t identify with it or agree with it. I could say that disbelief is a wishy washy and somewhat childish reaction to belief if I wanted to attack something that doesn’t neatly align with how I think. There’s absolutely no reason to stop calling myself agnostic since I place the utmost importance with knowledge. I acknowledge the limits of what we know concerning what may be beyond our known phenomena. Huxley spoke of what may be beyond what has been dreamt of in our philosophies. His descriptions of agnosticism resonates with me. I am agnostic.

When the religious say to me that they believe, I explain to them that knowledge is more important than belief or disbelief with my agnostic response.

It’s not wishy washy at all because describing myself as agnostic is still not describing myself as a Christian, Muslim, etc. I’m simply agnostic and that’s a perfectly acceptable term to describe what we know.

Bald Isn’t A Hair Color

I’m going bald so I can relate to the phrase “bald isn’t a hair color.”  It’s a rebuttal people use to describe how atheism isn’t a religion.  Agnosticism isn’t a religion either.  Neither of them have dogma associated with them. Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.  It serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system, and it cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the very system’s paradigm, or the ideology itself.

Some folks add their own beliefs and assumptions for what atheism and agnosticism are about, but without dogma the atheists and agnostics tend to argue over what these very words mean.  In their purest sense they’re just different answers to the god question.  Atheism says “I don’t believe” and agnosticism says “I don’t know.”  They are a lack of theism based on disbelief and a lack of theism based on lack of knowledge.

I won’t believe in something if there isn’t knowledge for it as justified true beliefs so I’m primarily an agnostic in my response to religions.  I don’t believe in any religious nonsense so I’m an atheist as well since I lack religious beliefs.  Anything more to these simple facts that you may try to add to those words, then that’s just your own issues. I’m tired of arguing over the meaning of these simple words.  I don’t really care.  There is no church or undisputed leaders of either term to rule on any dogma people try to create around them.  These aren’t religions so folks shouldn’t try to use them as religions. This means you can’t criticize how someone else uses them beyond their root meanings of “without theism” and “without knowledge.”

Atheism and agnosticism aren’t religions just like:

  • Bald isn’t a hair color
  • Off isn’t a TV channel
  • Not collecting stamps isn’t a hobby
  • Inactivity isn’t a sport
  • Health isn’t a disease
  • Unemployed isn’t a job
  • Nowhere isn’t a place
  • Not playing tennis isn’t a sport
  • Silence isn’t a noise

Agnosticism as a Guide

What should we believe?  I had an interesting exchange with someone on Twitter.  The person acknowledged agnosticism is a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry.  He went on to say that atheism is simply a position concerning religious belief and it doesn’t guide anything.  Agnosticism is a methodology of honesty towards existence that should guide our beliefs.  Thomas Henry Huxley created the term and said this about it:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle…Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

The person I was chatting with also said agnosticism is simply a position regarding religious knowledge and that there are agnostic theists.  The use of the agnostic adjective to describe faith-based theistic beliefs is like saying there are female theists.  One has very little to do with the other even though both labels are accurate.  Theism makes no claims of knowledge and agnostic theism doesn’t modify the term at all.  Additionally, if you apply agnosticism to your religious viewpoint then you “do not pretend that conclusions are certain” which is entirely what theism does.  Believing in a religion is a leap of faith to believe in the unproven using a deliberate defiance of your own reason. One of my favorite paragraphs from Huxley is:

 I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution of existing religions. On trial of any so-called miracle the verdict of science is “Not proven.” But true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which “are not dreamt of in our philosophy.” The theological “gnosis” would have us believe that the world is a conjuror’s house; the anti-theological “gnosis” talks as if it were a “dirt-pie” made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.

Someone can technically call themselves an agnostic theist just as someone could call themselves a gnostic atheist to claim knowledge for their disbelief, but both extremes are missing the point of the term they’re using to describe their belief position. I’m told repeatedly by atheists that atheism is only a “lack of theistic belief” and isn’t the same as an anti-theistic claim that theism is proven to be false. On this, Bertrand Russel said:

…an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.

I agree that atheism is just a position. It exists to describe the rejection of religion and if there weren’t any theistic beliefs then there wouldn’t be a need for the term. It doesn’t guide or inform anyone of what they should believe since it’s only the destination. Just as Christianity or Buddhism is the path to religious beliefs, agnosticism can serve as the path to disbelief in things we can’t honestly know.

I’m a de facto atheist in agreement with a weak atheist position that simply says I “lack theistic beliefs.”  I don’t have any sort of proof or knowledge that leads me to reject the religions around me.  I don’t adopt the religions that people try to share with me because I have an honest guide in agnosticism which “simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.”

Primarily Agnostic

“Answers two different questions, ‘agnostic’ answers epistemological question but not theological.” @PennJillette

See some thoughts of @TobiasPrinz regarding a short Twitter exchange on this subject on his blog post: Atheism and Agnosticism

I’ll go over this in a little more detail from my perspective since I can’t fully express my thoughts in the short attention messages of Twitter.  Yes, there are two questions that can be asked when it comes to religion.  Do you have knowledge about “god(s)” and do you have faith or belief in “god(s)”?  I want to stress that god isn’t just your own personal Jesus and God the father of the Bible or Allah or whatever other specific beings you may have a preconceived notion of when someone says… (cue menacing music) GOD.  Theism crosses the gamut from that to the vagueness of pantheism and a general view that “god” is this universe and we are all a part of god.  Also, when I think of creation, I see a possibility that this universe we know is just a small subset of a larger reality and existence.  Perhaps this little universe is a created thing in a larger existence.  Maybe we’re in The Matrix.  I just really don’t know enough to share anything with authority since I’m just a simple little human in such a large and mysterious universe.

These are the kinds of thoughts that lead to me to believe that the most important question  is the one concerning what we know.  What we personally believe is ultimately useless to humanity.  The whole reason for atheism is to be a disbelief response to theism.  There would be no need for atheism without theism.  That’s why I think agnosticism will always remain an important view for the big questions of existence, creation, and whatever may be our first cause and origin.  I’m not sure why there is an agnostic/atheist debate since they are both true to answer those different questions.  I identify primarily with agnosticism because of the importance of knowledge to me.  I share my view with the same amount of importance that primarily atheist people have for their view of it.  Who cares which path we take in our freethought when the answer is roughly the same?

  • Theist: I believe in this!
  • Atheist: I don’t believe you!
  • Agnostic: You can’t claim a verifiable truth (knowledge) for something like that!

Yes, by definition, the agnostic is not explicitly expressing disbelief.  However, if you’re agnostic and you profess your lack of knowledge then you are also expressing an importance for knowledge.  What type of logic or knowledge would then say it’s valid for an agnostic to agree with a theistic claim and engage in the blind faith required for god belief?  I know it’s not a hard and fast rule that agnostics aren’t theists, but it makes no sense to me that the agnostic wouldn’t agree with the atheist when it comes to specific claims made by theists.  We should all be in agreement for disbelief even though we come to the same conclusion from a different primary path.  Nearly all agnostics should come to the same conclusion as atheism.

If you’re an atheist and you’re arguing that I shouldn’t be agnostic, then you’re really just criticizing my path and methodology even though we’re arriving at the same general conclusions.  Instead of criticizing folks that say “I don’t know” as being weak and lacking enough commitment to be an atheist, why don’t you “real atheists” just help those that may be on the fence to understand that nobody should engage in or support blind faith and theistic beliefs when we don’t know.

I’m primarily agnostic and that should be fine for any reasonable person.  People shouldn’t believe in crap that they obviously can’t know anything about.  That crap is the religions of our ancestors.  Yes, that’s just like atheism, but for me it’s just the conclusion and the real reason why I think that way is agnosticism since unknown is the real answer for me.