The overlap between agnosticism and atheism

From John R. Shook, The God Debates: a 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between). (pp 16-18) Wiley-Blackwell 2010. Published by permission.

Nonbelievers who reject traditional theistic Christianity have many options for positive worldviews. Besides other nontheistic religions, there are many kinds of pantheisms, spiritualisms, and mysticisms, along with varieties of humanism and naturalism. Forming a positive worldview is hard enough; selecting a label for oneself from a limited menu is even harder. Demographers polling people in America and around the world consistently find that few nonbelievers prefer the label of “atheist” for labeling their own position (Zuckerman 2007). This reluctance probably has more to do with the perceived meaning of atheism rather than the actual views of nonbelievers. Besides its strongly negative connotations, attached to the label by believers’ scorn or fear towards atheism, the term “atheism” became associated with dogmatism. Nonbelievers, quite understandably, do not want to be perceived as evil or dangerous, or stubbornly dogmatic. It is ironic how believers could accuse atheists of dogmatism, when the word “dogmatic” was a preferred label for true religious believers since the early days of the Christian Church. The meaning reversal that happened to “dogmatic” in turn caused “atheism” to shift meaning. In earlier centuries, an atheist was simply a skeptical nonbeliever, characterized by an inability to be dogmatic about religion (Thrower 2000, Hecht 2004). This lack of dogmatism was precisely what distinguished the wayward atheist who strayed into ignorance about religious matters. Unable to be persuaded by sacred scripture, religious creed, or theological reasoning, atheists expressed their unbelief and uncertainty. That’s how you could tell a religious believer from a nonbeliever back then: the religious person pronounced their confident knowledge about religious matters, while the atheist could only admit hesitant ignorance. Nowadays, however, the atheist is often accused of dogmatism.

The rise of the label “agnostic” is connected with the strange fate of the term “atheism”. In the 1860s Thomas Henry Huxley recommended “agnosticism” – the contrary of “gnostic,” a Greek term for knowledge. An agnostic recommends admitting our lack of knowledge about any ultimate reality, such as a “supreme being” or whatever caused the universe. Huxley offered agnosticism as a reasonable stance towards not just any religion’s overconfident dogmas but also about any philosophy’s overreaching conclusions as well. Skeptical towards both theology and metaphysics, Huxley and many other rationalists adopted “agnosticism” as a convenient general category for their conservative philosophical stance. The agnostic is not a complete philosophical skeptic who claims to know nothing. The agnostic’s standard of knowledge is just our ordinary reliable (not perfect or infallible) knowledge of the natural world around us. While presently unable to know anything about ultimate reality using these empirical tools of intelligence, the agnostic, like everyone else, is able to know plenty of other things about the natural world, where ordinary human investigations yield practical and reliable results.

Since agnosticism’s conservative approach to belief is also the basis for atheism, confusion between atheism and agnosticism immediately ensued, and has not stopped since. What exactly is the relationship between agnosticism and atheism? An agnostic, like an atheist, does not accept supernaturalism, specifically, because no supernatural belief has yet passed the reasonable standard of empirical knowledge, and so a confession of ignorance is the only conclusion. Despite the obvious overlap between agnosticism and atheism, the impact of agnosticism in the 1800s and early 1900s had the rhetorical effect of clearing a middle ground between religious belief and atheism. This adjustment in turn affected the meaning of “atheism”. If the agnostic cannot know that supernaturalism is right, and if the atheist isn’t an agnostic, then the atheist must therefore be someone claiming to know something about the supernatural. What might an atheist claim to know? The common meaning of “atheism” began to shift towards “disbelief in god” and “the denial that god exists” so that many people began taking atheism to mean “it can be known that nothing supernatural exists”. The agnostic, on the other hand, could still be religious through other means besides the intellect (such as faith), so that there could be agnostic theists as well as agnostic atheists (see Flint 1903).

It is not easy to track dictionary definitions of “atheism” over the centuries, since this subject, so distasteful to Christians, rarely received its own entry. By the time the term began regularly appearing in dictionaries, around the turn of the twentieth century, the distinction between two kinds of atheism was already noticed. The eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911) was the earliest edition of that reference work to include atheism. It distinguishes between dogmatic atheism and skeptical atheism. Dogmatic atheism “denies the existence of god positively” while skeptical atheism “distrusts the capacity of the human mind to discover the existence of god”. The entry goes on to add that skeptical atheism hardly differs from agnosticism. But skeptical atheism kept fading from view, lost in the glare of its new cousins, agnosticism and dogmatic atheism. Dogmatic atheism is now widely taken to be the only kind of atheism, especially in the recent form of a “new atheism”. This new meaning for atheism has achieved common parlance, dictionary affirmation, and philosophical usage. Instead of being an ignorant skeptic about the divine, an atheist is now supposed to be just another overreaching gnostic possessing confident knowledge about ultimate reality. Agnosticism has now re-emerged into popular view as a nonbelief option to atheism’s dogmas and religion’s faith.

About the Author

John Shook is is Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational in Amherst, N.Y., and Research Associate in Philosophy at the University at Buffalo.

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