On Agnosticism vs. Atheism, in which I piss off lots of readers
For a long time I prefered to call myself “agnostic” as opposed to one of the many terms that suggests some amount of gnosis about the universe and whether it is possessed by a deity. I’ve recently had a change of philosophy, and want to explore it a little here.
In the capital-A Atheist community it’s a big deal that the nomenclature for your stance runs thus: 1) Agnostic vs. Gnostic, referring to whether you think it’s even possible to determine the status of a deity, and 2) Atheist vs. Theist, referring to what you believe in practice.
These metrics have even been plotted on two-dimensional scales so you can pinpoint your coordinates. This always bothered me on the basis that 1 is really prior to 2. I think a better version would be a flow chart that goes like this:
A) Are you Agnostic or Gnostic? If Agnostic, stop here. if Gnostic, proceed to B.
B) Are you Atheist or Theist?
In other words, if you believe it is impossible to know if there’s a deity, that seemed to be the end of the line for a person who lives her beliefs. If you believe knowledge of the “God question” is impossible, it doesn’t make sense to either join a church or an atheist society. If you believe you can know, then the question becomes what you believe that knowledge leads to.
On this basis, I did (and do) dislike the epithets sometimes put at self-described Agnostics. I won’t name names, but even people I respect will often refer to Agnostics as “cowards” or “weasels.” I dislike this partially because it’s simple ad hominem, but also because (by golly) there is a great tradition of scientific and intellectual contribution by cowards and weasels. To say otherwise is to never have visited a computer science department. As a coward-American, I stand in solidarity with my people.
That said, the more I consider it, the more I consider agnosticism to not be a proper position, and I would like to explain why. Here, I’m going to start with an analogy, then proceed to a more logic-based stance.
Suppose a person came to you and said “do you believe there is Big Stuff in the universe?” What would be your response?
If you’re an analytical person, you’d probably say something like “How big? If by ‘Big Stuff’ you mean something with greater volume than the universe, I’d have to say that it doesn’t exist. If you mean something bigger than a breadbox, I’d say that it affirmatively does exist.” You might also ask questions like “what is stuff?” and “what constitutes a single instance of stuff, as opposed to bits of disconnected stuff?”
Now, suppose this person then said “No, no, no. I don’t care about the specifics. Is there Big Stuff or not?”
Your response at this point, if you’re being reasonable (and a bit stubborn) would not be “I guess I don’t know.” It would be “If you give me enough specifics, I can tell you whether they’re sufficient for me to say if Big Stuff is possible or not. Until you give me specifics, I really could go one way or the other.”
At this point, the person says “So, I guess you’re agnostic on the question of Big Stuff.”
To this you respond “No. I’m certain some forms of Big Stuff don’t exist. I’m certain that others do. And, for others still, I’m agnostic.”
Hopefully you get my analogy here. My point is this: It doesn’t even make sense to say one is agnostic as to the question of a deity, since the question is not a question at all. It’s as much a question as saying “Do you believe in Big Stuff?” Without specification as to the nature of bigness and stuffness, it’s just a string of words that appears to be a question, but in reality asks nothing.
So, where does that leave us? Well, it means for example that I’m atheist about Enki, in that I don’t believe you can combine clay and blood to create humanity. It means I’m atheist about Shabbetai Tzvi because I don’t see why the Messiah would come to Earth, then later in his career take a solid job in the Ottoman Empire thereby losing most of his following, only later to get fired.
But it also means I could construct a deity about whom you’d have to say “I am agnostic.” A partial list would contain features like “Does not have a human sense of justice.” and “If it has a plan for the universe, it does not answer prayers.” and “Is not yet empirically detectable.” In other words, you can construct a deity about whom I would have to be agnostic, but it would be a deity so abstract that you probably wouldn’t be interested in worshipping it, and it probably wouldn’t be interested in your faith. Thus, I’d say most self-named “agnostics” are probably what the community would call “atheist” once the question is given enough specifics to be properly called a question.*
I’m sure much of what I’ve said has been noted before, but I felt the need to oppose this simple dichotomy that people seem to believe in. “Do you believe in God” is not actually a question at all, so it doesn’t warrant a system of nomenclature being defined around it. Thus the question should not be “Do you believe in God?” It should be “Which gods do you believe in?”
In this sense, I don’t really like to call myself agnostic or atheist, as it really depends on the deity. I like to say that it would surprise me less to discover there was a creator god than to discover astrology is true. That is, to find out there is some sort of deity with certain parameters doesn’t seem impossible to me. However, when you input some specifics, then I have to say the answer is decidedly “no.”
It’s on this basis I like to just call myself “irreligious.” Whether I’m agnostic or gnostic or atheist or whatever is really dependent on what we’re talking about. But I know for a fact that I don’t attend a place of worship, and don’t assume any books are sacred.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.
*That said, I don’t recognize the right of any individual to say to another “No, you’re wrong, you’re ______” especially when that blank begins with a capital letter. As I said to a reader who asked me if I would call myself a capital-F Feminist, “By your definition and mine I probably am, but I don’t recognize the right of anyone to put a capital letter to the left or right of my name.”