Am I agnostic or atheist?
Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition
Here is how the OED defines atheism:
atheism Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.
disbelieve 1. trans. Not to believe or credit; to refuse credence to: a. a statement or (alleged) fact: To reject the truth or reality of.
- To contradict or gainsay (anything stated or alleged); to declare to be untrue or untenable, or not what it is stated to be.
- Logic. The opposite of affirm; to assert the contradictory of (a proposition).
- To refuse to admit the truth of (a doctrine or tenet); to reject as untrue or unfounded; the opposite of assert or maintain.
- To refuse to recognize or acknowledge (a person or thing) as having a certain character or certain claims; to disown, disavow, repudiate, renounce.
Note that the OED definition covers the whole spectrum of atheist belief, from weak atheism (those who do not believe in or credit the existence of one or more gods) to strong atheism (those who assert the contrary position, that a god does not exist).
Here is the OED's definition of 'agnostic':
agnostic A. sb. One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.
Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary Unabridged
Here is Webster's definition of atheism:
atheism n 1 a: disbelief in the existence of God or any other deity b: the doctrine that there is neither god nor any other deity--compare AGNOSTICISM 2: godlessness esp. in conduct
disbelief n: the act of disbelieving : mental refusal to accept (as a statement or proposition) as true
disbelieve vb vt : to hold not to be true or real : reject or withold belief in vi : to withold or reject belief
Note that again, both strong (1b) and weak (1a) atheism are included in the definition.
A good deal of people consider themselves to be 'agnostics'. By this they mean to identify themselves as doubters on the question of a 'god's' existence. They usually hold to this position of doubt because reason compels them to doubt the existence of any 'god', yet they resist calling themselves atheists because they also want to hold to their disbelief tentatively. Their expressed reason for this is clear: while their reason leads them to doubt the claims of theism, reason also demands that they keep an open mind on the question of 'god'. If you are one such person then it might interest you to know that your doubt actually makes you an atheist, not an agnostic. Why is this so? Because the word 'theism' simply implies a belief in a god. Therefore, if you find yourself identifying yourself primarily as a doubter of the existence of a 'god', then you are an a-theist... someone who does not hold to a belief in a 'god', someone who does not accept the claims of theists. That's all the term means - a position of non acceptance, a position of non belief.
It is the fallback position, the position one holds to when a claim is unsupported or unproven. Yet, you might feel that the word 'atheist' still implies more than what you actually hold to. A common response to hearing that one is an 'atheist' is to say: "But I don't disbelieve, I just don't believe!" But take a look at those words carefully: if you literally "don't disbelieve" - then, by double negation, you'd believe! Not disbelieving is believing. But you are not identifying yourself as a theist with doubts, right? You're identifying yourself as a doubter... period. That is atheism.
But you still seek some sort of middle ground, right? Something between theism and rejection of theism. Well relax, because the atheism IS your middle ground. "A-theism"' implies everything that a rational doubter means when he declares himself an 'agnostic', for while it's a common misperception that atheism implies a denial or rejection or active disbelief in the very possibility of a god, this is not so. In fact, we require a special term for those those who hold to such beliefs: "Strong Atheism". The rest of us doubters simply don't hold the belief... we're all atheists, whether we are doubters or outright rejectors of theism. So the missing 'middle ground' that you are looking for, rational tentativeness, is already included within the term 'atheism'.
So what does the word "agnostic" actually mean and how ought we use it? Notice the 'a' in front. 'Agnosticism' is a position counter to gnosticism. And what is gnosticism? It's the belief that a human being can possess knowledge about a god. It's an epistemological term - about the possibility of knowledge in regard to 'god' claims - and not a statement about matters of belief. 'Agnostics' hold to the epistemological position that human beings can't actually know anything about something beyond nature, something theists call 'supernatural'. So they believe that there's no way for a human to know anything about a 'god'. But there are many theists who agree!
Theists can be be agnostics! In fact, many theists say that they hold to their god belief on faith because they agree that we humans can't know things about the supernatural, or 'god'. Some very famous theologians have agreed that man is limited and that this means that man cannot have 'god knowledge". The list of theologians would include people like Martin Luther or Soren Kierkegaard. So when one says that they are an 'agnostic' and they mean a 'doubter', they are really saying that they are agnostic atheists. So if you find that this describes your own 'agnosticism', welcome to atheism!
What is an atheist? From Jake... founder of The Atheist Network
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Q: But I don't disbelieve in god! I just don't believe!
A: Again, if you literally 'don't disbelieve' then it would follow that you believe. You obviously don't mean to say this! What you probably mean to say is that you don't believe, OR reject the possibility of 'god' claims either. This leaves you without any theistic beliefs. Unless you are a pantheist or a polytheist (a person with god beliefs other than theism), this makes you an a-theist. Atheism does not necessarily imply anything other than a lack of theistic belief.
The other options if you don't disbelieve and you don't believe are:
- You are dead
- You have down syndrome or another mental impairment
- You lack a 6th grade understanding of the word "disbelieve"
- You were brainwashed by religious fundamentalists who redefined the word atheist to divide and scare.
- In examples 2-4 you still either disbelieve or believe, but we'll leave you alone on the issue because we understand.
Q: But my dictionary says that 'atheism' is defined as ....
A: Will it surprise you to find out that dictionaries exist to provide definitions that people might use? I hope not! Will it surprise you to find out that not all of these definitions are appropriate for every context? I hope not! Would it surprise you to find out that some theological and philosophical terms have colloquial usages? And that dictionaries list these definitions, even definitions based on common error, along with the proper theological definitions, and even, in some cases, in lieu of the proper definition? Well, here's what you should know if you're going to cite a dictionary in a philosophical discussion: Dictionaries exist to provide all the popular definitions that exist for a word, meaning that some of the definitions may not be suited to a particular usage in a particular context. If people use the word 'atheist' to mean 'satanic' or 'evil', then a dictionary might list that meaning. If people use 'atheist' to mean 'strong atheist' then a dictionary might list that meaning. Dictionaries might even list the actual meaning of the 'atheist' or 'agnostic'. But one thing that dictionaries usually do not do is provide a rigorous philosophical justification for every definition listed. And that's just one reason why citing a dictionary in a theological or philosophical conversation is not the proper way to settle an issue: First, you're not providing a source that actually provides a philosophical justification for the definition, they are merely citing common usage. Second, it's likely that you're importing a non theological usage of the word into a theological debate, particularly if you are going through the list of alternative definitions until you find a definition that suits your particular need. And that's a fallacy of equivocation, a fallacy just as silly as thinking that you could jack up your car with a Jack of Hearts.
Q: But common usage creates new meaning for words all the time. We should accept these popular conceptualizations.
A: Yes, common error does lead to new usages. But it is an error to transport these new definitions based on erroneous misperceptions back to their original context. We call this sort of error a fallacy of equivocation. Example: the word 'agnostic' is now a catch-all term for 'undecided'. People literally say things like "coffee or tea, I'm agnostic on that." Now, if a person were to enter into a discussion of 2nd century gnosticism, and were to try and use the word 'agnostic' as indicating 'uncertainty' they would obliterate the actual intention of the word 'gnostic' as it is used in this theological context, to indicate knowledge.
"The actual root word for 'atheism' is theos, meaning that 'atheism' is actually 'a-theos' - without 'god'" No atheist uses the term 'atheist' in the sense of 'a-theos' or being 'without god - this wouldn't make sense seeing as this usage implies the existence of a god! This sense of the word 'atheist' was used as an insult by Christians and has no application to self professed atheists who are professing a lack of belief, and not a position of 'godlessness'
EVERYONE ON EARTH WAS BORN AN ATHEIST.
MOST ATHEISTS ARE BOTH AGNOSTIC AND ATHEIST.
Are you open to the evidence that you might have been lied to about what the terms mean? Do you realize that theists lie to spread their belief? If so, can you admit they lied about a topic they were highly ignorant of(atheism)?
So are you an atheist or a theist? On the question of belief in God there is no other option!
Youtube video by Evid3nc3e on the definitions of atheism. He covers weak atheism, strong atheism, agnosticism, and how every atheist he has ever met would admit there was a god if given enough proof for one.
Supplemental reading: atheist, theist, gnostic, agnostic
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