Atheist vs. Agnostic
There is so much confusion over terms that I felt it was important to add this page. For a full, thorough definition of these terms and how they fit together, visit the Iron Chariots Wiki, which is my source for much of this content. (Their wheel was so perfect, I saw no need to reinvent it.)
If you’re not up for reading the whole definition, here is my Cliff’s Notes summary:
Theism addresses the topic of “belief.” For every single god statement, there are those who will believe it, and those who will reject it. A person calling himself an atheist is somebody who happens to reject all of the god statements that he/she has ever heard. (Note that even a Christian is an atheist with respect to gods like Thor, Zeus, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc. The person referring to himself as an atheist just happens to go one god further than the person calling himself a theist.)
Gnosticism* addresses the topic of “knowledge,” or what one claims to “know.” Simply stated, a gnostic person claims to know whether or not a statement is true, whereas an agnostic person makes no such claim. Notice that “making no such claim about a truth statement” is NOT the same thing as claiming that it’s certainly false. Someone who claims that something is certainly false is also claiming to have knowledge, so he/she would be gnostic, not agnostic.
Hopefully it’s clear that these two terms are not mutually exclusive. There can be, and there are, both gnostic and agnostic atheists, just as there are both gnostic and agnostic theists.
Personally, I consider myself to be an agnostic atheist. In other words, I’ve never heard a god claim that seems believable; however, I do not claim to be able to definitively prove that that it is impossible for a god or gods to exist. I happen to think that it’s highly unlikely and am more than willing to offer up some arguments on behalf of my position, but I would never assume the burden of proof for a negative such as this (i.e. the null hypothesis, that no gods exist).
*A quick aside on the topic of agnosticism: There persists a misconception among some that agnosticism means “unable to be known by man,” or more simply stated, “is unknowable.” The source of this alternate definition was Thomas Huxley, better known by many as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” While I can appreciate that Huxley had a very difficult job and was trying to be as diplomatic as possible while arguing an extremely contentious issue in a less enlightened era, I think his definition is awfully confusing and has ended up doing far more harm than good. His definition is contradictory to the construction of the word itself. We’ve already established that the root of the word, gnosticism, deals with knowledge. And of course, the “a” at the front of the word means “without.” The “a” does NOT mean “unable to obtain.” Furthermore, to claim that something is “unknowable” is actually making a truth statement about the nature of the topic being discussed. You would expect such a person to have some sort of evidence as to why the topic is unknowable. But if it’s unknowable, how could this ever be proven? I believe Huxley’s definition is self-contradictory and circular in nature, so is essentially useless. I think it’s far better to say you “don’t know the answer,” rather than saying “an answer can never be known.” I’ll leave any further exploration of this topic to the reader, since I have now made this not so “quick” of an aside.
P.S. on Religion: Note that the above description is about god beliefs, and says nothing at all about “religion,” which I define as the structure or framework that is applied to the belief. Once we begin talking about specific religions, there are holy books, dietary guidelines, commandments (or lack thereof), creation stories, moral codes, and other truth statements about the nature of the world that are testable and capable of being judged on their own merits. Unless you are a Diest, or a person who believes that there is a super-natural explanation for the creation of the world but that this being does not, or has never, meddled in human affairs, you subscribe to a specific religion that can and should be evaluated. Here, I’m much more willing to be gnostic. I believe that all religions (at least all that I’ve encountered), are completely false and are harmful to society. So, I’m not just a-religious (or, without religion), but I am anti-religious. And on this, I’m more than willing to provide evidence, logical argument and proof for this position. Of course, my job here is incredibly easy, isn’t it? Simply look at what each religion in the world says about every other religion and you’ll have much of your proof. As fervently as religions defend their own claims, they are expert at discrediting their competitors.
Criticize your own beliefs in the same manner in which you criticize credit card offers, infomercials, and those emails from the Nigerian Price who is sitting on a pile of your money and I’m confident that you’ll find your way to the right answers. Mostly everyone out there who is reading this already has the necessary tools to accomplish this… Yet for some reason, few actually enlist their use when it comes to religion.