Friday, January 14, 2011

Atheism, Agnosticism, and the Middle Ground

In a colloquial sense, people who identify themselves as "agnostic" are trying to take the middle ground between atheism and theism. These people try to distance themselves from either side saying that they neither believe nor disbelieve god claims. Some even try to take the intellectual high ground and claim that atheists and theists are equally dogmatic in that they both take absolute positions on the existence of God while "agnostics" are the intellectuals which hold no absolute certainties. These people are ignorant of what the concepts of atheism, theism, and agnosticism actually entail. In fact, I'm confident in asserting that the majority of the people that read this post have a perverted sense of the connections these three concepts have to each other and this is most likely due to the inaccuracy of the media and the laymen when they there tossing these terms about. I would like to expel some of the myths about this topic. Atheism and theism deal with the notion of belief in a god or gods, while agnosticism and gnosticism deal with the notion of whether it is possible to know if a god or gods exist. In short, atheism and theism are only relevant to the issue of belief and agnosticism and gnosticism are only relevant to the issue of knowledge. I've included a fourth term, "gnosticism", so before I continue on to explain why the distinction between belief and knowledge is important, I would like to define the four aforementioned terms. Atheism is the lack of a belief in a god or gods and that is all. The lack of belief in god of gods is the only characteristic (that one could say with certainty) that defines an atheist. Similarly, the only characteristic one could give to a theist is that he/she believes in a god or gods; nothing more. Tomorrow's post is going to be on the misconception that atheism is dogmatic, a world view, or "just another religion". Neither atheism nor theism falls into any of these categories (I'll explain tomorrow!). Agnosticism is the position that we cannot know whether a god or gods exist and the converse, gnosticism, is the position that we can know whether a god or gods exist. The most important point here is that the terms are not mutually exclusive, or, in other words, everyone holds a combination of the terms (one from each pair). For example, you could be an agnostic atheist, gnostic atheist, agnostic theist, or a gnostic theist. Everyone, by definition, has to fall into one of these categories. If you were an agnostic atheist, you would lack a belief in a god or gods and you wouldn't claim to know whether a god or gods exist. I, for one, am an agnostic atheist. It is important to realize that there is no middle ground between atheism and theism or agnosticism and gnosticism. You either believe something or you don't and, in the other dichotomy, you can either claim to know whether we can know something or you don't. To better illustrate this point, let's replace the words "god or gods" in the belief dichotomy with "unicorns". You either believe in unicorns or you don't (i.e. there is no middle ground). Sure, you could say, "Well I will take the middle ground because I believe that somewhere a horse might have something taped or stuck to their head that would qualify it as a unicorn", but then that changes the question. The person who had this middle ground response should have answered "no I'm an 'aunicornist'" to the question because this person doesn't believe in a horse with a single horn that can fly (depending on the definition of unicorn you both agree to use). This middle ground attempt changed the question from, "Do you believe in unicorns?" to "Do you believe in horses with something attached to their head?" The subject must be clearly defined before asking the question. Substituting a god or gods back in, if someone asked me if I believed in a god or gods and we defined god or gods to be ham sandwiches, then I am a theist! But no one (that I know of) posits this; they use more conventional definitions of a god or gods that have some characteristic of supernatural ability among other things. This is why I call myself an atheist and more specifically an agnostic atheist because I don't claim to know whether a god or gods exists. In addition, I see no reason to shift the burden of proof.

For a detailed table and explanations on all four of the possible combinations, I highly encourage you to look at It has a great visual and the "#Combining_terms" at the end of the URL should take you right to it! This website ( is a great resource for atheists and theists alike and is run and maintained by the Atheist Community of Austin. I hope everyone will check this site out!

In other news, feel free to comment for any reason below. I prefer posts that disagree with my positions, offer criticisms, and correct me, but I don't mind getting praise either! Feel free to e-mail me at to have a private discussion about any topic you would like (I'll be happy to talk about anything). Again, my next post (which should be tomorrow) will be on "Atheism is a Religion!" and I will explain why atheism, as well as theism, isn't a religion. Also, I don't have an infinite list of topics to talk about, so if there is a topic you would like me to cover or a question you have that you believe will make a good post, please submit it in a comment below or e-mail me!

1 comment:

  1. So glad to see that you have returned to your blog. Looking forward to learning much more about your subjects.

    Knowledge Quest