Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Terminology: agnosticism, atheism, antitheism

I don't have anything prepared for this morning - so, so very tired - so I'm borrowing a piece on terminology that I wrote for something else. And now I must get to wor... zzzzzzzzz

I'd love to tell you that this is going to be definitive, but it's not. These are terms that people use in different ways, with different meanings, and any attempt to absolutely define them is pretty well doomed to failure. However, there are some distinctions that I want to point out here because I think they'll be helpful.

Agnosticism: basically, this is the position that we don't know (or can't know, which is sometimes called "hard" agnosticism) whether or not God exists.

Atheism: this is either not believing that God exists (called "soft" atheism) or the belief that God does not exist (called "hard" atheism).

Antitheism: this is the belief that religion is inherently harmful; generally, that it slows and suppresses social, scientific, and technological progress; that it discourages critical thinking, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

I'm breaking these down this way because it's very easy to confuse these qualities, or to think that they're all basically the same thing. The most common misconception I see is the idea that all atheists are also antitheists. That really isn't the case, but it's an easy mistake, since the most vocal atheists are vocal precisely because they're also antitheists - and also because a lot of newly deconverted atheists go through an angry-lashing-out stage as part of the process of letting go of their former beliefs. (This has been compared to the tendency to demonize ex-wives and ex-girlfriends after a breakup, and I think the analogy is apt.)

The second most common misconception I see is that agnosticism is somehow better or gentler or more honest than full-scale atheism. And, actually, there is some truth to that, particularly because the sorts of people who don't believe in God, but also don't think religion is necessarily evil, are often a lot more comfortable referring to themselves as agnostics than as atheists. (In fact, up until a couple of years ago, I did that myself.)

Mainly, though, there's a lot more overlap between atheism and agnosticism than those categories would tend to indicate. As a practical matter, it doesn't make much difference whether someone doesn't know whether God exists (and so carries on their life as if He didn't), and someone who believes that God doesn't exist (and so carries on their life as if He didn't). Looking at that another way, most atheists - if they're being honest about it - will freely admit that they can't be absolutely sure that God doesn't exist. I've only met a few "hard" atheists, and for them the accusation that they rely on faith just as much as believers seems perfectly legitimate. That's not to say that there aren't any hard atheists out there; I'm sure there are. But most of the forceful "I'm absolutely sure that God does not exist" opinions are part of the rhetoric, rather than cogent philosophical positions.

...Which brings me to my last point: the idea that atheists are secretly just antitheists. Basically, this view says that atheism is just a smokescreen - that the so-called "atheists" really do believe in God, they're just angry at Him or in rebellion against Him. This is, as far as I can tell, absolute nonsense. I mean, I'm sure that somewhere out there, there exists a pure antitheist: someone who, to quote from Pitch Black, absolutely believes in God and absolutely hates the M--- F---. But I've never met anyone like that, in any context. (And, really, is there any meaningful way to oppose an all-powerful being?) For most atheists, the belief that there is no God is not really a choice; it's a conclusion, the best they can come to from their experience and other evidence.

There's probably more to add to this, but I think this is a decent start - and it's certainly long enough already.


  1. That was a really good write-up....coming from a devout Agnostic who has a touch of antitheism, yet has a Catholic wife and two daughters who go to a private Christian school.

    I think religion has many redeeming qualities, but that those qualities can and do exist irrespective of religion. Conversely, I believe that religion has been [and continues to be] a prominent driving force behind much of the worlds strife and ills.

    I'm not sure what terms exist [or could be coined] but I think much the same lies on the spectrum of the religious; from those are absolutely convinced that God exists to those that are simply hedging their bets...just in case.

  2. The only anti-theists i have ever come across are Satanists. They acknowledge god's existence but hate him so they turn to Satan.

  3. @ Constitutional Insurgent - Thanks; glad you liked it.

    @ Neno December - Oh, yeah. Man, I haven't run into of those guys in years. I'd forgotten about them.

  4. I once met an atheist who claimed to believe in the non-existence of God as a matter of faith, then got upset when people called that a religious belief. This person could not seem to grasp the distinction between not believing as a matter of faith and not believing based on the available evidence. Weirdly, I don't think I've come across this attitude online.

    Richard Dawkins, BTW, admits that a hands-off Deist style God cannot be logically proven or disproven. He just prefers the parsimonious assumption that God does not exist. The entire thesis of The God Delusion is that if God intervenes in the universe as portrayed in various holy books, then there will be evidence of that intervention, and that such evidence is, in fact, lacking. The admission regarding a non-intervening deity is in the first or second chapter of the book, IIRC. I never got passed chapter 4, but that still seems to be farther than many of the theists who inveigh against him got.

  5. I think I'm firmly in the Agnostic camp. People do tend to conflate agnosticism and atheism.

    I don't know if there's a God and I'm not sure I can know if there's a God. I'm sure there's enough information out there for me to formulate a belief about that, but since I also feel fairly certain that God is not the Christian/Jewish/Muslim God I'm not sure it matters to me.

    I may at some point embrace the atheist label but, as you point out, there are so many believers in a God who associate atheism with the devil incarnate that I've been hesitant to do so.

  6. Don't forget that agnosticism divides further. It splits into two groups: theistic agnosticism and atheistic agnosticism. TA basically says "I don't know if God exists (or I can't know), but I'm pretty sure s/he/it/they do anyway." AA stays "I don't know (or can't know) if God exists, but I'm pretty sure s/he/it/they don't."

    The categories overlap in more than one way. For instance, I'm an atheist towards the Abrahamic God. I'm also atheistic towards a lot of concepts of god, like what you find in Hinduism. I'm atheistic agnostic towards the concept of a deist watchmaker; I don't know and can't know if such a god exists, but because the universe seems to work just fine with laws that we can explain, then there doesn't appear to be a need for one on the surface, meaning I don't think one exists.


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