Archive for August, 2012

Atheism vs. Agnostism

The basic dichotomy of god belief is simple:  A person is either a theist or an atheist. Theism denotes a belief in one or more deities while atheism is simply the non-belief.  Strictly speaking, if one answers the question of, “Do you believe in God?” with anything but a solid ‘yes’, then they are an atheist.  I’ll reduce the possible answers to ‘yes’, ‘I don’t know’, and ‘no’ for simplicity’s sake.  The first indicates theism, while the latter two would put the responder in the atheist camp.  Whether someone wears the dreaded ‘atheist’ name tag is their choice, and a topic for another day.

Someone might say that the ‘I don’t know’ answer implies agnosticism.  This is where the common error begins.  Remember, the question isn’t “Is there a god?”  The question is, “Do you BELIEVE in God?”  To say “I don’t know” indicates a lack of certainty of one’s own belief.  It’s not about what the person knows.  The difference may be subtle, but it’s important.

There is a difference between the questions “Does a god exist?” and “do you believe a god exists?”  The former asks about knowledge and the latter asks about belief.  The key is to recognize the difference.  You can believe something to be true, but not actually know it.  Conversely, if you know something is true, unless you are insane in the membrane, you will also believe it to be true.

‘Agnosticm’ was coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869 to describe the rejection of spiritual knowledge.  In this vein, it’s the assertion that there is a lack of actual knowledge.  Some people go a step further and assert that agnosticism is a claim that one can’t know.  This is a later usage of the term, which I find interesting.  It’s self-contradictory.  The claim that one can’t know something is a knowledge claim about that topic in and of itself. It carries an extremely large burden of proof which I think can’t be supported.  That’s my belief anyway.  I can’t prove it, of course.

The word Gnosticism is based on the Greek word ‘gnosis’ which means ‘knowledge’ conveniently enough.  The Gnostics were a religious sect in the second century which made claims of religious knowledge.  Huxley added the prefix ‘a-’ which means ‘without’ to form the word ‘agnostic’.  While we rarely see people using ‘gnostic’ with a lower-case ‘G’ to describe a knowledge claim, it’s a convenient bookend term for a scale to describe one’s knowledge.

“Very interesting,” you say.  So what’s my big freakin’ problem?!

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Everyone in the Canadian skeptical community is aware of the poor state of scientific skepticism in Canadian politics, the media, and the wider public. I’m sure that most of you, like me, would like to do more to help improve the situation.

There’s a new organization in Canada called Bad Science Watch. They want to become the go-to source in the country to take on bad science, promote good science, and help protect and inform Canadians. I’m really excited to see them get started!

As with any organization, they need funds to get going. So with that in mind:


London Skeptics meets twice month in London, ON and we will be collecting donations from our group members at each meet-up to support Bad Science Watch. We intend to collect more funds than any other skeptics group in Canada so that we can win the sweet pile of swag and affection that BSW has offered in recognition!

In addition to collecting cash at skeptic events, there is also the option to donate directly through PayPal or PeerBackers as well.   It will be up to individual groups to maintain their own donation totals so that we aren’t making the BSW folks collect it.

The challenge starts now and the final totals will be announced at the end of October. Let’s work together to help get this fantastic new group the cash it needs to help protect Canadians from pseudoscience and promote critical thinking from coast to coast to coast!

Chip Cherry
London Skeptics