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?!

All too often I see people using ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ incorrectly.  Often ‘agnostic’ is placed in the middle of the atheism/theism spectrum in order to mark the middle ground.  I understand some reasons why religious folks make these mistakes.  Either they don’t know the specific definitions or they don’t care.  Sometimes an apologist will play a word game which was described well by my friend, Tim:  “ First, they say “if you can’t be SURE, then you must be an agnostic”.  Then they say “if you’re not an atheist, then by default you are a theist” thereby magically making you sure.”  Again, this improperly defines atheism as ‘knowing’.

But I’m not writing this post for the theists and apologists.  I’m writing this particular post for people who would themselves use either of the labels in question.  Why should I expect those outside our little club to understand our terms if they are not fully understood amongst ourselves?  As Jesus said in Matthew 7:3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”  Am I right, folks?!

I partly blame Richard Dawkins’ 7-point scale of religious belief for promoting this confusion (Pages 50-51 of The God Delusion).

It basically states position one as ‘knowing’ there’s a god, position 4 as claiming that God’s existence is equiprobable to his non-existence, and position 7 as knowing there is no god.  The remaining positions are different stages of belief.  So right there it’s a crazy mixture of knowledge and belief in the same scale.

While I appreciate the purpose of this scale, it’s a real pain-in-the-ass to people who care about the proper usage of words.  Dawkins does address this concern in the following paragraphs, but as with so many pithy shared text-filled images online, the context is lost.  We get mighty angry when apologists quote mine guys like RD, but we’re doing it to him too!

Some words have various meanings, to be sure (see ‘theory’), but when we carelessly confuse the usage of words that are commonly used side by side, it makes it difficult when one needs to specifically use one word instead of the other.  I could mix my peanut butter and jam into one container for convenience, but that makes it pretty difficult for a guest with a nut allergy to put jam on their toast.  Or something.

This Venn diagram quick clearly and effectively illustrates the two axes that atheism and agnosticism describe about deities:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d8/Theological_positions.svg 

Notice that ‘a/theist’ and ‘a/gnostic’ are not used interchangeably.  They are different axes of the diagram.  Also, they are used in tandem.  I could describe myself as an agnostic atheist.  I don’t know if a god exists, but I don’t believe one does.

Notice that with a diligent usage of these two words, we can identify 8 different positions.  When we muddle the definitions, we end up with a blurry one-dimensional spectrum.

So now we see that atheism and agnosticism are two different things.  Agnosticism is not simply a fence-sitting position with regard to one’s religious beliefs.  It’s doesn’t have to do with beliefs at all.  It is about one’s claimed level of knowledge.

In a way, I think it’s a bit superfluous to use ‘agnostic’ anyway.  I could call myself an agnostic atheist since along with not believing, I also don’t know one way or the other.  My usage of ‘atheism’ simply dismisses the god hypothesis.  I suppose one could infer that I claim to know there is no god (inferring a gnostic position), in which case ‘agnostic’ could clarify that.  But I know very few atheists who would honestly assert that they know there is no god since it’s not a defensible position.  So I’ll simply correct those who misunderstand my position.

When discussing God, I want to know what people believe.  It seems that actual knowledge is much less abundant than is claimed.  If I ask you what you believe and you say you’re an agnostic, that tells me very little.  Many theists I know are also agnostic.  I hate to say it, but it’s almost a way of saying that you’re an atheist without actually using that dirty word.  Some self-proclaimed agnostics persist in the misperception that atheism implies the assertion that god does not exist.  Bart Ehrman made such a statement on the Colbert Report when explaining his position as an agnostic instead of an atheist.  In this respect, Bart is an annoying plank.  Colbert replied by asking if an agnostic is simply an atheist without any balls.

While I’m at it, there’s another way that people wield ‘agnosticism’ that gets under my skin.

Some people will claim agnosticism is the only intellectually honest position to take.  They see themselves as looking down at the theism/atheism debate from a distance in the same way that an unbeliever would watch bemusedly as two sects of Brian followers argue over whether one should follow the shoe or the gourd in order to be on the true path.  They think that both the theist and the atheist make claims that can’t be supported and so they smugly decide that they won’t take either side.

Again, the problem with this resides in a misunderstanding of what the atheist is claiming.  When someone says they are an atheist, most of the time they are not saying that they know that god doesn’t exist.  They are saying that they don’t accept the claim that a god exists.  They aren’t necessarily basing this on evidence.  They are basing this on the lack of evidence to support the claim.  It’s the null hypothesis.  Again, this is conflating knowledge with belief.  The agnostic smugly sitting on the side is also an atheist or a theist.  He’s just asserting an answer to a different question.

So in conclusion… Cut it out!