Atheism, Agnosticism, Definitions and Misunderstandings

Leprechaun with goldIt seems some things need repeating. RD Rauser at Christian Post recently demanded evidence for atheism. Despite a number of atheists taking time to explain that it doesn’t make any sense to provide evidence for something’s non-existence including some excellent analogies using leprechauns, it seems the believers on the site still didn’t get it. Disappointingly, neither did he try to provide evidence for the non-existence of leprechauns. That would’ve been good.

One thing they insisted on repeating was that atheists are making a positive claim about the non-existence of God (we’d say “gods”, actually). Apparently, unless we’re certain, we should all be calling ourselves agnostics. Not shy of telling atheists what it is they believe, paracletus commented,

“Atheism” (speaking slowing with only the slightest bit of condescension) means belief in the non-existence of God.
And, once again, if one has BELIEF in the non-existence of God, one has a belief. One does not have the NON-BELIEF in God, which is agnosticism; one has the BELIEF in the non-existence of God.
I honestly don’t care what you are, but the term means something.

Here’s how I understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Atheism and theism describe beliefs. Theists are people who believe in one or more gods. Atheists are people who do not believe in gods.

People in either of these groups can also be agnostic. By agnostic I mean “without knowledge”, uncertain.

Theists believe in a God, but some may not be completely certain about it. They are still theists. They believe, but they do not know. We might call them “agnostic theists”.

Likewise atheists can lack a belief in gods, yet be agnostically uncertain about that. They may have considered various forms of theism carefully and found them lacking (Explicit Atheism), or, as in the case of a new-born child, they may never have considered the possibility of gods (Implicit Atheism).

Varieties of atheismI think it’s still correct and normal to call all these people “atheists”. More specifically this is sometimes called “agnostic atheism”, “weak atheism” or “negative atheism”. provides a more thorough explanation. However, “atheist” is a shorter and simpler term which encompasses all these things. Most atheists are not philosophy geeks (despite what you might think from reading the Internet), so I can’t blame them for using the single word to describe their non-belief.

As PhillyChief pointed out, the vast majority of atheists are “weak atheists”, those who’d say, “I don’t believe in a god”. They don’t “claim knowledge of the non-existence of gods”.

I think the confusion arises when a weak atheist describes their belief by saying something like,

“There are no gods”.

At which point a theist jumps up and points at him with a retort along these lines,

“Ah-ha! You made a positive claim, provide evidence or you’re just as irrational as believers!”

Strictly speaking the theist is right. It is a positive claim. However, I think unless stated otherwise this is generally the weak atheist being lazy in their speech. The majority of atheists who say this kind of thing are not claiming 100% certainty, nor intending to make some positive truth claim.Gruffalo book

To be completely accurate, they should say,

“I do not believe there are any gods.”

But most people aren’t concerned with being completely accurate in their everyday speech, so we fall into bad habits. When I say,

“There’s no such thing as a gruffalo.”

I am expressing my fairly-confident belief, not a 100% certainty. But yes, to be completely accurate perhaps I should say,

“Based on my experience, I do not believe that gruffalos exist.”

With self-proclaimed “professional philosophers” such as paracletus around I guess I should be using the latter phrase in all cases. Presumably even if it spoils the rhyme. If I don’t then I could be asked to provide evidence for my claim about gruffalos.

Why all the fuss?

If you read the comments following RD Rauser’s post, you’ll see a great deal of effort on both sides of the debate (some 84 comments at the time of writing). When paracletus said, “I honestly don’t care what you are…” he was telling a bit of a fib. Yet, to the rest of the world the distinction is academic and I’m sure most people I know would exasperated by the amount of electronic ink being spilled over it. Why do theists care so much about the precise definition of an atheist?

I can only speculate. My guess is believers feel that agnostics can be more easily ignored; after all, they’re not sure. Meanwhile if all other atheists can be characterised as strong atheists, they bear an equal burden of proof as theists and arguably look equally irrational. Perhaps this is an unconscious “smear” tactic by believers who, on some level, know their beliefs are irrational and so insist that everyone else’s beliefs are likewise.

Atheists care about this issue in part because it is their own beliefs being discussed and their rationality questioned. I think it’s important that atheism is understood by all and not allowed to become the subject of unchallenged ridicule and demonisation. I applaud sites such as Ask The Atheists for their helping people to understand atheism better. I get the impression that RD Rauser and friends are more interested in derision than understanding.

Alpha Course Poll Forces Voters Hands

alph_course_pollBy now it’s old news that the UK’s Alpha Course ran a poll asking visitors whether “God” exists, by which they presumably mean their god. It’s also been well reported that atheists got wind of the poll and surfed over in large numbers to vote “No”. It’s not the only Christian Internet campaign to fall on its face recently.

All this is amusing, but doesn’t really tell us much. It certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or not of any god and it’s only representative of the people who happened to visit their website. I think the BHA took it far too seriously when they responded by saying,

That this poll has revealed such a high number of non-believers, and such a tiny proportion of those who do believe in a god, is really no surprise. This poll only supports what we know already – that most people either do not believe in god or that they simply do not think about the question because it is not relevant to their lives.

The UK does have a relatively high proportion of non-believers, but in every other poll it’s more like 25-35%, not 98% – besides, votes on this poll were not limited to the UK. We might be better off drawing the conclusion that there are a lot of motivated atheists on the Internet who are up for a prank.

Question Phrasing

What I think is worth investigating is the way the question – and in particular the answers – were phrased. It seems to be a clever piece of marketing.

These ads are up on billboards all over the place, but I first saw this ad on a poster outside a church. My reaction was, “Where’s Probably not?”. Or even Maybe, or I don’t know or the Igtheist position, What do you mean by “God”?. I wasn’t expecting them to have the equivalent of the 7-level Dawkins Scale of Belief, but a few more options would’ve been nice. As it stands, the poll only allows for Certain Theists, Agnostic Theists and Strong Atheists. The results aren’t going to be very representative.


I wondered about this for a while, before slapping myself on the head in realisation. Of course, that’s not the point! The Alpha people were not trying to prove anything with their poll. The results were always intended to be meaningless. They were probably only trying to generate debate around a subject that, in the UK at least, is becoming irrelevant and uninteresting to many people.

Furthermore, I suspect that limiting the options is a tactical choice.

Those who vote Yes or Probably might be persuaded that, having admitted it, they shouldn’t stop there, but take the course and be led into the Alpha brand of Christianity. The rest are left only with the No choice – Strong Atheism – 7 on the scale above. It’s about as far towards the other end of the scale as you can get. A bold position that, in practice few atheists hold. Richard Dawkins, for example, says he’s at 6. The idea being to include an atheistic position that as few people as possible will completely agree with. This presumably in the hope that more people will end up in the Yes/Probably category of potential Alpha delegates. The poll is, after all, advertising and intended to get more people onto the course.

Plus, it helps them to label atheists and agnostics as ridiculous extremists.

Imagine a fiercely nationalistic group asking in a survey, “What should we do about immigrants?” and only providing the options: “Confine them to forced labour camps”, “Send them all home”, or “Give them each a free house and abandon all border controls”. Where is the reasonable, liberal option? Ordinary people answering such a poll would be forced into an extreme position that doesn’t properly represent them. A position which can be ridiculed.

So I expect the non-theists who made up the 98% of voters on the Alpha poll will be labelled by some as “extreme” or “fundamentalist”. However, strong atheists are pretty rare. Few people feel they can actually prove the non-existence of all kinds of deity, especially if we’re talking about the vague and woolly non-interventionist kind.

But rather than go into the philsophical subtleties, it’s simpler to say, “There are no god(s)” or just vote “No”.

Probably An Atheist Bus

I am rather late in covering this, so by now I imagine everyone is familiar with the Atheist Bus Campaign, which has probably generated more publicity than the eventual bus adverts ever could. It started when Ariane Sherine (pictured) wrote an piece in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section complaining about one-sided religious advertising:

“Yesterday I walked to work and saw not one, but two London buses with the question: “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). It seems you wait ages for a bus with an unsettling Bible quote, then two come along at once.”

The website featured on the advert contained dire warnings about hell fire and damnation, which is really not what you need on a Monday morning when you’re late for work. Ariane did some homework and suggested that with moderate support a similar advert could be bought by atheists – one with a more tolerant, uplifting message. She suggested:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.”

The atheist bus campaign caught on well and has so far raised over 117,000 pounds – enough for several bus adverts. However, the proposed wording of the advert has caused dissatisfaction amongst some atheists. The “probably” is described as a cop-out, too weak, too uncertain. A friend of mine expressed her disappointment by saying, “It’s more of an Agnostic Bus Campaign really isn’t it?”.

There are two things I want to discuss. Firstly, the philosophy geek’s question of whether the slogan is Atheistic, Agnostic or something else? Secondly, is it a good message to slap on the side of a bus?

An Agnostic Atheist Slogan?

Here’s a quick summary of the non-believing spectrum as I see it:

Strong Atheist – “I believe there is definitely no god and I have no doubt about this.”
Weak Atheist – “I believe there is no god but I do not have absolute certainty about this.”
Agnostic – “I do not know if there is a god.” (literally ‘without knowledge’)

Naturally these are not hard either-or distinctions and many people are somewhere between the above positions. There are also several other non-religious positions some of which I covered previously.

In practice the vast majority of those who speak of themselves as atheists are of the “weak” variety (aka “Agnostic atheists”). The reason is that it’s notoriously difficult to prove the non-existence of anything, whether it’s gods, unicorns or a teapot orbiting the sun. The problem with trying to find any of those is when to stop searching. OK, so we’ve searched the world’s mountain ranges and the plains, but what if these mythical beasts exist in the Arctic, or the deepest oceans, or on the moon?

In science and philosophy no knowledge is beyond doubt. If it were, then we might still be believing that the Sun goes around the Earth or that light travels in a luminiferous ether. So strictly speaking a non-believer in unicorns should say, “There are probably no unicorns”. For simplicity this usually comes out as “There are no unicorns”. Not a strict provable statement, but simple enough for everyday language which gets the idea across.

You can however often disprove specific religious claims – for example geocentrism or an omnipotent deity who doesn’t allow lightning.

I said it was a philosophy geek’s question.

Probably the best bus in the world

So does the word “Probably” trammel the proposed advertisement’s intention? Can it still make people stop and think?

I know some believers have responded to the uncertainty of the slogan with ridicule, apparently amused that those noisy atheists aren’t so sure of what they believe after all. Others may think it cowardly.

Many religious people are comforted by the absolute certainty with which their beliefs are claimed. Uncertainty and dilemmas can be unsettling. For people who feel that way, believing something is “probably the case”, never mind contributing to an advert to tell people it is “probably the case”, is laughable.

But I think expressing doubt is a good thing. I’m certainly not the first person to say that, for example Bertrand Russell:

“I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

Furthermore, I’m all too aware that believers regularly accuse atheists of being every bit as irrational as the religious. Some have even written books claiming they don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. In the case of strong atheism (or strong unicorn-disbelief), I think that accusation would be justified. What evidence could provide absolute certainty that there were no unicorns (or gods)? To have absolute certainty that gods or unicorns did not exist would require faith.

The “probably” has certainly caused surprise amongst some religious believers. American Evangelical minister, Clark Bunch reacted on his blog as follows:

What surprises me is that Dawkins would settle for such a weak position.  “There’s probably no God” is not spoken with nearly the certainty with which Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed.  I’ve never sung a hymn nor heard a street preacher shout “There probably is a God.”  The slogan even allows the possibility the God may exist.  If all atheists were this soft, I probably wouldn’t give them such a hard time.

Which is where the massive misconception comes in.

Most atheists wouldn’t say they have absolute certainty about their beliefs. Despite all the hype and accusations of atheist fundamentalism, Richard Dawkins doesn’t claim absolute certainty of his beliefs. If someone says, “I don’t believe in god”, they’re not necessarily claiming that their belief is beyond doubt. If I said, “I don’t believe it will rain tomorrow” would it be taken as read that I’m so sure about it I’d be willing to bet my life on it? Would I be called a fundamentalist meteorologist? Of course not. But for many believers, ordinary non-belief in deities is taken as a statement of absolute certainty requiring irrational faith. Perhaps this is a kind of psychological projection of their own attitudes to belief?

The slightly dull reality is that the inclusion of the word “probably” was at the insistence of the bus company selling the advertising space, who don’t want to offend religious believers.

Nevertheless, I like the phrasing of the slogan. Atheists know only too well how irritating it is to have other people’s unquestionable certainties shoved in their faces and should be slower to commit the same effrontery. The advert makes a point, without having to make the bold claims of absolute certainty usually used by those lacking good evidence.

Ignostic igtheists or weak atheists – what’s in a name?

I noticed recently that a friend’s online profile showed “Ignostic” to describe his religious beliefs. I hadn’t heard of this before, so I asked him about it. Joe responded that he’d not done much reading into the subject, but it seemed to sum up his objections to religion.

Put simply, my main reason for taking the ignostic position is that defining what it is you are blathering on about is simply a matter of intellectual honesty…It’s all very well to use words […] in a loose manner in which the listener can get the gist of what you are saying…

I suppose I like the socratian nature of it though: the idea to ask the question “What do you mean by God?” rather than to proscribe an answer to it.

Which is pretty much the informal definition of Ignosticism. It turns out that “ignostic” is a somewhat new term and Wikipedia marks it as a neologism – not yet in common usage or dictionaries.

As far as Wikiedia is concerned, Ignosticism is the same as Igtheism. I have heard of igtheism before – a local humanist explained it as, “Ignorance of existence of god(s), so we might as well act as if they don’t exist.”

The question is, do we need these new terms? The beliefs held by Ignostics and Igtheists seem to be adequately covered by the varieties of atheism and agnosticism. Even within those flavours of belief there is some overlap.

For example, Apathetic Agnosticism states that the existence of a supreme being is both unknown and unknowable and that any such being does not appear to take enough interest in the world to intervene and is therefore irrelevant. This is quite similar to strong agnosticism, or the humourously characterized “militant agnosticism” – “I don’t know and neither do you!”

All of this isn’t very far from the position of most atheists – that of weak atheism. My take on weak atheism is,

“Due to lack of evidence, I don’t believe that there are any gods. I think it is possible that such evidence may exist, but it seems very unlikely.”

Atheism is often misunderstood to mean “Strong atheism” – “There are definitely no gods”. A strong atheist couldn’t actually search everywhere inside and outside the universe to eliminate the possibility of all possible kinds of gods. So almost all atheists are, in practice weak atheists. An atheist may say, “There is no God”, but they will be talking about a specific kind of God and most will also tell you that they’d be willing to change their beliefs if given appropriate evidence.

So if you’re a igtheistic agnostic weak atheist ignostic, what should you write in the tiny box on survey forms? To those who ask you, what response should you give without sounding like a geeky bookworm?

I think it depends on your situation and what you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re talking to a group of bigoted fundamentalists who see atheists as the worst kind of sinners and a scourge to society you may wish to say “agnostic” for a quiet life, or dodge the question entirely. On the other hand, if these people already know you as a decent, moral person, then admitting your are an atheist might force them to reconsider their prejudices. Obviously it depends on how deeply those opinions are ingrained and how well they know you. Certainly prejudices have never been reduced by separating people with different views or lifestyles.

Going for a term like “Ignostic” that most people are unfamiliar with carries less baggage and potential for prejudice. It might also require an explanation allowing your to discuss your beliefs in more detail.

Personally, I tend to answer “humanist”. I know humanism has more to do with lifestyle than belief or disbelief in any deity, but I like that it is a simple and practical answer that tells you more about me than my scepticism about deities.