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.