What do “Atheist” and “Agnostic” Really Mean?

I don’t want to wade into any debates about atheism or agnosticism, but I think a growing number of them are just about semantics. After watching this popular Neil DeGrasse Tyson interview clip, I think it’s time to call a timeout and ask what exactly these terms mean. I can think of at least four different answers:

(1) As Tyson alludes to, the term “agnostic” originally referred to skepticism about the possibility of knowledge on religious questions. It could (and did) overlap with both theism and atheism. Agnosticism is about knowledge, and atheism is about belief. There have been great agnostic theists in many religions; the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is one of the best-known, and his most famous idea — the “leap of faith” — is all about reconciling those two positions.

In this sense, if someone asks “are you religious?” or “do you believe in God” and you answer “I’m agnostic,” then you haven’t answered their question. Imagine asking someone “so, who’s going to win the Super Bowl this year?” and they reply “well, I believe it’s impossible to know that for sure.” Not quite what you meant, right?

(2) Now, as I said, that’s the “old” meaning of agnosticism. The reality is that very few of us non-philosophers really care about this distinction between knowledge and belief. So at some point “agnostic” was re-purposed to refer to a sort of middle ground on a scale between theism and atheism, and that’s how a lot of people use the word now. It seems that many people who call themselves “agnostics” today are thinking of a scale like this:

     Theism: I believe there is definitely a God.
     Agnosticism: I don’t believe that, but I don’t believe there’s definitely no God.
     Atheism: I believe there’s definitely no God.

The problem with that scale, as I argued last year, is that the last position does not describe any real person’s beliefs. The middle position is what 99.999% of non-theists believe. It’s just that some of them call themselves atheists and some call themselves agnostics.

The reason this irritated me is that it seems like those who call themselves “agnostic” are often (not always) inventing this dogmatic “atheist” straw man so they’ll seem reasonable by comparison. In doing so, they’re implicitly criticizing anyone who doesn’t also switch labels. If you use “agnostic” to mean “a reasonable atheist,” it’s like calling yourself a “sober Irishman” or a “smart blonde”: you’re not only insulting everyone else in that category, you’re doing it in an underhanded and passive-aggressive way. (Remember Chris Rock’s routine [nsfw] about people referring to black politicians as “well spoken”?) If you think most atheists are unreasonable, just come out and say so. The fact that this rhetorical trick is so common (“tolerant Christian,” “Southern intellectual,” etc.) doesn’t make it any less sneaky, and using a code word (“agnostic” rather than, say, “tolerant atheist”) actually makes it more sneaky.

However, to be fair, there are also many people who call themselves agnostics on this scale without any intent to judge or offend; they just have a false impression of what the average self-declared “atheist” really believes.

(3) Then there are the “New Atheists,” or “atheism as an identity/worldview” crowd, who connect their non-belief to a cluster of other views, including rationalism, materialism, skepticism, respect for science, and — most of all — criticism of organized religion. Like the self-described agnostics, these people also want to split the non-theist category, but from the other direction. They don’t believe with certainty that there is no God — after all, as “rationalists” they know that you can’t prove a negative — but they think it’s highly unlikely and there are practical consequences to that, so they want to distinguish themselves from other non-believers who are not as ardent. Richard Dawkins is the most famous exponent of this viewpoint, and his “spectrum of theistic probability” is the best example of what I’m talking about. In his version there are seven categories, but they simplify to something like this (my numbers):

     Theism: I believe with at least near certainty (say, 95%+) that there is a God.
     Agnosticism: I’m not quite there, but there’s a meaningful chance (say, 5-95%).
     Atheism: I think the odds are well below 5%, perhaps by orders of magnitude.

(4) The popularity of the New Atheists has given rise to yet another set of definitions, which Tyson explains in that interview. He identifies as an agnostic and bristles at those who tell him, using a version of (2) or (3), that he’s “really” an atheist:

What people are really after is my stance on religion or spirituality or God…

No, [agnosticism and atheism] are not the same thing and I’ll tell you why. Atheists I know, who proudly wear the badge, are, like, active atheists, they’re in-your-face atheists, and they want to change policies, and they’re having debates. I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy, to do any of that.

It’s odd that the word atheist even exists. I don’t play golf; is there a word for non-golf players? Do non-golf players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers come together and talk about how much they don’t ski? I can’t do that. I can’t gather around and talk about how much everybody in the room doesn’t believe in God. ‘Agnostic’ separates me from the conduct of atheism, whether or not there’s strong overlap between the two categories.

I don’t agree with him that it’s somehow “odd” for a negative category to have a label and identity. If golf or skiing had dominated world history in the way that religion has, you can be sure that many non-golfers and non-skiers would come to identify that way.

But his main point is well taken: thanks to people like Dawkins, “atheism” now feels like just a reaction against religion. The way Tyson wants to use the terms (and many people seem to agree with him) has very little to do with belief or knowledge. It’s more like:

     “religious”: I practice an organized religion.
     “agnostic”: I’m not religious, but I’m not hostile to it or even particularly interested.
     “atheist”: I have a real problem with organized religion and like discussing it.

There is a subtle but important distinction between the type of “agnosticism” I criticized in (2), which falsely identifies the beliefs of “atheists,” and Tyson’s “agnosticism,” which is openly critical of their conduct. Tyson’s position is at least more honest and clear, whether or not you agree with him. Here’s another clip where he delivers it to Dawkins himself in more direct terms, and Dawkins offers a lame anecdote rather than a real reply.

But anyway, as I said at the outset, I’m not going to argue for any of these definitions in particular. I think they each have their flaws, especially (2), although they can also all be used to draw useful distinctions. But the next time you get into a discussion with someone about atheism or agnosticism, you should clarify which of these scales you’re each using. It’ll make the conversation a lot more productive. (Well, not that “productive” is ever a great descriptor for this kind of conversation, but you know what I mean.)

8 thoughts on “What do “Atheist” and “Agnostic” Really Mean?”

  1. Good post. It is one of the most tiresome subjects, given many people’s tendency to use words that they do not understand and despite not understanding the word, use it in their attempt to define themselves as a person. That said, this case also highlights the shortcomings of having just three single-word alternatives to describe precisely any given person’s position on the matter. I am an agnostic in the traditional sense. I am also a theist but with qualifications. I do believe in the existence of the creator without being able to offer a cogent proof (hence, agnostic), but I do not believe in the creator being a ruler in the way that religions tend to define God, an intervening and frequently benevolent being. So, I know that I am not an atheist, but what am I? Does it matter? The curious thing is that the subject matters to students of religion and certain other types, but the three labels tend not to feature in conversations amongst students of philosophy who are too busy arguing about everyone else’s inference about the existence of God or are too occupied with other subjects, not having found the divinity subject sufficiently interesting.

  2. I think the defining terms you have used here are, the more social definitions as people have perceived them. Correct in that atheism, especially new atheism is a stance for being against religion. And that agnosticism not for or against religion, not hostile to it.

    But also that agnositicsm is an issue of knowledge and epistemology, is god knowable.
    And atheim is a stance of non-belief or lack of belief.

    belief vs. knowing

  3. It may be disingenuous to try to define these words without reference to modern Christianity, especially fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. Most modern Christians believe in a very specific god, and this discussion very often, if not almost always, occurs with respect to that kind of belief. I find it quite easy to say that I absolutely believe without reservation that their god does not exist.

  4. Wrong about atheism. Atheism is not the belief that no gods exist. It’s the disbelief that no god or gods exist. It’s a response to theistic claims, not an assertion

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