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atheism versus agnosticism

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animist
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atheism versus agnosticism

#1 Post by animist » August 3rd, 2010, 7:51 pm

I would like to get some opinions from both atheists and agnostics about why they think their own position differs from the other. I think there is no real difference - at least if atheists are realistic. Realistic because noone can disprove the existence of God any more than they can disprove the existence of fairies at the bottom of their garden (certainly not of my garden anyway, which probably does contain fairies). So, atheists need to be humble and accept that the only certainty about big G is uncertainty - hey, is that not agnosticism?

tubataxidriver
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#2 Post by tubataxidriver » August 4th, 2010, 12:22 am

Agnosticism is my "scientifically correct" position, but atheism is my working hypothesis.

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jaywhat
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#3 Post by jaywhat » August 4th, 2010, 9:17 am

I don't bother any more. It's all the same to me.

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Dave B
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#4 Post by Dave B » August 4th, 2010, 9:48 am

I think most people don't differentiate any more.

"Agnosticism" at one time meant something like "the impossibility of knowing the nature of God". That is important because you have to admit there is a God to be "unknowing" of his nature - you cannot be "unknowing" of the nature of something that does not exist.

But this is probably a meaning that is only now used in classical theology and atheists don't worry about that too much (unless there is a juicy controversy in there that they can use as ammunition to demonstrate the irrational nature of religion.)

Language usage changes - but expect to meet traditional or classical pedants in this field!
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Nick
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#5 Post by Nick » August 4th, 2010, 9:52 am

I agree wholeheartedly with TTD's beautifully succinct summary of the atheist/agnostic question.
animist wrote:So, atheists need to be humble and accept that the only certainty about big G is uncertainty - hey, is that not agnosticism?
It seems to me that you are interpreting the ultimate uncertainty as a 50/50 position. It is not. Though I acknowledge the possibility of there being a god, the probability of his existence is vanishingly small. That acknowledgement is all the humbleness I need in this context. Contrast this with the certainty of the believer, and his blindness to the lack of logic in his position. As Christpher Hitchens has put it, an atheist can tell you what would be required to justify a belief in God, whereas a christian can not tell you what would be required for him to reject belief in god.

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Alan H
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#6 Post by Alan H » August 4th, 2010, 10:26 am

tubataxidriver wrote:Agnosticism is my "scientifically correct" position, but atheism is my working hypothesis.
What he said. Very well put.
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#7 Post by Maria Mac » August 4th, 2010, 10:51 am

I like the way George H Smith puts it in 'Atheism: the case against God'. IIRC, he talks about agnostic atheists and agnostic theists. The former take the position that it is impossible to know whether there is a god or not but lack a positive belief that there is one. They prefer the label 'agnostic' but there is, in effect, nothing to distinguish them from atheists.

The latter believes there is 'something more than this' but are agnostic about the precise nature of the 'something more'. I have found this quite a common position. People don't think of themselves as religious and reject the teachings of organised religion but nevertheless maintain a belief in something supernatural, whether it be a supreme intelligence overseeing everything or some kind of afterlife. When asked how they label themselves they will often say, "I suppose I'm agnostic".

I personally don't care about these labels. What matters is whether we should or should not take the existence of any gods into account when deciding how to organise society and live our individual lives and I've found atheists and agnostics of both kinds broadly united on that one.

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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#8 Post by Dan » August 4th, 2010, 2:15 pm

Realistic because noone can disprove the existence of God any more than they can disprove the existence of fairies at the bottom of their garden (certainly not of my garden anyway, which probably does contain fairies).
This is often stated, but seldom defended. Dawkins says the same kind of thing, sadly.

Two points.

First of all, atheism is not at all necessarily the position that the existence of God can be disproved.

Secondly, by what principle is it held that the existence of fairies at the bottom of a garden cannot be disproved? I think their presence or absence can be proved, at least in principle. And although I agree that at this point no knock-down disproof of the existence of a supernatural creator-being is available (though there are considerations that count against the idea), I'm not persuaded that there is a good reason to conclude that such proof or disproof is impossible. Some specific notions of deity are, I would argue, disprovable, either on conceptual or empirical grounds.

Dan

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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#9 Post by philbo » August 4th, 2010, 2:19 pm

There's also the probability associated with a particular kind of god... although I'm slightly open to the possibility that there is some kind of God, I completely reject the one mentioned in the bible - he's too contradictory in his properties (not to mention his behaviour) and way too obviously a man-made invention.
tubataxidriver wrote:Agnosticism is my "scientifically correct" position, but atheism is my working hypothesis.
Like others have said.. nicely put.

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Alan C.
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#10 Post by Alan C. » August 4th, 2010, 2:27 pm

To my mind Atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist (without theism) Whereas Agnosticism means without knowledge (you don't know).
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Ken H
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#11 Post by Ken H » August 4th, 2010, 2:46 pm

Once a person accepts that there are no revealed gods or religions, it's all the same to me. Anything more is pure speculation.
This is one of the great social functions of science - to free people of superstition. - Steven Weinberg

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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#12 Post by philbo » August 4th, 2010, 3:03 pm

Ken H wrote:Once a person accepts that there are no revealed gods or religions, it's all the same to me. Anything more is pure speculation.
er... there are plenty of religions, however many real or imagined gods there are

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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#13 Post by Fia » August 4th, 2010, 4:13 pm

Alan C. wrote:To my mind Atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist (without theism) Whereas Agnosticism means without knowledge (you don't know).
Yup, the way I thought it too.
And, very nice one Tuba - I'll borrow that if I may :D

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Ken H
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#14 Post by Ken H » August 4th, 2010, 5:04 pm

philbo wrote:
Ken H wrote:Once a person accepts that there are no revealed gods or religions, it's all the same to me. Anything more is pure speculation.
er... there are plenty of religions, however many real or imagined gods there are
I meant revealed religions too, as in one revealed by a god or a messiah supposedly sent by a god. In other words, anything related to a belief in a supernatural revelation.
This is one of the great social functions of science - to free people of superstition. - Steven Weinberg

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animist
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#15 Post by animist » August 4th, 2010, 8:00 pm

Of the replies so far, most do not seem that bothered about the distinction between the two As. Richard Dawkins did seem to be concerned, in effect attacking scientist agnostics who were willing to give religion its own sphere (the "NOMA" or "non-overlapping magisteria") and I understand his irritation with this generosity of sprit.

But before I respond to the many interesting responses, can some kind soul (gosh - I have used the words spirit and soul in one short message) tell me how to box up others' comments so that I can neatly comment on them?

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Alan H
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#16 Post by Alan H » August 4th, 2010, 10:09 pm

Quoting someone is easy and helps people read your post better.

There are several ways. If you're replying to one person, just click on the Reply button on that person's post. This will give you their pithy words, enclosed in [quote] tags. You can edit that to suit your purposes. Alternatively, you can copy the words and add the [quote] tags yourself - either just by tying them or highlight the words and click on the Quote button just above the edit box. This will add [quote] just before the words you highlight and the closing quote tag [/quote] at the end. If you click on Preview before you Submit the post, you'll see what it is going to look like and gives you the opportunity to make changes. If you Submit it and then spot a mistake, click on the Edit button, but you must do this within two hours of posting.

If you just have [quote]pithy words here[/quote], you don't get the person's name. To add it manually, you use [quote="animist"]whatever you want here[/quote]. Note the double quotation marks - they are essential. If you want to practice, have a go in the Practice thread at http://www.thinkhumanism.com/phpBB3/vie ... ?f=5&t=432
Alan Henness

There are three fundamental questions for anyone advocating Brexit:

1. What, precisely, are the significant and tangible benefits of leaving the EU?
2. What damage to the UK and its citizens is an acceptable price to pay for those benefits?
3. Which ruling of the ECJ is most persuasive of the need to leave its jurisdiction?

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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#17 Post by Gottard » August 5th, 2010, 8:52 pm

Alan C. wrote:To my mind Atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist (without theism) Whereas Agnosticism means without knowledge (you don't know).
It's also my view. Besides, dictionaries tell which is which.
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Paolo
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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#18 Post by Paolo » August 6th, 2010, 8:18 am

Alan C. wrote:To my mind Atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist (without theism) Whereas Agnosticism means without knowledge (you don't know).
This is a point I often make in discussion. It is possible to be an atheistic agnostic or a theistic agnostic (or to waver between the two). However, as soon as someone claims to be gnostic (atheist or theist) they are making unsupportable claims of knowledge.

I suggest that agnosticism in its modern usage has become associated with those who waver in what they believe - otherwise they simply tag themselves as atheist or theist.

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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#19 Post by Dan » August 6th, 2010, 11:39 am

animist wrote:Of the replies so far, most do not seem that bothered about the distinction between the two As. Richard Dawkins did seem to be concerned, in effect attacking scientist agnostics who were willing to give religion its own sphere (the "NOMA" or "non-overlapping magisteria") and I understand his irritation with this generosity of sprit.
It's worth understanding that the word "agnosticism" is as ambiguous as "atheism". There is simply no single universally accepted definition of either term. "Absence of theistic belief", referred to elsewhere is the widest, but there are other formulations and characterisations in the literature. We have to accept that the words have been defined in various ways. Even Huxley, who coined the word "agnostic" meant different things by it at different times; and from the first the word was adopted by others with different intentions. Atheists at the time often used to point out that many of those adopting the "agnostic" label had exactly the same approach to theism as those calling themselves atheists, but that they were perhaps avoiding the popular approbrium attached to the word "atheist".

Secondly, you have put the point prejudicially here. You frame NOMA, or "willing to give religion its own sphere", as "generosity of spirit". I challenge that. NOMA is not a paragon of tolerance, it's merely one of many models of the relationship between science and religion. There are others. In any case, I'm not sure you've grasped a key point about NOMA, which is precisely what it is that it claims is religion's "sphere". Religious writers, like Alister McGrath, have rejected NOMA because it restricts the scope of religion to merely "ethical" concerns - way too restrictive. So in other words someone like McGrath would not see NOMA as "generous of spirit" at all. It is not legitimate, to many religionists and many nonreligionists to either confine religion to ethics, on the one hand, or to allow religion to monopolise ethics, on the other.

NOMA is, to my mind, unworkable for either side.

Dan

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Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#20 Post by grammar king » August 6th, 2010, 1:40 pm

Paolo wrote:
Alan C. wrote:To my mind Atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist (without theism) Whereas Agnosticism means without knowledge (you don't know).
This is a point I often make in discussion. It is possible to be an atheistic agnostic or a theistic agnostic (or to waver between the two). However, as soon as someone claims to be gnostic (atheist or theist) they are making unsupportable claims of knowledge.

I suggest that agnosticism in its modern usage has become associated with those who waver in what they believe - otherwise they simply tag themselves as atheist or theist.
I'm not sure I'd agree with your first paragraph. It depends on what you mean by 'know'. I can say that I know Thatcher used to be the Prime Minister, but I don't claim absolute knowledge of that. In the same way, if I had regular contact with God, I could say that I know God exists, without claiming absolute knowledge. In that sense one could be a gnostic theist. You could not, by the same standard, be a gnostic atheist.

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