When I engage in a philosophical or religious conversation with some of my peers, a common phrase reiterated is, “Oh, I’m not an atheist; I’m an agnostic.” Though it may appear insignificant, this statement actually holds a lot of weight. It can seem unimportant, but “atheism” and “agnosticism” are more than just arbitrary labels — they imply two different areas of a similar field.
When it comes to disbelief in a god, there are two categories you can fall under. If you are a weak atheist, that is, you say, “I do not believe in a god,” you are an agnostic atheist. You do not believe someone else’s claim that there is a god floating up there somewhere, but neither do you put forth your own belief in that place.
Alternately, a strong atheist would say, “I believe there is no god.” In this case, you are positing a very specific viewpoint of the universe. Here, you are making a leap in judgment. No matter what form it takes, you believe an intelligent creator of the cosmos does not exist.
I know it can seem like it ultimately does not matter what you call yourself. However, society has created some connotations that are associated with these titles. Unfortunately, the word “atheism” sounds dogmatic, and implies there is absolutely no way you are changing your mind about a god. Agnosticism, on the other hand, sounds much more respectable and thoughtful. We perceive agnosticism to mean that you are skeptical, but still very open-minded about the idea of a god — sort of true, but also very misleading.
Once again, both agnosticism and atheism aren’t entirely independent. When people claim they are agnostics, they’re usually agnostic atheists (a.k.a weak atheists). These people conveniently drop the “atheist” part so as to not sound too arrogant and intolerant.
I am an agnostic atheist. But in most conversations I simply call myself an atheist, as I believe that more accurately gets across my philosophical position on the matter. Society has the wrong perception about atheists. Regardless of what category of atheism someone falls under, agnostic or otherwise, he or she can always prove to be a reasonable, modest individual.
Jay Grafft is an extremely reasonable and modest individual … take our word for it.
It’s tough to choose between a pair of labels that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, so people tend to align with the term that has the most meaning for them. Agnosticism is often associated with respectable humility, but its intention is usually to avoid academic discussion of divisive topics like creationism. Atheism, meanwhile, indicates some recognition that the body of evidence is stacked on the non-mystic end of the possibility spectrum.
There’s a reason that agnosticism exists, but it’s not to avoid meaningful discussions and challenging people’s beliefs. It’s true that humanity knows too little to endorse strict atheism, but we also know too much to accept the various religious explanations about our universe that have historically been offered.
With scientific testing, we’ve been able to conclude that religious doctrines are flawed, to say the least. For example, the Bible would date the Earth at around 6,000 years old, while carbon dating has shown that it’s age is somewhere in the billions. An atheist would argue this topic fervently; however, an agnostic might point to misinterpretation and table the issue indefinitely.
Though the body of evidence definitely tips the scales toward the skeptic’s side, what’s useful about agnosticism is that it recognizes the false dichotomy of theistic debates. Everyone knows the risk of letting religious fervor go unchecked, so secularists are all too happy to jump into the fray, but having two in a debate doesn’t make one right. David Eagleman made this point in a presentation on what he calls Possibilianism.
Possibilianism is effectively a reframing of agnosticism into more behavioral terms. It notes that we live in an infinitely complex universe with questions and answers spanning beyond God vs. Not-God, so it keeps an open mind to anything, at least until scientific testing can prove it false. The point is that it chooses to investigate various possibilities instead of avoiding the subject altogether.
It’s difficult for an atheist to adopt a label like “agnostic” when so much research has planted dissent in dogmatic answers. It may, however, be worthwhile for an atheist to at least behave agnostically. As long as it’s used to inspire an ongoing pursuit of knowledge, agnosticism has a place in the mind of any atheist.
Travis Vail doesn’t believe in being mutually exclusive … ever.
A version of this article appeared on page 10 of the May 29, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students.