November 18, 2013

Atheism vs. Agnosticism

One of the interesting tendencies that I have noticed with the New Atheists is the penchant for using the term "Atheism" to mean "Agnosticism". Mind you, I don't mind this since I see little difference between the terms, but I think it is worthy of comment.

Classically, the term Atheism strictly meant that someone believed that God does not exist. It is synonymous with Naturalism or Materialism which are denials of the supernatural (only the natural or material exist). It was not understood as an absence of a belief, but as a belief.

Agnosticism by contrast was the recognition that we lack sufficient evidence for the non-existence of God or the supernatural, but that we also lacked sufficient evidence for God's existence as well. Therefore it is best to stay open minded, but assume non-existence until more evidence comes in.

However, lately I have seen very few true Atheists. Most who use the term now are technically Agnostics. Personally, I think this that Agnosticism is both rhetorically and logically a superior stance to Atheism (which is probably why it is now more popular). That said, I used the word 'technically' for a reason. Classically, Agnostics argued, "Since I can't know for sure, then I won't believe it." However, these modern day Atheist/Agnostic hybrids are saying, "Since we can't know for sure, then you shouldn't believe it." Thus they have the aggressiveness of the Atheist, but the epistemology of the Agnostic. This leads to some very special pleading. I plan on writing more about that later.

But why did this happen? I think it came about because of the public abuse of the word "Agnostic". Agnosticism (and Atheism for that matter) is not a non-stance. It is in fact an epistemology stance (one with many problems for that matter). This is to be compared with Atheism which is a cosmological stance. However, many began to use the word "Agnostic" for someone who is unsure what to believe or simply apathetic. That's not Agnosticism, but I believe this rampant abuse of the term has lead many to believe that it is unsalvageable. To be honest they may be right about that.

But this leaves us with this rather nebulous group who believe in the contradictory hybridization of Agnostic epistemology and aloofness with Atheist cosmology and passion.  Indeed, I would say that many of these are indeed Atheists, but use Agnostic epistemology as a rhetorical tool. But then there are others who seem to be legitimate Agnostics. As I said: nebulous.

To me, I just find this annoying. When ever you try to discuss anything with someone like this, they switch back and forth between the two positions as the need arises. I'm reminded of William Lane Craig's debate with the late Christopher Hitchens. Dr. Craig kept trying to pin down Hitchens's position, and Hitchens kept dodging, or he didn't fully grasp the distinction being made. What's more, it is just so silly. They clearly believe in something, but they pretend like they don't. I don't know if it is immaturity or rhetorical genius. Maybe a bit of both.

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