Consider this article:
There Is No Such Thing As an Agnostic
Before you send your angry emails, please finish reading this piece. The amount of confusion and anger generated by the atheism/agnosticism debate is outrageous. The confusion actually arises because of a misunderstanding of the word "atheist." Atheism is such a simple concept. I am always amazed at how complicated people want to make it. That little word, atheist, has received a bad rap and a reputation it does not deserve. It says nothing about politics, morals, character, kindness or anything else. It simply means you do not acknowledge a god. It does not mean, as so many insist, that you know for a fact that there is no God. I have yet to meet or correspond with any atheist who can state categorically that there IS NO GOD. Maybe there is. I haven't a clue. Nor does anyone else. There may be a big blue god with feathers out there somewhere. But I haven't seen anything yet that is even remotely persuading.
[NOTE: I'm struggling, as usual, with the problem of when to capitalize the word "god." As a name for an agreed upon entity, it should of course be God. But when pluralized or preceded by an article, it should be a god or several gods. This problem alone tells us quite a bit. That is, that there is no agreed upon definition of that ethereal, elusive concept—God. Or god. Or gods. Whatever.]
What ought to be a fairly simple, straightforward task—defining the word "atheist"—has turned into a philosophical nightmare requiring postgraduate courses and a thesis adviser. And it isn't just the religionists who have screwed things up so royally by heaping undeserved, malicious baggage onto that little word. (Atheist = immoral, communist scumbag.) No, we nonbelievers are wrangling over it ourselves, and the whole thing is just plain silly.
I rely on dictionaries and encyclopedias like everyone else. But they merely reflect our current usage of words—whatever is in vogue at the time. If you go back in time you'll find some interesting twists of meaning on now commonly understood words and ideas. Language evolves, and we are witnessing it right now. My 1968 Random House Dictionary quite clearly shows the word "network" to be a noun and nothing else. Period. No confusion, no room for misunderstanding. Yet today we use it all the time as a verb. In a mere 25 years that word has been completely transformed. We say, today, that we network with one another. So think about this:
Any dictionary printed before 1870 would not even have the word "agnostic" in it. How can that be? How could all those centuries of philosophers not have needed that word? Aside from the fact that it's meaningless, which is a good reason for not bringing a word into existence, why did no one feel the need for that supposed concept? That should give us pause right there. For all the centuries that people have thought and wrote about the existence or nonexistence of God, no one felt the need for the word "agnostic." Schopenhauer, Kant, Hegel—on and on, never needed that word. Doesn't that tell us something?
So when my current dictionary explains that, "An agnostic does not deny the existence of God and heaven, for example, but rather holds that one cannot know for certain if they exist or not" I agree that it is a correct definition. But I must add that it also describes every other person on the planet Earth. And, therefore, as a label it is meaningless.
No one, not I nor you nor the guy standing next to you, can know for certain that any god or gods exist(s). It is impossible for anyone to claim that we can be certain about something that:
Cannot be seen, touched, heard, or in any way detected by the human senses.
Cannot be detected by any non-human means such as X-rays, CT-scans, MRIs (Magnetic resonance imaging), sonograms, infrared sensors or anything else known to science.
Is held to be invisible, nonmaterial, and everywhere at once, defying the laws of nature.
Despite #s 1, 2 and 3, is supposedly able to communicate with human beings.
Supposedly has no beginning and no end.
Can only be understood by literally blind faith.
Has mutually exclusive properties. That is, it spoke to the Prophet Muhammad and it did not speak to him; it sent Jesus as Savior and it did not send Jesus as Savior; it is going to send a Messiah in the future and it is not going to send a Messiah in the future; it demands human sacrifices to keep it calm and it does not demand human sacrifices; and so on and so on and so on, covering all the concepts thus far attributed to the world's many diverse gods.
Cheats at cards.
Okay, Number 8 doesn't count. But other than that it's quite an impressive list, is it not? And in light of it, I think it's fair to say that such a proposition, that of knowing there's a god, represents, at best, a wild guess. The list demolishes the idea of "knowing" God. You can believe all you want, but you cannotknow. And so, to that extent, we are all agnostic. We, all of us, atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Wiccans, and so on, cannot be certain of this thing (these things) that are called God (gods).
The major problem in these discussions lies in the hair-splitting that goes on about whether or not an atheist simply does not acknowledge a god, or goes further and actually says there is no God. Atheists cannot make this claim. However, when we atheists emphatically state that we do not believe in a god we will sometimes say, "Oh, bull! There is no God!" But what we're talking about are the human creations such as Jupiter, Thor, Jehovah, Krishna, Jesus, Allah and so on—the gods we've been spoon-fed since childhood but still find thoroughly unconvincing. So we lump them all together and pronounce them all nonexistent, and here is where the confusion comes in. When we claim nonexistence for a god we mean OF THOSE SO FAR OFFERED AS CANDIDATES.
No one can claim a god absolutely does not exist unless he can claim infinite knowledge of the universe. I have never heard any atheist make this assertion. In fact, if any atheist reading this can make the certain claim that no god does or could exist, and can back it up, I would like to hear about it. It would be fun to meet someone who possesses infinite knowledge of the universe. This is not hyperbole. I mean it. Without infinite knowledge of the universe you cannot possibly know if there is a god or not. And, if you're planning to send just such a "proof" you must include exact knowledge of how the universe began and how or if it will end. Without that explanation your "proof" will prove nothing.
Even my hero, the late Carl Sagan, spoke of atheism as a position that couldn't be justified because no one can provide any "compelling evidence," as he put it, that a god does not exist. Neither I nor any atheists I know make the claim of having "compelling evidence against the existence of God." Nor are we required to have such evidence! The burden of proof lies squarely with those who claim knowledge of the existence of God. If you so claim, you must prove. I do not believe in a god. That position requires no demonstration or "proof." If you state that there is a god, you are making a claim that absolutely requires demonstration.
No one can provide any "compelling evidence" that leprechauns do not exist. So what? Does that mean then that we have a-leprechaunists and agnosti-leprechaunists, with the former claiming leprechauns don't exist and the latter withholding judgment until all the evidence is in? No. You either do or you do not believe in leprechauns. So it is with gods.
People who glom onto the complicated label "agnostic" do so for the uncomplicated reason that it seems to imply reason and open-mindedness, whereas the label "atheist" seems to imply stubborn close-mindedness. Both assumptions are wrong. The word "agnostic" means literally "without knowledge" or, more simply, "I don't know." But it is really just a cop-out word for atheist. It is a word that society has not yet blackened with foul adjectives. It is safer to utter in mixed company. However, it's impossible not to "know" whether or not you acknowledge a deity. If you do, you know it. If you don't, you know that too. And if you don't, you are an atheist—a person without theistic beliefs. To say, "I am an agnostic" is to say, "I don't know whether I believe in God or not." Which is nonsense.
If you consider yourself an "agnostic" here's a good thought experiment. Consider all the gods you know about, one by one. Write them down or tick them off on your fingers, but think about them one at a time and ask about each, "Do I believe that this entity was and/or is a god with supernatural powers?" One by one, ask the question. Zeus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, Brahma, Allah, Jehovah—ask the question for each and every god you can think of. You may not answer, "I don't know if they are gods or not" because the question is asking do you believe it? You will know the answer to that. And of course if you answer yes to any of them you are acknowledging a deity, meaning you have theistic beliefs, meaning you are a theist—just like a Lutheran.
But you will find yourself answering no, over and over, until you tire of the exercise. You will never come to a yes. At that point you will realize that you acknowledge no deity, meaning you have no theistic beliefs, meaning you are an a-theist. It is simplicity itself. As much as we'd like that soft, squishy middle position, there isn't one.
I am often challenged to explain how the universe came into being if there is no God. I do not know and I freely admit it. But it's not incumbent on me to explain any such thing. My lack of knowledge is not proof of the existence of a god! The two ideas are not remotely related.
To know something is not the same as having faith in something. Knowledge and faith are worlds apart. Believers often try to muddle things by using "faith" disingenuously. For example, they'll say that I have "faith" that a light will go on when I flip a switch. That is not faith. It is knowledge. The laws of nature, and of physics, and my own thousands of experiences in that area, all lead me to know that the light will go on. If it fails to, those same laws and experiences will lead me to know that one of a very few possible mishaps has occurred—i.e. a burned out bulb, a short in the wiring somewhere, a power failure or something similar. And they are all equally knowable and provable.
However, to say that you know that Jesus rose from the dead, for instance, is a misuse of the word. You know no such thing. You may believe it and have faith in it. But you most certainly do not know it. Likewise, the "I just know it in my heart" argument is hollow. Empty. Meaningless. Everyone knows in their hearts that their god(s) is (are) the true god(s). Muslims know it. Christians know it. Hindus know it. Buddhists know it. The ancient Incas knew it. The ancient Egyptians knew it. They allknew it in their hearts. And they couldn't all be right, could they?
So, fellow atheists, I encourage you to drop any pretense of knowing there is no God. You have no way of knowing. Nor do I. I have no theistic belief—therefore I am an a-theist. A so-called agnostic has no theistic belief—and is therefore an a-theist.
When Thomas Huxley coined the word "agnosticism" in 1869 he almost certainly had his tongue in his cheek when he did it. Believing, quite incorrectly, that being an atheist meant asserting that no God does or could exist, he wasn't sure what to call himself, since he wasn't sure about God's existence. (Join the rest of the world, Thomas!) So he made up this meaningless word, agnostic, and it has bedeviled us ever since. Let's be done with it!
© 2001 Judith Hayes http://www.thehappyheretic.com/06-01.htm