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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Atheism, Agnosticism, Theism, and the Faith Factor

In response to the EDGE.org question: "What have you changed your mind about?", Alan Alda wrote about changing his mind about God.

The change in Alda's beliefs basically went like this:

Believing Jew > Atheist > Agnostic

Which is not too dissimilar from the change in my beliefs, which went like this:

Believing Mormon > Agnostic > Atheist

The main difference in the progression of our beliefs, aside from the Jew/Mormon aspect, is the order in which Alda and I became Atheist or Agnostic, but to really appreciate this difference, it's important to understand the subtle difference between Atheism and Agnosticism, and Alda does a great job addressing this in his essay:

"As I understood the word [atheist], it meant that I was someone who didn't believe in a God; I was without a God.... But, slowly I realized that in the popular mind the word atheist was coming to mean something more: a statement that there couldn't be a God. God was, in this formulation, not possible, and this was something that could be proved.... The problem for me was that just as I couldn't find any evidence that there was a god, I couldn't find any that there wasn't a god. I would have to call myself an agnostic."

Therein lies the distinction between Atheism and Agnosticism -- and it is one that ties Atheism closer to Theism than one might think -- namely, faith. Yes, Atheists are as much believers as Theists: Theists believe God exists, in one form or another; while Atheists actively believe God does not exist. Agnostics are the only realists in this picture -- they recognize that it is impossible to prove one way or another the existence of God. God's existence or non-existence is a matter of faith.

When this realization about the distinction between Atheism and Agnosticism occurred to me not long ago, I was somewhat alarmed to be able to connect the word "faith" to myself again. I have always deemed my mind to be very staunchly based on reason as opposed to faith. (Reason and faith are traditionally viewed as a dichotomy, meaning that they are mutually exclusive, opposed, or even contradictory of one another.) When I first made the leap from believing Mormon to Agnostic, I had come to think of myself as incapable of faith; I based my knowledge solely on evidence. But when I finally stepped down from the fence-sitting position of Agnosticism, I decided that there was no evidence that I could point to to explain why it is that, deep down, I really did believe there is no God. That's different from just not believing in God, which both Atheists and Agnostics do, but it's adding an affirmative stance to an otherwise negatively-defined position. Instead of merely not believing, you are actively disbelieving. And in my case, it's me being true to myself and my own mind, which seems to have a little faith intermingled with its reason after all.

Like Lady Justice with her scales, Theists and Atheists alike must use reason to weigh what they know, and then they must add a little belief one way or the other to tip the scales in favor of one view about God. Agnostics, on the other hand, look at the scales and speak the realist perspective: one cannot know.

While the principle of uncertainty is beautiful to some, like physicist Richard Feyman (whom Alda mentions in his essay, and who wrote several lovely and very readable books, my favorite being The Pleasure of Finding Things Out), not knowing makes most people uneasy. And this uneasiness is the main motivation for making a choice about belief.

Many people are comforted by a belief in God, and I can understand why, since I am just as comforted by my belief that there is no God. But I have just as much respect for the Agnostic perspective, because it takes a lot of courage to admit that we don't know.



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14 comments:

Jake said...

Here's a widely circulated video that gives a clear understanding of the words, theist, atheist, and agnostic. It also explains how agnostic is not a third position but a qualifier.
http://www.afterfaith.com/?page_id=405

Sra said...

This is a nice video explaining how the classical definitions of the words atheist, theist, and agnostic derive from their etymological roots (Greek, I believe).

Jake points out that "theist" deals with belief, while "gnostic" deals with knowledge. Prefix "a" means without. So, traditionally, whereas atheism and theism deal with belief (the faith factor), agnoticism deals with knowledge.

What Alan Alda touches on in his essay is the fact that classical definitions take on new meanings through use in society. Alda is not incorrect when he states that most people perceive the primary definition of Atheism to be what Jake calls in his video a "strong Atheist". Meaning, not only do you say you don't believe in God, but you believe there is no God. This is the nature of language: meanings are fluid.

Jake is also not incorrect in his classical definitions of the terms, and if you want to be what Harry Mount refers to as a "wanker" in his book on Latin called "Carpe Diem", then you will strictly abide by these definitions.

But, if you've read this previous post of mine, you will know that I am a prescriptive, and not a descriptive grammarian, meaning that I recognize the fluidity of language, and look to how language is used, rather than how it is prescribed in books to be used.

Thanks for posting your video, Jake.

Sra said...

Correction to my above comment: meant to say that I am a descriptive, and not a prescriptive grammarian. It's tough when the words rhyme.

Jake said...

The problem with Alda's thinking is that it creates a false representation. Most people think that if you call yourself an agnostic, that it means you don't have a clear lack of belief. When in truth one can either be an atheist/agnostic ( like myself ) or a theist/agnostic.

I tell people I am an atheist/agnostic. I tell them that I have no belief in a god because I have now evidence ( knowledge ) of one. When they become confused I take the opportunity to explain the differences. Since many theists get their definition's from their religion, explaining to them that the definition that they have been given by their faith is erroneous can sometimes be the first time a person questions what they've been told by their faith.

Sra said...

I can relate to what you say: I used to tell people that I was agnostic with atheistic tendencies, meaning that I held the position that we can't prove god's existence one way or the other, but my personal belief was that there is no god.

I found that most people's eyes glazed over when I went into this discussion, even though they were the ones who asked. And then I realized that the crux of the matter is the issue of belief. I believe there is no god, and so it is most fitting to refer to myself as atheist.

But now, I think that it's a little unnecessary to say one is an atheist-leaning-agnostic or a theist-leaning-agnostic. I think it's enough to just say you're an atheist or a theist, primarily because I don't think that Alda's representation of an agnostic is a misrepresentation. I think the agnostic position is very clearly stating that it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of god. I don't think it says anything other than that. It's a matter of knowledge and knowledge alone. If you want to qualify that knowledge with belief, then you might as well just call yourself theist or atheist. That's my stance. (And personally, I think the agnostic position is a given - clearly the existence of god cannot be proved or disproved, and anyone who thinks otherwise has yet to show anything convincing.)

Jake said...

I get what you're saying, but the problem is still one of representation. Atheism and theism deal with belief. When you say that you are agnostic, you aren't answering the question of belief. You are qualifying your belief or lack of. However people don't realize this. They think that when you say " agnostic " that it's some sort of mysterious 3rd position. They think that atheists are closed minded when in fact, they aren't.

And yes, everyone is an agnostic since it can't be proven. However there are gods that can be proven to not exists. We know that Zeus isn't real. You wouldn't say you were agnostic towards Zeus, you would consider yourself atheistic towards Zeus because of your understanding of how the myth formed. The same thing for me with xianity. I am atheistic towards xianity because I understand it's history and because of the impossibility to the contrary.

When a person calls themselves agnostic they are doing themselves and the theist a disservice. They are serving to cloud the discussion with misrepresentation. The atheist is misrepresented to the theist, and the atheist isn't given a chance to explain because the theist thinks the atheists mind is already made up.

Jake said...

Oh and from one exmormon to another, I'm glad to see you got out. :)

Sarahbellum said...

Since you don't have a private email listed on here, I'm using your comments as such.

Thank you. We all need help with anonymous trolls.

Sra said...

To Sarah: No problem, it's so easy for people to criticize when they do so anonymously isn't it?

I'm not really comfortable putting my private email on this site, but I'm considering either creating an address just for Bunsnip, or trying to figure out an awesome email form that would send me email but not disclose my address. We'll see what I come up with.

Sra said...

To Jake:

You got it right when you said: "When you say that you are agnostic, you aren't answering the question of belief." I agree completely. Which is why I don't understand your position that being agnostic "clouds the discussion with misrepresentation." (Frankly, I don't even know what that phrase means.) Maybe there is underrepresentation, in that the matter of belief is not addressed, but then there is always the possibility that an agnostic doesn't have belief one way or the other. Maybe they neither believe nor disbelieve in god, and maybe they don't even care. I've met such people. So because of that, I think there is a 3rd position, and pure agnosticism, without mention or care about belief, is it!

I think you might agree that you can't really group atheists together except by saying that they disbelieve in god. Besides that, atheists are all different kinds of people, some open-minded, some close-minded. This is the most compelling reason why people ought not to judge an atheist without getting to know them as a person. The same goes for theists: some are close-minded, some are open-minded. Everyone should be given the opportunity to behave as a rational person before they are judged to be a nutcase :)



There's a lot more of us ex-mos than people like to think, which is one of the things I was alarmed to find when I was in the process of leaving the church. The church likes to make it seem like not very many people leave, and I think it's that fear of being alone that might make it more difficult for some people to leave. I am much happier now that I'm not a Mormon, and even though that would have been true with or without my knowledge that there are a lot of ex-mos out there, it was helpful and supportive to find other ex-mos and talk with them about our common experiences. I imagine you also take heart in knowing we are not a unique position as apostates! Congratulations to you too. :)

Jake said...

I think the problem here focuses on the word "belief". As an atheist/agnostic I do not have a belief that there is no god. To believe that there is no god would make me a strong atheist. Instead, I lack a belief in a god as the etymology of the word implies.

When you say "but then there is always the possibility that an agnostic doesn't have belief one way or the other." I believe you are stating an impossibility. The question of theism is binary. Do you believe ? Do you not believe ? Yes or no ? Even if you are searching and open minded and say " I don't know if I believe it. " you are still without a belief in a god. Until a person accepts whichever god they are investigating, they are without a belief in a god. Making them an atheist.

I say that calling oneself agnostic "clouds the discussion with misrepresentation." because it misrepresents the word " atheist " as being someone who is not open minded. Just like there are open minded and closed minded theists, there are also open minded and closed minded atheists. Agnostic implies to most people, that to be an atheist, one must be closed minded. This is the misrepresentation I speak of.


LOL@apostate.
I had two missionaries knock on my door the other day. You should have seen their jaws drop when I told them that not only had I gone through the temple, and went on a mission, but that I was also on the bishopric. They couldn't understand why I didn't believe any longer. It was pretty funny actually.

Sra said...

Alright, I had to read your latest comment a few times before I could identify the part where we disagree, because, all along, your comments have had me nodding my head in agreement. And yet here we are arguing as if we disagree. I think in essence, you and I are on the same page, or maybe looking at the same coin, but from two different sides. Or what have you.

But we differ in that you are looking at belief as a binary thing: you either believe or you don't believe. I, on the other hand, am looking at it as trinary: you either believe, don't believe, or disbelieve.

To me, the opposite of "believing" is "disbelieving", not "not believing". So for me, theists are believers, atheists are disbelievers, and agnostics are non-believers, if you follow me. This view diverges from the etymology of the root words, I admit that. But I take this view because I think that it's the popular way of viewing these words, and thus to be best understood, it is most convenient to use words the way most people understand and use them. My approach employs descriptive grammar.

You stick to the conventional meanings of the words from their etymological roots, and therefore interpret the words literally and not from how they are commonly used and understood. Your approach employs prescriptive grammar.

This is the same thing that Alda is talking about: he initially understood the words in their conventional sense, but noticed that they are commonly understood somewhat differently, and so he adjusted his use of the words accordingly for whatever reason.

I think neither of us is wrong, we're just looking at the same thing differently. So I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree about our agreeing... or something like that :)

It's been fun discussing this, though, thanks for playing along!



That's another thing about ex-mos: many people think that it is only common members who leave the church, and not people who have held high positions. That is not the case at all. I have heard from many people who went on missions, served in the bishopric, and some were even very devout for many many years, and yet they still left.

I hope one day I can come up with a good way to shock missionaries at my doorstep, but I haven't actually been visited yet. I'm also not out to convert anyone to my way of thinking, so I don't think I'd want to get into an argument about doctrine or inconsistencies in the church's history or practices. But it would be fun to, say, answer the door naked!

Alex said...

Let me know when you are planning to answer the door naked. I'll get my bike and name tag ready...

Sra said...

Ha ha!

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