Saturday, November 04, 2006

No Need for Agnotheism

Jane Galt calls herself an “agnotheist,” which she defines as “an agnostic who puts a very, very low – yet non-zero! – value on P(God).” That’s a very good description of my own position. But did we really need a new word here? I suggest that Jane should bite the bullet and call herself an atheist.

As recently as a few years ago, I referred to myself as an agnostic for just the reason that Jane describes. I reserved “atheist” for absolute certainty of the non-existence of god, and “agnostic” for a degree of certainty less than 100%. But after many conversations with my old roomie Julian, I realized that was silly, because I’m not 100% certain about anything. I’m not 100% certain that unicorns don’t exist, yet I don’t call myself a “unicorn agnostic.” I’m not 100% certain there’s no such thing as ESP, yet I don’t call myself an “ESP agnostic.” When I say I don’t believe in unicorns or ESP, it means that I just don’t have any good reason to think they’re real, and so I proceed on the assumption that they aren’t. If P(unicorns) and P(ESP) are sufficiently small, they don’t merit having representation in your label. Why treat P(God) any differently?

A more difficult question would arise if your P(God) were substantially greater than zero, but not close to 50% – say, 10%. If I placed that high a probability on god’s existence, it might actually affect my life. At a minimum, I’d probably spend more time exploring the question. Maybe “agnotheist” could apply here, but “agnostic” seems to capture the degree of uncertainty just fine.

Besides, “agnotheist” doesn’t sound like its definition. I know it’s supposed to be a hybrid of agnostic and atheist, but with the “a-” prefix taken out, what’s left of the atheist is just a “theist” there on the end. That sounds like an almost-believer to me! If Jane had called herself an “agnotheist” without providing a definition, I’d have assumed her P(God) was around 40%. If Jane insists on adopting a new label, perhaps it should be "agnatheist" (note the vowel change).

(More thoughts on the P(God) spectrum here.)


Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

I don't know if it's a good term or not, but "weak atheism" is one that has been used to describe your viewpoint:

Anonymous said...

A lot of this also depends on what 'god' is supposed to be. Meanings vary wildly, of course. I'm a dyed-in-wool naturalist, but under some interpretations, 'god' is just the mystery of being, or the sum of cosmic energy, or the laws of nature, or some set of guiding idealizations. If something like that is what's meant, well, then it's not clear that I ~don't~ believe in what that theist believes in. Indeed, many educated Jews, Christians, Hindus would admit, if you pushed them, that the scriptural and anthropomorphic trappings of their religion are best seen as symbolic overlays of deeper beliefs that are considerably less definite and easier to reconcile with naturalism.

Adam said...

I enjoyed your post. I see a lot more value in discussing why we develop different strategies towards acceptance of religion than in creating names for mixes of "certainty" of belief/faith. Religion confers benefits upon its adherents. So does science, and the rigor required by science does conflict with faith. It is interesting to watch religion adapt to the pressure put on it by knowledge.

Check out my blog at - I have an essay about this.

Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

One of the problems here is that "agnosticism" can be used to describe at least two quite distinct views:

1. Holding that, as a matter of fact, you do not know whether or not God exists.

2. Holding that, in principle, you cannot know whether or not God exists.

(1) is probably the more common usage but (2) seems to be closer to the philosophical position espoused by Huxley and other early self-identified "Agnostics." It's not so much that they entertained God's existence as a non-negligible possibility, but rather that they had epistemological objections to the idea that you could even assess the possibility. In any case, I think the second usage is taxonomically more useful and more interesting, since it helps you to classify the position not only of agnostics like Huxley or Ingersoll who didn't believe in God, but also the views of folks like Kant or Kierkegaard, who did believe in God but denied the possibility of theoretical knowledge as a basis for their faith.

Julian said...

The recent Wired cover story on "The New Atheism" contained an explanation I found compelling: The author recalls asking a bunch of smart West Coast techie friends whether any considered themselves "atheists," and though none thought it was remotely likely that a God existed, only one did. The others self-described as "agnostic." And the reason they cited was basically politeness. In other words, if large numbers of other people make this belief the center of their entire lives, it seems rude to assert tht you regard it as being on all fours with belief in Santa Claus or the theory that Elvis is alive on a flying saucer.

Bill Poser said...

While I appreciate the desire to avoid unnecessarily insulting people, I disagree with the comparison between belief in god and belief in Santa Claus or the continuing existence of Elvis. The latter are much more benign beliefs. Belief in god is arguably not merely a quaint superstition but a major cause of evil.

Gil said...

I think "atheism" is technically a correct way of describing Glen's position (he is without a belief in god; not necessarily certain that God doesn't exist).

Unfortunately, we'll continue to have these discussions as long as the primary purpose for using the terms is communication, and we don't have a consensus on their use.

I don't think coming up with new terms like "agnotheist" or "bright" is going to help this much.

Schatzi572 said...

There is no Santa Clause? *sob*

Vandon said...

Agnotheist can mean that you lean towards atheism but don't care enough about it to give yourself the strong label of "atheist." I am a true agnotheist. She is the "I don't know" part of the agnosticism label and the "you might be on your way to hell" part of certain religions that I have heard of. Come check out my WAO page on Facebook to find out more about agnotheism.