Saturday, December 26, 2009

Agnosticism and Atheism

In a previous post I described myself as an "agnostic/atheist". This prompted some comments so I think I will explain myself a little more.

One reason I describe myself as an agnostic/atheist is that I have never been completely clear on the exact definition of agnostic and atheist and the precise distinction between them, something that the wikipedia entries on Agnosticism and Atheism don't really clear up at least in my mind. And I expect other people are confused as well so describing yourself as one or the other risks misunderstanding as different people are likely to ascribe different meanings to the words.

Another reason I describe myself as an agnostic/atheist is that to the extent I do understand the difference my views are somewhat intermediate. The wikipedia agnosticism article cites Richard Dawkins as follows:

According to Richard Dawkins, a distinction between agnosticism and atheism is unwieldy and depends on how close to zero we are willing to rate the existence of any given god-like entity. Since in practice it is not worth contrasting a zero probability with a probability that is nearly indistinguishable from zero, he prefers to categorize himself as a "de facto atheist".

I agree up to a point. But almost zero is not zero especially since there are an infinite number of possible god-like entities so summing over all of them might yield a reasonable chance for the existence of something like a god.

Also the distinction between agnostic and atheist sometimes seems like one of those pointless religious quarrels that nonreligious people like myself prefer to avoid. So it seems simplest to describe myself as an agnostic/atheist.


  1. I think when they say "almost zero" they are referring to the probability of the existence of any god-like entity, not a particular one.

  2. It is indeed the case that the words "atheist" and "agnostic" are used in a variety of ways that often overlap. So all that I claim for the following characterizations is that they make a useful distinction:

    Atheists, monotheists, and polytheists believe with a high degree of certainty that there are respectively no gods, one God, or many gods. An agnostic on the other hand is uncertain, enough so to assert that it is unknown or unknowable whether or not a God or gods exist and what he, she, it, or they may be like. In calling myself an agnostic, I interpret the term more broadly, extending it to include lack of knowledge in regard to other issues that seem to be beyond the reach of science.