What exactly IS an Atheist? What is an Agnostic?

This is one of the most common questions we on Freethought Forum (a public access TV show that I co-host.)  Most people mistakenly think that an agnostic is a person half way between a believer and a non-believer; i.e. that they are not sure whether they believe in god or not?  That’s not the case.  Gnosticism doesn’t address beliefs. It addresses knowledge.

Simply put:

* Theism speaks to belief: Theists believe in a god, Atheists don’t
* Gnosticism speaks to knowledge: Gnostics claim to have knowledge of god, Agnostics don’t

You can be both at the same time.  Personally, I’m an Agnostic Atheist, and most atheists are. We can’t KNOW for certain that there are no gods, of any type, anywhere, but we don’t BELIEVE in any.

There are:
* Hard (Gnostic) Atheists – People who claim that they know that God does not exist, and can prove it through logical argument.
* Soft (Agnostic) Atheists – Claim that they don’t know (and indeed CAN’T know), and can’t prove it, but don’t believe in God just the same.

Just as there are:
* Hard (Gnostic) Theists – Claim that they know that God does exist, and can prove it through logical argument.
* Soft (Agnostic) Theists – Claim that they don’t know (and indeed CAN’T know), and can’t prove it, but DO believe in God just the same.

Atheists often identify themselves as Freethinkers, secularists, realists, rationalists, and/or Secular Humanists.

However, if you look up “Atheist” in certain dictionaries you might encounter phrases like “one who denies the existence of God” (implying that we are in denial of reality), “infidel”, “non-believer”, “immoral”, “evil”.  After all, even dictionary compilers are human and subject to the same biases as regular authors.  Good examples of this can be found in the older versions of Webster’s Dictionary.  Webster was a Christian (theist) and obviously had an ax to grind against atheists.

Atheists are found the world over.  In some countries, the majority of the populations are Atheists/Secularists.  China, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Japan and many European countries are primarily atheistic; and globally atheists make up about 45% of all mankind, and growing.

Not only that, but the countries with the lowest religious index numbers are some of the most prosperous and peaceful countries in the world.  They are flourishing societies. When measured by the normal standards of societal health (the number of homicides, rape, teenage pregnancy and illegal drug use) these countries show lower numbers across the board than countries with primarily religious populations.  They also score higher in the areas of public health and education.

It tends to be that the poorest countries (and, in America, the poorest states) are the most religious, and have the lowest societal-health numbers; also, the poorer the country, the more its citizens turn to religion for the hope it purports to offer.  It seems to be a direct correlation that the more religious belief a society has, the lower the societal health numbers, and vice-verse, so it’s a self-reinforcing cycle.

How do you break out of this cycle?

Ruthlessly examine the supernatural beliefs that you have, ask for evidence and don’t settle for supernatural explanations.

Educate yourself and your children.  It doesn’t have to be college.  Go online and get the answers and evidence that you need.  Through the internet, the world’s knowledge is at your fingertips. Ask the hard questions, and don’t be guided by wishful thinking.  Truth will be found wherever the evidence best supports it; but make sure that it’s actually evidence, and not unsupported claims.

Join groups, and discuss these topics.  Again, be rigorous!  Demand valid, well-supported evidence, not anecdotes or appeals to emotions.

Be skeptical. Accept information only from experts in the fields that are supported by research; not dogma or authority.  And question even them.  Make them explain their findings with real-world evidence.

Empower women to control their own reproductive systems.  Support legislation that will guarantee equality for women so they will have access to birth-control.  Not so they won’t have children, but so they won’t have unwanted children.  They will have more control of their lives and society will be better for it.  (When I was a child, in the early 1950’s, there were 4 Billion people in the world.  That number has almost doubled in my lifetime.  If nothing is done to assure women’s reproductive rights, we are looking at 16 Billion in your child’s lifetime.  The earth’s resources are hard-pressed to support us now, what will the situation be then?)

The good news is that most countries are becoming more secular.  It’s certainly not universal, nor is it happening as fast as one might wish, but it is happening.  The poll, called “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 (the last time the poll was conducted) to 60 percent in 2012.

At the same time, the number of Americans who say they are atheists rose, from 1 percent to 5 percent.

Four countries; France, Switzerland, Ireland and Vietnam, have seen religiosity drop by over 20% in the last decade. And in the next generation, those numbers will be even higher.

5 thoughts on “What exactly IS an Atheist? What is an Agnostic?”

  1. Reply to your remark: You cannot be both agnostic and atheist at the same time, by definition of the terms, since the agnostic cannot know if God exists, and the atheist knows God does not exist.

    Comments: Why do you not follow Pascal’s Wager? (My point is pragmatic, since Pascal’s Wager is not a valid argument for God’s existence.) If God exists, and you believe in him, then everlasting bliss is yours. If God does not exist, but you believe he does, then you die, disolve into nothingness, and nothing in life mattered.

    1. NO, an Atheist does not KNOW that no gods exists (Theism and Atheism) address belief, not knowledge. Did you even read the article you’re commenting on, or just read the title, and jump to answer? I don’t KNOW(agnosticism) that there are any gods or not, but I don’t BELIEVE (atheism) in any.

      As far as Pascal’s Wager is concerned. It’s more than just a false dichotomy. There are thousands of gods out there that people worship.. How do you know you ‘ve chosen the right one, or the right religion of that god, or the right sect of that religion? etc. etc.

      Here is a video I did that shows just how flawed Pascals’ Wager is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMk2kHZUrAc

  2. Theism or a-theism is a false dichotomy. Those 4 position models are a false dilemma.

    For any claim: X, you can believe it’s true, believe it’s false, or have no belief either way.

    Person A: belief X is true, no belief X is false
    Person B: no belief X is true, no belief X is false
    Person C: no belief X is true, belief X is false

    There are 3 possible positions of belief/no-belief, regarding any claim. Dictating a single question, to only offer 2, is a false dichotomy.

    Do you believe “gods exist”?
    Do you believe “gods do not exist”?

    YN: the-ist
    NN: agnostic
    NY: athe-ist

    Do you believe “gods exist”?
    Do you claim to know “gods exist”?
    Do you believe “gods do not exist”?
    Do you claim to know “gods do not exist”?

    YYNN: theo-gnostic
    YNNN: the-ist
    NNNN: agnostic
    NNYN: athe-ist
    NNYY: atheo-gnostic


      1. Yep. You lumped two different positions together, by ignoring beliefs about the “gnostic atheist” claim “gods do not exist”. You presented a false dilemma.

        Do you believe “gods exist”?
        Do you claim to know “gods exist”?
        Do you claim to know “gods do not exist”?

        YYN: gnostic theist
        YNN: agnostic theist
        NNN: agnostic a-theist (this is agnostics and athe-ists tossed together)
        NNY: gnostic a-theist

        Huxley was a scientist, above all else. He saw the scientific method in picking apples at the market. The agnosticism he defined was a belief in that scientific method, and it amounted to a form of demarcation. No objective testable evidence = a subjective unfalsifiable claim. Results: unscientific and inconclusive. No belief as to the truth, or falsehood, of the claim. It is not compatible with athe-ism, the belief gods do not exist, or the-ism, the belief gods do exist.

        “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Thomas Huxley, 1884

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