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Meditation 558
Agnosticism or Atheism?

by: Hugo

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Agnosticism or Atheism? Both!

I describe myself as an Evangelical Atheist, but I still consider myself a member (and Reverend, no less) of the UCTAA.


There are two reasons why I think it consistent to describe myself as both an atheist and an agnostic.

  1. Agnosticism (as I understand it) refers to knowledge, whereas atheism refers to belief. I don't claim to know for certain whether a god exists, but I believe that one doesn't. (This is an active disbelief, rather than just a lack of belief.) I know of no evidence or sound arguments for the existence of god, so I know of no difference between a god and Bertrand Russell's famous orbital teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I can't disprove their existence, so I don't know for certain that they don't exist. This makes me an agnostic. But I don't have any reason to believe they do exist. So I don't. This makes me an atheist, too.
  2. I have just finished reading Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion.

In a section called "The Poverty of Agnosticism", Dawkins distinguishes two types of Agnosticism.

What he calls "Temporary Agnosticism in Practice" (TAP) is to withhold judgement until new evidence comes in. Dawkins' example is the Permian extinction (approximately 251 million years ago). What he calls "Permanent Agnosticism in Principle" (PAP - don't worry about the acronym!) is for situations when no evidence could, even in principle, prove it either way. Dawkins' example is "the question whether you see red as I do. Maybe your red is my green". There is no evidence, even in principle, that could prove it either way. Dawkins then introduces a continuous spectrum of probabilities that people assign to the existence of a god, and gives seven "milestones".

  1. Strong theist. 100% probability of god.
  2. De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100%.
  3. Higher than 50%, but not very high. Agnostic but leaning towards theism.
  4. Exactly 50%. Completely impartial agnostic.
  5. Lower than 50%, but not very low. Inclination towards skepticism.
  6. De facto atheist. Very low probability but short of 0%.
  7. Strong atheist. 0% probability of god. "Knows" that there is no god.

Most atheists are at number 6, like me. I don't "know" for certain that there is no god. But I have no reason to believe that god exists. So I don't. I think the probability is very low, in the same way that I think the probability of a celestial teapot existing is very low. It could happen, but the probability is really very, very low. (This is why it is wrong to say that atheism "takes a lot of faith". This supposes that all atheists are strong atheists, when in reality very few are. (Unlike, tellingly, strong theists.) Atheism does not take faith - it is simply a skeptical weighing of probability in the light of no evidence.)

TAP agnosticism represents/is represented by 2-6. Where the probability is not 100% or 0%, there is uncertainty, so the word agnosticism is appropriate. (It is tempting to put PAP agnostics at 50%, but this would not be correct. PAP is not part of this scale, because PAP agnostics say that declaring a probability is impossible.)

So number 6 is both atheism and agnosticism.

Why do I prefer to call myself just an Atheist? Douglas Adams used to call himself a "radical atheist"[1], for emphasis (though Adams would not have said he was an agnostic). I think that to call myself an Agnostic would not give the correct impression of my opinion, but I am careful to always explain my opinion (skepticism because of lack of evidence or sound argument). Agnosticism, for many people, would perhaps make them think that I was closest to number 4 (50% probability of the existence of god).

We must be agnostics in principle, but we are atheists in practice. I am arguing that a number 6 agnostic is also, as most people use the word, an atheist. I think is important to call myself an Atheist because (if conversation has turned this way) I think I would be more likely to make religious people become agnostic or atheist. And I think the world would be a better place without religion (but that's another story).


  1. From an interview with Douglas Adams by David Silverman, in The American Atheist Volume 37 No. 1