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Agnostic? Gnostic.

February 2, 2012

Agnostic” is one of those words that gets abused in our language. It has been too often used to represent some sort of middle ground between theism and atheism. Christians rejoice if they find out that someone considers themselves an agnostic, because that is only a step away from believing in their flavor of god! An atheist is almost beyond hope, of course, since they are closed-minded to the idea of any deity. The liberal Christians are even more happy to embrace this kind of agnostic since they, themselves, believe that you can never truly know for sure what god is.

However, this is an oversimplification and warping of the true meaning of the word “agnostic”. It has been explained over and over again by many atheists before me that there are both agnostic and gnostic atheists as well as agnostic and gnostic theists in the world. Agnostic simply means that a person believes that it cannot be known (gnostic comes from the Greek gnostos meaning “known, perceived, understood” and the prefix a- means “not” or “without”). So, an agnostic theist is one who believes that there is a deity, but also believes that the truth about such a deity cannot be known. A gnostic theist believes there is a god and that it can be known for certain that there is a god and the nature of that god. Likewise, an agnostic atheist believes there is no god, but that it could never be truly proven that there is no god. A gnostic atheist believes there is no possibility of a god existing.

I explain this simply to make sure that you are on the same page as I am when referring to these terms. I have been on the cusp of calling myself a gnostic atheist for quite a while now, but haven’t really been able to explain why to anyone with any clear reasoning. A big part of it is that a lot of the reasoning comes down to what one’s definition of a deity actually is.

When someone asks if I could ever believe in god, I have to wonder what kind of god do they mean. Do they mean the god of the bible, who created the earth in six days and cares if I look at a woman with lust in my heart? Do they mean the god who created the world through natural causes, the big bang and evolution, but orchestrated it all to happen as it has, and cares very much about each and every one of our souls and will love us for all eternity in heaven? Do they mean the deistic god who created everything and walked away? Are they simply referring to nature? There are so many definitions for god and not one of them agrees with the other.

The other day the latest in a series of guest posts on Pharyngula, “Why I am an atheist,” appeared. After summarizing some clarifying points as to things that didn’t lead to his disbelief and giving points as to why he distrusts religion and is an atheist, he closed with a statement clarifying what would cause him to become a theist:

[If] God, or a god, showed himself or performed an act that unambiguously proved both his existence and his attributes as an immortal, omnipotent being. As to what that proof would constitute: that god himself, if omnipotent, would be the perfect arbiter of what would conclusively prove to six billion people that he existed.

This statement gave me pause. I didn’t quite agree with it, and I wasn’t the only one. One of the comments on the post was in line with what I was thinking as was a blog post I’m going to talk about in a minute. Why would some demonstration of power cause me to believe a being was worthy of being called a god? Why would a demonstration of power and benevolence cause me to believe? What makes an all-powerful being worthy of worship?

Today I saw a post on my friend Jason’s Facebook wall. A friend of his had written a response to the same blog post that I am referencing above, examining the same statement I have quoted above. And what he said was exactly what I had been thinking. He closes his post thusly:

As a rationalist, I’ve always been open to the idea that even though there is no evidence for the existence of a god, I should be open to the small chance that it does exist.  I think I’ve changed my mind on that.  The only thing I might consider a “god” is rationally impossible, and I’m not prepared to label any being a “god” and bow to it just because it is powerful.

You should read the rest of his post; it has some very insightful thoughts about this issue and really helped me solidify my thoughts on why I am a gnostic atheist.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2012 11:38 am

    I was agnostic when I first left the Catholic Church – I had no opinion on whether there was or was not a god, but I was sure it wasn’t there. I was 17 at the time and had just graduated from my Catholic high school. I drifted along for a few years, until I was 21, and then fell back into religion for another 14 years before I finally realized I was an atheist. Oddly, I went through none of the angst others describe upon losing their religion. I actually felt relieved.

    • February 13, 2012 6:07 pm

      I’ve heard very few actual atheists describe going through angst upon losing their religion. In fact, the majority of people whose stories I’ve heard have felt relieved. I’ve heard lots of evangelists and apologists describe an atheist’s angst upon losing their religion, though.

      It’s actually a pretty powerful tool. If you tell people that they will hate life if they leave religion, and emphasize how terrible people are without religion, and cite “studies” showing that there is a higher suicide rate among unbelievers, a higher crime rate among unbelievers, and just generally paint a horrible, depressing, dark picture of life without religion then they’ll be scared to let any doubts creep into their minds as that might eventually lead to their own unbelief and entering that terrible, dark angsty world of atheism. :D

      • February 13, 2012 11:16 pm

        Maybe it’s because I read lots and hear lots from people who were serious about their religion – people like Matt Dillahunty or Bart Ehrman or Dan Barker – all of whom had the intention of becoming stronger in their faith but wound up proving themselves wrong. Since I don’t get to hang around with many real-life atheists I get my stories from popular media. I was sure glad to get the monkey off my back. Maybe it has to do with my discomfort in groups – when I was a Baha’i, there were usually small group meetings, and just praying in front of others made me feel self-conscious, perhaps because I wasn’t sure I believed it. Whatever, I certainly have no regrets after all these years.

        • February 14, 2012 2:55 am

          I’m not really sure Barker really had much angst at his newfound unbelief, and it cost him more than just the good feeling you get thinking there is a god who loves you and you get to live forever after you die. He lost his career and his family.

          He doesn’t like religion, especially not fundamental Christianity, but I wouldn’t call that angst. I, too, dislike religion, especially fundamental Christianity, because I feel it is a dangerous idea, but I certainly don’t feel angst.

          I’m not even sure that he was particularly angry at Christianity after he came out of it, at least not angry that he spent many years believing in it and dedicating his life to it, I know I haven’t been. Yes, there are moments where I regret that, but I know that those involved were just doing what they thought was right. No one, that I’m aware of, pushed Christianity on me for any reason other than they thought it was right.

          That doesn’t make it OK to frighten children into believing a myth, but it keeps me from resenting my past. It doesn’t keep me from wanting to see religion, especially the more hateful religions like Christianity and Islam, be done away with one day, or wanting to keep them from hurting other people with lies, or prevent them from from gaining power over this country and others.

          (And to the Christians and Muslims who may read this note: I do not mean that I would support the outlawing of religion in America. I would stand strongly against anyone who tried to limit our freedom to practice or not practice religion. I just mean that I would like to see a world without religion, not through laws but through rationality.)

  2. March 19, 2012 2:44 am

    Interesting post. So far you having giving me the best definition of agnostic vs gnostic.

    Now I do have question, are you familiar with Pascal’s Wager, What is your impression of it? or thoughts on it?

    • March 19, 2012 2:31 pm

      Yes, I am quite familiar with Pascal’s Wager, and even had come up with the same idea for a while during my own struggle with belief (though I may have heard the argument somewhere, without it being attributed to Pascal, so I may not truly have come up with it on my own). It is one of the weakest arguments one can use in favor of believing in a deity.

      Pascal’s Wager, for those who don’t already know, is thus: God either exists or he doesn’t. Should you chose to believe he does exist you gain all (heaven) if you are right, and lose nothing if wrong. Should you chose to believe that he doesn’t exist you gain nothing if you are right and lose everything (hell) if you are wrong.

      There are quite a few arguments against Pascal’s wager. Most importantly: this is a false dichotomy. That is, you are given two choices: believe in the god of the bible or don’t believe in the god of the bible. Even if Christianity were united on what you have to do to be saved, there are so many other gods out there that could be the right god. How can one know that they have chosen the correct one? You aren’t flipping a coin and getting heads or tails, you’re rolling a many-thousand-sided die one time and hoping that the number you got is the correct one out of all the thousand others.

      Also, most of the Christians I have been around (admittedly it has been mostly conservative Southern Baptists and some conservative Presbyterians not of the PCUSA variety), though they may argue this, wouldn’t really accept belief just to get “hell insurance” as true belief. They may say they do since they do love large numbers of converts, but deep down they don’t think that way. The bible even speaks against this when it says that even the demons believe, and tremble.

      This brings me to a third point: can you believe something just by choosing to believe it. I’m going to assume that you believe the earth to be round. Can you stop believing it is round and start believing it is flat? I don’t mean can you, over the course of many years, by separating yourself from all evidence to the contrary and working hard to convince yourself, but can you just stop believing it is round right now and suddenly believe it to be flat? What if your eternal happiness rested on that belief, but you had no proof, it was just a 50/50 chance? You believe the earth is flat and are right, you gain heaven. If you’re wrong you lose nothing. Could you do it? I don’t think so. I know I couldn’t.

      For more on Pascal’s Wager and for some more, probably better worded, arguments against it check out

  3. June 14, 2012 6:50 pm <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< JESUS LIVESSS!!!!

    • July 2, 2012 4:22 pm

      Nope. Even if he did, at one time, live (and I’m actually pretty doubtful that the Jesus of the bible, as he appears in the bible, actually existed, I’ve seen little evidence to support the existence of anyone that the mythical character of Jesus was created from even) he most certainly does not live 2000 years later. People don’t live that long.

  4. Tovec permalink
    November 22, 2014 6:31 pm

    So, you are gnostic because you believe that no matter what nothing could convince you of it being a god?

    Do you think that gnosticism directly relates to certainty?

    I mean, I think I am fairly certain that no gods exist. In fact I think it likely that we as humans invented the whole thing. With that said, I also don’t see it as impossible to rule out something that doesn’t exist. In fact, even though I am as certain as I can be that gods do not exist, and I put them in the same category as Santa – if I saw a god, I’m also fairly sure I could be convinced one existed. I mean, I don’t think it will happen but if something that did violate the laws of the universe (omnipotence), and basically demonstrated itself to be God (or if they did for gods) – then I’m open to the possibility I was wrong all this time.

    To you, do you think this means I’m less than 100% certain? Does this less than absolute certainty mean I’m agnostic? Does it mean I’m gnostic and not know it?

    I mean I’m virtually certain no gods exist. I’m also virtually certain that the world I live in is real (counter to solipsism). I’m okay with using terms like absolutely certainty, even if I can’t solve the solipsism problem. Do you think I should consider myself gnostic or agnostic?

    No matter what I’m still atheist and about as certain as I can be that I will remain an atheist. I’m just curious on your thought, since you were on the fence for so long and have seemed to have gotten a level of definition that isn’t “know/don’t know”.

    Unrelated to that question:
    Does gnosticism directly relate to positive atheism, in your view? I find the definintion between strong and weak/positive and negative to be unclear in some ways and I want your thoughts.

    And finally, does gnosticism require a defense, make an actual claim (gods do not exist) which would then have to be proven? How would one prove a negative?

    • July 10, 2015 7:24 pm

      I’m not sure I would call myself completely gnostic (for a comparison of gnostic vs agnostic atheism/theism see the entry on the Iron Chariots wiki) anymore, or that the label ever really fit, though I also can’t call myself completely agnostic. I am gnostic to the Christian god, as I am toward Zeus and Thor. I believe that the very definition of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god is something of an oxymoron and thus cannot exist.

      I am nearly positive that any extremely powerful being I may encounter, rules of physics breaking or otherwise, wouldn’t be worthy of worship simply because it is so powerful, so I am nearly positive that I would be atheist toward any definition of god outside of the cop-out that is pantheism (nature/the universe/whatever is god, they say, I say it’s just nature/the universe/whatever and there’s no reason to call it god).

      I guess I would fall into the “strong atheism” camp.

      • Tovec permalink
        July 10, 2015 11:16 pm

        Yeah, I also identify as strong atheist. I was mostly just trying to get your thoughts on making a claim (how to prove a negative) and gnostic atheism.

        But as far as the strong atheist position “the statement that any gods exist is false” I find is a much easier position, because I can just dismantle any arguments made that state gods exist – basically what I’ve always done for atheism. Essentially the null hypothesis, as far as I understand it, in relationship to all the god claims and not being in the position where I have to utterly rule out all gods as impossible in order to declare “gnostic”.

        Thanks anyway, I think I’m pretty happy with where I’m at. I just wanted your thoughts on the subject given your article.


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