“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.