Agnostic Atheism’s Incoherence

What is agnostic atheism?

The traditional line of thought among those who self-identify as agnostic atheists* is that each refers to a different part of their position: agnosticism refers to knowledge -they do not claim to know that there is no God – and atheism refers to belief. We can express this succinctly by paraphrasing agnostic atheists in saying, “I do not believe there is a God, but I also do not claim to know there is not a God.”  It is important – and this will come into play later – to note that the supposed motivation behind this distinction is using the words in their appropriate, technical manner. And, though a less immediate problem, they also claim that this label makes there ideas more clear and communicable when engaging with the public or religious. So, with all this in mind, let’s venture forth and flesh out the numerous problems with this position.

(1) Agnostic atheism does not reflect academic use.

This is a very simple, matter of fact complaint against agnostic atheists. It is demonstrably true that philosophical and theological treatment of atheism, agnosticism, and theism is that of a positional spectrum. Atheism denies the existence of God, theism affirms it, and agnosticism does not find one more compelling than the other. Here is the pertinent quotation from the SEP article on the topic:

In the light of these considerations let us consider the appropriateness or otherwise of someone (call him ‘Philo’) describing himself as a theist, atheist or agnostic. I would suggest that if Philo estimates the various plausibilities to be such that on the evidence before him the probability of theism comes out near to one he should describe himself as a theist and if it comes out near zero he should call himself an atheist, and if it comes out somewhere in the middle he should call himself an agnostic.

Now the typical response that the agnostic atheist will give is that words can have different meanings among different groups and contexts. Maybe, for example, they will point to the appropriateness of using the word theory in the colloquial sense despite how it is used in the sciences. But let’s remember the supposed motivation for this identifier: they want their word use to reflect the correct, technical treatment of the terms; therefore, despite their protestations, how the words are used academically is a relevant critique of their label.

(2) We do not require 100% certainty to say we know something

This is one of the most obvious, least disputable complaints against agnostic atheists. They pretend that because they might be wrong that they cannot say they know there is not a God. And keep in mind that these are individuals who routinely refer to God as a delusion and believers as irrational – only emotion, indoctrination, and a lack of critical thinking can result in theism; it is quite obvious that they are requiring 100% certainty to say they have knowledge. You do not say something is a delusion if you are only 75% sure on it not existing.

Apply this standard to any other field (barring, obviously, areas like mathematics) and it becomes glaringly, even depressingly, clear how mistaken it is. None of these people are going to say they are agnostic about the truth of evolution despite the fact that they will universally acknowledge that we cannot be, in principle, 100% certain of any scientific theory’s veracity. Their conception of ‘knowing’ is not just silly, but it is only appealed to in regards to the question of God. This is quite curious and there will be some speculation about the actual motivations of agnostic atheists in the concluding remarks.

(3) The relationship between knowledge and belief

This has some overlap with the previous point, but this is the most, IMO, significant problem with agnostic atheism. Maybe that means I should have listed it first. Well maybe I just like living life on the edge. Anyways, regardless of my questionable outline, the agnostic atheists do not understand how knowledge and belief are inextricably linked to each other – it makes no sense to separate the two in the way they are doing. This is how any introductory philosophy text will define knowledge, and it is wholly sufficient for our purposes: justified, true belief. And, this is tangential but important for this group of people to realize, evidence is that which justifies belief. 

So an agnostic atheist wants to say they do not believe there is a God, but that they also do not know there is no God. Under the proper treatment of knowledge this amounts to saying that they do not believe in God but that they have no justification for this position. Surely this does not come close to reflecting their actual position on God’s existence – especially when we recall the language they use to refer to the irrationality of belief in God. When they say God is a delusion, believers are silly, and then offer an explanation of how evolution and the anthropic principle eliminate any explanatory power theism might have, or maybe even go on about the problems of evil or hiddenness… they are certainly providing justification for their atheism.

I have yet to encounter an agnostic atheist who disagrees that they have reasons, presumably reasons they consider good, for their position on God’s existence. But we have been using the correct definition of atheism in this example, and at this point they will usually appeal to their invented definition where atheism is merely lack of belief in God (it should also be noted that this definition is clearly not the one they were using previously). If this fixes the above issue then at the very least their identity might be internally consistent despite the label not reflecting technical use. But does it? Let’s have a look.

With this definition agnostic atheism breaks down into the following combination: I lack belief  in God, but I do not claim to know there is no God. This is wholly redundant and renders their modifier of ‘agnostic’ useless. If you merely lack belief about the existence of God then you are certainly not able to say you know there is no God – it simply does not work. That you do not claim to have knowledge is wholly contained within this treatment of atheism. No modifier is needed. This does absolutely nothing to fix this problem, and this is a big problem for the agnostic atheist.

Concluding Remarks

The term ‘agnostic atheism’ is pretty evidently ridiculous, as the above points show. But let’s look at the motivation behind its use. The agnostic atheist wants to say that this is a technical treatment of the words, which is patently false, but there is a pragmatic issue that suggests a much more intellectually lazy reason. Not only is the term massively confused in their own little – or unfortunately large – circle of New Atheist friends, but they regularly have to explain to people outside of their group what agnosticism is and why agnostics are atheists. The general public understands the words as they have been used, and as academics use them, and as actual dictionaries define them. There is not even an effective reason to use this label!

So we have people who self-identify with a term that is not only incoherent and confuses everyone outside of their echo chamber, but they are adamant about defending it. If the reasons they actually gave were the reasons that motivated the use then any sane individual would immediately detach themselves from such an embarrassingly confused and invented term. So why don’t they? Time to draw on the unfortunate depth of experience I have in interacting with these people.

Start with the fact that agnostic atheists are very attached to applying statistical terminology to areas it does not inhabit, and they want to treat atheism as the null hypothesis. By this they mean that atheism, of the made up ‘lack of belief’ type, is simply the default position (and yes, this definition does commit them to saying rocks, babies, and trees are atheists). Combine this with the above and its anti-intellectual purpose becomes clear: the agnostic atheist does not have to do anything to advocate for or defend atheism, they simply put a ‘burden of proof’ on the theist to convince the atheist of God’s existence. Even if we overlook the fact that conversations do not work that way, their atheism rests on a whole variety of loudly espoused metaphysical positions – which must be defended. Hm. Maybe this just means they actually don’t believe they have evidence for their point of view? 🙂

Anyhow this has been another complaint about the most annoying group of people on the internet: atheists.

*There are ways to use this term and have it make sense. This is directed at the widespread, “internet atheist” use.

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