Time and again, I encounter Christians on blogs and discussion forums who attempt to argue that there is no such thing as atheism or that atheists are really just agnostic. More often than not, this argument seems based on the fact than many atheists allow for the possibility of the currently unknown. This is an intelligent position to take which in no way invalidates my personal atheism, and certainly not atheism as a whole.
Let’s begin by clarifying what each of the terms in question actually means:
Agnosticism is a position or statement of knowledge. Atheism is a position or statement of belief. The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, I am actually both. Allow me to explain:
I am agnostic because I admit that I have no knowledge, one way or another, of the existence of any gods. Because I have no knowledge of the existence of gods, I therefore choose not to believe in the existence of gods, which makes me atheist as well.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that theists can also be agnostic. I’ve met a handful of theists who understand and accept the difference between belief and knowledge. They admit that they have no way of knowing that their god(s) exist, but still choose to believe. These people are agnostic for the same reason I am – we simply part ways on the matter of belief.
A good argument could also be made that everyone is agnostic because no-one really knows one way or another. We all simply choose whether or not to believe. Perhaps I’ll elaborate on this another time.
Another common attempted argument against the existence of atheists or atheism is the claim that one would have to know everything about everything in order to rule out the existence of God. In the many personal encounters I’ve had with Christians using this argument, the reasoning has always been that since no-one can possibly know everything, anyone who claims to be atheist is actually just an agnostic.
As I have already explained, atheism is not a position or statement of knowledge. Based on this line of reasoning, these Christians had better start believing in the existence of every mythical, imaginary and fantasy being ever conjured up in the minds of people since the beginning of mankind. After all, they would have to know everything about everything in order to rule out the existence of any of these things. Right?
Now that I have sufficiently covered my thoughts on knowledge, as it pertains to this particular topic, I will now discuss the matter of belief/faith. All my life, I have heard variations of the following arguments:
When you sit down in a chair, you believe or have faith that the chair will support you. Or, despite not understanding how it works, when you flip the switch on the wall, you have faith that the light will come on. It’s been argued that we believe or have faith that when a ball is thrown into the air, it will come back down. I’ve also heard Christians say that we believe in the sun even when it’s dark and the moon during the day, so why not believe in God even when we can’t see or feel him?
No, no, no, no and no. You’ll probably want me to be more specific and I suppose that’s only fair.
I do not have faith that the chair will support me. This is something which I have tested and experienced every single day for well over forty years. It has also been tested and experienced by the vast majority of people in the world. The same goes for the light, the ball, the sun and the moon. All of these things have been tested and/or experienced countless times, by most people, for several generations at least.
While this obviously does not guarantee with absolute certainty that any of these things will continue to occur as they always have, a preponderance of evidence supports the chair holding me up, the light coming on, the ball coming down, the sun rising and the moon appearing. There is no faith or belief required.
The same cannot be said for god(s). Not only have I never experienced the presence of any god, I have yet to meet a believer who could definitively explain how I might do so. Even more telling is the fact that I have yet to meet a believer who could coherently explain his or her own “experience” without talking about warm fuzzies or alleging miracles that could be easily explained without using the word “god” or something synonymous.
You can show me the chair, the light and ball. I can watch the sun rise every morning and the moon appear at night. There is nothing mysterious about any of it; these things, I know. But until you show me your god or present compelling evidence for its existence, I do not know that it exists (and neither do you). This makes me agnostic.
Since I do not know, and there is currently no way of knowing, I choose not to believe until there is compelling evidence to support the existence of your god, whichever god it may be. This makes me atheist, regardless of how uncomfortable that makes theists or how adamantly they deny it.
Yes, I am agnostic. But I am also atheist, like it or not!