Jul 29

Atheist vs. Agnostic

I am an atheist. Let me be clear. I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses. I don’t believe in ghosts or ESP. I don’t believe in anything you might associate with the supernatural. Period.

Yet, there is a move often made by theists. It goes a little something like this:

Theist: Can you prove that (my) God does not exist?

Atheist: Not absolutely, no.

Theist: Then you should really call yourself an agnostic.

Many of us then go into a discussion of knowledge versus belief and the meaning of the terms, but I think we ought to do something else. Why not agree to call yourself an agnostic, but ask them for the same in return? After all, can they prove their God exists absolutely? Of course not. So, shouldn’t they really call themselves agnostic? Theist is just a misnomer, if they accept their own argument.


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  1. mikespeir

    Oooohhhh! 🙂

  2. Chris

    I’ve definitely encountered this and I can’t wait to use it.

  3. Ryan

    In my experience, the theist usually asks, “Do you know for sure that (my) God does not exist?” If you were to flip THAT question around, the theist would often say yes. After all, proof and knowledge are divorced from each other in faith. I imagine that gnostic theists are more common than gnostic atheists, at least if you allow “gnostic” to describe someone who claims to know but can’t necessarily prove it. In your scenario, however, this should work.

  4. chad weirich

    Everybody in the world is an agnostic. Agnosticism deals with knowledge, not belief. It means you don’t know. Nobody in the world knows if there’s a god, while at the same time, nobody knows that there is a god either. Atheism is a lack of belief in a god. So, I think everybody is an Agnostic (fill in what you are). Examples: Agnostic Atheist, Agnostic Theist, Agnostic Deist, etc…It really wouldn’t be accurate if someone described themselves as just an Atheist, Theist, Deist, etc…

  5. Mike

    Yeah, Ryan, the type of person using this argument probably won’t quite get why it’s funny, but c’est la vie.

  6. Ryan


    According to that definition, we are all agnostic about everything, as nothing (or close to nothing) is absolutely certain. The entire universe might be a simulation.

    Really, then, (a)gnosticism is about the claim to knowledge, which is in itself a claim to the possibility of knowledge. Gnostic theists and atheists can exist even if they don’t actually know what they claim to know.

  7. Night Watchman

    The problem is there are arguments that strongly favor the truth of theism and I would say they show it with certainty. There are the ontological, moral, and cosmological arguments just to name a few. What are the arguments for Atheism that are as strong as those?

  8. Roi des Faux

    Even if the ontological, moral, and cosmological arguments were sound, they don’t necessarily point to a theistic god. A deistic god works just as well.

    The general argument for Atheism is that the arguments for god fail, and it’s unreasonable to believe in something unless you have a reason to.

    More specific arguments start with “Well what do you mean by god?” “God” is used to refer to superpowerful but otherwise humanlike beings, nonphysical but personal entities, impersonal creative forces, and even less well-defined things. Once you’ve agreed on what you’re talking about, other arguments can be brought to bear.

  9. Mike

    I have to agree with Roi des Faux. We don’t actually need arguments against gods just like we don’t need arguments against trolls (beyond “where are they?). Even so, there are reasons specifically against belief, but to adequately counter your comment would require more than I want to write in a comment thread, especially on my phone. To start with, Night Watchman, you may want to look at my previous post about whether a greatest possible being is even coherent.

  10. Matt DeStefano

    I think this is a terrible idea. Most Christians will jump on this and say “See.. we’re both just relying on faith. I have my faith that God does exist, you have your faith that God doesn’t.”

    A better avenue is “Can you prove an invisible teapot doesn’t exist between the moon and the sun?”

  11. Mike

    Perhaps, Matt. It wouldn’t be my first terrible idea. Although, we could then say, “faith in what?”. We wouldn’t be claiming anything.

  12. Matt DeStefano

    Reading my last comment, I sound like an asshole. Sorry about that, but i’ve just seen this technique from many atheists and it always lands in a ubiquitious “leap of faith” conversation about scientific realism and the quality of evidence.

    Instead, I think we ought to place the blame squarely where it belongs – the one making the affirmative claim.

  13. Mike

    No worries. I think you’ll find that I actually agree. This post is a bit of a joke. I just thought of the irony of this argument the other day and thought I would share. I’m not in favor of perpetuating bad arguments, but sometimes it can be helpful to parody the bad argument to show the originator doesn’t even agree with the logic.

  14. Matt DeStefano

    Yeah, I absolutely agree that parody is a useful tool (who doesn’t love the FSM?). By the way, I found your blog through Luke’s where you commented about possibly doing an off-shoot of ‘Why Christianity is False’. I’d be interested in helping you organize/write a few articles in that regard. If you’re interested, you can e-mail me (matt.a.destefano@gmail.com) and we can figure out the details.

  15. Roi des Faux

    It might help to read my second and third points backwards. First off, counter their positive arguments with arguments of your own. Then, if they retreat to “You can’t PROVE that god doesn’t exist, so it’s arrogant to say that he doesn’t,” you can respond that it’s entirely reasonable. I can’t prove that the Moon is not a camouflaged alien spacecraft, but the reasonable response is “I think that the Moon is not a camouflaged alien spacecraft,” not “Well maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, I don’t know!” If two descriptions explain the evidence equally well, we should reject the more complicated one.

  16. Mike

    Cool! Thanks, Matt. I heard from Ryan who runs http://aigbusted.blogspot.com/ too and he’s interested. I’ll set up a three-way email conversation tomorrow and we can talk about it some more.

  17. David Ellis

    I generally reply to this question with something like this:

    No, we can’t disprove the existence of God. We also can’t disprove the existence of werewolves. Do you then insist on thinking of yourself as agnostic on werewolves?

    Of course not. And you’d think anyone who was sincerely on the fence about the existence of werewolves was being irrational.

    I’m simply more consistent. I don’t make a special exception for supernatural beings that appear in the pages of the Bible.

  18. Mike

    Of course there is always the popular response now that we have positive evidence in favor of the Christian God, like the resurrection. That always makes me smile and think of the meme LOLWUT. http://lolwut.com/

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