Dealing with labels: Getting to know your agnosticism and atheism

Posted on: May 16, 2010

This post was originally released in the tert, and has been republished here for your befuddlement/enjoyment

Arguing over religion is lots of fun, you get to fight over hugely important metaphysical issues, get into a shouting match while still sounding intellectual, can impress people with your knowledge of 2000 year old books and occasionally even learn things (well, it is theoretically possible).

What is less fun is when the argument gets bogged down in painfully stupid disagreements and misunderstandings. The example I will cover in this article is that of labels. Too many times has an atheist made fun of an agnostic for lacking courage, driving them to proclaim the atheist is just as dogmatic as a fundamentalist christian. If just a few conversations can be elevated beyond that I’ll be happy. So please read on for a brief explanation of the basics of what atheism and agnosticism entail. As a quick disclaimer please remember these definitions are not universal, and even some self described atheists/agnostics might understand them differently.


Question: What is the biggest problem for an atheist?

Answer: No one to talk to while you have an orgasm

The most broadly accepted definition of atheism breaks it into two categories

Weak/negative atheism: Not actively believing in any specific god, note that this is not about certainty but about the absence of a belief in god

Strong/positive atheism: Not believing in any specific deity/god and actively believing that god under some definitions does not exist. This is a less neutral position and is more about disbelief, though it is not about certainty and will not cover any definition of god. Don’t quite get the difference? Allow me to thrust an analogy sexily towards you.

Suppose I have a box in my hands and ask you whether you believe that it contains a red ball. You are unable to see inside it, check its weight or in any way test whether it does in fact have a red ball in it. The idea of a red ball inside it is not implausible, It could very well be true but you do not have any evidence either from observation and are unable to infer it based on whether you think I would put one there. Similarly before I opened my mouths the idea that a red ball would be in the box had never occurred to you. Here you are a weak atheist with respect to the red ball.

However if I asked the same question and you were able to take the box from my hands, weigh it, shake it around to listen or open it up and every time find that there is not red ball the situation changes. The red ball I describe might also be larger than the box, making it logically impossible that it could be contained within it. Now you have evidence to suggest that the box does not contain a red ball, making you a strong atheist with respect to it. You could be wrong, you might be hallucinating, or a secret compartment with the ball might exist. Still while you are not certain you are still able to make the positive statement that the box does not contain a ball.

That’s all, try to avoid the myths that all atheists are certain about their beliefs, that they “believe in nothing”, have dogma, hate religion and the religious, are just another religion, are immoral and my personal favourite “really believe in god, but say otherwise so that they can live in sin”. Atheists do tend to have other beliefs about the world, but the term atheist doesn’t have anything to do with them. Humanist, naturalist, skeptic, moral relativist, free thinker are a few positions that many atheists identify with and give more information about the belief system a person holds.


I don’t know and you don’t either!

-militant agnostic bumper sticker

A little more complicated than atheism, the term covers a few areas and does overlap atheism under some meanings. Today agnostics take that label on defining it in a number of ways.

1) Strong Agnosticism: No evidence could possibly exist for or against god (and sometimes other concepts)

This is the strongest form of agnosticism, its claim is that we can never answer the question of gods existence and we will never have access to that information

2) Weak Agnosticism: No evidence currently exists, or not enough exists to reasonably claim god does or does not exist (and sometimes other concepts)

A weaker version, it does not deny that we could ever have knowledge of god, but claims that currently we don’t have any evidence for or against god at the moment

4) Agnostic atheism: Not actively believing in god but not knowing whether god exists

Very similar to weak atheism, all agnostic positions will technically include this or agnostic theism

5) Agnostic theism: Actively believing in a god but not knowing whether that god exists or not

Weaker version of theism, not all agnostics lack a belief in god or some “higher power”, as they usually describe it.

7) Ignosticism: Believing that no accepted coherent definition of the god is available, so at the moment it is pointless to argue over god’s existence

8 ) Apathetic agnosticism: Believing that even if god exists it would be so far removed from us that its relevance would not extend beyond philosophy classes

The assumption that “agnostics don’t know what they believe” comes up quite often, for some minority of self described agnostics it is true as people take up the label after disassociating with their former religion. For most agnostics it’s not the case, they have spent some time forming a belief on god that fits one of the mentioned forms of agnosticism. “Fence sitting” is another criticism often thrown at agnostics, a term meaning an unwillingness to commit to either sides position. First of all “fence sitting” is derogatory and is as much an insult as a way of describing people, a term a friend of mine preferred was “conscientious objectors. If atheism and theism are unjustified positions then not committing is the only option that makes any sense at all. The only time one can be reasonably criticised for fence sitting is to take a non committed position not because it follows your beliefs, but that it is more convenient to do so. This form of agnostic fence sitting is the one criticised by Dawkins in the book god delusion, and in many other places. Agnostics confident in their own positions are unlikely to see this criticism is justified, claiming that the same could be said about any position- not just agnosticism. A Christian who no longer believes in the bible or a personal god might still identify as christian because of the comfort of its ritual, an believer in god might also describe themself as atheist simply out of hatred of religion.

Thanks for reading, I hope you have either learned something new, or at least have been inspired to respond to the next person who tells you atheists believe in nothing by rolling your eyes to the point of blindness.


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  • Zlatan (lay - tan): Hi, My name is Zlatan (lay - tan) Just want to meet up with some like minded folks in the Gong. So can you please let me know when/where you


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