Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics and the meaning of atheism

Religious literalists and creationists can be annoying, and liberal believers whose theology is entirely apophatic can also be annoying; however anyone who espouses atheism on the internet will soon encounter an even more annoying group: the Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics.

The what? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms?! Sadly not, the Militant Fundamentalist Agnostic, while pretending to complete ignorance of gods, will confidently assert the central dogma of the agnostic faith, and cling to it tenaciously. Their one dogma is the claim that atheists make dogmatic assertions about the non-existence of gods. And hence, by declaring themselves to be free of such unwarranted, beyond-the-evidence assertions, they feel themselves superior, not only to the believers, who have no proof of their deities, but also to the atheists, who have no proof to back up their supposed claims of certain non-existence.

It is pointless trying to argue with the Fundamentalist Agnostics, telling them that, no, atheists usually do not make dogmatic assertions of non-existence. Such a correction undermines the very core of the agnostic identity, and will be rejected with fervour. If an agnostic once accepted that atheism is not about making categorical non-existence assertions, then they’d have no good reason to call themselves agnostics. They might — oh the horror! — have to consider whether they themselves might be (I shudder to write the word) atheists!

And so the Fundamentalist Agnostic Covens meet every full moon at midnight, dancing round ancient stones, chanting their One Article of Dogma: “Atheists make dogmatic assertions and we are superior because we do not!”.

One might naively suppose that atheists would be the ones who get to say what atheism entails. “Not a chance” retort the believers and the agnostics. The atheistic stance is so challenging to their very identity that they insist that they are the ones who know about atheism, as they construct a straw-man atheist, to be danced around and ritually burnt at Midnight Mass.

Given the long history of theistic domination of the word “atheist”, it is understandable that some can be genuinely confused over what it means. For most of Christendom atheism was illegal, to be suppressed by both church and state. Allowing a kid to say that the emperor had no clothes was far too dangerous.

As just one example, in 1689, Casimir Liszinski, a Polish nobleman and landowner, was charged with the ‘crime’ of writing an atheistic treatise entitled De non existentia Dei. Bishop Zaluski of Kiev reported, with obvious relish:

After recantation the culprit was conducted to the scaffold, where the executioner tore with a burning iron the tongue and the mouth, with which he had been cruel against God; after which his hands, the instruments of the abominable production, were burnt at a slow fire, the sacrilegious paper was thrown into the flames; finally himself, that monster of his century, this deicide was thrown into the expiatory flames; expiatory if such a crime may be atoned for.

Thus, atheists were not allowed to speak for themselves, and the ghastly spectre of atheism would be spoken about and denigrated by believers. Even as late as 1980 the article on atheism in the Encyclopedia Britannica was, of course, written by a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, the Rev. Cornelio Fabro.

Conceptions of atheism were therefore not based on evidence, not on talking to and listening to actual atheists, but were about constructing a straw-man position that was easier to attack. Thus the “atheist” is considered to be going around angrily asserting, with absolute 100% confidence and spittle-flecked lips, the non-existence of gods.

This reassures the believers by painting atheists to be as bad as the theists are, in adopting an ultimately faith-based position. And it reassures the agnostics by giving themselves an excuse not to call themselves atheists.

As atheists patiently and repeatedly explain (and as everyone else usually ignores), atheism and agnosticism are about different things. Atheism is about lack of belief, agnosticism is about lack of knowledge. Since the two words refer to different things, ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ are not mutually exclusive categories. It is possible to lack secure knowledge of the existence of gods (agnosticism), and also to lack belief in them (atheism), and thus be an agnostic atheist; and it is possible to lack secure knowledge and yet believe (thus being an agnostic theist).

atheism-agnosticism

Calling yourself an agnostic is thus a poor excuse for avoiding asking yourself whether or not you believe in any god. As originally coined by T. H. Huxley, the word ‘agnostic’ meant someone without gnosticism, the revealed knowledge of God’s existence that some believers claimed. Thus agnosticism was a process, not a conclusion. An agnostic was someone who, lacking revelation, had to decide the matter on the available evidence. And that decision could go either way.

After fully considering the matter, get a blank sheet of paper and write on it all the names of all the gods you actually believe to exist (if your god-concept is too vague to have a name, an outline description will do). If, once you’re done, the paper is still bank, then you are an atheist. And if so it really is ok to admit it!

You don’t have to retreat into claiming to be an agnostic (so are all the other atheists who leave the paper blank, they don’t have any revealed knowledge of gods either), you can just come clean and accept that you are an atheist. See that blank bit of paper? There are no dogmatic assertions on it, are there? That’s all there is to atheism (no matter how often believers trot out the falsehood “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”).

At this point the agnostic might resort to the dictionary, asserting that atheism is athe-ism (belief that there is no god) when instead it is a-theism (lack of god-belief). Or they point to definitions about ‘denial’ of gods, thinking that this entails assertions of non-existence, but overlooking that to ‘deny’ is only to withhold something, in this case acceptance of the claim, and thus to ‘deny’ gods is simply to lack belief in them (though to be fair, even atheists can get this one wrong). And while we’re on, note that ‘disbelief’ also means only ‘lack of belief’.

The believers and agnostics may make claims about what atheism has “always meant”, and yes it is true that many have used the word to denote “claim of non-existence”, hoping to set up a dogmatic position that is easier to critique (and yes, dictionaries may reflect that usage), but from the first atheism has actually meant “lack of belief”. After all, among the first people called atheists were Christians and Jews, people who lacked belief in the Roman pagan gods and refused to worship them.

So why bother with this distinction, especially since it needs explaining repeatedly to those who misunderstand atheism?

Firstly, why on earth should we make assertions about your god? To expect or demand that we do so elevates your god-concept to more importance than it deserves. I’m willing to bet that you have never looked into and explicitly asserted the non-existence of Tezcatlipoca, Qailertetang or Ayida-Weddo, so why should we do so about Yahweh, Baal, Jesus, Zeus or Allah? Lack of belief is the default position about Makeatutara, Ometecuhtli and Tengri, and we have no obligation to consider the matter further in the absence of any actual evidence for any of these gods.

Secondly, many god-concepts are too vaguely defined to even discuss sensibly, or are postulated with an array of get-out clauses designed to explain away any lack of evidence. If you define ‘God’ to mean “the ground of being” or “the unity of everything” or some-such then obviously we’re entitled to withhold assertions about it until you say something concrete enough to be meaningful.

Similarly, if a god is postulated as being “benevolent and omnipotent such that sick children are always healed when their parents pray” then it would be easy to accumulate evidence for or against (and thus we could then assert existence or non-existence as appropriate). Which is why, of course, theologians would never be so foolish as to postulate their god that way.

Instead theologians postulate a god who is “benevolent and omnipotent but who moves in mysterious ways and sometimes says no, who are we to understand why?”. By neatly constructing a god to be compatible with any outcome and any evidence they rob the postulate of any meaning. A human who could easily heal a sick child but refuses to do so would not be considered ‘benevolent’, and a god who doesn’t heal sick children cannot be both benevolent and omnipotent (the ancient Greeks realised this, but it’s amazing how even today theologians squirm around this elementary point).

An apophatic god, constructed to be un-disprovable, and to be compatible with absolutely any and all outcomes, is a vacuous construct that literally has no meaning. To even assert the non-existence of such a being is to descend to the theologians’ level of empty world-play and evasion.

Thirdly, there is the matter of the burden of proof. The whole “atheists make dogmatic assertions” gambit is a devious ploy to try to reverse that burden. If you are postulating some fact about reality, such as the existence of a god, then it is your job to make the claim concrete enough to mean something (see ‘secondly’ above) and then to put forward sufficient evidence for it such that it demands to be taken seriously (see ‘firstly’).

But because the religious are so bad at those two steps they instead repeatedly resort to: “Well you can’t prove my god doesn’t exist, can you? Ha, got you! So how then do you justify your dogmatic non-existence claims? Huh?”.

This is feeble — particularly so for a god-concept designed to be so vague and meaningless that it is immune to any encounter with evidence. It’s your claim, so it’s your job to prove it, not ours to refute it. Yet, so common is this reversal ploy that the atheists have had to invent a long line of rebuttals starting with Russell’s Teapot, about which Bertrand Russell said:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Since then Invisible Pink Unicorns and a host of other imagined beings have done sterling service in trying to get the religious to see the point: that making a claim is empty in itself, and making a claim designed to be un-refutable is particularly vacuous. What matters is the evidence you have produced.

So, if you postulate a god that is well-enough defined and described that the concept can be tested, then we can accumulate and examine the evidence. And, at that point, atheists may indeed make declarations of non-existence, at an appropriate level of confidence given the available evidence.

Such has been the historic demonization of the word ‘atheism’ and the prevalence of straw-man versions of atheism that, even today, many shrink from adopting the label for themselves, and the euphemism ‘agnostic’ is considered more acceptable in polite society, less harsh on the delicate ears of the religious. But we should accept that the term is a cop-out, an evasion; we do not even have a comparable word for any other topic.

All atheists are also agnostics — yes, even Richard Dawkins, who explained it all in The God Delusion, but then finds his agnosticism reported as though it were news or as if it were a major conversion, by puzzled Christians who haven’t yet realised that ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ are not exclusive categories.

As eloquently explained by Paula Kirby:

How can an atheist also be an agnostic? The answer is simple. It is the simple acknowledgment that it is possible to be mistaken. An agnostic atheist recognizes that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of deities (agnostic), while also finding arguments for their existence utterly unconvincing (atheist).

Likewise, if you are a Christian who finds arguments for God convincing but recognizes that his existence is impossible to prove and that it is at least possible you could be mistaken, then you are an agnostic theist. I strongly suspect that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself would be the first to acknowledge there can be no absolute certainty either way and, if I am right, this would make him an agnostic to precisely the same degree as Richard — yet I doubt anyone would claim this means he is no longer a Christian!

Calling yourself an agnostic may tell us how you approach the question, and your lack of secure knowledge, but you are not being fully honest with yourself if you don’t then go on to ask yourself whether or not you believe in any god.

Addendum:

When writing the above I came across a blog post which neatly illustrates how confused Christians are over the meaning of atheism. Dr. Tim Tennent, President of the Asbury Theological Seminary, wrote an article “Are there really any atheists?”. The site christian-apologetics.org, which claims to make a “reasoned defense” of the Christian message, echoed the blog post, and, in the comments following it, an unnamed “Admin” shows himself to be equally confused. The first quotes are from Tim Tennent’s article:

Professor Richard Dawkins has been called the world’s most notorious atheist.

Good start!

Indeed, his atheism is so militant that he is widely regarded as the poster-child for the modern so-called “new Atheist” movement.

And what does this “militancy” actually consist of? Terrorist attacks? Burning down buildings? Threatening people in the street? Err, no, it consists of writing and speaking and expressing his opinion. That’s it.

It is, therefore, worth noting that Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, does not actually call himself an atheist.

Wrong, he does.

Rowan Williams referred to Dawkins as the world’s most famous atheist. Dawkins responded by saying that he is not an atheist, but rather considers himself an agnostic.

Wrong. At no point did he disclaim being an atheist. He was asked “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” and he replied that he did. Tennent is confused because he thinks these must be mutually exclusive categories.

Apparently, the world’s most famous atheist has really been an agnostic all along.

Yep, he has indeed been both all along!

First, let’s clarify the two terms. An atheist believes that there is no God.

Aargh, nope, wrong! But wait … what’s this …?:

The word theist, for example, means one who believes that God exists. By placing a privative ‘a’ prefix on the word ‘theist’ an a-theist is one who does NOT believe in God.

Amazingly here he gets it right! “… an a-theist is one who does NOT {believe in God}”. (I’ve added curly brackets to make this even clearer.) Equally amazingly Tennent hasn’t noticed that what he’s just said conflicts with what he said in his previous paragraph; joined-up thinking is not a Christian strong point.

… the corollary must also be true; namely, that it is impossible to “prove” that God does not exist.

Yes indeed, if by “prove” we mean 100% certainty.

This seems to concede the very point that many of us have made to our atheist friends; namely that propositions such as “God is” or “God is not” fall outside the normal boundaries of scientific discovery and enquiry.

Wrong again. Science is not about proof with 100% certainty, scientific claims are always provisional, and are always open to revision given better data. That doesn’t mean, though, that they don’t pass lower standards of proof, such as “balance of probability” or “beyond reasonable doubt”. (Dr. Tim Tennent looks suspiciously fundamentalist on his website, so understanding science is likely no more his strong point than joined-up thinking.)

In fact, the very fact that the proposition “God does not exist” cannot be scientifically proven, means that (by their own testimony) there really are no atheists in the world. There can only be agnostics.

Obviously this hopelessly confused Christian has little idea of that atheists’ “own testimony” actually is.

Even Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion should be reprinted as a question, not a statement. It should be, The God Delusion? since Dawkins cannot prove (by his own testimony) that belief in God is delusional. He clearly thinks so, but he cannot know for certain.

And presumably Tim Tennent thinks that no jurors should ever bring in a guilty verdict in any court case, since they can never “know for certain”.

In the comments to the blog post, commentators helpfully try to explain. For example:

“An atheist does not necessarily believe that there are no deities. More correctly, an atheist does not believe that there are any deities.”

To which the confused Christian “Admin” can only offer an uncomprehending:

Huh ???

The explanation continues:

“Most atheists are also agnostic: we don’t have a belief in any gods, but we also don’t believe it’s possible to prove that they exist or do not exist.”

To which “Admin” replies, amazingly, that it is others who are confused (and he still doesn’t get the point that one can be both atheist and agnostic, despite it being clearly stated in the comment he is replying to):

I think you are confused. Lack of belief in God or Gods makes you an agnostic, not an atheist.

Another Christian commentator adds in support:

Please remember that it was Dawkins himself who said he is not an atheist, but rather considers himself an agnostic.

The “said he is not an atheist” is simply false (it is an erroneous presumption made by those who think that calling oneself an agnostic entails saying that one is not an atheist). The thread then retreats to the usual reversal of the burden of proof. With amazing chutzpah “Admin” says:

If you want to believe something, you should provide evidence for it. … You want to be an intellectually serious atheist? Then own up to the claim you are making, shoulder the burden of proof, and show us your evidence.

He follows this with a clear and blatant illustration that attributing “there is no God” claims to atheists is all a ploy to place on them the burden of proof (added bold):

No, you are not logically entitled to your presumption of atheism -— that yours is the default position -— and that you do not need to offer evidence in support of your belief that there is no God.

Sigh!

logic

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10 Responses to Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics and the meaning of atheism

  1. Coel says:

    Admittedly there’s nothing particular novel in the above post (including one
    of the most-quoted of all xkcd cartoons) but it seems to need repeating frequently, and an agnostic acquaintance of mine had been pushing the “fundamentalist” agnostic line so regularly that I felt inspired to write the above in order to point him to it.

  2. Gary Hill says:

    As an agnostic atheist I agree with you. In fact, I’ve spent 55 years living on this planet and I can honestly say I have only ever met one person who openly classifies himself as a gnostic atheist – a friend of over 30 years who has always claimed to have knowledge of God (i.e., there definitely aren’t any, even taking into account vacuous definitions), therefore he is atheist.

    Which is indeed what most believers I meet assume all atheists to be.

  3. I too am an agnostic atheist. It is always shocking how many people slag off The God Delusion, in which Dawkins clearly articulates this, when they clearly have not read it.

    I do have sympathy with one confusion, though. Surely, the statement that “An atheist believes that there is no God” is true, even if the implied causal link is a bit backwards. I don’t believe in any gods, therefore I believe that there is probably no god. I don’t *know* this (hence the “probably”) but if it were not true that I believed there was no god, surely that would mean that I believed there was at least one god – even if I didn’t know which one – and therefore I would not be an atheist?

    • Chris says:

      Linguisticly speaking, is it possible that “God” is such a complex, varied, and nuanced subject that it’s not possible to define the meaning of the word through a dichotomous framework of either existence or nonexistence?

    • I don’t think so. Something either exists or it does not. Although it possible not to know which, I cannot see any semantic benefit to defining something as both existent and nonexistent.

  4. fedorsteeman says:

    Thank you for this! I used to be an “agnostic”. I got better.

  5. Pingback: Einstein the atheist on religion and God | coelsblog

  6. ADL says:

    As an igtheist, I think this entire argument is ridiculous.

  7. Tom says:

    I’m an atheist too. I usually remain an atheist in my day to day life, but only become a militant fundamentalist agnostic when I run into someone (or a LOT of people) whose dogma appears to be; “I don’t believe in any gods, so you can’t either.” When I see that going on, you bet I preach my militant fundamentalist agnostic ideology, not because “the important thing is that [I] can feel superior to both” but rather; to point out to the atheist he/she doesn’t have all the answers yet ;-)
    It’s only in those cases where I see control issues going on. When it’s flipped; “I believe in a god so you must as well” then I go militant fundamentalist atheist on them. It’s because I don’t like my choices being controlled, and I’ll bet others don’t either. Just a hunch.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Tom,

      … when I run into someone (or a LOT of people) whose dogma appears to be; “I don’t believe in any gods, so you can’t either.”

      Can you give examples of any significant number of people in Western countries today taking that line?

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