Is agnostic an obsolete term?

Thomas Huxley, coiner of the term agnostic.

Thomas Huxley, coiner of the term agnostic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous blog entry, I showed via historical references that the definition of  “atheist” as merely “lacking belief in a god” had no historical foundation, being a recent invention (we used the term “non-Theist” for that already). Critics of my position (that the only true Atheists are those who deny outright the existence of any god and that therefore Atheism should be classed as a dogma) assert that the meanings of words may change over time and that there is nothing wrong with this. I disagree and here is why:

In the Middle Ages, the term “gentleman” was defined only as a nobleman who owned land and it had no behavioral or moral references. If you said a man was or was not a gentleman, you were neither praising him nor insulting him, but merely giving information about his social status. But gentlemen were expected to maintain certain high standards of behavior, and over time people began to argue that the behavior of a man was more important than his social status. This is indeed an enlightened point of view, but the critical mistake made later was to start saying not only that a man who was not a gentleman acted like one anyway, but to actually call men of good behavior “gentlemen” even if they were not of the landed nobility. This was simply inaccurate, but that usage became so common as time went by and the nobility became less important to European societies that the original use of the term was dropped completely and the mistaken usage became the norm. Today, you cannot even refer to a man in the Middle Ages as a “gentleman” without an explanation as to its original meaning. This is a barrier to communication about historical issues, and so the word “gentleman” has been ruined and it would have been better to have discarded it completely and another term invented for men of good behavior.

It is the same with “agnostic”. Thomas Huxley invented that term precisely because the only definition of “atheist” that existed in his time was “denial of all gods”, which Huxley did not do. Thus, he classed himself and other agnostics as being neutral with regards to the Theism/Atheism question, something that today’s New Atheists deny. But if Atheist is indeed merely “lacking belief in any god”, then agnostic is a useless term, just as “gentleman” is now, since it is indeed impossible for anyone to  KNOW whether or not there is a god; we merely choose to believe or disbelieve in gods. Therefore, EVERYONE may be classed as agnostic and the term can no longer be used for statistical purposes to define anyone’s beliefs, or lack thereof.

The New Atheists have a choice. They can either discard the term agnostic completely (and thus discard Huxley’s intellectual legacy), or they can reverse course and admit what we always have known, that it is indeed possible to be neutral on the issue of Theist/Atheist, that Atheism is a dogma and that agnosticism is something to be accepted on an equal level with Theism, non-Theism, and Atheism. The first choice, of course, will also disrupt communication about historical issues regarding atheists and agnostics in the past, so only the second choice is the viable one.

8 thoughts on “Is agnostic an obsolete term?

  1. The real problem with your argument is that you’re trying to dictate to people the terms by which they build their own personal identities. Your argument presupposes a number of metaphysical and moral commitments that do not necessarily bind anyone else. You should be more open-minded about why some people would identify as atheists and not be dogmatic about it.

    • And others have tried to dictate to ME what terms should mean, but without the historical documentation to back it up. Historical facts trump both dogmas and wishful thinking. Ironic that some professed atheists do not realize that.

      I have never identified myself as an atheist precisely because I make a subtle distinction between lacking belief in God and denying the existence of God. They are not the same! For the sake of clarity, only the latter should be called atheism and another term should be used for the former. And in fact, there always was that other term available: “Non-theism”. And I used that term for myself several years ago:

      “I am a non-theist now, worshipping no God and following no faith. And I do not foresee myself being anything else. The Baha’i Faith was the last chance I was willing to give for a God centered religion to rule my life….and now I know that none ever will.”

      • As I pointed out in your other thread, your “historical documentation” completely lacks any reference to the views of self-identified atheists. That would seem to be a glaring oversight to me if you’re really trying to find the historical definition of “atheist”. Besides that, in questions of self-identification I’m not sure historical facts are really as relevant as you claim. You’re trying to force a particular interpretation of history onto others with your “ontology of unbelief”. Were these others dictating to you or were they defending their own perspectives?

        From my perspective, “lacking belief in God” and “denying the existence of God” are not discrete beliefs but points on a spectrum of belief. I call myself an atheist because I would deny the existence of God. However, this is not a dogmatic statement of belief that there is no such thing as God. It’s a reasoned statement of belief that the concept of “God” as I understand it is not consistent with the rest of my worldview. However, I’m well aware that my worldview may be the problem there (which is why the denial is not dogmatic but contingent on the applicability of my worldview). My active denial is not distinct from my lack of belief, they are both manifestations of the inconsistency of the “God” concept with the rest of my worldview.

        It’s great that you’re putting so much work into defining your identity. You’re thinking hard about these problems and much more clearly than most people do. At the same time, I think you should give some room for people to decide how they want to define their own identities. If someone identifies as an atheist and means something by that I don’t really see where you get off saying “Nuh uh, you’re WRONG about who you are!” Defending yourself from others trying to do that to you — that’s commendable. But that’s not how I read this and the related posts.

        • The “other thread” Dan L refers to is here:
          I guess what offended me was people telling me directly what they thought atheism was defined as while contradicting what I had always understood it to be since childhood. When you do that, you create a sense of cognitive dissonance, implying that someone had to be lying somewhere to create this sense of confusion. In my opinion, it is a debate that never needed to happen.

          I will always defend myself from others trying to define me without my consent, too. If others wish to claim the atheist label for themselves, that’s their business, just as my rejecting it for myself is mine. If I’m wrong about that, my position must be disproven with historical documentation.

          The fact remains that according to the New Atheist definition of “atheism”, Carl Sagan, Thomas Huxley, and many other agnostics and non-theists would be classed as atheists, even though they said otherwise about themselves. Self-identified atheists who do this to them are not being honest, in my opinion.

          P Z Myers, who IS a self-identified atheist, does seem to have the same definition of atheism I do:

          How often do we have to repeat ourselves? There is no goal of turning the NCSE or the BCSE into an atheist organization; we think having an organization that is honestly neutral on the religious issue is extremely useful in advancing the cause of good science education for all. We want the NCSE/BCSE to support neither atheism nor religion.

          You know what? The atheists in this argument have a crystal-clear understanding of the difference between atheism and secularism, and are saying that the science education organizations should be secular. It’s these sloppy accommodationists who have allowed liberal christianity to become their default position who have violated the distinction.

          If secular, being neutral about religion, does not mean “atheist”, which is also defined by many as being non-religious in one’s views (not merely being anti-religious), then we have a problem. The atheists themselves need to solve it soon, or risk losing their credibility.

  2. And for the record, I have NO PROBLEM with anyone claiming to be an atheist and openly denying outright the existence of all gods. If Christians and other religious people feel entitled to be dogmatic about their views in public, atheists should do the same and not sugar coat what they do at all. I just want the confusion about the issue of atheism itself to end. That’s all.

  3. Aron-Ra has accepted the popular contemporary definition of Atheism, much to my dismay:

    Of course, he is free to call himself an atheist if he wants, but it is dogmatic to be asserting that the contemporary definition of atheism was always the only correct one, even attacking Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson for having the classic historical definition, thus accusing them of either being dishonest or being deceived. There is not any more reason to think the contemporary definition of atheism is better than to say that being a true Christian you must believe in the “orthodox” dogma of the Trinity.

  4. Pingback: “Classical” Atheism vs. “Contemporary” Atheism | Dale Husband's Intellectual Rants

  5. You may want to read up on Huxley – I’m thinking his understanding is more important than ever – basically that Theism and Atheism easily demonstrated to be sure beyond the evidence (Huxley never bothers to address the absolutely certain Atheist) and that we should not claim to know or believe anything beyond the avalable evidence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s