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Monday, December 08, 2014

The Absurdity of Describing Oneself as an Agnostic Atheist

Imagine meeting a man who traveled to your town from a far country after his nation was destroyed by a war. All the records of civil ceremonies had been wiped out. In talking with this gentleman, you ask if he has a wife. He answers, "I don't know if I am currently married, but I know that I'm a bachelor!"

You'd probably look at them with more than a bit of confusion. "How can that be?" you ask.

He replies, "Well, I may or may not have gone through a marriage ceremony in my home country. However, there's no way to tell, since all the records are destroyed. However, you don't see me with a wife now, I like to date a lot, and I don't want to answer to a wife or have to check in every night. Therefore, I've chosen to be a bachelor, but I may be married, too."

"But you don't understand," you reply. "The very concept of being a bachelor precludes you from being married. You are either married or you aren't, regardless of what records exist. Therefore, if you don't know whether you're married, then you don't know whether you're a bachelor. Conversely, if you know that you're a bachelor, you then know that you aren't married. "

He replies, "No, I am a bachelor who is open to the fact that I may also be married."

 You try to persist. "The word 'bachelor' refers to whether or not you have committed to another person in marriage. That either happened or it didn't. Claiming that you may be a married bachelor is just as absurd as saying you may have found a triangle with only two sides! I can tell you right now that such a triangle doesn't exist and neither does a married bachelor. Your standing regarding marriage defines whether or not you're a bachelor."

Defining Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism

While the above conversation seems farcical, I have been running into a similar issue recently with people who describe themselves as "agnostic atheists." As a Christian, I describe myself as a theist. A theist is someone who believes in God. There are many types of theists (Jews, Muslims, Deists, etc.) They all fall within the category of someone who holds that God exists. Being a theist doesn't mean the person can argue for or even prove that God exists; it simply defines the fact that they believe God exists.

On the other end of the spectrum are atheists. The word means "One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God" and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came from combining the word theist (belief in God) with the negative prefix "a-" meaning without1. So, "without " + "belief in God" = atheist. Simple, right?

But there is a third term that can be used to describe ones relation to a belief in God, and that's the word "agnostic." That word derives from the same "a-" (without) but the second word is gnosis, which is a Greek word for knowledge. So an agnostic means someone who is without knowledge on a topic or issue. If you don't know whether there's a God (or perhaps you don't care), you would be considered an agnostic.

Because the word agnostic simply means one who doesn't know, it is used in contexts other than God's existence. For example, as a hockey fan, I am agnostic towards which teams will play in the Super Bowl this year. I am not rooting for one over another, and I don't have any knowledge as to which ones stand the better chance. If my wife asks whether she should buy chicken sausage or turkey sausage at the store, I would tell her "it doesn't matter at all; I'm agnostic on that issue." However, if I have even a slight leaning towards one choice over the other, then I am no longer agnostic. My indifference is gone and I do have a belief, albeit a small one.

Thus the Oxford English Dictionary's primary definition of agnosticism reads, "A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God. Distinguished from atheist."2

Notice that even the OED states that the term agnostic is to distinguish lack of knowledge as to whether God exist as opposed to atheist which says one disbelieves in God's existence.  While I don't believe the OED is the end authority on this matter, philosophers have been using these terms in a similar way for many years as well. (The irony here is that Huxley coined the term agnostic by borrowing from Paul's speech about God in Acts 17:23)3.

So as more and more atheists describe themselves as "agnostic atheists," they are simply trying to claim too much.  Each of these terms describes a single state of belief: whether one believes in God, one doesn't believe in God, or one simply doesn't know whether God exists. It doesn't matter whether you can prove His existence or if you even care to. To be agnostic is to make a claim that distinguishes one from an atheist. It is just as incoherent to claim to be an agnostic atheist as it is to be a married bachelor or finding a two-sided triangle. Such contradictions don't demonstrate a value for rationalism but quite the reverse.


1. "Atheist." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
2. "Agnostic." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
3. Smart, J. J. C. "Atheism and Agnosticism." Stanford University. Stanford University, 09 Mar. 2004. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.


  1. You're not in a position to tell the world what a rational person would do

  2. //The word means "One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God"//...........Wrong, atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods.

  3. //As a Christian, I describe myself as a theist. A theist is someone who believes in God////..........All theists are either agnostic theists or gnostic theists.

  4. An agnostic atheist has no knowledge of a god and does not believe one exists. An agnostic theist has no knowledge of a god but believe one exists.

  5. Mike,
    What is your source for this definition? Are you making it up because it is what you want it to mean or do you have a source for your belief? Please note that U have provided sources for my definitions above. You will need to show why these sources are inadequate.

    1. Maybe an "agnostic atheist" is someone who is not sure if they are an agnostic or an atheist? Or maybe they are admitting that they lean more toward the atheistic side of agnosticism than the theistic side?

    2. If that was their position, I would have no problem with it. Unfortunately, it isn't those who identify as such even have created a graphic chart showing what they mean.

  6. atheism
    See definition in Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary
    Syllabification: a·the·ism
    Pronunciation: /ˈāTHēˌizəm/
    Definition of atheism in English:

    Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

    1. Mike,
      I published this because you provided a source. I did bnot publish your other four posts because they are simply plagiarisms of this page: which you could simply have linked to. However, Austin Cline is only opining as well.

      I don;t disagree that atheism means a disbelief in God. However, you are simply using the term agnosticism incorrectly. T.H. Huxley coined the word to stand in contrast to calling himself an atheist. He specifically wanted a different word because he wanted a distinction in the epistemic value of disbelief and neutrality of belief. See

    2. LOL Mike. One of the perks of being college is access to many types references. References that are not available to folks that search online outside of college.

      Here is the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:
      Atheism, n.
      Etymology: < French athéisme (16th cent. in Littré), < Greek ἄθεος : see atheal adj.
      Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism).

      1587 Sir P. Sidney & A. Golding tr. P. de Mornay Trewnesse Christian Relig. xx. 355 Athisme, that is to say, vtter Godlesnes.

      1605 Bacon Of Aduancem. Learning i. sig. B3v, A little or superficiall knowledge of Philosophie may encline the minde of Man to Atheisme .

      1711 J. Addison Spectator No. 119. ¶5 Hypocrisy in one Age is generally succeeded by Atheism in another.

      1859 C. Kingsley Lett. (1878) II. 75 Whatever doubt or doctrinal Atheism you and your friends may have, don't fall into moral Atheism.

      Sorry, but “lack of belief” is not part of that definition. But DENIAL is.

      And as for your definition, not true. I provided the link to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary which is the advanced learner’s dictionary. I copied the link from the Yahoo search for the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary. Clearly you made up your definition.;_ylt=A0LEVxyxkL1YVTkAO2dXNyoA;_ylc=X1MDMjc2NjY3OQRfcgMyBGZyA3lmcC10LXMEZ3ByaWQDeThtaldMbG9RNWl5ZXlPT09iYWZ3QQRuX3JzbHQDMARuX3N1Z2cDMTAEb3JpZ2luA3NlYXJjaC55YWhvby5jb20EcG9zAzEEcHFzdHIDT3hmb3JkJ3MgQWR2YW5jZQRwcXN0cmwDMTYEcXN0cmwDNDIEcXVlcnkDb3hmb3JkJTIwYWR2YW5jZWQlMjBsZWFybmVyJ3MlMjBkaWN0aW9uYXJ5BHRfc3RtcAMxNDg4ODIwMTQ4BHVzZV9jYXNlAw--?p=oxford+advanced+learner%27s+dictionary&fr2=sa-gp-search&fr=yfp-t-s&fp=1

      Besides, having a lack of belief is just a lacking something mentally.

  7. A spouse proofs her existence, believe me.

  8. Each post was from the same source. I gave you that source in the very first post.

  9. Huxley was wrong. The word agnosticism does not mean what Huxley said it did.

    1. This is what I mean. How can Huxley be wrong when he was the one who basically invented the term? He COINED the word "agnostic" to mean something specific. Perhaps it is the modern users who are getting it wrong.

  10. One cannot have a neutrality of belief. There can only ever be a belief or lack of for any claim.

  11. This article is wrong at its core, simply by being wrong in its definitions. Agnostic is not a third term at the center of a straight line between theist and atheist. Think of the diagram looking more like compass points.

    1) Theist and atheist refer to whether there is or is not a Creator Deity.
    2) Gnostic and agnostic refer to knowledge levels.
    3) Accordingly, there can be gnostic theists and agnostic theists, as well as gnostic atheists and agnostic atheists.

    A gnostic theist says there is a God, and they know for certain they are correct.
    An agnostic theist says there is a God, but they cannot be certain.
    A gnostic atheist does not believe in a God, and they know for certain they are correct.
    An agnostic atheist does not believe in a God, but they cannot be certain.

    Simply put, it comes down to "I believe- or not," and "I am certain- or uncertain." It could be argued that the agnostic atheist is the most honest position, since no man can possibly have true "knowledge" (proof) of the existence or non existence of a Creator Deity either way, and they choose instead to live their life based around what can be known and proven.

    1. I hear this a lot, Thomas. But you are *asserting* a definition, and my article is pointing out why that assertion is wrong. Why should I accept a definition from you when both the person who coined the term and philosophers who have used the word for a century define it differently?

  12. It looks to me like someone needs to read Huxley's own words on the subject, since he is the man who invented the term agnostic. He was addressing the human incapacity for divine or spiritual knowledge, not the existence of the divine or spiritual. And he most certainly was not addressing the common man's ability to know whether or not he is married. smh

  13. This was so poorly thought out you, made me realize "married bachelors" DO exist.


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