Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Atheist or Agnostic?

4 Post author: byrnema 18 April 2009 09:25PM

If you’re not sure:

Where I come from, if you don’t believe in God and you don’t have a proof that God doesn’t exist, you say you’re agnostic. A typical conversation in polite company would go like this:

Woman: What are your religious views?

Me: Oh, I’m an atheist. You?

Woman: Well, do you know for certain that God doesn’t exist?

Me: I’m pretty sure, that’s what I believe.

Woman: How do you know that God isn’t withholding all evidence that he exists to test your faith? How do you know that’s not the case?

Me: Well, it’s possible that everything is an illusion.

Woman (with finality): You’re agnostic.


Every community has its own set of definitions. Here on LW, you are an atheist, simply, if you don’t believe in God. You don’t have to be 100% certain – we understand that nothing is 100% certain and you believe in God’s non-existence if you believe it with the same conviction that you believe other things, such as the Earth is orbiting around the sun. For a fuller explanation, see this comment.

 For the rest of us:

My favorite passage in the Bible is Exodus 4 because this is the part of the bible that made me suspect that it was written by men; men that were pretty unsophisticated in their sense of justice and reasonable deity behavior. God asks Moses to come be on His side, and Moses agrees. The next thing that happens is that God is trying to kill Moses because his son isn’t circumcised. I guess God already asked Moses to do that? They left that part out of the story. Nevertheless, God seems more peevish than rational here. Presumably, he chose Moses for a reason. So trying to kill him in the very next scene doesn’t make a lot of sense.

As someone who has had some trouble figuring out how things are thought about in atheist circles, I would like to suggest not being like God in Exodus 4 when people ask why we’re atheist even though we can’t prove there’s no God. It’s understandably annoying to repeat yourself, but they need to understand the context of atheism here. You can refer them to  this comment again or "The Fallacy of Gray" or here.

And steel yourself for the inevitable argument that belief in God is a special case and deserves extra certainty. These are final steps…



I would like this to be a reference for people coming onto the site that consider themselves agnostic. Any editing suggestions welcome.

Comments (32)

Comment author: Bongo 19 April 2009 10:47:16AM 7 points [-]

I like to avoid "label words" and just say "I don't believe in God" or even "I don't think God exists". Using label words can make the whole encounter adversarial and make the other less likely to listen to you (or you to listen to them!).

Label words bring to mind identity-based convictions, like "I believe in Allah because I'm a muslim" or "I don't believe in God because I'm an atheist" instead of "I don't believe in God because I've come to exclude the supernatural for such and such reasons...".

This also avoids disputes and confusions over the "correct" definitions of words. For me, saying "I don't believe in God" communicates everything that I need to communicate without having to muddy the waters with the connotations of the words "atheist". Of course the word "believe" is pretty problematic too, but less so.

By the way, it's interesting that the word is "agnostic" instead of "agnostist" or "agnosticist", though it could be just a matter of grammar.

tl;dr - taboo your words often, avoid identity politics

Comment author: PhilGoetz 20 April 2009 02:16:32AM 6 points [-]

I notice that the same people who are shocked that someone could claim to be sure there is no god, think it's perfectly reasonable when someone else claims they are sure that there is a God, and that a particular revelation received at some time and place is the one true revelation of God, and that a particular interpretation of that revelation is the one true interpretation.

Comment author: MrHen 18 April 2009 11:45:06PM 4 points [-]

"Atheist" and "theist" are terms somewhat similar to "homosexual." People who are atheists or theists or homosexuals (or white or any other label people give themselves) use it to mean a specific thing but the next person using that label may not agree. Their social definitions are more community based than belief based. "Homosexual" really means "I associate/identify with other people labeled homosexual." Nothing gets everyone with a particular label riled up faster than asking them to define who is or is not part of the club.

Someone somewhere came up with a term that seemed fairly obvious but once it turned into a label any accuracy went out the window.

More specifics with the examples I used above:

  • Atheist: Not believing that God exists or believing that God does not exist? Or just not knowing?
  • Theist: Believing God exists; believing a god exists; this is less tricky but it begins to get weird when including things like Maoism or panantheism
  • Homosexual: Someone who has sex with the same sex; someone who has sex with the same gender; someone attracted to the same sex/gender; someone who is only attracted to the same sex/gender; other variations
  • White: Light-skinned; light-skinned but not hispanic; anyone who has white "blood"; not-Black; Europeans and their descendants

(Note) This is off the cuff. The specifics are just there to illustrate the point. If I need to change them let me know.

Comment author: AndySimpson 21 April 2009 11:30:59PM *  3 points [-]

I used to be worried about this, too. Then I found this beautifully concise term that resolves the whole question and ends semantic arguments over this arbitrary, imaginary distinction: agnostic atheist. This correctly describes me and I think it describes most other people who would call themselves agnostic or atheist. I encourage you to spread the term, and, when it's necessary or convenient, collapse the term into what you mean: atheist, which signifies only a lack of positive theism.

Also, Bertrand Russell explored this question thoroughly in his essay, "Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?" I commend it as well for anyone who is confused about how to identify themselves.

On a side-quibble, I'm also careful about saying I'm "an atheist," with the article. I'm not "an" atheist in the same way a methodist is a methodist: my atheism doesn't mean I'm part of a discrete association of people. I don't go to atheist non-church with my fellow atheists on my unholy day. Think of how odd and even offensive it would seem, for instance, if we said each person with blue eyes was "a blue-eyed." Why? Socially, we would falsely be tagging him or her as merely a part of a greater faction of blue-eyed people. This is how nouns work in English: we have a set of social assumptions about "a doctor", but no such assumptions about "someone trained in medicine."

So "I am atheist" or, if you must, "I am agnostically atheist," work well.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 18 April 2009 11:00:04PM 1 point [-]

The problem is that the term "atheist" has a rich history as a pejorative. Atheists were not looked on kindly. Most people who were actually willing to brand themselves with a pejorative were probably quite antireligious. People who weren't antireligious weren't willing to brand themselves with a pejorative, so they co-opted the word "agnostic" and used it to describe them.

I know a number of atheists who call themselves agnostics, and it's clear to me that the only reason is that they have a negative view of what an athiest is and do not want to associate themselves with Hitchens-like antireligiousity.

All atheist means is "not a theist." Anyone who lacks an affirmative belief in god is an atheist. That includes, for example, newborns. People are highly resistant to this definition, because if "atheist" is a dirty word, you hardly want to admit that you or your child started out as one.

In the case of your hypothetical woman, wouldn't it follow that someone who is not 100% sure that they have chosen the right religion is also "agnostic?" Many people have some serious problems understanding the importance (or lack thereof) of certainty in belief systems.

Comment author: MrHen 18 April 2009 11:51:30PM 1 point [-]

All atheist means is "not a theist." Anyone who lacks an affirmative belief in god is an atheist. That includes, for example, newborns. People are highly resistant to this definition, because if "atheist" is a dirty word, you hardly want to admit that you or your child started out as one.

I think the definition is more "regional" than that. Different communities tend to adapt their own specifics to the terms atheist and agnostic. The few communities I have been in that really used agnostic did use it as a placeholder between atheist and theist. It essentially was used for people who were on the fence and honestly did not know what to believe. They did not have an active belief for or against God; thus, they were agnostic.

I can see the use of that term, but I am guessing that the majority here do not fit that description.

Comment author: whpearson 19 April 2009 11:06:27AM 1 point [-]

Depending what you mean by God I fit that description. Specifically if you allow God to mean an agent that created the visible universe rather than a process, then I have no evidence for or against either hypothesis.

If you are restricting God to mean Judeo-Christian type Gods, then I am an atheist,

Comment author: Psychohistorian 19 April 2009 06:52:33PM *  1 point [-]

Specifically if you allow God to mean an agent that created the visible universe rather than a process, then I have no evidence for or against either hypothesis.

If you are given a hypothesis "X exists" and you have no evidence for that hypothesis, the rational conclusion is to not believe X exists (which is very different from believing "x does not exist"). The fact that you have no evidence against is not particularly relevant; there are an arbitrarily large (if not infinite) number of existential propositions for which you have no evidence against them.

More succinctly, if you have no evidence for or against a particular existential proposition, you are (or should be) an "atheist" with respect to that proposition.

If I've made a mistake in my reasoning/epistemology, please correct me. I'd like to make an actual independent post on the issue of not believing versus believing not, but I'm pretty sure I'm a karma point short.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 19 April 2009 11:40:53PM 0 points [-]

If you are given a hypothesis "X exists" and you have no evidence for that hypothesis, the rational conclusion is to not believe X exists (which is very different from believing "x does not exist").

How does "not believe" translate into a probability assignment?

Also, the prior is sometimes in favor of existence. There is, at least, a legitimate sense of "evidence" under which I have none for the existence of a person with the initials PQR, but I'm still extremely confident there is such a person.

Also also, precise existential statements must be over domains. The probability I assign to any particular possible finite structure existing in the universe must be at least the probability I assign to the universe being infinite, which is pretty high. Though, of course, I don't have much reason to care whether Zeus exists 3^^^3 light-years away.

I'd like to make an actual independent post on the issue of not believing versus believing not

Please do!

Comment author: gjm 20 April 2009 12:14:11AM 2 points [-]

How does "not believe" translate into a probability assignment?

I don't see that it has to. In particular, the theorems that say (roughly) "the right way to think about credence is in terms of probabilities with Bayesian updating" all assume that all your credences are represented by single real numbers; if there's something necessarily irrational about simply declining to assign a probability to something then I don't know what.

For instance: consider a statement that you simply don't understand, and that for all you know might be either nonsense, or sophisticated truth, or sophisticated falsehood. Until you know at least something about what (if anything) it means, whether you assign a probability to it doesn't make much difference: you can't act on that probability assignment even once you've got it. (There are some possible exceptions; thinking of some is left as an exercise for the reader. I don't think they make much difference to the overall point.)

For instance: consider a situation in which you (knowingly) lack much information relevant to deciding whether something is true, but you could get that information readily if you needed to. In that case, the right thing to do in most cases where the truth of the proposition matters is to get more information; a mental note saying "I haven't assigned a probability to this yet" is not a bad way to handle that situation. (In order to be able to assign a probability after further research, perhaps there'd better be such a thing as "the probability you would have assigned if you'd thought about it". But you needn't have thought about it yet, and you needn't have any probability assigned, but you can still say "I haven't reached an opinion about this yet".)

There's a lot to be said for having, at least in principle, probability assignments for everything. It simplifies one's decision theory, for instance. But I don't see any compulsion.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 19 April 2009 11:45:25PM 0 points [-]

In my experience with atheist communities, the difference between "do not believe X exists" and "believe X does not exist" seems to be roughly equivalent to P("X exists") = epsilon vs. P("X exists") = 0. I can't speak for what Psychohistorian meant, though.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 19 April 2009 12:23:49PM *  0 points [-]

Specifically if you allow God to mean an agent that created the visible universe rather than a process, then I have no evidence for or against either hypothesis.

You have no evidence that you understand. Claiming that you literally have no evidence is too strong an assertion, it sounds to imply that even a Bayesian superintelligence couldn't come to a different conclusion given all the evidence you experienced, starting from the reconstruction of your true prior.

Comment author: whpearson 19 April 2009 01:36:44PM 0 points [-]

My problem is I am not sure at all what would count as evidence in this case.

The problem comes from assuming that there are different rules before the start of the universe. If the rules are different, then the all the evidence I have collected about the world at the moment may not apply. E.g. we could be simulated on hardware in an invisible universe with completely different rules.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 19 April 2009 01:52:39PM 0 points [-]

Yes, you are confused, but don't expect the territory to be blank where the confusion lies in your mind. Work on understanding of the question, or of where that question came from, until you come up with a problem that actually gets resolved, even if with a negative answer.

Comment author: whpearson 19 April 2009 02:43:09PM 0 points [-]

I wouldn't say I was confused, simply unresolved.

Why should all questions be resoluble?

Comment author: orthonormal 21 April 2009 01:12:45AM 0 points [-]

Generally, the policy of "presumed resolvable, though perhaps not with current methods" seems to have the best results in such cases.

Comment author: whpearson 22 April 2009 12:02:48AM 0 points [-]

Sorry didn't see this for a while.

For most factual questions this is true, I suspect we might come up against self-referential paradoxes in the discussions about how to gain knowledge about the first cause of our existence.

Comment author: byrnema 19 April 2009 04:27:00PM *  -1 points [-]

In several forms and ways, I've been told that using agnostic instead of atheist because "you can't be absolutely certain of anything" is wrong because its overly pedantic. Your comment is pedantic in exactly the same way: of course whpearson means that he has no evidence for or against either hypothesis that he understands. When an athiest claims that there is no evidence that Gods exists, he means there is no evidence that he understands. I.e., 'to the extent of his knowledge'. I think what you're really trying to say is that you think there is evidence that there is no God? Why not say this outright? I think this is one of the ways people try to avoid getting in a confrontation about specific facts. Maybe you're just not interested in discussing this because you've 'seen it all before'. So you'd like to assert your point of view from some philosophically safe position without actually engaging in an argument about the real issue: is there evidence for the non-existence of God?

Comment author: MrHen 19 April 2009 12:59:25PM 0 points [-]

In terms of God, I am just reusing the word. If it means something more specific to you we can use yours. :)

Comment author: whpearson 19 April 2009 01:25:35PM 0 points [-]

We need some social agreement on what the word God means in order to have any sort of sensible discussions about our beliefs in it or otherwise.

Comment author: MrHen 19 April 2009 06:18:08PM 0 points [-]

I think there are multiple obstacles in doing that.

  • This society may very well disagree on what God means in an irreconcilable manner
  • People not integrated into our society will use the definition from their last society and no one will know something is off
  • Any agreement will not cover all current uses of the word "God" or "gods"

As it is, "God" is a loose word and simply means what it means. If you need a specific definition I think it is simply best to define the term before using it. All of this comes back to the original point by simply stating that there is no definition that can be used with complete acceptance. I really see no problem with that as long as we know this is the case.

Comment author: byrnema 19 April 2009 06:36:33PM -1 points [-]

Rather than argue with you, I am inclined to agree, but I'm not sure what to do next. When I read a statement such as, "This isn't groupthink; we really, truly have given full consideration to theistic claims and found them to be false." I'm not sure how to interpret it. Do you (I mean, should I) read it and assign some kind of "fuzzy" meaning?

Comment author: MrHen 19 April 2009 11:38:14PM 0 points [-]

The "theistic" in that sense is probably a wider definition intentionally. If someone came forward and said, "Well, what about this? This is not technically theism; it is X," my hunch is the community will say, "Well, we reject that, too."

So, yeah, fuzzy.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 19 April 2009 06:36:01PM *  0 points [-]

Beyond the problem of complete acceptance, I have yet to find a definition of God that is not:

  1. Obviously empirically false (e.g. omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and nothing else) or
  2. Incoherent - (e.g. omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and some fourth property that we cannot possibly fathom that supercedes the other thre, i.e. we literally have no idea what He is)

Most definitions of god involve a lot of hand-waving, to the point at which you don't actually know what you mean when you say "I believe in God."

This is the main reason I do not associate atheism with an affirmative belief in non-existence. "I do not believe bleggs exist" is not a reasonable statement unless you can reasonably define bleggs.

"Any agent with supernatural powers who is responsible for the creation of the universe and/or mankind, who is ontologically superior to mankind" seems like a fairly catch-all definition of God (as opposed to god(s), which could be somewhat different). Admittedly, there's some hand-waving in "ontologically superior," but I think this definition is pretty effective. Admittedly I know little about Eastern religion, so I may be missing something big. I'm not attached to that definition at all and would love to see a better one if someone has one.

Comment author: byrnema 19 April 2009 06:44:10PM 0 points [-]

Just to make sure I'm up to date, is the evidence against (1) largely (roughly) that there is evil?

Comment author: Psychohistorian 19 April 2009 09:45:26PM *  0 points [-]

Basically. If you had a god that is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good/benevolent, and has absolutely no other characteristics governing his behaviour, you'd expect to live in a much, much nicer world than you actually do.

Most of the responses to this problem postulate that god has some other set of goals in addition to these four, i.e. he wants to reward the faithful, or he wants to ensure free will, or something like that. These responses generally succeed only by making the concept of god so muddy that you don't know what you believe in, i.e. He's all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, except for whenever he's not. More explicit point here.

Comment author: mattnewport 19 April 2009 10:06:17PM 0 points [-]

I feel fairly comfortable describing myself as an atheist without having a catch-all definition of God. What I mean when I describe myself as an atheist is that I believe in the non-existence of God according to the (differing) definitions used by 95%+ of people who claim to believe in God. In a discussion with an individual theist, if they ask me what I mean when I say God doesn't exist, I can ask them what they believe about God and then tell them why I believe that God doesn't exist.

In the rare case of a theist who believes in a God who created the universe and has had no further involvement, I will explain to them why I think that the God they believe in is a meaningless concept and not something to which the word belief can be usefully attached.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 February 2012 10:17:29AM 0 points [-]

The utility of the two different systems (theist-agnostic-atheist) or (a/gnostic a/theist) relies on the question that you're interested in. Let's assume for the sake of this discussion that belief is binary, and that one believes or doesn't believe. If a person believes in God, they're a theist, if they don't believe in God, they're an atheist. If they believe God does not exist, they're a strong or positive atheist, if they neither believe nor disbelieve the existence of God they're weak/negative atheists. Self-described agnostics almost always fall into that latter category. Thus it follows naturally that agnostics are weak atheists.

So, assuming we're talking about belief and lack of belief "theist/agnostic/atheist" becomes "theist/weak atheist/strong atheist." But here's the problem, ARE we actually talking about belief/lack of belief? Let's say, I didn't believe in invisible unicorns and didn't believe in UFOs, but made no positive claims that neither were real. By the system I described, I would be a "weak a-unicornist and a weak a-UFOist. But what if I'm actually somewhat conflicted about my belief in UFOs? What if I'm very tempted to believe in UFOs despite still lacking belief, whereas I'm fully committed and secure in my lack of belief for invisible unicorns?

When I ask people about whether they believe in God or not, I'm not asking whether they believe or lack belief, I'm asking how they feel about the statement "god exists" And that can be expressed in a lot more ways than just "yes or no" Having been an agnostic and an atheist, I can attest that they are fundamentally different concepts, even if they both do "lack belief."

As I said above. If you only want to separate believers from non-believers. The (a/gnostic a/theist) system is they way to go. But seeing I, as an agnostic weak atheist, feel completely distinct from other agnostic weak atheists, I don't see it as a very useful system for my purposes.

Comment author: Manfred 17 February 2012 11:11:07AM 0 points [-]

I think this needs to take the social aspect into account more. People care a lot about labeling differences like "will this person say I'm wrong," even if the people so labeled have nigh-identical probability assignments.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 February 2012 12:43:42PM *  0 points [-]

Are you talking about the kind of self-described agnostic who does think that God and invisible fairies have the same likelihood of existing? In that case, yeah, I think its a bit pointless to call themselves agnostics.

Comment author: Manfred 18 February 2012 02:31:02AM 0 points [-]

Well, but there is a point - a social point, and it labels pretty well their interactions with people about religion.

Comment author: Annoyance 21 April 2009 07:43:03PM -1 points [-]

'Agnostic' literally means "without knowledge".

I have plenty of knowledge about deities. I know that some potential deities are logically self-contradictory, and thus cannot exist. I know that other potential deities are logically possible, but there is currently no evidence in favor of them. Thus, I am not an agnostic. But I am an atheist.

Just as all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, all agnostics are atheists - but not vice versa. The categories are not exclusive. One is a subset of the other. (Assuming, of course, that you're dealing with a person whose creed is based on knowledge. I suppose someone could have no knowledge of deities yet believe in them - such a person would have awfully shoddy standards for belief, though.)

Infants are both atheists and agnostics. With time, it becomes possible for them to gain knowledge about deities - but few of them do so - and to adopt a belief in deities - which most do.