The Discussion Topic for August was “What’s in a Label: Atheist vs Agnostic?” This has been a debate that has come up time and time again. I think people will always have their own definitions of each word and so the debate will continue. But in my opinion, we’ve reached some clarity on the history of the two words which I believe settles the debate.
Epistemologically, the terms Agnostic and Atheist are not stronger or weaker versions of each other. Instead, they are on completely different axes. Gnosticism by definition is “What you know”. Theism by definition is “What you believe”. A Gnostic is one who is certain; for example, by mathematical proof, or through knowledge given by revelation from God. An Agnostic is one who is less than 100% certain. This means that all rational skeptics are agnostic… not just about the God question, but of all scientific theories. A Theist is someone who believes in a God who personally interacts with our universe. An Atheist is someone who does not believe in those gods. Atheists’ beliefs are usually convictions which they are compelled to accept due to conclusions of the evidence.
The technical term that describes the position of most non-believers is “Agnostic Atheist”. Though many felt that there are political reasons why we should only use the term “Atheist” in public. In everyday conversations we are not arguing epistemology. “Agnostic” has become redefined as a “capricious spiritualist” who is open to any religion. It is often used as a political dodge to the god-question, or for politicians/business owners who require public approval and can’t afford to take a stand to change society’s views of atheists. But, it does work well for people like Neil Degrasse Tyson who are trying to emotionally connect with a diverse non-scientific audience. “Atheist” has been a buzz word over the last couple years and is gaining political significance. It does not have the wishy-washy connotation. It is a more aggressive term which helps spur a conversation, thus is better at having a chance to create real change in the public’s perception. Since the ‘4 Horsemen books’ became best sellers, the term “atheist” has also brought much cohesiveness of non-believers across the nation to form groups like ours.
I’m sure the debate will continue. It was a fun discussion, especially since we were able to enjoy the nice weather on Java Vivace’s patio. I want to thank the 16 people who showed up! If we consistently get large turn outs like this, we’ll be able to split up into multiple smaller groups that meet simultaneously in different parts of the city. This would make it easier for everyone’s travels and allow more to speak without having to talk over other people.