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An Agnostic and An Atheist

"I am an agnostic atheist."

This phrase has almost caused more trouble than it's worth, but it's important that it be used, and that its meaning be clarified.

Likewise, 'agnostic atheist' describes two different aspects of a person.Nearly everyone knows what an atheist is, or thinks they do. The definition used on this site, and in most places, is of an atheist as one without belief in a god or gods. This does not implicitly extend to making the declarative statement that there is no god, although some atheists will choose to take that extra step.

The definition of agnostic is a little more confused. Some people believe that an agnostic is someone who is not sure about their beliefs, of whether or not there is a god. I suppose that popular usage might even make this an acceptable definition. However, it would be only one definition among many. It had a very different meaning in the beginning, though. "The term 'agnostic' was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869....[he assigned] the term 'agnostic' to himself....he distinguished himself as an 'agnostic' by stipulating that the supernatural, even if it exists, lies beyond the scope of human knowledge," writes George H. Smith in Atheism: The Case Against God, pg. 8-9.

Once the terms are defined individually, we are left with the question of how they fit together. The puzzle only begins to fit together when we realize that the two terms deal with different realms, and therefore are perfect as description.

If someone said, "That is a loud, purple car!" would you think the terms inappropriate together? Of course not. Because the word "loud" refers to how the car sounds, and the word "purple" refers to how it looks. They describe different aspects of the same car.

Likewise, "agnostic atheist" describes two different aspects of a person. "Agnostic" refers to knowledge. What we can or cannot ever truly know. If a person is of the opinion that we cannot ever have true knowledge as to the existence of god, not proof for or against, then that person can accurately be described as agnostic, using Huxley's original definition. The word "atheist" describes what a person believes to be true. They may cite evidence, or lack thereof, to support this position. Using the definition of atheist cited above, though, we see that they make no claim of knowledge, only of belief.

It has been known for people to claim that a person can only claim the title of atheist if they are willing to make the firm statement that no god(s) exists. With the working definition that is most common among atheists themselves, though, we see that this is not true. We also see that the term "agnostic atheist" is in fact merely a way of qualifying, of more fully describing the term "atheist" as it relates to the person making the claim.

I am an agnostic atheist. I do not believe in god(s), although I can offer no concrete knowledge to support my belief. I have evidence against the existence, and a startling lack of evidence for the existence. I have philosophical inconsistencies, unanswerable questions, and problem upon problem with the concept. I do not, however, have concrete proof. I am an agnostic atheist.

Kim Shultz
August 15, 1999

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