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Atheists, Agnostics, and Unicorns - Oh My!

Kyle J. Gerkin

In the secular world there are generally three classes of beings: atheists, agnostics, and ________. This third class is usually named "other non-theists" or "freethinkers" or something of that ilk. In other words: "everyone else who is not religious". But this third category is hazily defined at best. Therefore, we are left with our two, ever present, principal players: atheists and agnostics.

So what exactly distinguishes the atheist from the agnostic? Here are a couple of home-brewed definitions devised to stress their differences.

Atheist: A person who does not believe in the existence of god(s)*.

Agnostic: A person who believes that, regarding the existence of god(s)*, there is no evidence to support either a positive or negative conclusion.

*Hereafter, I will use the singular "god" for increased readability, but the term is inclusive of polytheism.

At first glance, it seems that the agnostic has the more tenable position. After all, he is an open minded fellow, unlike the hard hearted atheist who has clearly already cast his conclusion in stone. I wonder though.

I think the agnostic definition is misleading. In my mind, and in the mind of many theists I believe, it conjures up a picture of someone who thinks the existence of god is a 50/50 proposition, more or less. Someone who sees the theist's position as fairly rational and convincing - just not quite enough. Someone who may be attending worship services already (just in case) and, if not, is on the verge of doing so. In other words, someone who is on that precipice of belief, and all it will take is right inspiring event, person, or scriptural passage to put them over the edge. If this is an accurate description of you, then I think "agnostic" is a fitting title. However, if every agnostic I have ever met is to serve as a sample, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The agnostics I have known are confident within 99.9% that god does not exist. They see the theist's position as specious and absurd. They are not religious in any way, and view religion with something between suspicion and disgust. In other words, they are atheists.

What's this? Agnostics are atheists? Well, yeah.

Much is made of the agnostic's vaunted admission of the possibility that god exists. Yet I have never come across an atheist who thinks it is impossible that god may exist. Atheists would be more than eager to examine any hard, empirical data supporting the existence of god and even change their minds if that conclusion was borne out by other corroborating, testable evidence.

Likewise, the atheist position does not jump to an unwarranted conclusion. Contrary to popular belief, atheists do not claim they can "prove" god doesn't exist. Admittedly, there are a few specific, clearly defined gods (such as the omnipotent, all loving creator) who can be disproved by various arguments (such as the Problem of Evil), but by and large theists construct their definitions of god in the vaguest manner possible. God usually takes the form of something unseeable, untouchable, and unknowable - occupying a realm anterior to our universe. I always like to point out that these very attributes are shared by another class of things: those which don't exist. Nevertheless, the point is that the theist deliberately sets up god so that he is untestable by any scientific means. Of course, this is ironic since the only real "proof" that something doesn't exist is the absence of evidence, and theists, in defining god's ethereal nature, have made certain of this absence.

Atheists, in stating that they do not believe god exists, are simply invoking the type of default reasoning that everyone recognizes as completely sensible, except when it comes to god, i.e. (in the words of the legendary Bertrand Russell) "...that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true." Here's a test. Ask an agnostic if he believes in unicorns. I can almost guarantee you he won't say: "Well, there really isn't any evidence to support either a positive or negative conclusion. I guess the jury is still out on that one." Rather, he will likely respond with a flat "no", perhaps followed by a hearty chuckle.

Why is he so sure? Has he scoured the earth examining every species of horse in existence to make sure there aren't any single horned equines frolicking on the plains? I mean, unicorns have been mentioned by many books and people throughout the ages - they even appear in that reputed, infallible text known as the Bible (at least the King James Version). Of course, the agnostic can't "prove" unicorns don't exist. He is simply acting in accordance with the clearly rational position that, when there is no evidence to support a conclusion, the onus is on the those making the claim to provide proof - not the other way around.
The idea that "if evidence can be presented which contradicts earlier conclusions, those conclusions are subject to change" is implicit in the atheist's thinking, and indeed, rational thought at large. Such an idea is so obviously applicable across the board that it seems silly to build it into a definition of one particular position. Yet that is the case with "agnostic." I wonder why.

I suppose the agnostic may be concerned that the theist will not understand his rational willingness to alter his conclusions in the face of counter evidence. This is understandable since theists have demonstrated a chronic inability to apply that very concept since time began. And that is the crux of what bothers me about the "agnostic" definition - it seems to prostrate itself before the theist's position, according it a respect it doesn't deserve. The agnostic should not have to plead his case as if his conclusions are wildly paradoxical. This is why I find few questions as annoying as, "Why don't you believe in god?" As if I should be the one explaining myself. I have taken to answering, "The same reason I don't believe in unicorns", and leaving it at that.

Let's recognize theism for what it really is: irrational and unfounded conjecture. Even the term "atheist" doesn't quite recognize this, since the fact there is actually a word describing the position grants some measure of respect it's opposite. After all, there are no "aunicornists". Yet, because of the proliferation of theism, it demands an answer. And no answer puts the concept of god in it's proper place like that of the "atheist".

Published:
  2001-03-20

Categories:
  Agnosticism, Atheism

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