An Atheist Is An Agnostic Is An Atheist Is An Agnostic! Why Every Agnostic Should Become An Atheist

We need a consistent definition of agnosticism that makes sense, so in what follows I offer one. We also need to recognize that all religion is localized religion, and as such, there is no such thing as religion but religions, just as there is no such thing as Christianity but Christianities.

Thomas Huxley invented the word "agnosticism" who defined it like this:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle... do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. LINK.
But Bertrand Russell suggested a different definition:
An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. LINK.
On Huxley's view all atheists are agnostics. On Russell's view no atheist is an agnostic, for upon becoming an atheist one is no longer an agnostic.

My problem is not with Huxley. It's with Russell. First, on Russell's view there would be very very few atheists, since to be an atheist means one is virtually certain that no superhuman beings (or forces) exist. Yet someone can surely be an atheist who is not virtually certain superhuman beings (or forces) don't exist. Second, if an agnostic is someone who suspends judgment on whether superhuman beings (or forces) exist, per Russell, then an agnostic is also a universal agnostic, suspending judgment on the existence of all superhuman beings, or forces. Yet, no one is a universal agnostic who suspends judgment on all superhuman beings, or forces. Agnostics surely reject some religions with their Gods, gods and goddesses. At best then, people could only be partial agnostics unless they suspend judgement on all religions. So when someone says they are an agnostic I ask them, "Which superhuman beings, or forces, are you agnostic about?"

I accept Huxley's definition of agnosticism, and additionally grant that agnostics can use Huxley's method, with its standards of evidence, and conclude they don't know how the universe or life originated. For on my view, agnostics are people who admit they don't know how the universe or life originated. An agnostic can reject some answers, of course, even saying they are dead wrong, like the Mormon or Islam or Christian ones. It's just that agnostics do not say how the universe or life originated, since they say there isn't sufficient evidence to know. But think about what this means. As an atheist I say those very same things! I can and do admit I don't know how the universe or life originated. I can additionally say some answers are dead wrong, which I do. So on my view of agnosticism, which is a consistent one that makes sense, an atheist is an agnostic is an atheist is an agnostic. It's the view of someone who admits he or she doesn't know how the universe or life originated.

Someone is either an atheist or not (that is, a wide atheist who disbelieves in all superhuman beings, or forces, as opposed to a narrow atheist who believes in one superhuman being, or force, to the exclusion of others). For to be an atheist someone is already thinking about the probabilities, that's why we are atheists in the first place. The only thing we might disagree about are the probabilities that there aren't one or more superhuman beings, or forces.

My guess is that many self-identified "agnostic atheists" merely want to appear open-minded, since being close-minded is bad for the discovery of knowledge. However, a necessary condition for being open-minded is the willingness to accept scientific evidence, especially to the degree there is a consensus of scientists on an issue, which is the surest way to come to knowledge. So one can be open-minded to the evidence and yet closed-minded to any religious viewpoint based on faith that goes against the consensus of scientists. Think evolution; unguided evolution.

Most self-identified "agnostic atheists" will say they reject all localized religions but hold out for the possibility there might be some kind of nebulous god, or creative spirit, or superhuman being, or force. But if probability is all that matters then conversely possibility does not count. They should say instead, "Given the present available evidence I'm an atheist," or "Until sufficient evidence surfaces I'm an atheist," or merely, "I'm an atheist." They're atheists, plain and simple. They already think it's more probable that superhuman beings, or forces, do not exist. Otherwise, they're not atheists.

If people identify as mere "agnostics" I think the same reasoning applies. They're already atheists if they reject all localized religions. If not, they should drop the label "agnostic" altogether. They should say instead, "I believe it's probable that some superhuman being, or force exists", since that's the only alternative they have given that probabilities are all that matter. Mere posibilities don't count, you see.

But let's say "agnostics" and "agnostic atheists" are still unpersuaded. They just don't have enough evidence to know whether or not superhuman beings, or forces, exist. "They may exist. They may not exist." They might say, "I just don't know."

Then think on this. If I were to name one localized religion after another, beginning with the letter A down to Z I doubt any "agnostic" or "agnostic atheist" would say one of them is probably true--especially the dead religions. If they did, they would be classified as believers in that particular religion, not agnostics. Because again, probability is all that matters.

Perhaps many agnostics hold out for the possibility that a universal religion is true based upon hopes for a creative spirit of some kind, or some religion being true but unknown to the agnostic. Where's the probability here, given that so many other localized religions have little or no evidence to them, and that science has a proven track record to produce knowledge that localized religions have failed to produce from the dawn of time? We must still assess the probabilities. One should say something like this, "Given my knowledge of religions so far it's probable that no religion is true," or "I'm an atheist so far in my metaphysical quest," or just, "I'm an atheist" since that's exactly what they are as of this moment in time.

Keep in mind that all religion is localized in time and place, and that the whole reason so many people on the planet embrace a supernatural reality of some kind is because of their particular localized religions. If these localized religions didn't exist then very few people would think a supernatural reality exists either. Yet it's the localized nature of a wide diversity of religions that provides others with the suspicion there must be some type of probability to a supernatural reality.

Thoughts? Please share this so we can have a wide diversity of comments.


All religion is localized religion. Take Christianity for instance, cultural anthropologist David Eller argues, "One of the key qualities of culture is diversity: there is no such thing as “Christian culture” but rather “Christian cultures,” indeed no such thing as Christianity but rather Christianities." [See Chapter 1 of The Christian Delusion].

Now consider this quote:
Christianity, by the virtue of its being created by man, gradually developed its system of rituals by assimilation from other cultures and traditions as well as originating its own fabrications; and through successive stages clarified its creeds such as those at Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. Since it had no revealed law it had to assimilate Roman laws; and since it had no coherent world view projected by revelation, it had to borrow from Greco-Roman thought and later to construct out of it an elaborate theology and metaphysics. Gradually it created its own specifically Christian cosmology, and its arts and sciences developed...
David Eller comments:
According to the words above, there is no such thing as the religion of Christianity; at best it is a multitude of related but distinct and often-enough opposed traditions, shifting and swaying with the winds of local culture and passing history. And who is the author of these words, some angry atheist out to destroy religion? No, it is Muhammad al Naquib al-Attas, a devout Muslim and staunch enemy of secularization, who firmly attests that Christianity is and always has been secular, worldly, changing and evolving to adapt to its social circumstances. And al-Attas is correct: Christianity has always been secular, worldly, changing and evolving to adapt to its social circumstances—but so has Islam and every other man-made religion (why else would there be Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, as well as numerous Muslim schools of interpretation and jurisprudence?).

There is no disputing that life-forms and social-forms evolve over time: humans are not what we were millions of years ago, nor is an institution like government or language or marriage what it was “in the beginning” (in fact, none of these existed “in the beginning” at all). Likewise, there is no disputing that Christianity has evolved over time: Christianity today is not what it was five hundred or one thousand and certainly not two thousand years ago (and there was no such thing as Christianity more than two thousand years ago), nor will it be the same thing one hundred or two hundred years in the future. To be honest, it is not even the same thing in every country and congregation in the world right now.

Like every other product of evolution, Christianity is a bushy tree of sundry and squabbling species—or in the case of religions, “sects” and “denominations.” One very reputable count estimated over 33,000 of these Christian species in the world, and that was a decade ago; doubtless there are many more today, with more appearing every day. There are some fifty sects of Methodism alone, which the Association of Religion Data Archives arranges into a literal Methodist “family tree” as scientists would organize any set of related species. What this means is that every Christian denomination hangs on one branch of a rambling bush of Christian churches, the commonalities and differences between which belie their evolutionary origin and history just as surely any biological species. Even more, the evolution of Christianity follows exactly the same processes as biological evolution such as speciation, radiation, competition, extinction, and so on. [From Chapter 1 of The End of Christianity]


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