How often have you heard someone say, “I’m agnostic” when they were asked if whether or not they believed that some kind of deity or deities existed? Even more importantly, do you understand how nonsensical that answer is to the question being asked?
The question is, generally, presented like this:
“Do you believe that a god or gods, of some kind, exist?”
This is a pretty straightforward question. There are only two possibilities – either you believe or you do not. It is a yes or no question but, in spite of this, some people struggle mightily to answer it. That difficulty is caused for a variety of reasons, some intentional and some unintentional.
When we are talking about theological subjects, the term “agnostic” is generally used to define someone who holds the position that the existence of a god is either unknown or unknowable. In my experience, most people use the term in the context that the existence of a god is unknown. The antonym for agnostic is, of course, gnostic. In these discussions, a gnostic is someone who holds the position that they know whether or not a god exists. Both theists and atheists can be either gnostic or agnostic, depending on whether or not they are claiming that their belief/disbelief is factual.
Most theists tend to gnostic theists; they don’t just believe that a god of some sort exists, they will claim to know that one does. In contrast, most atheists tend to agnostic atheists; they don’t believe that a god exists, but they don’t claim to know that none do. Your truly falls into this category.
Gnosticism/agnosticism deals with knowledge, while theism/atheism deal with belief. If someone were to ask you, “Do you know if a deity of any kind exists or not?”, then saying, “I’m agnostic” would be a sufficient answer because it would mean that your answer is, “I don’t know.” But identifying solely as agnostic when you are being asked about whether or not you believe is patently absurd, your saying, “I don’t know whether I believe or don’t believe”. This implies that you don’t understand what is going on inside your own head. If that’s the case, then you might as well declare yourself to be intellectually incompetent. Once again, you either believe or you do not. There is no in between.
So, why do people call themselves agnostic, and improperly answer the question, when asked? Well, from my experience, these people tend to fall into three groups.
The first group, and seemingly the rarest of the three, are those who have absolutely no interest at all in the subject matter. When they say, “I’m agnostic”, they mean to say that they wish to abstain from providing any thoughts or positions on the topic. It’s basically their way of saying that they either don’t want to discuss it or that they don’t care enough about it to do so.
The second group of people who answer, “I’m agnostic”, to the question do so because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism means, or what agnosticism means, or both. They think that by saying that they are agnostic, this places themselves in some sort of intellectually superior middle ground over both theists and atheists. They think that they are superior to theists because they don’t claim to know a god exists, while simultaneously being superior to atheists because they don’t claim to know that a god doesn’t exist.
The problem with this, however, is that it is built upon the false idea that atheism is the claim that no gods exist, which it is not.
Atheism isn’t a claim at all but, rather, the rejection of a claim being made. Theists claim that a god or gods exist. Atheists do not believe this claim. Atheism is, by definition, the default position. When it comes to believing anything, you always start from the position of non-belief. It is only after you’ve decided to start believing something that you move from non-belief to belief.
Now, it is certainly true that there are some atheists out there who have adopted the position of gnostic or “strong” atheism; where they will hold hold the position that no gods exist. However, they are a minority in the atheist community and, because they are making a claim, they assume the same burden of proof that theists assume. In fact, a lot of gnostic atheists will readily admit that they cannot prove a god doesn’t exist when pressed.
Then, there is the final group. This is the group that I have encountered the most and it does seem that they are proverbial “meat and potatoes” of those who answer, “I’m agnostic” when asked about whether or not they believe that a god or gods exist. These are the people who hold a negative view of atheists or atheist. For whatever reason, they do not want to be associated with atheism, and they try to dodge the bullet, so to speak. While they do not believe that any gods exist, they will chastise anyone who openly criticizes theism or religion, in general. They seem to have chosen to willfully ignore all of the demonstrable harm being done in this world as a result of religion, and use that ignorance as their basis for decrying anti-theists or “New Atheists” as being bullies or jerks.
“Do you believe that any deities of any kind exist?”
If you do not answer “yes” to this question, then you are an atheist, plain and simple, whether you want to admit it or not.