Monday, October 20, 2008

Atheist vs Agnostic

Some have asked what the difference is between an agnostic and an atheist and seem to think that agnostic is nicer because you don't know but that really is a misleading term.
Huxley himself describes agnostic as:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, 'Try all things, hold fast by that which is good'; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

This in fact can be used for religious issues/matters of belief but is really a process that we all use for most everything in our daily life which is to follow our reason - we do that when we buy a car, a house, choose our doctor, elect to have surgery etc.... So in essence most of us are agnostic. Now in terms of faith some of us may not use reason or if we do, may find evidence based on reason to support faith or belief (I don't really see how but you might) but the process is the same - only the conclusion is different which is why the term is not really appropriate for one who does not have faith or does not believe. You either believe in a god or don't - doesn't really matter if you think there can or cannot ever be evidence etc.... As is common with most agnostic declares, one says I am not an atheist but I don't believe in god or one cannot know if there is a god; all of which means the same thing as saying I am not a theist - which of course means you are an atheist. - this comic sums it up much better and David Eller does a much more thorough job discussing this issue in Natural Atheism - although he spends a lot of time on reason and formulation of arguments which is a slow reading but worth it.

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