This is going to be a little disjointed, but I need to get it posted and I think it'll do the job just fine as is.
There are a million definitions out there for what the words “atheist” and “agnostic” mean. Let’s start with what they do not (and cannot) mean. They do not mean degrees of openness to evidence. I only say this because I’ve encountered the claim that atheists are closed off to the possibility of god, and agnostics aren’t. But just like agnostics likely do not believe in the tangible existence of smurfs, if they ever met one they would immediately change their mind, as they should; atheists are the exact same way. If shown smurfs (or a god), or evidence of them, we will change our minds.
Others say that to be agnostic means to say that we cannot know. There is much to say about this. First, and most obviously, why can't we? Is it really too early to say that people cannot rise from the dead, and that to accept such a proposition without evidence is indicative of lazy thinking at best (and insanity, at worst)? I don't think so. Even for the ambiguous god of deism, the best I've ever heard as a defense for "we cannot know" is that people cannot imagine any other way existence could have happened (forget, for a moment, that god would have had to exist to create all of this). But that's not an argument, it's simply a lack of information (either on their part or on humanity's part) or a lack of imagination. You can honestly say that we do not currently know, and that is fine - but you lack the knowledge of the future (amongst other things) to say that we cannot
know. Additionally, to say that we cannot know about god is to treat the idea of knowledge in an absolutist fashion, which I'll argue in the following section is not the way we utilize that idea. Anyway, my arguments for how we can know about god's non-existence with reasonable certainty (which I'll tackle in the following section) can be found throughout this blog and over at Siderial Heresy
I've heard others say that to be agnostic means to believe there is a god, but to admit that we know none of his properties (although, I'd more associate this with deism). These people suffer from the same philosophical failings as other believers.
However you view the term agnostic, I will argue that doing so entails misconceptions about the nature of knowledge or a poor analysis of the evidence on hand that, once resolved, will reveal that you are no different from an atheist.
The nature of knowledge.
For even our most certain claims, we must allow for the possibility we are somehow wrong. Even something as simple as 1=1 might not be true (you may be dreaming this life, and in the real world this is not the case). So what we do is we attach probabilities to truth claims based on the evidence on hand. While I’m pretty sure that there are no purple, nine-legged insects with heart shaped candy eyes and a radio dial on their forehead on this planet, we may one day turn over a rock and find a colony of such insects. While this is highly unlikely, it would be wrong to deny it as a (very distant) possibility, and thus my claim that there are no such insects is not absolutely
While it’s not relevant to the discussion on atheism versus agnosticism, it should be noted that even god would be subject to these constraints. What if he was wrong about being omniscient? What if a demon is feeding god his every thought? Such a demon could even make god feel omniscient and god would never be the wiser. God would have to allow for this possibility, and so even he cannot have 100% certain knowledge. The point is that what we’re after is not absolute
certainty, we’re after reasonable
certainty. Ideas that are so likely to be true that they are as close as we can get. Atheists accept this. We are not saying we are absolutely positive that a god does not exist. What we are saying is that there is no good reason to believe that there is one and plenty of good reasons to believe there isn’t one. We say the same thing about unicorns, leprechauns, and purple nine-legged insects. Agnostics also accept this on propositions that allow for it, which gets me to my next point – often, it is how these things are presented that determine our approach to them.
The nature of propositions.
Another claim I’ve heard of agnostics before is that they say “we cannot know”. To me, this seems euphemistic for “we cannot falsify”, and they’re right. However, claiming belief in an unfalsifiable proposition which bears no supporting evidence because nobody has managed the impossible is to fall victim to the trap of a self-fulfilling prophesy. For instance, if you believe in smurfs with no corroborating evidence because we’ve yet to comb our universe to its very edges (a feat that would be tedious and impossible) to prove there is no centimeter of space-time (how's that for a conflicting idea? :P) where a smurf exists, you will never be able to escape your absurd belief. Instead, we need to realize that if a proposition of existence, such as that of smurfs, gods, and celestial teapots, has no evidence, then that IS evidence for that object's non-existence. Should we ever come across any evidence for these objects, we’ll happily change our minds.
Furthermore, as I said at the end of the previous section, whether we are agnostic (in the sense of saying we can’t disprove a proposition or we can’t know about a proposition) or atheistic (saying that it is so highly improbable as to be considered reasonably certain) about a proposition often has more to do with how those propositions are presented than anything.
Consider two gods, we’ll call them god Pork and god Beans. They are identical in that they both have power as unlimited as the universe allows and are, in each example, the author of the universe. Here is the difference.
God Pork uses his limitless power remove all evidence of his existence. In this case, the absence of any evidence for the existence of Pork IS the evidence of his existence, and every discovery ever made will conform to the idea of this god. It is impossible to be anything but an “agnostic” about Pork.
But god Beans, he uses his limitless power to provide you with irrefutable proof of his existence. We lack irrefutable proof of his existence, so it is impossible to be anything except an atheist about Beans. You cannot be open-minded to the existence of Beans because he is a contradiction of logic. It would be like saying there is a married bachelor – you cannot have both.
Richard Carrier originated this argument and articulates it better
than I ever could.
So, to you people that call yourselves agnostics, how do you really differ from atheists?
- Are you open to the idea of a god? So are we.
- Are you unsure about the existence of god? Why? Are you also unsure about the existence of smurfs? Of nine-legged purple insects with candy eyes and radio dials? Why one and not the other?
- Obviously, we can know some things: how to open a door, that scratching our crotch will not open a door, that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow, that "National Treasure" is amongst my DVDs (I just looked up at random). Why can't we know (by any sane definition of the word) if there is a god, by use of all the available evidence?
This should help to explain why I called agnostics lazy thinkers in a recent post. I do not mean to imply that they are dumb (I do not even believe that Christians are universally dumb), but that agnosticism requires some lazy thinking to maintain.
I will be looking to modify and add to this, so please post objections.