This post is about an issue that crops up in my research a ton. I saw a bunch of cool talks at SPSP this past weekend that reminded me of this issue. And here's the issue:
Tons of people, when asked to describe their religious beliefs, say something like "I'm not an atheist...I'm an agnostic." Research-wise, we see lots of studies, large-scale polls, etc. that collect data on religiosity in which people are given a menu of different religious identifications and are asked to pick which one is the best fit. Like this:
How would you describe your religion?
(Full disclosure: I include an item like that in a lot of my studies.)
And in papers, talks, etc., it's pretty common to see atheist and agnostic treated as distinct categories. Or sometimes lumped together. Or sometimes lumped in with the "nones". So many researcher degrees of freedom to explore!
I think this is problematic.
Why, you ask?
Simply, "atheist" and "agnostic" are not mutually exclusive categories. Instead, they reflect answers to two very different types of questions.
"Atheist" versus "theist" represents where people take a stance on the metaphysical question of the existence of a God or gods. What they believe. The people who don't affirm belief in God or gods are, by definition, atheists. The definition of "atheist" from the Oxford English Dictionary:
atheist: a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods
Agnosticism on the other hand represents a stance on the epistemological question of how knowable the existence of a God or gods (or any other thing you might be talking about) actually is.
There you have it. Answers to orthogonal questions from entirely different branches of philosophy.
One can be agnostic while being either a theist or an atheist. One can NOT be agnostic while being either a theist or an atheist. To me, declaring oneself an agnostic is not answering a question about one's religious beliefs. It's again taking an epistemological stance about knowledge/knowability.
In a paper we're currently finalizing, Sarah Schiavone and I break it down with a table kinda like this (with famous philosopher-types included).
Aquinas & Paley
Both Aquinas and Paley were believers. And they seemed pretty sure that the existence of God was a knowable thing. Paley's a great example, as he argued that the apparent design in nature necessarily implied the existence of God. Observation and reason can get you all the way to theism. Believers, and they knew it (and they knew that they could know it).
In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard argues that reason, logic, and facts can only get you so far. But you ain't about to prove God's existence. You have to take a leap of faith. "Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation does an individual become conscious of his eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith." A believer who believed in spite of not knowing (and knew he couldn't know it).
Often known as a great agnostic, he maintained that this was merely his philosophical stance. Yet he also described himself as an atheist. Both! One can't disprove the existence of the Christian God or the Greek pantheon. Yet he never espoused belief in a God or gods. So a definitional atheist who took the epistemological stance that ultimate disproofs of God's existence aren't forthcoming. A disbeliever who disbelieved in spite of not being able to logically prove God's nonexistence.
The fourth quadrant is an interesting one. We considered cheekily putting "people on Reddit and the comments sections of news pieces about religion" in here. Richard Dawkins may also fit the bill. In The God Delusion he presents a Likert scale of belief-to-disbelief that (aargh!) conflates atheism and agnosticism. He presents a Likert (1-7) scale where he thinks agnosticism is the exact midpoint between certain belief and certain disbelief ("God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable"...a philosophically horrid definition of agnosticism, and an abuse of probability). On his Likert he places himself on the second-lowest rung, since (somewhat like Russell) he says he can't absolutely know that some sort of god doesn't exist. But he also argues that all known religions make empirical claims about the universe, and our observable universe doesn't match any of them. So this quadrant is for the atheists who disbelieve, and think that we can know ultimately about the nonexistence of God. Is it populated? Who knows?
Well, back to the initial claim of the blog post: I don't think "I'm not an atheist, I'm agnostic" is a meaningful utterance. It conflates belief in gods and belief about knowability, and confuses metaphysics and epistemology. Furthermore, they are not mutually exclusive, as one can be both (or neither of) an atheist and an agnostic.
In terms of research, this makes some practical recommendations. The buffet menu of religious identifications doesn't make much sense, when "agnostic" can sensibly overlap with every other group on the list (or none). And if you're doing research on what people believe about the existence of God/gods, it doesn't make much sense to include an "agnostic" option, since that option doesn't index belief. Indeed, Jonathan Jong had a neat talk at SPSP with some data on self-reported belief in God among these various-for lack of a better term-groups. And both "atheists" and "agnostics" overwhelmingly said they didn't believe in God (both between 95-98%). So if you want to do research on belief, ask about belief and leave the agnostic option out. If you want to ask a question about knowability, cool! But leave the atheist/Christian/Muslim options off. But please leave the menu at home!
Comments on this one should be interesting. I'm guessing people who say "I'm not an atheist...I'm agnostic" are gonna haaaaaaaaate it, and me by extension. As an epistemological solipsist, though, I am agnostic about their very existence. So take that, ye figments!
(jk...I'm not really a solipsist.)
(or am I)