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Theistic and Atheistic Agnostics

One topic I mention in passing in Doctrine Impossible is the relationships between theism, atheism, and agnosticism. Listing the words in this manner might convey the idea of three different categories relating to belief in God: belief, non-belief, and uncertainty. By that interpretation, agnosticism represents a middle-ground between theism and atheism, and that is exactly how many people think. I see it a bit differently, and I’ll explain why.

Theism and atheism are direct expressions of belief and non-belief in the existence of God. Now let’s look at the basis of belief and non-belief. Factual evidence makes the distinction clear: We accept as true that which is proven true and we reject as false that which is proven false. Phony evidence (false data, false interpretation) may lead people to wrong conclusions, but they feel just as secure in their wrong conclusions as people with factual evidence feel in their correct conclusions. The third and last scenario is lack of evidence—and that brings us to agnosticism.

Agnosticism is not a middle-ground between belief and non-belief. Though it does reject making either type of statement, the important point is this stance is more than just a point along a continuum representing belief, uncertainty, and non-belief; it is the expression of why there is uncertainty. Belief and non-belief are attitudes, not reasons; they may exist with or without reasons (which may be good or bad). In contrast, agnosticism is the reason for uncertainty. Literally meaning “without knowledge,” it is not just “I don’t know” but “No one can know.” Without evidence, there is no real knowledge, but there can be the false sense of knowing.

Consequently, we can identify four categories: Theists with a sense of certainty that God is real; theistic agnostics who believe in God but acknowledge that there is no evidence and therefore no certainty; atheists with a sense of certainty that God is not real; and atheistic agnostics who don’t believe in God but acknowledge that there is no evidence and therefore no certainty. And there are people who call themselves agnostics and just shrug.

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