Agnostic doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Map of Belief

MS Paint is your friend

I happen to be on the Atheist Blogroll, because of this, I get a huge tinge of guilt from time to time to actually write articles that pertain to atheism in one way or another. So in my spare time I decided that I should fire up my purchased copy of Microsoft Windows and use the delightfully provided copy of Microsoft Paint. This would allow me to express in picture what is so often difficult to describe with words.

A lot of the time I hear from folks that they are agnostic, as if the way things operate is on some kind of linear scale where the outer bounds of that scale are atheism and theism with agnostic sitting as a sort of median between these two. The problem with this mentality is that it is a 1 dimensional approach to what is otherwise a 2 dimensional problem. Atheism and Theism work well on their own individual scale, but the two are inherently different from Gnostic vs Agnostic. I suppose that is truly the problem, that people don’t seem to understand the nature of how Gnostic and Agnostic work with each other.

Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word Gnosis (meaning Knowledge) and was the basis for a series of religious movements that attempted to reconcile conflicting beliefs or ideologies within the religion. In common parlance, Gnostic is usually in reference to “Knowing” or being sure of ones beliefs and not seeing any possible fallacies in those beliefs. When I attempted to do a quick search on the subject matter, I kept getting a lot of sites that were referring to the current Gnostic movement. It is this sort of neo-christian movement which has chosen the hijack the word once again to try to cover up that the meaning of the word is actually pretty simple. The research will go on these terribly long diatribes about how this ideology is only recently be rediscovered like it’s some kind of Renaissance lost to Christianity because of who knows what reason. The truth of the matter is that the religious Gnosticism is a perversion of what is otherwise an incredibly simple concept.

Gnostic means “To Know” Agnostic means to “Not Know”. Now these much like theism and Atheism can be placed on their own little linear scale and be applied to just about any subject matter. For instance, on matters like Star Trek [which we’ll call a religion] I consider myself to be Gnostic regarding Star Trek. This means that I consider Star Trek to be 100% the truth, there is no other way to view things, I know for a fact that Gene Roddenberry is the one true god. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, it really just means that in the matter or Star Trek I’m pretty sure of myself. If I were to be agnostic on the matter it would mean something to the tune of me not being sure, or not knowing.

If we are to stick to our example of Star Trek here, the agnostic matter comes in say what I do not know about the series / franchise / whatever. If one is agnostic it means to simply not know, not be sure. Again these initial concepts are in actuality pretty simple in comparison to the huge amount of data and writing we tack on to them in order to make ourselves feel better.

Now, with regards to when you hear someone refer to themselves as an Agnostic [when something to the tune of “Are you an atheist or a theist?”], what they probably mean to say is an Agnostic theist or an Agnostic atheist, in that they are generally near the center of that graph having no strong belief or not being sure about either atheism or theism. Of course, it gets incredibly convoluted to say “Gnostic Atheist” or “Agnostic Christian” so we just kind of trim the tail end as they become redundant and settle on Agnostic. That is to say, that when one is saying they are perhaps an atheist and agnostic about god, it means that while they do not believe in a god they don’t necessarily exclude the possibility that there is a god.

The example that I give in the Chart above if of Richard Dawkins who has gone on the record before in stating that while he does not believe in god he does not exclude the possibility of one existing.  Dawkins goes on to state that while he does not exclude such a possibility, he believes that the chance of such possibility is likely the same as the chance that Russell’s Teapot happens to maintain its orbit. As such one might classify him as highly atheist and an extremely weak agnostic.

Now, there is a small problem with the core of the graph in that these are essentially yes or no questions. As such, what you are really seeing is a variation between 1 to -1 with the center being close to .9 repeating or the likes. It would probably end up being something of a logarithmic scale when you get it all said and done. That is why I was hesitant to place Richard Dawkins in the Agnostic side of things, but he has asserted that at some level he is agnostic. The way the graph portrays things makes it seem like it’s a 10% – 100% kind of things with the -1 representing 0% and the +1 representing 100%, when in truth it is closer to say 0 [The center of the graph] being incremented by powers of .9 up until the point we have .9 repeating [which is technically one].

There of course is some debate on how people sit where they do, but I think that for most people the graph does a satisfying job of portraying approximately where they fall in terms of religious thought. The goal of the graph was simply to show that there is not a line that goes

<Atheist —– Agnostic —– Thiest->

That it’s perhaps a bit more complicated than all of that, and my graph admittedly only singles out Christians.  You could likely easily replace them with any large-scale religious group with fundamentalist tendencies. Again, the point of the graph was to drive a simple idea down that I think is misrepresented often times within both the Non-theist and theist communities. I think we do a rather poor job of creating this sort of barrier between atheist and agnostics as if there is some unique difference between the two. In truth most Atheist tend to be inherently agnostic [as it tends to be part of the method most atheist used to become atheist. To question the tenants of what they know through rigorous examination].

Anyway, I’ve spent a lot of time over analyzing an otherwise simple graph. I do hope that people can take from it some useful information and of course if you like this or any of the other articles I have let me know. I treasure nothing more than a little feedback [even if it is to the tune of “This is the worst thing ever”].

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2 Responses to Agnostic doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  1. The Nerd. says:

    Your understanding of the term agnostic is inaccurate. Agnostic is very simply, a lack of knowledge. A Lack of what could be “KNOWN”. It actually has nothing to do with belief. This is why it cannot be applied to theism/atheism belief systems. You cannot have a belief nor disbelief regarding a concept that you’re completely oblivious to. It’s pretty straight forward and very simple to comprehend. If people like you stop trying to conform the term to fit into your concept then it wouldn’t become a complicated issue in understanding it’s meaning. If you’re an Atheist, be an Atheist don’t try to sweeten it up by tacking on a word that sounds more accepting to the general public.

    • Flying D*ck says:

      That’s exactly what he said… Gnostic/Agnostic pertains to Knowledge/Non-Knowledge. Theism/Atheism pertains to Belief/Non-Belief. How can you confuse this?

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