I find a significant lack of clarity these days among self-described atheists and agnostics about the use of these terms. With that in mind, I tweeted this morning about the importance of an atheist being able to articulate what it is they don’t believe in and why. This spurred some conversations, as you can imagine. I am providing an excerpt below in which I make a claim to another person when a fellow named Braden asks what is the proper term for being without belief, if not atheism.
Randal: Are you referring to the recent practice of defining atheism as the lack of theistic belief? Yeah, I think that trend is obfuscatory, but if you insist, for that definition the theism in question is merely the lack of atheism.
Braden: What term would you recommend those who lack a belief identify with?
Randal: Agnostic. [In another tweet I defined “agnostic’ courtesy of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false.”]
Braden: What about someone who is an atheist (hard atheist) with respect to one definition of god, and an agnostic with respect to another definition? Should they choose one over the other, or combine them?
Now I’d like to provide a quick reply to Braden.
Braden, if you believe some definitions of God surely are not actualized in reality, but you are generally agnostic about the existence of God, then you should call yourself an agnostic.
By analogy, I believe that there is no extra-terrestrial intelligence living on Mars, but that is consistent with my general agnosticism about the existence of ETI in the universe: on that question, I am agnostic.
Of course, if somebody asks me whether there is ETI on Mars, I will say “No, I don’t believe so,” just as you should answer a question about a concept of God you believe to be false by saying “No, I don’t believe so.” But that is fully consistent with agnosticism about the general concept of God or ETI in the universe.