Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. -Romans 1:19-20
To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition." -Woody Allen
Atheism and agnosticism are two categories that get tossed around with far too much flippancy. In common parlance, and more and more in professional circles, the terms lack proper definition. Thus, perverted usage has taken over and confused the issues. Atheism has come to erroneously mean "the belief in no God" and agnosticism "not knowing if God exists or not." Unfortunately the new, far more common definitions work in favor of the theist. This confusion must end. Due to a misunderstanding of both terms numerous Christians have attempted to redefine all atheists as agnostics. In rebuttal, I intend to do a little gerrymandering in the name of rational disbelief – to show why most self-described "agnostics" are actually atheists.
"Agnosticism" has been greatly misunderstood by modern audiences. The original meaning of the term has essentially been completely lost. Originally coined by Darwin's attack-dog Thomas Huxley to describe himself as one who did not believe that God's existence was knowable, agnosticism has been converted to mean one who does not know. The two definitions are worlds apart. The former is a claim on the epistemological status of a belief, the latter is a reluctance to accept a claim. Somehow we moved from the belief that God's existence is something that humans cannot be sure about to not being sure about God's existence.
Likewise, atheism suffers from severe misunderstandings. With Christians, atheism is a category that will put you in the doghouse. Recent data has shown atheists to be among the most distrusted people in the United States. Agnosticism, on the other hand, will just put you out in the yard. The modern Christian believes that agnostics (as they mistakenly take the term) commit a grievous – but understandable – error. God, after all, is transcendentally unknowable. However, with a little help (an occasional tract or two, a gifted copy of Mere Christianity) agnostics can be helped out of their folly. The atheist, however, is incorrigible. To call yourself an atheist is to put a foot down where the agnostic fears to tread. The atheist willfully denies the existence of He-Whose-Existence-is-Obvious-and-Undeniable.
For many theists, atheists are not just incorrect but incoherent and impossible. In his book "God Doesn't Believe in Atheists" noted Christian apologist Ray Comfort makes this quite clear: "If you insist upon disbelief in God, what you must say is, 'Having the limited knowledge I have at present, I believe that there is no God.' Owing to a lack of knowledge on your part you don't know if God exists. So, in the strict sense of the word, you cannot be an atheist. The only true qualifier for the title is the One who has absolute knowledge, and why on earth would God want to deny His own existence? The professing atheist is what is commonly known as an 'agnostic' – one who claims to not know if God exists, or 'one who professes ignorance.'"
Comfort's interpretation of the terms is clear. He is also moving through well-trod territory. Theists constantly try to demote (or "promote" depending on your point of view) professed atheists to agnostics. This move is a furtive attempt to win an argumentative point through reclassification.
Ray Comfort's current shtick is playing wingman to Kirk Cameron's newest calling; the Evangelical Christian organization "The Way of the Master." On the website you can see videos addressing evolution and "atheism" – at least Comfort's version of atheism. The video on atheism has Comfort reiterating his point from "God Doesn't Believe in Atheists." However, he adds a wrinkle to his point – a wrinkle in the form of an astonishingly bad argument. To recapitulate Comfort's argument: you don't know what you don't know so to claim that you know something doesn't exist is to claim that you know something that you couldn't possibly know because of all the things that you don't know. You know? This is an argument that should make all good philosophers vomit their skeletons through their computer screens. But, apparently due to its front-and-center treatment, this is among the best Ray Comfort has to offer.
Skeleton-vomiting aside, it is worth taking a moment to point out that Comfort's argument is actually an argument against the possibility for any non-omniscient creature to claim knowledge of any kind. Flowing from his rhetoric is the inevitable conclusion that you cannot claim to know one thing unless you know all things. As he says in his quote above, the only one who can be an atheist is God himself. Of course, it equally follows that the only one who could be justifiably called a theist is God himself.
Comfort's argument rests on his confusion about the meanings of the terms "agnosticism" and "atheism." The argument only makes sense, if it makes sense at all, if his definition of atheism is the one stated earlier in this essay; that atheism is "belief in no God." In fact, atheism is properly understood as "no belief in God." The difference is subtle yet very important. The distinction can be pointed out by this question: "Do you believe that FDR did not eat any oranges during the week following Pearl Harbor?" Assuming that we are all ignorant of this claim it would be absurd answer in the affirmative to this question. The proper course is not to believe that FDR did not eat any oranges during that week but rather to take the position that you have no belief that he did. Sufficient reason has not been given to believe the proposition.
This is the atheist position. By demanding that theists give sufficient reasons for believing in God, the atheist maintains that the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of the theist. This is unquestionably true with regards to any specific religious tradition. No religious tradition holds the automatic supposition that it is true. The preponderance of various religions and the grandiosity of their claims guarantee that it is up to the theist to convince the atheist that their conception of God is correct.
Most Christians – and I am quite sure this includes Ray Comfort – will talk at length of how they find atheism unimaginable. They, however, know exactly what it feels like to be an atheist. Of all the Gods that people claim or have claimed to exist Christians find only one to have merit. They rightly place a burden of proof upon other religions that must be satisfied in order to merit belief. Therefore, in most situations Christians know exactly with whom the burden of proof rests. However, when it comes to someone who doesn't accept their beliefs they shift the burden of proof to the atheist. However, the position they take towards others' religions is precisely the same position I take upon theirs (and all religions). Comfort's argument against atheism is as much an argument against his beliefs as it is mine.
Other, non-religious, conceptions of God – the scientists' Gods, the prime mover, first cause, "higher powers," God as essence rather than God as being – are pushed towards irrelevance. As scientists continue to explain more about the universe the burden of proof continues to be placed in the lap of the theist – particularly with regards to teleological "arguments from design." Cosmologically, however, the question of "why is there something instead of nothing?" will always be insoluble. If you choose God to be your answer to such an abstruse question so be it. But, for any characteristics you wish to instill in that God beyond "first cause" – i.e. personal, interested, omnipotent, good etc. – the burden of proof will once again lie in your lap. These anthropomorphic characteristics are the ones that the majority of theists care the most about – whether God knows, cares, acts, desires, is angry etc. However, they are also the hardest to justify.
It would behoove Christians like Comfort to return to a more productive path in order to argue for their beliefs – a path that doesn't use bad arguments and bad definitions to advance bad points. Theists and atheists alike, if they wish to engage in meaningful debate, need to agree on at least one item; that neither of them "knows" the status of God's existence. Mostly this stems from traditional philosophical skepticism. Philosophers may debate which claims are indubitable claims to knowledge (i.e. "I think therefore I am") but almost every philosopher would agree that most claims of knowledge, especially anything based on empirical data, cannot be reasonably said to be indubitable knowledge. Aside from more mundane reasons for doubt, there is always the possibility Descartes's evil demon is deceiving us or that we are simply brains-in-vats.
Beliefs are not knowledge. Yes, believing is a necessary element of knowing. To know so is to believe so. But knowing is not a necessary element of believing. To believe so is not to know so. If we are intellectually honest with ourselves we will come to understand that nearly every belief in our heads that is at all interesting (tautologies are awfully boring) is a probabilistic belief rather than a certain belief. A car just came around the corner. I don't know that the car wasn't materialized by aliens immediately outside of my vision. Likewise I don't know that a donkey isn't sitting on my driveway right now. However, I would confidently assert that I have no belief in either proposition. But it would be disingenuous – to incorrectly use the terms – to call me a donkey-in-my-driveway agnostic. I am a donkey-in-my-driveway atheist and I will continue believe so until you give me reason not to. The burden of proof rests in the hands of those who claim the magnificent.
Such thinking allows us to see that those who call themselves atheists are perfectly justified in doing so. That is, Comfort and others' claims that atheism is too strong of a term is inaccurate. Furthermore, we find that many who have historically called themselves "agnostics," based on the common and confused definition of "not knowing," could rightly be called atheists.
Because none of us "knows" the status of God's existence, the common interpretation of "agnosticism" is pushed towards irrelevancy. In one very mundane sense we are all "agnostics." But I am an atheist; and I use the term accurately and whole-heartedly. However, I am not an atheist because I know God does not exist. I am an atheist because I find His existence highly improbable. I find it improbable enough to act as if he does not exist and to be comfortable with my decision.
Actions do speak louder than words. Like all of us, Ray Comfort doesn't know that God exists. But Comfort acts as if God does exist because he believes God's existence to be highly probable. I, as already stated, am on the other side. However, the majority of self-described "agnostics" – who use the term to mean "don't know" – act like atheists. They do not attend church or actively attempt to appease God. In other words, they act as if the burden of proof has not been met by the theists – at least any group of theists they have encountered – and move on the supposition that the world is naturalistic and godless. This is identical to the atheist's position.
The cash-value of a belief is the actions it creates. Epistemologists have occasionally been inclined to take a gambling metaphor as representative of degrees of certainty. "Oh, you're certain of your belief? How much would you bet?" Monetary issues aside, it is still worth acknowledging that beliefs produce actions representative of the level of conviction. Beliefs that are thought to be highly probable produce decisive actions. By acting as if God doesn't exist agnostics are demonstrating their skepticism towards God's existence. Most importantly they are demonstrating that the burden of proof lies with the theist and has not been met. However, because the term "atheist" has been so demonized in modern society – in addition to being massively misunderstood – agnostics prefer a lighter moniker.
But, it may be time for many agnostics to step up to the plate. Perhaps this essay will convince some that a name-change is in order. The broader purpose of this essay is to clarify terms and unite sides because, in reality, the agnostic and the atheist are on the same side. Both believe the Christian (Muslim, Hindu et. al.) hasn't made their case. Either way, it is certainly time for both theists and atheists to stop equivocating their definitions and clarify what is meant by "atheist" and "agnostic." Yes, they may be just words. But remember, in the beginning was the word.