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Discussion 7 to Talk Back 73
Atheism and agnosticism

by: Mark Richardson

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In JTs article about the meaning of atheism and agnosticism he gets many thing correct and makes some wild blunders.

"Long ago, when I determined I was an agnostic, there was a clear difference in common usage between agnosticism and atheism."

Actually there was confusion about the meanings of these words in the time of Thomas Heny Huxley - there is ambiguity and contradiction in his own writings.

He clearly states in some articles that agnosticism is a POSITION distinct from both atheism and theism and in other articles he makes plain it is a METHOD of thinking about what is and is not knowable.

"Atheism meant what it meant in Greek - which is where we got the word in English via French. It meant a belief in no god(s) and not as many self-proclaimed atheist would have it today no belief in god."

This is false. The most ancient meanining of atheism is godlessness.

To be a - theos is to be without a god.

"When someone like Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass) can call himself an atheist and yet state "I don't know whether there's a God or not," and "there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away," then I think the word "atheist" is fast losing meaning. It has become a wishy-washy word; if someone claims to be an atheist, you still do not know where that person stands." 

You know they do not worship a god - that they do not believe in God.

The problem is not that atheism is vague - it is that agnosticism is inherently vague and leaves open what you actually believe.

"But one issue I do object to strongly is the idea that atheism comes from putting an "a" in front of theism so as to negate it. (See Sandy MacFadzean's second paragraph.) This idea, which comes up repeatedly from atheists, is provably wrong. The evidence can be found in any decent etymological dictionary. Atheism entered the English language a full century before theism."

This is perfectly correct.

Atheism is an ancient concept.

As soon as you have the concept of piety and fidelity the opposite idea suggests itself.

"The "a" in atheism modifies the "the" not the "ism" nor "theism."


"And that's what the Greeks, the "inventors" of atheism intended - belief in no gods."

Incorrect - it literally means "no - god" godless.

There is nothing about "belief" in etymology of the word atheist - except that which is implict in the concept theos - "god".

A god is an object of belief, an object of worship and devotion.

Your god is that which you worship and believe in.

One thing to note about dictionary definitions about atheist and atheism is that they always speak of belief and disbelief - they never mention knowledge or certainty - and yet it is atheisms supposed "claim to knowledge and certainty" that is agnostics chief objection to atheism.

I am an agnostic in the sense of not claiming certain knowledge about the existence of anything and I am an atheist in my lack of belief in any deity - in my complete godlessness and unbelief.

I reject the assertion that this is some modern re-interpretation of atheism.

The confussion stems from the ambiguous and ever changing nature of agnosticism.