American in Spain

Agnosticism vs. Atheism

October 6, 2008

Bill Maher was on The Daily Show the other day. He's a funny guy. He was promoting his new movie, Religulous ("religion" + "ridiculous") that, as you might suspect, is all about making fun of religion. You can see part of his visit on The Daily Show on his website. He was great, but then he went and said the following.

"I'm not an atheist. I'm not certain, and I don't think we can know for sure."

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. Most people that say they are agnostic are really functional atheists, but they are making an epistemological argument to avoid confrontation and accusations of having faith or dogma.


What are you really certain of? Anything that you can say you are certain of, I can claim that "I don't think we can know for sure." Do you think that the force of gravity will work tomorrow as it has so far today? Are you 100% certain? I think you are really only 99.999999999999% certain. You have no evidence that gravity has ever not worked, but anything could happen, right? How certain are you that you won't die immediately after reading this sentence?

Still here? Good, let's do some calculus. One of the things that surprises most calculus students is that 0.99999... = 1. How can that be? Well, the simple proof is that, if you agree that 1/3 = 0.33333..., which it does, then what do you get if you multiply both sides of the equation by 3? My point is that arguing the difference between "really quite sure" and "absolutely certain" is pointless and you'll only end up in the big sticky semantic tar pit that's called philosophy. When I say I am certain that there are no gods and that gravity will function tomorrow, I mean that I am as sure as anyone can really be about anything without being dogmatic.

To not believe, or to believe not

Let's examine the subtle difference in meaning between the following two sentences.

  1. An atheist believes that God does not exist.
  2. An atheist does not believe that God exists.

I suspect that all people who call themselves atheists share my complaint about the definition of atheism. I've looked up the word in three dictionaries, and they all say that #1 is more correct. I really hate that. When I call myself an atheist, I'm using definition #2. The second definition better represents the scientific line of thinking, specifically the null hypothesis, that leads one to atheism. The null hypothesis states that any extraordinary claim must be assumed to be false and the burden of proof is on the claimant. If sufficient reason to believe the claim is not given, one should not believe it is true. Notice that...

not believe is true ? believe is false


It is a shame that the definition of atheism is worded the way it is. If "believe not" could be changed to "not believe", I think all of you agnostics out there would have the courage to call yourselves atheists. As it is you get caught up in the meaning of certainty. In my mind, the difference between agnostics and atheists is the same as the difference between 0.99999... and 1.