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Agnosticism vs atheism
Avoiding an etymological fallacy
published 11/21/2015 | # 35

It is spreading on the internet, like a virus, a distinction between the concepts of atheism and agnosticism whose real and primary intention I guess is to convince some agnostics that they are also atheists.

To illustrate this I have picked an Youtube video interview(0:30 – 0:45) with Bill Maher and Penn Jillette.

Basically Jillete distinguishes the two concepts using two different questions- 1- Do you know there is a god?
2 - Do you believe there is a god? And then he proceeds with his understanding about them.

The distinction, I believe, is not originally creditable to Jillette but he is no doubt helping to spread it around.

You may of course share his general beliefs about atheism but do you really share his logic? Well, his convictions about the difference may have originated as a result of a seriously flawed reasoning.

As seen in the video, using a clear cut distinction, he somewhat tries to render incomparable the two terms thus refuting the independence of the agnostic position about the existence of god.

1 - Do you know there is a god?
2 - Do you believe there is a god? Know and believe, answer two different questions, he argues.

And, in Jillette’s view the appropriate response to the first question is always ‘no’ and so in terms of knowledge even the atheist is an agnostic.

In other words, when it comes to knowledge, the atheist is also an agnostic and atheism becomes distinguished from agnosticism only when we talk about belief.

So, according to Jillete’s view atheism is based on belief. An atheist is therefore a believer because he believes that god is not the case, or, if you wish, he does not believe that god is the case (which in propositional logic is, by the way, represented the same way because connectives are not part of a proposition).

He believes the premise about god is false (he doesn’t know, but he believes it’s false). So atheism is everything but scientific since science deals exclusively with (even if phenomenal) knowledge not belief.

But to the second question, according to Jillette, you have to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and so there is no room for ‘fence sitters’.

“So you have to answer yes or no ”.

Thus in his view the term ‘agnostic’ used as opposed to ‘atheist’ is an etymological misunderstanding of many who declare themselves agnostics or use the word with a different meaning, for example Neil deGrasse , Philosophy Pages, John Shook.

In my view the opposite may be the case and Jillette is the one confusing things here.

Let’s demonstrate why:

I can ask someone the following questions about the existence of two cities - For this demonstration let’s suppose I know in advance that she knows nothing about the existence of the cities X and Y. Let’s suppose also that X really exists while Y does not.

Do you know there is a city called X?
Do you know there is a city called Y?

By their rule used against agnostics she will answer ‘no’ to both questions.

Now, their second question which, by the way, she have to answer:

Do you believe city X exists? Do you believe city Y exists?

Whatever her answer she has no reason to answer them differently, and so they are trapped here if they really have to answer.

One seemingly relevant argument against our logic here could be that while a city is a believable thing (because we have seen many others before) a god is not (because we have never seen any). However, by arguing that we would be changing the subject for the reasons to believe (or disbelieve) which is not exactly the point here. Discussing again the reasons to believe would be a rather contra productive move, it would strengthen the independence of agnosticism since the discussion would have been proven to be worthwhile. The important question then is, do I really have to answer?

If this is your objection, try to substitute ‘city’ with an object you know the person being questioned have never heard of, or for example, to some super complex system in the cosmos (which probably exists) we have never seen before.

What about a Dictionary?

As far as I am concerned, dictionaries do not create words. They rather just seek to record the most common uses of a word by a group of people, in a specific place and time, and not exactly the other way around. And, the use of the word ‘agnostic’ meaning ‘the one who has not decided to believe or disbelieve in god’ is common, clear and undeniable and if it is not yet it should be registered by a good dictionary.

Is Jillette’s definition necessarily a fallacy?

To accurately use the word the way Jillette proposes, its meaning could be previously stipulated by the parts in the debate. It does not follow, however, that you have to answer the question about belief. Without this previous and to a certain extent artificial stipulation, however, agnosticism is not a mere characteristic of atheism and do in most cases affront it, in several places and times. All atheists are agnostics by Jillette’s definition but the inverse is not necessarily true, especially in cases in which atheism is a synonym for materialism. In my opinion Penn Jillette is the one torturing reality here.


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Inspiring quotes:
Friedrich Nietzsche:
There are no facts, only interpretations.
Karl Marx:
From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.
Noam Chomsky:
If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.
Adolf Hitler:
I do not see why man should not be just as cruel as nature.

Future possible posts:

Subject: EthicsLikely title:What if we're just a bunch of atoms? Expected to: Oct/2015