Atheist vs Agnostic: Why Agnostics reject the atheist label


Open-minded Skeptic
Oct 1, 2020


Why do Agnostics reject the atheist label?

Many atheists get annoyed with agnostics who decline to call themselves atheists while also claiming not to believe in God's existence. There have been many online debates on this issue. Lately, it seems that some atheists have given up on trying to convince agnostics of their atheism. In this article, I want to go over two reasons why some agnostics decline the atheist label. One reason is because of the thinking and practices of negative atheists, and the other reason is that atheists fall short of the agnostic standard as advocated by Huxley. The latter reason is rarely considered, but let's get into both reasons.

Like many atheists, agnostics neither believe nor disbelieve in God's existence, but one reason they still reject the atheist label is because of the way atheists express their lack of belief. While on paper, negative atheists neither believe nor disbelieve, but in practice, you'll often find that their thinking and practices are consistent with that of strong atheists. You hardly ever find a negative atheist remaining neutral in a debate, but like the strong atheist, you'll more likely find them having an anti-supernatural bias and an unquestioning adherence to materialism. You'll also find them applying a hyper-skeptic standard toward Christian claims. When I see this, I often ask the atheist, what's really keeping you from being a strong atheist or even a gnostic atheist. Perhaps this is why Thomas Huxley, some two or three centuries ago, saw no real distinction between atheists and contrasted agnosticism with it:
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.
In contrast, it is common to find agnostics maintaining an attitude of uncertainty by simply not committing to any conclusions on metaphysical claims. The agnostic is therefore more open-minded to the Christian claims and the supernatural, in general. I won't go as far as saying that it's impossible for a negative atheist to remain neutral, but the problem is that these atheists seem to be extremely rare or they don't do enough to distinguish themselves from other atheists.

Another reason agnostics decline the atheist label is because atheism falls short of the agnostic standard as advocated by Thomas Huxley. According to Huxley, the agnostic was to remain scientifically minded in all intellectual matters. All of their conclusions should be based on logic and evidence, and if a matter lacks any of the two or even a basis for using the two, then the agnostic was to remain uncertain. Huxley reiterated this point several times, such as in the following,
Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.
In contrast, while the atheist approaches religion with a scientific mind, but you often find that he will also accept unproven ideologies (liberalism, materialism, etc.) in other areas, like in metaphysics, politics, history, etc. All of this shows that it is not enough to simply lack belief in God's existence, but one must also be scientific minded on all intellectual matters in order to be an agnostic.

In conclusion, the agnostic declines the atheist label because there is a difference between the way he expresses his lack of belief compared to the way the atheist expresses his. Also, if we consider Huxley's description for agnosticism, as opposed to just the simple ones offered in dictionaries, then this gives more reason for the agnostic to decline atheism. One exception I see to these points is if atheism were proven true. At that point the agnostic can accept it because a godless Universe would be knowledge or fact.
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