Wednesday, June 24, 2009

John Wilkins on atheism and agnosticism

John Wilkins has written a blog post on definitions of atheism and agnosticism, in which he suggests that the definition of atheism has been shifting of late (and encroaching upon agnosticism's territory). His discussion and that which follows in the comments is well worth reading.


Mike said...


Why don't you weigh in? You, Wilkins, and Moran... just like the old days of USENET.

Jim Lippard said...


My view is similar to John's in that there's come to be a difference between what atheism means to atheists and what it means to the general population. Atheists have started to use it to mean merely a lack of belief in gods, while the general public still sees it as disbelief in gods (and in particular, disbelief in *their* God).

And I agree that agnosticism (or weak atheism) is the default position.

But I disagree with the equation of atheism with *certainty* or even *knowledge* (as opposed to justified belief, or subjective probability > .5). If you're willing to assert that there's probably no gods, then you're an atheist.

And you can be an atheist with respect to some gods and an agnostic with respect to others. Or an atheist with respect to some and a theist with respect to others, though that's a non-standard usage of atheist that should be spelled out before use.

So I think it's best to define terms up front.

Mike said...


I think you have things exactly right. I almost always say agnostic around my theistic friends because atheist as I mean it, is almost always misunderstood.

Why do you think so much heat is generated amoung the atheist-agnostic crowd, when it is so clear (at least to me) that the view you hold is dependent on the definition of theist being used at the time?