A paper prepared for members of the Atheist/Agnostic Club at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek

We call ourselves the Atheist/Agnostic Club here at Rossmoor and sometimes we seem to sit on opposite sides of the aisle – atheists on one side, agnostics on another. I’m suggesting that we can all pull our chairs together and be one. I believe atheists and agnostics are not two separate and distinct philosophies but actually one and the same.

Unfortunately, there is a fallacy concerning atheism that is so prevalent, so extensive that the very dictionaries themselves maintain it and espouse it. It is simply stated like this: “Atheists say there is no god.”

Or as a correspondent wrote to me recently, “I do not believe that one can be an atheist, only an agnostic. Why? You cannot prove that God does not exist.” Yes, he is quite correct: “You cannot prove that God does not exist.”

But that is a commonplace almost to the point of cliché. Everyone knows by now that you cannot prove a negative. That’s why the person who runs out in the street shouting “There is no god!” is NOT an atheist in my opinion but a FOOL. The smallest child will pull at his sleeve and demand of him, “Mister, can you prove there is no god?” Suddenly our so-called atheist is very embarrassed!

No, the smart atheist simply says “God? I’m sorry but I don’t know what you are talking about. Please explain it to me. I have no notion of god, no idea of god, no belief in what you call god. Define it, describe it; I don’t know what you are talking about.” 

"Atheism,” says Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, “is the state of being without theistic beliefs.” THAT is a correct definition (one of the few you will find) and that’s all there is to it: “without theistic beliefs.” It’s as simple as that. A true atheist does not know what you are talking about when you babble about gods. He is without knowledge; he does not know. In that sense the atheist is no different from the agnostic.

But take another dictionary definition – this one from Webster’s: An atheist is “someone who denies the existence of god.” This is patently absurd! This ‘definition’ says that there IS a god but the stubborn, wicked and perverse atheist will not accept Him (Her, It?). Instead he or she denies god.

Though there are so-called ‘hard atheists’ who say “I don’t believe in god,” or “There is no god,” I still say they are fools and not atheists. I am a ‘soft atheist,’ and as such it is impossible to tell me apart from an agnostic. But NOT, mind you, not if agnosticism is taken to mean “I don’t know if there is a god. I’m not sure, there may be... I haven’t made up my mind yet... The facts are not all in; I’m keeping an open mind!”

That is not agnosticism but pathetic fence-sitting. T.H. Huxley, the man who coined the term ‘agnosticism’ did not - when it came to evolution - sit on a fence. He was known, in fact as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for he defended the naturalistic (atheistic!) ideas of Charles Darwin with a ferocious tenacity.

Ah, was Darwin then an atheist? Well, he was visited by two atheists one day - Doctor Ludwig Büchner and Edward Aveling. Darwin asked his guests “Why do you call yourselves atheists?” The great naturalist said that he himself preferred the word ‘agnostic.’ Aveling replied that “Agnostic was but Atheist writ respectable, and Atheist was only Agnostic writ aggressive.”Darwin responded by asking “Why should you be so aggressive?”

Why indeed? Bertrand Russell in a pamphlet entitled “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic” maintained that he was an agnostic in the philosophical sense in that he could not know the truth of the existence or non-existence of God. However, in the same work he admits that calling himself an atheist would best convey his religious stance to a non-philosophical audience.

So Russell is both an atheist and an agnostic. And there is even a position known as Agnostic Atheism. “While the concepts of atheism and agnosticism occasionally overlap,” Wikipedia informs us, “they are distinct because atheism is generally defined as a condition of being without theistic beliefs while agnosticism is usually defined as an absence of knowledge (or any claim of knowledge).”

But clearly an agnostic person may also be an atheist - without theistic beliefs. The proper stance, Russell tells us is to “stand on our own two feet and look fair and square at the world” with a “fearless attitude and a free intelligence.” And Huxley states that “In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration.”

In spite of himself and his agnosticism or “half-hearted atheism” Huxley’s reason took him to the very frontiers of philosophical materialism: “I am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force...” Huxley spoke of the “wonder of the conservation of force and the indestructibility of matter...”

For various social/political/economic reasons Huxley could not cross the threshold of the materialist frontier. But the idea that matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed is the most fundamental law of science and is the foundation of my philosophy, my atheism - scientific materialism.

And yet I am content to call myself an agnostic as well, for I am a ‘weak atheist’ or a ‘negative atheist.’ I lack a belief in any God or gods, but I do not positively deny the existence of any god or gods.

As for our Rossmoor Atheist/Agnostic Club, I really feel we can take this sensible position and move all our chairs together into one great compatible circle. For the genuine atheist is really an agnostic, and the true agnostic is also an atheist!

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Comment by Future on March 21, 2014 at 2:41pm
BF - I'm not offended either. There is phenomena throughout nature that certainly has the appearance of order, so let the agnostics/pantheists/deists muse about it. I find their opinion of us no worse than being called a fool for what football team I like. It's harmless - neither of us is claiming the other will suffer for their opinions/beliefs. On the other hand, being called a fool by a theist over my atheism is highly offensive. Them's fightin' words.
Comment by B Fletcher on March 21, 2014 at 1:41pm

Future: Agreed.  Even soft-core Christians who get their politics from thinking rather than from a crusty old book don't bother me overmuch.

If there's "aggressive language in this forum directed at agnostics" I'd say it has two primary sources; a blog post that says hard atheists are fools, and the fact that this is a discussion forum for non-theists to talk about these sorts of issues.  The license is pretty explicit.

That said and speaking for myself, I'm not offended by Gene's "fool" assertion in any way, and the discussion seems enjoyable and reasonably respectful.  I'm certainly happy to sit in the same circle as agnostics, at least as far as discussions of theism go.

Comment by Gene Gordon on March 21, 2014 at 9:02am

Thanks a lot, Steph S. I've never been more welcomed to a website before. Friendly atheists!

Comment by Future on March 21, 2014 at 8:09am
There seems to be some aggressive language in this forum directed at agnostics. IMO, any wiggly belief in the supernatural/higher power/deity that doesn't involve the damaging characteristics of anthropomorphism, worship, controversial morality absolutes, money, and politics, is not something to be aggressively critical of. I've been a hardcore atheist my entire life, but if there's one thing that I am convinced of it's that we need to choose our battles wisely. Don't be openly critical of the person who thinks there's a higher consciousness that is influencing everything in nature, go after the prick who claims with certainty that their god is real, and that it is going to judge you personally, and that prescribes rules on how that god intends you to live. The agnostic's intention is not to be influential. It's fine to disagree with the unknowable possibilities that are part of their makeup, it's not much different than someone who believes in ghosts. They aren't bothering anyone by thinking that way. It's the ones using organized religion to push politics and agendas that are the target.
Comment by Loren Miller on March 21, 2014 at 5:21am

Gene, I'm a semi-retired engineer and a troubleshooter, by profession, with 30 years under my belt.  Elsewhere on here, I have stated what may be construed as a somewhat simplistic but I think reasonable personal philosophy, to wit:

If it works, USE IT!
If it don't, LOSE
IT!

As a troubleshooter, I HAVE to be a pragmatist.  My customer, who expects me to fix his widget, demands it of me, and I have to be able to deliver the goods.  If I were to tell him, "I BELIEVE I fixed your machine," without diagnostics or a successful run of product to substantiate my claim, I'd be outta there faster than you can blink and not invited back.  One of my managers once told me that I need to be able to not just fix the machine, but the customer as well, particularly if we want repeat sales.  I'm proud to say that my customers number among my very best references.

To put it bluntly, science works; engineering and technology work.  Religion does NOT, not in any practical sense, and anyone who wants their life to genuinely WORK should have nothing to do with it.

Comment by Tom Sarbeck on March 21, 2014 at 1:58am

Welcome to A/N, Gene. I've seen at least one discussion here in which some of us tell of how we became agnostics, atheists, or whatever. However, I don't know how to find it. With new folks coming on board often, it makes sense to occasionally start such a discussion.

So many here have said they became atheists when they read of the horrors in the Old Testament, that I realized why, in the Catholic schools I attended, bible reading was discouraged. I was endlessly told to believe what the priests told me. After 12 years of that, quitting required a blow like the metaphorical blow the farmer gave his mule to get the mule's attention. Two visits to the college atheists club, where I heard too many expressions of knowledge and too few expressions of doubt, led to my investigating and choosing agnosticism.

About agnostics and atheists pulling or chairs together. This would be easier if we homo semi sapiens were moved more by reason than by emotion. We can pretend all we wish, and some of us pretend so noisily that emotion has to be moving us.

In a form devised by the American poet Adelade Crapsey (5 lines; 2, 4, 6, 8 and 2 syllables):

"I think, / "therefore I am," /said the philosopher. / Bunk! He didn't feel; he only / half-was.

I enjoy the mental stimulation that skepticism requires, and so I ask if anyone has ever seen a proof that a negative cannot be proved. I'm also not persuaded that all fence-sitting is pathetic.

Again, Gene, welcome to A/N.

Comment by B Fletcher on March 21, 2014 at 12:57am
I just found this site a few days back myself, and I agree, it's great to find an active online atheist community. Being able to compare and trade ideas without having discussions sandbagged by theists is wonderful!
Comment by Joan Denoo on March 21, 2014 at 12:00am

Gene, that is wonderful! A real, confident, proud, splendid heretic! I think our crowd is growing and will make a real change in society; so badly needed. 

I am 78, and each year gets sweeter, more interesting and exciting. I know you will enjoy Atheist Nexus; an outstanding group of men and women sharing and learning and celebrating together. I am so glad you are a member. 

Comment by Gene Gordon on March 20, 2014 at 11:46pm

A splendid heretic, yes! All the folks here are splendid heretics. I've been an atheist for a long, long time - since I was 13 and I'm 74 now. I've done a lot of writing about atheism and have been a member of atheist organizations. But just today did I become a member of Atheist Nexus. Man, what I was missing. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 20, 2014 at 11:41pm

I have committed a splendid heresy, and I am healthier for it. My children are safer, feel more loved, and are more stable. Can a splendid heretic raise such decent children? Heresy is a gift that doesn't come to everyone, one has to earn the right to be a heretic. It is with great pride, self-respect, dignity, confidence and competence that I declare myself a splendid heretic. 

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