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Subject: The definition of agnostic rss

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Chad Ellis
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As you may be tiring of hearing me say, definitions -- by their nature -- cannot be true or false, right or wrong. A definition is the mapping of a word or phrase to a concept and can no more be false than giving a nickname to someone can be false. Definitions, can, however vary in quality -- they can be consistent or inconsistent, more or less useful, common or uncommon, etc.

There are two fairly common definitions of the term agnostic. One puts a/gnosticism on a different axis from a/theism in describing what one thinks about the nature and existence of gods. The A/theist axis, under this definition, describes whether one believes in God or gods while the a/gnostic axis describes the extent to which one believes that the nature and/or existence of gods is knowable. In this definition one could be an agnostic atheist (as I am -- I don't believe in gods and generally view the question as unknowable) or any other combination of the two.

The other common definition of agnostic, which Trey advocated in his recent thread, comprises some middle ground between atheists and theists. This definition may today be even more common than the one above, but in my experience it has serious problems with its usefulness.

The main problem is where to set the boundaries. A common idea is anyone who would answer, "no" to the question, "Do you know for certain whether any gods exist." But this definition includes everyone from the doubting theist to Richard Dawkins, making the term not particularly helpful.

I think the problem is that there is a big difference between, "I don't know whether God exists -- for me it's 50/50" and, "I don't know whether God exists but see no reason to believe so my working assumption is no." Most people I know who identify as agnostics are closer to the first -- they take the concept of God seriously and think it's plausible but aren't really sure what's out there...maybe they believe there's "something" out there. Most atheists fall near the second sentence -- we don't claim to know that gods don't exist but we have a working assumption which to us is basically the same assumption we (along with theists) apply to countless possibilities for which we have no reason to believe.

Any attempt to group those people dilutes the term -- making it not particularly useful, other than as a catch-all (or almost all) for non-theists, or as a bludgeon to use against atheism by defining agnosticism so broadly as to include nearly all non-believers who aren't really bad at logic.

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I wonder how much of it is caused because we have a dominant monotheism. In the West the question is usually "Do you believe in God" with the capital 'G' and a specific deity in mind. As a result we've forced the potential answers into a strict trinary arrangement, although the original concepts date back to a polytheistic culture.
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ag·nos·tic
aɡˈnästik/
noun
noun: agnostic; plural noun: agnostics

1.
a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

This is what agnostic means, and some bloke on the internet saying otherwise does not alter that.
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Philip Thomas
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slatersteven wrote:
ag·nos·tic
aɡˈnästik/
noun
noun: agnostic; plural noun: agnostics

1.
a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

This is what agnostic means, and some bloke on the internet saying otherwise does not alter that.


A agnostic is a person who believes that he doesn't know whether or not God exists. That is what I mean when I say I am an agnostic. I accept that you may not think I am an agnostic. I don't meet the dictionary definition above.

edit: The position "I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he doesn't so I believe in him" is surely just as agnostic as the (far more common) reverse position ("I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he does so I don't believe in him"). We can also trace a couple more mirror positions:
"I don't know whether or not God exists but I see good reason to believe he does so I believe in him"
and "I don't know whether or not God exists but I see good reason to believe he doesn't so I don't believe in him."

There's also "I don't know whether or not God exists and I don't care".

All of these positions are agnostic positions in my opinion...


 
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Boaty McBoatface
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Philip Thomas wrote:
slatersteven wrote:
ag·nos·tic
aɡˈnästik/
noun
noun: agnostic; plural noun: agnostics

1.
a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

This is what agnostic means, and some bloke on the internet saying otherwise does not alter that.


A agnostic is a person who believes that he doesn't know whether or not God exists. That is what I mean when I say I am an agnostic. I accept that you may not think I am an agnostic. I don't meet the dictionary definition above.




As I said, I choose to use the dictionary definition. If we start to use words according upon how us define them than discussion becomes incompatible.
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Philip Thomas
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_theism

Of course, we could swap dictionary definitions all day.
 
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Boaty McBoatface
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Philip Thomas wrote:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_theism

Of course, we could swap dictionary definitions all day.
Wikipedia is not a dictionary.

Also I note it says that this is a philosopher that combines theism and agnosticism. So no it is not a definition of agnostic.
 
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Philip Thomas
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slatersteven wrote:
Philip Thomas wrote:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_theism

Of course, we could swap dictionary definitions all day.
Wikipedia is not a dictionary.

Also I note it says that this is a philosopher that combines theism and agnosticism. So no it is not a definition of agnostic.


Fine, go on believing that no theist can ever be an agnostic. I'll put it right up there with the "all Christians are idiots" theory on my mantelpiece.

If agnosticism is merely a subset of atheism, why bother with it?
 
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Boaty McBoatface
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Philip Thomas wrote:
slatersteven wrote:
Philip Thomas wrote:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_theism

Of course, we could swap dictionary definitions all day.
Wikipedia is not a dictionary.

Also I note it says that this is a philosopher that combines theism and agnosticism. So no it is not a definition of agnostic.


Fine, go on believing that no theist can ever be an agnostic. I'll put it right up there with the "all Christians are idiots" theory on my mantelpiece.

If agnosticism is merely a subset of atheism, why bother with it?
I did not say that (shame if only people used words according to some definition), I said that agnostic has a specific meaning, and that is the meaning we should use. Agnostic theism is a philosophical idea (not a word) that combines elements of two concepts (but which is not truly like either (hence it has it's own name.

I also did not say that agnostic's and atheists are the seam (and in the other thread make it quite cackler I believe the exact opposite). In fact I said that an atheist thinks there is an answer, but does not yet know it, whilst an agnostic does not think it is possible to know the answer. How (pray tell) is that saying they are the same?

Also (forgive me) but I seem to recall you saying that you were an atheist in other threads.
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Philip Thomas
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I was an atheist, for a brief period in the year 2000.

But to clarify my current position, I claim to be both an agnostic (I don't know whether or not God exists) and a theist (I believe God exists).

Oh, and, when I say I "was an atheist": I mean "I did not believe God existed".
 
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Boaty McBoatface
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Philip Thomas wrote:
I was an atheist, for a brief period in the year 2000.

But to clarify my current position, I claim to be both an agnostic (I don't know whether or not God exists) and a theist (I believe God exists).

Oh, and, when I say I "was an atheist": I mean "I did not believe God existed".
You were saying you are an atheist (as in "I am an atheist") only last tear.

But I think it's time to let others have a dash.
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Philip Thomas
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That is very interesting. If anyone can provide a link to my declaration of current* Atheism, I will tip them 10 geekgold.

*time of post


edit: I've found a number of instances of my declaring myself to be "a theist". Punctuation matters!


 
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Philip Thomas wrote:
slatersteven wrote:
ag·nos·tic
aɡˈnästik/
noun
noun: agnostic; plural noun: agnostics

1.
a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

This is what agnostic means, and some bloke on the internet saying otherwise does not alter that.


A agnostic is a person who believes that he doesn't know whether or not God exists. That is what I mean when I say I am an agnostic. I accept that you may not think I am an agnostic. I don't meet the dictionary definition above.

edit: The position "I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he doesn't so I believe in him" is surely just as agnostic as the (far more common) reverse position ("I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he does so I don't believe in him"). We can also trace a couple more mirror positions:
"I don't know whether or not God exists but I see good reason to believe he does so I believe in him"
and "I don't know whether or not God exists but I see good reason to believe he doesn't so I don't believe in him."

There's also "I don't know whether or not God exists and I don't care".

All of these positions are agnostic positions in my opinion...




Where do "I don't know whether God exists or not, but I'm hoping he does/hoping he doesn't" fit in?
 
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Philip Thomas wrote:

The position "I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he doesn't so I believe in him" is surely just as agnostic as the (far more common) reverse position ("I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he does so I don't believe in him").

Actually that would be theistic. If your position is to believe gods exist then it's theistic, if you don't believe gods exist it's atheistic. What you choose to base that claim on, whether evidence or lack thereof, faith or flipping a coin isn't really relevant.
Agnostic / Gnosticism is actually an answer to a slightly different question, and belief in gods isn't strictly necessary to it. The gnostic believes humanity can (or could) come to understand the mind of a deity should one exist; the agnostic states such beings would literally be beyond mortal knowledge. One can be an atheist agnostic (I don't believe gods exist, but if they did I don't think we could ever know them) or an agnostic theist (I believe gods exist, but they're so far beyond mortal minds we can never truly know them).

Probably the issue is that Gnostic seems to have fallen by the wayside (or possibly got burned at the stake, I believe they were declared heretics by some Pope or other). Technically speaking, the position "I do not have sufficient evidence for the existence of god(s), so I do/don't believe in them" is only agnostic if you believe it is impossible to ever have sufficient evidence.
The 'middle ground' agnostics in my experience would technically be better labelled gnostics - the position is usually "we have insufficient evidence at the moment to conclude either way, but we're open to further evidence one way or the other". So given the two positions you espoused, the implication is that both consider evidence of the existence, or non-existence, of god is possible, thus we have a gnostic theist ("I don't know whether god exists or not, so I believe in him") or gnostic atheist ("I don't know whether god exists or not, so I don't believe in him"). The two would only truly be agnostic if they began "We can never know whether god exists or not ...".
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Philip Thomas
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gamesterinns wrote:
Philip Thomas wrote:
slatersteven wrote:
ag·nos·tic
aɡˈnästik/
noun
noun: agnostic; plural noun: agnostics

1.
a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

This is what agnostic means, and some bloke on the internet saying otherwise does not alter that.


A agnostic is a person who believes that he doesn't know whether or not God exists. That is what I mean when I say I am an agnostic. I accept that you may not think I am an agnostic. I don't meet the dictionary definition above.

edit: The position "I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he doesn't so I believe in him" is surely just as agnostic as the (far more common) reverse position ("I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he does so I don't believe in him"). We can also trace a couple more mirror positions:
"I don't know whether or not God exists but I see good reason to believe he does so I believe in him"
and "I don't know whether or not God exists but I see good reason to believe he doesn't so I don't believe in him."

There's also "I don't know whether or not God exists and I don't care".

All of these positions are agnostic positions in my opinion...




Where do "I don't know whether God exists or not, but I'm hoping he does/hoping he doesn't" fit in?


I guess that is compatible with the first four positions but not the fifth. Still agnostic of course.
 
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Philip Thomas
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Archonsod wrote:
Philip Thomas wrote:

The position "I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he doesn't so I believe in him" is surely just as agnostic as the (far more common) reverse position ("I don't know whether or not God exists but I see no reason to believe he does so I don't believe in him").

Actually that would be theistic. If your position is to believe gods exist then it's theistic, if you don't believe gods exist it's atheistic. What you choose to base that claim on, whether evidence or lack thereof, faith or flipping a coin isn't really relevant.
Agnostic / Gnosticism is actually an answer to a slightly different question, and belief in gods isn't strictly necessary to it. The gnostic believes humanity can (or could) come to understand the mind of a deity should one exist; the agnostic states such beings would literally be beyond mortal knowledge. One can be an atheist agnostic (I don't believe gods exist, but if they did I don't think we could ever know them) or an agnostic theist (I believe gods exist, but they're so far beyond mortal minds we can never truly know them).

Probably the issue is that Gnostic seems to have fallen by the wayside (or possibly got burned at the stake, I believe they were declared heretics by some Pope or other). Technically speaking, the position "I do not have sufficient evidence for the existence of god(s), so I do/don't believe in them" is only agnostic if you believe it is impossible to ever have sufficient evidence.
The 'middle ground' agnostics in my experience would technically be better labelled gnostics - the position is usually "we have insufficient evidence at the moment to conclude either way, but we're open to further evidence one way or the other". So given the two positions you espoused, the implication is that both consider evidence of the existence, or non-existence, of god is possible, thus we have a gnostic theist ("I don't know whether god exists or not, so I believe in him") or gnostic atheist ("I don't know whether god exists or not, so I don't believe in him"). The two would only truly be agnostic if they began "We can never know whether god exists or not ...".


That position is what I would call "strong agnosticism". It isn't possible to tell whether the various views I described (all clear examples of what I call "weak agnosticism") are also "strong agnostic" views- they express no opinion on the "can we ever know?" question.

Since a weak gnostic ("I know whether or not God exists") is by definition a strong gnostic ("It is possible to know whether or not God exists") weak agnosticism can seem like a middle ground between the poles of strong agnosticism and Gnosticism.

edit: of course you are right that weak agnosticism (what you call the "middle ground") is compatible with strong Gnosticism: you can say "I don't know whether or not God exists but I believe it is possible to know whether God exists or not". That is little more than to say one can be a weak agnostic without being a strong agnostic.

One can complicate the issue still further with meta-Gnosticism

(Weak a-meta-Gnosticism: "I don't know whether it is possible to know whether or not God exists": this is of course compatible with strong Gnosticism for the same reasons that weak agnosticism is compatible with theism).
 
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Chad_Ellis wrote:
"I don't know whether God exists but see no reason to believe so my working assumption is no."


I'm in this camp and usually define myself as an Agnostic to separate myself from the confusion between "assume" and "belief". I don't accept any faith or belief in something that has nothing for me to grasp onto but my own faulty brain chemistry, cross-wired animal instincts and over active endocrine system. It's not that I think a God/Creator/Overseer is "unknowable", I think it's possible to "know" one if it presented itself convincingly. What I can't do is believe in a currently "unknowable" deity. Since there are so many of them littering human cultures, it seems to be more a symptom of human nature than a real entity. So I assume that it is not a valid concept.

I still reserve Atheist for the black-and-white non-believer believers who take the "assumption" to the level of "fact" and fight tooth and nail as if it's truth. It's a fine line that is more defined by the ferocity of defense of the assumption than a difference in actual philosophy at it's core.
 
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TheChin! wrote:
Chad_Ellis wrote:
"I don't know whether God exists but see no reason to believe so my working assumption is no."


I'm in this camp and usually define myself as an Agnostic to separate myself from the confusion between "assume" and "belief". I don't accept any faith or belief in something that has nothing for me to grasp onto but my own faulty brain chemistry, cross-wired animal instincts and over active endocrine system. It's not that I think a God/Creator/Overseer is "unknowable", I think it's possible to "know" one if it presented itself convincingly. What I can't do is believe in a currently "unknowable" deity. Since there are so many of them littering human cultures, it seems to be more a symptom of human nature than a real entity. So I assume that it is not a valid concept.

I still reserve Atheist for the black-and-white non-believer believers who take the "assumption" to the level of "fact" and fight tooth and nail as if it's truth. It's a fine line that is more defined by the ferocity of defense of the assumption than a difference in actual philosophy at it's core.


Fair enough. Can I, being a believer who doesn't know , reserve the term "Theist" for the black-and-white believer believers who take the "assumption*" to the level of "fact" and fight tooth and nail as if it's truth?

*that God exists

I'm not sure I want to, I'm just asking if I can.
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Boaty McBoatface
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Philip Thomas wrote:
TheChin! wrote:
Chad_Ellis wrote:
"I don't know whether God exists but see no reason to believe so my working assumption is no."


I'm in this camp and usually define myself as an Agnostic to separate myself from the confusion between "assume" and "belief". I don't accept any faith or belief in something that has nothing for me to grasp onto but my own faulty brain chemistry, cross-wired animal instincts and over active endocrine system. It's not that I think a God/Creator/Overseer is "unknowable", I think it's possible to "know" one if it presented itself convincingly. What I can't do is believe in a currently "unknowable" deity. Since there are so many of them littering human cultures, it seems to be more a symptom of human nature than a real entity. So I assume that it is not a valid concept.

I still reserve Atheist for the black-and-white non-believer believers who take the "assumption" to the level of "fact" and fight tooth and nail as if it's truth. It's a fine line that is more defined by the ferocity of defense of the assumption than a difference in actual philosophy at it's core.


Fair enough. Can I, being a believer who doesn't know , reserve the term "Theist" for the black-and-white believer believers who take the "assumption*" to the level of "fact" and fight tooth and nail as if it's truth?

*that God exists

I'm not sure I want to, I'm just asking if I can.
You can call them Tuesday afternoons if you wish, it just is not binding on anyone else.
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Chad Ellis
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TheChin! wrote:
Chad_Ellis wrote:
"I don't know whether God exists but see no reason to believe so my working assumption is no."


I'm in this camp and usually define myself as an Agnostic to separate myself from the confusion between "assume" and "belief". I don't accept any faith or belief in something that has nothing for me to grasp onto but my own faulty brain chemistry, cross-wired animal instincts and over active endocrine system. It's not that I think a God/Creator/Overseer is "unknowable", I think it's possible to "know" one if it presented itself convincingly. What I can't do is believe in a currently "unknowable" deity. Since there are so many of them littering human cultures, it seems to be more a symptom of human nature than a real entity. So I assume that it is not a valid concept.

I still reserve Atheist for the black-and-white non-believer believers who take the "assumption" to the level of "fact" and fight tooth and nail as if it's truth. It's a fine line that is more defined by the ferocity of defense of the assumption than a difference in actual philosophy at it's core.


You're not alone in doing this, but I personally think it's unfortunate. You're using a term for yourself that (in order to include you) is sufficiently broad that it can't provide clarity. Meanwhile, you have narrowed another statement to a point where most people it applies to are irrational and where your definition is at odds with most people who would use that term.

tl;dr I think your approach makes the definition of agnostic less useful and both words less common.
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Chad_Ellis wrote:


You're not alone in doing this, but I personally think it's unfortunate. You're using a term for yourself that (in order to include you) is sufficiently broad that it can't provide clarity. Meanwhile, you have narrowed another statement to a point where most people it applies to are irrational and where your definition is at odds with most people who would use that term.

tl;dr I think your approach makes the definition of agnostic less useful and both words less common.


Maybe so, but it is largely a defense mechanism to use in discussions with theists. Many already have an Athiest stereotype firmly entrenched in their world view. You can either spend time dissecting definitions to get everyone on the same page or you can accept their stereotype in order to get to what the discussion is really about. Sure, it is language drift and causes dictionary publishers fits, but your only recourse to place your OP as a disclaimer in the beginning of any discussion about atheiests and their actions. It feels like giving up to accept the technically wrong definitions, but sometimes it is the expedient thing. Fighting ignorance is hard
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I think if you want to invent a new term, go for it. I think the Yes/no switch for existence is entirely irrelevent to the Agnostic definition. The definition of blue in no way explains the texture of the object in question.

Agnostic is a slider for defining a person's certainty in the ability to know god. Atheism is a slider for defining a person's choice to believe in God or not. The two are only tangentally related.
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Chad_Ellis wrote:
TheChin! wrote:
Chad_Ellis wrote:
"I don't know whether God exists but see no reason to believe so my working assumption is no."


I'm in this camp and usually define myself as an Agnostic to separate myself from the confusion between "assume" and "belief". I don't accept any faith or belief in something that has nothing for me to grasp onto but my own faulty brain chemistry, cross-wired animal instincts and over active endocrine system. It's not that I think a God/Creator/Overseer is "unknowable", I think it's possible to "know" one if it presented itself convincingly. What I can't do is believe in a currently "unknowable" deity. Since there are so many of them littering human cultures, it seems to be more a symptom of human nature than a real entity. So I assume that it is not a valid concept.

I still reserve Atheist for the black-and-white non-believer believers who take the "assumption" to the level of "fact" and fight tooth and nail as if it's truth. It's a fine line that is more defined by the ferocity of defense of the assumption than a difference in actual philosophy at it's core.


You're not alone in doing this, but I personally think it's unfortunate. You're using a term for yourself that (in order to include you) is sufficiently broad that it can't provide clarity. Meanwhile, you have narrowed another statement to a point where most people it applies to are irrational and where your definition is at odds with most people who would use that term.

tl;dr I think your approach makes the definition of agnostic less useful and both words less common.


I think the definition of agnostic as "someone who [knows that s/he] doesn't know whether or not God exists" is a useful and practical definition. It denotes a real group of people who would actually call themselves "agnostic".

edit: by contrast the dictionary definition of agnostic as someone who neither has faith nor disbelief in God is not very useful: I have yet to meet someone who falls within it, even if it is epistemically possible ( I have neither faith nor disbelief in cabbages, for example).

Nor do I think that it is irrational (except in the "very deep" "all views are fundamentally irrational" sense) to be sure God doesn't exist (or that he does exist). In fact, calling that worldview irrational seems me to be an unwarranted assertion of agnostic privilege: you seem to be sure that no one can know whether or not God exists. But perhaps I misunderstand.
 
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I prefer the Latin root synonym: ignoramus
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TheChin! wrote:

Maybe so, but it is largely a defense mechanism to use in discussions with theists. Many already have an Athiest stereotype firmly entrenched in their world view.

The problem is Theists seem to take this as a 'strength of faith' thing, and utilising the definition plays into that. It's problematic since it doesn't really indicate that, and if nothing else leaves you open to the "you'll eventually accept Jebus, you're just not ready yet" proselytizing.

Philip Thomas wrote:

edit: by contrast the dictionary definition of agnostic as someone who neither has faith nor disbelief in God is not very useful

It's about the same thing - ultimately anyone who takes the stance "We don't have sufficient evidence to prove God exists [no faith in God] nor can we prove he doesn't exist [disbelief]" is ascribing to this viewpoint.
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