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Imagine I were to suggest that there’s a fully-grown African bull elephant, flappy ears resplendent in the March sunshine, standing in the Dalton Trumbo Memorial Fountain outside the UMC right now. Imagine I were to elaborate that said elephant is painted head to toe in an arctic camouflage pattern.
It is possible that you have a direct line of sight to the fountain as you read this, but in the event that you do not, you have no way of knowing for certain that there is not a pachyderm at the UMC.
You can, however, say with almost total certainty, based on your knowledge of elephants, the local terrain and climate and the University’s pet policy, that there is not an elephant in the fountain. It is a certainty so close to absolute that for you to alter your behavior or lifestyle in any way based on the chance of an elephant in the fountain would be foolhardy. The minuscule chance of fountain elephants has no bearing on you whatsoever. You are, to coin a term, an “acamofontiloxodontist.”
The reason I bring this up is that there are many millions of people in this country who call themselves agnostics, but agnostics don’t exist. I am speaking only of the term as applied to religion and not as a generic term for a lack of knowledge, and in that sense, the term is redundant. The people who call themselves agnostics can be considered atheists.
The origin of the word “agnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnostos” (to be known) and the prefix “a-,” which renders it negative. The word “atheist” comes from the same prefix tacked on to the word “theist,” which comes from the Greek word “theos” and means one who believes in a god. Based on that, we can say that an atheist is one who does not believe in a god and an agnostic is one who does not know whether there is a god.
But semantic dictionary definitions often don’t reflect what goes on in people’s minds, so I asked a few students what they thought the difference was.
Matthew Cahn, a 25-year-old biological psychology major, clarified it most succinctly.
“An atheist says, ‘if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.’ An agnostic says, ‘If it can’t be measured, it may exist,’” Cahn said.
Think of the elephant as a metaphor for a god — any god; it doesn’t matter which one or how many. If you call yourself an agnostic, it probably means that you’ve never seen any convincing evidence for the existence of a god. If you had, you’d be convinced that there was a god of some sort, you’d believe in that god and you’d be a theist. But you haven’t, you don’t and you aren’t. Which means you’re not a theist. Which means, referring back to our etymology lesson, that you’re an atheist.
The distinction that many people draw is one of certainty.
“I generally think atheism means a belief in there not being a god, so rather than lacking belief, I think it has come to be a belief in itself,” said Kelsey Taylor, a 20-year-old film studies major. “Agnosticism, I think, is more just an acceptance of never being able to know.”
It’s an interesting point, but it implies that atheists are certain that there is no such thing as a god, and even the most outspoken atheists don’t go so far as to profess absolute certainty. Even Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion”, outlined a scale from 1 to 7: 1 being “100 percent probability of God” and 7 being zero percent, or “strong atheism.” He considers himself a “6, but leaning toward 7,” simplified as “I live my life on the assumption that he [God] is not there.”
Back to the elephant. I could have proposed that the elephant was painted in a paisley pattern or not painted at all. I could have suggested that it was an Asian elephant or a hippopotamus or a Civil War-era ironclad. There is a literally infinite array of hypothetical inhabitants of the fountain that I could have named, but they are all irrelevant. To acknowledge the infinitesimal possibility of an infinite number of things is not only impossible but unnecessary, since until evidence of some kind for any of them is offered, it’s safe to just assume they’re not there.
I don’t know, in a truly absolute sense, that if I jump in the air, I will come back down. I don’t know that the sun will rise tomorrow. And I don’t know that God doesn’t exist. But until some form of evidence arises to imply that any of those things isn’t true, I’ll continue to live as if they are.
If you’re an agnostic, that means you haven’t seen any real reason to believe. You’re still waiting to be convinced. You’re living as though God isn’t real, because you haven’t been fully persuaded that he does. You may think you’re on the fence between atheism and theism, but that fence isn’t where you think it is. You’re an atheist. Embrace it.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Angus Bohanon at Angus.firstname.lastname@example.org.