We can believe, but we can’t know

You do realize that atheism and agnosticism are orthogonal, right?
That is, agnosticism is about what is knowable. The agnostic thinks that it is not knowable whether any gods exist.
Atheism is about what is not believed. The atheist does not believe any gods exist.
It is possibly (and extremely common) for people to be agnostic atheists — thinking that it is not possible to know if any gods exist while lacking belief in any gods.
Likewise, it’s possible and common to be an agnostic theist, thinking it is not possible to know if any gods exist, yet believing in the existence of one or more gods.
So, to try to explain why you’re agnostic instead of atheist betrays a misunderstanding on your part of what these words actually mean.


Since I believe people’s comments get lost on this blog, and since this one really made me think, I’m responding to it here. It’s from someone who calls himself scaryreasoner, and I admit he scared me a bit when I realized I didn’t really understand what “orthogonal” meant, apart from those wonderful geometry diagrams Tina and I used to draw.

But at least I’m in good company! Here’s a bit of transcript from a recent oral argument before the Supreme Court:

MR. FRIEDMAN: I think that issue is entirely orthogonal to the issue here because the Commonwealth is acknowledging –
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I’m sorry. Entirely what?
MR. FRIEDMAN: Orthogonal. Right angle. Unrelated. Irrelevant.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Oh.
JUSTICE SCALIA: What was that adjective? I liked that.
MR. FRIEDMAN: Orthogonal.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Orthogonal.
MR. FRIEDMAN: Right, right.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Orthogonal, ooh.
(Laughter.)
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I knew this case presented us a problem.
(Laughter.)


If you look it up in a dead-tree dictionary, you won’t find a definition that applies, because, I believe, it’s a word that’s been adopted by programmers. Related, but separate, you could think of it as meaning.

I believe the point Mr. Scaryreasoner is making (I think) is that knowledge and belief are separate. As I wrote yesterday, “Thinking and believing are two separate spheres. You can’t think your way into God.”

My problem with his reasoning, though, is that I believe, to quote Scaryreasoner, “that it is not knowable whether any gods exist.” I don’t just think it; I believe it, as strongly as a theist believes in God. An atheist (forgive the triple negatives here) not only “does not believe any gods exist,” to quote Scaryreasoner, but (from the Random House dead-tree unabridged dictionary) believes “that there is no god.” I believe you cannot know this.

I’ve probably lost everybody here, but if Mr. Scaryreasoner is still reading, I hope he will reply.

And, coming soon, a reply to one of my most loyal readers about the symbol for atheism.

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