Bertrand Russell – ‘Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?’

From PostiveAtheism:

Here there comes a practical question which has often troubled me. Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.

I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

Related:
Bertrand Russell, ‘Why I Am Not a Christian

2 Comments

  1. I see atheism as a subset of agnosticism – the kind of agnosticism which rejects belief sans postitive evidence as opposed to the kind that rejects disbelief sans negative evidence. Sceptical agnosticism rather than credulous agnosticism, if you will. That’s why I self-identify as atheist even though agnostic is a perfectly suitable description of my stance.

  2. I just call myself athiest and be done with it. I agree entirely with Bertrand Russell – technically I’m agnostic, but I have to dumb it down to get it across to 99.9% of the faithful. When they understand the difference between ‘theory’ in everyday use and ‘theory’ in a scientific sense, I’ll re-evaluate my position on my labelling.

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