Ricky Gervais has been winding-up people on twitter recently, by proclaiming his atheism.
He had hundreds of replies, many of them abusive and particularly un-Christian, some barely literate.
Rickey Gervais enjoys the exchange because he’s wittier than most of the people that want to pick a fight with him.
So he’s having fun.
Comedy gold.

But the other day he retweeted a serious question.
Someone asked him “Should schools teach atheism?”
To which he replied “No, there’s no need to ‘teach’ atheism. It’s the natural result of education without indoctrination.”
Now I didn’t quite agree with that.
Atheism isn’t the only natural result of teaching without indoctrination.
It is true that believers say there definitely is a God.
But atheists say there definitely isn’t a God.
I thought wait, there’s third view: agnostics.
Agnostics say we don’t know.
We don’t know and we don’t have to make up our mind either way.
So I sent him a reply.
“@rickygervais I disagree, atheism is another belief system. Agnosticism is the natural result of education without indoctrination.”
And I started to get dozens and dozens of people writing to me about what I’d said to Ricky Gervais.
Most of them from atheists, most of them abusive.
One was from someone describing himself in his profile as “an evangelical atheist”.
So here’s the dictionary definition of an evangelist: “Evangelism is the preaching or the practice of relaying information about a particular set of beliefs to others with the object of conversion.”
So converting people to your belief in atheism.
I sent the definition and got a message back saying “Relying on dictionary definitions, how pathetic.”
At which point I realised these people are like religious fundamentalists.
They are ‘true believers’ certain that only they have the right answer.
Call me old-fashioned, but I always find the dictionary is a good place to go when you’re using language.
Just to make sure it means what you think it means.
So here’s how the dictionary defines atheism:
“The doctrine that there is no deity. Critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or divine beings. Unlike agnosticism, which leaves open the question of whether there is a God, atheism is a positive denial.”
So that’s pretty clear “atheism is a positive denial.”
Then I looked up agnosticism:
“Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims are unknown and unknowable. Agnosticism is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a sceptical approach to questions. Agnosticism is a stance about the difference between belief and knowledge, rather than about any specific claim or belief. In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of a deity or deities, whereas a theist and an atheist believe and disbelieve, respectively.”
So again, theists believe one way, atheists believe another way, agnostics don’t believe either way.
Thomas Huxley coined the term agnostic in 1869.
This is why he felt a new word was necessary.
“In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”
So that’s what agnostic means.
Keeping an open mind, not a closed one.
Not just about religion, but about any area in life.
In fact, that seems to me a pretty good way to lead our life.
In fact, isn’t that what we particularly need in our business?
Isn’t that the whole point of creative thinking in general?
To find something new, something that isn’t just conventional wisdom.
To live in the question not in the answer.

But let’s leave the last word to Socrates.
“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

  • Joshua Danton Boyd

    This is a great post and something I 100% agree with. Atheism, in my eyes, is just as arrogant (and possibly more so) than religion. Religious people at least base their arrogance on evidence (although the definition of evidence here must be stretched to it’s furthest and flimsiest definition), while atheists base their arrogance on nothing as far as I can see. Yes, of course, we have no proof for any form of God, but we still cannot say that there isn’t one because we do not have sufficient data to make that point.

    Agnosticism can really be the only logical choice for someone who really values knowledge and empirical data.

    • Stephen Newton

      Religious people base their belief not on evidence, as you suggest, but on faith. And this is a very important point to them. The whole idea of seeking evidence is wrong to a true believer, who would not be so presumptuous as to seek evidence.

      This is a real and genuine difference between atheists and believers. The atheist refuse to believe in the absence of evidence, the believer has faith. The agnostic accepts there is no evidence, but in the absence of an evidenced theory of why we are here accepts the believer may be right (or wrong).

  • Dave Trott

    (Sent to me by Andrew Cracknel)
     I wanted to comment on your new blog but it seems my entry to the website is in Angus Fear’s name (don’t ask) – which I suppose could, if I were unscrupulous, give opportunity for endless fun. But I shouldn’t really ascribe my views to him so I won’t.

    But what I wanted to say was; excellent piece, thank you, and almost courageous, given the new atheist is the new fundamentalist and writing what you have could land you with an atheist fatwah from the atheist Taliban.

    There is a fascinating school of thought that says that with the rise of Greek as the language of philosophy – and the move away from a less precise, less word-by-word analytical way of reading and writing – we began to fail to appreciate the breadth of our imagination and began to demand “proof” of everything. No room for ambiguity in interpretation. So literal have we now become that many scientists simply can’t get their head around the idea that some things may be…simply… inexplicable. For ever.

    (It’s like McKinsey’s: “That which cannot be measured is not worth knowing”! Contrast with Bernbach: “How do you storyboard a smile?”)

    And the war on religion is about 90% misplaced anyway, concentrating as it does on the spectacularly easy target of religious practice rather than belief itself. Which distinction your piece adroitly evades by simple not talking about religious practice and getting straight to the point.

    That bus side – “There is no God – so now you can relax and enjoy life” – was so leaden. It was the advertising business at its smug smart-arse worst and as a piece of work just risible. “You may be broke, ill, unemployed, dumped – but all you have to do is stop believing in God (or eat Cadbury’s or use Daz or travel on BA etc) and everything will be great”.

    If I got T shirts made saying “I’m an atheist – I don’t believe in Richard Dawkins” would you wear one?

    And there’s another item in your blog I’d love to see you expand on; the contempt for seeking a dictionary definition and thus by extension the purpose of language. Presumably most people who read your blog are in the “communications” business and for them to be dismissive of understanding what a word is at least intended to mean is depressing. Yes of course language is organic, negotiable even – but that doesn’t make it arbitrary.

  • Peter Rufus


    Those who maintain that some ‘things’ are unknown or unknowable are making no less a truth claim than those who claim knowledge of those ‘things’. After all, to claim that a ‘thing’ is unknown/ unknowable is as much a statement of belief as the claim that the ‘thing’ is known/ knowable. To be agnostic, therefore, is to be indoctrinated in the belief that those who claim to have certain knowledge are certainly wrong. Therefore the one who claims to be agnostic is just as dogmatic as the theist or the atheist. 

    What makes him more dangerous than either is that he is blind to his own dogma. He’s like a man firing a gun that he doesn’t know is loaded. What’s worse, he doesn’t care for those who tell him that it is. 

    Make no mistake: Agnosticism is covert dogma masquerading as open-mindedness. It is as much a system of beliefs as theism or atheism.

    • Dave Trott

      So, if I’ve got it right Peter, what you’re saying (I think) is:
      I can say ‘I know that I know” or “I know that I don’t know”.
      But, either way, because each starts with “I know” they are both belief systems.
      This is a fair point, but probably an insurmountable epistemological obstacle.
      So, for comparison, we have to let each “I know” cancel the other out.
      Then we’re left with “I know” (belief) or “I don’t know” (observation).

      • Peter Rufus

        You’re onto it, Dave. But the fact that you equate ‘I know’ with a belief and ‘I don’t know’ with an observation indicates some sort of bias (to me, at least). Let’s see if I can explain.

        I claim to know something about X. You claim not to know anything about X. So what’s preventing you from accepting my knowledge about X? 

        Either you do know something about X (hence your claim to not know is a bit disingenuous). Or your claim to not know anything about X is rooted in a belief that knowledge about X is unattainable. In both cases, you’re still holding to a belief system.

        So to live in a perpetual state of ‘I don’t know’ (IMHO) is to live in intellectual isolation from the truth claims around you. And the only way to counter a truth claim is to offer another.

        So agnosticism does make truth claims. And as I said earlier, they’re covert, not overt.

    • iain Maclean

      I think the problem arises because Huxley’s definition included two almost contradictory words: unknown and unknowable.

      ‘Unknowable’ is making a truth claim. It’s an assertion, a belief that something can never be known.

      ‘Unknown’, is open.  And contrary to what Dawkins claims, is the true position that science adopts.  Who knows? Science may eventually prove that God exists.

      Atheism is just as closed-minded and dogmatic as theism.

      Without getting embroiled in semantics, perhaps we need a new, more precise word for ‘unknown’ when used in relation to religion.

      • Peter Rufus


        Sure, ‘unknown is open'; but not indefinitely. Because the moment someone comes along with a truth claim about the unknown, it ceases to be unknown.

        • Dave Trott

          Let’s say you, Iain, and I are walking along the road.
          We come to fork in the road.
          You say “The left road is the correct one to take”.
          Iain says “No, the right road is the correct one to take”.
          (So far two of you have the belief that you are each right.)
          Then I say “I don’t know which one is correct”.
          That’s just an observation, not a belief.
          I don’t believe either, or neither, of them is correct.
          I simply observe that I don’t know.
          If you think that observing that I don’t know is actually a belief that I don’t know, then we are back to the fundamental nature of knowledge.
          And of course everything beyond the basic ‘ cogito’ is not capable of being known or, therefore, discussed.
          Beyond the cogito everything is mere unproved belief of course, even our existence.
          Which is pretty much the blind alley Hume got stuck in.
          Deductive, rather than inductive, logic.
          Not much help to us in the creative business.

          • Peter Rufus

            Firstly, Dave, the question, “Does God exist?” is very different from “Will a person dressed in a Gorilla suit banging away at a drum kit sell more chocolate?”

            So while agnosticism in the latter case is completely acceptable (because it is completely open-ended with no correct answer), agnosticism in the former case isn’t.


            Because theism and atheism deal with a very specific question that isn’t open-ended.

            There are only two possibilities: God exists or He doesn’t.

            So to think that agnosticism is a legitimate position for all life’s questions is to commit a category error.

            Secondly, when either the theist or the atheist makes a truth claim for or against the existence of God each of them is offering a hypothesis that can either be accepted or falsified.

            You cannot accept or falsify anything with “I don’t know”.

            So to be agnostic when it comes to the issue of God’s non/existence is to avoid the issue altogether.

            It is to take the position of ignorance that is willful.

            Hence, agnosticism (in the context of the God question), instead of being the all-embracing, open-minded way of thinking that it claims to be is actually quite the opposite.

            Reason why I said it was ‘covert dogmatism’.

          • Dave Trott

            The dictionary defines religion as: “A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies.”
            Given that, I would say many committed atheists come across as quite religious and not at all open minded.
            As to what relevance open-mindedness has to advertising, if you can’t see that I’m not going to be able to convince you.

  • Mark Griffiths

    I am a non-believer in any of these belief systems. Does that make me an Existentialist?

  • Dave Trott

    Possibly Mark, although IMHO as soon as you say you are, you’re not.
    Kind of like Buddhism.

    • iain Maclean

      Sorry, I replied in the wrong place.  Here goes:
      I think the problem arises because Huxley’s definition included two almost contradictory words: unknown and unknowable.

      ‘Unknowable’ is making a truth claim. It’s an assertion, a belief that something can never be known.

      ‘Unknown’, is open.  And contrary to what Dawkins claims, is the true
      position that science adopts.  Who knows? Science may eventually prove
      that God exists.

      Atheism is just as closed-minded and dogmatic as theism.

      Without getting embroiled in semantics, perhaps we need a new, more
      precise word for ‘unknown’ when used in relation to religion.

  • Mike Cobb

    As an atheist, I’m becoming more and more frustrated by the atheist zealots (or rather the Atheists with a capital A).
    Religion is always a provocative subject. Humans have used it to try to make sense of the world since time immemorial. I think it’s fair to say it’s had mixed results – but that is true of any organised group.

    The problem is less about the object of a belief (deity, football team, soft drink) and more to do with the way certain people try to defend their beliefs. And when people confuse belief with fact is when things get really messy.

    A wider definition of Agnosticism is “a person who is unwilling to commit to an opinion about something”.

    There is a huge difference between being open minded and sitting on the fence.

    Is there a God? I don’t know.
    Do I believe there is a God? No

    The real trick is to voice your opinion without being arrogant about it. Hopefully I’ve managed that here 😉

    • Dave Trott

      It seems a lot of the confusion comes from the blurring of the distinction between positive and negative atheism.
      I just found this definition:
      “The difference between negative atheism and positive atheism
      depends on just how far a person is willing to go in rejecting belief in
      gods. Whereas negative atheism means simply that a person doesn’t
      believe in the existence of any gods, positive atheism means that a
      person has taken the extra step of asserting that no gods exist.”

      Negative atheism seems to me similar to agnosticism, an open mind instead of a closed one.

      • Robert Hatfield

        I don’t presume to be able to debate this topic at the intellectual level exhibited by you and many of the others commenting here, but it seems to me what is missing is that no one can agree on the definition of what God is. Is it a he, the guy who sits on a throne in heaven, listens to our prayers and takes an active role in our fate and existence? Then for me, I have trouble believing, so I must be either an atheist or agnostic (not sure). But if God is energy, a lifeforce (call it nature) that exists and binds together all living things, but plays no real part in our day-to-day lives, then I’d say I would believe in that. So what the hell does that make me? I definitely believe in Karma, so does that mean I must believe in God? Or just fate?

        • Dave Trott

          For me ‘not sure’ is a great place to be.
          About most things actually, as it leaves room for curiosity and inquiry.
          As de Bono says “A decision is just a place where you stopped thinking.”
          But not everyone agrees.
          I’m still getting lots of twitter-mail saying “Agnostic = atheist – balls”
          So some people think it’s more powerful to take a position and fight for it.
          To me that seems reactive, emotional, and the opposite of thinking.
          But then I’m not looking to win an argument.
          Just find out more.

          • Robert Hatfield

            I agree. I prefer to keep an open mind. I guess we’ll all find out the truth eventually, no?

          • Dave Trott

            If we don’t we’ll never know.

      • Mike Cobb

        That’s a good definition. I worry about anyone who unequivocally asserts something that can’t be proven, whatever the subject.

        There is an important distinction between negative atheism and agnosticism though: personal belief vs empirical fact. This is often the root cause of many such arguments.

        For other examples, look to creationism, homoeopathy, global warming etc…

        This is where it gets really tricky though. Subjects such as global warming are generally far too vast for most people to comprehend (I definitely include myself in this group), which forces us to accept the word of experts.

        It’s easier to understand when the subject is less complex (the earth revolves around the sun), or when we can see the evidence for ourselves (the earth is round).

        It’s always important to keep an open mind. But when open mindedness, or even worse indecision,  outweighs scientific evidence, that can cause real damage – ie: Use of condoms, MMR vaccinations etc…

        • Dave Trott

          For me, you keep an open mind until you have to close it.
          When a deadline for action forces you to act, it’s time to stop thinking and act.
          Until that point there’s no reason to get locked into a position.
          I’m not saying never reach a definite conclusion.
          I’m saying why do it before you need to?


  • Dave Trott

    (I’m posting this from ANDREW CRACKNELL)

    Robert Hatfield:

    The Chief Rabbi recently
    described god as a creator rather than a mechanic, leaving the universe to
    run on its own lines rather than intervening on a daily detailed basis. 
    “The creator made creation creative.” That seems not inconsistent with the
    view you take and is one I find intriguing. The problem for
    people who have some sort of religious beliefs, perhaps like you, is that
    their critics have an assumption of what it is that they believe in – usually based on
    illustrations from a Victorian bible.


    As to the view that agnosticism is an
    illegitimate posture – something to do with sitting on the fence – this seems to
    be posited on the self-reinforcing notion that only certainty is allowable. This
    is surely a little bit arrogant and a little bit preposterous; as has
    been said, some things are unknowable. Having or not having a belief – and
    having or not having a belief in a
    belief – is being confused with having a point of view.


    Both the militant theists and the
    militant atheists proclaim certainty. But without uncertainty, we don’t ask
    questions. Which is presumably why this piece is called Belief is the Enemy
    of Knowledge. So maybe the only
    position to hold is that of uncertainty.


    Isn’t that Agnosticism?

  • Peter Etheridge

    Interesting subject Dave. Alan Yentob (I think) did a really interesting documentary called “The trouble with atheism” a while ago which was fascinating. Richard Dawkins came off as a smug fundamentalist who would be about as appealling a dinner guest as a group of Mormon evangelists. He also met an astro-physicist who was also a catholic – the thrust was that even with all his knowlege of the universe, the odds of life developing were so unlikely that he still believed in some kind of “guiding hand”. Indeed, many of the popular scientific theories to explain life are in fact based on a huge amount of faith – the multiverse theory in particular (that there are infinite numbers of universes, therefore even the most improbable circumstances are guarenteed to happen somewhere) seem every bit as likely as a man with a white beard who sits on a cloud all day. Not sure what my point is…

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