Truth in labeling

agnostic-cemeteryJust what do we mean when we say “atheist,” or “agnostic”? It’s a subject that can cause quite a bit of confusion, even among those who define themselves as one or the other.

By far the most common shorthand definition of “atheist” is “someone who doesn’t believe in God.” Many atheists have a problem with that definition, not least because it’s framed within a religious, monotheist viewpoint. It implies, sort of, that God actually exists but that atheists are people who don’t realize that.

Not to mention, it assumes that theism equals monotheism, and fails to take into account the various other theistic views (e.g. Hinduism with its millions of deities). Personally, I don’t think this is a huge problem. If you don’t object to saying you don’t believe in Santa Claus, I don’t see why it’s any different (when living in a culture where Santa Claus and God are both commonly understood concepts of supernatural beings) to say you don’t believe in God.

A bigger problem with “doesn’t believe in God” is that it’s grammatically imprecise. It’s like saying “I don’t like kumquats” — it could mean you’ve tried them and dislike them, or that you’ve tried them and have no particular like or dislike, or that you’ve never tried them at all, and therefore have no reason to say you like them.

Of course, when someone in casual conversation says “I don’t like kumquats,” the sensible conclusion is that they’re tried them and they dislike them, but that’s not quite the same with “I don’t believe in God.” A person who says that may mean that they believe God doesn’t exist (and most likely they don’t believe in any other deities either), or that they neither believe that there are deities nor actively believe that there aren’t any.

Some people define “atheist” literally as “a-theist,” someone who merely isn’t a theist. Generally, they define a “strong atheist” as someone who makes the affirmative assertion that there are no deities, and a “weak atheist” as someone who simply lacks any belief strong enough to make an affirmative assertion either way.

In this view, “agnostic” refers to the belief that the deity question is unknowable and unanswerable. I find that unsatisfactory, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that any sensible person — theist or atheist — considers the deity question unknowable. That doesn’t mean we can’t have an opinion on the subject, it just means that any sensible person — atheist or theist — should acknowledge that their opinion or belief is just that. It’s not certainty or knowledge.

When someone says “an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God, and an agnostic is someone who doesn’t know,” my immediate response is to say that therefore everybody’s an agnostic, since nobody knows.

I prefer to use the word “atheist” to mean someone who believes that there aren’t any deities, and “agnostic” to mean someone who doesn’t believe either that there are or aren’t any.

What about “freethinker”? To me, that’s best used as an umbrella description for atheists and agnostics (by whatever definition you use), those people whose worldviews don’t include a belief in any deities. I also tend to think it’s a term best used en famille, with other like-minded folks, rather than in discussions with religious people, since it’s kind of a self-compliment, implying that other people’s thinking isn’t free. That may in fact be true, but it’s not polite to mention with company around.

(Agnostic cemetery cartoon by Dan Piraro)

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by roger on August 25, 2009 at 4:58 am

    Agnosticism isn’t , to me, saying that a greater order, other than ourselves, makes sense. But religion, as history has proved, can be self-destructive. And yes, to put it in idiot free words, noone knows what’s out there; but one thing for sure is that to be a good person, means just that. And when someone uses religion as good measure, as if it proves anything, well sorry, it doesn’t. Live a good life by being a good person, not out of obligation or for the reward, is what, me as an agnostic, considers life, DO as you are told makes no sense to me. Where is are minds? I see Christians and Atheists in the same light. One says there isn’t, the other says there is. WHo knows, sometimes things are better left indefined, don’t cheapen the human experience.

    Reply

    • Posted by Anonymous on November 30, 2009 at 4:48 pm

      Christianity is considered self-destructive. One who is a Christian will lose the world’s respect, honor, and attention. Why would anybody become a Christian? Why would anybody beleive in the Bible if it’s made up and just a simple book like any other book? The major problem is that no other human being in civilization proved that the Bible is geographically, historically, or even gramatically wrong. In its original Hebrew skrypt, the Bible or the Scriptures contain not even one spelling error.
      It’s written by at least 40 diffirent authors and they all agree with each other. How is that even possible? Even today’s high-tech computors made spelling errors by trying to translate the Bible. It is not an accident or coincidence that the Bible is perfect. Only one logic answer left; the answer is that the Creator inspired the authors to write the Bible. If you think that the Bible is wrong in some areas, I dare you to prove it wrong! Many tried, many more will try, but they all failed and will fail until they realize that there is someone out there who is bigger than all of us and rules the universe. His name is God. Will you trust in Him? Or will you trust your own self which is destined to die? Your destiny is your choice and not God’s. God is the Living God and the only source of eternal life. Will you repent and admit that you are weak? If you do, God will bless you and take care of you and give you salvation through His Son Jesus Christ. Because of His Son and His sweet promises and because of what He has done in my life, I am proud to declare that I am a Christian. Christianity is self-destructive in this world. If you want to live for yourself and enjoy this life and become accepted by this world, I advise you to not become a Christian and stay as what you are in your beleifs. Because there are no worldly benefits from Christianity, but only eternal. If you want to spend your time with God for eternity, then trust in God. It is that simple.

      Reply

      • Posted by brachinus on November 30, 2009 at 4:51 pm

        The authors all agree with each other? Where do you get that? They don’t even agree on how many times Peter denied Jesus before the rooster first crowed (or on what Jesus predicted about Peter’s denial).

        Don’t believe me? Look it up. There are 4 gospels, and 3 of them have one version of the story while the other (I think it’s Mark) has a different version that flatly contradicts the other version.

  2. The original poster of this text is obviously giving their own bias opinion. in this passage

    “In this view, “agnostic” refers to the “belief” that the deity question is unknowable and unanswerable. I find that unsatisfactory, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that any sensible person — theist or atheist — considers the deity question unknowable. That doesn’t mean we can’t have an opinion on the subject, it just means that any sensible person — atheist or theist — should acknowledge that their opinion or belief is just that.”

    from what i understand a person from an agnostic point of view can and do voice their own opinion. they simply state, and let it be known first and foremost, that it is not possible to know for certain. no one can prove that the other wrong. then they them selves can say “well, i dont know for certain but i think Islam comes the closest to explaining the existence of everything.”

    any way off topic, how can you use ideas of atheism argue and debate religion? is atheism a religion?does something have to be a religion in order to argue/debate another religion? where do followers of atheism get their ideas from? in other words atheism opposes all theist ideas using what? and replaces theist beliefs with what? from what i understand atheism is “just” the (position/belief) that there are no deities. that alone would not make it a religion but its arguments/explanation of existence that backs up the whole “no deity” thing could qualify it as a religion. with it having symbols and having social gatherings like many religions.

    from what i see a person with an atheist point of view would try their hardest to stay away from saying “i believe, or even use the word believe in any thing they use to prove ideas of atheism. using the word believe would leave room for doubt or uncertainty in the eyes of others and self. take a look at this.

    In this view,“agnostic”refers to the “belief” that the deity question is unknowable and unanswerable
    this may imply Agnosticism as a belief system, like Hinduism which is a religion. is Agnosticism a religion? what about Atheism? is that a religion? the writer does use the word belief but not the same way they used it to describe the agnostic, as seen here.

    I prefer to use the word “atheist” to mean someone who “believes” that there aren’t any deities, and “agnostic” to mean someone who doesn’t believe either that there are or aren’t any.

    notice how the poster did not say “atheist” refers to the “belief” that there aren’t any deities…….so on.

    why? religion is a belief system is atheism? i thought atheism had to do with “reason” using
    empirical evidence to define/explain existence and because religions like Christianity lack empirical evidence is one reason why they do not believe.

    Reply

  3. Posted by skought on March 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    As far as I’m concerned, the best definition of atheist is “one who rejects assertions of deities.” It’s concise, covers both strong and weak atheism, avoids the pitfalls of defining infants or inanimate objects as “nominally atheist,” doesn’t imply anything either way regarding the assumption of the existence or nonexistence of deities, and doesn’t assert knowledge.

    Reply

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