Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Atheism 101: Am I an Atheist or Agnostic?

Oh My God! An Atheist?!?!
Recent polls have shown that the stigma of atheism has all but disappeared. It doesn't surprise me though, because the majority of Americans say they believe in God. And their preachers, pastors, fathers, and priests have no-doubt told them what they think an atheist is:
  • someone who hates God (or rejects God so they can be free to live in sin)
  • they hate America / they're Communists
  • they're bigots
  • they have no morals
  • they serve Satan
  • they worship (and/or have faith in) science
  • they don't believe in anything
  • they eat babies
Every one of those accusations is false. Atheists are probably the most feared and misunderstood minority today. These common misconceptions are laughable when one understands the truth about atheism. If you thought an atheist was one of the above, I want to to read this next line very slowly, then stop and let it sink in:

Atheism is the lack of a belief in a god.

That's it. It is not a religion, dogma, creed, political outlook, lifestyle, belief, belief system, or moral code. It's merely a lack of theistic belief. It doesn't tell you anything else about the person, or why they don't believe in god; it only tells you that they don't believe in god. It's a single answer to a single question.

After that, anything goes. You can find atheists who have varying opinions on all kinds of things. There are atheists who support the political left, some who support the right. There are atheists who believe in evolution, and some who don't. Some believe in abortion, and some don't.

Some Buddhists can be considered atheistic, as they don't have a belief in a god (though there are a lot of atheists who wouldn't tend to agree with the rest of the supernatural claims). The Raelians believe that we were created by a race of intelligent alien beings. No god belief=Atheist. A 'theist' is someone who has a belief in a god. The prefix 'a' means 'without', so an 'atheist' literally means 'non-theist' or 'without a belief in god'.

Most people know what it's like to be an atheist with respect to Thor or Zeus. Some just go one god further. The same reason a Catholic doesn't believe in Allah is the same reason an atheist doesn't believe in the Catholic god.

But, You're Not Sure, Are You?
Even if the average person doesn't think that an atheist barbecues babies, they may still have heard (and believed) the following 'escape clause':

"If you think there's no God, you're an Atheist. If you're just not sure, you're an Agnostic."

Again, this common misconception is untrue. In reality:

Gnosticism and Agnosticism address what you know (or claim to know).
Theism and Atheism address what you believe.

The two aren't mutually exclusive; it is possible to be a(n):
  • Gnostic Theist - Someone who claims to know and believe that god exists
  • Agnostic Theist - Someone who doesn't know for sure that a god exists, but believes anyway
  • Gnostic Atheist - Someone who believes that no god exists and claims to know that this belief is true
  • Agnostic Atheist - Someone who doesn't claim to know that no gods exist, but chooses not to blindly believe

The reason that agnosticism is not a "third option" in the question, is that agnosticism addresses a different aspect of the question. Agnosticism is the lack of knowledge of something. It deals with the basis for belief; it is not itself, belief. Agnostic atheism holds that knowledge of the divine is impossible (or currently unobtainable) and thus belief in God is unjustified and illogical. It is often used to soften the blow of such a "harsh-sounding word" as atheist.

Atheists are not making a positive claim. They're not saying "There is no god." (An atheist might say that, but that's not what 'atheism' means. You're free to believe what you want.) Most atheists might say that they are as sure that there is no god as they are that there are no fairies or leprechauns.

I am an Agnostic Atheist. I do not have hard proof of the non-existence of a god or gods, and I am not 100% absolutely sure there can be nor is such a being. But I do not believe in the proposal because the evidence provided that suggests said being has proved to be lacking in substance, structure, and credibility.

So there you have it. Atheists have no charter or doctrine. They are just people who have ONE thing in common: they don't hold a belief in a god or gods. They are everywhere. They are you doctors, your teachers, your computer techs, your airline pilots...your small-town neighbors.

(see more: youtube.com/smalltownatheist)



Matt.V said...

While your intent is good. You terrible command of the English language and your inability have the writing mean the same thing as you 'think' it means may be doing more harm than good.


STA said...

Oh, well, do enlighten us then. I take it you subscribe to the Huxleian definition of agnostic? Or do you just not accept term 'atheist' or the definition? I can't tell because your "terrible command of the English language" has rendered your comment unintelligible. Sorry...

What exactly am I so wrong about that is doing "more harm than good"?

Ken said...

My guess is 99% of the time, saying "I'm agnostic" in conversation with someone will allow them to quickly label you as a person that doubts there is a god (or, in the U.S., that doubts there is a Christian God). And the conversation can then smoothly move on to whatever important point you presumably were broaching, that will hopefully end up with you, the god-doubter, appearing friendly, smart, and easy to talk with.

On the contrary, launching into a screed about the 'real' meanings of atheist and agnostic would, I fear, leave me looking like an unpleasant know-it-all.

STA said...

I agree that one should use tact in any given conversation. The point of the post, however, was to clarify that there are important differences in the terms.

Depending on the circumstances, you could just forgo the labels and just say, "well, I don't really think there is a god", and then carry on with the conversation. It's not like every conversation should start with, "I'm an agnostic atheist! Now let's explore what that means..."

That way, if someone asks you for a label, you can present it then. If it doesn't matter to the conversation at hand, it's perhaps better left unsaid.