Atheist or Agnostic?


Question_markThis question seems to be coming up a lot lately — or maybe I’m just noticing it more — and since my own definitions have been shifting around lately, I thought I’d gas on about it here.

100For most of my life, I’ve called myself an agnostic. I’d always understood “atheist” to mean “someone who’s 100% certain God doesn’t exist,” and “agnostic” to mean “someone who isn’t 100% sure one way or the other.” The latter was true for me, so I called myself an agnostic. And I tended to be somewhat critical of atheists: I felt that being 100% sure that there is no God was just as dogmatic and faith-based as being 100% sure that there was one.

God_delusionLately, however, it’s been becoming increasingly clear that “100% sure that there is no God” isn’t the only definition of “atheist.” Richard Dawkins himself — generally cited as “the world’s most famous atheist — isn’t a “100% sure” guy. In The God Delusion (which I just finished, and hope to blog about soon), Dawkins talks about a belief spectrum of 1 through 7 (I wish he’d made it 0 through 6, to correlate with the Kinsey scale!), in which 1 means you’re 100% sure that God exists, and 7 means you’re 100% sure that God doesn’t exist. Dawkins puts himself at 6 leaning towards 7 — a position he calls “de facto atheist.”

And Dawkins’s position on his belief/non-belief scale is pretty much the same as mine.

Which got me thinking.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, while in the strictest technical sense of the word I’m an agnostic (I’m not 100% certain that there is no God), in any real practical sense I’m an atheist. I don’t think the existence of God is impossible, but I think it’s very, very improbable — improbable enough for me to rule it out as a hypothesis.

ZeusA comparison I’ve been making a lot lately is Zeus. I am about as sure that there is no personal interventionist creator god as I am that there is no Zeus. But I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic about Zeus. I would call myself an atheist about Zeus. I can’t absolutely prove that Zeus doesn’t exist– but I think Zeus’s existence is sufficiently improbable that I don’t have to consider it as a possibility, and I certainly don’t live my life on the assumption that he might exist.

And I feel exactly the same way about Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah, or whatever you want to call the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, personal interventionist creator god.

Pat_robertsonSo lately, I’ve been calling myself an atheist instead of an agnostic. It seems more accurate. And in the current political climate of increasing American theocracy, it seems like a stronger, more defiant position — one that more accurately represents, not just my personal philosophy about my own life, but my strong political resistance to the idea of faith being presented as fact.

But unlike a lot of atheists, I don’t have a problem with other people calling themselves agnostics. There’s a lot of pissy bickering and namecalling between atheists and agnostics — and it’s starting to seriously annoy me. (For a lot of reasons — not the least of which is that pissy bickering and namecalling tend to impede introspection and thoughtful debate, not encourage it.)

Here’s an analogy I made in a comment on Evolutionblog.

BisexualI’m bisexual. (No, it’s not a tangent — stay with me. I meant it about the Kinsey scale analogy
) For the last 20 years or more, I’ve had to put up with people telling me either “You’re really a lesbian and just won’t admit it” or (less frequently) “You’re really straight and just won’t admit it.”

But these people are full of crap. I am bisexual. According to my definition of the word — which is a reasonable, not-uncommon one — I’m bisexual. I may not be bisexual according to their definitions, but I am according to mine. And it’s patronizing to tell other adults that you know who they are better than they do.

SelfWhen it comes to questions of personal identity, I think we need to let people define themselves. Especially when those identities (a) are vital and central to the person’s sense of self, and (b) have many different definitions, no one of which is generally agreed upon. I think most atheists/ agnostics/ skeptics/ doubters/ secularists/ non-believers have thought about this question carefully, and have chosen the identity-word that they think describes them best. And while I heartily support debates about which of our ideas make the most sense and what language describes them best, I think ultimately we need to let reasonable people decide for themselves who and what they are.

So… thoughts? If you’re a non-believer, do you define yourself as an atheist? An agnostic? Something else? If you’re a believer, how do you define yourself, and why? And how do you feel about how other people define themselves? Are you attached to your definitions of these words, or do you feel like other people’s definitions are reasonable? Discuss.

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting post.
    For the record, I identify as both an agnostic and a bisexual.
    I’m all for self-identification, but I think I’m more for accuracy in labeling. People who call themselves “lesbian” when they’re really bisexual because “lesbianism is my politics” or “I don’t want to identify as bisexual because I don’t want people to think I’m not serious about my liking women or that I’m just some college girl who messes around with girls because my boyfriend wants me to”… they piss me off. It’s like, “Uh, why don’t you call yourself what you REALLY are and reclaim the word bisexual so that people see that one can be bisexual and serious about it?” They can always call themselves bisexual dykes or bisexual lesbians if they want to stress the woman who loves women part.
    Having said that, I’m a bit hypocritical myself in that I am actually pansexual, but there isn’t a pansexual movement, there’s not a pansexual pride flag, and I think that most bisexuals are probably pansexual anyway. Yes, my own definition of “bisexual” is someone who isn’t monosexual, someone who loves more than one gender.
    There was a great comic on the web for a while called Jake the Rake (http://www.thisismarcus.com/jake/) that was about polyamorous bisexuals. Comics number 45 (http://www.thisismarcus.com/jake/fortyfive.htm) and 46 (http://www.thisismarcus.com/jake/fortysix.htm) deal with the whole “lesbian who sleeps with men” thing in a way that I think is funny and accurately describes my feelings.
    As for atheism vs. agnosticism, yes, you’re technically an agnostic, but I like the whole scale thing and you *are* close enough to atheist that “de-facto atheist” works. Perhaps someone should coin the term “agnostic atheist” to describe that view?
    In the whole “attached to your definitions” vs “other people’s definitions being reasonable” thing, I don’t mind when other people’s definitions are reasonable, but to me “reasonable” requires it to stick at least somewhat with the original definition.
    And for complete accuracy, I identify myself as an “agnostic spiritual Humanist with Unitarian Universalist and liberal Jewish leanings who also uses the Catholic Order of the Mass and sometimes Pagan ritual as a gateway for my spirituality”. Basically, I feel spirituality, but I know that it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has anything to do with God. (I wish more people realized that. I have a hard-core atheist friend who, through discussions, has revealed to me that the way I feel when I “do” spirituality is the way he feels when he’s really geeking out over math. Many paths to the same?)
    Brights and other people who completely dismiss any type of spirituality piss me off. As I respect atheists who don’t feel spirituality, as I recognize that some people feel it and some people don’t, and that’s ok, I wish they’d respect my right to feel spirituality and not just dismiss me completely off hand as some unenlightened idiot. I’ve *tried* to not feel spirituality and it hasn’t worked for me. I was completely miserable. Why can’t they respect what I feel as I respect what they don’t feel?
    In the sense that I don’t accept things blindly and that I question damn near everything, I find myself in good company with Skeptics and Freethinkers and I’d like to consider myself as one of them. But whether or not they would accept me and consider me under that definition remains to be seen.
    And as for people that want to get rid of religion completely (Wired online had a really good article on this a few weeks to a few months ago, but I totally forget the name of it), I will agree with them that religion has caused so many problems in the world. But it also serves as a conduit to something that feels very good to many people. Some of these people actually believe in their religions. Other see them as merely a conduit. I think that too many of these hard-core atheists haven’t really met enough people who don’t take their religion/religion in general seriously but who use it as a spiritual conduit. They don’t understand that not everyone who goes to Mass or who Casts a Circle believes all the dogma of the religions at hand. All they see is the evil and they can’t/don’t feel the great good that is has brought to many peoples lives. What needs to be done is not the complete removal of religion from peoples lives, but a reality check that teaches people that too zealous of a belief is detrimental to self and society. That once one starts trying to make other people believe as they do, or they start condemning others that don’t believe as they do, that they’ve gone too far and are hurting other people. These people need psychological help to put their beliefs in perspective, regardless of what their religion teaches them.

  2. says

    I’m with you on the atheism as I’m not 100% sure there’s no “god”, but agnostic has never seemed an appropriate moniker either. I’ve frequently longed for a word that means “not sure about the whole god or gods or goddesses business, but really dislike religion”. Anti-religious sounds harsh and incomplete. I mean, it’d be swell to find out there is or was some sort of higher power in the universe, someone who had a plan, but I don’t see that happening and I certainly don’t see any of the world’s religions having got it right.
    And I’m with you on the bisexual thing too. Just because Rick and I have been together these past 8 years doesn’t change anything about past relationships and doesn’t mean we don’t spend evenings comparing women we find attractive. Why must we be forced to choose? Why draw a hard sharp line between black and white in a world where we can be honest enough to live in the grey? And who started that nonsense anyway? And what crazy group-think let it get trendy? Argh.
    But back to the whole god and religions thing. I’m reading Victoria’s Daughters right now, and Alice (the second daughter) became friends with the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss, and was branded an atheist because she questioned the historical accuracy of the bible. She was vilified by the empress of Russia, and all that she was suggesting was that perhaps the Bible shouldn’t be considered the literal word of God because if this hard line was taken, then Christianity would lose its appeal to the masses, and would risk the future of the faith. The lesson I take from this is that to a fiercely religious person, an atheist is anyone who doesn’t believe in their religion as they believe in their religion, and being an atheist (to that person) is the highest slur possible. So, as much as I long for more precision and description in the language, I have to call myself an atheist when asked for definition by those sorts of folks, even though every time, I feel an immediate need to quibble.

  3. Donna Gore says

    I interpret the word atheist literally as “without belief.” Meaning I am a person without any religious beliefs. I do not believe in any gods because I have not seen sufficient evidence to convince me. (Some day, if I see such evidence, then I will change my mind.) However, I could also use the word “naturalist,” meaning that I believe in the natural world. My opinion is that there is a natural explanation for everything and no need to result to tales of the supernatural to explain things. Just because we don’t know the explanation yet for a certain phenomenon doesn’t mean it must be supernatural – it just means scientists haven’t figured it out yet. I have “faith” (if you will) that with time science will uncover the answers to nature’s mysteries.

  4. Jane Shaffer says

    I have actually spent most of my life trying to avoid labels either for my sexuality or my spirituality. In my experience, they cause more trouble than they’re worth, given the sensitivity of both subjects. I’m a lesbian who likes bi women, has slept with a few men in my time, and has an ever-increasing number of straight male friends. Also, I’m a Christian who doesn’t go to church and about half of my friends are agnostic, de-facto athiests, or pagans. I also find I’ve had much more interesting conversations about both subjects when I talk about specifics, rather than societally-defined labels. That’s for myself, though. I’m happy with everyone calling themselves whatever they want.
    An old girlfriend of a friend of mine once said, as we drove behind a Volvo with an anarchist bumper sticker, “Oh sure, like a real anarchist would drive a Volvo!” I thought, and still think, that was one of the most ridiculous statements I’d ever heard and an example of what happens when people attach themselves too closely with labels and their definitions. I think it encourages an “us and them” mentality, where I tend to believe that we are all so individual, yet so similar, that there’s no clear way to catagorize us.

  5. Rebecca says

    Ok, we all know where I stand, or — more accurately — lie down, on the issue of bisexuality. So I’ll skip that.
    My problem with the whole agnostic/atheist argument is that it often seems to assume that the spectrum of belief has certainty of an omniscient, omnipotent interventionist creator at one end and certainty of no higher power whatsoever at the other. Certainty of no Zeus, who was a very — but not all — powerful interventionist god, is an afterthought.
    My use of the term agnostic to describe myself is meant to confer not merely an uncertainty about the Yahweh/Allah type of god’s existence, but a spiritual throwing up of my hands about the whole thing.
    This is not to say that I don’t have guesses. I think the likelihood of Heaven or Hell or any kind of afterlife or recycling of discrete consciousnesses is negligible. I all but rule it out, and certainly, I act on the assumption that my actions here should be chosen based on their likely consequences, rather than on some future punishment or reward. (If there is a traditional Christian hell, I’m screwed.)
    But I’m aware that stuff that I just can’t explain is out there, so I can’t say for sure what doesn’t exist, any more than I can say what does.
    However, I suspect that I fall closer to the middle of that spectrum than you, Greta. I have a spiritual practice, involving the parts of Jewish observation with which I can hang. Every Shabbat, for example, we light the candles and say the prayer that means, in essence, “thank G-d it’s Friday.”
    In fact, like Shug Avery in The Color Purple, much of my faith involves gratitude, gratitude for everything from sex to pretty flowers. Also like Shug, my faith is in something both internal and universal, a free-floating animism, rather than a belief in one or more discrete entities.
    But faith itself, for me, is more like making a guess and acting on it, rather than any sort of certainly at all. And to me, that’s agnosticism.

  6. Laura Deal says

    I defined myself as a Christian even though my belief system resembles Rebecca’s much more closely than it does many people who call themselves Christian. I don’t believe that Christianity is the only valid path of faith but it’s the one I find myself on and it’s the one where I feel at home.
    I don’t believe everything in the Bible is true. To me, the Bible isn’t an instruction manual, it’s a group of writings following the history of the faith of a group of people. Even Jesus didn’t agree with all the laws laid out in the Old Testament. So I enjoy my favorite psalms, prophtets, and New Testament stories, but I don’t believe that a man laying with another man is sinful any more than I believe that wearing clothing made of two kinds of fibers is sinful (both listed in the same part of Leviticus, but funny how nobody walks around with signs saying “God Hates Polyester”)
    Fact is I love Jesus. I love how he got pissed off enough at the lawyers and Pharisees and called them on their hypocrisy. I love how he put judgmental prudes in their place and focussed on helping the poor, the sick, the unprotected and on Love and Peace rather than rigid laws or vengeance. It confuses me when people call themselves Christian and then throw stones and opt to spend money on a vengeful war rather than helping the poor or the sick or the unprotected.
    I don’t believe everything in the New Testament. I’ve been involved in too many news events to believe everything I read about anything, but when you look at 4 different reportings of a story you can get a sense of what might have happened or at least what the effect of some happenings were, especially if you check them with what feels true in your soul. And while I fought becoming a Christian for a long time, the moment that I gave in and admitted to myself that I believed…it was an amazing feeling of Love and strength.
    I used to be really shy about telling other people I’m a Christian. I didn’t want them to think that I am one of “those” kind of Christians. That I’m going to try and convert them or condemn them or pray that they mend their sinful ways. Frankly my definition of sin is not very traditional and it doesn’t involve anything done between consenting adults that leaves both of them happier than when they started.
    But nowadays I tend to announce my Christianity a lot more. Ironically for some of the same reasons that Greta decided to call herself an Atheist. In the current climate of religious intolerance I feel that I need to stand up and let people know that George Bush and the “Religious Right” do not speak for all, or even most Christians. That you can love Jesus and Queers and Perverts. That you can believe in God and Evolution and Separation of Church and State and having a good time.
    It upsets me when people feel that religion is to blame for so much that is hurtful and evil in the world. I feel that it’s the quest for power over others that is the problem and often religion has been distorted to be a tool in that quest. But I believe that the people using religion this way would use something else if religion was taken away. I feel that Populism rather than Atheism is the way to thwart the evil done by Theocrats. I think attacking religion for the wrong done in it’s name just makes a lot of innocent if uninformed people feel scared and more likely to follow the Theocrats. I think shining a light on the evil being done in the name of God is right and good and helpful, but it is possible to do so without condemning or mocking religion itself. So I thank everyone in this discussion for the respectiful and thoughtful way the topic has been treated by everyone involved.

  7. says

    Excellent post, Greta.
    I agree with a lot of what you have to say here. For the record, myself, atheist and bisexual…
    I have never liked the agnostic label, although I do see the problem with the term atheist; a recent interview in Discover magazine with one of those Christian-believer scientists (I forget the name) took atheists to task for “arrogance” in supposedly saying they are “100% sure there is no God” (although what in the world he thinks of people who say they are 100% sure there IS a God, he doesn’t say).
    Personally, though, I came to something like your conclusion some years ago. I don’t believe in an old bearded man who lives in the clouds, so when people ask “Do you believe in God,” I assume that’s pretty much what they are asking; not “Do you think there might conceivably be a more or less personal force somewhere in the Cosmos that might ultimately be responsible for our existence at some level?”
    So I say, “No.”
    I am fairly spiritual, even mystical, though. I think the separation of spirituality from religion would be a great service. Spirituality does not need to be irrational.
    As far as the difference between atheism and agnoticism, I think my wife and I illustrate it perfectly. She is about the only true agnostic I have ever met. Not an “I don’t know”, or an atheist who isn’t sure, but a true “We can never know one way or the other” agnostic.
    I on the other hand, am an atheist precisely because I don’t ever believe in anything until I am convinced that the greatest amount of the evidence is on its side. I am a skeptic, in other words, and about a lot more things than just God.
    This applies to my mystical streak as well. Some people have been surprised that I call myself an “atheistic mystic.” I have had visions (yes, real ones, not hallucinations; believe me, I know the difference) and am an atheist. I’ve had visions, but I just don’t believe they are enough evidence for the existence of the supernatural.
    As far as how others define themselves: live and let live. Define how they wish. I’ve known far too many people of far too many persuasions to think that any bickering about terms is in any way useful or productive.
    Love, peace, freedom and reason.

  8. Seth says

    Come to find out, I’m the only one in my family who believes in God.
    For me, God is a pretty big word. The Christians don’t own it. The Hindus have a bunch of them. The Buddhists disagree about whether he is one or not. But I believe in God. I even think Zeus is throwing a thunderbolt into the mix every once in a while.
    Isn’t science is based on experiments we can measure and repeat? My hypothesis is that we all have some types of internal experiences that are not measurable, not repeatable, in many cases, not even describable. No room for science there.
    Call it mysticism or spirituality or whatever you like. Those are also really great words. (I use them with people who get their undies in a knot when I use the word God.) Fundamentally, I have faith in subjective experience; That’s enough for me to believe in God.
    For me, this God thing is simple enough. But then Greta comes along and she really pisses me off. It’s that damn bi-sexual tangent thingy.
    I was happily thinking I could be a bi-sexual if I was a 5 leaning towards 6 on the Kinsey scale. (Or is it a 1 leaning toward 0? Or do I now have to modulate my sexual interests to match the 1-7 Dawkins scale? You see? Science isn’t as accurate you agnostic atheists think it is. I’m going back to God.)
    Anyway, if (1) I’m as gay as Greta is a non-believer, and (2) she’s an atheist after thinking she’s agnostic all these years, then (3) maybe I’m just a plane old fag. (Maybe I’m just fooling himself about how hot boy dykes are or wanting to fuck really femmy guys. I’m not sure which makes me more bisexual, but doesn’t one of them make me bi?)
    I may not be 100% gay, but I’m enough gay. in any real practical sense, I’m a homosexual.
    Hmm. I’m really gay now. I’m not bi.
    What does that mean? Do I have to agree with Dan Savage now?

  9. says

    Actually, Seth, the main point of my post was that — within reason — you can call yourself whatever you want. I personally am a Dawkins 6 on a scale of 1-7 (damn, I wish he’d made his scale 0-6 to line up with the Kinsey scale!), and I call myself an atheist — but I think it’s reasonable for other Dawkins 6’s to call themselves agnostic. And similarly, I think a person who’s a Kinsey 5 (on the 0 to 6 scale) could reasonably call themselves either bisexual or gay.
    Now, veering off a bit: I don’t normally argue with people’s religious beliefs on this blog. But you said something that’s a big red flag for me, and I really need to respond to it.
    I’m referring to what you said about how science can’t currently measure or explain subjective experience, and therefore you believe in God. That’s a perfect example of the “Explain that!” thinking I was talking about in my “The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely” post. http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/01/the_unexplained.html The fact that we don’t currently have a good explanation for subjective experience and consciousness doesn’t mean we never will. It doesn’t mean it’s not part of the physical chain of cause and effect. The fact that something is not currently explained doesn’t mean it’s not explainable.
    There’s a very good article about this very question in the Feb. 12 New Yorker (I’ll be blogging about it as soon as the article goes online and I can link to it). It’s a piece about the very young science of the neurology of consciousness, and one of the subjects of the article argues that we just don’t currently have the neuroscience to explain consciousness. And she makes a brilliant analogy — she says that if a Martian came down in the Middle Ages to explain fire to a Middle Ages scientist, the explanation would sound like gibberish. Rapid oxidation? What the heck is that? They didn’t know what oxygen was. The explanation would make no sense.
    And similarly, this philosopher argues, if a Martian came down and tried to explain consciousness to us now, it would probably sound as much like gobbledegook to us as “rapid oxidation” would have in the Middle Ages.
    But that doesn’t mean there’s no explanation.
    I’m sorry to go off about this. But this is a really big bee in my bonnet. Atheists often get accused of being arrogant, of thinking that we know all the answers to everything. But it isn’t atheists who think we know all the answers. Atheists *know* that we don’t know all the answers. The atheists I know and have read are awestruck with humility at the vastness of everything we don’t know about the universe. And when we don’t know something, we acknowledge that we don’t know it.

  10. says

    Hi Greta,
    Interesting blog. Worth returning to – in fact, I sought it out again after Typepad churlishly knocked back my comment (actually deleted it).
    Richard Dawkins strikes me as a fundamentalist atheist, so I’m surprised to hear he places himself as 6 out of 7.
    I’ve been atheistic since I’ve been old enough to think for myself. I come from a rationalist perspective, and there never has been a shade of agnosticism for me. Which is not to say that I’m not well-rounded or spiritual, just not theistic per se. I have been known to describe myself as a pantheistic humanist, but then it gets semantic.
    My friend who shares the rationalist/atheist perspective, gave me a good way of establishing one’s sympathies. A joke, if you will:
    Everybody needs an imaginary friend.
    Typically, atheists laugh; theists get annoyed, and agnostics start to argue the toss. (only typically, mind.)
    Another sorter: “If there were a God
” said a flatmate of his, and I immediately saw him as agnostic. See who wants to debate that

    I’m not that happy with Dawkins, in that he seems to be taunting people with his conviction, whereas I am (largely) past that, and see the merit in a panoply of views. Albeit I know I’m right 
    We can call ourselves what we want, but we will always stand in contrast to others, and it’s helpful to get some measure of that contrast to understand ourselves better.

  11. Eclectic says

    Wow, even the comments are fascinating and literate. And Greta, have I mentioned that you are a damn fine writer? I’ve never really grokked the form of the essay, but I think if I read your blog for a while, I’ll start to get the idea.
    I differ from many more outspoken atheists in that I was raised without religion, so I have nothing much to react against. Yahweh is filed with Tinkerbell and the tooth fairy, and Genesis is hugely outclassed by the Just So Stories, and it takes an external stimulus to make me reflect on them.
    But those external stimuli have happened, and as I thought more about it, I gradually moved from agnostic (I didn’t know enough to be sure) to weak atheist (I didn’t believe in a deity) to my current strong atheism (I believe there is no deity).
    Like Dawkins, am I 100% certain? No. But the issue is settled for me, barring the appearance of dramatic new evidence. I’ve studied Descartes’ arguments, and I think the ontological argument for God amounts to Russell’s paradox. From such a false premise, you can prove anything, and thus the entire system of logic is uninteresting.
    Could a (nearly) omnipotent deity have created the world I live in and/or my perception of it, complete with logical evidence that the world was created without a deity? In other words, might I be living in Plato’s cave (a.k.a. The Matrix)? Well, yes, but the illusion is so good that there is no perceptible difference from the model that the world I perceive myself in is real, so I may as well follow the simpler model.
    Given all that, I certainly don’t mind someone calling themselves agnostic; uncertainty is the default state. The (conscious) atheist does not exist ab initio, but is brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation.
    I am rubbed the wrong way by terms like “freethinker” and “bright”. To me that sounds line an atheist who’s afraid to admit it. And not facing reality when it’s uncomfortable is a vice I associate with the devoutly religious.
    Actually, there’s a second opposing issue wrapped up in my reaction to those terms. To me, “atheist” is a negative term. I don’t derive any personal philosophy or morality from atheism; it just excludes a class or arguments from my reflections on those issues.
    I don’t believe in any gods, I don’t speak any Asian languages, and I don’t play any team sports. But these three negatives are equally useless in defining who I am. I don’t derive any sense of personal identity from them, any more than I do from not believing in pholigiston or N-rays.
    Maybe that’s the concept the term “fundamentalist atheist” is trying to describe. I know plenty of christians for whom religion is a peripheral, not central, aspect of their identity, and I get a long with them fine. It’s the folks for whom being christian is the most important thing in their lives that I have an oil-and-water reaction to.
    I just don’t see how someone can define themselves in terms of atheism. I’m not religious in the same way that most people aren’t butlers. You probably haven’t noticed the lack.
    I have heard one counter-argument that I’m unable to judge the merits of. It has been explained to me that for many people, churches serve an important social function, and thus they feel a need for an organization to perform that function in their lives, and “atheist” is too negative a term for that. It’s never been an issue for me – I have never become accustomed to having a club to hang around on sabbath morning – but apparently it’s important to some people.

  12. says

    Hi Greta,
    A contribution I’m surprised no one else has made (unless I missed it) — one way of looking at “atheist” and “agnostic” is that they’re actually talking about different things. Agnosticism literally means you “don’t know,” while atheism means you don’t believe. Thus you can be both an agnostic and an atheist: I don’t know whether God exists, but I don’t believe he does either. I suppose this is another way of saying what you said about Zeus.
    Eclectic,
    I agree, “freethinker” and especially “bright” are pretty silly, but what about “naturalist”? It’s both positive and direct. The only issue is confusion with “people who love/study nature,” but I think context would clear that up most of the time.
    Zach A / Evolt

  13. Eclectic says

    “Naturalist”? Well, as I wrote, I don’t feel the need for a positive word. They all tend to imply that I have some non-traditional “religion equivalent” (pantheism or some such) when the truth is simpler: my religious beliefs are the empty set.
    As I said, I get the idea that some people can’t imagine what a life without religion is like. They can imagine a different religion much more easily than they can imagine its complete absence. I have the opposite problem: I can’t imagine what a life with religion is like. I’m not sure where it fits in without bumping into things.
    Perhaps you could explain why you feel there is a need for a positive word? What activities do you engage in because you are a naturalist, as opposed to say, a lapsed but nominal christian or jew? I’m not talking about a practicing one, but the very common “yes, I suppose I believe in God and an afterlife, but I haven’t gone to church in 10 years” kind.

  14. Anonymous says

    Your stuff is interesting. :)
    I 100% believe in God. I look at everything in a scientific way. I don’t believe that it’s possible for the universe not to have had a designer. I don’t claim to be a chritian. I actually don’t believe in organized religion. People have spoiled the church. I’ve seen it too many times.

  15. says

    “I don’t believe that it’s possible for the universe not to have had a designer.”
    I’m curious: Why do you think that?
    See, it seems to me that the argument “the universe couldn’t have simply sprung into existence, it’s just too vast and complex to not have been designed”… this argument has a serious flaw. If there’s a designer who created the universe… then wouldn’t that designer also be so vast and so complex that he/she had to have been designed?
    And if you’re going to say that God has just always existed… then why can’t you say that about the universe?
    The problem is that the “it’s too big and complex, there has to have been a designer” argument is essentially intelligent design — only applied to the cosmos instead of to biological life. It isn’t true about life, and I don’t see why it should be true about the cosmos.

  16. says

    I too started “The God Delusion” with the belief that agnosticism is the only way to go. As you, I began to see that by being agnostic about Yahweh, I should be agnostic about Russell’s Celestial Teapot, Thor, Zeus, Allah, etc.
    One point I really like from Dawkins, is that we do need to find some common definition for words. If atheism is considered a religion, how do you distinguish between Christian religion, and atheist religion without having to define religion each darn time? Anyway, I never thought atheism is a religion. It’s a silly proposition made by theists whom do not understand the term atheist, nor for this matter, religion.
    Not in the pages of The God Delusion – and through second hand info – I understand that Dawkins is pro calling atheists Brights, a notion I’m strongly disagree with. There are a lot of things I agree with Dawkins on, but on this issue we couldn’t be much further apart.

  17. Eclectic says

    Well, technically, atheism is the absence of a belief in a deity (Ξεός, theos) or (strong atheism), a belief of their absence.
    There are a number of non-theistic religions, Buddhism being the best-known one. Does your definition of atheism allow for a belief in other supernatural processes like reincarnation?
    I think atheism is a category of personal beliefs, some of which may be considered religions. But it’s too broad a category to be _a_ religion, any more than, say the Abrahamic or Vedic families.
    I find most neologisms invented to describe atheists to be silly and affected. My religion is “none”. Whether you consider that a religion is like whether you consider zero a number. Have fun debating it, but you’re just defining your adjectives, not changing what zero is.

  18. Mardi says

    I read your original post, though not all the lengthy comments. I enjoyed your thoughts on both atheism and distinctions and personal identity categories.
    I just wanted to say that I like your arguments for a)supporting everyone’s right to believe what the wish about themselves and the God/no-god issues b)seeing things in terms of ranges or spectra rather than separate categories c) the uselessness of arguing and name-calling.
    Mardi

  19. says

    Really, I think that both atheists and agnostics have basically the same beliefs… just the atheists tend to believe more towards the ‘no god’ side of the debate, and the agnostics tend to lean more towards the ‘probably a god’ side.
    I definetly agree with the few posts of yours I’ve read, even though I don’t consider myself an atheist. At least, not anymore. I consider myself an agnostic, but also a theist. I’m not particularly religious, either.

  20. Katie says

    Thanks for this post. I had been thinking lately that I wished more doubters who weren’t of the “100% sure there is no kind of supernatural anything” variety would call themselves agnostic like I do, but now I see that that’s really just putting a fine point on it. Thanks for helping to put “You atheists are just religious zealots too/You agnostics are just a bunch of lying cowards” kind of disputes to rest.
    I think it is very interesting to read accounts of how mythologies change as societies shift through history. I can’t say I 100% don’t believe in Zeus, because it seems like like all “divine” characters in mythology (including the Judeo-Christian god), Zeus was at least partly a projection/abstraction of a human instinct that I do not understand. Sometime I think that the reason I didn’t become religious is because I was raised by skeptics, but sometimes children raised that way become religious anyway. I’ve had strange experiences that can’t be explained with the knowledge I have of the world, but all that they prove is that there is more to the world than I know (and I already knew that). Sometimes when I’ve had strange, intense experiences I am so confused and terrified by not knowing that I start to understand how people could be driven to religion against their better judgement just to have some sort of framework in which to comprehend these experiences. I wish we knew more about what pre-historical people were actually like, and if they were as religious as we have generally been since history. I like to imagine a prehistoric society somewhere that was just so into what they were doing that they didn’t really have a religion because they really believed in what they saw and felt. Sometimes I think “God is a metaphor for the lost meaning in our lives,” but I know that is a gross oversimplification. I try not to think about these “mystical” things too much because I always become too fascinated and I always end up very frustrated. I seriously doubt that I will ever come to an understanding of these things other than my continued ethusiasm for agnosticism.
    There are a lot of thoughful comments in different posts that you have, and this is good because many of these subjects that you write so well about rarely come up in any situations other than in private company, I suppose because these are emotional, private things. I wish I had more opportunities to state how strongly I believe in agnosticism, though. I have all my life, and one of the times I get really mad is when people suggest some sort of mystical framework where all suffering is explained away. *If* there is some sort of grand, mysterious reason why a baby should have a horrible disease and just suffer and die, then I don’t see how a human being could think that they know that reason, let alone explain it to other people. I get really argumentative when I hear some otherwise skeptical person start toying with any kind of “maybe we all kind of choose what it seems on the surface we can’t control” kind of beliefs, which happens dissapointingly often.

  21. Maria says

    I totally agree with you. I’m also an agnostic bisexual and am tired of people telling me I’m either “one or the other”

  22. Bruce Gorton says

    The trouble with agnostics:
    I am fine with the honest agnostic.
    But you get a large chunk of people that give agnostics a name for being psuedo intellectual jackasses whose position is less “Undecided” and more “You are a fanatic fundementalist if you have any opinions whatsoever.”
    These are more concerned with being “The only reasonable ones in the room” than with actually being right, jellyfish without the spine to actually say what they think, they just think your are a fundementalist for thinking anything at all.
    These are the psuedo-agnostics.
    They aren’t a religious position, they are a very human personality type I despise. It isn’t just in religion you get this type, it is a common pseudo-intellectual reaction in any argument – the kinds of people who don’t actually have ideas beyond rallying against people who do.
    As I said, I have no problem with honest agnostics, it takes guts to be an honest agnostic, but pseudo-agnostics just piss me off.

  23. Frankie Cole says

    Facinating, I consider myself an Athiest- Agnostic. Carl Sagan said he was an Agnostic because he couldn’t prove there is a god, and couldn’t prove there’s not. I would say I’m Atheist, but refuse to be as arrogant as theist are about it. Don’t know abour bisexuality tho.

  24. Gruesome_hound says

    Concerning the usual flying teapot, spaghetti monster and invisible unicorns analogies, I think it is important to distinguish between atheism ( I know beyond all reasonable doubt that those entities does not exist) and agnosticism ( I don’t know whether they exist or not).
    I am pretty sure none of those entities exist not only because of the absence of evidences (this by itself would only justify agnosticism) but also because there are incredibly strong reasons militating against their existence.
    Take for example the celestial teapot: teapots are products of an human mind, contrarily to biological systems, there are no conceivable natural pathways by which they could have evolved, and no human being has ever been at the surface or even in the vicinity of Mars (and even if some secrete mission has done that, it is extremely unlikely they would have brought one teapot with them and let it fall in the space) , therefore one can conclude with almost certainty that there is no teapot orbiting around Mars.
    Let us now consider other scenarios for which we have no evidence at all: somewhere in the multiverse, there is an intelligent species looking like bears, there exists a parasitic species capable of possessing their host’s brain like the Goaulds (Stargates) or hives (dark skies).
    Or: we are living in a simulation carried out by intelligent design and we will one day also simulate a new universe.
    Or there is in a parallel universe with different universal constants with creatures made up of burning materials like warmed iron.
    I am “agnostic” but not atheist about these possibilities, because while there exist clearly no evidence, there is also nothing which speaks against that.
    Similarly, I am atheist about any kind of invisible animals or visible or invisible unicorns existing on the earth, but I am agnostic about the possibilities that such creature may live on an unknown planet of an unknown remote paralell universe.
    I therefore think that the principle (No evidences => non-existence) is deeply flawed, for affirming that something does not exist, we ought to provide reasons for not believing that.
    So, I believe that atheist have to give solid grounds for believing with almost certainty there exist no god(s). These may be the evidence of meaningless evils, the widespread religious confusion, the numerous examples of bad design in nature and so on and so forth.

  25. apostate says

    When it’s warranted, I identify myself as an Atheist Agnostic: someone who believes it is not possible to have definite knowledge as to whether or not a god or gods exist, and who nontheless believes that no god does exist.

  26. says

    “I think it is important to distinguish between atheism ( I know beyond all reasonable doubt that those entities does not exist) and agnosticism ( I don’t know whether they exist or not).”
    Sorry Gruesome_hound, I have to disagree on your definitions above. You seem to think that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive stances but they’re not. Atheism is an absence of belief in god/s; it’s concerned with what someone believes is true. Belief is subjective. Agnosticism on the other hand is a lack of knowledge about god; it deals with what someone claims to know for a fact. Facts are (despite theist claims) objective articles of truth. There’s a big difference between what you believe and what you know for a fact. I believe that the letter in my letterbox was put there by the postman even though I didn’t witness him putting it there but I know for a fact that Joseph Stalin didn’t put it there because he’s dead. I could be wrong about the postman but not about Stalin. Therefore, it’s quite possible to be an agnostic theist if you say you subjectively believe in Jesus and live your life based on that but aren’t willing to state it as an objective fact due to a lack of solid, convincing evidence. Progressive/Moderate Christianity seems to be heading towards agnostic theism to me but I’m rather agnostic about that too. ;)
    Personally, I use different labels depending on the context. If asked in general company what religious persuasion I am, I’ll say I’m atheist as most people have the gist of what that entails so it doesn’t require lengthy explanations to people who will mentally switch off within the first 5 seconds. If I feel the enquirer is a bit more well read (or I think they actually care about the answer), I’ll say I’m an agnostic atheist since I don’t believe in any god/s (atheism) but don’t possess the scientifically verifiable knowledge to reduce the probability of god’s existence to zero (agnostic).
    However, neither of these labels define me as a person. I often hear it said (usually by theists) that “atheism is a flawed and incomplete worldview compared to XYZ religion”. They’re right but only because they’re dim-witted enough to believe it’s a worldview at all. It’s not. It’s simply a defined stance about a single facet of human life, not a roadmap to living.
    That’s when I don my favourite hat…SECULAR HUMANIST. If you want to know what I don’t believe in, I’m agnostic atheist through and through. If you want to know what my morals and ethics are based on, how I interact as a member of my community and what vision I have for the future direction of humanity as a whole, I’ll tell you it’s secular humanism FTW!

  27. Sydney says

    I think the problem you were having with labeling yourself is you were taking atheism and agnosticism as answering the same questions…when they’re are not.
    Atheism is an answer to the question, “Do you believe in a God(s)?
    If you say, “Yes,” then you are a theist. A theist does not have to be 100% certain in God’s existence to believe in a god. They are not claiming to know. They might simply believe because there is sufficient evidence for them to believe.
    If you say, “No,” then you are an atheist. An atheist does not have to be 100% certain in the non-existence of a God or Gods. They simply do not believe the claim “There is a God/Gods” because they do not believe there is sufficient evidence to believe. They are not claiming to know, they are claiming a non-belief.
    Agnosticism answers the question, “Do you know there is a God?”
    If you answer “Yes,” then technically you would be a gnostic [to know], but this often has a whole different connotation when it comes to theology. Most people would not claim to know there is a God, but to believe there is one. However, some religious people do feel like they can claim knowledge of God (often through religious experience).
    If you answer, “No,” then you are an agnostic. You do not know there is a God. Furthermore, is the implication that you believe that you cannot know for certain that there is a God.
    Therefore, a theist can also be an agnostic and an atheist can also be agnostic. Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. I can believe there is no God, but also claim insufficient knowledge/evidence to knowing there is a God.

  28. says

    It would be interesting to know what you anticipate the minute after your cross deaths threshold? Is your atheistic view, you believe you just cease to exist? If You are no more then a primordial combination of chemical which in some illogical manner just happened to form to create millions of distinct individual persons no two with identical finger prints or DNA, how could it be by accident, not by intelligent design order?
    http://www.answers.com/topic/genetic-fingerprinting
    If I believe in a Infinite Creator & I die, finding the I’m in error i have lost nothing. On the other hand if you die & find out there is a infinite Intelligent Creator you denied, you have wagered & lost infinitely more then you can imagine, your immortal soul!
    http://nightswolf.wordpress.com/

  29. Some Matt or other says

    By the definitions I use, I’m agnostic because I think knowledge of the divine is impossible for humans to attain (or, more precisely, if we did attain it we could never have the logical certainty necessary to identify it as such), and I’m atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in any given god.
    But my definitions are not the common usage, however much chagrin I may feel about it. Outside of the atheist community, most people’s definition of “agnostic” is just the midpoint between “100% god-belief” and “100% atheism.” “Don’t know” and “can’t know” are distinctions that the common usage doesn’t acknowledge very well. As are “absence of belief” vs. “belief of absence,” for that matter.
    Greater than my agnosticism and my atheism, though, are my conviction that a) there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, and b) all I know is that I know nothing. My philosophical self-definitions are the current state of an ongoing mental process that has changed in the past and may well change again. But as long as I am human, there will be new things for me to learn, and that’s a fact so fundamental it rubs shoulders with the fact of my own existence.

  30. QuantumFlux says

    The issue with pascal’s wager is that it assumes a specific afterlife where belief in the afterlife will be rewarded and disbelief will be punished and that if you ask for forgiveness all other offenses will be forgiven.

  31. SexPot says

    I’m agnostic, maybe a Christian in denial. Sometimes I feel God’s presence and feel connected to Jesus and Mary. But it doesn’t bring me comfort, compels me to do things I don’t want to do (like love everyone, read the Bible, stop thinking about girls, give my money to the homeless, stop sleeping around, etc.). It doesn’t fit into my identity either. So I consciously turn away from it. It also doesn’t make any sense, logically and in my head I realize that. I still fear hell though, and it’s very scary. So I will eventually have to turn back. I wish I were atheist but atheists could be wrong. I can’t imagine seeing Yahweh as the same as Zeus.

  32. durham669 says

    Atheism has nothing to do with knowing whether a god exists or not. Atheism simply means that you don’t believe in a god or gods. Period.

    It’s that simple. A theist believes in a god or gods and an atheist does not. It has absolutely nothing to do with knowledge. How could it? How could you ever prove a negative?

  33. says

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  34. David says

    I am an agnostic… I just don’t know whether god exists or not but I am quite open to the idea that a god or some kind of higher power might exist. There is much subjective and experiential evidence to at least hint at the possibility.
    I agree that atheism has nothing to do with knowing whether a god exists or not. Atheism simply means that you don’t believe in a god. I agree, but I do object when an atheist claims that god does *not* exist. I hear this a lot. Anyone that makes a claim for or against the existence of god must provide evidence to back up that claim.

  35. Annie says

    I think I can safely call myself an agnostic, but I agree with some of the posts here in that I am completely against religion, and I don’t know a term for that. I am not against spirituality and philosophy though. For instance, I am not a Buddhist in the sense of practicing it as a religion, but I do meditate, and I get something out of it. I also prescribe to Buddhist ideas of kindness and compassion and the idea that your own mind can cause or alleviate suffering. To me, my spirituality lies in that, and it is closely related to my own growth as a human being.

    As for Christianity, I am probably a 6 to a 7 on the scale of not believing in the Bible, especially not that it is the word of an almighty, omnipotent male god that must be worshiped because he demands it. I only have to read the Old Testament to be 100% sure that it is not a god I want to worship – that is if I could even get my head around the whole idea of worshiping anyone or anything.

    The only idea of a god that I could possibly believe in, would be god as a casual energy that set things in motion and keep them going, but even for this I have no proof, and therefore won’t call it god. I will keep in open mind though, only because I believe that even in science there is much left to be discovered, and maybe we just don’t have a way of measuring things yet. An example that comes to mind is microwaves. Microwaves existed 500 and even 1000 years ago already, but if we time traveled and told someone then that there are waves in the air that can transmit communication and heat up food, they probably wouldn’t have believed us, because you could not see it, you could not call someone on a cell phone, and you could not put cold food in a metal box and take it out hot a minute later. So, for anyone living on those times microwaves was an abstract concept that probably didn’t exist as far as proof went. However – these days we all know you can put food in a metal box and cook it or heat it up with microwaves – although we still can’t see the actual microwaves. Science have found a way to contain them and put them in a box. SO my agnosticism about a spirit and a god energy is based on the possibility that there is a 50 – 50 chance of science one day – even if it is 500 years from now – finding a way to put a spirit or god energy in “metal box” for which the technology does not yet exist in the present.

  36. bobthelunatic says

    Yes, atheism addresses belief, not knowledge. So most people, including atheists and theists are agnostic. They are different issues and not mutually exclusive (atheism and agnosticism) at all.

    I would make the following argument: To not be agnostic, one must have, or think they had an experience of some sort-that’s the only way to be the 7, or the 6 for author or in the 100%. Atheists may be used to theists who thus claim and therefore could not be called “agnostic” (it would be arrogant for anyone else to decide on that issue, assuming the subject understands what “agnosticism” is). So how could an atheist NOT be agnostic? What proof could an atheist have? Sure, they can prove the bible wrong-so Yahweh/Jehovah-Jesus Sandwich is proven wrong. They could prove the Quran false-therefore Allah is history, and so forth. But they couldn’t disprove EVERY GOD, for all they know (and ‘know’ is the word) the ONE TRUE GOD or GROUP of GODS, hasn’t been discovered, or documented. SO, that like the theists-means only experience could lead one to truly be atheist without being agnostic.

    I say this as I would make such a claim. As a Nichiren Buddhist, I have had experiences that prove there is no gods to me-this IS the ultimate reality, this is all there is, as no place has special meaning-meaning is found in the mind alone. Buddhism and Theism are mutually exclusive. So to awaken in Buddhism, even for a moment is to realize destiny is in the hands of all respective life, and to realize infinity. One may lose that wisdom-but never the knowledge, such as atheism that comes with it. Wisdom is lived, knowledge is known, thus wisdom is easily lost, knowledge much less so.

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