Well it’s been awhile since I posted something, work has been keeping me busy. I figured I’d make good on my promise to touch on the subject of what I mean when I call myself an “agnostic atheist”. Many people have a preconception of what an atheist is, and it’s going to come up a lot in my posts so I consider it paramount that it’s understood what I mean when I call myself an atheist. I’ve seen many arguments with people telling atheists what they believe and a great deal of back and forth over the terminology. I’ve even seen atheists argue with each other over the use of the term. Regardless of whether or not you’ll agree with me, I’m going to explain my usage of the term and why I think it’s effective.
Firstly I’m going to explain the common usage of term atheist. Most people, when they think of an atheist, think of someone who believes no god exists. They usually put it on some kind of scale where atheists believe no gods exist, theists believe a god exists, and an agnostic is somewhere the middle where they don’t know if a god exists. When it comes to the question of a god existing, this is not how I categorize beliefs. I find this system to be unhelpful and confusing and it boggles my mind that even prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins subscribes to this system.
1. Knowledge vs Belief
The first problem we run into is the difference between knowledge and belief. When I ask you if you believe in a god and you say “I’m an agnostic” you’re not telling me what you believe, you’re telling me what you know. You’re effectively not answering the question. It’s a cop-out, you’re dodging the question. Not so say that I don’t think it’s all well and good to acknowledge that you don’t know if a god exists, but knowledge and belief are not the same thing. Knowledge is a subset of belief, the reason being that you cannot claim to know something unless you also believe it. For instance I can believe my car will start when I turn the key, but not know it. On the other hand, if I know my car will start when I turn the key, it would be confusing and silly if I didn’t also believe it. So when I ask someone if they believe a god exists, “I don’t know if a god exists” is a non-answer. We should remove agnosticism as an answer to this question and stick with either atheist or theist.
2. Multiple propositions
My next contention is how atheist is used to mean “One who believes no god exists” versus a theist as “One who believes a god exists”. This is a false dichotomy. Keep in mind that either the god in question exists, or it does not exist and there are no other options. It is not however true that there are only two options when it comes to what you believe. When you say that a god exists that is a proposition, and when you say a god does not exist that is an entirely separate proposition, and tackling two propositions at the same time is a bad idea even if the two propositions are mutually exclusive.
For example, imagine we find a gumball machine with an unknown number of gumballs. Neither of us have seen the machine before, and we have no method of counting the gumballs without opening the machine up. Now either the number of gumballs in the machine is either even, or odd. There are no other possibilities. If I say “the number of gumballs is even, don’t you agree?” and you know I have no way of knowing, the correct answer is to say that you don’t agree. This does not mean that you believe the number of gumballs is odd.
The same holds true for the proposition that a god exists. When a theist asks me if I believe a god exists and I answer “no”, that does not automatically mean I believe no gods exist. It means I don’t have sufficient evidence to convince me that the god DOES exist. There is a different between “I don’t believe a god exists” and “I believe no gods exist”, one is a position on a proposition, the other is itself a proposition. So when I use the term theist, I mean “one who accepts the proposition that a god exists” and when I say atheist, I mean “one who has not accepted the proposition that a god exists”. Essentially if someone asks you if you believe in a god you are a theist if you say “yes”, if you say anything else you are an atheist.
3. What exactly is an agnostic?
Now it may seem like I’ve discarded the label agnostic, but it is actually a rather useful term. Instead my goal was to remove it from the discussion of atheism vs theism since it serves no purpose in that discussion. Instead we can use it to help fine tune how we categorize our beliefs. Remember that knowledge is a subset of belief, once we’ve uncovered where we stand on belief, we can assess what we claim to know about those beliefs.
Just as atheism is the opposite of theism, agnosticism is itself the opposite of another label: Gnostic. Both these labels deal with what we know as opposed to what we belief. An agnostic is one who does not claim knowledge, and a gnostic is one who does claim knowledge. By adding these knowledge labels to our belief labels we can be more specific about our stance in regards to a question of whether or not a god exists. If we had to diagram this system it would look something like this:
So what we see is that all atheists have one thing in common: They have not accepted the claim that a god exists or have a lack of a belief in a god. Even a Gnostic Atheist who claims no gods exist, must also have a lack of a belief, they simply go one step further and claim to have knowledge that no gods exist. Similarly theists all share the belief that a god exists, but they can be subdivided into those who know a god exists and those who don’t.
You’ll often see me refer to myself simply as an atheist, this is for “ease of use” if you will. I prefer to put emphasis on the belief label over the knowledge label since we act on our beliefs whether or not those beliefs are also knowledge. If you believe there is a shark in the water, you are going to behave as though there is a shark in the water regardless of whether or not you’re certain there’s a shark. Therefore to me, it’s more important to deal with just atheist and theist during a conversation, especially since the question of what exactly can be considered knowledge is itself a sticky question. If you believe a god exists, you will behave as a theist regardless of whether or not you claim to know a god exists and the same is true for atheists.
4. Other common perceptions of atheism
In addition to whether or not an atheists believes in no gods, or simply lacks a belief in a god, people have many other ideas of what it means to be an atheist. To me, atheism is simply a single position on the topic of whether or not there is a god. It has nothing to do with any other topic. I often see many theists and even some atheists ascribing other concepts to atheism when those ideas are irrelevant to atheism. Here is a list of common claims people make about atheists:
- Atheism is a religion/worldview- Atheism is not a religion or a worldview, as I said above it is a single stance on a single proposition. Theism is also not a religion or a worldview in the same regard, though it does lead to creating a religion or worldview. When you accept the claim that a god exists, and you start trying to please and worship that god you start creating a religion or worldview. Atheism cannot even lead to a religion or worldview because it is not itself a belief and cannot influence your actions.
- Atheists have no morals- While it’s true that an atheist is not provided morals by their atheism, it is not true that atheists have no moral values. Atheists are human beings and as such, no atheist can have their entire character or personality summed up by atheism. While atheism does not provide morals and is not a worldview, it can be a component of a worldview. An atheist can develop a sense of morality in addition to their atheism.
- Atheists have meaningless or empty lives- Again, atheism does not provide meaning in and of itself, but this does not mean atheists lead meaningless lives. There are plenty of ways to find meaning in life without belief in a god. Atheists are perfectly capable of finding their own purpose or meaning in life, whether it be a passion, hobby, or goal. Simply enjoying the company of friends and family can be perfectly fulfilling. In fact, I have personally found that since I no longer believe in an afterlife, my life has become infinitely more meaningful. Every moment I experience is now indescribably more precious now that it is finite.
- Atheists don’t believe in anything- This is patently absurd. Atheists can believe anything and everything except a god. While many atheists are skeptics, naturalists, and/or materialists, technically speaking, atheists can believe in ghosts, spirits, souls, or even be religious. I know it seems strange to consider a religious atheist, but technically Buddhism has no deity and therefore many Buddhists are also atheists by definition.