Why I Am Not an Agnostic
Since I started using the term atheist for myself, there have been a few incorrect responses that have come back to me (and to be honest, most people aren't brave enough to discuss the issue with me, so kudos to those that are!). Here are a few of them:
"Atheism is the same as religion, it's just faith that there is no God instead of faith that there is."
"Atheists are all so pissed off all the time"
"You're not really an atheist - I think you're an agnostic"
The last one has been said to me twice, despite my repeatedly assurance that I'm pretty sure I know what I am more than someone else does. In any event, the first and third statements both relate to definitions, and the misunderstandings people have about them. (I'm saving #2 for another time)
To start with, let's define agnosticism. Agnosticism is the philosophical position that the question of the existence of God(s) cannot be known. This is NOT the same thing as saying "I don't know," or "I doubt it but I can't say for sure," or " I'm on the fence." To be a true agnostic requires a whole lot more philosophical insight than most people have, and those that have it tend to not be agnostics. Why? My theory is that it's silly to give up on a question just because the answer hasn't been found yet, and philosophers aren't quitters. How many philosophical or scientific answers have been found long after religion and society decided to attribute the answer to the supernatural? It wasn't too long ago that famine was considered God's punishment, but then science came along and not only gave an explanation for it, but in a lot of cases, taught us how to solve it entirely.
So why quit on the existence of God? If you've got a reason, I'd like to hear it.
An atheist, on the other hand, is not someone who "believes" there is no God. An atheist simply lacks the beliefs in any gods. There are prominent atheists, Penn Gillette being one, who will proudly state that they DO believe there is no God, but even he makes the distinction between actual atheism, and something that goes further than atheism. But if the word atheist is being used, it should not be assumed that the people has made a faith statement that is equally unprovable as saying God exists. I view it like this:
Belief in God | Lack of Belief in God | Belief in no God
The first is theism (or deism if you prefer your faith a little bit less attached), the second is atheism, the third is something else that probably has a name, but I don't know what it is. For me, the visual is even simpler:
Belief in God |
I'm to the right of the line. Nothing more, nothing less. I don't believe there is NOT a God because I can't prove that point any more than I can prove that there is. Being to the right of the line also does not necessarily make me anti-God or anti-Christian (I should point out that with one exception, most of you are just as atheistic as I am. You just happen to believe in one more god than I do). The search for meaning and value in life leads a lot of people to faith, but that doesn't mean that everyone who chooses not to take that step thinks faith is stupid and meaningless.
Quite the contrary. As I hope I've made clear on this blog in the past, I think religion has tremendous meaning, and is undeniably understandable. Truth value aside, faith provides answers to the most important questions, and to hold onto those answers, even in the absence of valid reasons to do so (or proof if you like that word better - there's not much difference in my opinion), makes a lot of sense. Why would someone WANT to live their life in uncertainty? I sure don't. But I've discovered that faith is not something a person can choose to have, and it's usually not something a person can choose to let go of. It's there or it isn't, and while knowledge and personal relationships influence a person's faith status a great deal, in the end I think it's largely outside a person's control.
In closing, if there's one thing I'd love to see in the theism vs. atheism discussion, it's the correct use of words, in their correct context. If someone says they're agnostic (and this is a broad generalization), they're probably not educated enough in philosophy to know what they're saying, and are more than likely an atheist who doesn't have the courage to admit they're not a believer. I'd go so far as to say that by definition, an agnostic IS an atheist. After all, if you don't think the question has an answer, you're certainly not a believer, which by default makes you an atheist.
So let's say what me we mean and mean what we say. If you're an atheist, don't be afraid to say so. As I've learned, there are a whole lot of religious people that will still want to be friends with you, can have faith conversations with you without taking your atheism personally, and will support your journey even if your conclusion isn't the same as theirs. And if you're a believer, find out what your atheist friend means when they say they're an atheist. It probably isn't as mean and nasty as you imagine.