Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why I Am Not an Agnostic

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.


  1. Perhaps this is a point of semantics, but one of the statements you are responding to is: "You're not really an atheist - I think you're an agnostic" but then, in your closing, you write that you "go so far as to say that by definition, an agnostic IS an atheist." If that's true, what's the concern with people saying the statement you're reacting to? If I'm a Granny Smith apple, and when I tell people I'm a Granny Smith, they say "nah, I think you're actually an apple," my answer would be, "well, duh. That was implied." Or, am I missing some nuance of this?

  2. It is semantics to some degree. I can't draw circles on here, but I view agnostics as a tiny circle inside a much large circle. In logic terms, it's like all B = A, but not all A = B. If I'm an A, then I'm an A. But if I'm not a B, even if Bs are As, then don't call me a B.

    As an analogy, all spiders are insects, but not all insects are spiders. If I'm an insect but not a spider, don't call me a spider. =)

  3. Oh, man, Ryan... spiders aren't insects.

    I take your point, though.

  4. HA! And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am not a biologist.

    That's a pretty bad fuck up, though. My dad would be embarrassed.

  5. Thanks for making this distinction Ryan, I think atheism is something that a lot of people don't understand. I used to consider myself a deist, I believed in the possibility of a higher power that set into motion the current construct of the universe and then just let things happen. I was never able to rationalize or believe in Christianity, mostly because the idea of an all knowing, all seeing creator being so concerned with being lavished with faith from his disciples and believers under threat of eternal damnation, did not seem to be the act of a being that is also so easily able to grant eternal life and eternal happiness. It all seemed too childish to me.

    Anyways, just a synopsis but I now consider myself an athiest and the way I look at it is I live my life "without god", which is a very literal manifestation of it. Contrary to those who might not understand this does not mean that I hate Jesus, or love the devil or ascribe to any other doctrine. I no more believe in satan than I do a christian god, and to be blunt am indifferent to both and more.

    I do not have a problem with anyone else' faith until their faith is thrust upon me, which in this country can happen quite a bit. I am constantly amazed by how many moral decisions in this country are discussed politically through the morality of a christian lens. I also feel that atheists are probably the last minority that will receive widespread social acceptance. A recent poll among christians showed them to trust athiests just a little less than rapists. This is a strange benchmark for us to judge one another by in a country that was founded on religious freedom, something that also has been lost and mangled in the rhetoric of the day.

    Religious freedom as well as allowing anyone to believe any religion they want also protects people from having to have a religion.

    Since I've accepted this personal truth, my life has been far better. Although at times it is hard to struggle with the finite nature of my experience on earth and my mortality, I find it far better to accept that I live in an indifferent universe, rather than one where there are great, unknown, cosmic or theist influences happening to me and everyone else at the hands of what I can only describe as an omnipotent, omnipresent, bipolar schizophrenic.

  6. I've found in my life and observed in others that faith is almost always a choice. I've made the choice for faith in my life and I've seen people choose faith and then choose to leave it behind. I believe faith has to be a choice because faith is such a difficult thing to live with. I see faith as I see love: sometimes we must choose to have it or live it even when we don't feel it. In this way, the choosing, faith grows in to something profound and meaningful, rather than obligation to what one has grown used to or feels obligated to. Faith is not obligation to a feeling, but active participation in a choice; a choice completely within a person's control.