Category: Atheism


There seems to be a neverending confusion and conflation of the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”. In this post, I hope to clear up the difference between the two.

From my experience, the two most frequent and important points to address in this matter are:

1) The false claim that, by definition, atheism is the positive assertion that no godds exist; and

2) The profession by many who, according to the precise meanings of the two words, are in fact both atheists and agnostics, that they are agnostics, but not atheists.

Before addressing what’s problematic about these two points, let’s examine the etymology of the words “atheist” and “agnostic” in order to more clearly undeerstand their definitions.

Both words begin with the prefix “a-“. The definition found (as all subsequent definitions are) in wordinfo:

a-, an-
(Greek: prefix; no, absence of, without, lack of, not)

Just as in the words “apolitical” or “areligious”, which respectively mean “not political” and “lacking religion”, this suffix simply means “to lack”. A-theism, then, is a lack of theism, and a-gnosticism a lack of gnosticism:

gno-, gnos-, gnoto-, -gnostic, -gnosia, -gnomic, -gnomonic, -gnomical, -gnomy, -gnosia, -gnostic, -gnosis +
(Greek: know, learn, discern)

theo-, the-, -theism, -theist, -theistic
(Greek: God, god, deity, divine)

As in the words “diagnose” (literally, to know thoroughly) and ignorance (literally the opposite of knowing or not knowing), the root “-gnostic” pertains to knowledge.

The root “-theist”, on the other hand, pertains to belief in one God, or gods. Just as polytheism is the belief in multiple gods, and pantheism is the belief that (roughly speaking) everything is god, atheism is a lack of any belief in any gods.

The fundamental distinction to make here is the difference between belief and knowledge. It is entirely possible to have one without the other. Many people, for example, believe in ghosts although they do not claim to have any knowledge – whether by personal experience or external evidence – of the veracity of their existence.

So, when it comes to atheism and agnosticism, these are not different positions on the same linear spectrum. They are answers to two entirely different questions.

In the case of theism or atheism, the question is, “Do you believe that one or more gods exist?” If your answer is anything less than an affirmative “Yes”, then you are an atheist. You lack theistic belief.

And in the case of gnosticism (in the simple sense of peertaining to knowledge) or agnosticism as applied to deities, the question is, “Do you claim to have knowledge of the existence (or nonexistence) of one or more gods?” And if you cannot answer “Yes” to this question, then you are an agnostic.

All four combinations of atheist/theist and agnostic/gnostic are therefore possible. It’s likely that most theists are gnostic theists, who not only believe in God, but also would claim to have knowledge of that God. There are, however, also agnostic theists, who maintain a belief in the existence of God without claiming to have any direct or indirect knowledge upon which to base that belief.

Likewise, the majority of atheists are most likely also agnostic; while remaining unconvinced that any gods exist, they do not go so far as to say they are absolutely certain than none do, or at least could exist (I would include myself in this category). Some atheists do take that extra step beyond lacking belief, however, and make the positive claim of knowledge that no gods exist.

And with that, being that it’s about 2:30 a.m., I’ve just got to cut this off short and hit the sack. I will follow this post up, hopefully this weekend, with a further explanation of why I find the two points at the top of this post problematic.

[Note: This post, specifically the cat analogy, borrows heavily from ideas I first heard expressed on the highly recommended Atheist Experience TV show. I suggest you ucheck them out, and I thank them for presenting the argument.]

 

“Why should I believe you?”

My wife and I don’t have kids, but if we ever do, that will definitely be a question they’ll be raised learning to ask.

From Power Balance bracelets (astonishingly still being sold on the internet) to miracle diets, from reiki to homeopathy, from chupacabras to sinister reptilians, from phony 2011 apocalyptic prophesies to phony 2012 apocalyptic prophesies, the informational landscape in which we live is riddled with falsehoods, and heavily populated by hucksters and charlatans who would have us believe the stories they’re peddling in order to further their own agendas – usually to our detriment – that a skeptical approach is merited.

Skepticism is important for many reasons. One of the most important is that we prevent ourselves from baselessly believing untrue things, especially in cases where accepting false or unsupported beliefs may bring undue harm or ill consequences upon ourselves. But even in cases where believing things for no good reason may not seem to invite any immediate or apparent harm – say, for example, accepting that there is a loving god which created this universe and all living things in it – the same degree of skepticism should be applied. We act, after all, based upon our beliefs. And the further our beliefs become detached from foundations in reality, the more difficult it will become for us to make decisions which are beneficial in the real world.

But not all claims are equal.

Consider two assertions I might make to you:

1) I tell you my bicycle is parked outside.

2) I tell you my Lamborghini is parked outside.

Unless you happen to believe for some reason that I’m ridiculously wealthy (if only it were true) you almost certainly won’t believe my second assertion. You will, however, believe the first easily enough, and rightfully so. The vast majority of people can (and many do) buy bicycles, meaning that the likelihood of my owning one is fairly high, and further that the unlikelihood of me lying about owning one (when it’s nothing special) is even higher. Why in the world would anyone lie about owning a bike?

These thresholds of believability are something we all are familiar with and experience in our daily lives, especially in the internet age when viral rumors run rampant and the pace of creating false stories and claims exceeds the pace of debunking those falsehoods by what seems to be an ever-increasing margin. We have all kinds of expressions, usually involving odor (“that story doesn’t pass the smell test”) that display in our vernacular language our keen awareness of the many varying levels of plausibility when it comes to the stories people tell us.

Yet, when it comes to religious assertions, hands off! Thou shalt not disrespect the claims of another, so long as they qualify them with words such as “sacred”, “spiritual”, “holy”, “religious”, “god”, or any number of phrases which serve as dogmatic antibodies to critical scrutiny. How often we all have heard it asserted that questioning another’s religious assertions is “disrespectful” or “inappropriate”.

But to those believers who would seek to assert their religious claims under the protection of such well-established social mores, it’s important that you understand that skeptics and atheists have no sacred cows. No claims are exempt from inquiry and investigation.

So when you assert, “God exists”, you may find it offensive when atheists and skeptics ask you, rhetorically, “Do you believe in bigfoot?” “Do you believe in leprechauns?” “Do you believe in alien abductions?” To many of you this may feel like a deliberately disrespectful affront to the sanctity of your religion. But it’s important that you understand this is not hyperbole or exaggeration on the part of the questioner. Skeptics do not recognize the sanctity of any claims which have not been shown to be built upon a reasonable and demonstrable foundation of evidence.

And please, if you will, consider how your claims sound to us.

Your claim is one of the existence of God. Let’s consider an analogy based on the existence of a pet. And return to the concept of varying thresholds of believability.

Like the bicycle example above, if I assert to you that “I have a pet cat”, you are more than likely to believe me. Having a cat is so commonplace, and nothing special. Why would I lie about that? And let’s say additionally that I’m your co-worker of several years, so that you feel you know me fairly well and have little reason to doubt or distrust me. Then you’ll be even more inclined to believe that a cat truly is living in my home.

So one Saturday evening I have a party and you have your first opportunity to visit my place – very much looking forward to meeting the cat I always talk so much about. But upon arriving and walking around a bit, you begin to notice first that there isn’t a cat wandering around, and then – as you move from room to room – that there isn’t a litter box in the bathroom, and there aren’t food and water dishes in the kitchen. There are no scratches on the sofa, and no signs of any cat toys, cat nip, or any cat-related anything to be found.

Your doubt builds, and appropriately so. My simple assertion (“I have a cat”) has become less believable as your scrutiny of my claim has raised your suspicions. After a while you just have to ask me: “So, where is this cat of yours?” But I just smile and say she’s not around right now. Time passes, still no cat, you raise the stakes: “So I’m sorry, but it kind of seems like you don’t really have a cat here…” But now I just laugh. “Oh, of course I have a cat, it’s just away from the home right now, and it won’t be back until after the party…”

At a certain point, when none of the evidence you should expect to have seen if I truly owned a cat has been anywhere in sight – especially the cat itself – you will find yourself in a position in which, even if you trust me and don’t believe I’m a liar, you really are left with no other choice but believing I don’t really have a cat. My once simple “cat” assertion has now moved closer to “Lamborghini” territory. Until, at least, I can show you some verifiable evidence that I actually do have a cat.

Or in other words, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

And in this story, the only claim I’m making is that I have a pet cat.

So how do you think it sounds to people who don’t already subscribe to your God-concept when you claim that God not only exists, but has extraordinary powers and does things which go against everything we know of how the natural world works?

Is it really so unreasonable for us to ask you to show us the litter box? To show us the food and water dishes or the scratches on the sofa? And above all, to show us the damn cat?

I hope you understand this: Atheists don’t choose not to believe in gods. We can’t believe in gods. There simply is no reason to believe the entirely unconvincing claims that any gods exist when nobody on the planet can demonstrate a single shred of evidence that those claims are true. Under such conditions, “choosing” to believe in God is akin to “choosing” to believe we can fly by flapping our arms. It flies in the face of everything we know as evident reality.

I can’t do it. Nor would I ever want to, without good reason.

“You had to be there.”

We’ve all heard it before.

We’ve all said it, and we all know the feeling. We want so badly to communicate exactly how it felt to experience a particular moment – a funny joke, a transportative live music experience, the electricity of the crowd at the game winning score – yet we can see on our listeners’ faces that our accounts of these stories are falling short. They’re unable to put themselves in our shoes and directly feel the states we’re trying to convey.

So we say, “Well, I guess you just had to be there.” But we’re left with that residual feeling… if only there were some way we could make them feel what we felt at that time, then they’d get it.

The problem is, we can’t do that. Subjective experiences by definition are limited to the subject who experiences them. Each human mind is an island unto itself; we cannot inhabit the minds of others, get into their heads and truly know what it’s like to feel what they feel, experience what they experience, think how they think.

Not that we human beings don’t have an amazing and beautiful capacity to approximate that sensation to what generally strikes us as a convincing degree. A shared concert experience, a shared tragedy, in all sorts of situations our great capacity for empathy enables us to understand that at that particular time, we all went through the same thing, or at least something so very similar that we confidently say, “I know how that feels. I’ve been through that.”

And of course through millennia of human culture and civilization we’ve established wonderfully refined methods to communicate, in both concrete and abstract ways, the richness of human experience. Poetry, music, literature, art, allegory, metaphor, humor, these are among the many devices that allow us to articulate our experiences with such power and beauty that we just know – or at least feel that we know – that we have had a common experience of the same condition.

These empathetic resonances touch our lives every day. And this experience – the experience of feeling that we have shared or at least understood the experiences of others – is real to us. And this makes it all too easy to accept the experiences of others as true. But in fact, it even actually goes beyond that.

It makes it difficult to accept the experiences of others as false.

To question another’s assertion of personal experience as truth is often seen as, at best, insinuating that they may be confused, or perhaps not too bright, but at worst, accusing them of being an outright liar. And so it becomes socially inappropriate to express vocal disbelief in the personal experience claims people make.

But there’s a problem with this. Two problems, actually.

The first is that there isn’t just a single delineating line between believable and unbelievable claims. It’s a many layered threshold; it’s a wide spectrum. It is possible that people could lie when they say, “I’m hungry.” But such a lie would be so rare – not to mention pointless – that we generally would never have reason to doubt that claim. A claim such as, “I see dead people”, on the other hand, appropriately raises the red flag of skepticism. The extraordinary nature of the claim rightfully brings upon itself increased doubt, increased skepticism, and increased disbelief. Hunger is not only a universal experience for us humans, it also has countlessly abundant evident examples in the natural world. The natural world does not, however, provide us with examples of ghosts, and further, only a certain percentage of people claim to have personally experienced them.

Which brings us to the second problem, which is that some things are demonstrably true when scrutinized using logic, reason and the scientific method (inasmuch, that is, that anything can be said to be “true”, which, in science, is never said with 100% certainty). Hunger is not only universal as an experience, it’s universal as a biological reality which can be measured, tested and validated. However, there is no reliable scientific demonstration that ghosts exist at all, let alone that even if they did the type of equipment that “ghost hunter” types use in their pseudoscientific pursuit of spirits would be the right kinds of tools for the job. There simply are no evident, naturalistic signs of the existence of ghosts.

Or gods. And here we get to the point.

“I know God is real because I experience him every day.” “I know Jesus is the Savior because I accepted Him into my heart.” “I know Mohammed is the one true prophet because I feel Allah’s presence at all times.”

We’ve all heard it before.

Chances are, if you’re a believer, you’ve probably said it, too, and may well say it many more times again. It is one of, if not the most common appeal that believers make in efforts to convince others of the truth of their beliefs. And the reason for that, as mentioned above, is that it’s a powerful appeal.

Our sense of empathy is strong, as is our reluctance to question the validity of the personal experience of others. Appealing to this empathy and respect for boundaries not only creates the appearance that “there’s really something to it” when it comes to religious beliefs, it also corners the skeptics into being the bad guys if they dare question the factuality of those assertions.

How dare we disrespect others’ beliefs!

Here’s how: Because they have no place in the discussion of what is actually true. Because the things we can recognize and demonstrate as being true are, by definition, not subjective, but objective and demonstrable under the scrutiny of multiple observers.

Not only that, but there is plenty of evidence that what actually can be demonstrated about personal religious experience claims is that they are, practically without fail, limited to the cultural parameters in which the subject was raised. When a farm boy from Nebraska “sees God”, we can be quite certain that that god will not be a Hindu god such asVishnu or Shiva. The personal experiences of “God”, or “Allah”, or “Vishnu”, or whatever that people have are, almost without fail, confined to the strict limitations of their culturally familiar religions. So objectively speaking, is it more reasonable to assume that most Americans who claim to be experiencing Jesus are actually experiencing Jesus, or that they believe they’re experiencing Jesus because they’ve grown up in a majority Christian nation, raised by Christian families?

Furthermore, if we start from the default position of atheism (as we all are born atheists, and are only taught religion later in life), which personal experience claims are we to believe? People of different religions assert that their own is the only true one. But given that we cannot access any other individual’s personal experiences, how should we determine whether the Christian’s “only true religion” (or for that matter, which of the hundreds of Christian denominations), or the Muslim’s “only true religion”, and so on, is actually the right one? If the argument is limited to the subjective personal experience, then it can never be demonstrated as true to an outside observer.

And so all such religious truth claims, all of which conflict with each other, are equal in the eyes of the neutral observer. And, given that there’s no evidence for their veracity to be found in the natural world, they’re all equally unlikely, equally implausible, equally unbelievable.

And that’s why, when believers ask me (as one did recently) questions like, “Doesn’t personal experience matter? Doesn’t it count for anything?” My answer is:

No.

Not when it comes to demonstrating the truth of your claims. It doesn’t mean a damn thing.

 

Harry Potter is a militant atheist? Well, not the fictional character himself, but the actor who plays him.

From TVNZ:

Daniel Radcliffe – militant atheist

Daniel Radcliffe believes it is important to separate religion and education because he thinks sex lessons are important.

The 22-year-old “militant atheist” was brought up in a Christian/Jewish household and told Attitude magazine he’s not religious.

“I’m an atheist, and a militant atheist when religion starts impacting on legislation.

“We need sex education in schools. Schools have to talk to kids from a young age about relationships, gay and straight. In Britain it’s better – more of a conversation is being had.”

As a parting post before I break for vacation, I thought I’d post this video.

As much as I respect Hitchens, Dawkins, and the rest of the more famous intellectuals in the atheist visibility movement, I’d have to say that my favorite counter-apologist is probably Matt Dillahunty. Being well versed in the Bible, and having previously aspired to become a preacher, he just has a way of engaging theists on their own terms.

My greatest hope in writing this blog is not to “convert” anybody to atheism, but only to encourage anybody and everybody (theists and atheists alike) to apply skepticism and critical thinking to their own beliefs.

This is the best short, real time example I know of what that actually looks like, and it is Dillahunty at his finest:

“So maybe I should just trust myself not even listen to the Bible.”

Yes, Mark, that’s exactly what you should do. Or, at the very least, if you listen to the Bible first, examine the claims and laws written therein with a critical, skeptical eye, and accept them not on faith, but only if they withstand the scrutiny of empirical evidence and a secular morality.

I’m no artist, but when I saw this tweet by David Silverman, President of American Atheists (click the link to see the picture he posted), I was inspired:

Atheists don’t Tebow, we Thinker. http://pic.twitter.com/W2yjJYgb

Needless to say, I put my immaculate MS Paint skills to work, and did up this rough, simple, but hopefully to-the-point picture. I hope you like it:

“In their songs they have a rule,

The “he” is always lower case…”

Apparently the faith of believers is so strong that they have to suppress secular voices and abuse governmental powers to reinforce religious privilege and favoritism in order to keep it intact:

Pennsylvania Town Rejects Atheist ‘There Are No Gods’ Banner in Holiday Display

Published December 03, 2011

| Associated Press

ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. –  A western Pennsylvania mayor refused to include a banner from an atheist group that says “there are no gods” as part of a holiday display that includes a Nativity scene, which has been erected annually on city property for decades.

Hundreds of people turned out to support the mayor’s decision to go ahead with the display Friday, which also includes symbols pertaining to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and secular symbols, including Santa Claus, a snowman and a Christmas tree.

The city about 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh added secular symbols to the display this year after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained last year that it amounted to a government endorsement of religion.

Seeking to head off a similar challenge, the mayor also invited the Madison, Wis.-based group to contribute something to the modified display, so the group mailed a sign that read: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Mayor Tony Court said he’s yet to receive the banner in the mail, but he refuses to add it when it arrives. “It violates the First Amendment. It’s endorsing atheism,” he said, adding that the crGeche “is a statue. It’s not a doctrinal statement.”

This mayor must have some moon-sized balls to actually invoke the First Amend ment in the name of religious suppression.

The tactics employed by the defenders of religious privilege: Never surprising, always (like their unfounded claims) unbelievable.

I’ve been trying to write this for over two months. I never know where to start. The reasons why I’m an atheist now aren’t exactly the same (though they overlap) as the reasons I left the faith I was brought up in. My adult understanding of why I value evidence based belief above all other forms is better thought out, more deeply analyzed, and rooted more in rationality and naturalism than my more emotionally based adolescent rejection of religion was.

Yet when people on twitter or at bars ask me, “Why are you an atheist?” or “Why don’t you believe in God?”, the questions I feel they’re really asking are, “Why don’t you believe in my religion?” and “Why don’t you believe in my God?” I suspect that, for the most part, they’re not as interested in hearing about my views on the irrationality of faith-based beliefs as they are about my personal experiences. After all, they’re experiencing religion in a personal way right now, and so the question is an attempt to understand how it is feeling, viewing, and thinking about life from a non-religious perspective. What experiences led me to this (happily) godless life? What was my visceral reaction to abandoning all notions of gods and embracing a worldview in which religion and the supernatural hold no sway? How could my life possibly have any meaning, how could I feel complete without God? How could I possibly not believe in the first place?

This seems to be the more pressing nature of these questions, and so I’ll start at, or near, the beginning, in my early childhood, when the church’s own actions sowed the seeds of my atheism. [Note: There isn’t enough time or space for me to complete my story in a single blog post, so this will be part 1 of several.]

I was raised in the Christian faith by parents who were both ministers. Yep, I’m a double P.K. But to be clear, they were not overbearing regarding religion when I was a little kid. Both were (and are) progressives, both participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Both embraced more a modern, liberal ministry and were, in their own respective ways, pushing to modernize the church.They weren’t fundamentalists, and I wasn’t beaten over the head with a Bible. As a very young child things were, for the most part, pretty loose on the religion front.

But as far back as I can remember, I always hated going to church. It was boring. I hated having to dress up in the uncomfortable child-suit with the clip-on tie. My father was the preacher so everyone knew of me, and I was always intimidated by all the strange strangers (and often stranger familiars) who wanted to make sure I knew how cute (or whatever) they thought I was. To me, the services were little more than an exercise in alleviating boredom until those final bells rang and harkened my freedom to go outside and play. Mostly, it was just a thing I had to do when I’d rather have been doing something else. The dullest, most annoying time of the week.

But all this seemingly harmless malaise turned out to be the calm before the big storm hit that nobody had seen coming.

Before I continue, I need to say here that I do love both of my parents, and that anything harsh or critical, or even just personal I say regarding my folks is not intended to publicly throw either of them under the bus (in fact, maintaining their anonymity with regards to my blogging is a big part of why I write under a pseudonym), but only because it would be impossible for me to tell my story in a complete, cohesive way if I were to eliminate certain critical aspects of it. I can’t get personal about myself without, to some extent, getting personal about them, too. And so:

It turned out that my father was gay. This was made known nearly simultaneously to my family, the congregation and (as soon as the press got wind of it, which was quickly) the public. All hell broke loose. In one fell swoop both my family and the church were torn apart. I was too young to understand what really was going on, but I knew it was important because the kids at school were talking and asking me about it, and things were getting ugly at home. It was a big deal.

The church fired my father. The congregation divided, a significant percentage of it leaving with him to form a separate, more accepting alternative church. At the time, I was pretty much on the level of, “Okay, I guess I’m going to this other church now sometimes, too.” Adults did their own things for reasons beyond my comprehension. Like most kids, I had no interest and no choice but to roll with it.

Skipping tracks to a brief aside. I remember a specific conversation with an elementary school friend which must have happened around two years later, given the friend and the school I was attending at the time. That friend was also a churchgoer. We left my house, were walking down the street, and started having what must have been an unusually profound conversation for our age. It went something like:

Friend: So, like, do you really believe in God and Jesus and stuff?

Me: Well, uh, I dunno. I mean not really. But I guess so. But I mean, I dunno.

From all I can recollect of my memories, I was never reverent, I was never devout, the faith that I had (if any) was severely weak, and although I can distinctly remember times when I sincerely wanted to believe, I really never was quite thoroughly convinced.

Back on the main storyline, where several years later I’m living alone with my mother (hopefully the divorce story is self explanatory) and, to her great frustration, developing the capacity to think for myself. As I grew into adolescence and, like most kids (although perhaps a little moreso) into a more rebellious attitude, she was growing stricter, more forceful, angrier and, at the worst times, emotionally violent. This tension wasn’t limited to religion or churchgoing, but those were the points around which it flashed the hottest.

And now we come to it.

By the time I was in high school, I’d developed the self awareness, the social awareness, and the reflective and analytical capacity to form a few opinions about the events which not only had shaped my life up to that point, but continued to dominate it on a regular basis.

The first, and probably most important: My father was a good man. He made all kinds of mistakes, to be sure. But the degree of castigation, ire, demonizing, shunning, betrayal by those he had trusted – or to put it more simply, the amount of plain old hateful bigotry – which not only was dumped on him by his peers but was essentially officially sanctioned by the church as they sacked him from his position and relegated him to second class status within their organization, was downright fucking despicable.

The second, and more urgent to me during my latter adolescence: My mother was a deeply emotionally troubled woman who no longer had the capacity to deal with me in a non-abusive way. As I write this now, I’m trying to put this in the most gentle, fair way I know how. But at the time I was an emotional trainwreck, fairly well tormented by her undermining of my dignity and self esteem at every opportunity she had, and her incessant attempts at severe, micromanagerial control over every detail of my existence.

And on Sundays I was made to go to church.

The sermons were all about the usual Christian stuff. The preacher said we should love our neighbors and accept those who are different than us, even as the church had hated and rejected my father. The preacher – my mother – said we should follow the teachings of Christ and try to be pure of heart, even as I knew well that she had done some pretty impure of heart shit that very morning before church.

The hypocrisy in the air was so thick I could practically see it. It was so rancid I almost could physically taste it. It was morally repugnant, and nauseated every corner of reason, rationality, and good sense in my brain. I could not have been more repulsed.

I was done with the church, and with religion in general. I had learned – correctly – not to trust any person who claims authority based on a self-professed assertion to speak for gods, or to be better trained in interpreting and espousing divine messages. I had seen the man behind the curtain, and he was a cheap, charlatan trickster – even if he truly believed himself to be playing The Great Oz with all good intentions.

And don’t get me wrong. I do not say my mother was, or many other members of the clergy are, lying about their beliefs. She did, and does, I’m sure, sincerely believe in the truth of every Christian message she has uttered. But having not only witnessed, but experienced and been on the shit end of the disconnect between  lofty religious claims of truth, love and beauty,  and the ugly, unacceptable, insipid reality which – in fact – belies them, I simply could no no longer believe or have faith in that, or any other gods, if I even ever had at all. The words rang hollow, the stories untrue, a big masquerade celebrating an illusion which no longer had any power over me.

I was an atheist.

[Note: It has taken me months to articulate this origin story of how I first became an atheist. There will be further installments picking up where this left off and culminating with why I am an atheist now. Hopefully this will be finished before 2013.]

The subject of what separates agnostics from atheists, versus what they share in common, or alternately, whether they’re entirely indistinguishable, or if they’re mutually exclusive, generates much debate and even anger, as people argue over definitions of terms, who gets to define who as what based on what, and emotions conflate the matter as people tend to identify with and embrace, or seek to distance themselves from and reject, certain labels.

In short, the entire conversation tends to turn into one big clusterfuck, bogged down in semantics, and muddled by the inability and/or unwillingness of participants on all sides to agree on the meanings of words.

Consider this Part 1 of my opening this can of worms, in which I will simply pose the question (although I have plenty of opinions on all the above which I’ll discuss in good time), to those who consider yourselves agnostic but not atheist:

Have you considered the possibility that you may have been an atheist all along, but just resisted framing it that way either due to a too-narrow (or incorrect) definition of “atheist”, or an unwillingness to let yourself be associated with the (admittedly, baggage-laden) term?

For now, I’d like to frame the question by submitting two definitions from Oxford Dictionaries Online. And since both “agnostic” and “atheist” start with the Latin “a-” prefix meaning “not -“, let’s look at what, at least by these dictionary definitions, agnostics and atheists are not:

gnostic
relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge

theism
belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe

Strictly speaking, the “a-gnostic” (“not a gnostic”) makes no claims to have knowledge, especially “esoteric mystical knowledge” (which essentially is to say knowledge of any gods). But for how many, for what percentage of self-described agnostics who hold this view that they can’t or don’t have knowledge of gods, would it follow that they could even possibly become a person who has a “belief in the existence of a god or gods”? How could they jump from, “I don’t know or can’t know if gods exist” to “but… I believe in one or more of them anyhow”? It utterly defies logic.

Simply put, if you don’t know and therefore don’t believe in the existence of such dieties, if you are not “a theist”, how could it make sense to you that you’re not “an atheist”, which by definition is merely, “not a theist”?

I submit to you that if you are not a theist, if you do not believe that any gods necessarily exist, then you are, in fact, an atheist.

 

I hope to follow up with Part 2 in the next few days, preferably after getting some feedback from agnostics.

 

(This post was inspired by a recent, brief and amicable conversation I had with twitter user @AllanJH)

 


							
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