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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.

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Why Evolution Is True

Sam Harris’s new book, Free Will, will be out in three days. You can order a paperback here, a Kindle version ($3.99) here, read a short excerpt here, and a longer excerpt at the Amazon site. At 90 pages, it’s only $6.99.

I like it a lot (I’ve blurbed it), and if you know my own views on free will, you’ll like it too.  Sam and I have pretty much the same take on the issue, but of course Sam is deeper and writes better! I also like Oliver Sacks’ blurb: “Brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive—Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000.” ‘Tis true!

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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.]

Browsing through the #atheist twitter hashtag, I came upon this tweet by @LaurentRA:

Okay #atheists, where the hell is your raising a stink about this?? http://bit.ly/s4ghcS

The shortened url links to an absolutely horrific article in the Daily Mail on the beheading of a Sudanese man in Saudi Arabia for the “crime” of … “sorcery”.

Although I disagree with LaurentRA’s implication that atheists would generally not be outraged by this, I absolutely agree that we all should be. I urge you to read the entire article in all its gruesome detail, which literally turned my stomach and left me wondering if there is any Islamic blasphemic equivalent to “Jesus fucking Christ!”, which happened to be my first utterance upon reading the article.

I won’t presume to know LaurentPA’s exact reasons for directing the tweet at atheists, but there are common complaints, usually issued by the Christian faithful (“Christian” is in LaurentPA’s twitter profile description), that for various reasons – sometimes political correctness, sometimes bitterness at the faith in which people were raised, sometimes purely out of spite or animosity – atheists are “too hard” on Christian religions and “too soft” on Islam.

There may be a degree of truth to this. And there may be some good reasons as well as some bad reasons why it happens. One factor that comes into play is that Western atheists generally react most strongly against Western religions, which hold majority positions of social and political power in their regional societies. Atheists in Nebraska are legitimately more worried about Christians replacing actual biology with pseudoscientific creationism in school science classrooms than they are about the potential implementation of sharia law because, well, there’s a much higher chance of the former really happening. So in terms of immediate concerns most American atheists (and I see that LaurentPA is in Virginia) locate Islam on a less immediate orbit of concern.

That said, it is absolutely true that what concerns atheists about religion – the harm that it does to the well being of individuals and societies, to human rights and to prospects for peace and civility – should not be contained in a localized bubble, but should encompass a global awareness.

I’m reminded of the Bruce Springstein song, The Ghost of Tom Joad:

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

Whenever, wherever there’s a religious justification for beating down the human rights of individuals or populations, whenever and wherever people are dehumanized in the name of imaginary legends and ancient texts, all atheists who are humanists (and most of us are) should be there, ready to fight against them.

Fight against unjust beheadings in Saudi Arabia.

Fight against the religion-based oppression of women in Afghanistan.

But also:

Fight against unjust executions in Texas and Georgia.

Fight against the religion-based gender oppression (most specifically in the areas of reproductive rights and sexual orientation) in the United States.

Yes, LaurentRA, in terms of the harm which is being done by the religious these days, Islam probably wins first prize.

But that is no automatic exemption for Christianity, or any other religion which causes people to accept believing in things for no good reason with no good evidence, and therefore opens the door to people actually doing harmful things for no good reason and with no good evidence that their actions are, in fact, morally justifiable. For the most part:

Only the religious (especially Catholics) institutionally cover up child rape and protect the rapists.

Only the religious (including Christians) engage in “ethnic cleansing” (which is in fact, in practically every case, religious cleansing)

Only the religious (including Christians) mutilate genitalia (and yes, this includes circumcision).

Only the religious (including Christians) believe homosexuality is a sin.

Only the religious (including Christians) commit holy wars and genocides in the name of their gods.

And, LaurentRA, only skeptics (as, again, you describe yourself in your twitter profile) who fail to apply their skepticism to the theological realm remain theists. The only logical conclusion for skeptics who apply their skepticism to all aspects of their belief system is atheism. Skeptics require evidence, most especially in regards to extraordinary claims. And religions (including Christianity) make the absolute most extraordinary clams while providing absolutely no evidence of their veracity.

Atheism and secular humanism, on the other hand, are the only hope for a future in which we will see no more socially or nationally sanctioned executions or human rights abuses. Because the the only way the world will be free from the moral sanctioning of such crimes is to free itself from the fairy tales which people create to perpetuate them.

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