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Why I Don’t Call Myself an Agnostic

For years, whenever I have referred to myself as an atheist, some friends have inevitably made a suggestion: Perhaps I should call myself an agnostic.

Such advice is well-intentioned but confusing. I think some people may suggest this because they have strong negative associations with atheism. It’s a nasty word, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it, and they don’t want me to have anything to do with it either. As Lemming put it, they think of an atheist as an “awful person who molests farm animals and enjoys hurting other people on a regular basis.” Or they expect an atheist to leap up on the table, foaming at the mouth, and screaming, “There is no God!”

Since I am generally calm, rational and polite, and since I rarely molest farm animals, people figure I can’t really be an atheist. Perhaps I’m an agnostic?

There’s a grain of a serious argument here. I believe that the image of the mouth-foaming atheist is predicated on a popular notion of atheism as an active denial of God’s existence. By this definition, people who simply lack a belief in God aren’t atheists. So what are they? Perhaps they’re agnostics?

I’d argue for a different perspective. Positive denial — “There is no God” — is known as strong atheism. Passive indifference — “I don’t believe in God” — is known as weak atheism, and it is not the same as agnosticism.

Agnosticism means having no knowledge. Agnostics don’t know whether God exists or not. They may recognize this as a strictly personal condition, perhaps only temporary (weak agnosticism), or they may assert that it is impossible for anyone to know the truth (strong agnosticism).

I’m certainly a skeptic by nature, and I’m sympathetic to the agnostic stance. But I don’t call myself agnostic because I feel it would be intellectually dishonest.

I mean, I’ve thought about this shit a lot. I don’t believe in God. In fact, I believe there is no God. I’m not foaming at the mouth about it, but I’m an atheist, of the strong variety. I have not reserved judgement. To call myself anything else would be a prevarication.

Note that I have said what I believe, not what I know. I don’t know any of this for fact; none of us do. My beliefs are not bedrock. I have doubts. Only crazy people are convinced they’re absolutely right. A certain dose of skepticism is healthy. But that doesn’t make me an agnostic. It makes me a human being.

So while I certainly don’t know for a fact that no gods exist, that’s what my own reason and intuition tells me, and I have faith in that. I have to. After all, “our own skeptical, cynical, critical faculties are the best and only lights we have; and as fallible as we are, we must have faith in ourselves.” (From “Faith, Redefined”.)

For what it’s worth, I have known very few true agnostics in my day. Many who call themselves agnostics, when pressed, will confess that they don’t believe in God. Most people have doubts, and many don’t fret about these issues as much as I do, but people generally know what they think. It’s difficult to maintain a posture of profound skepticism. The human mind wants to make itself up, one way or another.

Published inTheology

24 Comments

  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    I stated that I was an atheist on profile on My Space, and some dude from Australia thought it was the most amazing thing because he was an atheist too, and that we should be instant friends.

  2. Rachel Rachel

    Oh, that was me.

  3. see, bart, I’m an agnostic, and my agnosticism is in fact based upon lack of faith, and my view that faithlessness is both correct and desirable. Furthermore, I believe that personal moral and intellectual humility is a positive social value and by refusing to promote my suspicions or desires concerning the existence of god to the status of belief I’m constantly reminded I don’t know everything, never can, and might be wrong about any given thing in my life.

    You’ve chosen an absolutist position, based on an unprovable, and therefore undemonstrable, thesis. You, then, have faith. I feel that this position, by embracing faith, is in fact a theist position. By adopting abnegation, you accept the structural logic of the deist position.

    Also, why is the position you describe and identify as yours known as atheist, when it’s clearly adeist?

    Just curious. It’s good to know what one believes and why.

  4. I like the humility angle. I am not much known for the infamous vice of false modesty, but that is exactly what I would be guilty of if I pretended to agnosticism. I would be hiding my true feelings from the world.

    When you talk about your lack of faith, you sound like an atheist to me. So-called “weak” or negative atheism is the lack of belief in a god, without the “strong” or positive conviction that no gods exist. Some say that an agnostic is just a “polite atheist,” but in your case you sound more like a humble atheist.

    I have faith. But as I tried to make clear, it’s faith in my own reason. I would submit that my level of faith in self is shared by you and by most sane people, and is entirely compatible with moral and intellectual humility. In any event, this is distinct from a theistic faith in a god (or gods).

    I wouldn’t say that I have chosen any position. At least, it doesn’t feel like a choice. I’ve observed the world around me and drawn conclusions by a process which seems entirely involuntary. It is not particularly arrogant or absolutist to acknowledge these conclusions, as I will be the first to admit my own fallibility.

    I associate deism with the clockwork universe idea — God wound it up and let it go. Thus deism is a subset of theism. I admire the deistic emphasis on reason as opposed to faith, but I disagree with their conclusions.

    As for adeism, I’ve never heard of it, but assuming the obvious meaning, I’ll venture that all atheists are perforce adeists.

  5. lemming lemming

    Great post. Do you believe in ghosts?

  6. I’m not inclined to believe in ghosts, but the concept of some lingering presence after a person has died seems more plausible to me than that of a supreme being.

  7. Michael Michael

    So, maybe ghosts, and no “Supreme Being,” but what about this idea of a higher power? I think I have the same beliefs as you on this, but I still prefer the label agnostic. I would love to be an atheist, but I feel it’s unprovable and unknowable, and therefore agnostic is a preferred label to me.

  8. I find the notion of a “higher power” to be somewhat vague. Isn’t the state a higher power? They’ll lock you up if you break the law. I’d be foolish not to acknowledge the existence of forces more powerful than myself…

  9. Regarding adeism, I just coined the word, as far as I know.

    I’ll agree deism is a subset of theism (where Buddhism is an example of a sometimes non-deist theology and therefore theism). I still maintain that atheism as you (and most others) describe it, strong or weak, is inherently theistic and therefore a misnomer.

    Regarding the definition of weak atheism you provide, “the lack of belief in God” I’m going to have to argue that that’s colonizing definition, where you (a strong atheist) get to point to another’s stance and define it. So you’ll understand if I don’t concur. For me, anyway, it’s not God or not-God that’s important: it’s my embrace of the fact of my inability to know.

    I have vacillations over the value of religion, that is, theism, which reflects my doubting mode, too. Like language, religious practice has been a part of human experience since before we farmed. Who am I to condemn it based upon 500 years of danger and war? Furthermore, in my personal experience I don’t have to look far to find people who are not avatars of slavering prejudice, who happily credit their religion with their mental health. So despite my desire to condemn theism, on balance, I cannot without violating my objective of humility.

    Finally, of course, when one looks for models of communitarian practice that can stand in opposition to commerce in our society, one must recognize the congregation has shown greater staying power than the union in the past 100 years.

    All of which helps to remind me just how little I know about anything.

  10. I confess to colonizing. But when you emphasize your “inability to know,” your agnosticism is made clear.

    I wanted to point out that I am not condemning the religious experience. Athiests need not be hostile to religion; indeed, atheists can be religious. Buddhism and Jainism are examples of atheistic religions.

    Atheism is “inherently theistic”? That makes my head hurt! Is theism then inherently atheistic?

  11. atheism, as the word is commonly used (I’ll accept your strong/weak, for the sake of this linguistic point) is not about religion or faith, but about God. Since religions practice is based upon theology, the religious idea (including God-oriented and non-God oriented religion) can be classed as theism.

    The specific denial of God’s existence requires a positive statement of belief – of faith – in the unknowable. It’s a negative faith, but still. That concept – that humans can know the unprovable – is the animating principle of religious practice. It’s theistic.

    So I argue that what we call atheism is misnamed, and that’s why I invented the term adeism, which more accurately reflects the animating principle of the belief system. But obviously, nobody but me will know what the hell I’m talking about!

  12. Ah, I think I feel you now. But note that “weak” atheism is also known, in more learned circles, as negative atheism. It requires no positive statement of belief and no denial need be asserted. It is simply the lack of a belief in God (or gods). So I think your point may apply only to “strong” or positive atheism.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that some theists claim to arrive at their position not through any leap of faith, but through logic and reason. They feel the existence of God can indeed be proven. We may disagree with them, but I think we should at least take such claims seriously; they are made in good faith, no pun intended.

    So I don’t equate theism (or religion generally) with faith in the unknowable or unprovable.

    But I do see what you mean about a commonality between theism and certain types of atheism. Both theists and “strong” atheists claim to know the truth about God. To say that this truth is unknowable is, of course, the classic agnostic position, which we would expect both theists and “strong” athiests to reject. Note, however, that agnosticism and “weak” atheism are entirely compatible; that is, one may hold that the truth is unknowable and also lack any belief in God.

    I’ve heard it said that agnosticism is also compatible with theism, but I don’t understand that yet.

  13. I think it’s probably possible to practice a meditative or ritually-based theism with an agnostic mindframe. Just probably not mine. I’m applying my hairsplitting deal about thesim = religious practice, not necessarily belief (unless the given practice calls for it).

  14. Yes! The Sims = Religion!

    insofar as video games are repetitive motion meditation tools.

  15. “Since religions practice is based upon theology, the religious idea (including God-oriented and non-God oriented religion) can be classed as theism.”

    There are many different attempts to define “religion” in the academic literature (and some attempts to argue that there is no such thing). Just about all can be classified either as substantive or as functional definitions. What you suggest here is a type of substantive definition, but not even all substantive definitions of religion claim that religion is defined by being based upon theology.

    To put it simply, it isn’t really accurate to reduce the complex cultural phenomenon of religion to a single attribute like “theology.” Religion can exist with or without gods, with or without theology. Because of this one can have an atheistic religion – it’s not common, but it does happen.

    “The specific denial of God’s existence requires a positive statement of belief – of faith – in the unknowable. It’s a negative faith, but still.”

    That depends upon how “God” is defined. If the term is defined in a sufficiently coherent way, it is (theoretically) possible to prove or disprove it and, hence a positive affirmation or denial of existence need not be a statement of faith. If, for example, “God” is defined with two contradictory attributes, then saying “This ‘God’ does not exist” is no more a statement of faith then saying “This ‘married bachelor’ does not exist.”

    This does not mean that no positive denials of gods are statements of faith, but it does mean that at least some of them aren’t. It isn’t right to make a blanket characterization of them all as being faith-based. In order to know whether such a characterization is ever correct, one has to ask the person making the statement.

  16. OK, I follow. An example is saying “there is no such god as Apollo.” I concur that this denial is not dependent upon faith but could instead be (probably) demonstrated by the tools of reason.

    However, the Monotheistic Idea upon which a great deal of postclassical religious philosophy rests is much more subtle than the conception of gods as personified superpowerful beings. It’s roots are present even in Classical works exploring polytheistic ideas of deity, notably Plato (who might very well have a vested interest in pushing the monotheistic idea, but whatever).

    The underlying principle in this interpretation is that there is (or is not) something that exceeds the experiential, observable range of the universe. The universe is infinite, and whatever is leftover, then is the infinite. That, in a nutshell, is God. Or not-God, if you choose to accept the boundaries of the finite. By reason, then, we can see that stating positive knowledge of the state of existence or non existence of the infinite and non-experiential (therefore, unobservable) must be faith, as it can’t be based on reason or observation. Actual assertions of knowledge concerning this class of phenomena by definition cannot derive from the phenomena, and ergo, are postulation, revelation, or opinion.

    Am I clarifying my own opinion?

  17. “Actual assertions of knowledge concerning this class of phenomena by definition cannot derive from the phenomena, and ergo, are postulation, revelation, or opinion.”

    They also aren’t testable and, as such, aren’t especially meaningful statements about the empirical, external world. There’s not particular reason to take them seriously or give them any serious consideration.

    “Am I clarifying my own opinion?”

    Not really, no.

  18. “They also aren’t testable and, as such, aren’t especially meaningful statements about the empirical, external world. There’s not particular reason to take them seriously or give them any serious consideration.”

    Right, that’s what I’ve been saying. It’s not knowable. It’s faith.

  19. Agnosticism vs. Atheism
    Many, many atheists have probably had the experience where someone has expressed surprise at learning that the person was an atheist. There seems to be a common attitude that anyone who is nice, polite, and moral could really be an…

  20. “It’s not knowable. It’s faith.”

    That’s the case with some, but not all, god-claims – including the god-claims we have today. Some god-claims are specific, coherent, and testable. They commonly morph, of course, when they fail the tests but that doesn’t change the fact that there *are* tests (empirical, logical). If a claim fails a test, we can say “That god doesn’t exist.”

    Ergo it is simply untrue to assert “The specific denial of God’s existence requires a positive statement of belief – of faith – in the unknowable.” As a general principle. It’s true in some cases but not others. This means that you cannot accuse a strong atheist of practicing some sort of “faith” unless and until you learn more about what they mean by “God” when they say “God doesn’t exist.”

  21. Fair enough, Austin. I suppose that makes me an Apollonian and Dionysian atheist, but a monotheistic agnostic. 😉 et tu?

  22. I’m an atheist and agnostic with respect to all gods. I’m weak atheist as a general principle and with respect to ill and vaguely defined gods (whether part of monotheistic or polytheistic systems); a strong atheist with respect to many others. I’m an agnostic when it comes to all god-claims.

  23. well, then, let us furiously agree in the grand manner of the Internets!

  24. […] today I call myself an atheist (no, not an agnostic) but of course that’s only one of many labels I might put on myself, and it’s only […]

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