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.