Many people tell me they wouldn’t mind if I were an agnostic, but that I shouldn’t be so arrogant as to be an atheist.
I used to call myself an agnostic because I could not logically prove whether a god exists, so I took the agnostic position that the existence of any god is unknown — and perhaps unknowable. I was without belief in any gods and thought it highly improbable that any supernatural beings exist. When I learned that this view is consistent with atheism, I became an atheist.
So, my “conversion” from agnosticism to atheism was more definitional than theological. In reality, depending on how terms are defined and their context, I can accurately call myself an atheist or an agnostic, as well as a humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, rationalist, infidel, and more.
I’m curious about why people find “atheist” so much more threatening than “agnostic” when self-described “atheists” and “agnostics” often hold identical views about deities. As with atheists, agnostics almost never give equal merit to belief and disbelief. For instance, I can neither prove nor disprove the following claims.
Claim 1: The universe was created 30 minutes ago and the creator planted false memories in all of us.
Claim 2: Infidels who don’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster are condemned to burn for eternity in a vat of hot pasta sauce.
I assume we are all “agnostic” about these two hypotheses, but at the same time pretty certain they are false. (I’d also call myself an atheist with respect to such creators.) The burden of proof is on the person making the assertion — as it should be with any supernatural claim.
I’ve seen and participated in a number of debates about whether God exists, and they often degenerate into playground disputes. The theist says to the atheist, “Disprove God,” while the atheist says to the theist, “Prove God.”
In such debates I’m sometimes told that I made my case for being an agnostic, not an atheist, because I didn’t disprove God’s existence. In future discussions and debates, I think I’ll try a different approach.
When Christians insist that I’m an agnostic and not really an atheist because I can’t demonstrate with absolute certainty that there is no God, I will respond: “Can you demonstrate with absolute certainty that Jesus is Lord? If not, then you are an agnostic, not really a Christian.”
Perhaps these Christians (or those of other faiths) would understand that such certainty is an almost impossible standard of knowledge. I’m willing to call myself an agnostic atheist if they’ll call themselves agnostic Christians.
The word “proof” or “certainty” means different things to different people. It doesn’t work for me when Christians say they have unquestioned faith in God because Jesus came into their hearts, just as it wouldn’t work for them were I to say I have unquestioned faith that there is no God because he didn’t come into mine. The most I might say about faith is that I have faith in reason, the scientific method, and evidence — and the lack of evidence for any gods is why I’m an atheist.
Theists aren’t the only ones who argue about atheism versus agnosticism. I’ve heard atheists refer to agnostics as gutless or cowardly atheists. I’ve heard agnostics denigrate atheists by charging that they go out of their way to offend religious people. Adding humanists and secular humanists into the mix further divides the nontheistic community.
To move beyond such disputes I helped found the Secular Coalition for America, whose mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government.
Here’s an interesting distinction between Christians and secularists: Christians have the same unifying word, but fight over theology whereas secularists have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. At least our wars are purely rhetorical. Such “verbal” wars over terminology were hilariously satirized in the Life of Brian movie, where people with common interests splintered into Judean People’s Front, Judean Popular People’s Front, and People’s Front of Judea — sometimes forgetting the name of their own group.
Fortunately, organizations in the Secular Coalition have stopped sparring over words and cooperate on the 95 percent of things our members have in common. We all disbelieve in the same gods and we want to be fruitful and multiply our community of reason.
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