Monday, April 25, 2011

Atheist or agnostic?

I hear a lot more people calling themselves atheists these days, so I think nonbelievers are starting to understand pretty well the difference between atheism and agnosticism. But among believers, there still seems to be a great deal of confusion about these terms.

Now, my definitions aren't dogma. You will find some atheists defining themselves differently, no doubt. We're all individuals, so that's inevitable. But I think a simple explanation of these two terms might be useful for some readers here.

I consider myself to be an atheist and an agnostic, but that's doesn't have to be the case for everyone. These labels don't describe quite the same thing. An agnostic is not just a wishy-washy atheist, though that's how many people seem to think. So you can be an agnostic without being an atheist. And you can also be an atheist without being an agnostic. But for most of us, both labels apply.

An agnostic says that you can't know for certain whether there is or isn't a god. Well, that seems rather self-evident to me. Of course you can't. I'd go even further than that, and say that you can't know anything for certain, beyond any possibility of error. Yeah, we've got good evidence that the Earth goes around the Sun, but I could think of several ways - right off the top of my head - that could be false.

Maybe an omnipotent, omniscient god just wants us to think that, for his own inscrutable reasons (note that "God works in mysterious ways"). Maybe we all live in a Matrix-style simulation, with nothing we perceive actually being real. Maybe advanced aliens are running a thought control experiment here. Or maybe I'm simply insane, just imagining... everything.

This is why I hate the word "proof" when applied to science. Science isn't about proof, it's about evidence. Nothing in science can be proven, such that scientists wouldn't change their minds given sufficient evidence. We don't accept the scientific consensus because of proof; we accept it because it's backed by plenty of good evidence. If the available evidence changes, so will the consensus.

So calling myself an agnostic seems to be like calling myself a human being. Is that really in doubt? Yes, I'll accept the label, but is it really necessary? It hardly seems to be very descriptive.

I'm also an atheist. In general, an atheist doesn't claim to know for absolute certain that there is no god. How could he? But like science, it's about evidence, not proof. If you claim there is a god, where's your evidence? If it's not good evidence - and I've never seen a speck of good evidence for that claim - why should anyone believe it?

I'm an atheist because theists have not presented sufficient evidence to back up their claim. Obviously, anyone can claim anything. But without evidence, why should anyone else believe it? I don't have to provide evidence that they're wrong, because it's the person who makes a claim who has the responsibility to back it up with evidence.

The only thing I'm saying is that you haven't made your case. You can claim you've invented cold fusion, too, or been anally probed by aliens. But if you don't have good evidence for those claims, I'm not going to believe them, either.

So I'm an agnostic and an atheist. I usually don't call myself an agnostic, just because that seems self-evident. And since a lot of people seem to think that "agnostic" just means "wishy-washy atheist," I shy away from the term for that reason, too. I know exactly why I'm an atheist, and I'm not wishy-washy about it at all. Your claim could be true, but you just haven't come close to demonstrating that it is true.

I don't believe there's a god, because I've never seen any good evidence that there is. For the same reason, I don't believe in Bigfoot, fairies, homeopathic medicine that's any more effective than a placebo, or flying pigs. It all boils down to Russell's teapot.

More and more nonbelievers have come to understand this, so more and more are calling themselves atheists, rather than agnostics. Yes, they're agnostics too, technically-speaking. But that isn't really very important. Atheists recognize that the case for God, like the case for Bigfoot, has not been made. That's all there is to it.


Tony Williams said...

Good post, Bill, I sympathise with all of it.

There is one additional issue concerning atheism though: some people regard it as meaning a firm belief that there is no god, as opposed to a lack of belief that god exists.

This may seem a subtle distinction, but the former allows religious people to claim that the atheist belief that there is no god is based on faith just as much as the religious person's belief that there is a god.

Accordingly, I don't call myself an agnostic or an atheist, merely someone who has no religious beliefs.

WCG said...

I agree, Tony, but I'd hoped I'd made that clear in my post. Of course, any time you use labels, you risk the problem of varying definitions. People who do not accept a label will tend to define it to their benefit.

But I guess I'm not willing to give up labels entirely. I'm an atheist because believers haven't made their case for a god - any god, let alone a particular one. It could be possible - pretty much anything could be possible - but it's foolish to believe in something without good evidence.

If someone accuses me of "believing in no god," basically, based on faith, I'll correct their mistake. But I'm not going to give up a perfectly good English word simply because some people might misinterpret it.

But that's just me. What you call yourself is, of course, entirely up to you. I do understand your point, and sympathize with it, but it's not a problem that really bothers me.