The “A” Word

Yesterday, Eric Steinhart pointed out that “Much entails atheism but atheism entails little”, which inspired F.O. to write to me,

Now I just think about how much it took me to really admit to myself that I was an atheist, using that word and not any other alternative, and I found that funny somehow. Why does that word seem so scary?

I too took a little while to go ahead and use the “A” word. In my case I used the politer, more politically correct, and less coarse sounding substitute “A” word, “agnostic”, which is to the “A” word what “frigging” is to the “F” word.

And why was this? Because the word atheism was misrepresented linguistically to me. Atheism required absolute certainty that there was no God. And as a result of this, even though I was well over 90% sure, I could not call myself an atheist, unless I was going to speak crudely (since, really, who has 100% certainty about anything, let alone the existence of God). But the standard choice between agnosticism and atheism is a false choice because agnosticism and atheism are positions on distinctly different questions, not alternative answers to the same question.

Agnosticism is one of two answers to the question about whether we can have knowledge that deities either do or do not exist. And one can say either that we can, in principle, have such knowledge (and thus be a gnostic) or say that, in principle, no one can have such knowledge (and thus be an agnostic).

Alternatively, agnosticism and gnosticism can also be answers to the question of whether a particular person thinks or feels herself to actually know whether or not there are deities. So, while in principle someone might be a gnostic who thinks knowledge of whether or not there are deities is possible, she may herself be undecided as to how to answer the question, while she considers the evidence. So, this sort of person is only provisionally and personally agnostic. She only says she does not know because she has not concluded her investigations. But, nonetheless, she believes knowledge to be possible either that there is or is not a God of some sort. But, on the other hand, principled agnosticism logically leads straight to personal agnosticism. If one thinks in principle no one can know whether or not there are deities, then he is committed to saying he himself cannot, and therefore does not, know whether there are deities.

But the positions of atheism, monotheism, polytheism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, etc. all answer a different question than whether or not in principle there can be knowledge about the existence or non-existence of deities. Atheism represents either one’s knowledge claim that there are no gods (if one is a gnostic atheist who thinks that there can be such knowledge) or one’s lack of belief in any gods (if one is an agnostic atheist who thinks that no one at all can have knowledge about whether there are gods or not, and on account of this refrains from beliefs in gods, as a matter of default).

One is an atheist as long as one lacks beliefs in gods. One does not need absolute certainty that there are no gods. One can be an agnostic atheist who lacks beliefs in gods because that seems like the most rationally and ethically responsible thing to do when there is insufficient evidence. One can even be a gnostic atheist (as I am) without having absolute certainty that there are no gods. Knowledge rarely, if ever, requires absolute certainty. There are many things we regularly claim with justification to know because they meet sufficient thresholds of likelihood that they are true. I can (and do) think the likelihood there are no personal gods is so very high that I have knowledge that there are no personal gods. I am open to the possibilities of an “impersonal source of all being” as a potential knowledge discovery. So I believe we can in principle possibly know that such a being exists, although I am personally agnostic on that point since I am completely unclear on whether one does exist as things stand now.

So, with these clarifications, it should be obvious that many people who think it would be crude, rude, impolite, and presumptuous to use the “A” word are mistaken. There is nothing excessively arrogant or forceful or aggressively anti-theist to simply admit either that one one lacks belief in gods or that one believes that in all likelihood that there are no gods. These positions are neither inherently antagonistic nor even intellectually overreaching.

But it is in the theist’s interest to convince people (a) that atheism necessarily involves much more certitude than it does, (b) that atheism is identical with other positions, like nihilism or even anti-religiousness, (c) that knowledge requires absolute certainty and so no careful thinkers could ever say they know there are no gods, (d) that agnosticism only ever means remediable personal uncertainty and never takes the form of an intrinsically atheistic, principled rejection of theism as a possibility altogether.

These misconceptions are peddled hard so that reasonable people will be repelled by atheism as inherently an extremist position when it is not.

Many principled agnostics are agnostics precisely because they are opposed to the sorts of rash and dishonest leaps of faith that would make belief in God ever possible to them, and so they lack belief in God in a principled, enduring, atheistic way (even if they want to be sticklers about also not saying they know there is no God). They are rightly, by default, identifiable as atheists, whether they are averse to such words that scandalize polite society or not. And all throughout life, knowledge does not require absolute certainty, so those gnostic atheists who claim to know there are no gods are not any more extremist or presumptuous or fundamentalist or faith-based than anyone else is on any of thousands of knowledge questions.

This is the value of “dictionary atheism”, limited as it may be in the ways that PZ Myers and Eric Steinhart have recently pointed out. The dictionary atheist asserts that atheism is only the lack of belief in any gods and has no inherent positive content beyond that. There is a liberating and galvanizing power in this broad and true definition. This definition makes clear just how many more people really are atheists than currently admit they are. Some deny their atheism only to others but some are in denial about it even to themselves. Some are afraid to admit it and some are just confused by the misleading definitions given to them. But they are atheists and they should be proud of it (or at least indifferent to it), rather than ashamed or otherwise bothered by it. There is nothing wrong with them.

And unlike Sam Harris, I don’t think we should abandon the “A” word as superfluous or merely negative. I think we should embrace it as the most common denominator of people whose thinking is free of gods. While this common denominator is too general, abstract, broad, and encompassing by itself to lead to constructive positions about other important issues, it is nonetheless a position in which many otherwise diverging people can find a key point of common ground as they reason together and as they reason against the value of god-based inferences.

Atheism itself does not give us an ethics, a metaphysics, a politics, etc. But it can and should unite us in the common concern to work out such important questions in ways that dispense with references to faith-based, god-based beliefs. It can and should unite us politically and socially against all those who want to formally or informally marginalize us for not toeing the culturally dominant theistic line. It has been, and should continue to be, a valuable component of numerous positive alternatives to theism, each of which can identify with each other at least on the level of their atheism, even should other of their positions cause strong disagreements.

There’s nothing to be scared of, closeted Atheist. You can admit you’re one of us. In most ways, it is not really as big a deal as you have been told it is—and, at the same time, in other ways, it is.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • bb

    bravo. saw this recently:

    • Daniel Fincke

      Well that video was really slick—and completely disingenuous. It’s hard to imagine someone moving the goal posts more constantly in a single argument. Are we making an argument for God? Wow! Look how close the goal posts are. That’s such an easy shot! Oh wait—now we’re making an argument against God? Whoah, there go those goal posts WAYYYY far away. We probably shouldn’t be all silly and say THOSE goal posts can EVER BE REACHED!!!

      But if you want to kick for those nice easy, non-sequitor-based inferences that there’s a God just because there are love and puppies in the world, why, MAYBE that’s true, so let’s believe it!!! HOORAY!!!

  • mikespeir

    In my book, any “agnostic” who is little enough concerned about the possible existence of deity that it doesn’t affect the way he lives his life is sufficiently convinced of God’s nonexistence to qualify as an atheist.

  • Jeff Dale

    Your response to PZ on this issue has been outstanding. I found much to agree with and admire in his recent piece, but I think you nailed the counterpoint. Bravo.

  • uzza

    All well and good, but until one defines what a god is, none of it means anything.

  • mikespeir

    I’ll grant we forfeit a bit of precision here, uzza, but when I think of myself as an atheist I do have a definition in mind. Is that shared by everybody? Well, I’d say that among those of us in the western world there’s enough overlap in our definitions to make the discussion fairly meaningful. Sure, it could be more so; but when I tell people I don’t believe in God I’m not generally asked, “What you you mean by ‘god’?” That gives me reason to believe we’re pretty much on the same page there; at least enough to communicate–and that implies a degree of meaningfulness.

    But I certainly don’t say any of this to stifle the legitimate discussion of how we might refine our definition.

    • uzza

      Definitely we are imprecise in normal conversation, still I often get the impression that people have not thought this through. It often strikes me as a little arrogant and ethnocentric, besides being poor logic.

      Two Southern Baptists would naturally think of the Christian god, but rejecting that is not enough to make them atheists. We’re on the internet so we’re not just addressing Westerners, but no one ever claims to be an “atheist in regards to god X”, though. They seem to assume that the entire population of the world either shares their Judeo-Christian concept of “god”, or is simply not worth consideration.

  • Wazaghun

    Well, i am rather on Harris’ side here.
    The term “atheist” should be abandoned. In my view this is a “non-word”.
    There are several reasons for this:
    - Generally theists see the term in a negative way and if you look at the etymology of the word and its historic context then you know pretty fast why this is so. It doesnt help to promote some “modern” definition.
    - Secondly i think it is not consequent to label yourself after something you are not. You dont normally do that, why should one do it here.
    - Thirdly it plays into the hands of those that want to tell us that atheism is no more than a different religion or ideology. The “-ism” alone is already enough to have people trying to convince you that you follow just another ideology without any more credibility than others.

    If people ask me what i am, i normally say i am a human. If they ask me what i believe, i say i don’t believe in anything superstitious. If they ask me if i am an atheist i normally tell them “well i bet you would like to call me that, wouldnt you?”

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Regarding the video: I liked all the “maybe this is evidence for God” examples. Seriously? Maybe? Please, if I ever do a recording with smooth music and then use the needle being pulled off the record sound effect tot drive home my point, just shoot me.

    Regarding your post: I refer to myself as a sympathetic, atheist leaning agnostic. I’ve never read a convincing god argument, not when I was a Christian, or in my current state of disbelief, but after being so certain of my Christian faith for 20 years, I’m not quite prepared to be certain of anything.

    • Daniel Fincke

      But, Mike, like I argued above, atheism does not entail certainty. The idea that it does is theistic propaganda to paint atheism as irrational extremism. One can either be an atheist just because one is an agnostic who thinks there is no evidence either way, and therefore lacks belief in God by default, or because one thinks one knows (even though one does not have certainty that there are no gods.

      Atheists are not usually 100% certain. They just lack beliefs in gods. That’s it.

    • Joe Z

      Mike, I watched the video you commented about–but aren’t the “maybe” examples a strong point? I mean, isn’t that just the narrator admitting that he, like all the rest of us, can’t be totally certain about ultimate reality?

    • Daniel Fincke

      He’s not expressing uncertainty, he’s throwing a list of implausible rationalizations for his faith commitment at the wall one at a time hoping SOMETHING sticks. He says the evidence for God is “right there on our heads”—he’s not uncertain, he’s feigning the middle ground but advancing a specific viewpoint aggressively without owning up to it. He’s being entirely disingenuous. He believes. He wants you to believe. He in no way wants you to be skeptical because of uncertainty. He wants you to be credulous despite uncertainty.

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    I understand that, it’s just a personal thing. I am an atheist, but atheist leaning agnostic is more specific and useful for explaining my position to others.

  • Joe Z

    @Daniel Finke. Thanks for the heads up, your viewpoint is noted, and who knows, you may be onto something. But I gotta ask man…are you always that condescending and assume the worst about other people and their motives? “He wants,” “he’s feigning,” “he’s being ENTIRELY disingenuous” (emphasis mine)–how could you possibly know anything about what’s going on internally for someone else? Especially for someone that I’m guessing you’ve never met…maybe you were just having a crappy valentines day? :)

    • Daniel Fincke

      Well, it’s either infer he’s disingenuous (whether consciously and deliberatively or jus unconsciously and habitually) or infer he’s just really stupid. I thought I guessed the more charitable option but I admit it could go either way based on a video with that much inconsistency between its explicit plea for openminded neutrality combined with its numerous glaring attempts to advocate for his own actual faith-committed belief with every fallacious argument and manipulative editing trick in the book.

    • Joe Z

      !!! danman, you’re a trip. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. And thanks for answering my question :)

  • Jehne Lunden

    So glad I stumbled upon your blog. Love and agree with your description for atheist. Looking forward to reading many more of your posts.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Jehne! It’s nice to meet you!