7 Reasons Why I Label Myself An Atheist Rather Than An Agnostic

I have never joined a political party and even though I deeply mistrust today’s Republican party, I do not identify as a Democrat or a liberal or a progressive.  The most I will say is that politically I am “left leaning”.  I am happy to take any number of stands on any number of issues but I am loathe to have people assume either what I think, or my reasons for thinking it, on any given controversial issue without actually asking me.  I do not want people to look at a label and assume my positions or my reasoning process for me.  I think for myself in political matters and I do not necessarily share all the same principles, priorities, or presumptions of the average progressive or liberal or Democrat.  And even where I do, I do not want you to assume that from some label.  I want to speak for myself, or to endorse what someone else has said for myself before you attribute their opinion to me.

Because of this, I can empathize a little with some of those who wriggle away from categorizing their views on religion with a convenient, one-size fits all label.  Some have teased me for making fine distinctions between numerous species of atheists in previous posts, but it is not ridiculous at all to expand our classification scheme when it comes to the rejection of theistic beliefs and religions.  There is an enormous spectrum of possible positions and clarity in language and thought is served by increasingly specific terminology for distinguishing different stances.

One of the biggest problems with labeling when it comes to us dissenters from theism is that single terms are taken to cover positions on multiple different issues.  The term “atheism” is notoriously taken to refer not just to a lack of belief in gods but also (1) an epistemic position of absolute certainty that there are no gods, (2) a position of nihilism that nothing is of value, (3) irreligiousness, (4) hostility to theism (antitheism), etc.

Strictly speaking, atheism is only the lack of belief in gods.  Some of us are nihilists (unfortunately) but also many of us are not (including me).  Some of us are irreligious, but some atheists have atheistic forms of religion.  Some of us are hostile to theism as not just wrong but pernicious, whereas others of us are faitheists who think that theism is a beneficial (or at least harmless) error and yet others of us are apatheists who do not believe and do not have any feelings at all about whether others believe or not.

And, as I stress a lot, atheism does not entail a belief that one is certain that there is no god.  One can be an agnostic atheist (who believes that no one can know whether there are any gods and that one should not believe in what one cannot know is true) or a gnostic atheist (who thinks that we have enough evidence to say with knowledge that there are no personal gods–even if this knowledge is not absolutely certain).  Also, one can be a gnostic atheist who even is open to the possibility of various impersonal “god” concepts more properly called deistic than theistic.

I could go on and on distinguishing numerous types of atheists and how they diverge from assumptions loaded into the word atheism.  I have not even mentioned all the negative stereotypes and slanders that come from centuries of religious vilification of us.

The point is that in adopting the label “atheist” I open myself up to numerous presumptions about the rest of what I think or do—many of which are antithetical to the truth about me.  So, the question is “why I should bother labeling myself an atheist at all?”   Some people opt to label themselves agnostics because this word has popular connotations of being skeptical about theism but still open-minded rather than adamant and hostile as atheism popularly connotes.  Why not call myself an agnostic and indicate my philosophical temperament with that word?  Why call myself an atheist and risk people assuming I’m dogmatic, hostile, fanatical, nihilistic, and anti-theist?

Below the fold are seven reasons to call myself an atheist, despite the baggage that comes with popular misunderstandings of the word:

1. It’s true.  I am an atheist.  Unlike being a “Democrat” which means identifying with a certain party that I might not myself actually identify with on any of a number of issues, being an atheist simply means “lacking belief in personal gods” and that simple meaning fits me exactly.  I do not believe in any personal gods.  The true definition of the word is completely applicable to me, so I have no qualms about using it, even if others have misconceptions about what it means.

2. While I do not think I know with uncontrovertible certainty that there are no personal gods, I nonetheless know that no personal gods exist with a great deal of confidence.  It is much closer to the truth if they inaccurately presume my atheism entails certainty than if they presume it makes no knowledge claims at all.  I am much closer to their idea of an atheist than I am to their idea of an agnostic.

3. The popular connotation of an agnostic is usually not of a hard-nosed, principled skeptic like Thomas Huxley who coined the word to indicate his position that everyone should reject all metaphysical speculation.  Popularly agnostics are often thought to be uncommitted individuals who examine metaphysical stances with skepticism, but do not rule them all out in principle.  This means that commonly in the popular misunderstanding, the agnostic does not rule out belief in gods at all but either (a) may actually come to believe should the right argument come along or (b) at least has no strong epistemic objections to others believing.  But I do have strong epistemic and moral objections to belief in personal gods (as true agnostics in Huxley’s mold would too).  My objections are conveyed in the word atheism, better than in agnosticism.

4. In the popular understanding, sometimes agnosticism is a bit more accurately (but still not precisely enough) understood to be the belief that no one could ever know with certainty whether or not there are gods.  Believers are quite often fond of relativistically leaping from the perceived inconclusiveness of debates about god to the position that all positions are equal.  If no one can conclusively and with absolute certainty prove their position, then, the faulty reasoning goes, they are entitled to believe as they wish as though the evidence in both directions is entirely equal.  Accordingly, when they understand the agnostic as endorsing the view that “no one can really know”, they often take this as tacit permission to believe as they wish. Contrary to Huxley’s intentions, they do not hear in the word “agnostic” a rebuke to their blithe and presumptuous believing without evidence but rather only an affirmation that no one can be certain about anything and so no one can be certain they are themselves wrong in their willfully chosen, implausible beliefs.

5. Atheist is the most inclusive category of non-believers in personal gods and unless we unify and commonly identify with each other, we will not be able to dispel all the other myths about us or develop self-consciously non-theistic institutions that can counter the hegemony of theistic ones in the realms of morality, “spirituality”, religion, metaphysics, etc.  It is vital that people stop falsely assuming that theistic religion is the sole (or even a proper) source of moral, spiritual, religious guidance or metaphysical truth.

6. Atheism is a confrontational term that signals from the outset that I am willing to unabashedly challenge theistic religious claims and not soft-pedal my objections or compromise my positions to make them more accommodating to theism.  And this is true.  I am, of course, willing to modify my positions to make them more truthful, but not to make them compatible with theistic religion when it’s false.

7. I see people’s misunderstandings of what atheism means as in need of correction, not evasion.  Let someone misunderstand what I mean by the word and ask me “surely you do not mean that there cannot possibly be a God of any kind” and right there I have the opening to distinguish personal god theism from impersonal deism and explain why I can think there are no personal gods while being open-minded to hearing out a deistic metaphysics.

I can then press them on whether they conflate good philosophical reasons for deism with good philosophical reasons for their theism.  I can disabuse them of their false assumption that atheism necessarily entails nihilism by explaining my metaethics to them.  I can correct the pervasive Cartesian mistake of confusingly equating knowledge with certainty, as well as the equally common Humean muddle of lumping poorly justified beliefs in with well justified beliefs as both “faith” beliefs.  There are differences between greater and lesser justified beliefs, to call none of them knowledge and all of them faith simply because none attain 100% certainty is not to elucidate in language but only to equivocate and lower the average person’s standards for belief in a way Hume himself would have found utterly appalling.

For more on distinctions between kinds of atheism, agnosticism, and deism, and discussion of other issues from this post, I recommend the following posts:

The “A” Word

Atheists Have Affirmative Positions On The Status Of Evidence And On The Standards Of Belief

Do New Atheists Unjustifiably Shirk Their Burden For Evidence?

Disambiguating Faith: How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Distinguishing The Atheist Agnostic, The Theist Gnostic, The Atheist Gnostic, and The Theist Agnostic

No, I’m Not An Atheist By Faith, Here Are My Arguments.

Beyond Agnosticism: More Details About How I Know Various Kinds Of Gods Do Not Exist, Based On Scientific And Philosophical Reasons

It’s Atheism, Not Adeism

You Might Be An Atheist Even If You Hate The New Atheists

Agnostics Or Apistics?

Disambiguating Faith: The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

The Cosmological Argument, The Composition Fallacy, And More Reasons Not To Believe In God

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • The Lorax

    I’m technically agnostic… I have to be, because if I accept science completely, then I must be open to the hypothesis (however untestable, however unfalsifiable) that there could be a deity. Granted, there is not yet any method of testing this hypothesis and until there is it will remain as such. But therein lies the rob: it can neither be proven nor disproven. Oh sure, the stories in religious books can be disproven and that could be used as evidence against their version of a deity, but the concept of a deity can still remain.

    So, I am technically speaking an agnostic.

    However, I err on the side of atheism. I am not a religious apologetic; I take arguments and evidence at face value and judge scientifically, and I will always point out when someone else isn’t. Furthermore, I do not like the horrific invasions of religion into the public sphere, and the myriad of inhumane crimes perpetrated in the name of Deity Du Jour, everything from wars and murder to child abuse and rape.

    I cannot accept that there is no deity, from a scientific standpoint, even if that’s a null option. However, if it means ending the terrible, terrible things done because of belief in the existence of a deity… I will, with every fiber in my being, want there to not be one. I cannot believe it, but I can desire it strongly, and act out that desire.

    For that, I call myself an atheist. Proudly.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      If you reject the personal gods (the ones from the religious books) as disproven but leave open the concept of some impersonal metaphysical or physical god-principle, then you are, as far as I can tell a gnostic atheist and an agnostic adeist.

    • usagichan

      Hi Lorax,

      you said

      if I accept science completely, then I must be open to the hypothesis (however untestable, however unfalsifiable) that there could be a deity

      which I don’t quite agree with. It would only be true if there was a logically consistent definition of deity about which to hypothesize. If a logically consitant definition is possible, then with an exceptionally open mind one might feel compelled to remain open to the concept. However, if there is no rational or logically consistant definition, I wouldn’t feel the need to remain open to it (although I suppose if you were desperate to remain open minded, the recursive “well I am open to the possibility of a logically consistant definition of deity, therefore by extension open to the possibility of a rational hypothesis about such a deity that might be examined in scientific terms”).

      As for me, unless I get some sort of logical definition about which to hypothesise I won’t bother extending speculation as to the potential for the existance of an undefinable entity, anthropomorphic of otherwise…

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Well put, usagichan

    • http://thesilentboomer.blogspot.com The Silent Boomer

      But by that logic, then unicorns, Santa Claus, the popperhopperstinkier, the ballsoffire and the 3%8^&2khgt all of which can hypothesized as existing, cannot be proven not to exist, thus I must say I’m agnostic about any claim that anybody makes as possibly existing. This is staying too much in the realm of reason which does not exist except to win arguments. It’s another tool.

  • Adam

    For me #6 is one of the most important. Sure, I technically qualify as an atheist anyway, but there’d be no point in taking it up as a label or identity unless there were something to confront. I don’t consider myself an afairyist, for instance, because there is no politically and socially powerful belief in fairies out there to confront, even though the label would be technically accurate.

  • Doug

    Agnosticism is a statement about knowledge, atheism is a statement about belief. I don’t know if god(s) exist, but I believe they don’t, so I’m a member of both groups. I’ve occasionally heard my stance referred to as “dictionary” atheismagnosticism, and it especially seems to upset people sometimes (I think PZ Myers railed about it once, which thought-provoking), but I’m actually quite comfortable with it.

  • noel

    I’m with Doug. The fact that the most logical position annoys people is evidence that they are more focused on the political implications: Are you with us or against us? (!)

  • fastlane

    noel, I think that may be a bit of a stretch, not to mention a logical fallacy.

    PZ’s argument against the ‘dictionary atheist’ argument was more subtle than that.

    I am a ‘strong’, aka gnostic, atheist. I’m about a 6.99 on Dawkins’ 1-7 scale.

    Basically, I am as certain as one can be, based on our knowledge of Life, the Universe, and Everything (TM), that none of the personal gods we humans have dreamed up to this point exist, but there’s the possibility out there that we might some day find something like a god (a transdimensional, hyperintelligent shade of blue, for instance).

  • Kenneth

    Excellent post. I recently participated in a forum discussion in which several contributors surprisingly asserted absolute epistemic certainty that there is/are no god(s). This is clearly a form of dogmatism, as no evidence can be provided to substantiate this position. I’m also an atheist, but from a rigorous philosophical standpoint such claims simply will not do, and it seems this should be obvious to those who are intellectually honest in their argumentation. My question to you is this: Are you aware of any serious, professional philosophers who would publicly make such an assertion, or is it rather just a position which one is likely to encounter amongst dilettantes in an internet forum?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      69.7 of 1803 Philosophy faculty and/or PhDs surveyed were outright atheists or leaned towards atheism. Only very few, 6.4% were “agnostic/undecided”.

      Whether or on they would say “absolute epistemic certainty” I don’t know. 57.7% outright accept atheism though. Only 11.9% merely lean towards it. Tiny percentages say there is no fact of the matter or the question of atheism or theism is too unclear to answer, etc.

      Probably no philosophers would use such absolutist phrases like “absolute certainty” to describe their positions on most issues. But that does not mean they are not, for practical purposes, certain. I am as certain Yahweh is a fiction as I am that Spider-Man is and I see no reason to tip toe around and indicate “well there MIGHT, with some infinitesimal probability, be a Yahweh” or “Jesus MIGHT, with some infinitesimal probability have risen from the dead” or “Spider-Man MIGHT, with some infinitesimal probability be real”, etc.

      Whether or not some sort of impersonal deistic metaphysical god-principle exists is another issue.

  • http://lessthanwomprat.com Kyle

    Great blost!

    How do you distinguish deistic from theistic?
    (Not disagreeing, simply trying to learn about how these words are defined from a philosophical standpoint)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      no problem, when I talk about deism I typically mean an impersonal and noninterventionist god and by theism I mean a personal god and interventionist god.