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: