The “A” Word
I 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.
I am an evangelical atheist.
I do not think it is in bad form or rude to proselytize or to have an evangelical passion for one’s views—be they religious or otherwise. I do not resent the strong desire to convert others which one finds among Christians and Muslims. What I reject in faith-based evangelism is shameless “get them at all costs” approaches they use.
I loathe the way they actively distort science, present sophistries in lieu of philosophical arguments, insist on dogmatic acceptance of their authorities and refuse to engage in an actual open ended debate, shamelessly try to manipulate people’s emotions using fear and insecurity to their advantage, harass strangers on the street, bully relatives and friends with threats to disown them lest they convert to (or not leave) their faith,use the coercive power of their stations as people’s teachers or military officers or legislators to indoctrinate, propagandize, manipulate, or force people into deferring to and converting to their beliefs, etc.
Such tactics as these give all discussions about philosophical matters a bad name in the public and it is a disgrace. But I think that atheists (and theists, etc.) can all have civil private and public debates that eschew all these negatives and yet which are unashamedly about trying to rationally persuade others to their side.
I also don’t mind being called an “evangelical” atheist (though I know other atheists understandably don’t want the slimy goo of the negative connotations of “evangelicalism” all over them. In my case, my passionate temperament to correct people’s minds in matters of gods was forged for 15 years in evangelical training.
I still am, behaviorally, in some ways “evangelical”–and even want to be insofar as that means wanting people to think the best they can about the ultimate questions of meaning, ethics, and reality so that they flourish most in life. I just need to (and think I have) avoid their failures to do this in ways that actually respect others’ autonomy and intelligence and do not reduce people to “projects” and notches on a belt.
We should reach out civilly but not cowardly to people of faith.
When debating the defenders of faith, be they actual people of faith or their apologists, we should not resort to name-calling–it is abusive, bullying, childish, disrespectful, corrosive to the dialogue—and probably counter-productive most of the time anyway. It distracts from your argument, it gives your opponent a moral complaint against you, it makes potential allies try to disassociate themselves from you, and it projects the impression you have no argument so you’re resorting to abuse.
We need to respect people and argue respectfully.
This is entirely consistent with being intellectually and personally confrontational in appropriate ways. We must call spades spades. We can use harsh words that are accurate and not just putdowns. We can call people liars when they lie, we can expose them as fraudulent, dissembling, unfair, irrational, authoritarian, theocratic, misogynistic, racist, chauvinistic, stubborn, rude, or any of dozens and dozens of other awful things for which we provide evidence. We do not have to always be nice or conciliatory. Some people deserve to be denounced vigorously.
But there is no need for words that go beyond denunciations of specific, documented behaviors, to outright dismissals of their worth as people.
We should also actively work not to let our principled opposition and vigorous willingness to debate and debunk turn into emotional hatred of our intellectual and cultural enemies. We must remember that it is bogus when the fundamentalists claim to hate what gay people do and yet love them as people, and find ways to not take a comparable attitude towards the religious lest we become haters. We need to conscientiously figure out ways to affirm the virtues of the religious which are separably valuable and laudable apart from their own faith-based interpretations of their worth.
We should learn patience. People do change their minds, just often not right in front of our faces. We should debate optimistically, with the knowledge that you can never even predict or measure afterwards how many ways you can slightly or significantly affect the way others think. Some words echo in people’s minds long after we even remember saying (or even thinking) them and predicting which ones will do that to which people is impossible. But it happens, either consciously or subconsciously, we all get into each other’s heads. And we should want to get into people’s heads for the positive.
And, finally, we should feel free to (judiciously) mock religion. This is a vital part of breaking its spell of holiness, untouchability, and default reverence in the culture. And absurdities and sophistries are most directly and clearly exposed with humor and dismissed with laughter. Sometimes (though of course not always) a witty rejoinder that exposes a position’s stupidity is worth more than the 1,000 words it sometimes takes to carefully disentangle all its myriad confusions.
I am an activist atheist in order to support atheists as much as to oppose illicit religious influence.
My blogging is not only about trying to persuade believers of atheism and rationalism. It is also to support my fellow atheists. I think it is not a bad thing to identify as an atheist and to cultivate a group identity with people who share your social marginalization. I think it is good for atheists to reach out and connect with each other and support each other when our families turn against us and when we simply need help with philosophical problems from an atheist point of view or are interested in how to answer a debating point of some religious apologist.
Atheists are people too. We are often alienated institutionally from the religious founts of community, discussion of ethics and meaning, spiritual practices, etc. We deserve a chance to think and meet and debate in common and, specifically, as atheists work out together our views on these sorts of issues the same way religious people get to do but without all that faith-based baggage. There are important parts of our lives we deserve to develop and to help each other with.
So many well-educated “elites” are atheists (or at least irreligious) who look around and see their peers are similar and then look down on the “ordinary” with their greater likelihood of faith and then condescendingly think it’s not the place of they and their enlightened fellow elites to go and rob the poor masses of their comfort-bringing illusions. They are bewildered and offended when atheists do something so “indecent” as publicly argue against god as though they are taking out ads against Santa Claus to run during Saturday morning cartoons.
But the average atheist is not some elite but an average person who deserves books and blogs and community organizations which address his or her search for answers about philosophy and practice.
And even the average non-atheist who is either a believer or in the persuadable middle deserves proactive education. Irreligiousness and atheism are not the exclusive provenance or entitlement of the elite and the “enlightened” who do not need what the common folk do. These are available to everyone and good for most in a democratic society.
And there is no law that says you can become an atheist—but only by accident. (Well, maybe in some interpretations of Islam, but that does not count!) Atheism is treated as something permissible as long as it is kept to oneself or as something one may acquire but would never want to spread to others or as something that only the hip can figure out but only on their own when they bump into Nietzsche. Okay—I’m sort of personally guilty of that last one. There were no real live atheists in my life to dissuade me, only Nietzsche and some doubting but religious friends.
And there was certainly no one to support my transition out of religion, which was in many ways personally traumatic. There was no one to guide me in coming out to my friends at my über-conservative religious college. No one to embolden me to push back against those who wanted to psychologize and delegitimize my scrupulous intellectual struggles to let go of beliefs I loved and had staked my life and identity upon.
I had to build up my view of the world mostly from scratch, without the aid of all the books now available to atheists. And it sucked. And it slowed down my emotional, ethical, and psychological development. Atheists need and deserve support. It infuriates me when our efforts to do this for each other are trivialized and villainized.
For further consciousness raising:
More on evangelical atheism: