The “A” Word

The “A” Word February 8, 2011

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.

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