Why You Are Not an “Agnostic”

The modern usage of the word “agnostic” has long been a pet peeve of mine. Most people think of it as a middle ground between theism and atheism: “I don’t believe in God, but I don’t believe there’s definitely no God.”

This isn’t exactly what the word has meant historically, as Wikipedia will tell you. But that’s OK. Languages change over time, and a widely used colloquial meaning can become just as valid as the “official” one. The real problem is that 99% of self-declared atheists believe exactly the same thing.

Atheism is just the absence of theism. It does not require the affirmative belief that there is no God. A few atheists hold this belief — which philosophers call “positive” or “strong” atheism — but as far as I can tell, it’s a tiny academic and scientific fringe. I have never met anyone in person — and I’ve known a lot of self-declared atheists — who would make this claim.

Even the most famous atheists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, aren’t saying this. In fact, Dawkins has addressed the subject directly:

Dawkins … reserves the term “strong atheist” for “I know there is no god”. He categorizes himself as a “de facto atheist” but not a “strong atheist” under this definition.

So this is the real problem with the “middle ground” usage of the word “agnostic”: it doesn’t serve any useful purpose. Atheism and theism exhaust all the possibilities. If you don’t believe in God, you’re an atheist, whether or not you are open-minded about his possible existence.

So why have you been calling yourself an “agnostic”? Probably to signal your tolerance and open-mindedness, and distinguish yourself from all those dogmatic atheists. Or maybe you’ve come to associate the word “atheism” with “anti-religious” and you don’t see yourself that way.

As a fellow atheist, I understand how you feel. I’m not against all religion, and I’m no great fan of the authors above. I can see why anyone might want to disassociate themselves from the more strident, anti-religion wing of pop atheism. But calling yourself an “agnostic” is disingenuous. It implies that millions of self-declared atheists believe something they don’t, in order to use them as a straw man to boost your own status. If there were really hordes of “positive” atheists out there, then yes, your “negative” atheism would make you open-minded by comparison. But there aren’t.

If you have a problem with Dawkins or other prominent atheists, or with your know-it-all “atheist” friends, then your problem is probably with their rhetoric, their tone or their views on religion and society — not with their core beliefs about God. So don’t cede the “atheist” label to them — if anything, it will only encourage them.

One of my favorite bloggers, John Scalzi, has recently written about this general subject. Unfortunately, he defines himself as an agnostic, although he comes closer than most to the real definition:

I’m an agnostic of the non-wishy-washy sort (i.e., I don’t believe in a god nor believe one is required to explain the universe, but I acknowledge I can’t prove one doesn’t or never did exist)

But then he perfectly expresses what many self-described “agnostics” are trying to say:

There are a number of people who have come to agnosticism or atheism because of conflicts with or disillusionment about religion, and in particular a religion they were born into and grew up in, and others who are agnostic or atheist who feel that religion and the religious impulse must be challenged wherever they find it. For these reasons among others I think people assume those people who aren’t religious are naturally antagonistic, to a greater or lesser degree, to those who are. But speaking personally, I don’t feel that sort of antagonism; I don’t look at those who believe as defective or damaged or somehow lacking. Faith can be a comfort and a place of strength and an impetus for justice in this world, and I’m not sure why in those cases I, as a person without faith, would need to piss all over that.

It’s a shame that so many people don’t think of this view as compatible with atheism, but it’s not too late to change that. You can start by describing yourself accurately.