Atheism, Agnosticism and Teenage Rebellion

Is the Word “Atheist” Too Strong?

In the comments for my most recent post on Atheism, Core Values and Religion, a daughter’s mother and I engaged in what I consider to be an interesting exchange on the use of the labels “agnostic” and “atheism.”  I am not sure that we have it settled yet, so I wanted to do a completely new post to explain why I refer to myself as an atheist.  While I accept that I hold philosophical positions in common with other non-religious people, I have a sincere reason for choosing to label myself as an atheist.

I really need to be clear that as an atheist, I don’t pretend to “know” that there are no supernatural entities.  I agree with those who label themselves as agnostics that there is no way to ever know the unknowable with an absolute degree of 100% certainty.  I think that those atheists who claim to know that there is no such thing as a supernatural realm are overstating their case by tiny degrees.  There is no absolute knowledge of anything, a position that even naturalists accept, and if faced with the prospect of trying to understand that which can not be known there is no way to investigate to find objective knowledge.

Atheists and agnostics, or general doubters of the prevailing cultural religions have struggled for centuries to find the correct label for themselves to carry.  A few self-labels that come to my mind:

  1. Freethinker.  Unconfined by the dogma of religion, they see themselves as rational and skeptical and willing to look at their preconceived notions from a critical standpoint, to find if they are justified in continuing to hold those positions. I consider myself a freethinker.
  2. Secular Humanist.  A philosophical position allied with atheism.  Most secular humanists are atheists, and most atheists are secular humanists.  I am also a secular humanist, because I believe that as humans we can solve problems without appealing to supernatural actors.
  3. Rationalist.  Rationalists think of themselves as those who approach all of their questions by collecting and weighing evidence and, through critical analysis, come to the only valid conclusions possible.  I discount pure rationalism, because we have presuppositions of which we aren’t always aware, and even when we are aware of them, we don’t know how to correct for them.  No agent of thought can be purely rational, and I would argue that even processors in computers are not able to be purely rational because they are directed by human programmers and designers.  Spock, the agent of rationality created by Gene Roddenberry, admitted as much even for himself and was subject to the whims of his own biology every seven years.
  4. Naturalist.  Naturalists are rationalists who accept the concept of human imperfection.
  5. Bright.  A serious misstep and misguided label coined and conceived by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.  Essentially rationalists who just want to emphasize that they are smarter than everyone else.  It’s one label I refuse to apply to myself.
  6. Agnostic.  Don’t know, can’t know and won’t claim to know about the existence of an overriding supernatural presence in the universe. Logically correct in that, but often people use the term so they are less offensive to the religious.  My problem with the label is that in not being “offensive” to the religious, it gives them the impression that we are still open to proselytizing by the religious because we “just haven’t heard the good news in the right way.”  I am also an agnostic, because I refuse to claim that anyone can know either way.  I just know that human descriptions of the attributes of the unknowable are either worthless for using in my approach to life, or inconsequential.  Anything “out there” in the deistic sense doesn’t affect me in the least.  So if “it” is there, it’s fun to speculate about its apophaticness, but that’s all it is and it doesn’t make me a believer.
  7. The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism

    Atheist. Like agnostic, there are scalar degrees of non-belief that people will assign to themselves.  Often the discussion of atheism in a post on a site visited by atheists, theists, agnostics will include people declaring where they fit on the scale from “weak to strong.”  There are weak atheists, weak agnostics, strong atheists and strong agnostics.  I think that they are separate, parallel scales and not a single continuum.  I am an atheist.  And I wear the label proudly.

Two years ago, I was visiting my dad when his health was stronger.  I turned on the radio broadcast of Atheists Talk, streamed through the KTNF website.  Dad had been a lapsed Catholic for several years but had decided following a heart attack that he better put in a chip in the game of Pascal’s Wager and start going to Mass again. He had never been an atheist, to be sure, nor had he ever told me that he was at any point an agnostic. He just hadn’t been going to Mass.

As I was listening to the show, I asked him what he thought about the fact that I am an atheist and belong to the Minnesota Atheists.  He smiled and said, “I think it is a phase.”  I reminded him that I was in my late forties and hardly in the throes of teen rebellion.  He just laughed and went back to reading his paper.  That was all the time that he wanted to devote to it, because he doesn’t feel the need to try to “win me back” for Christ.  He seemed to think that when my time came and my health started to fail, I would come to the realization that I have been wrong to deny God and Salvation.  I am the fifth of seven kids, and three of the preceding four of my siblings are also atheists or agnostics.  The shock value for me to declare myself an atheist to him and to my late mother had worn off before I had the chance to use it.

Now, suppose I had told my dad I was a “capital A” agnostic?  That I was hemming and hawing on my belief so as not to seem too arrogant?  It may have given him an opening to invite me to Mass with him, to catch up on my Confessions and Act of Contritions.  Not that I am opposed to having religious discussions with him, of course, but I think he would have taken a more pressure-laden approach as he tried to nudge me back to the arms of the Church.  The effort on his part would have been similar to teaching a pig to fly.  It would have served merely to annoy the pig.

There is a reason that I use the word “atheist” to describe myself, among all the other labels of disbelief and religious doubt.

In the early 1980s, ideological labeling was shifting in U.S. politics.  Liberalism, which had once been a respectable label, was being attacked in order to build the Republican Party.  Ronald Reagan had won his election as a solid conservative and with no concessions to moderate his views.  He tapped into a blue-collar sensibility that liberalism had been hijacked by socialists and elitists, and by gosh, it was time to put some power back into the hands of the guys and gals who carried lunch buckets to work rather than attache cases full of doctoral theses.  He brought back morning to an America which had seen our intellectual and humanitarian president as being weak against commies and imams.

The ushering in of the Reagan era gave succor to the liberal bashers who had for years been marginalized.  Liberals didn’t want to be called liberals any more.  There were accusations of treason and anti-familyism leveled against liberals, because we had this odd notion that women and gays should have the same rights of self-determination as straight men.  There were accusations that liberals wanted to get rid of the Godly heritage of ‘Merica (to be fair, I did want to get rid of that) and that we were thus tools of Satan whether wittingly or no.  The word liberal was soon the insult that destroyed political campaigns.  A liberal in the mid-Eighties had as much chance getting elected to public office as an atheist does today.  So, liberals started calling themselves progressives.

Not me.  I have never given up the word “liberal” because of what the conservatives want to blame us for doing to their America.  In fact, I decided that I would be even more emphatic about calling myself a liberal.  It was akin to being country when country wasn’t cool.  I hadn’t changed my political orientation because of the Reagan era, so I sure in hell wasn’t going to relabel myself to seem less offensive to the people I would meet. I am a liberal; conservative disparagement be damned.  I should also admit that at least one factor in my refusal to give up the word “liberal” is in large part rebellion.  It is a word that should not be so vilified, so I am not going to play along with that game.  I don’t want to let other people, many of whom I just don’t like but others with whom I merely disagree, pick my label for me.

This also leads to my choice to use the term “atheist” to describe myself. I am not worried that people think it is a negative.  It is a negative. I don’t follow nor do I believe in any gods.  It’s that simple.  The beliefs that I do hold in addition to my lack of belief in supernatural actors are largely positive statements, but they are built from a presupposition that I have no reason to accept the idea that the universe has a dualistic supernatural/natural…um, nature.  There may be unreachable, unknowable entities, but I am not going to waste too much time thinking about it.

I am aware that people have negative impressions of atheists, that it is a choice of word that can lead people to dislike me or claim that I am being fundamentalist or arrogant.  I hold that the atheist position is just as honorable as any other position that anyone else has in regard to religion and theology and that it can’t be made more palatable by atheists shying from the word.  So I tell people when they ask me, “I am an atheist.”

I am also an agnostic, but most importantly I am an atheist.  People tend to like me for some odd reason, and I don’t scare them away when they meet me.  So, if atheism is going to become acceptable in our society, then we had better own up to it and not let other groups dictate to us what we should and shouldn’t call ourselves.  We can’t let people who don’t understand atheism get away with a smugly satisfying claim that we are just as fundamentalist as Christians.  The word “atheist” isn’t too strong.  It’s accurate.

Digital Cuttlefish has written a great poem that helps explain who we are as atheists. Look around you. I am sure that you know one or two and I am also sure that they haven’t stolen your Bibles to be used as toilet paper.

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16 Responses to “Atheism, Agnosticism and Teenage Rebellion”

  1. January 26th, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Dizzlski says:

    To be fair, I do take every bible out of every hotel room I’ve been in. It’s just easier to have them laying around for reference. I also refuse to pay for religious books. I missed my chance for a book of mormon in Panama due to a large hangover, nuts.

  2. January 26th, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    They give them away for free all over. I wouldn’t ever expect to pay for a religious book, because Bono says that his good isn’t poor. I would like to read the book of mormon sometime. They don’t knock on my door, for some reason.

  3. January 26th, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Russell says:

    What often goes missed is that many religious believers are agnostic. Their line of thought goes something like this: You cannot know that there isn’t a god, and I cannot know that there is, so I choose to believe. The first part of that sentence, up to the “so,” is a statement of agnosticism. Their leap of faith that follows doesn’t change that.

  4. January 26th, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Peter Cross says:

    Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?
    by Bertrand Russell (1947)

  5. January 26th, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Deen says:

    Nice article, and I have to agree.

    I often feel that Agnostics are dodging the question when asked about their beliefs. In private, they must have made a decision at some point whether they would live their lives as if a god exists, or as if he doesn’t – even if they’re not even aware that they’ve made the decision already. That’s why I have to call myself an atheist: while I can never be 100% sure on the existence of gods, I think I can be sure enough to happily live my life on the working hypothesis that no gods exist.

  6. January 26th, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Thanks, Peter; and here is a snippet from that Russell page:

    Here there comes a practical question which has often troubled me. Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.

    I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

    None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

    Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

  7. January 26th, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Peter Cross says:

    In my experience, people who insist on calling themselves agnostic are:

    1) Sticklers for the philosophical, rather than general, definitions.

    2) People who are poorly informed about the meaning of the terms.

    3) People who want to believe.

  8. January 26th, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Strider says:

    “I think that those atheists who claim to know that there is no such thing as a supernatural realm are overstating their case by tiny degrees.”. Fine. I’m going to overstate my case: all religions and/or supernatural realms were invented by pattern-seeking primates. No evidence exists for said religions and/or supernatural realms. When scientifically investigated, either directly (e.g., efficacy of prayer research) or indirectly (e.g. paleontological research), said religious dogma and/or supernatural realms have always (to my knowledge) been disproven or retreated. Said religions and/or supernatural realsm explain nothing about the natural world, the only one we DO know exists. Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.

  9. January 26th, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I did a post a while back wherein I argued that gnosticism is a different axis from theism. But assuming as argued in Mike’s previous post’s comments that people that are unsure are actually near the centre of a single-axis level of theism/atheism, I still don’t see that as a correct use of the terms. An agnostic (in the sense of someone that doesn’t actively worship) is as good as an atheist, insofar as believing in a god that judges you based on you worshipping would lead to them being equally consigned to hell should said god exist.

    So if you’re “on the fence” in an effort to hedge your bets, then you’re doomed to eternity in hell OR a lifetime of doubt. Either way doesn’t sound pleasant to me. I’d rather be an agnostic atheist in the sense that the balance of probability is vastly against any deities that have ever been proposed by humankind thus far, short of the deist or pantheist “God”. That way I don’t live a life of doubt and regret and should the Abrahamic God (or, say, Horus, or Odin) exist, at least I’ve been consistent in my demand for proof of him so when I get sent to Niflheim at least then I know I had it coming.

  10. January 26th, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I should note — the exception I made for the deist and pantheist “God” is not evidenced at all, but because it makes absolutely no empirically testable claims (unlike the dogmatic religions that depend on divine revelation), there’s no “balance of probability” to speak of. As in, the question is so open and ill-defined that it’s impossible to make any estimation of probability, and without any evidence, can be equally dismissed without evidence.

  11. January 26th, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Mike Haubrich, FCD says:

    Pascal’s Wager is the backstop for agnosticism, isn’t it Jason? Strider, I know what you are saying, and I have used that quote myself. The one thing that I can say is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is no empirical test for the existence of God, of course and as an atheist I strongly believe that there is not, but the probability that there may be, however tiny is still there.

    That’s how science works.

  12. January 26th, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    J.C. Samuelson says:

    Good article, though I do want to correct an error, if you don’t mind. You wrote:

    Bright. A serious misstep and misguided label coined and conceived by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Essentially rationalists who just want to emphasize that they are smarter than everyone else. It’s one label I refuse to apply to myself.

    Although they did promote it by writing favorable articles, the Brights were NOT the brainchild of either Dennett or Dawkins, and (according to the people who DID coin the word in this context – Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert (2003)) has nothing to do with intelligence. To be fair, the original usage is so ingrained, so embedded in modern English, that thinking of it in a different context provokes a bit of cognitive dissonance. However, if you’re curious, you can always go read about the Brights (and why they choose that word) at their website.

    I do think it was a misstep precisely because of the connotations you mention. I just think it’s only fair to judge an idea by its content, rather than superficial appearance.

    Atheist works for me, though I rather like at least the idea of using the word “Bright.” I don’t define myself as much by what I don’t do or believe, but what I do, so words that have a positive, progressive feel to them are much preferred.

  13. January 26th, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    One of the faults that I have with writing is that I don’t to a lot of research. Correction noted, and thank you.

  14. January 27th, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Strider says:

    I understand the point, nice dueling quotes, but could you not also say that there is a tiny probability that fairies, another bit of the supernatural entirely made up and without any good evidence, exist? Where do you draw the line? Where does the silliness and wishful thinking end?

  15. January 27th, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    DuWayne says:

    Strider –

    For my own part, I accept that there is at least a tiny possibility that most anything might be true – it just happens to be a spectrum. In all honesty, I put the existence of fairies around the same likelihood that a theistic god exists and only fractionally more likely than the notion that I will suddenly start defecating gold. On the other hand, I put the likelihood of some form of physical/spiritual duality somewhere rather more likely than the existence of a theist god and closer to the likelihood that a blind watchmaker type god exists or existed. At the same time, I think the possibility that extra terrestrials will someday visit earth rather more likely than any of these, because there is a rather profound likelihood that such beings actually exist – somewhere.

    I do not think it the least bit irrational to express it in much the way that I just did. Indeed I do so fairly regularly. Living in the midwest, I get a lot of incredulous responses when I happen to mention that I am an atheist – the most common being; “How do you know there’s no god?” I think it is extremely valuable to explain to people who ask me that, what exactly being an atheist means and using more examples than the existence of a theistic god or any other, makes it much clearer to people. In a sense it provides a much more accurate understanding of exactly where I am coming from. I am a rationalist atheist – I accept few things as absolute truth and accept few notions that lack a great deal of evidence to support them at all. So not only do I throw out examples from one end of the spectrum, I throw some out from the other end as well.

    How far I actually go, of course, is directly correlate to how rapidly the eyes of the person I am talking to glaze over. I usually get much the same reaction to this discussion, that I do to discussing the history of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires…

  16. January 30th, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    khan says:

    —There were accusations of treason and anti-familyism leveled against liberals, because we had this odd notion that women and gays should have the same rights of self-determination as straight men.—

    I declare myself atheist, feminist & liberal. Also “anti-family” as to some definitions of family.

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