Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Agnosticism, Atheism, and Non-Theism

I had an interesting evening the other night, arguably one of the snootier times I’ve had. There was steak, salmon, lots of wine, and a high percentage of people present had a Ph. D, so you know I was an amusing oddity in that lot. Luckily the hostess of the party is a fan of my wife and me, so we got invited.

After the talk turned from “worst sexual experiences” while still seated at the dinner table, we moved to the den and the discussion turned to atheism.

The host shies away from the term “atheist.” He’s an atheist, no doubt about it, but he doesn’t like the term. He calls himself an agnostic, despite ruling out belief in the Christian/Jewish/Muslim God. I think he just doesn’t have time for religion, or to care about religion enough to even oppose it.

He’s a busy guy… he’s a newly tenured professor (so he just now can ease up in his job), he just moved to a farmhouse where he keeps goats, chickens and rabbits, he’s finalizing a divorce and custody battle, he’s dating a woman who is also finalizing a divorce and custody battle, and he runs a non-profit organization that helps exploited immigrant families. I think he’d rather make a real difference than be religious.

Which reminds me: he works with many people in religious organizations, and he said that in his experience, people who volunteer to help people through churches are usually not even that religious, and are sometimes even avowed non-believers. I honestly found that kind of interesting, even though it’s not exactly a scientific observation.

But I digress…

I thought of what I should have said, instead of launching into a brief explanation of why “agnostic” is a made-up term meant to be a less emotionally-charged term for atheist. At least I pointed out that in the end, for all practical purposes, “atheist” and “agnostic” are no different, because neither person lives with a belief in god. It’s really all semantics.

But I should have remembered the third member of the unholy trinity: non-theist.

I’ve never met an agnostic who won’t accept the label “non-theist,” or perhaps even the non-hyphenated “nontheist.” There’s just something about the term “atheist” that turns some people off.

This might have been easy to understand in the 19th century, when “atheism” as we know it actually came into existence. Before the 1800s, an “atheist” was someone who did bad things. A horrible act might be called “atheistic.” It wasn’t the most common word, but it was not “a lack of belief in gods” until just under two centuries ago.

You can imagine, then, that given the previous meaning that it might be advantageous to adopt a new terminology way back then, like “agnostic.” Thomas Huxley coined the term as a form of skepticism based on the requirement of evidence. Oddly enough, just as the term “atheist” has changed, so has agnosticism.

Now, agnosticism implies one of two things. To believers, it often means “on the fence,” or “unsure,” but that usually isn’t the case. Sometimes, but not often. To those who self-apply it, it primarily means, “I do not believe in gods, but I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming there are no gods… but I don’t worship anything,” or something like that.

I see not only no functional difference between atheists and agnostics, I also see little to no difference in practice. There’s really not much that I have seen as being unique to atheists as compared to agnostics or vice-versa, except perhaps that more atheists are “open” (see also: aggressive) with their views, but I know plenty of agnostics who are clearly not hiding their stance. Still, I have never even heard of a “militant agnostic,” and maybe that’s why it appeals to those who want to avoid confrontation.

I sometimes wonder why I don’t see more people self-identifying as “non-theist.” It’s as safe as “agnostic,” though not as ambiguous, and it’s as clear as “atheist,” but it doesn’t have all the cultural baggage.

Then again… of course I like it… “non-theist” isn’t too far off from “Anything But Theist.”


  1. I don't think it's accurate (or even appropriate) to claim that agnostics really are atheists deep down, but they just refuse to admit it. But then it is also possible that we aren't speaking the same language, despite appearances. When I use the word "atheist" I mean someone who believes God does not exist, whereas "agnostic" means someone lacks belief in God's existence and non-existence. See my post here for details.

    1. Blah, blah, blah semantics. I never met an atheist anyway who claimed there's proof there cannot be gods. The "distinction" is an amateurish and infantile topic among neophyte atheists with little or no real experience in the community.

      At least, that's my opinion.

    2. Semantics matter sometimes though.

      For the most part, I think people use the word "agnostic" simply to shy away from the negative connotations surrounding the word "atheist." Very few people live their lives without some sort of assumption about god's existence either way. As you point out, most atheists are actually agnostic atheists and most theists are agnostic theists. So agnosticism is more of a general philosophical statement pertaining to knowledge while atheism is a statement about belief. So saying you're "agnostic" is not really enough to give someone an adequate understanding of what you believe (or don't believe).

      I just use "atheist"" because I think words have power and it's important to reclaim labels like "atheist" and "feminist." Plus it pisses off some mormons. :)

  2. Random question: What is the name of the dog you use as your profile pic, and why do you use the dog over your face or something else?

    1. The dog's name is "Barkley," and I use his face because my wife wants us to remain anonymous.

  3. What about anti-theist iconoclasts?

    1. They're as rare as right-wing atheists, aren't they?

      I don't think they need me mentioning them; they aren't cowering quietly in a corner somewhere like agnostics sometimes do.

    2. Is there an atheist version of Westboro Baptists?

      "Thank Nietzsche for Dead Gods"

    3. Free Thought Blogs is coming close to that. I kid... sort of.


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