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.”