Monday, February 23, 2009

Why I'm not an agnostic

I consider myself to be an atheist, but I don't consider myself to be an agnostic. What exactly does that tell you about me? Does it imply that I have dogmatic certainty in my beliefs? Does it imply that I'm a hardcore new atheist who is obnoxiously anti-religious? No, silly.

So it's time for a bit of a story. I went to a Catholic Jesuit high school. I stopped believing right around my graduation. Depending on how you look at it, you might say I actually stopped believing the year before, or the month after graduation. I don't know. My thoughts were fluid. I didn't think or worry about it much. In particular, I didn't think at all about "What should I call myself?" Labels are not important. The ideas behind labels are important, and I was still sorting those ideas out. It was not as if I was trying to explain my journey to anyone else, so there was just no reason to try to contain it within words.

But I don't mean to demonize the very concept of a label. Some months later, when I entered college, I did start to think about what to call myself. See, I had started to interact with people online, and I needed to organize my thoughts into something easily expressed. I also needed a way to explain to myself what had happened. Labels are useful for both of these purposes. So I began to scout out for what sort of labels people use, and what they mean by them. After a while, I settled on "atheist".

The main point of this story is that deciding between "agnostic" and "atheist" was not a matter of sorting out my beliefs, but rather, a matter of sorting out descriptions of those beliefs. It was not a matter of self-searching, but a matter of internet-searching. The purpose of a label is primarily communication, so it's important to know what other people think about them, not just what I think about them.

So what did I discover on the internet that made me think "atheist" is so much better? Here are my impressions and conclusions:
  1. Ask nearly any atheist, and they will tell you that atheists are not certain about their belief that they do not take it on faith. Some will tell you that they are only "de facto" atheists, in that they go through their lives in such a way that they might as well not believe in god. Some will tell you all about the difference between "belief in no god" and "no belief in a god".

  2. Ask most agnostics, and they will tell you that agnostics do not think that God is a 50-50 bet. Usually, instead they'll tell you about how it is impossible to prove or disprove God.

  3. In general, people will draw lots of fine distinctions between agnosticism and atheism. But the more I looked around, the more I found that these fine lines criss-crossed all over each other, blurring the distinctions more than ever.

  4. Ask atheists about agnostics, and they might tell you that agnostics are wishy-washy fence-sitters who can't be bothered to make up their minds. Ask agnostics about atheists, and they might tell you that atheists are just as dogmatic as fundamentalists, only in the other direction.

    On the spectrum between "know-nothing" and "know-everything", it's rather clear that both atheists and agnostics overlap somewhere in the middle. And yet, some in each group will tell you that the other group is being extreme. I don't believe it, and I think it's kind of insulting.

  5. Many atheists also consider themselves to be agnostics. Even if they never talk about themselves as agnostic, many will respond in affirmative if asked if they are agnostic. Why, if you asked me whether I'm agnostic, I'd probably say yes too. Or not. It depends on the context. I realize the title of this post is "Why I'm not an agnostic", but that's because I have an entire essay to explain my meaning. If asked in a different context, I might just say yes, and that would give people approximately the right idea.

  6. Atheists are not necessarily mean or overly confrontational. Agnostics are not necessarily nice or underly confrontational. Even towards religion. This much should have been obvious.
So far, I've been pretty neutral. But there are two additional things that really bother me about agnosticism.

First of all, who is to say that agnostics are the only people who are unsure of themselves? Agnosticism seems premised on the idea that everyone else is completely sure of themselves, and no one else appreciates how difficult or impossible it is to prove or disprove the existence of a god. Atheists can appreciate the uncertainty of the situation too, as can religious people. Other people have doubts too. Why would humble doubt and uncertainty make me so special that I need a label to express it?

Second of all, while agnosticism prides itself on being epistemologically accurate, I feel that it is not. It's just not a big deal to say that a claim can be neither proven nor disproven. Most claims can't. That's just not how reasoning works. We usually only talk about supporting or detracting evidence. I'm not going to say that there is much evidence which is relevant to the existence of a god, but there is some (disregarding unimportant gods like the deist god). It's just a matter of flipping around the absence of evidence, and you've got something. Not much, but then I never said I was certain in my unbelief, I just said I was an atheist.

If anyone here is really wondering what to call themselves, this is my advice: Just pick whatever you like, whatever serves you best. Don't worry about the fine distinctions between the definitions, because different people draw different distinctions, and all details get completely muddled in the mess. Just try not to insult anyone in the process.


DeralterChemiker said...

A deist god is unimportant? Oh, come now!! It's only the belief (or disbelief) in a deist god that is unimportant!

miller said...

I don't think the deist god is nearly as important as say, the deist himself.