The Atheist-Agnostic Distinction; Why AHA! Makes Sense for Cal Poly
January 10, 2012
I have often been surprised by the lack of clarity regarding the meaning of the word ‘atheist’. What surprises me is not that people do not know what it means, but who it is that does not understand the meaning of the word. I have met far too many atheists who believe the word atheist does not describe them, and that therefore the name Alliance of Happy Atheists does not represent their interests in the same way the name Cal Poly Brights did. While we have elaborated on the name change elsewhere, and we may do in more depth later, I hope here to explain what the word ‘atheist’ does and does not mean, how it is related to agnosticism, and finally, why Cal Poly needs a club with “atheist” in the name.
Let me begin by looking at four common definitions of the word “atheist”.
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.
a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.
From merriam webster:
a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity
From American Atheists:
Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity, which implies that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units.
Before beginning to discuss what atheism is, I would like to take note of definition one from Merriam Webster dictionary, which provides an archaic definition of atheism as “ungodliness or wickedness”, as I shall revisit this definition below.
There are a number of commonalities across these definitions. First, that atheism is either the denial of the existence of deities(“supreme beings”) or that atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of deities. The former of these two is usually what is meant by an individual when they discuss atheism, but is this the best definition of atheism? It is important to remember that a key purpose of language is to allow for the expression of relationships between ideas. If this definition does not allow us to accurately express how ideas are related to each other, in this case, how one views questions regarding the existence of god, than it is a useless definition. It is my contention that the former definition needlessly creates ambiguity and leads to confusion.
In practice, one can disbelieve in the existence of a deity without explicitly claiming that said deity does not exist. This position is usually termed agnosticism, but as we will explore later, the term agnosticism represents a much stronger claim than a disbelief in a deity. If, for the moment, we allow that agnostic is an inadequate term for these individuals, than what can we call these people? Since they do not hold that god does not exist, they are not atheists in the former sense of the word – only the latter. However, as the former sense is usually what is meant, these individuals are effectively without a term, and when the term atheist is used by them or ascribed to them, they are miscategorized and their beliefs unclear. Reasoned discourse becomes very difficult at this juncture if individuals can not understand what is meant by the words used to describe their positions, let alone their arguments for those positions.
The word, atheist, if instead taken to mean “one who lacks belief in god” more accurately represents those in both camps. Understanding is aided by this broader definition, despite it being a step back in strength from the more commonly used meaning. This meaning further represents a truer conception of atheism and its etymology. The word atheist comes from the Greek prefix a- “without” and word theos – “a god”, reading literally “without a god”. This is best conveyed by the idea that one lacks belief in a god, not that one believes that god does not exist. Despite this, one may argue that historically the meaning is of the former conception, and this is certainly the case. My argument, however, is based on the utility of each meaning, not on historical or common concerns.
A further consideration in the choice of the word atheist to mean “one who lacks belief in god”, is simply that this definition is often preferred by atheists as it represents the ideas they hold more closely than competing definitions. Clearly one knows what one believes or does not believe better than others who may ascribe positions to them that they do not hold.
Now that the word atheist is properly defined, it is worth considering what exactly is meant by the words agnostic and agnosticism. For this, it is best perhaps to begin by considering once more common definitions of the word:
Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable
1. the doctrine or belief of an agnostic.
2. an intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertainty of all claims to ultimate knowledge.
1: a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god
2: a person who is unwilling to commit to an opinion about something <political agnostics>
There is perhaps an obvious conclusion one can draw from these definitions, that being that agnosticism and atheism, as defined here, are not incompatible and one might go so far as to say that agnosticism implies atheism. After all, if one believes the existence of god is unknown or unknowable, they are unlikely to claim knowledge about that god’s existence or non-existence. In this way, it seems very reasonable to suspect that agnosticism is a much stronger and complex position that atheism. While agnostics are often characterized as being unable to take sides in a dispute, as in Merriam-Webster’s second definition, agnostics actually hold to very strong positions on the nature of knowledge. For one to make extremely broad generalizations about the nature of knowledge including categorically rejecting the possibility of knowledge on one or many subjects, one ought to have good reasons to do so. Indeed, the very act of making claims about the very nature of knowledge represents an inherently stronger action than a mere lack of a claim on a subject. This leads to the conclusion that agnosticism is a much stronger claim than the lack of a claim that atheism entails.
Do not, however, mistake the position of unknowability regarding deities as absolutely implying atheism, it does not. One can, in principle, be agnostic about certain things while being gnostic about others. In principle, one can be an agnostic regarding many questions, even the question of god, while asserting belief in that god. Arguments can even be made that religion and belief in god requires this of believers. Agnosticism is a position on the nature and limits of knowledge, literally meaning, from the Greek “without knowledge”, not a position on the existence or non-existence of god. There is a great deal of overlap among those who assert either position, but conceptually they are distinct.
With definitions of atheism and agnosticism in hand, I would like to turn now to a question fundamentally related to the labels we give ourselves, that of the Alliance of Happy Atheists name. Specifically, there have been two lines of criticism regarding this name, first that it does not represent all individuals who may wish to join the naturalist/rationalist club at Cal Poly, and second, that it is confrontational towards the theistic clubs on campus.
Fundamentally, I believe that the first criticism is answered by the above discussion. You are an atheist if you do not actively believe in one or more gods. You may call yourself an agnostic, a pantheist or one of a half dozen other names, but all that is required to be an atheist is the lack of belief in gods. I believe that is a sufficiently large umbrella.
As to the latter criticism, I would like to point out that the labels we use ought to be chosen for good reasons, not for petty ones like driving a divide between individuals. While the existence of atheists may be a problem for religious reasoning, it is not intentionally confrontational to use a word that describes our positions, or lack of a position, to describe ourselves. The word atheist has bad baggage, but we must combat that baggage by using it properly. This involves answering questions with far less broad applicability than questions regarding the meaning of words.
Cal Poly is a unique environment in that we have a high proportion of highly religious students, and in particularly, a high proportion of Christian students. This is not true of all Universities, and represents a key reason for choosing a name including the word atheist. The role of an atheist club on a University campus is not always clear, but at a fundamental level involves supporting the mission of the University by providing community for its membership and educating individuals exterior to the group about atheism, secularism and rationalism. If you recall, one of the definitions of atheist that was mentioned above includes the term “wickedness” or “ungodliness”, both implying immorality and perhaps irrationality. While this definition is archaic, the implication is not. Atheists remain one of the most hated and most distrusted groups in the United States. Consequently, we must challenge the negative perception of atheists by educating people, and it is very difficult to educate when people are unclear about what your group is or is not. There is no clearer way to convey what your group is then including the word “atheist” in the name, while challenging the misconception that atheists are immoral or unhappy directly by using phrasing with positive connotations.
One might, however, argue that as a rationalist club, the name AHA misrepresents our mission and character. I do believe that to be a fair criticism. I also believe again, that Cal Poly needs a club to challenge the negative misconceptions surrounding atheism more than it needs a club obviously aimed at attacking irrationality. On the whole, Cal Poly students are extremely intelligent and extremely rational. While educating people about pseudoscience and woo is important and will continue to be a focus of both our group and the secular community as a whole, educating people about the fact that their neighbors, classmates, friends, and family members may lack belief in god while not being immoral or depressed requires a more prominent positioning of atheism. That does not change that we are not a club for atheists, we are a club for rationalists, naturalists and skeptics of all stripes, religious or otherwise.
I’ve said elsewhere, and will reiterate this fact here, that the name Alliance of Happy Atheists! is not intended for the atheists at Cal Poly and the membership in the group. The name is intended for the average member of Crusade, or one of the many students who have given the issue very little thought. It is intended for people who have skewed perceptions of atheists, not for people who know what the word atheist means, or even for those who know, without the aid of Google, what the ontological, teleological or transcendental arguments for god are. If you know what those arguments entail, you’re likely aware of secular ethics, the existence and importance of Separation of church and state or that Evolution is both fact and theory. For everyone else, let the name make you more aware of your peers.