- Published on Thursday, 12 April 2012 06:18
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 1106
It seems that to a Christian or perhaps any theist, there is an important difference between agnostic and atheist. Agnostic is somehow benign and acceptable whereas atheist is aggressive and almost arrogant. The thought seems to be - you can't prove there is no god so atheism is making a statement without evidence. Religious people of course do exactly that - decide to believe in something without any real proof - they call it faith and think of it as a virtue. But because atheists seem to be certain that there is no god but concede they cannot absolutely prove it, then they too must have a faith - they too have a "religion". To counter this situation many skeptics call themselves an agnostic. Richard Dawkins is often quoted as saying he is agnostic because he cannot 100% prove "no God". Other skeptics like Michael Shermer and Neil deGrasse Tyson object to being labelled - they say that labels carry with them all the baggage that the person thinks they already know about that particular label. As soon as you are labelled a Christian, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, people have a pre-conceived notion of what that means - no matter how you actually describe yourself. But what really is the difference between an agnostic like Dawkins and Shermer and an atheist?
The short answer is that there isn't any - the difference is in the perception. Michael Shermer has written about this "many times" he says but recently he wrote a short summary (here) and he made some observations worth repeating. He first points out that we really should not object to labels because they are characteristic of the way people think. "Time is short and information is vast. Most of the time our brains just pigeonhole information into categories we already know in order to move on to the next problem to solve". He then says what I always say to describe my atheism (except he says it better):
Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally. To this extent, I assume that there is no God and I live my life accordingly, which makes me an atheist [my emphasis]. In other words, agnosticism is an intellectual position, a statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our ability to know it with certainty, whereas atheism is a behavioral position, a statement about what assumptions we make about the world in which we behave.
But when I am asked: "Are you atheist or agnostic?" am I supposed to answer "behaviorally atheist"? I'd then be asked: "What does that mean? Tell me in English." So like Shermer, I just say "atheist".
But as Michael points out:
When most people employ the word "atheist," they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position (you cannot prove a negative). Weak atheism simply withholds belief in God for lack of evidence, which we all practice for nearly all the gods ever believed in history. As well, people tend to equate atheism with certain political, economic, and social ideologies, such as communism, socialism, extreme liberalism, moral relativism, and the like.
It so happens that I agree with my Christian friends on most political and moral issues - surprise! - so they end up modifying their prejudice on what atheists are like.
But because of the apparent certainty of atheists (and it is only apparent), the big difference between atheists and theists gets lost. It's not like being left or right in Politics where both are sets of beliefs, one believes in a god and the other has an absence of belief. Like the old example of the Santa Claus believers and those with an absence of belief in Santa. There is no substitute belief. It is an absence of belief.
Given the ambiguities of the English language, maybe nontheist would be a better label - but it is unfortunately even less understood.