Why “Atheist” and “Agnostic” are stupid titles that make us less intelligent

It’s time to vent about something that has begun to annoy me more and more – the stupid titles we have for people who don’t believe in religion or God.  In this little article, I’m going to argue that our use of these words isn’t only imprecise, but actually makes us all less intelligent.  Hang on, I’ll get there.

Agnostic vs Atheist

When someone says they’re agnostic, what they mean is that they’re not sure whether or not God is real.  They’re likely very uninterested in finding out, because they don’t think it’s possible to find out in the first place, and they just live their lives as they think they should.  If God decides to make himself known somewhere five years down the road, cool.  If not, whatever.  No big deal, but they’re not about to be as presumptuous as to say there isn’t a God.  Who are they to pretend to know one way or the other?

An atheist, on the other hand, is, in the eyes of a lot of society, someone who is certain God doesn’t exist.  They’re often seen as being against religion, actively fighting against dogma with the same kind of religious zeal as the people they’re opposing.

What the words actually mean

Agnostic simply means “without knowledge.”  Gnosis is the Greek noun for “knowledge,” slap on the A and it means the opposite.  To be agnostic about something is to not know whether that thing is true and to believe that it is impossible to ever know.

In same way, Atheism simply means “without theism.”  To be a theist is to believe in a God (specifically, a personal God), and therefore to be an atheist is to not believe in God.  That’s it.

(Side not, you could also be a Deist – someone who believes in god, but doesn’t believe he/she/it is a “personal” god.  In other words, they created the world and are now eating popcorn, watching the cosmic drama of Life, but aren’t involved in it.  There are probably five million other things you could be as well, but these are the main ones.)

Two reasons these words suck

  1. Notice that we don’t have terms in our society for not believing in the myriad other things we don’t believe.  I’m not an a-santa-ist or an a-unicorn-ist simply because I don’t believe a bearded man walked through my front door a few days ago (we don’t have a chimney) to leave a package under our tree, or that a horned horse’s tears can cure any illness I have.  Likewise, my worldview should not be defined by one thing out of a billion in which I do not believe.  We’re defining a person’s worldview by views they don’t have about the world.  That’s dumb.
  2. Atheists do not know there isn’t a god, we just have no good reason to believe in one.  Except for a few extremists and a lot of people who haven’t thought enough about what they believe, there are very few people on this planet who would claim to have an absolute knowledge that God does or does not exist.  The rest of us are somewhere on the continuum from belief to disbelief, accepting uncertainty as a fact of life.  For this reason alone, “agnostic” doesn’t mean anything to me – all of us who think it is impossible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist are agnostic by definition.  Believers feel they have a good reason to believe, unbelievers don’t.

Two reasons using them the way we do makes us stupiderrerr

  1. Most of us in our culture view uncertainty as a bad thing.  Someone’s intelligence, in our minds, can be measured by the number of strong and clear opinions they have on politics, science, religion, and so on.  When in a debate about something we’re not sure about, we’ll often say something bold, pretending to know things we don’t, because to not know something is to be weak, ignorant, and wrong.  We can hardly be blamed for this, we’re surrounded by media filled with opinionated news anchors, spewing facts and statistics that “prove” their positions.  Too often we latch on to a pundit’s positions because to repeat them in the same tone of confidence makes us feel intelligent and clear, even though we really have no idea whether that person’s facts were right, whether they skewed a statistic to meet their agenda, or whether they cited the one study out of 5,000 but didn’t tell us.  We’re easily manipulated because we adore certainty and shun uncertainty.  We’re made less intelligent because we don’t know how to deal with uncertainty.  In this way, if more of us were agnostic and had a healthy dose of cognitive uncertainty, the world would be a better, less virulent place. 
  2. But if we use “agnostic” to say we don’t try to learn about the world, that’s also dumb.  So we can’t prove God does or doesn’t exist.  We also can’t prove a lot of things in science.  Scientists develop a model by which we can understand the world, see if it fits with the rest of our body of knowledge, and then continue to move forward, constantly challenging and tweaking what we already know to fit with new evidence.  To be agnostic doesn’t just mean you don’t know, it means you can’t know.  And while that’s true, it’s also true about nearly everything else in our lives.  Yet we still manage to make decisions and progress intellectually, and those decisions are based on the models we accept about the world.

Now, if someone calls themselves an agnostic, and I call myself an atheist, what difference is there in how we live our lives?  Probably none.  We don’t pray, we don’t attend church, we don’t ask for forgiveness.  We both probably live our lives as if there isn’t a God, trusting in our own moral compass instead of what’s laid out in scripture.  For many people, calling themselves “agnostic” is probably the result of atheism’s negative stigma and from not feeling comfortable with their new doubts enough to give them such an ominous and opinionated-sounding title.  They’re still in flux, so it’s a good word to use because it’s noncommittal.  That’s fine, I just think we should find new words.

In short, it’s dumb that the main word I have to describe my worldview is based in what I don’t believe, we’re all agnostic to varying degrees and therefore to call yourself agnostic is meaningless and counterproductive (although comforting), we should all be more comfortable with the idea that we don’t know a million things in life, and just because we can’t know something doesn’t mean we can’t still make reasonable assumptions and conclusions from the things we observe in the world around us. 

To end, here’s a ridiculously awesome quote about uncertainty and science:

There is a widely held notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of “scientifically proved.”  Nearly an oxymoron.  The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.  Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge.  Therefore a good scientist is never “certain.”  Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain, because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better evidence or novel arguments emerge.

Failure to appreciate the value of uncertainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society.  Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up if we don’t do anything?  Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution?  Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones?  No, we are not, in any of these cases.  But if, from this lack of certainty, we jump to the conviction that we had better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective than modern medicine–well, we are simply stupid.  Still, many people do make these inferences, because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness instead of being what it is–the first source of our knowledge.

– Carlo Rovelli, Physicist, The Uselessness of Certainty

After note – in the spirit of embracing uncertainty, I have to admit the high possibility that I asserted things in the article above which aren’t correct.  For that, we have debate!  I would love to adjust my views on the subject above so they’re more accurate. Please leave your thoughts below 🙂

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21 thoughts on “Why “Atheist” and “Agnostic” are stupid titles that make us less intelligent

  1. I think that the point you make about languages not having words like “a-unicorn-ist” misses that belief in unicorns had never been considered (and isn’t still considered by many people) to be a properly basic belief of humans. You don’t have people saying that belief in unicorns is a prerequisite for basic morality. You don’t have people who assert that without unicorns, one cannot explain the underpinnings of the universe, human origins, etc.

    That this is where humanity is probably is indeed pretty dumb. Yet, here we are.

    • Great point! That’s why, though I complain, I can’t think of a word that would make it easier to quickly say what I am to people, at least not yet. Maybe in 100 years we’ll just be called “Liberal humanist” or something that has to do with the main ideological differences of the time. For now, it sticks, even if it’s a dumb word.

  2. I think titles will always exist. Humans are a very social creature, and with there being so many billions of us, we like to categorize ourselves (something we do with everything around us as a result of our intelligence.) The title of ‘Atheist’ is, I think, a perfectly fitting name considering the social constructs existing at the time of its origin. The world is a particularly religious and/or superstitious one. America, despite what Obama says, is a Christian country (born of Christian founders, and it still has “In God We Trust” inscribed on the currency.) So when one finds his/herself going against the grains of his/her social environment, titles are born.

    I have studied boolean logic quiet extensively, as it is at the root of all programming solutions. (All those 1’s and 0’s are used to represent true and false.) A key and basic principle is the idea of logical negation, also known as the logical complement (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negation) It’s a very powerful (albeit, simple) logical understanding that provides a segue into import constructs of proofs such as proof by contradiction and proof by contrapositive (feel free to look those up if you are interested :] ) Anyway, the reason I bring up the idea of the logical complement is because it’s exactly what you were talking about with the roots of the term Atheism. Atheism is the logical complement to theism. And it was born out of a mostly theistic society. Taking that at face value infers nothing. It’s not to say one is write or wrong or more intelligent than the other. It’s purely a logical complement. And I think that’s pretty great. How great is it to have such a pure and unbiased title? People have have attached biases, but that’s their problem. It’s a much better term than “Witch”!

    Of course, if the inverse of the way things played out were true (religion came forth out of a largely nonreligious existing culture) there wouldn’t be a title for the nonreligious. At least not right away. But over time, if the religious population were to grow, I believe it will still happen. Simply saying, ” I’m not ____” is using the logical complement to create a title in response to some other existing title.

    I think we will continue to have more and more titles, There are plenty of people who don’t believe in vaccinations, evolution, etc. And that includes people from both theist and atheist sects.

    TL;DR: Atheist and Agnostic are unbiased titles, which I think is great. It’s not about defining someone by what they DON’T believe, but merely a distinguishing title. They are logical complements at their root definition!

    • I wanted to append and say I really enjoyed your point on Agnostic being a term that probably shouldn’t be used the way it is currently, as neither atheist nor theist can claim full Gnosticism.

    • Excellent thoughts, Blake – thanks for taking the time to write them out. One of the reasons I love to write on a blog is that I have a chance to (semi) organize all the differing thoughts bouncing around in my brain, and then when I get feedback from others who join the conversation I get to benefit from others’ clarity and thoughts, and make my own a little more clear to myself. For that, I’ll always be glad when someone writes a response!

      You’re definitely correct, and though I complain (and still will complain), the term Atheist DOES make sense given our society. I used a-santa-ist as a counterpoint to atheist, but, as Andrew and you both pointed out, we use the term atheist for a very good reason given the history of our society.

      One of my complaints about the term is that it doesn’t tell anyone anything about what I believe, just what I don’t . . . but that’s not quite correct, either. Just as if someone tells me they believe in God I could safely make some assumptions about some of their beliefs (especially being in America and in Texas), so if I say I’m an atheist you have a decent idea about the things I DO believe as well – I probably believe in evolution, etc. So, even though the word atheist is, linguistically, only stating something I DON’T believe, it says a lot more and is therefore still useful in that sense.

      Anyway, thanks again.

    • I’m an Afalseist: I don’t accept false notions like “Our forefathers were Christian” or “America is a Christian country.”

      Shoot, maybe I should just use that title from now on! It fits a little better. I’m without false opinions because I’m always questioning and testing what I learn to verify it. The false ideas fall by the wayside to an Afalseist.

      Yes, I’m Atheist, but only by default because I’m Afalseist. The logical existence of a personal diety is just another false idea that’s fallen to the wayside.

      You’ve inspired a new word, Blake!

      • I dare say Truist would be much better. More aesthetic, shorter, easier to read, and, again, not focused on what you don’t believe!

  3. Some have wondered why I continue to study everything from atheism (Dennett, Harris, Hitchens) to early Mormonism (Quinn, JS Smith, Jr., Roberts, etc.), when I now know that my heart and mind are not Mormon. Undoing 50 years of indoctrination takes time and exposure to new ways of thinking. I also feel a desire for definition of my beliefs, at least within myself. I am a-religion, but I’m not a-deist. I am pro-accountability and living happily and morally with uncertainty. People who say, flat-out, that they KNOW God exists seem to me to belong in the same camp with anyone who says they KNOW there is no proof for God (and I’m not sure such a person exists, as you stated above, Jefferson). We’re tiny little specks in the cosmos. By what would we measure “no proof for [someone who might’ve set all this amazingness in motion]?” As for me, I am at peace with hope and with living in gratitude for this life, for all I’m learning.

    P.S. I would love to know whether ANYONE out there agrees with this statement:

    IF GOD EXISTS, IT SEEMS CLEAR THAT HE/SHE/IT DOES NOT DESIRE THAT WE SHOULD “KNOW”.

    I can live with that, by living a good life and loving my fellow human beings. And thus, for me, it is. Amen.

    • What you said, Mark Sackler! Thank you. I have been thinking as a possibilianist, and I am a proactive agnostic. While labels ARE often negative, confusing tools for dividing and limiting us, the word “possibilianism” gives me a way to find and reach out to people who think as I do. It is amazing to know that I am not alone.

      P.S. I knew I shoulda been a scientist. 🙂

    • Excellent! I’m not going to lie . . . when I first read the the term “possibilianism” I thought, “Well that just sounds silly.” I watched one of Eagleman’s TEDx videos, though, and I’m now a believer. So much he said resonated.

      I’ve come to the point where certainty, even in the most mundane things people write, turns me off. It’s not even conscious – if I sense from someone’s words that they feel they’ve “got this thing down,” I immediately disconnect from what they’re saying. Cognitive humility is a beautiful thing, and it’s also a lot more confusing, but so much more fun.

      Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Mark!

  4. Jefferson, as unfair as it is, I don’t think the term “atheist” reveals anything about you beyond a disbelief in God. To me, it’s kind of like saying I’m American. There are all kinds of Americans. There are all kinds of Christians, and Muslims, and Buddhists as well. Some have morals and some do not. Some believe in evolution – in all those categories – and some do not. Some value building a family and others don’t. Isn’t that why so many people have such a hard time when a loved one becomes atheist? To them, it translates to a hedonistic free-for-all kind of life involving nothing more than self-gratification. I think every atheist and every Christian reveals who they really are over time, but the atheist in this country at this time has a steeper hill to climb. You are up to it. I wish we could find a word that describes your belief system better, that’s all.

    ‘Cause it’s worth listening to, and pondering. I have learned so much from you and your sibs. 🙂

    • Next time someone asks me what I am, I’m going to try out possibilian and see how it goes, haha. And then if they’re confused, I’ll say I’m an atheist. They’re really the same, if people understood what atheism means, but it’s such a more positive term and is more descriptive of how I view the world.

  5. I thought Neil deGrasse Tyson made some interesting points in this youtube video.

    I agree with him in saying the problem with labels is once a label is stated it brings a lot of baggage into the conversation. Saying “I’m an Atheist” can make people think you believe in evolution or it can make people think you eat babies in your spare time depending on their past experience and understanding.

    In my opinion arguing about the existence or non existence of god wastes a lot of time. If an intelligent god exists then he would like us to be excellent to each other, if god doesn’t exist then we should be excellent to each other since it is the decent thing to do. If both sides would real in the extremists then I think everyone would realize their goals aren’t so different from one another.

    • What an excellent video! I guess in this article I’m one of the people saying, “Mr. Tyson, you are, in fact, an atheist.” And by strict definition, I guess he would be . . . since he doesn’t hold a belief in a god, but I can see every reason for him saying he isn’t. In this article, I argued that agnostic is a useless term, and I think the way we use it is, if we’re saying “I’m not sure, unlike atheists and theists,” since we’re ALL not sure. But as a term that elevates uncertainty and openness as a virtue, I can see why it’s a good term.

      That would be nice if we didn’t use terms, because Tyson is right – we immediately start assuming things. That’s what 95% of my mission was – people saying I believed things I didn’t, and me saying I didn’t actually believe those things. Frustrating as hell (though . . . probably justified, since I was representing a Church and since I didn’t know a lot about what Mormonism had/does believe but didn’t tell me about).

      I like Alain de Botton’s approach in “Religion for Atheists.” Have you seen that book or anything by Botton?

  6. Pingback: Unworthy | The Accidental Atheist

  7. In your article, you’re defining your own version of agnostics and your own version of atheists. My twin brother believes absolutely there is no god. Some forms of ”weak atheism” is also a form of ”agnostic,” which is basically the main theme of your argument. I don’t think like my brother. In fact, while most agnostics seem to lean atheist, I lean deist. I like the term agnostic, and I don’t find it silly. I also don’t fit your gross over-generalization that agnostics don’t care if there is a god either way. I find the subject fascinating to think about, but I’ll never tell someone I have knowledge of the subject. I think that it’s possible for the question to be answered someday, although not only will it take scientific advancement but we also have to specifically define what it is that we’re looking for. Using the word ”god” is like assigning the name ”Cthulhu” to the bloop sound heard in the pacific in 1997. I think the universe might be a living, thinking thing . . . but with no more certainty than I have that a particular family member of mine who lives two hundred miles away is sitting at home in their living-room watching TV. I hear atheists say all the time ”there is no god,” and they’re constantly posting it to my Facebook wall. The terms are definitely needed to differentiate and there’s nothing silly about them. I actually find a personal joy in finding a term that fits me. ”Atheist” as a label for me would be an outright lie, but so would ”religious,” and also ”apathetic to the subject.” To me, as an outside observer, a discussion between a strong atheist and a theist or deist has always seemed dogmatic on either side. If anything, ”agnostic” serves as a modifier for anyone of any faith or non-faith that doesn’t want to be mistaken for someone who’s attached to a specific conclusion about the unknown.

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