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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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 🙂