I get annoyed with people who won’t accept how I describe myself. Those who respond to my self-description as an atheist by saying: “No you’re not. You’re an agnostic.” It’s interesting that this response usually comes from theists – and never from other atheists.
Jonathan West has some interesting comments on this labelling at The Guardian (see I’m an atheist, OK?). He describes this disagreement on definitions as “scattering confusion in its wake like a muckspreader in autumn.”
West points out that atheists and theists have different definitions of these words “and adamantly refuse to accept the validity of each other’s definitions.”
He goes on:
“Here is a short form of the definitions from the two separate points of view.
Theist version: An atheist is certain there is no God, an agnostic is not certain.
Atheist version: An atheist believes there is no God, an agnostic doesn’t know.
The two versions are only subtly different, but a great deal of hot air has been expended on this difference.
As he says the distinction arises between “believes” and “is certain:”
“the theists’ definition of atheism suggests that atheists know beyond any possibility of doubt that they have proof of God’s nonexistence. The self-described atheists tend to use the word “believe” as meaning a very high degree of confidence, sufficient to live their lives on this basis, but falling short of 100% proven certainty.”
When atheists try to explain this, a common riposte from theists is “You’re not 100% certain, so you’re not an atheist, you’re just an agnostic, because you don’t really know!”
There is a reason why some theists define atheism in these terms. If they define atheists as being 100% certain of the non-existence of God, then they can claim that atheists hold their view as a faith position. This appears to make some theists more comfortable, it frames the debate in more familiar terms – a religious battle between competing faiths. Also, by widening the definition of agnostic as far as possible, I suspect that some theists feel more comfortable with the idea that these waverers may in due course return to the one true faith.
There are very few self-described atheists who conform to the theists’ definition of atheism. This is because the great majority of atheists have a scientific understanding of the world, and do not hold their atheism as a matter of faith, but rather through their understanding of the balance of evidence. They are aware that in principle some new piece of evidence might turn up tomorrow, and they leave themselves open to that possibility, no matter how unlikely they believe it to be.”
“As for the boundary between believers in any faith and agnostics, I’m quite happy to apply the same principle. A Christian is somebody who says he is a Christian, and an agnostic is somebody who says he doesn’t know.”
I myself prefer to define agnostic in a broader philosophical sense – one who believes it is impossible to know anything (see Agnostics – what do they stand for?). However, I realise that it is usually used in the sense of it is impossible to know if a God exists or not and am happy to accept that meaning when people use the term to self-describe their position.
As Jonathon West says:
If we all accept each other’s self-applied labels, we can all get along much better.