Agnostic/atheist labels

the_advertisement2I 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.


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19 responses to “Agnostic/atheist labels

  1. ready for change

    I find it interesting that theists want to push you toward Agnosticism-not because it isn’t a logical move. I find it interesting because it serves as an example of how many (not all) Christians have been taught: do whatever you have to, but convert souls———->so sad.


  2. Most atheists are ‘weak’ atheists. It is only ‘strong’ atheists who have the audacity to say there is definitely no God.


  3. Ross – I really don’t like this ‘weak/strong’ classification but it seems to be a fact that while most theists “know” there is a god ( that is audacious isn’t it), very few non-theists classify themselves that way (see “Probably” no God – probably acceptable or just the graph of the data –


  4. Yes, Ken, when people use words like ‘believe’, ‘know’, etc. interchangably, that certainly muddies the waters (and probably the ‘data’ in your graph as well).

    This is yet another example of the need to start conversations about ‘knowledge’/’knowing’ (gnosis), by dealing (at least at some level) with the underlying issue of epistemology (what is knowledge, what kinds are there, how do we get them, etc.???).


  5. Dale – the graph only describes what people self-reported.

    In an ideal world epistemological clarity on the part of the respondents might be helpful but it’s not going to happen in the real world.

    I find it interesting that such a high proportion of theists (~65%) declare a certainty compared with the low proportion of non-theists (~25%). On the other hand while only ~10% of theists declare “most probably,” 65% of non-theists prefer that description.

    Clearly this is not a issue of evidence (at least in a direct way) so why the different self description? Is it psychological (defensiveness perhaps), a different understanding of what certainty means, subjective experience counting as evidence, etc., etc?

    I just find that difference intriguing.


  6. Is it psychological (defensiveness perhaps), a different understanding of what certainty means, subjective experience counting as evidence, etc., etc?

    methinks ‘a different understanding of what certainty means’ (which was my point about epistemology).
    I’d love to see the questions used in the survey.


  7. Dale – have a look at Our Labels versus Our Beliefs. I think this gives an idea of the survey questions.


  8. Heraclides

    It’s an interesting conflict: when looked at one way theists are using ‘belief’ with two different meanings, one usage for themselves and another for atheists.

    For themselves ‘belief’ doesn’t need evidence/proof/justification, they keep telling us that. But in trying to move atheists to agnostics on the grounds of “cannot prove”, they are asking that ‘belief’ have demonstrated evidence, etc., another meaning again.

    One rule for themselves, another for everyone else…


  9. Of course, we could define theists as those who act as if there was a God. First of all, this would exclude all those who go around sinning and hope they’ll get away with it. Secondly, it would get rid of all those who, when they or their children get sick, go to the doctor instead of praying for health. Thirdly, the only ones who would pass muster would be the ones cheering when someone they love dies (and, presumably, goes to heaven). And, fourthly, any acknowledgement of doubt immediately gets you crossed off the list, too. Is this a silly position? Yes, of course, that’s the point.


  10. K T-K,
    Wow – so your definition of ‘theist’ would only include those 1) with perfect self-control, 2) whose view of God necessitates that prayer and taking your child to the hospital are antithetical, 3) who have so a low view of current life that loss of it is not grieved, and 4) whose view of faith/trust is such that doubt is to be unexpressed/hidden/shunned/hushed/etc.?



  11. Like I said, a silly definition.


  12. certainly silly for a good many theists 🙂


  13. Heraclides

    Think you’re missing the point completely Dale 😉


  14. Thanks Heraclides 🙂


  15. Pingback: Logical atheism « Open Parachute

  16. 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!”


    I’ve spent a lot of time with theists, atheists and agnostics, and I’ve never seen the kind of response that West describes here. My understanding (which in my experience is a commonly-held one among Christian theists) is that there are three useful distinctions:

    Atheist – claims that there is no God. Generally (but not always) involves a complete denial of the supernatural. “Believes there is no God” is also a useful description; belief is not understood as being absolute certainty. Belief means that you find the worldview convincing and act accordingly.

    Strong agnostic – says that it is impossible to know whether God exists or not.

    Weak agnostic – says that they are not not convinced either way as to the existence of God.

    As I hope is clear, “Weak” and “Strong” are not meant to be perjorative in any way. The main reason for distinguishing between the two types of agnosticism is that the weak agnostic makes claims only about their won knowledge, whereas the strong agnostic makes claims about the limits of knowledge that is achievable by anyone.


  17. As you say, Sentinel, in your experience this understanding “is a commonly-held one among Christian theists.” And I think that is the problem. It tends to impose pre-conceived attitudes. In my view it also represents an over-eagerness to classify.

    In my experience atheists do not use such differentiation. It’s simply a matter of belief or not. In fact labels aren’t all that important.

    And again in my experience there is often an attempt on the part of theists to tell me that I am really an agnostic when I point out that one can always change one’s beliefs in the face of new evidence. They are implying that one should only use the “atheist” term for the extremely rare position of someone who declares they know “for certain.”


  18. I understand where you’re coming from, but I do think that labels serve an important function.

    In order to have a productive conversation, it generally helps to have an idea of where the other person is coming from. I’m not saying that any label or classification system captures an individual adequately, but it does help to steer the conversation productively.

    For example: I’m a Christian. If I’m having a conversation about morality or philosophy with you, I will probably have a different conversation based on whether you are a Christian, or a Muslim, or an atheist. I’m not talking about evangelism, I’m just talking about a conversation. Which one of those three worldviews that you endorse will influence what I can take for granted as common ground, and what I can’t assume, and understanding that will improve the quality of our conversation.


  19. I really disagree. Labels are dangerous. In my “about me” I say of myself:

    “My own beliefs are non-theist, or atheist. That’s a very limited, but accurate, description. The problem with more extensive descriptions of belief is that names mean different things to different people. Also, I feel that if you declare an -ism or -anity as a belief you are in danger of converting your beliefs into a dogma, having to adhere to a defined (by others) body of thought. This acts as an inhibitor of free thought and evolution of one’s own beliefs.”

    Life is too short to get into discussions with people who have mistaken preconceived ideas on one’s beliefs. These really get in the way. (It’s bad enough with a minimalist label like “atheist” which really seems to uspet some people. Political labels are even more obstructive).

    And self-labeling can be crippling. A way of using dogma as a crutch and avoiding thinking.


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