This question seems to be coming up a lot lately — or maybe I’m just noticing it more — and since my own definitions have been shifting around lately, I thought I’d gas on about it here.
For most of my life, I’ve called myself an agnostic. I’d always understood “atheist” to mean “someone who’s 100% certain God doesn’t exist,” and “agnostic” to mean “someone who isn’t 100% sure one way or the other.” The latter was true for me, so I called myself an agnostic. And I tended to be somewhat critical of atheists: I felt that being 100% sure that there is no God was just as dogmatic and faith-based as being 100% sure that there was one.
Lately, however, it’s been becoming increasingly clear that “100% sure that there is no God” isn’t the only definition of “atheist.” Richard Dawkins himself — generally cited as “the world’s most famous atheist — isn’t a “100% sure” guy. In The God Delusion (which I just finished, and hope to blog about soon), Dawkins talks about a belief spectrum of 1 through 7 (I wish he’d made it 0 through 6, to correlate with the Kinsey scale!), in which 1 means you’re 100% sure that God exists, and 7 means you’re 100% sure that God doesn’t exist. Dawkins puts himself at 6 leaning towards 7 — a position he calls “de facto atheist.”
And Dawkins’s position on his belief/non-belief scale is pretty much the same as mine.
Which got me thinking.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, while in the strictest technical sense of the word I’m an agnostic (I’m not 100% certain that there is no God), in any real practical sense I’m an atheist. I don’t think the existence of God is impossible, but I think it’s very, very improbable — improbable enough for me to rule it out as a hypothesis.
A comparison I’ve been making a lot lately is Zeus. I am about as sure that there is no personal interventionist creator god as I am that there is no Zeus. But I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic about Zeus. I would call myself an atheist about Zeus. I can’t absolutely prove that Zeus doesn’t exist– but I think Zeus’s existence is sufficiently improbable that I don’t have to consider it as a possibility, and I certainly don’t live my life on the assumption that he might exist.
And I feel exactly the same way about Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah, or whatever you want to call the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, personal interventionist creator god.
So lately, I’ve been calling myself an atheist instead of an agnostic. It seems more accurate. And in the current political climate of increasing American theocracy, it seems like a stronger, more defiant position — one that more accurately represents, not just my personal philosophy about my own life, but my strong political resistance to the idea of faith being presented as fact.
But unlike a lot of atheists, I don’t have a problem with other people calling themselves agnostics. There’s a lot of pissy bickering and namecalling between atheists and agnostics — and it’s starting to seriously annoy me. (For a lot of reasons — not the least of which is that pissy bickering and namecalling tend to impede introspection and thoughtful debate, not encourage it.)
Here’s an analogy I made in a comment on Evolutionblog.
I’m bisexual. (No, it’s not a tangent — stay with me. I meant it about the Kinsey scale analogyâŠ) For the last 20 years or more, I’ve had to put up with people telling me either “You’re really a lesbian and just won’t admit it” or (less frequently) “You’re really straight and just won’t admit it.”
But these people are full of crap. I am bisexual. According to my definition of the word — which is a reasonable, not-uncommon one — I’m bisexual. I may not be bisexual according to their definitions, but I am according to mine. And it’s patronizing to tell other adults that you know who they are better than they do.
When it comes to questions of personal identity, I think we need to let people define themselves. Especially when those identities (a) are vital and central to the person’s sense of self, and (b) have many different definitions, no one of which is generally agreed upon. I think most atheists/ agnostics/ skeptics/ doubters/ secularists/ non-believers have thought about this question carefully, and have chosen the identity-word that they think describes them best. And while I heartily support debates about which of our ideas make the most sense and what language describes them best, I think ultimately we need to let reasonable people decide for themselves who and what they are.
So… thoughts? If you’re a non-believer, do you define yourself as an atheist? An agnostic? Something else? If you’re a believer, how do you define yourself, and why? And how do you feel about how other people define themselves? Are you attached to your definitions of these words, or do you feel like other people’s definitions are reasonable? Discuss.