There is much debate in the non-religious community about the word atheist. Is it too strong? Does it do harm? Can anyone really be sure enough to be atheist vs. being agnostic? Etc.
I think I have a very simple way of describing why atheism is the right word for not believing in god, and why agnosticism is the wrong word. Let’s start with three basic statements.
- Atheist means a lack of belief, not certainty against a belief.
- Agnosticism is the belief that the existence or non-existence of God is unknowable.
- Agnosticism, in a scientific context, means you don’t yet have enough information, and that you’re waiting to make up your mind when that time comes. For example, one might be agnostic about what precise event killed the dinosaurs.
Consider these three together and ask yourself a simple question:
Are you agnostic about leprechauns?
Seriously. If someone were to ask you if leprechauns existed would you be tempted to say:
Well, who’s to say? Who really knows? Nobody can be 100% certain, so I guess I’m agnostic on them.
No. Smart people aren’t agnostic about leprechauns; they’re leprechaun atheists.
The reason for this is that they heard the claim that leprechauns existed and rejected it due to insufficient evidence. You should do the same for a man from Nazareth who’s the son of God, who’s also God, who died for your sins, but isn’t actually dead.
Leprechauns and God have equally bad evidence for them.
Agnostics know this, and that’s why they aren’t religious. But they’ve failed to see that it’s ok to just reject such ideas instead of respecting them like scientific knowledge we don’t have yet.
And to be clear, I’m not saying I know for certain that there is nothing like a god anywhere in all of existence. That would be dumb. On the points of godlike beings in other dimensions and universes I am absolutely agnostic. But that’s not what someone is asking you when they ask if you believe in God.
If you go by that standard then I’m also agnostic on Leprechauns and Hobgoblins. Can anyone say for certain, that there’s nothing like a leprechaun anywhere in all possible existence? No, and it’d be arrogant to make such a claim.
You also can’t prove that Thor isn’t the one true god, or that a given person in Kansas City is not the reincarnation of Elvis. But just because you can’t prove something is untrue doesn’t mean you have to respect the claim enough to be agnostic about it.
Technically speaking, smart people should be agnostic on any claim that you can’t be 100% sure about, but the concept is meant to apply to things that are sensible and evidence-based, not pure fantasy or conjecture.
When someone asks if you believe in god they’re not talking about any concept of a godlike creature in all of existence; they’re usually talking about the god, meaning the one they particularly care about or that is believed in currently by many people.
That is a specific claim just like a leprechaun is a specific claim, and you should dismiss it just as quickly.
It’s ok to reject claims that have no evidence. And the more extraordinary they are without evidence the faster you can, and should, reject them. You don’t have to be agnostic about every silly thing that someone dreams up. Reserve your agnosticism for things that deserve it, such as how the universe was formed, or the ultimate structure of matter.
Fantasies don’t apply.
- This piece is written for agnostics, not for believers. I believe it’s fine to be an obnoxious atheist in your 20’s but it’s plain rude to be one in your 30’s or beyond. I have no interest, and don’t see the benefit of, trying to change the minds of mind-your-own-business believers. This post is for people who already don’t believe but just haven’t taken the final step.
- It’s also quite interesting that nobody worries about being an atheist towards Zeus and Thor and Osiris and Ra. We’re all atheists regarding tens of thousands of long-dead gods, or currently believed gods that you don’t subscribe to, so it’s just a matter of getting there for the last one.