Labels: Atheist vs Agnostic vs other?
Posted: 24 August 2009 01:09 AM   [ Ignore ]
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The Discussion Topic for August was “What’s in a Label: Atheist vs Agnostic?” This has been a debate that has come up time and time again. I think people will always have their own definitions of each word and so the debate will continue. But in my opinion, we’ve reached some clarity on the history of the two words which I believe settles the debate.

Epistemologically, the terms Agnostic and Atheist are not stronger or weaker versions of each other. Instead, they are on completely different axes.  Gnosticism by definition is “What you know”. Theism by definition is “What you believe”.  A Gnostic is one who is certain; for example, by mathematical proof, or through knowledge given by revelation from God. An Agnostic is one who is less than 100% certain. This means that all rational skeptics are agnostic… not just about the God question, but of all scientific theories. A Theist is someone who believes in a God who personally interacts with our universe. An Atheist is someone who does not believe in those gods. Atheists’ beliefs are usually convictions which they are compelled to accept due to conclusions of the evidence.

The technical term that describes the position of most non-believers is “Agnostic Atheist”. Though many felt that there are political reasons why we should only use the term “Atheist” in public. In everyday conversations we are not arguing epistemology. “Agnostic” has become redefined as a “capricious spiritualist” who is open to any religion. It is often used as a political dodge to the god-question, or for politicians/business owners who require public approval and can’t afford to take a stand to change society’s views of atheists. But, it does work well for people like Neil Degrasse Tyson who are trying to emotionally connect with a diverse non-scientific audience.  “Atheist” has been a buzz word over the last couple years and is gaining political significance.  It does not have the wishy-washy connotation.  It is a more aggressive term which helps spur a conversation, thus is better at having a chance to create real change in the public’s perception. Since the ‘4 Horsemen books’ became best sellers, the term “atheist” has also brought much cohesiveness of non-believers across the nation to form groups like ours.

I’m sure the debate will continue. It was a fun discussion, especially since we were able to enjoy the nice weather on Java Vivace’s patio. I want to thank the 16 people who showed up! If we consistently get large turn outs like this, we’ll be able to split up into multiple smaller groups that meet simultaneously in different parts of the city. This would make it easier for everyone’s travels and allow more to speak without having to talk over other people.

[ Edited: 26 December 2009 05:43 AM by KurtJ ]
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Posted: 09 February 2010 07:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’ve little interest in labeling myself with a nod to the context of another; especially a context constructed by those walking around with invisible friends on their shoulder.  I’m a humanist and a critical-thinking skeptic.  As such, for me, my proud atheist position is a natural outgrowth, in the same way that my critical thinking skills made me an atoothfairyist when I was six or seven years old.  To me, my identity as an atheist is just not that interesting to me anymore, in comparison to my identity as a humanist and a critical-thinking skeptic.

Furthermore, declaring or defining myself primarily as an atheist, in a thoughtful conversation with believers, inherently starts the conversation off on the wrong foot, the “anti” foot, the “what I’m not”, foot.  My partner in such a conversation will pick that up, soon enough, after digesting a tasty bowlful of positive philosophy I can ladle up for him or her.

By the way I’m completely pro “four horsemen”, as a part of the Diaspora and wouldn’t have them throttle back a bit.  You’ll not find me anywhere near the Unitarian camp. grin


Posted: 16 February 2010 10:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I agree with Iwonder and also consider myself a humanist (should it be capitalized?) and skeptic. I have, to my knowledge, always been an atheist even though I was forced to attend church for the first 9 years of my life.

My problem with the word “atheist” is maybe another side of Iwonder’s coin - the word has always left a bad taste in my own mouth. Growing up in Texas in the 1950s and being ostensibly raised as a Southern Baptist, I heard the word atheist a lot and it was never in a neutral or good context. People labelled atheist were reviled, shunned, and whispered about. Perhaps it’s cultural conditioning but, for me, the negativity associated with the word is still there. It doesn’t transfer to the actual person - I don’t have negative feelings for the atheist, just the word itself.

Also, like Iwonder, I don’t like the idea of being labelled, especially by something I don’t believe in. And, like Iwonder, I don’t like having to dig myself out of a conversational hole at the beginning of the conversation by letting the other party define me according to their concept of the word “atheist”. In conversations with Christians or other religious people it can be a deep hole indeed. I have had conversations end before they hardly started. With the rise of the Four Horsemen and the attention they have brought to the subject, I’ve found that “secular humanist” is starting to get the same treatment as “atheist” although the phrase sometimes just draws a blank look.


There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov, from a 1980 column in Newsweek