It seems as though I cannot go more than a week without encountering the same misconceptions about what Atheism is, and what it is not. At times, the confusion is intentional. That is to say that the position of atheism is deliberately strawmanned into a stance that is easier to defeat in debate. Such an obviously dishonest tactic is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, so this is not the confusion that I wish to address. Rather, there still exists a genuine misunderstanding out there, even amongst many “non believers” as to what the label atheism really means. A few of the more common misconceptions I encounter:
1. Atheism is the positive belief that NO god or gods exist. An atheist is certain that no such things exist.
This is not what atheism necessarily means. What is described above is “strong atheism”, or even “gnostic atheism”. While there are people who would fit under this label, it is NOT true of the majority of people who identify as atheists. Theism is the positive belief in the existence of a god or gods. A-theism is to simply lack this belief. One COULD lack belief because they assert certainty in the inexistence of gods, or they could simply lack belief as a result of being unconvinced of theistic claims. If you lack positive believe in a god or gods, you are an atheist.
This is quickly becoming one of my least favorite words. I cannot even count the amount of times I have encountered someone who will, while rather proud of themselves, declare “Atheism and Theism are both blind faiths, I am agnostic because there is no way to be sure”. This is one of the MOST commonly misunderstood areas of religious debate.
The suggestion that being agnostic is somehow some “middle ground” between theism and atheism is, on every level, FALSE. If we trace the meaning of these words from their roots, we can see a very obvious flaw in this line of thinking. Gnosticism deals with KNOWLEDGE. An agnostic holds the position that absolute knowledge is not known, or cannot be known, about a given proposition. It says NOTHING about whether or not the proposition is believed. Theism and atheism are stances on belief, while agnosticism is an entirely separate category, compatible with either theism OR atheism. For example:
Gnostic Theist: “I believe there is a god, and I KNOW it to be true beyond ALL doubt”
Agnostic Theist: “I don’t know for SURE if god exists, but I certainly BELIEVE he does”
Agnostic Atheist: “I don’t know if any god or gods exist, but I see no good reason to believe”
Gnostic Atheist: “No such things as gods exist, I am certain of this”
A question that may come to mind here is “why disbelieve if you admit you do not know?” If we cannot know for sure one way or another, isn’t the only honest thing to say “I don’t know”? Well, yes and no. Anytime a question is asked, and the answer is unknown, “I don’t know” is a fine answer. However, this does NOT apply when positive claims are made, and expected to be believed or considered. Whenever a claim is made, especially a claim that is of some significant consequence, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant to back up their assertion. When responding to claims, skepticism is important. We do not need to have knowledge one way or another to be skeptical of any claim, until it can be properly supported by evidence or reason. A perfect example of this is the judicial system here in America.
A court case begins, and a defendant is brought up on charges of murder. You are sitting in the jury. The claim being put to you is that “defendant A is guilty of the crime murder”. At the onset, you have no evidence either way, and you can’t possibly be anything but agnostic regarding the claim. Are you then sitting on the fence? If asked to vote immediately, should you respond “I don’t know”? Of course not. The burden of proof has not been met to establish this defendant’s guilt. Until such a time when this burden IS met, “not guilty” is the only responsible vote a person could offer. This does not mean that your mind is closed to hearing the evidence, or that you are not willing to change your mind should the evidence prove persuasive, it simply means that the DEFAULT position with regard to this claim is disbelief.
Now the trial has unfolded, witnesses have been called, exhibits have been shown, and closing arguments have been made. You, and your fellow jurors are called into quarters to cast your votes. The sentiment in the group is not unanimous, and there are people voting different ways. 3 people vote “guilty”, and 9 people vote “not guilty”. With regard to the claim “defendant A is guilty of murder”, we basically now have 3 “theists” and 9 “atheists”. The 3 people voting guilty are CERTAIN. They are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, and could not be more confident in their decision. 3 others are CERTAIN of the defendant’s innocence, and are firm that it simply isn’t possible that the defendant committed this crime.
The above example certainly includes 3 gnostic “theists”, and 3 gnostic “atheists”, but what about the other 6 people? They aren’t convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, either way. Are they then ONLY agnostic? NO! While they may not be sure one way or another, they are unconvinced that the burden of proof was met for them to believe the claim. Yes, they are agnostic, but they are also Atheists with respect to the claim before them.
This same principle applies to religious claims. The burden of proof lies with the person making the claim. While responding, you may not know if their concept of god exists or not, but you do not HAVE to know for certain to reject belief in their claim. Again, when a claim proposed, the default position is disbelief. An open mind will allow a person to entertain the claim, and enable the person to evaluate any supporting evidence. But belief is something that should be EARNED. Only when a claim is sufficiently supported by evidence, reason, or sound argument, is belief justified. This includes claims where absolute knowledge is unavailable. Simply stopping at “I don’t know” is a complete non-answer when it comes to what a person does or does not believe. So the next time you are in a religious discussion, and you encounter someone who says “I’m agnostic,” the question should then become….an agnostic WHAT?