Why do I call myself an atheist and not an agnostic?

by Henry McQuale

Often, we atheists are challenged for referring to ourselves as atheists. The accusation is that by identifying ourselves as such we are claiming to know something we don’t know and cannot possibly know: that no God or no gods exist. That means -according to them- that if we were honest with ourselves, we would accept that we don’t know if in fact any God or gods exist, so we should instead, with epistemological humility, refer to ourselves as agnostics.

Surprisingly, a lot of atheists think this accusation is fair, and therefore choose to label themselves as agnostics thinking that it is the reasonable way to go. But atheists should not be so quick in discarding that old and venerable label.

I don’t think we should abandon the word “atheist” because the accusation rests on a faulty understanding of what “atheist” means. In this case, atheist seems to be understood as meaning “a person who asserts that there are no gods”, while “agnostic” is taken to mean “a person who doesn’t know if there are or there aren’t any gods”. It is easy to see that in this way there is tension between atheism and agnosticism: one can be an atheist or an agnostic but not both, because they contradict each other.

If we grant that last thing it is also very easy to form a value judgement on both stances, and naturally, the atheist comes across as arrogant and careless  while the agnostic comes across as cautious or open minded. And it is a correct evaluation: if we are strict, no one has showed conclusively that God doesn’t exist or that he cannot exist. Or at least I don’t know of any conclusive piece of evidence or argument that can back up such a strong assertion. So it is fair to say that no one knows in the strongest sense of the word that there are no gods, therefore the atheist is claiming to know something he doesn’t really know, and therefore it is not reasonable or cautious to be an atheist.

The problem is that “atheist” is not an univocal term, and those who criticize atheism in this manner take it as if it meant only one thing. In fact, what they take as the univocal meaning of atheism is what is called strong atheism. And strong atheists can  indeed  be walking on thin ice if they really are claiming to know that there is no God. But there is another type of atheism, weak atheism, and those who call themselves weak atheists don’t claim to know with absolute certainty that there is no God, but limit themselves to say that his existence is so improbable or so poorly supported by evidence that belief in him is not sufficiently warranted.

This shows two important and connected distinctions. First, that atheism doesn’t need to compromise anyone to claim absolute knowledge unless one claims to be a strong atheist, and second, that it doesn’t even have to be stated in terms of knowledge, since belief , well, lack thereof, is enough to characterize one as a weak atheist. This is important because knowledge and belief are different epistemological levels; and while knowledge, to be real knowledge,  has to be justified, belief doesn’t have to be. And the same goes for lack of belief, so if atheism can mean just “lack of belief in God or gods”, mere disbelief is enough to call oneself an atheist.

If this is correct, it means that atheism in the weak sense is not incompatible with agnosticism, because agnosticism only denotes a lack of knowledge, but not a lack of belief or disbelief. Therefore, one can be an agnostic atheist if no knowledge about the inexistence of God or gods is claimed so far as one doesn’t believe in their existence. If it turns out that, after all, God exists, it wouldn’t mean that we atheists were not really atheists, but merely that we were wrong about that.

We can turn the tables now: to those self identified agnostics we can ask “we know that you don’t know if God or gods exist, but do you believe in them?” If they answer negatively, we can inform them that they are de facto agnostic atheists, whether they like it or not. And my bet is that many of them won’t like it, because I think that a big portion of the self identified agnostics actually are proud of thinking of themselves as agnostics, which is ironical at best, but hypocritical at worst, because they claim to be agnostics to distance themselves form the unwarranted epistemological arrogance of atheism (understood as strong atheism), but end up being guilty of arrogance of the same type but in opposite direction: what in strong atheism is an arrogance that results from claiming to know something that no one knows, in many instances of agnosticism is an arrogance that results from being overly proud of ones ignorance, because, for them, merely proclaiming ignorance (one’s and others’) has become synonymous with being open minded and reasonable.

And there is nothing noble or philosophical about being proud of one’s ignorance. It only begets  more ignorance -and contrary to arrogantly gnostic positions such as strong atheism, it has the disadvantage of not even being able to produce accidental truths, because while the strong atheists have not sufficiently justified their claims, in the end they might be true. Arrogant agnostics, on the other hand, with their affected self-styled pusillanimity, cannot hope to be right about anything, because their compulsory suspension of judgement doesn’t give  them anything to be right about.

To conclude and answer the opening question, I say that I’m an atheist and not an agnostic because, while I don’t know for sure that there is no God or gods, I just don’t believe in them.  That makes me a weak atheist or an agnostic atheist. I don’t mind any of them, although weak atheism has negative connotations that maybe make agnostic atheist a preferable term. For matters of simplicity, though, I will keep simply referring to myself as an atheist -there is just not enough time to explain everyone  the subtleties behind the distinctions between different types of atheism.  Saying, on the other hand,  that I’m an agnostic, without any other qualification, would be simply a failure to accurately describe myself, because I’m not only what I know or can know, but also what I believe or disbelieve in, and the world that my beliefs have shaped is a godless world.

There are other ways to criticize the term “atheist” and in particular its use to refer to oneself as one. But that will be a topic for another post.