What is an atheist?

Posted on 26. May, 2013 by in Atheism

Welcome to the new category of “Atheism FAQ”. Posted here will be responses to the nearly countless misconceptions people have about atheism, and what better place to start than the term itself.

Well, here’s how it breaks down.

1) All one has to do to be a theist is answer “yes” to the question “Do you believe in a supernatural god?”

2) If you answer anything other than yes to this question, then you are NOT a theist, or as all such people are called, an (A)theist. You are not part of the group of theists, and this is all the word atheist represents.

3) Agnostic is a term that many people seem to think represents a third category to the two we atheist agnosticalready mentioned, but this is incorrect. Saying “I don’t know” to the the question “Do you believe in a supernatural god?”, certainly doesn’t make you a theist, and as we’ve already seen, this is all that is required to make you an atheist. In fact the vast majority of people who describe themselves as atheists, don’t claim to know that god does not exist, they just don’t think the evidence available, supports the presumption that he does. Demanding that the word “agnostic” represent a third distinct category, is essentially the same thing as trying to redefine the word atheist, (and theist for that matter), to mean someone who is certain of their belief (or lack thereof), and although this is true about most theists, it is a complete misrepresentation of the vast majority of atheists.

Rather than a distinct category, “agnostic” is more like a sliding window on the binary category of theists and atheists, which represents those who will admit doubt in their position. Most atheists, are “agnostic atheists” and would not claim to have absolute certainty that god does not exist, because this would be almost as silly, as claiming absolute certainty that he does. On the other hand you will find very few “agnostic theists”, who will admit uncertainty as to their position, because of course, this would indicate a lack of faith, which is usually, and usefully, frowned on in most religions.

Well, that about sums it up. But if for some reason you want to read the old version of this post, read on. Maybe you will let me know which is better, and I will keep that one.

Either you believe in a supernatural god, thereby making you a theist, or you don’t, thereby making you an (a)theist , but there is no required level of conviction for either position. The vast majority of people who call themselves atheist would not say they are 100% sure that god does not exist, they simply believe the evidence available does not support the presumption that he does.

Most people who call themselves agnostics would not say that they believe there is a supernatural god, since doing so would make them a theist, and the simple refusal to proclaim this belief is enough to make them an atheist.

The terms gnostic and agnostic refer to knowledge, not belief, and can be used as qualifiers for atheist or theist, but not as replacements. For example an “agnostic atheist” would be someone who does not believe in a supernatural god, but either thinks that the actual knowledge of gods existence is unknowable, or claims not to be certain of his non-existence. This is the category that most self identified atheists fit into. On the other hand most theists are “gnostic theists” claiming absolute knowledge, not only of gods existence, but his thoughts and desires as well.

The fact is you will find very few “gnostic atheists”, those who claim to have absolute knowledge that god does not exist, because this would be as silly as claiming to have absolute knowledge that he does. Similarly, you will find very few “agnostic theists”, who will admit uncertainty as to their claims, because of course, this would indicate a lack of faith, which is usually, and usefully, frowned on in most religions.

I hope you find this information useful, and I’m not trying to tell you what to call yourself, but when you create a false dichotomy between atheism and agnosticism please understand you have become an ally  of the church in marginalizing all atheists as extreme and immovable in their disbelief, when nothing could be further from the truth.



2 Responses to “What is an atheist?”

  1. Brett Matthews

    16. Nov, 2016

    Thank you for your helpful correction of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, both of whom self-identified as agnostics and both of whom were very clear that they were not atheists.

    An atheist by definition is someone who rejects theism. As David Hume said “I don’t have the faith to say there is no God.”

    When Dawkins argues that the likelihood of the existence of God is similar to that of a teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars he’s making a rational assertion about the possibility of the existence of God. He calls himself an atheist because that’s what he is. I’m quite comfortable with his definition – that anyone who thinks there is less than a 50% chance of God existing is an atheist. Anyone who seriously thinks you can assign a probability to this will not, I suppose, call themselves agnostics. They are entitled to this act of faith (though it would be nice if they would admit it isn’t rational).

    But you cannot define agnosticism out of existence. Remember also that in attempting to do so you are attacking people’s identities. Darwin, Einstein and Hume if alive today, would no doubt laugh off your helpfully intended lessons for them in amusement. But you are telling them who they are, over their explicit self-assertion of the contrary.

    And that isn’t cool.

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  2. Mark Beronte

    01. Dec, 2016

    No one is defining agnosticism out of existence, and people can call themselves whatever they like, but when people insist that agnosticism is a category unto itself, what they are actually doing is proclaiming that atheism is the claim that there is no god, which is simply not the case. In fact, as I’ve already said most atheists are agnostic atheists. So if you can be agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist, what then is the purpose of term agnostic? You should be able to see the problem. The only way agnostic makes any sense at all is as a type of theist or agnostic.

    And the fact that certain famous people in the past have identified as agnostic is irrelevant. The word atheist was so vilified at the time, that it would shock people to hear someone admit it, and it would ruin reputations. For instance Darwin was clearly worried about this, and would use agnostic if pressed but he clearly did not believe in a deity, and this is only requirement to be atheist, so that’s what he was. It was a way of not telling the whole truth.

    As for Einstein, he also used the term agnostic, but also said “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses” so clearly he does not believe, which makes him an agnostic atheist, or perhaps a pantheist if we believe him at other times when he says god exists in the laws of nature.

    And as for Hume, you would do well to take your own advice, and not try to put words in his mouth. Most would call Hume a deist, as he clearly seems to be persuaded by the design argument, but he never makes it explicitly clear what he believes, so no final analysis is possible.

    So anyway most atheists are in fact agnostic, because there is no need to be certain of god’s non existence to be one, therefore someone saying they are an agnostic, but not an atheist, because they are not positive in their disbelief is misrepresenting what atheism means, and implying that all atheists are absolutely certainty in their disbelief, which is nothing short of slander against millions of self identified atheists.

    And to use your terminology, this is definitely not cool.

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