After my last post, my wife pointed out that it may have been the first time I’ve just come right out and identified myself as an atheist. She may be right about that. I didn’t mean for it to be anything shocking or revolutionary, but because the word carries so much weight, I can see how it would look shocking to some people. But I think much of that comes from a misunderstanding of the term “atheist.” So let’s look at that, as well as some other words that people may not completely understand.
First of all, let’s start with what I used to be: a theist. Dictionary.com defines it this way:
1. the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe, without rejection of revelation (distinguished from deism).
2. belief in the existence of a god or gods (opposed to atheism).
So a theist is someone that believes in a god(s) that has been personally involved in the world through miracles or revelation. Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and pagans are all examples of theists.
A deist is different, though people often think it means the same thing as “theist.” Deism is defined as:
1. belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism).
2. belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.
A deist is someone who does believe in God, but it’s not the god of Christianity, Islam, or any other revealed religion. Deists typically look at creation as evidence for God’s existence, but they don’t believe he’s communicated with man in any miraculous way. Many of our founding fathers were deists: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, etc. When I first realized that there were problems in the Bible and with Christianity, I considered myself to be a deist. Though I don’t consider myself that anymore, I don’t have any problems with the idea of deism. In fact, I think it’s a pretty rational way to look at things. If you’re interested in learning more about it, I’d recommend deism.com as a great source of information.
So now we’re left with atheism and agnosticism. Atheists say there’s no god, and agnostics say they just don’t know, right? Actually, that’s not quite right, and that’s why the term “atheist” carries such a bad connotation.
Agnosticism is not some in-between position between theism and atheism. An agnostic is defined like this:
1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience. Synonyms: disbeliever, nonbeliever, unbeliever; doubter, skeptic, secularist, empiricist; heathen, heretic, infidel, pagan.
2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.
Someone who’s agnostic doesn’t know if gods exist, but they also think it’s impossible to know whether or not they exist. They think mankind will never know, so they offer no opinion on the subject. Very few people match the definition of a true agnostic. The term “agnostic” doesn’t tell you someone’s belief so much as it tells you the certainty of their belief. For example, very open-minded Christians might be considered agnostic Christians. When I thought of myself as a deist, I was an agnostic deist. In other words, I tended to view the Universe as something created by an intelligence, but I knew I could easily be wrong about that.
The term “atheism” is defined this way:
1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
Many people think that an atheist is someone who emphatically denies the existence of any god. In other words, they think atheists are arrogant enough to claim that they know gods don’t exist. But that’s not what most atheists think. Most atheists (myself included) are agnostic atheists. In other words, they don’t believe in any particular god, though they realize it’s possible they’re wrong.
Let me illustrate it this way (and I won’t be the first to do so): Christians are atheists in regard to Zeus, Apollo, Thor, Allah, and Krishna. They can’t know that those beings don’t exist, but they feel quite certain that they don’t. Thor’s possible existence is not something they worry about. Atheists feel the same way; they just add one more to the list than Christians do.
My other posts do a great job of explaining why I quit being a theist. But why did I go from deism to atheism? It’s actually fairly simple. I realized that my only real reasons for being deist boiled down to wishful thinking. I liked the idea of having a soul and having an afterlife. But as I spent more time thinking about our discoveries in biology, chemistry, and physics, I realized that I had never witnessed anything that couldn’t be explained scientifically. And throughout history, every time people bumped up against a problem they didn’t have the answer to (like why does it rain?), science eventually found an answer. Right now, we don’t know what caused the Big Bang. It’s tempting to ascribe it to God, but every other time we’ve done that, we’ve eventually found a scientific answer instead.
So in the end, whenever I called myself a deist, it just didn’t feel genuine — like I was just trying to fool myself. I found that the label “agnostic atheist” more accurately described what I really thought. Do I worry that I might be wrong? Do I worry that I might face an eternity of torment for my beliefs? No, I don’t. Ironically, I was much more concerned about that when I was a Christian. But I think tackling that question sufficiently will require another post. Until then… “be excellent to each other.”