The question of a god is usually asked of people like this, “Do you believe in a god?” People take from this that one can only say yes or no, that it’s a black and white question with no alternatives. From there, they think that one is either an atheist or a theist. There is no middle ground on the question.
This is why many people assert that agnostics do not exist, that they are really just atheists who are afraid of using the label because of the negative connotations with it. Most of these people say that since atheism is defined as not believing in a god, that anyone who is not a theist is automatically lumped into the label of atheist, including agnostics and anyone else who does not claim belief in a god.
Okay. Let’s start with the end of that.
First, atheism is indeed defined as the lack of belief in a god. That doesn’t matter, because an agnostic is defined as, “A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” They do not have belief or a lack of a belief, making them neither atheists or theists. This makes them the middle ground between the two.
“But but but…what about the question, ‘Do you believe in a god?’ The only possible answers are yes or no!” That is true. With that question, the only answers are that. The question is a strawman and the conclusions that come from it are the same. It doesn’t accurately represent how people feel and think. The question should be, “What are your thoughts on the existence or nonexistence of a god?” People should be able to answer the question however they like, not be forced into two false dichotomous categories, because some people cannot handle gray areas.
The god question should not be a yes or no. It should be free response. Sure, it’s harder to answer, but it gives insight into individuality and personal attitudes. Some might say they believe, they do not believe, they don’t know, they don’t care, they won’t answer until that word is better defined, or anything else they want to say or not say at all.
I recently ran across this photo.
Now as most people know, one does not simply wake up in the morning (feeling like P. Diddy) and all of their feelings for a partner are all suddenly gone. Feeling like there are no more feelings for this person is not an overnight experience or event. It is not something that happens just like that. It is something that can take weeks, months, or years. One cannot just say at a random moment, “I no longer love this person,” for no reason whatsoever and mean it.
Take your most recent relationship where you were the one who initiated the breaking up. Did you just wake up one morning (I will not make a Ke$ha joke again, I promise) and feel like you no longer loved or cared about that person? No, of course not. You started to feel doubts about the relationship months beforehand, and you may or may not have tried to ignore them, but at that moment you did not lose all feelings for this person, nor would anyone call you someone who does not love them.
Despite your doubts, however small or large, you still loved or cared about this person to some extent. As the months went on, more and more things may have led to more doubts about the relationship, such as fights or broken promises, but you still loved them, even if that love was dwindling. At some point during this time you did not go from loving to not loving this person in an instant. There is a time when you may just not know if you love them or not. Believe me, I have had many instances where this has happened to me during my past relationships.
The same can be said for and applied to deconversions. One does not wake up and say one day to themselves that they are now an atheist. It takes months or even years of uncertainty to finally become one. A person does not go from theist to atheist in an instant, with or without doubts. There is a time when you just do not know if you believe or not, a time when you are agnostic.
I have run into many people who think that agnostics do not exist, that one is either an atheist or a theist. When it is pointed out to them how deconversions work, when someone usually does not have belief and does not lack belief in a god or does not know if they believe in a god or not, people tend to say something like, “They were switching back and forth from theist to atheist.”
There just seems to be no middle-ground with these people. It is obviously a false dichotomy that they are promoting. This proposition is merely absurd. That tiny amount of doubt, that split second of asking yourself if a god exists or not, does not make you an atheist in any way. Everyone has doubts at some point or another, but they are not atheists. If I doubt if evolution is real, does that make me a Creationist, even for that split second of doubt? No. Even if I were to severely doubt evolution, that does not make me a Creationist. It makes me someone who does not know and does not know if I believe in evolution or not.
The people who say these things are also the same people who scoff at the lousy childhood actor turned fundamentalist Christian Kirk Cameron when he says that he once was an atheist. Yes, it is preposterous to think that he honestly was an atheist at any point in time, but if people can switch from atheist to theist and back again when they question things, however slightly, then Kirk Cameron was an atheist along with everyone else who has ever questioned the existence of a god, even if it were only for a split second.
In one of my other posts, I showed this picture that is actually an example for evolution and how small changes over time can become one really large change. I would like to show that picture again here.
Theist will be red, atheist blue, and agnostic purple.
So where is the first atheist word in this paragraph? Where is the first agnostic word? Did red (theist) just jump over into blue (atheist)? No. It took time. It took months or years of doubt building up inside someone’s mind.
It is hard to say when someone is an agnostic, but if they look at where they are themselves and want to call themselves an agnostic, that is up to them. Sure they may be very close to blue (atheist), but if they want to say that they are purple (agnostic), let them.
At one point, someone may be far enough in the blue to call themselves an atheist, but do not force them. Do not belittle them or call them cowards. So many atheists want to say that agnostics are just atheists without balls or that all agnostics are really atheists who just will not admit it. As has been shown numerous times over my most recent posts, agnostics do exist, and they are their own category that does not need to pushed into the false dichotomy that people set up.
What is even worse is trying to belittle atheists who are in the closet about it.
The person who might want to breakup with their partner may just not be able to. Maybe they have too much financially entwined. Maybe they have a child together. Maybe they don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings. There are atheists who deeply care for their theist friends and family. Some are involved heavily with their church. They cannot just get up and yell to everyone and to the heavens, “I’m an atheist! I knew all along it was a myth and a scam and you know it too!” Yes, we should encourage them to come out and to not be afraid of being ostracised, even when they very well could be, but telling them that they are cowards or insulting their family is not the way to get them to come out. It is entirely counterproductive and just makes atheists look bad.
PS: I know many people are tired of this subject about agnostics and false dichotomies, not just from me but in general. I apologise, but I continue to hear people making these fallacious arguments, so I tried to make this as brief as possible.
Astrophysicist and populariser of science Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently said in a Big Think interview that he calls himself an agnostic. He said that atheists are outgoing people who want to change public policies and have debates and that the word “atheist” has so much baggage attached to it. He calls himself an agnostic, simply because that’s the word that he says describes him best and that he would prefer if there were not any categories at all over such things.
Unlike some people out there, I agree with him, at least to a certain extent. In the interview he talks about how taking on such labels makes people assume so many things about someone and that this is no way to talk to them. If someone says they are a Christian, we do not automatically assume that they are a fundamentalist Young Earth Creationist wanting to change our laws to fit with the Bible and ban evolution from the schools and burn every copy of On the Origin of Species. Of course not, we learn about what they think of the Bible and Christianity and go from there. I wish Christians would do the same for us though. Golden Rule anyone?
I too would prefer if there were no words for things like atheism, agnosticism, theism, or anything else on the god question. If it were not for foolish people inventing imaginary friends and forcing them onto everyone else, especially their children, we would have no need for such labels or to be actively opposed to them.
And here is where I differ with Tyson. Being an atheist does not mean that you are actively opposed or “proudly wear the badge” of atheism. What Tyson is describing here is an activist, not necessarily an atheist though. I may go so far as to say that he’s confusing atheists with antitheists. The atheists we see and hear about all the time are the activist ones that are “in your face” about it. This is merely a stereotype though. No different from the stereotype that all gay men are flamboyant fairies. No, those are just the ones we see at gay pride parades and in pop culture. I know plenty of very passive atheists who do not confront theists at all, in fact some of them, not all, will try to accommodate them so as not to offend and actually confront me to avoid confrontation with theists. They are still atheists though (as much as I do not like these people on a personal level).
I also disagree with his assertion that if he were an atheist then he might be biased in his work to support his preconceived notions about the world. The reason that most people became atheists was because they rejected their initial thoughts about what the Universe was and contained within it and wanted to learn the truth, no matter how upsetting it may be. Just because one is an atheist does not mean that they are going to be biased when they see something they may disagree with (but yes, that does happen much like with any other human being). Most atheists will say when you ask them what would change their mind about the existence of a god? Nine times out of ten they say, “Evidence. Independently verifiable evidence.”
However, I do agree with him and will defend his claim of being an agnostic. People are claiming that since he does not claim belief in a god then he’s automatically an atheist. That just is not the case. In one of my recent posts, I explained how agnosticism is a standalone position from either theism or atheism. Yes, he does not believe in a god, but he also does not disbelieve in a god either. He simply does not know if one exists or not. He’s neither an atheist nor a theist. He’s an agnostic, at least that is what he thinks is the label closest to how he feels. I personally would not call him anything from what he’s saying about not wanting any labels.
Even if all agnostics were really just atheists, so what? Is it up to someone else to define people? Is it up to someone else to give everyone a label just for their own convenience? If someone wants to call themselves an agnostic or simply not call themselves anything at all, let them. It is not someone else’s business what they call themselves. I call myself bisexual, but I have never been with someone of the same gender. I know plenty of people (gay and straight) who would call me straight because of that. I could go to the grave never having sex with someone of the same gender and I would still call myself bisexual no matter what someone might say about it. It’s not about how other people want to call me. It’s about how I feel and how I want to label myself.
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out in the interview, there is a lot of baggage that comes with the label of “atheist.” That baggage just is too much for some people, especially if they live in places such as the Bible Belt (such as myself) or the Middle East (where they can be executed under blasphemy laws). We should not blame people for being afraid to come out as atheists no matter where they are though. We should not blame them, but we should still encourage them to come out as atheists and other nonreligious people. Telling them the wonders of science and atheist solidarity is a much better approach than calling them cowards or insulting the theists they may still have close ties to.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson may actually be an atheist. He may just be purposely not using the atheist label so as to not automatically turn off the brains of theists to what he’s saying. If they think, “He’s just some atheist scientist,” then he might not be as effective as an educator. If they think, “Oh, he’s an agnostic,” they may be more receptive to what he’s saying, which is a good thing if we wish to educate people on the validity and awesomeness of science and bring science to the masses so as to prevent things such as Creationism entering our schools and climate change denialists changing public policy and deregulating corporations that destroy the environment.
As he said in the interview, he’s not an activist or wanting to be a part of some movement of atheists, and it’s his job, not ours, to label himself. He’s an educator. The only “-ist” he is and ever will be is a scientist.