Last Thursday (April 18th) was “National Ask an Atheist Day.” I did not know that was a thing until I ended up getting sucked into a Facebook conversation started by an atheist friend of mine who was soliciting questions.
Most of the questions were some version of “how can you prove that there is no god?” I was reminded that the way most people define atheism is wildly different than the way that I define it. I know that language evolves and words come to stand for something far beyond their original definitions. That is a natural phenomenon of language. But the words “atheist” and “agnostic” do have simple meanings, and that is important to me.
Here is the origin of the word “atheist:”
And here is “agnostic:”
An atheist is without god. An agnostic is without knowledge. That is it. The way I define my atheism is very much in line with the basic components of the word, and not all the other things that people want to put on top of that simple absence of belief. I live without a belief in a god. That is, I do not accept any version of a god that has been presented to me and therefore I do not worship one. Do I know for certain that there is no god or anything that might take the place of a creator? No, I don’t. I accept that I don’t know, therefore I consider myself both atheist and agnostic.
Most of the atheists I know describe themselves this way. And most of us don’t want to tell you that you are wrong to believe in something we don’t accept or that you are backward for keeping your traditions. I understand that atheism isn’t for everyone, just as Mormonism definitely wasn’t for me. I would love to be a live-and-let-live atheist. But then someone inevitably wants to teach creationism in science class and I can’t just ‘let live’ anymore, because I consider that an encroachment on the separation of church and state. But that’s a whole other conversation.
I was reading the thread with interest and not weighing in, but then I lost my self-control. I really need to get out more. I don’t get enough human interaction working at home and I have been making Facebook debates my substitute. I’m going to get myself into trouble.
The question was something like, “If you know that the word ‘atheist’ offends people, why wouldn’t you call yourself an agnostic instead? And if I lack belief in a god but believe in a higher power or force in the universe greater than myself, am I an atheist?”
This is what I wrote in response:
I know the word atheist is loaded and most people define it differently than I do (simply without belief in a god). I think of it like the word “feminist.” It’s loaded with controversy but its meaning is simple. I guess I would say, in answer to your question, I’m an atheist feminist living in Utah. I have accepted that my basic beliefs are offensive to the general population.
As for the second question, this is how I think about it: I am confident there are forces in the universe that we will never understand. We are so limited in our scope and ability to comprehend, that I am confident that we will never know enough to understand the questions to ask, let alone the answers that are out there. (Which is why I love the Douglas Adams answer to life, the universe and everything turning out to be 42.) But let’s just say for a second that we could, and it turns out that the answer is a physical law or a set of physical laws that guides the universe, and we all go, “Oh! Now it makes sense!” And then my bishop from my childhood jumps up and points and me and says “See! I was right! I told you there was something!” Then I would turn to him and say, “Excuse me, but is it a bearded magic man who cares a whole lot about whether or not I masturbate? No? Okay, then fuck off.”
I didn’t tell him that, yes, by my definition, he is an atheist. I kept this to myself because it was clear that word was inherently pejorative to him. Nor did I tell him that most of the people I meet who consider themselves agnostic are actually atheist by my definition. I don’t tell my ‘agnostic’ friends that, either. They seem to think that agnosticism is a politer form of atheism. Or rather, a refusal to take a side. The Switzerland of dogmas. My atheist friends think of themselves as agnostic, but my agnostic friends think of themselves as people who just don’t care and would like to talk about something else, now. But they are living without a god. They are atheists, too.
That’s okay. I hold fast that words have meanings and those meanings are important. But I also want the right to define myself and what I believe. I can give others that right as well.