Choosing our Labels

What is the difference between an Atheist and an Agnostic, and does it matter?  vanquishing the devil

Atheists are stuck with a lot of nasty stereotypes. Those stereotypes are regularly reinforced by popular media and by public figures who make uncharitable generalizations. We’re fairly accustomed to the demonizing slurs coming from religious conservatives. But what’s more disappointing is when an Agnostic celebrity says something to reinforce negative stereotypes about Atheists. I wrote about this subject previously when Neil deGrasse Tyson described a nasty caricature of Atheists who “cross off the word ‘God’ from every dollar bill that comes in [their] possession.” This time Sarah Silverman has expressed the same sort of thing:

I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious. I’m Agnostic. I don’t know, and neither do you!

Before continuing, I want to pause to clarify that I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is awesome and, as an axiom, Sarah Silverman can do no wrong. I’ll just assume that she missed a chance to elaborate and clarify her remarks.

I’m perfectly happy to let Sarah Silverman call herself an Agnostic, but the reality is that I’ve met very few Atheists who “know definitively” that there is no God. Today, it is en vogue for Atheists to describe their beliefs this way: “I don’t believe in God in the same way that I don’t believe in unicorns.” It doesn’t mean that I’m absolutely certain about unicorns, and I might be really excited if unicorns were proven to exist. But given the sum total of all available evidence and reason, I just don’t believe in them. If this description sounds exactly the same as Agnosticism, that’s because it is exactly the same.

So if most Atheists believe the exact same things as Agnostics, then why call themselves “Atheist?” I can’t speak for everyone, but I suspect it is because none of us really choose these labels. If everyone was Agnostic or Atheist, then neither of these words would make much sense. We are forced into these labels by the religious cultures that surround us. There are many options when we are asked, “What’s your religion?” We could say Atheist or Agnostic, or Deist, or Secular Humanist, or Free Thinker, or “Bright” (someone must say that). The label we choose is a combination of personal temperament and specific experience.

Here’s my experience: I used to be very religious. Then one day I wasn’t any more. I started calling myself an Agnostic. Then one day in college I went on a date with a religious girl. She wanted to know my religion, and I answered “Agnostic.” She responded that “Atheist” and “Agnostic” mean the same thing, and said, “I’m just going to treat you the same way I would treat an atheist.” This really resonated with me; how does one “treat” an Atheist? (I’ll just assume that she meant to treat me in a fair manner equal to how she would treat any other human being, regardless of their religious labels). From that moment forward I decided it wasn’t worthwhile to split to difference between “Agnostic” and “Atheist.” I decided to take possession of the “Atheist” label rather than try and wriggle away from someone else’s bigotry.

Why does this matter to me? Because every Atheist has chosen that label for their own personal reasons. Many of them are young people who are frequently forced to defend themselves against criticism religious family, friends, coworkers or even their teachers or professors. They deal with an onslaught of prejudices: that they are immoral, that they are angry or unpleasant, that they are arrogant or untrustworthy, etc. Most of them will earn no extra points by saying, “Oh, actually I’m an Agnostic!”

So I don’t care one way or the other what a person chooses to call themselves. Let’s just be careful to avoid saying things that contribute to unfair negative stereotypes.

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