You’re right. There’s no such word as atheignosticism. However, the orthodox versions—atheism and agnosticism—can be just as bewildering. This post expands on my May 18, 2013 post, “Atheist, Agnostic, it’s So Confusing,” in which I explored the various meanings ascribed to these words. If you are religious or for whatever reason interested in the waning of religious faith, it may be of interest.
First, let me separate them both from secular humanism. Humanism is the search for and practice of the best ways for human beings to treat each other. In other words, it concerns the ethics of interaction either human-to-human or human-to-all sentient beings (see my posts “Morality in secular humanism,” Mar. 16, 2015, and “Secular humanism goes beyond atheism,” Oct. 24, 2015). Accordingly, secular humanism is important only in the absence of a divine law-giver because it is under that condition that crucial ethics positions must be worked out by us; there is no other source.
So the following list, then, concerns only positions vis-à-vis a god (or gods), not positions about the ethical system. In each case I’m using the word god to mean a powerful supernatural being or force positioned in some profound way beyond time and space.
- Theism: A theist believes there to be one or more gods concerned about human matters. It or they care what humans do, experience, or believe. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are familiar monotheisms (though Muslims would call Christianity polytheistic due to the trinity doctrine).
- Deism: A deist believes there to be one or more gods that, while setting the universe in motion, either retreated from or never had any ongoing relationship with it or its inhabitants. Deism was popular during the beginnings of the United States; in fact, a goodly number of our founders were deists. They often referred to a god with few or no theistic implications.
- Agnosticism: An agnostic may (a) lean toward a religious faith, but is not convinced, (b) fear being identified with a position long treated as taboo, or (c) think nothing about religion but may have a withholding judgment mindset. You can see how ‘a’ is often seen as a “junior atheist,” ‘b’ appears intimidated, and ‘c’ has a Missouri “show me” attitude.
- Atheism: An atheist may (a) claim that there is certainly no god, or (b) assert that there is no evidence that a god exists, but admit with Carl Sagan that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In position ‘b,’ belief in a god is much like a belief in Santa Clause—not disproven, but extremely unlikely. Of course, either to claim with certainty that there is a god, as well as to similarly claim there is not a god are both out on a limb, since neither is proven.
As you can see, the definitions need . . . well . . . more definition. Within theism are a plethora of contrary faiths, doctrines, and social implications. Within agnosticism, the three possible views are quite different from each other. Moreover, this four-part breakdown may not even be important to considerations that will matter to us. For example, an evangelical Christian may find that distinguishing between atheists and deists is unimportant, for both refuse to believe. An atheist finds that distinguishing between Primitive Baptists and Sunni Muslims is unimportant, for both operate as if old tales constitute evidence. Setting up relevant categories is always a critical step in making analyses. In selecting for basketball prowess, categories of height are useful, categories of ACT scores are not. In selecting for rhetorical competence, verbal skills are useful, mechanical skills are not. So, for sake of my argument, here I’m going to establish the categories of interest to be (a) belief in a theistic god and (b) lack of belief in a theistic god.
Why, in keeping atheism and theism, have I dropped agnosticism and deism? I dropped them because neither includes a supernatural influence over a person’s life decisions. Theism does. Atheism, agnosticism, and deism do not; these three do not posit a supernatural authority to do any influencing. Deism offers intellectually entertaining arguments, but it does not bear on how we live our lives. Agnosticism has similarly no guidance or commands to offer unless it is atheism masquerading as agnosticism. So we are left with theism—which has an abundance of influences in our lives—and atheism which has none. Therefore, I am positing that belief/nonbelief in a theistic sense is the relevant comparison to examine.
Happily, we already have words that capture these characteristics. It is no surprise that the words are theism and a-theism, the latter meaning non-theism or, to string it out further, “having no belief in a theistic construction of the universe.” A-theism refers to the absence of being convinced, not the unsupportable assertion of knowing no such god exists. Therefore, if an agnostic has no god belief even if searching for it, he or she is an a-theist. If a deist has no theistic god belief, he or she is an a-theist. If an apparent Christian or Muslim, although practicing all the expected religious behaviors expected, has no belief there is really is a God or an Allah, he or she is an a-theist—perhaps a secret a-theist, but just as much an a-theist nonetheless.
So how many a-theists are there and what are they like? The average person in the United States can be forgiven for thinking (a) there aren’t very many; (b) they tend to be shady characters or Grinches; (c) they are an unhappy lot; (d) they’re certainly not trustworthy; (e) they agonizingly fear death; (f) none are among your family and friends; (g) you surely don’t know any; and (h) you wouldn’t want to!
I can’t speak for that last one, but the rest of those beliefs are manifestly misguided. It turns out that religious people tend to know little about atheists, though they come in regular contact with uncountable numbers of atheists. The long-standing taboo against atheism spread by theists guarantees an extreme undercounting. Many atheists are in Christian pulpits and attending Friday prayers at the mosque. Many are your family members who do all the regular Christian things, but don’t believe all the obligatory miracles. Many are in the same pew with you every Sunday.
Most members of the atheist, agnostic, freethought, humanist groups in which I hold membership were once religious. They did not just wake up one day non-religious; they’d been practicing their faith-of-record for years with decreasing actual belief. Even when they’d evolved completely into atheism, making an outward move was often very hard due to family, employers, and friends.
You might be surprised how vindictive the faithful can be toward a former one of their own. No, it isn’t as bad as is true for millions in Muslim countries today and it isn’t as bad as in Christian countries a few centuries ago. But it has by no means disappeared. Despite the social cost, however, enough religious people reject their former beliefs to constitute an expanding phenomenon—not slowing down, but speeding up. These phenomena are some of the reasons religious persons need to know more about atheists and atheism, what it is and equally important what it is not.
The misinformation I listed three paragraphs above is revealing. The easy, very generally stated, responses are (a) there are more atheists than everyone (including atheists!) think, because, first, the atheism category is much broader than usually considered and, second, social pressure causes many atheists to stay unidentified; (b) they are not shady characters and, in fact, populate our prisons at a lower rate than believers and are roughly as helpful and charitable as believers; (c) they are as happy and playful as believers; (d) they keep their word, honor their contracts, and tell the truth as much as believers; (e) their approach to death is at least as peaceful as believers; (f) almost all of them live quietly among your family and friends, so that (g) you know many but don’t always know you know them; and (h) you probably would want to know even more, for they tend to be less judgmental!
I have been an “out” atheist since about age 20 and, due to my memberships and my general outspokenness, I am easily counted. Many, perhaps most, are not. As a close-to-home example, the majority of my progeny are atheists, but are not easily counted either because they intentionally do not announce themselves or religion/irreligion is of so little importance to them that it doesn’t come up. Still, however faulty the counting, it is informative to have a feel for the prevalence and the trends about nonbelievers in the population, for it is changing life in America. I will address those data in one of the next few posts.