When I discuss peoples’ religious beliefs with them I frequently come across a behaviour which I can only describe as equivalent to sticking your fingers in your ears and drowning me out saying “LA LA LA LA LA”
Here is how a typical conversation might go.
Theist: “Do you believe in God?”
Me: ”No I’m an atheist.”
”So you think God is impossible?”
”Possible, just so extremely unlikely that I don’t believe he exists.”
”You’re not an atheist then, you’re agnostic.”
It is completely accurate that I am agnostic. I’m agnostic about God in the same way I’m agnostic that the sun rose this morning and will rise again tomorrow morning, I’m agnostic about the existence of the clangers and moomins.
On the other hand, I consider it a >99.99% probability (Dettox style) that the sun will rise. The probability of clangers and moomins existing would be a very low <0.01%. In this sense I am an ‘a-moominist’, but also, an ‘atheist’.
So let’s take a look at how my definitions differ from those of the imagined theist above. I have created a line up below to see how fits into each category. First up is Gorge Georg the Popes very attractive PA, we can assume he is Catholic and therefore a theist. We then have a baby, which we can assume is not an active believer in God, but nor has it considered the concept. We then have myself and Sam Harris, I think it would be a struggle to pick someone more identifiably atheistic than the last member of the line-up.
Neither the baby, myself nor Sam Harris has a belief in a God, so using my definitions all three of us are atheists.
I have had people point out to me that by this definition, a coffee table or television set could be called ‘atheist’. Go ahead; I don’t really see the problem with that, though I don’t see the point of doing so either. If you wanted to you could describe a coffee table as unmarried or uncreative but I think reasonable people understand that certain characteristics (especially those that end in ‘-ist’) are intended for humans.
I’m assuming Georg claims to have certain belief in God. He has no doubt. He doesn’t think God is probable, he says he knows God exists. This makes Georg ‘gnostic’ (as in, the opposite of agnostic) Meanwhile despite being atheists, neither the baby, myself nor Sam Harris would claim that God is impossible. Just that he is so improbable that we don’t believe. That makes us, in a very limited and uninteresting way, agnostic.
As you can see, in this case it seems that Atheist and Agnostic are virtually interchangeable. But we can imagine cases where they aren’t. Some Theists do not claim certainty of their God. While some atheists (though I have yet to meet them) could claim that God is impossible, making them Gnostics.
The point remains that Agnosticism will tell you only about what sort of knowledge someone claims to possess, not what they actually think. When it comes to discussing the existence of God, this isn’t particularly interesting. Imagine the above table, especially if you add in a few Theist agnostics, it doesn’t really tell you very much.
So why is it that people are trying to redefine atheism to mean a belief that God is impossible?
Defining atheism to be something that is so much harder to defend makes it easier for theists to dismiss atheists as irrational. It also gives theists a much lower standard of evidence, they only need to prove that a God is possible, not that their God and their Bible/Quran/Torah really exists and really cares. This is very frustrating for the rationally minded amongst us, theists and atheists; because we could all create a case for the ‘possibility’ of any number of ridiculous unworthy concepts.
Secondly I think some people want to define atheism in this way because they wish to portray it as just another statement of ‘belief’. If atheism was a faith and belief statement of the same sort as theism, then it would be self-refuting by denying such belief statements. I think on a certain level it may also be that many theists recognise that belief statements based on faith are actually less convincing than statements of probability and rationality. Unfortunately they see fit to apply this weakness to their redefined atheism, but not to theism.
and now they take my feminism from me too!
I have been having conversations such as the one above for a while, but recently I have been experiencing something very similar with feminism.
Here is a typical conversation.
Friend: “So you’re a feminist then?”
Me: “Yes, aren’t you?”
Friend: “I believe in equality, but I’m not a feminist.”
Me: “Don’t feminists believe in equality?”
Friend: “Well, they have gone beyond that, feminism means that women are superior to men.”
Unlike the Atheism/Agnosticism confusion, there is no excuse for this word misuse.
If you consider women to be inferior, you are a misogynist.
If you think women and men are equal, you are a feminist.
If someone thought that men were inferior, they would be a misandrist. The word probably isn’t recognised in Microsoft Word, but that doesn’t mean we should lump it in with feminism, that would be like saying that black supremacists should be called egalitarians!
If we allow feminism to be redefined to mean something other than equality, then it has no resemblance to what we all believe. Feminists as we know them today will have lost their identity and suffered irreparable ‘brand’ damage in the process. If feminism comes to stand for something indefensible, misogynists will no longer even need to fight it because there will be no-one left defending it. And that means there will be no-one left to defend the rights of women.