Seeing as how today is the unconstitutional National Day of Prayer and Daniel Florien just hosted an epic discussion about Atheism and Agnosticism over at Unreasonable Faith, I thought I would tap the very roots of my blog and offer my own perspective on the language of nonbelief in the context of religious privilege. I’ve written on some of these before, but like many did in the Unreasonable Faith thread, I will try to offer my personal guide for the language I use and don’t use.
Since this is a conversation about language, the first thing to keep in mind is that all of it is socially constructed. Every word in this discussion is used to describe interpretation and commitment to ideas. I think it’s best if we start there.
What is an idea? Let’s define it simply as a coherent thought. It’s something you can make sense of in your head. It can be totally imaginative and fictional; the only criteria is it has to be mentally graspable.
A belief is a special kind of idea. There are many rhetorical uses for “believe” but let’s be specific about a belief for this discussion. A belief is an idea understood to be truth despite an insufficiency of rational explanation. God is a belief. Ghosts are a belief. Astrology is a belief. A dog is not a belief. A Halloween costume is not a belief. Astronomy is not a belief. (Evolution is not a belief, either.) It only counts as a belief if there is not proof of its merit. Otherwise it’s just an understanding.
Now, here is a question: Is there merit in holding a truth without merit? From a simple, objective, intellectual point of view, the obvious answer is no. There is no point in continuing to divide by 0 when you know you can’t divide by 0. However, from a sociological point of view, the answer throughout history has been clouded. While nothing has changed in regards to the intellectual merit of beliefs, the social merit of beliefs is quite developed.
So what is this privilege? Privilege constitutes any unearned advantages that individuals have in society derived solely from aspects of their identity. It can be considered the opposite of oppression. A man makes more than a woman from male privilege. A white person doesn’t have to carry identification papers around in Arizona thanks to white privilege. When it comes to invisible identities that rely on disclosure, privilege can play out in some complicated ways.
Consider people who are coming out as gay. They know that homosexuality is shunned in society and that they might be expected to conform to heterosexuality, so they might come out as bisexual so that they maintain some of their heterosexual privilege. Someone who is actually bisexual might, conversely, identify as the orientation that matches hir partner so as not to suffer the oppression of biphobia. A trans person might also make efforts to “pass” as hir identified gender so as to benefit from cisgender privilege.
Similarly, religious belief, itself, benefits from privilege. This includes all matters of spirituality and superstition as well, but belief in a higher power takes top priority. To believe is considered a good thing and to not believe is often seen in a negative light.
This leads us to several questions that can help us understand different terms regarding belief and why people might choose to identify with them.
Firstly: Do you believe? (And if so, what?)
Secondly: Are you willing to believe in a higher power? And/or… do you see value in believing in a higher power? (This is the tricky one.)
Thirdly: Are you committed to working against religious privilege?
Let’s start with the first one. If somebody answers “Yes, I do believe,” there are two possible identities I will entertain in this post.
Theist/Believer – Someone who actively believes that there is a higher power.
Contratheist – Someone who actively believes that there is NOT a higher power (i.e. denies the existence of a higher power).
Personally, I reject both forms of belief. Heck, I coined “contratheist” just to distinguish myself from it. There is no evidence for God and there is no evidence against God. Both of these identities require conviction without evidence, and I argue both lack any intellectual merit. I think it’s really important to see the denial of a higher power as a belief, an act of holding truth without evidence, and to separate it from the nonbelief community.
Answering “No” to the first question moves us on to number 2. Another way of asking this question is: “Which do you value more, probability or possibility?” Someone who is willing to believe or who sees value in believing is agnostic (thus valuing possibility), while someone who doesn’t is an atheist (thus valuing probability). (Kudos to commentor Matt M for this distinction.)
Agnostic – Someone who might not actively believe, but still sees value in beliefs and in the most improbable possibilities.
Atheist/Nonbeliever – Someone who does not believe and does not see value in believing or supporting improbable claims.
An atheist is truly without belief and measures things critically through probability assessment. If it’s improbable, then it isn’t worth considering. Someone agnostic might see things a bit more black and white; if something is possible, then it’s worth considering. This translates into a sort of uncommitted belief, a 50/50 conjecture that there is just as good a chance that there is a higher power as the chance that there isn’t.
The problem I see, as many pointed out on the discussion thread, is that there is no distinction between these possibilities. The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Santa Claus, and leprechauns are all just as probable as the Christian God, but agnostics tend not to be as agnostic about those other things. They are more interested in showing support for popular deities.
This reflects a sense among many atheists that agnostics are cowards afraid to come the whole way out as atheists. As someone who once identified as agnostic for specifically that reason, I can tell you there there is at least some truth to it. One of the Cectic comics that Francesc linked to illustrates this well:
If you’re not convinced that there is privilege for religion, all you have to do is look at President Obama’s National Day of Prayer proclamation today:
I call upon the citizens of our nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I invite all people of faith to join me in asking for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection as we meet the challenges before us.
This is a Presidential endorsement of an unabashedly religious practice.
So, perhaps some agnostics are holding out so they continue to benefit from religious privilege rather than be labeled as an atheist, “the godless other.” Other agnostics might just be completely uncommitted in their thinking about these kinds of ideas. Still, they wouldn’t be lost in that uncommitted territory if they had not been influenced by religious privilege in society. Whatever a person’s reason to identify as agnostic, I think they ought to continue to be challenged so that they do not continue to reinforce the privilege they benefit from.
The third question is sort of a bonus for atheists. Once you’re an atheist, do you work toward dismantling religious privilege? Christopher Hitchens does, which is how we got this term:
Antitheist – Someone who actively works against religious belief.
I identify as an antitheist, because I speak openly about atheism, I challenge religious beliefs, and I work against the power that religious organizations have developed over thousands of years.
Others might not identify as an athitheist. They might instead identify as an apatheist (apathy toward religion), a nontheist, or simply an atheist without further title.
While it’s nice to argue philosophically about “knowing” vs. “believing,” this doesn’t seem to be helpful in moving forward as a nonbelieving community. Recognizing the impact of religious privilege is crucial to understanding why we even have debates over language like this.
Some may strongly disagree with my interpretation of this language, and that’s fine. Language is fluid. I think, though, that these identities are best understood in this context. I hope this post has been helpful and enlightening!
For more on how I think about language and use it on this blog, check out the ZFb Terminology page.