Atheism vs. Agnosticism in the Context of Religious Privilege

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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.

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There are 11 Comments to "Atheism vs. Agnosticism in the Context of Religious Privilege"

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Zack Ford. Zack Ford said: ZackFord Blogs – Atheism vs. Agnosticism in the Context of Religious Privilege – http://is.gd/bXsRK – #atheism [...]

  • noisician says:

    We mostly agree, except on year def of “belief”. I have never met you but if you asked me if I believe you when you say you are gay, I’d say yes because: (1) it’s not at all an extraordinary claim, (2) I see no reason for you to lie.

    But by your definition, you’d have me say “no” precisely because I have some reason behind it.

    I am an atheist because I see no good evidence or reason to believe anything supernatural. Further, I believe there are no gods, ghosts, or magic because it seems to me there would be evidence of these if they existed. Since there is no evidence I live my life as if they didn’t exist, while still allowing the theoretical possibility that they could. Along with Sagan’s invisible pet dragon.

    Nice article!

  • ZackFord says:

    Thanks for your comment!

    If you read my post about the ways the word “believe” is used, you might understand the distinction I’m using.

    When you say you would believe me if I told you I was gay, you’re not actually talking about belief. You’re talking about trust. You trust that what I’m saying is accurate. It’s really a very different usage for the same word. Here’s how you can tell… if you told someone else that I’m gay, you would not say “I believe Zack is gay.” You would just say, “Zack’s gay” or “I know Zack’s gay.” (If there’s someone you want to hook me up with, go for it.)

    Thanks for chiming in!

  • J Doe says:

    That national day of prayer… WORST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER, Obama!

  • Topher says:

    You make some great points I think, especially in regard to the way privilege affects non-believers and their use and redefinition of these terms. That comic is also great. I will have to respectfully take issue with how you redefine the terms, agnostic and atheist, however. It seems to me that you are complicating their distinctions even more by bringing the question of value into their definitions (which doesn’t make sense to me). I think the more we can simplify their definitions, the better; and I certainly think that both word’s greek roots are sufficient for their definition and use. Theism/Atheism lucidly describes a belief or lack of belief in a god. Gnostic/Agnostic clearly addresses a person’s position on knowledge (regarding the specific issue in question). If I can’t say, “I believe in a god,” then I’m an atheist regardless of whether I think such a belief has value, or whether or not I think it’s knowable. I would prefer that simplicity prevail. When people redefine words, as is an often occurrence, these words  loose meaning, not gain it. Just my thoughts on the matter. Great post, and I enjoy the discussion.

  • ZackFord says:

    I totally see where you’re coming from. I’m curious, though, how you then feel about those who insist on identifying as “Agnostic” and not as an atheist (nor a believer).

    I know many folks like to separate the two and then form 4 categories: Gnostic Believers, Gnostic Atheists, Agnostic Believers, and Agnostic Atheists… but there still seems to be a contingent of agnostics who are just agnostic. I would argue, by this model, that there is no difference between an Agnostic Believer and an Agnostic Atheist, in which case, what is the point of the distinction?

  • Topher says:

    If people are going to insist on using the label “Agnostic” then they are going to find themselves being asked to explain themselves. And this is precicely because, as you correctly noted, we cannot tell the destinction between a believer and non-believer. If someone asks me whether I believe in god, and I reply that I’m an agnostic, then I’ve effectively dodged the question; and the person who asked me the question is still wondering whether I believe or not. At this point, I will be required to further explain that I do believe (theist), or that I don’t (atheist), or that I’m neutral/don’t care/whatever (still, atheist). Now Huxley and Einstein also found themselves in the same position. They both called themselves agnostics, but because they did, it was necessary for them to further explain their position on belief–which turned out to be the same as an agnostic atheist despite their decisions against using the label.
     
     
    If a person who insists that “agnostic” is their only label (on the question of god), and that person cannot say to him/herself, “I believe in a god,” then that person is also an atheist by definition, whether they want to admit it or not. You cannot be “just agnostic” on the question of god, because agnostic isn’t a position on belief in a god. It’s a position on knowledge. I label myself an agnostic atheist because its specific, and if people don’t understand, I can simply break apart the roots of both words to show their denotations, without the need of further explaination. I recently also posted on this subject (http://www.xophoros.com/blog/2010/05/agnostics-closet-atheists-or-unreasonable-theists/), and after discussing it more and reading other people’s posts, I’m very tempted to completely rewrite it. You and others have certainly given me more to think about. I’m not sure if you are familiar with the Atheist Experience, but here are a few videos where they talk about the subject as well (hope you don’t mind me posting them here):
     
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6o6Ne2GxK8
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2Py1Bz8XOo

  • ZackFord says:

    I will definitely check those out.

    Let me ask you this question, Topher: would you have any respect for a gnostic atheist? Do you think there really are even gnostic atheists (what I call contratheists), or are they just misguided/overpassionate agnostic atheists?

    I ask this because I still struggle to see much value in using the word Agnostic even to inform “atheist.” In some ways, it almost seems redundant. If you don’t believe, then why would you yet be ambivalent about believing?

    And might then the use of Agnostic Atheist serve only to empower the word Agnostic, when on its own, it essentially has little meaning? This is based on our agreement that “Agnostic” is used to dodge the question. If we suggest that specifying our atheism with agnosticism is valuable, that seems to give agnosticism the very validity (or sense of validity) that we’re trying to challenge.

    As I mentioned over on Hemant’s site, I think there is a matter of solidarity to consider. Yes, we know that “Agnostics” that don’t believe are atheists, but I think it’s important to challenge them on that too. Agnosticism still benefits from some religious privilege and those who identify with it do not suffer the same oppression that society doles out for atheists. While it’s important to support Agnostics in their nonbelief (or path to it), I think we must also encourage them to move past it and recognize the way they are lending protection to religion when they’ve already admitted to not abiding by it.

    I haven’t read your post or watched the videos yet, but what do you think of these points?

  • Topher says:

    would you have any respect for a gnostic atheist? Do you think there really are even gnostic atheists (what I call contratheists), or are they just misguided/overpassionate agnostic atheists?

    Well I would respect the person of course, but as to the position, I probably would want to ask a lot of questions before respecting it, assuming it was well-defended. But, to answer the second question, I’ve never met a contratheist, or anyone that claims knowledge on the position of no gods existing. Some really passionate atheists might come across this way, but I’ve never met, or even heard of, anyone who would score a 7 on Dawkins’ scale.

    I ask this because I still struggle to see much value in using the word Agnostic even to inform “atheist.” In some ways, it almost seems redundant. If you don’t believe, then why would you yet be ambivalent about believing?

    Yes, I think that is a very good point, and I would feel exactly the same way were it not for the fact that most people do not understand that atheists can be those who are just waiting for evidence, or a rational reason. Most people think, as I once did, that all atheists assert the posative claim that no god exists, and that is why many of them often say that “atheists have just as much faith.” Is your experience with people similar?

    And might then the use of Agnostic Atheist serve only to empower the word Agnostic, when on its own, it essentially has little meaning? This is based on our agreement that “Agnostic” is used to dodge the question. If we suggest that specifying our atheism with agnosticism is valuable, that seems to give agnosticism the very validity (or sense of validity) that we’re trying to challenge.

    No. I wouldn’t think so. Adding agnostic as an adjective is being more specific about the question of belief. It would be analogous with saying that I’m a “soft” atheist. Using “agnostic” in its place would actually be more descriptive. It’s not required by any means, but it can often be useful. The word, agnostic, itself is very valid; it just happens to not be a valid answer to the question of god, when used all by itself. I would think that my use of the word–as a description of my atheism–would help challenge its otherwise ambiguous usage. By using it the way I do, I would say I’m challenging those who see the question of god as answered by the tri-fold theist-agnostic-atheist option bracket.

    As I mentioned over on Hemant’s site, I think there is a matter of solidarity to consider. Yes, we know that “Agnostics” that don’t believe are atheists, but I think it’s important to challenge them on that too. Agnosticism still benefits from some religious privilege and those who identify with it do not suffer the same oppression that society doles out for atheists. While it’s important to support Agnostics in their nonbelief (or path to it), I think we must also encourage them to move past it and recognize the way they are lending protection to religion when they’ve already admitted to not abiding by it.

    I disagree that we all know that agnostics that don’t believe are atheists. There were dozens of commenters on Hemant’s post that showed clear misunderstanding of that fact (many thought that being neutral on the question ruled them out of being atheists, when it really doesn’t). But I whole-heartedly agree with the rest of what you are saying here. Agnostics are serving to reinforce religious privilege and to keep atheists at the margins, and the only way I can see that changing, is through talking about this subject often, and engaging with agnostics on why we use the labels that we do. I usually am satisfied with just calling myself an atheist, plain and simple, but when I remember people’s confusion about it, it makes me want to be more specific, so that I can make the point that atheists are not basing this position on an un-proven claim. We should all be agnostic about anything that doesn’t have evidence. But I would like to know what you think about that.

  • ZackFord says:

    Of course I was speaking to the position, not the people who hold it. Thank you for clarifying that. (It’s assumed understandings like that that make me come off as condescending sometimes. I must watch better… I just get so caught up in the arguments!)

    To address two little points from your response: 1) Yes, I have been challenged by believers in that way, and 2) I don’t think I meant we “all,” more an assumption we “you and I” were on the same page.

    Here’s a big clarifying question: what is the ultimate value of distinguishing anything between gnostic and agnostic?

    I ask this, because I fail to see where lines can be drawn. Essentially, isn’t “agnostic” just a catch-all for every negative that can’t be proven? I can be gnostic about my right and left hands because I can prove their existence, but since I cannot prove the existence of my middle hand, does that make me agnostic about it? Is it impossible for me to know that I don’t have a third hand?

    What about Santa Claus? It’s a cheesy example, but a good one. Most people (including almost all past the age of 7) do not believe in Santa Claus, and it is generally understood that he does not exist. But we can’t prove that he does not exist, so does that mean I must be agnostic about Santa? Must I always be open to the possibility that Santa Claus exists but I simply cannot ever know?

    Intellectually, this concept just seems to lack any real point. I get what it means, but it doesn’t seem to mean much. In fact, I wonder if the fact that we give it meaning (or importance) works against us and is part of why believers think atheists need faith.

    I’m just kind of rolling with my thoughts on this so tell if this makes sense. If we didn’t distinguish between “knowable” (gnostic) and “unknowable” (agnostic), it would seem to me that we could categorize truth as either “understood” or “believed.” Basically, an idea either has evidence to support it, or it doesn’t. BUT, introduce the idea of knowability, and suddenly the lines are not so distinct. It becomes a sort of philosophical cycle of confusion, because you can then be gnostic or agnostic about gnosticism!

    Am I capable of knowing whether I’m capable of knowing? Suddenly all of reality is up for grabs. And reality is what we’re talking about: what we can perceive as humans with the biological makeup and cognitive processes alloted us through evolution. And with what my mind is capable of, I know I have a right hand and I know I do not have a middle hand, and I don’t have to be ambivalent about it. I have no reason to leave room for the possibility that I have a third hand, but by the definitions imposed by a philosophy of gnosticism vs. agnosticism, I still have to be agnostic about it.

    To bring this back to religious privilege and the perceptions of believers, here’s what I think I’m contending. If I call myself an atheist, I’m saying, “I do not believe in God.” But if I call myself an agnostic atheist (to paraphrase your post), I’m saying, “I do not believe in God because I do not know if a god exists.” And while technically the second sentence is more specific, isn’t it also a weaker statement—particularly when it comes to its ability to persuade? In its effort to qualify, it seems to inherently warrant the premise that god was a worthwhile question to begin with!

    I do know I don’t have a middle hand. I do know there is no Santa Claus. I do know there’s no Flying Spaghetti Monster or Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter, because I know the source of those ideas. Even if I admit I cannot prove there is not a God, don’t I have reason to say I know there is not a God? Shouldn’t it be enough to say, “Beliefs do not count as truth” and leave it at that without leaving room for doubt for my doubt (which is essentially what agnosticism does)? Is there real value in leaving room for the possibility of God/ANYTHING in the absence of knowability? It would seem to me the infinite pool of ideas that are unknowable would make the concept essentially moot.

    I think if we make the conversation about simply whether ideas without foundation (“beliefs”) have intellectual merit, we’ll make a lot more headway than if we cloud the ideas with a heady qualifier like “knowability.”

    Am I off my rocker? Or did that all kind of make sense?

  • Topher says:

    [Sorry about that. This one will be easier to read. You can delete the other entry ]
    Yes. You’re position makes sense, but only because both of us are sufficiently informed on the topic. I would even agree with most of what you said, if there was no semantic baggage, and in a world where it was an uncommon thing to believe in a god.

    Essentially, isn’t “agnostic” just a catch-all for every negative that can’t be proven? I can be gnostic about my right and left hands because I can prove their existence, but since I cannot prove the existence of my middle hand, does that make me agnostic about it? Is it impossible for me to know that I don’t have a third hand?

    No. It’s not. Gnostic claims don’t necessarily have to be provable, or demonstrable. A person can claim personal knowledge (and many people do). Theoretically suppose Gary was abducted by aliens one night, but the aliens left no trace or witnesses. Gary is a valid gnostic believer in aliens. In much the same way Gary has gnostic belief in aliens, Sam could also have gnostic belief in Santa (in theory). We may question Gary’s sanity, but that doesn’t change the fact that he claims gnostic belief. In regard to your middle hand example, we can and do have proof/evidence of negatives all the time. Many are logically deducible. The very way we define a person’s hand, requires its physical presence. It is much more difficult to prove negatives on supernatural entities, however. And you are right that it is perfectly reasonable to say they don’t exist.

    Basically, an idea either has evidence to support it, or it doesn’t. BUT, introduce the idea of knowability, and suddenly the lines are not so distinct. It becomes a sort of philosophical cycle of confusion, because you can then be gnostic or agnostic about gnosticism!

    Yes, this is true, but we use the words “know” or “knowledge” all the time without having to delve into epistemological debates. These words have practical uses that don’t require that kind of discussion unless you are a serious solipsist. Sure, you can say that you know that no god exists, but you would also need to add the caveat that you don’t mean absolute knowledge, that is if you were speaking with someone in disagreement. You might also have a good thing going if you were to illustrate our knowledge of the source of humanity’s belief in god, and to conclude that it’s the closest thing to impossible that a god really does exist. I don’t think that admitting lack of complete knowledge is less persuasive, however. Rigid over-confidence can also detract from an argument. And while I will enthusiastically agree with you that using the label atheist is the best way to go about it, using agnostic as a descriptor (NOT qualifier!) can be helpful when conversing with believers and “agnostics.” At least I have found it helpful. That may not be the case in your experience.

    Here’s a big clarifying question: what is the ultimate value of distinguishing anything between gnostic and agnostic?

    To clear the mud then, consider this. I would say that most people see the possible answers to the question of a god as a mutually exclusive set. That is, Theist, Neutral/Agnostic, and Atheist. You can only choose one. This clearly narrows atheism down to those who make a positive claim that no gods exist. This is the model that I want to challenge as false. On occasion, I choose to do so by using agnostic as a descriptor of my atheism. I do this in consideration of the baggage that comes with the words, hoping to point out that agnostic doesn’t make sense on its own and to indicate there is no neutral position. Do I have to do it this way? Of course not. The value I find has come with the conversations that have resulted with this usage. I do not agree that using the word agnostic is in anyway empowering of those who self label as agnostics. That said, there are likely better ways to achieve the same outcome. What approach would you take?

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