Re: Why Atheism Beats Agnosticism

T0Morrow (
Mon, 27 Apr 1998 09:34:47 EDT

Steve Butts very helpfully recapitulates George H. Smith's comments on the
distinction between atheism and agnosticism. George does great work, but I do
not agree with him (or Max, who offered a similar argument) that we should
define "atheism" so as to equal "without belief in god." As I noted to Max,
that definition would make an atheist one who had never even encountered the
notion of god. George apparently embraces this oddity:

> when a baby is born it (probably) has no concept of God or any
> other form of theistic beliefs, therefore it is an atheism.

At the same time, however, George would have "atheist" embrace the ardent
rationalist who has scrutinized and forthrightfully rejected the possibility
of any divine existence. I think this range of meanings gives the word an
unhelpfully broad definition, not to mention one that does not jibe with
common usage. Dictionaries typically define "atheist" as "one who denies
God's existence" or the like.

What about the linguistic argument? Proponents of the broad definition of
"atheism" miss there, too. The roots of "atheism" do not, contrary to
George's claim, mean "without theistic belief." Rather, the word comes from
"atheos" which means "without god."

"Atheos" refers the (non)existence of god--not about the prescence of a
belief. And "atheists" are people who consider themselves "a theos." A baby
thus does not qualify; rather, only one who consciously denies the existence
of gods qualifies as an "atheist."

Given that agnostics have so often faced the claim that they are "atheists
without the courgage of their convictions," I find it curious that some
atheists are trying to assume the diffident attitudes of agnostics. It would
fit common usage and etymology better, I think, for atheists to suck it up and
claim they disbelieve in gods.

My advice to wavering atheists: Ignore the agnostic's claim that you cannot
disprove the existence of god, arguing instead that you have as much proof as
you need. After all, reasonable people believe a variety of things without
logical or scientific backing; common sense works well enough, and it simply
does not support the notion that gods exist.

I'm not saying an atheist would convince me with this claim. All I'm saying
is that I'd respect the atheists for sticking up for his/her (dis)beliefs.