“A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” ~José Bergamín
Many people mistakenly believe that dictionary definitions tell us what words mean. But it’s the other way around. We, by our actual usage of words, tell dictionary lexicographers how to define words. English is a fluid language, constantly changing. Meaning comes from us, not dictionaries.
This is an important point when it comes to distinguishing agnostics from atheists. The fact is: our usage of these words is ambiguous, so dictionary definitions are too. We can’t claim to nail down an unambiguous definition of what these words mean but we can assert what we think they should
mean. And it’s been my experience that there are many ideas on what the words “atheist” and “agnostic” should, unambiguously, mean. I offer my own ideas, below.
An atheist should treasure rational integrity and rely on reason from evidence. Because reason and evidence are both antithetical to faith, an atheist should be dubious, even cynical, about claims of faith in any
form: especially faith in God or anything else supernatural.
Because an atheist should treasure rational integrity and rely on reason from evidence, an atheist should not deny God absolutely – an atheist should not unequivocally deny any and all possible gods. Absolute denial
, without the benefit of reason from evidence, is faith
; just as absolute acceptance
, without the benefit of reason from evidence, is also faith. You can have faith that there is a God or you can have faith that there’s not a God. Either way, neither of these positions is consistent with rational integrity and reason from evidence.
Instead, an atheist should respect facts and acknowledge that God and the supernatural can be neither proved or disproved. There is no conclusive evidence either way.
But this does not mean nobody can claim atheism. An atheist should deny God conditionally
, not absolutely. We should deny God based on the overwhelming preponderance of evidence – all of which point away from God and the supernatural. An atheist should claim the odds of God’s existence is exceedingly remote or vanishingly small or anything similar that does not unequivocally rule out any possibility of any God.
Ruling God out absolutely does not respect facts as we know them. Ruling God out absolutely is a claim to knowledge one can’t possibly possess. Ruling God out absolutely violates respect for facts, rational integrity and reason from evidence. We can deny God with reasonable confidence but not with certainty.
There should be a separate word for those who deny God absolutely and those who deny God conditionally (but with confidence). You might be thinking that I’m advocating agnosticism but I’m not. Remember, words mean what we (collectively) say they mean and, for now, the words “atheist” and “agnostic” have multiple meanings. Where the existence of God is concerned, I believe most agnostics claim indecision
based on rational integrity and most atheists claim confidence
based on rational integrity. Most agnostics are not sure whether or not to deny God. Most atheists are sure they want to deny God (conditionally).
Unless, or until, we finally have solid evidence one way or the other, we are stuck with God. He might be a meme that defies us to ignore him or he might be the creator of the universe. But I’m confident that no God worth his salt could ever accept the name of Jehovah or Allah. If there is a God, I’m confident he would not like the caricature gods we’ve created as his placeholder.