The Words We Use For People Who Do Not Believe In God(s)
Sep 5, 2011

The Words We Use For People Who Do Not Believe In God(s)

Agnostic, Athiest, (strong and weak), secularist, naturalist, humanist, non-believer, pantheist, positivist; the list of terms used to describe people who do not believe in the existence of a deity is quite large. Words, and what they connote, matter and so it is worth considering which of these labels, if any, should be used and the significance of the various labels. I will focus more on the social implications than the philosophical underpinnings.

 If we are to be credible in our analysis of various matters, we must hold ourselves to the same intellectual standards regardless of the issue. Religion, however, seems to be a privileged topic of discussion to which a different set of standards often get applied. This can be a problem for non-religious people (or other term) who sometimes grant religion half the argument simply because one uses different goal posts for religion than for other issues. This crops up when comparing atheism to agnosticism.

 There is a certain epistemic uncertainty from philosophy about our ability to make certain claims about whether a deity absolutely does or does not exist. One can consider the philosophical arguments and then decide on a precise definition of ones views on the atheism/agnosticism scale. If one wants to proudly claim they are an agnostic because of epistemic uncertainty regarding the question of a First Cause deity being outside of our evidential system then sure I can't really disagree. But does anyone ever bring this standard of philosophical epistemology to other issues? Does one proudly claim agnosticism on behalf of the existence of Thor or unicorns? In daily life, none of these philosophical disclaimers about the ability of certain knowledge are ever raised except when it comes to religion; quite the opposite, most people proclaim certainty in their views on other issues all the time.

I would take this business about labels one step further. Not only do I think that worrying about atheism vs agnosticism gives an undue amount of philosophical attention to the subject that one would not bring to other topics, I feel there ought not to be a need to have some label to describe oneself at all. Nobody feels the need to claim themselves unbelievers with regard to Thor and unicorns, just as one surely wouldn't worry about the atheist vs agnostic division to these claims. In some sense, even saying I am an atheist/agnostic/secularist/nonbeliever/etc is implicitly giving credence to the idea that religious belief is a reasonable topic to worry about to the extent of labeling oneself - this is quite rare among topics.

Unfortunately , religion has a lot of prominence among society so we are confronted with having to deal with the issue - and hence find utility in coming up with labels - even if it is not deserving of such special attention. If we are forced to accept such a label for pragmatic purposes, it may as well be one that connotes the correct impression. There is a tendency among many to shy away from the term atheist, finding it too confontational or offensive. This should be rejected and there should be no need to have to apologize for the term. It should be entirely possible to have a respectful debate in society about differing beliefs, to identify the sides of that debate with labels, and not feel that one side - and one side only - should try to repress such a label. We should be proud to be atheists (or whatever term one prefers) and not have to hide form that designation. Many of the other terms on the list are essentially euphemisms of the word atheist.

 Naturalism and humanism play similar roles. One of the legitimate criticisms of the word atheism is that it doesn't give anything to believe in, merely things to not believe in. Naturalism provides an active belief in our physical universe while humanism provides an active belief in our shared humanity. The aesthetic beauty of the universe and the compelling power of human thought and activity does justify these terms which replace the absence of belief that is atheism with an active belief. That said, the terms seem unsatisfactory to me. Firstly, I would imagine most who consider themselves to be one of these two probably endorse the other position as well. Secondly, it isn't always clear that these terms actually denote the absence of belief in gods; indeed, many attach the word secular before them to make it clear and "secular humanist naturalist" is simply too cumbersome. Thirdly, and perhaps this explains my second point, it neither addresses the philosophical and logical consideration that atheism/agnosticism offers nor the social consideration that secularism describes. 

The word secularism is interesting because it's focus is on the way people actually live their lives. While questions of belief in a deity, as is denoted by the terms atheist and agnostic, are perhaps interesting, and while it is aesthetically pleasing to find some deeper meaning with naturalism or humanism, the largest way that religion actually influences us is through day to day activities. I have previously argued that many religious debates miss the dominate way that religion interacts with society. Debates focus on whether religion is true or whether the consequences of religion are good or bad, but don't address the various innocuous cultural practices, community relationships, and the like that make up the average person's interaction with religion. To call oneself a secularist is to say the cultural practices and manner of living in which one engages is one that doesn't have religion in it. One is thus not giving any special attention to the other philosophical issues religion raises with the term secularist.

There is a large group of people that fall somewhere into the pantheist to deist spectrum, but certainly are not religious. They live more or less entirely secular lives, will often not believe in the established religions or follow their practices, but when asked will maintain the idea that there is "something out there", in the deistic sense, or describe the universe as miraculous and equivalent to a god, in the pantheistic sense. In the pantheistic case I can't really disagree with any metaphysical claim - as there isn't any made, but I don't see the value in dressing up a description of the universe in religious terminology. I certainly agree that one can view the universe as having compelling beauty whose mysteries fascinate our intellect - as a theoretical mathematician I surely feel this way - but the religious appellations do not add to our ability to describe it as such; if anything, they detract.

 As for deism, much like agnosticism, one can have an interesting discussion about the philosophical underpinnings for deistic belief, but I don't think most people actually believe in it for these reasons (see my views on it here). Instead deism seems to have broadly two categories of adherents. Firstly, there are theists who argue for deism as a crutch. The idea seems to be that if one can get an atheist to accept a deistic argument then this is helping argue along a road to theism. Nonsense, of course. In this regard it is much like intelligent design which is an intellectual "theory" that has been entirely created by creationist theists to pretend there is a legitimate scientific or philosophical basis to consider but is essentially never maintained by people outside of creationists. The second category is more innocent and widespread. it includes people who often have not thought about it too much but live in a culture that systematically and asymmetrically glorifies religion, and the concepts and terminology therein. Even if any particular religion seems untrue, silly, or just obnoxious (as was my childhood views of going to church), because various forms of religious belief is widely considered "good", I think many people will claim to be deists despite entirely secular lives. It is essentially just repeating a cultural meme. In so doing, they are perpetatuting this meme and all the consequences of it.

 There is also the various identifications without one word labels. Things like "I don't believe in God", with a capital G. Any designation that is referential to but a single deity - usually whatever the dominant cultural one is in a region - is too narrow. It is all gods, all mystical claims, and all metaphysical claims for which there is no reasoned or eventual basis that is to be, or at least should be, rejected. "Non-believer" is pretty reasonable. It is certainly obvious and literal enough, my displeasure is that it doesn't stand alone and is dependent on opposing the de facto state that is belief in a god.

My favorite, were it not too uncommon as a philosophical term to be ruled out of contention, is logical positivism. It gives an active belief, much like humanism and naturalism, in an actual mode of thinking and interpreting the universe that can be applied in daily life, like secularism. Yet it retains sufficiently strong anti-theological connotations to be a meaningful indication of the lack of religious belief, like atheism.

 Ultimately, I use a combination of atheist and secularist, depending on context. If I am talking about religious issues explicitly, I will use atheist. If I am talking about the religion in society and its effects thereof I will use the word secularist. And I will use them proudly.

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