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Activism, Atheism

Atheist Agnostics

Our hypothesis is that, even beyond our sample, the majority of agnostics are, in fact, atheists and that many would so self-identify if given the opportunity to qualify their commitment.

I’ve said this for quite some time, and now there’s some significant data to back up the claim.  The preliminary findings from the study “Beyond Disbelief” strongly suggest that what a lot of us have been saying for a long time is true:  “Atheism” is too strong a word for a large percentage of people who are, strictly speaking, atheists.

A lot of the study’s findings will not be surprising.  Most of us are pretty self-aware and know that we’re socially very liberal.  We know that we are not bandwagon riders when it comes to politics, and that we are distrustful of any extremist political position.  We know that we’re not atheists because we’re mad at our families.

But some of the findings may be disturbing to some of us.  Most notably, there’s probably something behind the accusations against “new atheism.”  People who most consistently agreed with very anti-religious statements, and who endorsed very strong positions like “all religions are harmful to society” overwhelmingly identified as “atheist” while people who were less judgmental or even sympathetic to religion identified overwhelmingly as “agnostic.”

So there may be some truth to the accusation that we atheists are scaring away some of our support by being very strongly against religion in any form.  Particularly among women, there is reason to believe that complete rejection of spirituality may be off-putting.  Many women describe themselves as “spiritual,” but when allowed to qualify that descriptor, it becomes obvious that to them, spirituality is a set of sensibilities, not a set of metaphysical claims.

So once again, we’re confronted with a brick wall.  Words are powerful things, and regardless of what we want it to mean, atheism means hostile anti-theism.  Similarly, the perception of blanket condemnation is viewed negatively by a lot of people who substantially agree, but have a healthy skepticism of any sort of all-or-nothing thinking.

Let me put that last paragraph in simpler terms.  We strong atheist types are doing ourselves a disservice by ostracizing people who agree with us but choose to adopt healthy skeptical language and healthy social tolerance.

I know I haven’t been posting a lot this week, and part of the reason is that I’ve been trying to digest quite a bit of information that’s fairly foreign to me.  I’m not going to tell you what it is until I’m ready to make the full presentation.  But a lot of what I’ve been thinking about is the mechanics of influence and ways to reduce hostility while accomplishing goals.

While you wait on me to wrap my brain around a few concepts, I’d like you to think about atheism and agnosticism in terms of social value and ask yourself a very important question:  What label, regardless of its epistemological correctness, is most valuable in the advancement of secular society with scientific liberal values?



8 thoughts on “Atheist Agnostics

  1. It is quite the uphill battle when linguistically we make it so. We know what we mean through that term but it’s not a welcoming tag some people want to put in their about me section.

    Posted by Emil | September 26, 2010, 11:35 pm
  2. “What label … is most valuable in the advancement of secular society with scientific liberal values?”

    I really like humanism as a label, because it is easy to defend. You can say, for example, “Godly values might be greatly appreciated by gods, but they’re not so great for people.

    Posted by YASHWATA | September 27, 2010, 12:16 am
  3. I’ll admit that I’ve had issues with the term humanism in the past, Yashwata, but I’m coming to appreciate it more lately.

    The thing is, I don’t think of myself as a humanist. I don’t think there’s anything inherently valuable about humanity, nor do I think we’re destined for anything in particular. When I look at history, I see humans behaving precisely as we would predict based on nothing more than sociobiology.

    Having said that, I have also come to realize that the precise truth is often not as good as an approximation when it comes to influencing behavior. If we say that people are inherently mostly good (which I believe) and that because we are mostly good, we should have a desire to improve ourselves and others on a grand scale (which I don’t believe), we are telling a white lie that might become a self-fulfilling prophesy to some extent. On the other hand, if we tell them that there is no such thing as free will, that virtually every sociocultural advancement in history has been enacted only when it was less painful for the powers that be to do it than to continue oppressing, and that we’ve probably been the worst thing for the planet since the last giant asteroid…

    You get my point, I think. Humanism is probably less correct than some of the less morally charged positions, but as you say, the morality behind it is damn appealing, and might influence some of those people without free will.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 27, 2010, 1:46 pm
  4. I confess that I use labels to my advantage.

    If I am with a theist, I will declare myself agnostic to avoid being lumped in with Christopher Hitchens, and around atheists, I will declare myself an atheist, to avoid the long winded argument whether I’m a “pussy atheist.”

    That said, I don’t think that simply changing the label will really do anything. We need to change our behaviour and image, not our label.

    If agnostics take on a new label than all the schemas of agnostics will transfer to that label. If atheists change their label, then all the schemas will transfer to that label.

    Posted by cptpineapple | September 27, 2010, 3:07 pm
  5. LOL, Alison, you crack me up sometimes. You just proved that changing labels does accomplish something. You are received better by theists as an agnostic and better by atheists as an atheist.

    I think you’re focusing WAY too much on one side of this, and forgetting that for every atheist-theist interaction, there are unconscious mechanisms at work on both sides. Remember, theists are the ones who are so swayed by soft music, rhythmic preaching, and nice architecture that they dedicate their entire life to an invisible friend and give up everything fun in their life. I think it’s foolhardy to suggest that changing our label around them wouldn’t be powerful.

    I don’t think it’s wrong or deceptive of you to use different labels. (And you didn’t have to tell me. I have known for a long time that’s what you do.) I do it too. A while back, I decided to create an OkCupid profile. I listed myself as agnostic because I’m not stupid. I knew I’d get far more interest as an agnostic than an atheist.

    Suppose a man with two degrees, one in biology and one in political science, went to a biology conference. Would he tell everyone of both his degrees, or would he distill himself down to the identity that mattered most for the conference? That’s what we’re doing when we adopt different labels with regard to god belief.

    I think there’s probably also an effect on atheists who label themselves agnostic. The cultural meaning of agnostic includes less judgmental preaching, more acceptance of emotion, and a certain “be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you” attitude. I would be shocked and surprised if, in controlled conditions, “hard atheists” didn’t act more like agnostics when they had invested in the self-identification of agnostic for whatever reason contrived by the experimenters.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 27, 2010, 3:30 pm
  6. But changing the label will only work if you change your approach with it.

    If we try to change our approach without the label, then the schemas with the old label will stick and we would have to work to dispel them.

    If we change our label without our approach, then the schemas will transfer to the new label.

    That is why I emphasized that you would have to change the approach too. I know for me personally, it’s not the label I have issues with, it’s the approach.

    The creationist movement didn’t have much success with changing their label to intelligent design.

    I also notice that even the atheist movement is trying to seperate atheists into sub categories and proclaiming that their category is the best one while the others have faults.

    Posted by cptpineapple | September 27, 2010, 5:41 pm
  7. Now my fellow Posters,

    Let me get this straight. In the religion of Atheism, its congregations increasingly want to evolve into different denominations…

    Yeah why not, that way will appeal to a much greater swath of the general population. We must increase our numbers!

    I think what we need is a good old fashion Atheist revival! Does anyone have a tent?


    Posted by PG | September 28, 2010, 12:56 am
  8. PG, the point I’m trying to make is that there isn’t any denomination of atheists and atheism isn’t a religion. There’s just atheist and atheist.

    Whether somebody thinks religion is good, bad, or neutral, it doesn’t matter as long as you lack a belief in God. None of those make anybody more or less of an atheist.

    My issue is that atheists are trying to seperate those that think religion is good, from those that think it’s bad, from those that think it’s neutral. This doesn’t mean that atheism is a religion and atheists are trying to seperate it into denominations, it just means that atheists are human.

    I personally think that the atheist movement should focus more on addressing religious claims and holding them to scientific standards.

    That way, we’re focusing more on science and less on emotional reactions to religion.

    To put it simply, we have overwhelming evidence that religion is false and irrational, the “evidence” atheists present of religion being bad is circumstancal at best.

    In other words, there are different kinds of atheists, not different kinds of atheism.

    Posted by cptpineapple | September 28, 2010, 3:24 pm

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