Atheist religiphobia, or, what to call yourself?

Dan Finke has posted a long and interesting piece titled Atheist Religiphobia #1: Fear of Believing Anything At All About Gods, which I’d encourage anyone interested in the different interpretation of “atheist” and “agnostic” to read. It also looks like it will be part of a series (judging by the #1), and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on where he takes the series from here.

One thing I hope he’ll address is a concern I’ve had for some time, and one that has led me to (since a couple of years ago) to move from calling myself an “atheist” to calling myself an “agnostic”. It’s not because I’m any less convinced of the non-existence of gods that I’ve done so, but more because of the signalling, or the political role, of those words.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while would know that the politics of these engagements (between faiths, between faithless and faith, etc.) are of great concern to me, because I’m firmly of the view that there’s too little listening going on, at a severe cost to the possibility of anyone persuading anyone else. We stack our caricatures up against each other, and then start the yelling (in serious cases, the fighting).

Yelling is sometimes effective, and sometimes necessary, and I’ve got no principled beef with those who do the yelling. I simply think that there are too many of them, and too few who carefully unpick the nuances of these debates, and attempt to persuade via slower, more deliberate dialogue, where people are inclined to listen due to the fact that you are.

Dan’s concern in his post is that unbelievers are so concerned about appearing to be fundamentalists regarding their unbelief that they make a basic epistemological error, leading them to shy away from saying that they “know” that there is no god (and by extension, saying that they are atheists rather than agnostics).

He correctly points out that this error can be traced back to a confusion around how knowledge in general, including scientific knowledge, actually works. When we say that “we know that smoking causes cancer” we aren’t claiming 100% certainty. We’re claiming a sufficient degree of justification in the proposition that smoking causes cancer that we have a warrant to use the word “know”. It’s still possible, in a very theoretical sense, that some third cause, perhaps even one strongly correlated with smoking, causes cancer. Possible, but unlikely enough that we don’t bother thinking about it.

In other words, knowledge doesn’t entail certainty, or logical necessity.

And on that epistemological level, I agree with Dan entirely. And if these conversation were only ever held between fellow philosophers, I’d be quite happy to say “I know that there is no god, and I am an atheist”. But people who are theists, or who are genuinely unsure of what to believe, also enter these conversations, and read these blogs – and my goal is to persuade them, rather than to talk to the choir. So here, as ever, I’m again concerned by the political dimensions of these words, regardless of their epistemological connotations.

I don’t think it’s the case that the typical person on the street thinks that knowledge means something like “justified to such an extent that it’s irrational to believe something else”. Instead, I think that they think it means “we are sure, or certain, that X is the case”. And here’s my key concern – regardless of the god discussion, I care about getting people to believe that all knowledge is, to some extent, provisional, contingent, or consisting in a high degree of justification, rather than certainty.

I care about this because to my mind, it focuses the conversation on the evidence and the reasoning, rather than the conclusion. It focuses our attention on epistemic humility, and on how it’s less important what we believe than how we believe. And when I say “I’m an atheist”, it sounds (to believe who believe that “know” means “certain”) like I’m expressing an attitude or disposition towards knowledge that allows for certainty, and I think that’s a bad signal to send (again, regardless of the god question).

My disbelief in gods is exactly like my belief in some scientific proposition being true or false, in other words. I’m as convinced that there is no god as I am that it isn’t something other than smoking that is responsible for apparently smoking-related cancer. But in both those cases, know does not mean certain. So I call myself an agnostic atheist to make the political point that I reject a dogmatic assertion of certainty, and to nudge the conversation towards the reasoning and evidence, and away from the conclusion – just like I would do in matters of science.

I see value in this approach not only because I’ve found that it tends to draw theists in to the conversation more than would otherwise be the case, but also because – especially among the many young unbelievers I talk to – I sometimes get the sense that some who call themselves “atheists” seem to fully understand the contingent, probabilistic nature of scientific beliefs, yet speak as if they can be more certain about the falsity of metaphysical beliefs. It’s this attitude that the idea of agnosticism serves as a corrective to, at least in my vocabulary.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.