Ask an Atheist: What Do We Call Ourselves?

In this thread Lisa writes:

I’ve been reading through some of your very interesting blog. We come from similar religious backgrounds, and appear to have grown into similar conclusions.

I’m curious though…once I got over the self-imposed stigma of how horrible it is not to be a Christian and was able to admit to myself that I’m not, I struggled with what to call myself. Sometimes I think I believe there’s a god, but it almost seems like more of a leftover habit than something I really have a strong belief in. Mix in a little bit of “well, *something* has to explain the unexplainable things I’ve witnessed in my life” and there you have the extent of my definition of god.

So…how do I label myself? It’s not really important to me, I don’t really feel the need to fit into a nice, neat category (conversely, I’m kind of happy that I don’t…I’m me, not anyone else). However it would be nice to have a term that at least somewhat quickly conveys to others what I believe without having to have ready-made flyers on the subject to pass out to people. *grin* I settled on calling myself an agnostic because while I don’t necessarily believe in a specific entity (like the god we were taught about in WCG), I do think it’s possible there’s something greater than we can see out there (in the sense that I don’t think it’s *im*possible). I could be misinterpreting, but my impression is that you believe something similar. So I’m curious as to how you came to identify yourself as an atheist (which to me conveys devout *dis*belief in a god) rather than an agnostic (which to me comes closer to conveying “I don’t necessarily think that there is, but I could entertain the possibility that there *could* be and I just haven’t been presented with the proof”). Perhaps it’s just differences in interpretation.


All “a-theist” means is “without belief in a god.” People also tend to divide atheism into categories like “weak” atheism, “I see no evidence for a god, hence I don’t believe,” and “strong” atheism, “God is disprovable, or makes no sense, and therefore is provably non-existent.” Agnosticism, on the other hand, is usually taken to mean either, “I have no evidence one way or the other, so I remain without a belief one way or the other,” or the stronger form of agnosticism, “I do not think it is possible for anyone to have knowledge of a god.” So it’s important to ask a person what they mean when they use these terms.

The interesting thing is, these terms are really not mutually exclusive. I can be a weak atheist with respect to certain claims, and a strong atheist with respect to others. I can have no knowledge of any god and hence call my self “a-gnostic” (i.e., without knowledge.)

So I will use these more specific terms when it makes sense to do so. I often use the label atheist specifically because the label is unjustly stigmatized in our society and needs to be reclaimed. I also call myself an infidel, a skeptic, a nullifidian, a secularist, or simply a non-believer. Each of these labels has a different “angle” on my worldview, and they each come in handy on various occasions. One umbrella term you might find attractive is freethinker, a fairly old word with a rich history.

And when none of these labels are relevant to the conversation, I’m just Robert.

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