Editor's Note: Spokane Faith & Values has a new feature called “Ask An Atheist” where readers are invited to submit question to our atheist writers. Here's the sixth question that came in, and a response from one of our atheist writers.
Q. Why atheist and not agnostic?
A. I often describe myself as a “devout agnostic but a functional atheist.” By which I mean that I do not rule out in principle that god(s) might exist (though many a dogmatic atheist does exactly that), though since if asked do I believe in any particular god, as I don't, that makes me a functional atheist. I like the agnostic term (coined in the 19th century by Darwin's bulldog, Thomas Huxley, to describe his own religious position) because it has its etymology in knowledge (gnosis) rather than the atheist term that back-handedly rests etymologically on the very thing it doesn't buy into, the teos/theos of a-theism.
So my employment of the terms is more a matter of esthetics than philosophical imperative. As a practical atheist, though, I am happy to own up to the atheism word if only to help defuse its historical connotations as something too terrible to be mentioned in polite company, like prostitution or telemarketing.
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Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose. He’s always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor’s in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).
“like prostitution and telemarketing”
I share Jim’s position pretty much exactly. I’m very curious about religion though. Religion is a repository of all kinds of foolishness, but it’s got a lot of wisdom too. There are a couple of things I’m curious about:
1) Given that lots of religious beliefs are un-testable, how does this fact serve the faithful? In other words, I used to get mad about the bad epistemology and privileged beliefs that people of faith employ, now I’m willing to recognize that they serve an important function both in the psychology of the individual and in society at large. I want to understand this so that I can find a better way to do it.
2) How do people’s religious beliefs shape their experience? We use beliefs not only to shape our identity but also our experience of reality. People get into all kinds of states of religious ecstasy and despair.
I see myself as being on a kind of learning trajectory. I went from anxious and secretive about my atheism, to “out” about my atheism, to militant about my atheism, to a period of personal healing, to indifferent about my atheism, but curious about belief. I think that my lack of faith gives me an important perspective on religion. I believe that it gives me something of value to contribute. This includes the ability to call BS on BS, but it doesn’t end there.
By way of full disclosure, Paul and I know each other, and I would not want this venue to turn into an in-house conversation. But I can say on the “religions do have some wisdom” front, Christianity does have its plusses and minuses. Yes, there’s the Inquisition and fussy things like that, but culturally they also introduced compassion as a positive virtue into the Roman world, which recognized mercy and clemency (I spare your life because I am powerful and now you oew me one) but did not appreciate compassion because it was too wussy for their testosterone-infused power based framework. Alas, though, while Christianity make be thought of as having eventually conquered the Roman Empire, it is also sadly as true that the Romans ended up coopting Christianity, joining it at the hip to the imperial system that helped enable the less benign aspects of the religion to manifest.
More to the point, for Spokane Favs readers of faith, how do you feel about the atheism/agnostic issue? I should think that the agnostic lable, being only slightly less out in the nonbelief landscape than the atheist, shouldn’t really matter all that much to believers.