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Untangling the Meaning of Atheist, Agnostic, and Believer

Here's an easy way to improve communication between believers and nonbelievers.

Key points

  • Concise, practical definitions of key terms can enhance conversations between believers and nonbelievers.
  • "Believer" can be defined as one who believes in the existence of a god or gods.
  • "Atheist" can be defined as one who does not believe in the existence of any gods.
Guy P. Harrison
Talking coherently about our enduring belief in gods is crucial to human peace and progress.
Guy P. Harrison

From formal debates on stages to casual conversations on living-room couches, most discussions about belief in gods are more difficult than they have to be. One way to reduce friction is to establish up front sensible definitions of “believer, “atheist” and “agnostic”. Failing to do this often leads to people hurling unintelligible statements at one another to no gain. I know this from experience.

Two of my books (50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God and 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian) analyze global reasons for belief in gods. Interviewing religious people in more than 30 countries taught me that addressing basic definitions early prevents frustration later. This is crucial because of the variation and misunderstandings swirling around these labels. For example, many people have the erroneous belief that atheism is an overreaching position that says no gods possibly exist. Other incorrect beliefs hold that atheism is synonymous with Satanism, it requires “faith”, and that it includes specific political and moral positions. Some atheists further muddle things by describing themselves as agnostic, a label that is insufficient and irrelevant in most contexts. Many believers add still more confusion by making the illogical/prejudicial claim that those who adhere to “other” religions are nonbelievers, no different than atheists.

Belief in gods is an enormously important topic because of its impact on individuals and societies. Everyone should examine and discuss it constructively in the hope that we might reduce ignorance, prejudice, and conflict. I make sure to propose the following barebones identifying definitions whenever I begin a conversation about belief and nonbelief. Simple, sensible, neutral, and practical, they help focus conversations and keep non sequiturs at bay.

Believer: One who believes in the existence of a god or gods. The presence of belief is the sole determinant. Which god or gods, what particular religious affiliation, degree of confidence, level of dedication, or method of worship are irrelevant.

Atheist: One who does not believe in the existence of any gods. All other factors, including degree of confidence in the nonexistence of gods, have no bearing. Only the absence of belief is relevant.

Agnostic: A problematic and inadequate term best avoided. It is based on the dubious claim that the existence of gods is unknowable. It implies an incorrect definition of “atheist” (i.e. a person who claims knowledge that no gods exist) and is impractical in most contexts because it fails to identify a person’s state of belief or nonbelief.

Not understanding that atheism is defined solely as the absence of belief hinders countless interactions between believers and nonbelievers. Probably most believers worldwide don’t realize that atheism is not dependent on total certainty in the nonexistence of gods and, as a result, many understandably fixate on the inability of anyone to prove that no gods could possibly be real.

Atheists who push back on this definition and claim to know that no gods exist have the burden of explaining how they obtained knowledge which would seem to require godlike omniscience given the vastness of time and space. There is also the amorphous definition of gods to consider and the fundamental principle of scientific thinking that requires us to keep the door slightly ajar for unlikely and unexpected discoveries. Absence of belief is enough. Atheists who persist in claiming to “know” that no gods of any kind exist anywhere ever have embraced a faith-based position.

Guy P. Harrison
Contrary to a common misunderstanding, atheism is not a declaration that no gods possibly exist, but rather the absence of belief in gods.
Guy P. Harrison

I suppose the agnostic label is attractive to some because it feels like a fair and reasonable fence-sitting position. But it doesn’t work because there is no fence in this field. Self-identifying as agnostic doesn’t answer the primary question of belief. One believes or not, regardless of what one claims to “know” or assumes to be “unknowable”. Some believers have told me that they don’t know for sure that their god or gods exist—but they believe. Many atheists acknowledge that they don’t know for sure that a god or gods don’t exist—but they don’t believe. A third category is unnecessary, illogical, and further complicates an already thorny topic. Furthermore, declaring anything to be forever beyond learning is a problem. As domesticated apes barely out of the Pleistocene, who are we to say something is unknowable, especially something as vague and loosely defined as “gods”? Archaeologists might excavate the 30-foot-tall skeleton of Cronus at a site in Mykonos tomorrow. I doubt it, but who knows?

For various reasons, these definitions may be uncomfortable for some. But please give them fair consideration because they work. Once we agree on who’s who, we are free to tackle key questions about personal religious experiences, sacred books, morality with and without gods, skepticism vs. faith, defining “god”, and evidence for miracle and prayer claims. Clear communication between believers and nonbelievers matters because the more quality conversations we have the more likely we all can recognize and appreciate our common humanity.

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