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There is a criticism of atheism that never ceases to flummox and irritate me. Atheists are fools, goes the line, because you can’t be 100% certain God doesn’t exist.

Here are a few definitions of atheist that most people would agree with:

– Someone who denies the existence of God (WordNet)

– One who believes that there is no God (Webster’s New 20th Century)

– Somebody who does not believe in God or deities (Encarta Dictionary)

Nowhere is reference made to “Someone who claims to know there is no God.” There’s nothing about certainty. The atheist says, “You believe God exists, eh? Hm. Not me.” It’s quite simple. Elegantly so.

I’ve never met an atheist who was quite dense enough to claim certain knowledge of the nonexistence of God. Aside from the difficulty in proving a negative (i.e. I would also be unable to say for certain that there’s no teapot orbiting Jupiter), certainty itself is a bogus concept. The best we can do is increase or decrease our confidence in a proposition.

I don’t think God exists, and theists think he does. Why, in that equation, are atheists tagged as arrogant asserters of certainty, while theists get a pass? I don’t get it.

I saw this most recently, and depressingly, when a Google alert of mine popped an old blog entry by Dilbert creator Scott Adams into my inbox. It includes this passage:

This brings me to atheists. In order to be certain that God doesn’t exist, you have to possess a godlike mental capacity –- the ability to be 100% certain. A human can’t be 100% certain about anything. Our brains aren’t that reliable. Therefore, to be a true atheist, you have to believe you are the very thing that you argue doesn’t exist: God.

Chuckle. I guess.

Adams is an agnostic himself, and I assume and hope he’s just riffing for laughs. Surely he knows that his beliefs are identical to almost any given atheist. Surely. Well, I’m not so sure. Many people hold this incredibly daft assumption, and few apply it to theists, as if belief is the default and atheism an assertion.

And I know where the problem started.

The problem, ironically, was started by my hero, Thomas Huxley. Prior to his coining of the word “agnostic,” it was probably understood that atheists were people who simply said, “I don’t believe in God.” Huxley wasn’t somewhere in the muddy, shrugging middle, 51-49 for-or-against belief. He had a very strong conviction that God did not exist. But it wasn’t certain, and he wanted to underline this, so he created the word “agnostic” (Latin for “not knowing”) to name what should damn well be true of the entire human race. None of us knows…but surely it’s OK to say what you think the deal is.

Thanks to our monkey tendencies, though, the upshot of Huxley’s clarifying coinage was greater confusion. Agnosticism was instantly assumed to mean “don’t know, don’t care,” and the myth of atheism as an assertion of absolute certainty was reinforced by contrast to the new term. Neither is accurate (as Russell will show shortly). They are really two different ways of saying the same thing: I think God is pretend. Agnosticism simply leans on the word “think,” and atheism leans on “pretend.”

Bertrand Russell himself was conflicted on this point, and referred to himself as an atheist or an agnostic depending on the audience:

I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

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None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of Homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

from “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?” in A Plea for Tolerance in the Face of New Dogmas (1947)

Unfortunately, in the essay “What is an Agnostic?”, Russell gives this unhelpful backhand, even though it is written for an entirely popular audience:

An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.

*Sigh.*

I, like every atheist I know, am an atheist and an agnostic and a humanist and a freethinker. Each has a different emphasis; all are compatible. Questions?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.