Agnostic Atheist Skeptic

Recently, I wrote about Richard Dawkin's handy Spectrum of Theistic Probability. I found it useful to help me figure out what kind of atheist I am. (I rate myself as a 6.9 De Facto Atheist). I also find it helpful to understand where someone is coming from if they call themselves a 1 or a 7, because that means they "know" the unknowable and unprovable.

But last night I was reading over my notes of the first half  of The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer, before going to the second half. I wanted to share one bit with you from page 176:
Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally. To this extent, I assume that there is no God and I live my life accordingly, which makes me an atheist. In other words, agnosticism is an intellectual position, a statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our ability to know it with certainty, whereas atheism is a behavioral position, a statement about what assumptions we make  about the world in which we behave.

... I prefer [Skeptic] as my label. A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise). I do not know that there is no God, but I do not believe in God, and have good reasons to think that the concept of God is socially and psychologically constructed.

That makes perfect sense to me. The thing about calling yourself an atheist is you're just saying one very specific thing; that you don't believe in god/gods. It's a negative statement that doesn't say much at all, really. It's helpful, but only to a point. And what other concept is defined by what you don't believe? I don't believe in leprechauns, so does that make me Aleprechaunistic?

I think that I have been slowly getting away from labeling myself as atheist first,  more to calling myself a skeptic first. I prefer it for the same reasons that Shermer does. It says that I highly value critical thinking, science and reason. It says what matters to me and how I approach the world.

Of course, people abuse the term all the time, mainly through ignorance. But if simply defined as Michael does above, then it's accurately saying a lot.

I know some of you don't like labels at all. But labels are how we understand things. For example, I labeled the drink I had this morning as coffee. It conveys information that can be useful. And for beliefs it says something about where I'm coming from. I label myself a humanist, which says a lot to someone, as does labeling myself a Formula One fan, etc. It can be very positive and shouldn't be shunned completely. It's just helpful information.

So, how do you identify yourself? Is there an order (as I find I have now) of how you want to be known, or how you see yourself?

EDIT: After the first several comments, I just want to add that I am happy to call myself an atheist. And I think atheists need to own the word just like people who are homosexual now proudly own "gay". Atheist Pride! Hey, most of us became atheists through tough critical thinking, reasoning and logic. We worked hard to get where we are. Of course, you could say the same for skeptics, which I'm also proud to call myself.

So don't think I'm encouraging you to walk on eggshells and use skeptic over atheist. Use them both! I like how MJ in the comments below said they use atheist out in the world and skeptic in the atheist movement. I have been doing something similar. I use the term that is most appropriate to the situation. Sometimes I feel they are all necessary and I call myself (deep breath) an atheist/skeptic/freethinker/humanist.

Also, I wanted this post to be short and sweet and focus mainly on the terms. But in the comments you've been right to point out that it really matters on the definition of God(s) being referred to. Are we talking about Yahweh/Allah/Jehovah? If you look just to the bible, he's been refuted. Are you talking about a deist sort of god? No, he can't be refuted because evidence of that god would be indistinguishable from natural events. Of course, when you talk to religious people, most are so wishy-washy, and move the goalposts as if they were seaweed at the edge of the sea at high tide, that I'm exhausted just thinking about it. But awesome atheists like Christopher Hitchens have thoughtfully torn down such fallacious arguments time and again.

So own the word atheist and skeptic, too!


  1. I label myself as "Agnostic Atheist" and I agree with Shermer in regards to that definition. I feel that Agnosticism is mainly a philosophical concern about metaphysics. Intellectually, when I think hard about it, I am agnostic about everything. Do I exist? Does this chair I'm sitting in? I cannot know for sure, but I operate as if I know that my chair and I exist.

    When I speak about religion with the religious, mainly Christians, I am a "Strong" Atheist through and through. Otherwise, they feel that I'm on the fence or something and can be converted, most annoying. It is a solid front to hold up when fighting for human rights and civil liberties. When I speak with non-Christian religious people, it is usually in the context of sharing and learning about each other's culture.

    I think the least likely higher being and/or deity we could possibly have is the Christian incarnation. I imagine it would be an energy or process yet undetected. Yet under it all, I don't think there is any deity at all. It gets too philosophical. Are deities just forces of nature we've yet to understand?

    I could label myself under other labels like a Humanist, but I don't feel it is necessary. Some days I rebel at being labeled at all. If I had not been heckled in grade school by Christians I wouldn't have thought about religion at all.

    I couldn't sleep, but I'm tired now. I hope this doesn't sound foolish later after some good rest. Thanx for blogging.

  2. In all these discussions, I always feel very wary of what, exactly, is being labelled "God." We know very well that there are a multitude of definitions being used. Moreover, those of us who frequently engage in discussions with people of differing view points on the topic know how frequently the goal posts get moved in conversation. As a result, I'm unable to use Richard Dawkins' scale until we specify which god we're talking about.

    If we mean a theist, interventionist, personified deity that intervenes against the observable laws of the universe, upon request even, then I'm a 7. If we mean a higher level of organisation and consciousness in the universe, or even a property/set of properties of the universe itself, etc., then I'm going to claim a different score.

    So that's for the first big label. To answer your question about what labels we prefer to apply to ourselves, I really like "freethinker." I was reminded of it after reading Susan Jacoby's excellent, highly recommended books "The Age of American Unreason" and (wait for it) "Freethinkers." I also resonate with skeptic for the reasons you gave above -- it's a general way of thinking -- and rationalist, because that's an aspiration: to rely on reason to guide my thoughts and decisions.

  3. I'm reading through Shermer's book, too. It's good stuff, and having a psych background a lot of the studies are familiar.

    I call myself an atheist because that is the most salient part of my personality concerning the greater society. A lot of theists people consider themselves to use skeptical techniques in everyday life, but don't understand that atheism is skepticism done right (in terms of religion, at least). People may complain using atheist is using shorthand. So what? We're not getting graded by our precise use of language.

    Also, the Sky Fairy's followers need to be confronted. Faith based reality is a huge problem in the US and it needs to be fought. If we don't do it, who will? Do we in the movement really think we'll get any respect if we hide behind (because that's how it looks) the word skeptic? We need to own the word atheism just like homosexuals own the word gay.

  4. Out in the world I use the label atheist, but to people within the (atheist visibility) movement I identify as a skeptic.

    Regarding the Dawkins scale, the problem I have with it is that it doesn't identify any characterisitcs of the "God". I am agnostic as to a deistic god, but I am 100% certain that any of the interventionist gods I've heard of (such as Yahweh) are fiction.

  5. "because that means they “know” the unknowable and unprovable."

    Who says it's unknowable and how can they claim to know something is unknowable?

    I'm a "gnostic atheist", but you knew that already. Full 7.

    I've never meet a definition for god that can't be either disproved or made irrelevant.

  6. I don't particularly like the label atheist. From that scale, I'd be a 6 too, formerly a 2. Apparently the term 'atheist' is a religious construct.
    I prefer referring to myself as a skeptic.

  7. Thanks so much for all of your great comments, everyone! I edited my post to reflect your ideas, which answers most of what you each brought up.

  8. Seems like I commented on this once before. Here I go again ...

    I rate myself a 6 or 7, but I don't call myself an Atheist. I acknowledge that whatever amount of Faith/Spiritualism I maintain is not a rational belief, but faith alone.

    If I have to label myself, I'll go with "Righteously Agnostic Humanist" - I don't know what God is* thinking, and I don't think anyone else does either, but we ought to be nice to each other anyway.

    * or isn't.

    Hey, if I change that to "Righteously Agnostic Skeptical Humanist", I can be a RASH. ;-)

  9. Thanks for clarifying, Tomato. You're right, none of us can know for sure. There is no way to prove or disprove god. So we just have to live our lives as if. I live my life as if god doesn't exist. And like most of the nonbelievers out in this wild world, I am good just because it's the right thing to do.
    I like your labels, especially the second one. :P