There’s a very interesting interview with Sam Harris over at Truthdig that’s worth checking out:
How do you define the differences between an atheist and an agnostic?
“Agnosticism” is a word that was brought into use by T.H. Huxley. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful word. It tends to be defined as the belief that one can’t know whether or not there is a god. An agnostic is someone who thinks we don’t know and can’t know the truth of a position. So it’s a non-committal attitude.
But it’s not an intellectually honest position, because everyone is walking around presuming to know that there isn’t a Zeus, there isn’t a Poseidon, and there isn’t a Thor. Can you prove that Thor with his hammer isn’t sending down lightning bolts? No, you can’t prove it. But that’s not the right question. The right question is, “Is there any reason whatsoever to think there’s a god named Thor?” And of course there isn’t. There are many good reasons to think that he was a fictional character. The Batman of Scandinavia.
The problem for religious people is that the god of the Bible is on no firmer footing, epistemologically, than these dead gods. Which is to say that nobody ever discovered that Thor doesn’t exist, but that the biblical god really does. So we have learned to talk and use the word ‘god’ in a way so as not to notice that we’re using a very strange word and evoking a very vacuous concept, like the concept of Thor.
And therefore the definition of an atheist is?
An atheist is not someone who can prove that there is no Thor. An atheist is simply someone who says, “show me the evidence,” and who is unconvinced by evidence like:
“Here’s a book that was dictated by the creator of the universe, and in it, it describes all kinds of miracles that people claim they witnessed, but these people have been dead for 2,000 years, and in fact none of the authors of the book are the people who claim to have witnessed these events, and they wrote the book a hundred years after the events in question.”
This is not a story that anyone would find plausible except for the fact that it was drummed into them by previous generations of people who were taught not to think critically about it.
The thing to reiterate is that every Christian knows exactly what it’s like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims, for instance. Muslims have the same reasons for being Muslim as Christians have for being Christian. They have a book they’re sure was written or dictated by the creator of the universe–because the book says that it was written or dictated by the creator of the universe. Christians look at Muslim discourse and find it fundamentally unpersuasive. Christians aren’t lying awake at night worrying about whether they should convert to Islam. Why not? Because Muslims can’t really back up their claims. They are clearly engaged in a style of discourse that is just not intellectually honest. It’s not purposed to genuine inquiry into the nature of the world. It is a reiteration of dogma, and they are clearly committed to a massive program of self-deception. Every Christian recognizes this about every religion other than Christianity. So every Christian knows exactly what it is like to be atheist. They just don’t turn the same candor and intellectual honesty on to their own faith.
Liberals started calling themselves progressives when the term ‘liberal’ accumulated too much baggage and negative connotations. Is there an analog for the term atheist?
I’m not a big fan of the term atheist. In my Atheist Manifesto, the first thing I argue is that we really don’t need the word and probably shouldn’t use it. It has the stigma of a term like “child molester” in the culture, for reasons that are not good, but nevertheless worth taking into consideration. The term simply has a massive P.R. problem.
But the word is also conceptually unnecessary. We don’t have words for people who are not astrologers or alchemists; we don’t have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive. It is sufficient to talk about reason and commonsense in these circumstances.
I’ve been reading more of Sam’s work as of late and I’ve just added his book The End of Faith to my Amazon Wish List in hopes of picking up a copy in the near future. Probably after my next paycheck comes in. Good stuff.