Most people believe that dictionaries define words for us. But it’s the other way around. We, by our actual usage of words, tell dictionary lexicographers how to define them. English is a fluid language, constantly changing. Definitions come from us, not dictionaries.
This is an important point when it comes to distinguishing agnostics from atheists. The fact is: our usage of these words is ambiguous, so dictionary definitions are too. We can’t claim to nail down an unambiguous definition of what these words mean but we can assert what we think they should mean. And it’s been my experience that there are many ideas on what the words “atheist” and “agnostic” should, unambiguously, mean. I offer my own ideas, below.
An atheist should treasure rational integrity and rely on reason from evidence. Because reason and evidence are both antithetical to faith, an atheist should be dubious, even cynical, about claims of faith in any form: especially faith in God or anything else supernatural. However, an atheist should not deny God absolutely – an atheist should not unequivocally deny any and all possible gods. Absolute denial, without the benefit of reason from evidence, is faith; just as absolute acceptance, without the benefit of reason from evidence, is also faith. You can have faith that there is a God or you can have faith that there’s not a God. Either way, neither of these positions is consistent with rational integrity and reason from evidence.
Instead, an atheist should respect facts and acknowledge that God and the supernatural can be neither proved nor disproved. There is no conclusive evidence either way. But this doesn’t mean nobody can claim atheism. An atheist should deny God conditionally not absolutely. We should deny God based on the overwhelming preponderance of evidence – all of which point away from God and the supernatural. An atheist should claim the odds of God’s existence is exceedingly remote or vanishingly small or anything similar that does not unequivocally rule out any possibility of any God.
Ruling God out absolutely does not respect facts as we know them. Ruling God out absolutely is a claim to knowledge one can’t possibly possess. Ruling God out absolutely violates respect for facts, rational integrity and reason from evidence. We can deny God with reasonable confidence but not with certainty.
There should be a separate word for those who deny God absolutely and those who deny God conditionally (but with confidence). You might be thinking that I’m advocating agnosticism but I’m not. Remember, words mean what we (collectively) say they mean and, for now, the words “atheist” and “agnostic” have multiple, ambiguous, meanings. Where the existence of God is concerned, I believe most agnostics claim indecision based on rational integrity and most atheists claim confidence based on rational integrity. The difference is that most agnostics are not sure whether or not to deny God; while most atheists are sure they want to deny him (conditionally).
Unless, or until, we finally have solid evidence one way or the other, we are stuck with the idea of God. Although I can’t prove it, I’m confident he’s just a meme that defies us to ignore him and doubt seriously there is a Creator. Regardless, I’m confident that no God worth his salt could ever accept the name of Jehovah or Allah. If there is a God, I’m confident he would not like the caricature gods we’ve substituted for him.
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