Atheists, Agnostics and Silly LabelsPosted: September 4, 2013
I thought I was done coming out of closets, but it appears not. Maybe that’s a good thing and maybe it never stops. Maybe it’s a part of growing and is just a healthy part of the human experience. And maybe labeling ourselves and others is a part of being human, too. We may curse being labelled — or more accurately, being mislabeled — but we all do it. We do it to clarify our own identity for ourselves and others and to understand whether we will be able to relate with another. Are you a Christian, atheist, agnostic? Good, now I can identify with you. Now I know what I’m dealing with. Now we can go have coffee.
I just finished writing a book about my life, “Cults and Closets,” and a big part of my story was how I had come to be what I coined a “devout agnostic.” I acknowledge freely I am an atheist in the book, but I have identified as a “devout agnostic” and have sort of used the term “atheist” as a technical afterthought. Sure, I’m “without a belief in God,” but I thought I identified more as an agnostic. Until now. And I have been quite defensive of my self-ascribed status as a “devout agnostic.” Sure I’m an atheist, I would admit — technically — but I didn’t like all the connotations that came with the label “atheist” and the judgement I perceived I would receive from the religious. And I would get very upset when what I call a “hard atheist” would put me on the defensive saying I was being “wishy-washy” or “sitting on the fence” by calling myself agnostic. When they’ve thrown those “judgements” in my face I would have flashbacks to when I was first sorting out my sexuality, which I didn’t start doing until I was 28, due to the ultra-conservative church I was raised in (which I discuss in detail in my book).
When I was first exploring my sexuality, I did so thanks to the Internet and online chat rooms where I was first meeting not only other married men who were in the closet and trying to sort out their sexuality for the first time, but also gay men who would be quick to tell me I wasn’t “bisexual.” Not bisexual?! How could I NOT be bisexual? I had thoughts about men AND I was sexually active with and married to woman — how could I not be bisexual? Many gay guys told me I was just “sitting on the fence” and too afraid to embrace that I truly was gay. How dare they, I thought, and I would tell them so. Who were they to tell me how I felt and what I was attracted to? Who were they to label — or mislabel me? Who were they to say I would eventually figure out that I’m gay and that I was just too afraid to admit it? Who were they to say I was calling myself bisexual because it would be more acceptable to those around me (and, therefore, to me)? They had the audacity to say I didn’t have the courage to accept and admit I was just gay. As it turns out, they were both right and wrong. They were right because, eventually, I came to realize I was gay and I was afraid to accept it. They were wrong because some people — I believe — are attracted to men and women equally and even if they side with one sex or the other more, if they are comfortable calling themselves bisexual, then who are we to tell them the are wrong or cowards?
So when atheists would tell me I was sitting on the fence by calling myself agnostic, I just didn’t get it. It ticked me off, just like when gay guys would say I was fence-sitting by calling myself bisexual. And even in my book, I proudly state that I am a “devout agnostic.” However, even though I’ve just published the book, I’m already finding myself compelled to come out of, yet, another closet. Not because I never acknowledged I was an atheist or that because I am ready to come out as an atheist now. I already have. But I’m “coming out” because I’m ready to give up the title “devout agnostic” and even just “agnostic.” But stay with me here. It’s not because I now think we can prove God doesn’t exist — that I’m becoming what I have considered a “hard atheist.” I’m coming out of labeling myself agnostic for the same reason I came out of labeling myself bisexual. Again, stick with me here.
I had proudly coined the term “devout agnostic” because I was bastardizing what it means to be an agnostic. Thomas Henry Huxley, an English biologist, coined the word agnostic in 1869. The label is usually assigned to those who believe we can not know whether God or a deity exist or not. However, there are those — like I have been — who call themselves an “agnostic atheist.” That is to say you do not have a belief in God (atheist), but you do not believe we can know one way or the other (agnostic). And this drives many atheists up the wall! And when atheists claim “agnostic atheists” are fence-sitting, it drives them up the wall! I only very recently was highly annoyed by an atheist who said I used agnostic as a label for myself to “fit in” with the religious — “the believers of gods, fairies and unicorns.” How dare he! Who is he to say what my motivations are, who is he to tell me why I subscribe to a particular label?! And like the gays who judged me, he too was both right and wrong, I’ve now come to realize.
He was wrong to impute motives for my self-ascribed label, because one can not truly know the heart of another. But he was right because I have been afraid to fully embrace the label atheist, but not because I want to “fit in” with the religious. Why? Because I hate dogma. When I came out of the religious cult and started attending what I thought was a “mainstream” Christian church, I discovered they were dogmatic about certain things, too. So, I left church and religion once and for all. I hate when people are so absolutely sure of themselves when it comes to the “Great Mysteries of Life.” I hate when people are dogmatic about anything for which there is reasonable doubt — for which there is no solid empirical evidence. And I believe this is why I have so proudly — if not arrogantly, and dare I say “dogmatically” — assigned myself the label “devout agnostic.” But I just had an epiphany and I’m ready to come out of the closet about it. I’m getting good at this coming-out thing. Once again, stick with me.
I smugly have called myself a “devout agnostic” because I felt “hard atheists” — those who believe you can prove there is no God — were just as wrong as dogmatic Christians and other deists. How dare they think you can prove a negative! How dare they think they are so right about the non-existence of God! But an atheist who is being intellectually honest has to admit they, too, are agnostic, but only because it is impossible to prove a negative. They are not agnostic really, but technically, yes. We can not prove there is NOT a God/god any more than we can prove there is NOT a Flying Spaghetti Monster or magic purple ponies who live in another galaxy. So, technically, all atheist — unless they are one of those crazy atheists who believe you can prove a negative — are agnostic — we accept that we can not truly know, but only because we know you can not prove a negative. But it would be silly to label an atheist as agnostic just because he is willing to admit you can not prove a negative just as it would be silly to label a gay guy bisexual, just because he’s procreated.
So, I now get why atheists would get annoyed when guys like me would call ourselves “agnostic atheists” just as I get why some gay guys would get annoyed when I — a guy who almost never thought about women sexually — could call myself bisexual. I believe the possibility of a God or a deity existing is about as likely as a Flying Spaghetti Monster or magical purple ponies. So, I am truly without a belief in God. I am by definition an atheist. And I’m no more agnostic about God than I am agnostic about my sexuality. I am no more agnostic about the existence of God than I am agnostic about magic purple ponies.
I have come to realize my doubt about whether we can know whether God exists is not so much doubt about the existence of God, but my recognition that the Great Mysteries of Life are truly great mysteries. In other words, I called myself a ‘devout agnostic” — although mistakenly — because I truly believe we should accept and celebrate the Great Mysteries as great mysteries, rather than running around trying to convince people there is a God or there is not a God. But using the term agnostic is really disingenuous — if not just plain ignorant — because just as I have little doubt that I am not attracted to women sexually, I also have little doubt that a white-haired man — a personage or being in the image of man — is responsible for our existence.
If I want to bastardize the use of the label “agnostic” and use it to to describe that I do not believe we can know what brought us here, then, yes, I am a “devout agnostic.” I am devout about — am fully devoted to — the idea that none of us have a clue why we are here and what brought us here and that we should accept and celebrate that. But that’s not what agnosticism is. Agnosticism is the claim that we can not know if there is a God — a deity — or not. It is not the claim that we can not know what brought us here. Agnosticism says, “There may be a God or deity that’s responsible for everything and is calling the shots, but I don’t think we can know.” Agnosticism says, “I’m open to the notion there may be a God — a personage — with a will who is calling the shots.” Agnosticism is NOT merely thinking there may be an “energy” or “force” that’s beyond our comprehension today (like “mother nature”). If you are open to the idea there may be a God or deity calling the shots, then you have to be open to the idea there may be a Flying Spaghetti Monster or magic purple ponies which are calling the shots.
I do not believe what brought us here has anything to do with the God described in the Bible or the God or gods of any other religion or faith. I am not sitting on the fence about the existence or non-existence of God. I truly don’t believe “God” exists. So, I am truly an atheist. I can’t prove God does not exist, but I can’t prove purple ponies don’t exist either — nobody can prove a negative. What I am a firm believer in, however, is that we can not know what brought us here. The Great Mysteries of Life — I STILL believe — should be accepted and celebrated for the great mysteries they are and there are plenty of atheists who would agree with me. They, too, stand in awe of this amazing universe and this amazing planet we call home. They, too, believe it’s wrong to suggest there is proof there is a God and that it is also wrong to suggest you can prove there is NOT a God — prove a negative.
So, nothing against those who believe in God or those who believe you can prove a negative, but I’m just an atheist who believes we shouldn’t be dogmatic about things we can not know and can not prove. From now on, I’m dropping the label agnostic, at least for myself. I’m “coming out” and declaring that not only am I not bisexual, but I’m also not agnostic. And I’m okay with that. I hope others are, too. But if they aren’t, that’s okay, too. What matters is that I know who I am. Labels just get to be silly.
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