Rather than focusing on far more pressing problems, like that of religious groups attempting to gain government funding for schools in which they can create tiny creationists, or the ongoing persecution of gay people by the religious establishment, the outspoken atheist community feels far more content to argue over what to call themselves half the time.
I’m not talking about Dawkins’ embarrassing “Brights” movement (though that is part of it) in which the noted evolutionary biologist became a PR consultant and tried to re-brand non-belief to make it more palatable. As surveys have demonstrated, the word atheist does carry a certain stigma (at least in the US) but attempting to play word-games in order to avoid possible connotations is the sort of thing done only by the deceitful. Atheism, in particular, is about accepting the wrinkled front of reality. So attempting to smooth it with a new title is dishonest, self-defeating and stinks of the sort of underhanded sleight of tongue that theistic philosophers use. Worst still, skeptics referring to themselves en mas as “bright” is dripping with the sort of arrogance that will surely put people off and actively fortify the perception of atheists as ‘elitist’ that a 2006 survey by the University of Minnesota identified.
Since the term “bright” fails at it’s purpose, its existence is ultimately redundant since atheism already has a ensemble of names, monikers and epithets that (save some minor nuances) mean effectively the same thing. People may bicker over the effectiveness of it’s use but nobody disputes it’s core meaning. Where this is valid contention, however, is in the differences between atheism and agnosticism. Valid though I call it, worthwhile it most certainly is not.
Religious agnostics are, according to the dictionary definition, people who believe that the mysteries of the universe (specifically pertaining to God and the origin of the universe) to be unknown and indeed unknowable; far more subtle than simply “not sure”. I don’t feel it’s to big a leap to word it thus: that agnostics are people who do not believe in God. Read what I said carefully, I did not say that agnostics say that there is no God, but that since they are not theists then they do not have a belief in a God.
Now let’s look at atheists, people who “disbelieve in the existence” of God. Most intellectually honest atheists will openly grant that they cannot prove that a supreme being of some sort does not exist, and thus do not claim certainty in it’s absence. To say it one “knows” there is no God is an untenable position, since the non-existence of any particular thing is an unfalsifiable hypothesis (even in the face of no evidence to begin with). We can conclude then that atheists are people who do not believe in God.
The confusion comes inevitably from the perception by some as atheists people who claim certitude as to the non-existence of a God, and for a cocksure few this may be the case, but as we’ve discussed most atheists agree this is a flawed position to hold. In practical terms, therefore, atheism and agnosticism are as good as identical. The discussion is a valid one, but it quickly devolves into arguing over definitions and since we’re not a group or collective this makes very little difference. The debate is a semantics game which, as we’ve seen, seldom reflects reality.
Ironically, this is basically the atheist AND agnostic position.
Most atheists of this ilk will tell you that strictly speaking they are agnostic atheists. If ‘atheist’ is taken in literal terms to mean someone who believes that there is no God, then the ingenuous majority who see the baseless rigidity in such a claim agree that the position they have requires this qualifier of ‘agnostic’. The reason why most agnostic-atheists don’t refer to themselves as such normally is partially down to the verbosity of such an title. But mostly because (like atheism) agnosticism also carries a connotation, one of being unsure, and while it’s true that atheists are not certain that there’s no God, they recognise that the same could be said about an infinite number of potential deities. There might be a God, there might not be, there could be the great Elbow-Horned Grumblesnitch but one doesn’t have to refer to themselves as being agnostic to that. So the term atheist is, in it’s most commonly used form, a perfectly apt name.
People argue over this triviality far more than they should (and inevitably someone will take issue with how I’ve represented them here), my point is that this is ultimately an irrelevant detail. You can call yourself an agnostic, you can call yourself an atheist, you can call yourself a Elbow-Horned Grumblesnitch for all I care. The point is we have far bigger problems at the moment. Regardless of your specific opinions or what label you give to them, we all share a common goal. We all work for the promotion of free thought, scientific inquiry and rationality. We all agree that dogmatic devotion to religious practices is dangerous and above all believe that we should all be united by our shared humanity rather than segregated along sectarian lines. Why must we divide ourselves this way?
When politicians stop trying to instigate religious morality and dogma as law, when gay couples can be openly so without fear of religious persecution, when pseudoscience is not trying to infiltrate schools, when religion has been emaciated to a quirky relic of a bygone age. Only then can we have this conversation, not before.