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Atheist vs. Agnostic vs. Naturalist: A Problem of Terminology

Atheist vs. Agnostic vs. Naturalist: A Problem of Terminology


When I see data on the religious self-identifications of Americans, I am always a bit skeptical of the percentage of people who actually claim to be atheist, as opposed to Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, etc. It always appears to me that the number is too low. This is of course just speculation on my part – random anonymous surveys are usually pretty accurate. I can’t help but think that atheist belief is underreported . The reason I think this is so is because of the connotations associated with the word “atheist”.

Disclaimer: the following scenario contains generalizations. You’ll probably be able to easily recognize them. I don’t mean to suggest that there are not exceptions, they are made merely to show a point.

Say some random person asks you about your religious beliefs and you tell them that you are a Christian, chances are you will not get any dirty looks as a result of your response. People are not surprised by that answer, and most will react with dismissive approval. Saying you are Christian indicates that you are “normal”. However, if you answer that you are an atheist, there is a good chance that you will be met with something other than total approval. People will be surprised that you are willing to admit it in the first place, and then whether or not they then proceed to openly confront you about it, many will think you are a bit abnormal.

According to dictionary.com, an atheist is, “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings”. That sounds a lot like the direct opposite of “a person who believes the existence of a supreme being”. There’s nothing else suggested by the definition of the word - certainly not that an atheist is abnormal, amoral, untrustworthy, unpatriotic, un-American, or malcontented. Why then are such negative connotations attached to the word? Probably because the opposite of an atheist, a person who does believe in the existence of a supreme being, will generally be thought to be normal, moral, trustworthy, patriotic, and content unless you specifically know otherwise. This is of course patently unfair in both cases – theists (can we start calling them that?) are not always wonderful people and neither are atheists usually bad people. The perceptions of the words being what they are though, I suspect there have got to be plenty of closet atheists out there who are just not comfortable with professing as much. Even the word agnostic leaves social wiggle room – you haven’t gone to the dark side, you are just not sure. I have been an atheist for a long time now, but it was only recently that I became comfortable to call myself that – I was claiming agnosticism to avoid social awkwardness.

I wrote all of the above several weeks ago. I’m not sure where it was going other than to suggest that the percentage of people who claim to be atheistic in their beliefs is almost certainly underreported and that the word “atheism” carries unfair connotations with it. Today I learned a new term that has gotten me very excited and I think will serve as a way to wrap up this ramble. Ironically enough, I learned it from an article written about one of my biggest idols, the lead singer/songwriter of Bad Religion, Greg Graffin. The article was written over three years ago, but my wife just found it today and forwarded it to me (side note – it references a Bad Religion concert at the Nokia theater in Times Square which we attended as Greg’s guests) In the article, which can be viewed here, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/faces1.html , Greg “describes himself as a naturalist, which to him means someone who holds that the natural world as all there is.” Finally, a term I can really apply to myself that comes free of many of the superficial negative connotations that the term atheist carries with it!

I believe that religion was started in the first place because people wanted a way to explain what happens after they die, and that they were scared that death is actually the end of existence. Frankly, I think it is more comforting just believing that death is the actual end of existence than to believe in a mystical eternal afterlife of sorts.

Having no problems figuring out morality, truthfulness, and happiness on my own, and without needing the crutch of a religion to dictate these ideals to me, religion has nothing to offer me. Hence, it was easy to move towards atheism, and once here it became readily aparent that the natural world and all natural laws are beautiful and true and moreso when not confounded by extranatural beliefs taken on faith. I accepted and found contentment in believing that the natural world was all there is, and as a bonus had the luxury of science backing me up. I never heard or applied the term until today, but I am overjoyed to have learned it at last, and to proclaim that I am a naturalist!

So, if you were to tell the random person inquiring about your religious beliefs that you are a “naturalist”, it would generate a more curious response. The word naturalist does not carry any of the negative connotations that the word atheist does. Perhaps such a response would solicit a question about what a naturalist is, and thus provide an opportunity to explain your beliefs starting from neutral instead of hostile ground. A conversation is at least a start.




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