First things first.

Thank you so much for your comments on my last post.  Whether they were words of encouragement and empathy, or words of challenge and disagreement, I appreciate that you took the time to read the post and share with me your thoughts.  I have come to realize that stimulating discourse is one of my primal needs, and I am grateful to have this venue to be able to engage with each of you.  I respect that not everyone felt comfortable posting publicly, and I love the creativity you employed to get through to me:  phone texting, Skype texting, Facebook inbox, phone call, email, and maybe even snail mail?

Now, on to the substance.  I got several comments through various avenues about the use of the word atheist.  I didn’t use that word in my post, but it’s a valid point, and I appreciate the curiosity of those who asked.  You wouldn’t think I could write a post about one word, but never fear — I lean toward the verbose and rise to the challenge!

If you recall in my first post, I mentioned that almost everyone in my secular bunch who blogs has a post recounting their coming out experience.  We also, almost everyone, have made an intentional, conscious decision about how to self-identify.  We have a lot to choose from:  atheist, agnostic, freethinker, secular, humanist, skeptic.  Each of those words has a specific meaning, and again, as I said before, as every non-believer I know is fiercely independent, each of us has selected our “label” with great thought.

In the book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins presents his approach to the spectrum of belief, so to speak, with a scale.  Here it is, direct from the book:

  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C. G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
  2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De Facto theist.   “I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
  3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
  4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
  5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
  6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
  7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung ‘knows’ there is one.”

Dawkins goes on to point out that although category #1 is quite crowded, there are very few people populating category #7.  I haven’t met anyone who is a 7, but I’ve met many 1’s.  I am a 6.7-ish, because of the improbability of proving the NON-existence of something (Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot – Google it.)

I know the power of the word atheist, and I vividly remember the pity it engendered in me when I was a believer.  Pity for the poor soul who hadn’t heard the message, hadn’t understood the message, hadn’t accepted the message.  It is appalling to me now, but except for a few radicals in college, I didn’t know any atheists for most of my adult life; I certainly didn’t have relationships with any.  The word was synonymous with evil, and I almost audibly added “angry” as the default adjective every time I heard it.

I use the word now quite freely, and can interchangeably use any of the words in the above list.  My least favorite is the word Agnostic, because it implies some kind of nonchalance or carelessness or apathy toward knowledge of the existence of god, and I do not own that (by definition, agnosticism means that nothing is or can be known about the existence of god; professing neither a belief, nor disbelief, in the existence of god).  I use the word Secular quite often, because it seems to be less anger-inducing to believers.  I won’t get into the etymology of all the words – you can research that if you are interested, though, and a quick search will probably bring up even more descriptors.

The Freethought movement of today has been compared to the LGBT movement of the 1970’s and 80’s.  Back then we used to say, “I don’t know anyone who is gay or lesbian!”  We found out that we were wrong; that we indeed did know people who were gay or lesbian, we just didn’t KNOW we knew.  I think the same applies here:  You may think you don’t know any atheists…you are wrong.  You just don’t KNOW you know.  And now you do.

Thanks for reading!