Saturday, May 22, 2010

Agnostic bashing

Sorry for the absence. Now that the semester's over and my schedule has stabilized, I should be back to posting more frequently.

I've mentioned Friendly Atheist several times in this blog, and he often has a lot of good things to say, but I was disappointed with his recent post, Why Are You Agnostic? The post is full of the usual forms of agnostic bashing. They've been so done to death that I'm not even going to recount them here.

First off, why does it matter if some people call themselves agnostic instead of atheist? I'm not going to get into the idea that they actually refer to different things and can be compatible, etc. That's a valid point, but outside the scope of what I'm talking about.

Actually, I think that leads to our first problem: like it or not, atheist and agnostic mean different things to different people. So while I generally identify as atheist, some would probably argue that I'm not one because I don't affirmatively claim there are no gods, or I'm not a total nihilist, or whatever. So before we get all pissy about labels, let's be absolutely clear about what those labels mean.

Second, you can't force people to adopt a particular label. Greta Christina talks about this in her post, Atheist Or Agnostic? She uses an analogy of a person who identifies as bisexual. This person constantly has to deal with statements like, "Oh, you're just a gay/straight person in denial." People have the right to label themselves as they see fit. As she also points out, "it's patronizing to tell other adults that you know who they are better than they do."

It's stupid to bicker so much over labels. It sets up an us-vs.-them mentality that unnecessarily places people into "them." It sounds way too much like some sort of purity test, which sounds way too much like, well, some nasty forms of religion. I'd even go far to say that it's a form of emotional blackmail: "If you were really one of us, you'd..." See how that sounds? More importantly, do you see that it's no different from the way many religious groups operate?

Finally, part of being an adult among other adults is respecting a person's right to make choices different from your own. Sure, you also have the right to express your disagreement, but past a certain point, it's probably only going to damage your relationship with that person.

If you really want more people to adopt the atheist label, work for a common definition. That alone will probably go a long way. Once people realize, "Oh, you don't have to assert there are no gods to be an atheist," etc., more people will adopt the label on their own. But criticizing people who do not choose your label is misguided and divisive.