EXPOSITORY ESSAY: “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Antitheism” / Madison S. Hughes

By Madison S. Hughes (06.21.2012)

Atheism, Agnosticism and Antitheism

It is by our beliefs, knowledge and values that we define ourselves, and are judged by others. Many are willing to kill, or be killed for such abstract concepts without even a rudimentary understanding of the abstraction for which they are all too willing to meet their maker. Atheism, agnosticism and antitheism are three commonly misunderstood terms that describe beliefs, knowledge and values respectively. Analytically defining each word will show a direct correlation between each term, and their respective abstract concept for which they describe. It will prove beneficial to any reader’s future conversations, correspondence, or consternations concerning atheism, agnosticism, and antitheism.

Atheism

Atheism is a term that describes one’s rejection of supernatural belief. Simply put, a theist is one with a belief in a supernatural deity, or deities; while an atheist is one without a belief in a supernatural deity, or deities. The American Atheist organization founded in 1963 by “Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the noted atheist activist, [who] as the result of her successful battle against mandatory school prayer, and Bible recitation” [was responsible for their removal from public schools] defines atheism as follows (About):

Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity, which implies that nothing exists, but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of, or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own. (Atheism)

When it comes to a belief in the supernatural one must either be a theist, or an atheist, for no other alternatives are available. This is not a false dilemma. One cannot kind of, sort of believe, but not really. It would be analogous to kind of, sort of being dead; it is not possible. One is either dead or alive. Likewise, one is either a theist or an atheist. In both cases there are no other alternatives available. Atheism is concerned with belief.

Agnosticism

Often, because of the negative emotive connotations associated with the word atheist, people will incorrectly use the term agnostic to describe their lack of belief in an intellectually vain attempt to avoid being labeled the pejoratively and socially stigmatic term atheist. It is intellectually dishonest to do so, for “agnosticism is the position of believing that knowledge of the existence or non-existence of god is impossible. . . . The agnostic holds that human knowledge is limited to the natural world, that the mind is incapable of knowledge of the supernatural” (Agnosticism). Agnosticism is not an undecided position concerning belief between a theist, and an atheist. As previously shown theism, and atheism describe belief. One cannot use the term agnostic as a surrogate to describe one’s belief. Agnosticism is concerned with knowledge.

Antitheism

“Antitheism is active opposition to theism. . . . it typically refers to direct opposition to organized religion, or to the belief in any deity” (Antitheism). An antitheist values truth over unity, while it is observable that theists value unity over truth. For example, an antitheist will overtly, and without reservation, claim that anyone who believes in the story of a talking snake is irrational. Conversely, the theists would not concern themselves with the antitheist’s claimed irrationality of a talking snake so long as the unity of their cult, church, or community is maintained.

Most antitheists are so because they “take the view that theism is dangerous or destructive” (Antitheism). Many antitheists are strident in their opposition to theism. The late Christopher Hitchens who in his 2001 book Letters to a Young Contrarian, wrote, “I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful” (Antitheism). Antitheists look at the negative effect of religious belief on society. They believe that the influence of the churches is unnecessary for positive effects to be made in society. Secular institutions such as the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International, PlanUSA, etc. do so demonstratively with neither a need for the promise of salvation, nor the fear of damnation. Antitheism is concerned with values.

The metaphysical misunderstanding of abstract concepts such as belief, knowledge and values need not continue to thrive in a culture of intolerance. A simple analytical understanding of the definitions of atheism, agnosticism, and antitheism clearly shows their respective correlation to belief, knowledge and values respectively.

Atheism is concerned with belief.
Agnosticism is concerned with knowledge.
Antitheism is concerned with values.

Works Cited

“About.” American Atheists. Ed. Admin. American Atheists, 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 18 June 2012.

“Agnosticism.” The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Ed. Robert T. Carroll. The Skeptic’s    Dictionary,  19 May 2012. Web. 19 June 2012.

“Antitheism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 June 2012. Web. 19 June 2012.

“Atheism.” American Atheists. Ed. Admin. American Atheists, 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 18 June 2012.

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4 thoughts on “EXPOSITORY ESSAY: “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Antitheism” / Madison S. Hughes

  1. Got it hanging on my wall. Yeah, I do. Up there with Hitch and Dawkins. Keep it up brother. Yeah, the “Afterlife” vid loads now. I don’t know what the hell happened. Don’t care; it works now.

  2. A concise and useful summary. I would add to the theist perspective that his or her supernatural God is also personal, present, and guiding of individuals specifically and of the universe generally. It’s a proposition that cannot be proven; it has to be believed, assented to in trust that it is true. The atheist just says: “I cannot assent to that, it all sounds and behaves like a social construction.” The larger problem, it seems to me, is that the Christian model of theism increasingly broadened its range of propositions to, in actuality, become an ideology and cultural system and thus became a political entity. Antitheists realize that theism is not just a simple and benign “belief” in something; it is a comprehensive ideological and political system that can be used, by politically motivated actors, to do harm to other humans. I don’t care what you believe, I “believe” or “trust” in unproven things as well. The real question is how our belief systems impacts others.

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