Is ‘Deist’ or ‘Agnostic’ More PC than ‘Atheist?’

Atheists, Deists, Agnostics

Atheism, Deism, Agnosticism: Which philosophy is more politically accurate culturalized?

I believe that almost all the freethinking skeptics I know who refuse to call themselves Atheists do so for one or both of two reasons—one emotional and the other intellectual.

I’ll try to spell these out in some coherent manner, although they are not easy to separate. In fact, emotions frequently influence the intellectual, and in the relatively rare instances when the reverse is true, another Atheist may be born.

At times it is hard to say which is which. Is it ever possible to make an intellectual decision that is not mediated by our emotions? The fear of renouncing or rejecting the Christian god is a powerful one and its roots run deep into the psyche of even the most logical of scientists like Albert Einstein.

He claimed he believed in the god of Baruch Spinoza, a well-known pantheist philosopher who said that “God” was “Nature.” Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned cosmologist, whom I greatly admire, plays the same game.

The late Stephen Jay Gould went so far as to advocate NOMA—Non-Overlapping Magisteria—by which he meant that there are two domains of knowledge, the religious and the scientific, an absurdity in which “never the twain should meet.”

Atheists like Einstein, Hawking, Gould, and Spinoza are unable to overcome the religious indoctrination of their childhood, so decades later and despite achieving great intellectual stature and scientific acumen, they grope for a connection between the absurdities of their traditions and the common sense of their reason and apply to themselves descriptions like “pantheist,” “agnostic,” “deist,” and other philosophical disguises.

Fear that is implanted early and deeply, usually by priests, nuns, and parents who need a weapon to encourage compliance, is virtually impossible to eradicate. It need not, however, be imposed overtly by some maniacal nun or parent.

Even people like me who were raised without formal religious instruction, manage to absorb it early on through the culture where it is conveyed through friends, schools, the media, music, art, and literature.

I still respond emotionally to the “Ave Maria” and the soaring strains of the “Intermezzo” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, because of mysterious but pleasant early childhood associations, and have to remind myself that “It’s only music, Gil.”

The desire and need for acceptance, either by family, friends, or employers, and the corresponding dread of ostracism, especially in the workplace, is another powerful force based on fear. I have known more than one Atheist, including dear friends, who reject the label “Atheist” because they know it might affect their careers.

One Atheist professor friend of mine who enjoyed reading my American Atheist Magazine refused a gift subscription from me because he did not want the mailman to see the word “Atheist” on mail being delivered to him in the Mississippi town where he taught.

The word itself carries with it a subtle negative tone like “communist” or “homosexual” because of repeated cultural and political portrayals of undesirability and deliberate connections with “evil.”

Fear of being tarred with the brush that smears radical Atheists like the reviled Madalyn Murray O’Hair, or the abrasive Christopher Hitchens—does not help to allay the general fear that leads almost invariably to many Atheists saying more politically correct things like: “I’m really an agnostic, I just don’t know,” or “I’m a Deist like Thomas Paine,” or “I believe in the Great Watchmaker who created the universe and stepped back to allow it to run” and, of course, the banal “I think there has to be something that started the Big Bang.”

These terms like agnostic and deist have more acceptable connotations because they allow for some theistic possibility, hence they elicit a more likely positive response from believers, or to put it another way, they are less likely to be rejected.

Harsher critics than I might call it pandering. It reminds me of a gangster who is basically a decent guy who rubs out a store clerk just to gain respectability with the gang. Many nascent Atheists hesitate to accept Atheism because of what they see as the limitations of scientific knowledge or gaps in science’s ability to explain the cosmos.

They fall back on what is sometimes called the God of the Gaps. What caused the Big Bang is currently unexplained, so it is not able to be a complete theory and therefore a god must be the answer. The implication is that a god was the ‘uncaused first cause.’

This is a frequent ploy of liberal Christians who have a motive for such equivocation, but agnostics and other freethinkers should know better. There are numerous refutations of this ‘argument from personal incredulity or ‘argument from ignorance.’

For me, the best reason is that it is pointless to substitute one mystery for another. If the Christian god could have always existed, then why couldn’t the universe have always existed? One ‘uncaused cause’ is as good as another.

The meaning of ‘god’ as it has been conveyed to us through countless religions including the contemporary few major players—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism—is not consistent with any of the tenets of science, reason, logic, or mathematics, to name a few products of human intellectual potential.

To remain compatible with educated, information-oriented human intelligence, strategies like renaming or redefinition the meaning of terms has to be employed.

As Stephen Hawking’s assistant wrote to me in response to a query about Hawking’s frequent references to “God” in his wonderful book A Brief History of Time, published in 1981, “When Professor Hawking uses the term God, he is referring to the laws of the universe.”

Straws have to be grasped at, like the invocation of quantum physics (which none of the invokers understands) or quasi-scientific proposals of neurobiologists who find trivial electronic indications on sensitive brain-monitoring instruments sufficient reason to proclaim biological proof of a god.

All of this derives from fear in the broadest sense, meaning response to a perceived present or future threat, occurring in the face of danger. Fear is probably one of a few innate emotions.

It may be the fear of Hell, the fear of gods, the fear of retribution, the fear of Karma, or any of a number of imaginary consequences, as well as rational fears like accident, disease, or venomous snakes. In any case, it influences the intellectual process.

In my opinion, the most inept description in all of philosophy, and probably the most widely invoked, is the word ‘agnostic.’ It is a platitude that derives from ‘without knowledge’ or ‘to not know,’ and while it is usually applied to theological subjects, one can be agnostic about anything.

In fact, in the strictly empirical sense, almost everyone is agnostic about almost everything. We simply cannot know very much, as René Descartes so famously pointed out when after tortuous introspection in the first two of his six “Meditations on First Philosophy” he concluded, “Cogito ergo sum” . . . “I think, therefore I am.”

No one knows if there is a god. Not even the Pope. You either believe there is or you don’t. In either case, you do not know. Knowing is not the same as believing.

You can believe in anything you want, including Bertrand Russell’s famous celestial “china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit,” but to know that it exists is another matter.

Despite this obvious fact that no one knows if there is a god, many Atheists, rather than saying simply and unequivocally, “I do not believe that a god exists,” adopt the evasive strategy of calling themselves agnostics, which saves their proverbial hides while allowing them to retain an illusion of acceptability.

Because everyone “doesn’t know” if a god exists, we are all agnostics, which of course illuminates nothing and renders the description useless. Think about it. I think that what most people who reject the appellation “Atheist,” seem to want is the luxury of having the intellectual satisfaction of not believing in absurdities, along with the emotional comfort of protecting their image among those who might matter, and most importantly, they want to have an insurance policy against some god’s wrath.

Blaise Pascal said it best in what is known as “Pascal’s Wager” when he advocated: “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is . . . If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” To which I add, “and call yourself a deist, or better yet, an agnostic."

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Gil Gaudia, Ph.D.

By Gil Gaudia, Ph.D., a former professor emeritus at State University of New York and an ex-editorial assistant at American Atheists magazine. He used to reside in Eugene, Oregon, with Jeanne Gaudia, his wife until she passed away in 2015, and he on April 2021. He was an amateur astronomer and still used to play handball at the time of writing this article in 2015.

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