For most of my life, I’ve identified as Agnostic. Once I was old enough to question the idea of deity, I knew I wasn’t a believer. That didn’t mean there wasn’t some supernatural entity in charge of everything. I didn’t know, I just thought it highly unlikely.
Of course it was more complicated than that. There were many reasons beyond lack of belief as to why I leaned that direction. I came to this fairly young because my father was a non-believer as well. We talked about the differences between Atheist and Agnostic, what each word meant, and I decided based upon the etymology that I was an Agnostic. And so I have been for many a decade.
Agnostic: Coined by T.H. Huxley, supposedly in September 1869, from Greek agnostos “unknown, unknowable,” from a- “not” (see a- (3)) + gnōstos “(to be) known,” from PIE root *gno- “to know.” Sometimes said to be a reference to Paul’s mention of the altar to “the Unknown God” in Acts, but according to Huxley it was coined with reference to the early Church movement known as Gnosticism (see Gnostic).
Atheist: from French athéiste (16c.), from Greek atheos “without god, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly,” from a- “without” (see a- (3)) + theos “a god”.
Even as I evolved into more of an etymological Atheist, I still identified outwardly as Agnostic. Not because it fit me, but because it was less threatening to the theists in my life. It down-played the depth of my disbelief for the sake of some minor level of tolerance. There’s the appearance of wiggle-room in being Agnostic. As if the lack of “knowing” can be overcome easily if I just decide to believe and accept Jesus into my heart. An Atheist though, that’s more of a commitment, there’s no wiggle-room there. It’s a statement, a denial of god’s existent.
As a life-long avoider of conflict, I stuck with Agnostic.
Claiming the Label
Not that long ago another set of dueling etymologies made itself known to me: Gnostic vs. Agnostic. “To Know” vs. “Without Knowing”. Except this time something else caught my eye. It wasn’t the etymology of Gnostic that was important, after all, I already knew the root word *gno- “to know.” It was the definition:
“Relating to knowledge, especially mystical or esoteric knowledge of spiritual things”
That made me question the reason I ever adopted the label in the first place. I am not without knowledge of spiritual things. I am widely read, I’ve attended Catholic Masses, Protestant services, even gone to a Synagogue. My father loved to study the bible, if only to take it apart intellectually, and he loved sharing his thoughts with me.
So why am using a label that suggests I am lacking in spiritual knowledge? Why would I accept a label that equates lacking spirituality with a disbelief in gods? There are non-theist religions with adherents with bigger spiritual chops than most Christians… Buddhism anyone?
It made me a bit angry, in fact, this hidden insinuation that as an Agnostic I was lacking in spiritual knowledge. I wasn’t so thrilled with myself either, for hiding behind the label for so long without realizing the implications. Not only am I spiritual, and trying to be more so, but I know it doesn’t matter if I “know”, because I don’t believe either way. Time to put the focus where it belongs, on belief rather than proof. I believe its true, so it is. It’s the same argument theists will use to defend their god: belief trumps proof.
I am an Atheist. I am without belief in god, but I’m spiritual AF.