I've been told that I may be more agnostic than atheist. It's been suggested a few times, by different people, and each time it's in the same helpful, conciliatory tone. While these people may mean well, I'm more comfortable defining myself as an atheist. It's more accurate, and I don't see any shame in it.
When defining atheism, it's important to remember that it is not a belief system. Atheism is a general term which applies to anyone who does not believe in a god or gods. Beyond that, the term "atheist" doesn't say a whole lot about a person's actual beliefs or philosophies.
There are atheists who are adamantly opposed to any religion, and those who think people should be free to believe whatever they like. There are those who speak out about their atheistic leanings, and those who think promoting atheist views is no different than proselytizing.
Just like Unix, (or Christianity) atheism has many different flavors. If I wanted to be more specific, I'd probably say that I'm a humanist, secularist, agnostic atheist. But that's a mouthful! So, I stick with atheist and keep the other terms for those who ask more about my actual beliefs.
What Does It Mean To Be Agnostic?
Agnostic is another one of those A-words. As in atheism, the "a" in agnostic indicates the negative of [the rest of the word]. Theism means a belief in god(s). Atheism means not having a belief in god(s). Agnostic means not being gnostic. So what is gnostic?
During pre-Christian or early Christian times (1st to 5th Century) there was a religious sect known as Gnostics. In a nutshell, they believed that they had special knowledge of god--not faith, but knowledge--which made them superior to others. (Gnosis is Greek for "knowledge.")
Today, the meaning of gnostic, in the religious sense, generally means "knowledge of god." Agnostic then refers to the belief that it is not possible to have knowledge of god. Agnostics believe that humans can only "know" about human (natural) experiences. Whether a supernatural god exists is therefore unknowable.
Agnostic Theists Vs. Agnostic Atheists
When I think about the definitions of gnosticism and agnosticism, it seems to me that it's possible to be an "agnostic theist" or an "agnostic atheist."
I know many Christians who believe that it is not possible for humans to actually "know" whether god (in any form) exists. They often talk about a distinction between "God" and "the church." Frequently, they disagree with a lot of religious doctrine, but they still believe in their religion's god (or, more accurately, their personal version of their religion's god.) To me, they are agnostic theists.
More commonly, the term "agnostic" is assumed to refer to those whom I would call agnostic atheists. Yet despite the fact that agnostics are generally seen as non-religious, there still seems to be an implication that they are neutral, or that they are teetering and could go either way.
Why I Call Myself Atheist, Not Agnostic
Technically, I could say I'm an agnostic atheist, but I see atheist as the more accurate term. If there is a supernatural god or god-like force controlling the universe, I believe that we, as humans, are not currently capable of "knowing" (i.e. seeing or understanding) what it is. In that sense, I'm agnostic.
However, I think the chances of there actually being a supernatural god or god-like force controlling the universe are about as likely as our suddenly discovering that leprechauns, unicorns and the Easter Bunny really do exist. In fact, I think Big Foot and the Lock Ness Monster are more plausible than the gods explained by any major world religion.
That's right, I put religious stories, legends and fairy tales all in the same bucket. I could be wrong. All the evil in the world might have come from Pandora's box, fairies may hide among us and my love of garlic may be the only reason I've never encountered a vampire. But I see god and religion as a man-made invention, and that's why I call myself an atheist.