If You Think Charlie Hebdo Needs to Tone It Down, You Don’t Understand Free Speech (Or Satire)


In response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, there have been roughly two kinds of sentiments:

  1. I support free speech, and the attacks were unjustified. (“I am Charlie”)
  2. I support free speech, and the attacks were unjustified, BUT Charlie Hebdo went too far and shouldn’t have been so offensive. (“I am not Charlie.”)

The second sentiment is what I have trouble with, and it is one that I feel needs to be addressed.

We should be on the same side here. Extremist Islam is not just anti-free speech—it’s also anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, and anti-Semitic, to name a few examples. In fact, to blow your mind further, Charlie Hebdo is actually a left-wing paper. This is just one of the problems of satire, that some people will confuse what a satirist is making fun of with what he or she is actually supporting. Unfortunately, this “some people” category includes people who I would normally view as very intelligent, and perhaps they just flew too quickly into the contrarian nest. (I say this because it’s the left that should be MORE supportive of Charlie Hebdo, whereas it seems that all the detractors I know of are from the left.) I imagine that if the terrorists had attacked an women’s rights convention, the response from the left would be far different. (“I don’t profess to be a scholar of Islam. But it’s plain that some branches or interpretations of the faith view any depictions of gender equality as blasphemy.”) After all, it’s extremist Islam, not offensive cartoons, that brought you Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls, lashes for women as punishment for being raped, and the shooting of an oh-so-offensive Malala Yousafzai. You should have the right to call these out without having to worry about your life.

Now, the way of calling these out is where some people disagree. They think free speech is the right to say what you want so long as it doesn’t offend people. But this is a contradiction in terms: by definition, free speech isn’t free if there are restrictions on what you can and can’t say.

“This is because, in part, the use of printed (and now digital) satire is an old and honorable response to the excesses of government and religion. When the people have no other voice, when the main media outlets are controlled by the state (or too fearful to challenge the state), satire flourishes. One of the few ways the citizen can hold the rich and powerful accountable is to employ humor and satire.” —Robert F. Darden (source)

The right to free speech is the right to ridicule, the right to offend. By arguing that Charlie Hebdo should essentially censor itself, you are calling for the destruction of your own human rights, and this sentiment I find much scarier than a terrorist shooting.


I also feel the need to address the main side point surrounding the issue, which is the claim that Charlie Hebdo is “racist” or “hateful” or “Islamophobic.” I’m afraid most of the articles or comments I’ve read that make this claim seem completely unaware that Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing satirical newspaper as opposed to a right-wing serious newspaper, which you might think it is if you didn’t get the satire. Here’s an example where several articles that I know of seemed to completely miss the joke:


Yep, at first it looks quite offensive, even though I’m not sure what it’s saying. Other people had the same idea, but went ahead and created their own story for what it is saying. For example, this Chicago Tribune article titled “Sorry, I am not ‘Charlie'” interpreted this trivially and lumped it with a list of other “offensive” drawings, with the description:

One cover cartoon of four young black women in burqas was headlined: “The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry. ‘Don’t touch our child benefits!'”

The Hooded Utilitarian has an article titled “In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism,” where the author not only shows the above cover in a list of “offensive” covers, but also adds a clever (but in hindsight, non-intelligent) quip, saying “Yes, that last one depicts Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens.”

A quick Quora scan, on the other hand, reveals that some people just don’t understand satire. An explanation by Jean-Baptiste Froment:

This cover is mixing two unrelated elements which made the news at about the same time:
– Boko Haram victims likely to end up sex slaves in Nigeria
– Decrease of French welfare allocations

In France, as in probably every country who has welfare allocations, some people criticize this system because some people might try to game it (e.g., “welfare queens” idea). Note that if we didn’t had it there would probably be much more people complaining because the ones who really need it would end up in extreme poverty.

Charlie Hebdo is known for being left-wing attached and very controversial, and I think they wanted to parody people who criticize “welfare queens” by taking this point-of-view to the absurd, to show that immigrant women in France are more likely to be victims of patriarchy than evil manipulative profiteers.

And of course if we only stay on the first-degree approach, it’s a terrible racist and absurd cover.

And by another commentor, Adrien Lucas Ecoffet:

I can only confirm what Jean-Baptiste Froment and Stephen Reed’s answers have been saying: it’s easy now for non-French observers to imagine Charlie Hebdo as a right wing, racist, anti immigrant publication because of the fact that they have only seen covers about fundamentalist Islam.

The reality is, Charlie Hebdo is a far left, pro-immigrant publication, of which many contributors have been members of anti-racist organizations.

As the other answers have mentioned, this cover is simply the combination of two news stories to make a provocative joke. This is a very common occurrence in Charlie Hebdo front pages.

Overall I don’t think you should make much of this front page. Clearly people are cherry-picking Charlie Hebdo covers in an attempt to prove that it is a racist, anti-Islam publication, perhaps in some form of victim-blaming, when this assertion is absolutely preposterous to anyone who actually knows the newspaper.

Incidentally, this particular issue was preceded and followed by anti-Le Pen front pages, Le Pen being the front figure of the French anti-immigration far right.

I’m not French, I don’t speak French, nor am I familiar with French newspapers or political organizations, but with even a drop of critical thinking, I can say that these explanations make far more sense than what the “Charlie Hebdo is racist” crowd is shouting.

Let’s do more examples!

Here is a Tumblr post with 55,152 notes at the current moment of my writing this. I’m going to link one of the images and quote the entirety of it here (and I bolded a particularly interesting sentence):


Before social media sparks fire and everyone claims the phrase #jesuischarlie I want to point out some lovely truths about Charlie Hedbo that the news media may “forget” to point out.

Though my heart goes out to the victims to the shooting at the Charlie Hedbo headquarters ( I ALSO DO NOT CONDONE THE ACT OF VIOLENCE AS A SOLUTION TO RACISM OR HATE ) I need it to be known that this newspaper was not some sweet periodical that used it’s platform of freedom of speech as a catalyst to social change in France. Before you allow Fox News to label the shooters as Muslim Terrorist and that all Muslims are terrorist and that Charlie Hebdo was a magazines for families and saints you need to know that this newspaper was infamously known for being racist, homophobic, and highly islamophobic. I am not one to laugh at a blatant racist comic as “oh lol free speech” because with free speech comes RESPONSIBILITY.

It should be no secret that the Muslim community in France has often been abused, push to the side, and ignored. Even laws are put in place to prevent then from practicing their beliefs comfortably. For Charlie Hebdo to be a left wing newspaper that questioned the actions of the right wing, why does it often look like they are laughing along with them? Why can’t this magazine question why we are racist and islamophobic than to continue to justify their belief in supposed “ironic” comics?

My prayers go out to the victims of this shooing. As an artist, a person who works in magazines, a human, and as a French woman I feel their pain.



I will not stand for this magazine, I will not celebrate the privilege of “free speech” to be a disguise for hate. I am a black woman who understands how frustrated one can be as whites continue to use laws as an excuse to be abusive to who we are whether it be religion, skin color, or sexual orientation. I know France is scared, I know people are hurting. But I cannot be this newspaper’s ally. I am an ally for the people of France, I am an ally to the victims and their families but I will not stand in solidarity for this hateful newspaper.


Clearly this author senses something wrong: “For Charlie Hebdo to be a left wing newspaper that questioned the actions of the right wing, why does it often look like they are laughing along with them?” But she doesn’t go any further or investigate, and instead concludes she understands what the newspaper is about.

The author included the above Charlie Hebdo cartoon, which at first glance looks incredibly racist. However, the first warning bell that went off in my head was the word “raciste.” Now, as I said before, I don’t know any French, but it seems like you’re actually a real racist and drawing a racist depiction of someone, you wouldn’t include the word “raciste” in your depiction. Indeed, some digging reveals the full story (by John Courouble):

In November 2013 a cartoon in Charlie Hebdo depicted the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black (not literally African, specifically she was born in French Guiana), as a monkey. This has been a very popular image to share on Twitter as evidence that Charlie is a racist publication.

The first clue that all is not what it seems is that the cartoon was drawn by Charb – the editor himself. He was a Communist, and his girlfriend’s parents were North African. A funny kind of racist. Next you have to note that the text next to that cartoon says “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste”. This is a play on “Rassemblement Bleu Marine”, the slogan of Marine Le Pen’s national front, and the tricolor flame next to it is the party logo.

So, what you then need to know is that the cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebooked a photoshop of the woman in the cartoon as a monkey, and then said on French TV that she should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government”.

The cartoon is literally saying the National Front are racists. I’m genuinely not sure whether propagating the imagery is or isn’t a useful way of mocking the FN, but turning an antifascist cartoon into evidence of racism based on no understanding at all takes some real pathology.

Again, this makes way more sense. It’s like when Obama was portrayed in the following way in The New Yorker, and many people missed the joke.


These are quite entertaining, so let’s do one more, and this time, a more relevant one. This one portrays Muhammad (which you basically aren’t supposed to do, if you believe in censorship and blasphemy laws):


Once again, this looks quite racist at first.

Finished judging yet? Let’s look at a translation:


Yeah. Let that sink in for a while.

Basically, people in the second group assumed that Charlie Hebdo was a bunch of classic right-wing sweep-all-Muslims-into-one-category racists, but hopefully they realize now that it is not the case. As this cover illustrates, they are actually criticizing the extremist parts, by figuratively saying that extremists have turned on their prophet.

So basically:

  • Satirical newspaper staff was attacked.
  • People were sad.
  • People wanted to defend free speech.
  • Some people thought Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t be so offensive.
  • These “some people” don’t realize that Charlie Hebdo is actually satirical and making fun of racists.
  • Hopefully they will realize this and stop with the “I am not Charlie” nonsense.

Once again, to those I’m criticizing (those of you in the “I am not Charlie” group): I think we’re ultimately on the same side here, you might have just been misinformed or leapt too quickly to judgment without careful thought.  The enemy isn’t Charlie Hebdo, it’s religious extremists.

I haven’t looked at or evaluated every Charlie Hebdo cartoon for racism, but based on several examples that seemed clearly racist at first but were actually not (and were actually anti-racist), and based on their track record for supporting free speech, it seems like Charlie Hebdo is an excellent publication to support.

May the freedom of speech prevail.

I am Charlie.

How Do Honor Killings Still Happen in 2014?

Earlier this week, Pakistani woman Farzana Parveen was beaten to death by her own family, an act justified as honor killing. Was it a rash response to some possibly offensive event, such as the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy or the 2012 embassy attacks in response to a film portrayal of Muhammad? (Not that offensiveness justifies murder in response, but many people at least partially blame the victims in these cases.) Nope. Much worse:

“I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it,” Mujahid, the police investigator, quoted the father as saying.

Even worse, this is not an isolated incident. It is estimated that about 1,000 women die each year from honor killings in Pakistan alone. Globally, between 5,000 and 20,000 women suffer this fate every year. How does this kind of thing still happen? It’s not like this is a difficult engineering problem like sustainable energy. It’s an outdated socio-cultural norm. We’re not in the Dark Ages anymore.


The good news is, violence is overall gradually declining, and there is little in the way to stop this trend. However, we should always be wary of efforts to demodernize (the link is to a story of Sharia law’s being added into the British legal system, reinforcing this kind of religious discrimination against women) and lose the progress in civil rights that humanity has fought for centuries to achieve.

Edit: Additional stats (5/30/2014). “Four-in-Ten Pakistanis say honor killing of women can be at least sometimes justified.” This isn’t a fringe. This is a sizeable chunk of the population.

Science Cannot Disprove Leprechauns


It looks like the religious trolls are at it again, this week in a Time article, “Why Science Does Not Disprove God.” Of course, they always manage to omit the identical statement that science cannot disprove leprechauns. But if you were convinced by the impossibility of disproof of leprechauns as a sign to believe in leprechauns, you’d be treated as a lunatic.

Biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, and medicine help us understand the world, but there is much about life that remains a mystery.

Duh, that is why scientists around the world are still searching for the truth. No one claimed there is no mystery left (except, ironically, a conclave of religious fundamentalists who think that a holy book answers everything).

A number of recent books and articles will have you believe that—somehow—science has now disproved the existence of God.

What? The very intro sets up the straw man for the rest of the article. Aczel claims to be criticizing the proposition that science has disproved the existence of God, a proposition that has been uttered by no one. Let’s see him continue:

A number of recent books and articles will have you believe that—somehow—science has now disproved the existence of God. We know so much about how the Universe works, their authors claim, that God is simply unnecessary: we can explain all the workings of the Universe without the need for a “creator.”

Is that misleading or what? Aczel equivocates the extremely strong claim that “science has now disproved the existence of God” with the much weaker claim that “God is simply unnecessary.” But he ignores the weaker claim for the rest of the article, preferring to attack the strong straw man claim.

But does this vast knowledge base disprove the existence of some kind of preexistent outside force that may have launched our Universe on its way?

Uh, again, no one is arguing that.

But has modern science, from the beginning of the 20th Century, proved that there is no God, as some commentators are now claiming?

Who are these commentators?

But [science] has not revealed to us why the Universe came into existence, nor what preceded its birth in the Big Bang. Equally, biological evolution has not brought us the slightest understanding of how the first living organisms emerged from inanimate matter on this planet, and how the advanced eukaryotic cells—the highly structured building blocks of advanced life forms—ever emerged from simpler organisms. Neither does it explain one of the greatest mysteries of science: how did consciousness arise in living things? Where do symbolic thinking and self-awareness come from? What is it that allows us humans to understand the mysteries of biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, and medicine? And what enables us to create great works of art, music, architecture, and literature? Science is nowhere near to explaining these deep mysteries.

These mysteries are precisely the frontiers of science. Aczel is using a classic “god of the gaps” argument, that what science currently doesn’t know must be God. This was refuted as early as ancient Greece, by Hippocrates: “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things.” There’s no reason currently to suggest that mysteries like consciousness won’t eventually be explained by neuroscience.

I could keep on going, but Aczel’s article is a mess, and this blog post almost dignifies it too much. Just remember that we don’t know everything there is to know yet. Therefore, leprechauns exist.

Confirmation Bias and the Illuminati

Check out this hilarious Buzzfeed article, “28 Shocking Pictures That Prove That The Illuminati Is All Around Us.”


While it may seem comical at best, it is the only time I have seen such a sustained visual depiction of confirmation bias, satirical or not. The popularity of the article demonstrates that everyone can and does understand what confirmation bias is. Unfortunately, people tend to think they are less biased than everyone else (which is itself a bias), so that they simultaneously enjoy this Buzzfeed article and make fun of conspiracy theorists and superstitious worshipers, yet often believe in equally ridiculous things.

Namely, if you change the title to “28 Shocking Pictures That Prove That God Does Good Things All Around Us,” I have a feeling it would be much less satirical, and if it was, people would call to burn the writer at the stake. Of course, the punchline of the Illuminati images is that the criterion for being the Illuminati, i.e., being a triangle, is so vague that it can literally appear anywhere. Sound familiar?

(To be fair, at least there is definitive evidence that the Illuminati existed.)

Dismissing Things Without Evidence



In middle school, I used to stay up late and listen to a radio talk show called Coast to Coast AM. The show dealt with many topics, focusing on the supernatural or paranormal. While occasional talks were on real science (they brought on Michio Kaku as a guest), the vast majority consisted of things like psychic powers, auras, numerology, UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, Bigfoot, astrology, conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, the New World Order, collective consciousness, spoon bending, ghosts, near-death experiences, quantum healing, astral projection, clairvoyance, and other wacky phenomena.

Of course, I have no problem with the expression of unpopular views, and I have written several times in support of their expression. It’s not like Coast to Coast AM is being promoted in the school curriculum, at which point I would take issue. However, this particular category of beliefs, namely superstition, is generally harmful because it promotes thinking in a highly irrational and naive way. Especially in the social media age, we cannot afford as a society to succumb to believing in whatever pops up on our newsfeeds.

But surely this is just a tiny minority of people, right? This is the typical response I get when I speak out against superstition, and it seems sensible because I usually talk about this with highly educated people who automatically dismiss this kind of stuff. However, the numbers for the general populace may be discouraging. From a December 2013 Harris poll (the link is broken so here is a Google cache link), the numbers believing were: 42% in ghosts, 36% in UFOs, 29% in astrology, 26% in witches, and 24% in reincarnation. This is not including religious-based superstitious beliefs, with much higher numbers such as 72% in miracles, 68% in angels, 58% in the devil, and 57% in the virgin birth.

I would usually criticize religion more than superstition, but in this post I make an exception. Even as religious belief is on the decline (see numbers in the Harris poll or also in a Pew Research poll), superstition is on the rise. According to the Harris poll, only 24% of matures (68+) believe in ghosts, but 44% of echo boomers (18-36) do. Astrology increases from 23% to 33%, and witches increase from 18% to 27%, when you go from the oldest to the youngest generation.

The Role of Evidence

Every belief mentioned in the previous section shares something in common: there is zero credible evidence supporting them. Of course, those who believe such things often think they have evidence, and this is almost always explained by confirmation bias, selection bias, or being simply misled. Only when you get to some forms of religious belief do you run into people who claim they do not need evidence at all (“I don’t need evidence, I have faith”). Fortunately, when debating superstitious people as opposed to religious people, you at least agree that you need evidence, but might differ as to what constitutes evidence. (A conspiracy theorist will shower you with evidence.)

In the paranormal, it is especially easy to construct signal out of noise, or beliefs out of nothingness. Take something like astrology: Someone writes an extremely vague, all-encompassing description of life, and it generally matches anyone. The reason it seems to fit you specifically is that the vague wording (“something important recently happened in your life”) triggers several biases:

  • you are selectively looking for things that fit the description (selection bias),
  • you ignore things that don’t fit (confirmation bias),
  • you find something that you didn’t originally view as important, but now it must be important because of the prediction (circular reasoning), and
  • you note the importance of something long after the fact (hindsight bias).

The rational person is not immune to biases, but at least is aware of them and tries to look at evidence from a more objective perspective. After all, systematic analysis of evidence is the main criterion that separates real science from pseudo science.

A Priori Dismissal

Suppose you read a story in the news today about a new Bigfoot sighting. How much evidence would you need to dismiss it? I would claim it is almost none. You would realize the probability of the existence of Bigfoot is so low in the first place (well under 1%, possibly 0%), that it would take a significant amount of evidence to convince you otherwise. The burden of proof is on the sighter. Given the advent of universal smartphone ownership, it would seem easy to simply snap a picture of Bigfoot when you saw one. In this case, you do not need evidence against to dismiss it.

The point is, if a Bigfoot article appeared in the news today, then without reading any of it and without having any evidence of its being a hoax, you could safely dismiss it as a hoax, as it has been every time. Again, I am not saying that every person who has sighted Bigfoot did so to perpetuate a hoax—I think some people genuinely saw something they personally couldn’t explain. However, there’s quite a leap of logic to go from “I don’t know what I saw” to “It was Bigfoot.”

Imagine that you find the following title in today’s paper: “Scientists find conclusive proof of Flat Earth theory.” Without having to be a scientist yourself, you have enough intelligence (hopefully) to conclude that the article is wrong, even without reading a word of it.

Some friends I talk to have actually pointed out that I am perhaps too dismissive. For instance, last year this Carrie promo video made its rounds on Youtube:

If you don’t want to watch it, basically a hoax is set up so that someone appears to be using telekinetic powers in a cafe, and onlookers are fearful and in a state of shock.

We discussed what we would have done in that situation. Everyone else said they would have been scared !@#&less in that scenario, but I said I would have known it was a hoax and thus have stayed calm. Of course, nobody believed me. Given this post, judge for yourself.

Hitchens’ Razor

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

This philosophical tool allows you to dismiss many kinds of statements. If someone just claims, “There is a leprechaun in my backyard,” you can dismiss it even if you have never met this person before and have never been to their backyard.

Hitchens’ Razor differs slightly from the idea in the previous section: the aversion to believing in Bigfoot, even if there is “evidence” in the form of extremely shaky and blurry cam, comes more from statistical improbability than from philosophical concern. Christopher Hitchens’ statement applies more to abstract claims that sometimes cannot be justified in the physical world, i.e. religious claims.

The title refers to both interpretations of “without evidence”: dismissing something that has no evidence for, and dismissing something that has no evidence against. Namely, if there is no evidence for, you do not need evidence against.

More relevant to purely superstitious claims that can be tested is Carl Sagan’s “razor”:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

It is generally true in real life that the more absurd a claim is, the more justification it requires. If you claim the Malaysian flight 370 is on Mars, you better have some very convincing pieces of evidence supporting it.

Overall, I just ask that we think more rationally, especially in response to the media and to questionable stories. We simply cannot afford to slip back into an age of superstition.

Out of Context

When talking about religion, I often get the “out of context” objection. It’s hard, for instance, to understand what the Bible says about women without bringing up 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” And it’s hard to talk about morality without this passage:

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

But of course, it’s just taken out of context so all the violence and rape is fine. Here is a hilarious YouTube video by NonStampCollector on this topic.

Atheist or Agnostic: A Confusion of Terms?

I often hear things along the line of “I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” usually followed by one or more insinuations of atheists, such as:

  • “I think being an atheist requires just as much faith as being a theist [so I’m an agnostic instead].”
  • “Atheists are just as closed-minded as theists [so I’m an agnostic instead].”
  • “Neither side can disprove the other, so it’s hypocritical for atheists to criticize theism [so I’m an agnostic instead].”

This misconception of agnosticism presumes that atheism and theism are diametrically opposed extremes, and that agnosticism is a sort of middle ground between them. Perhaps most believe the picture looks like this:


There are at least a couple of things wrong with this. First, neither theism nor atheism explicitly entail extreme, absolutely certain belief in anything. (Most theists I have talked to about this do not proclaim 100% certainty, and I do not know a single atheist who is absolutely certain that no gods exist. Though, the stats suggest that theism within the general population is more often than not accompanied with absolute certainty.)

Second, gnosticism deals with a separate issue from theism. Theism is concerned with belief, whereas gnosticism is concerned with knowledge. This is why I identify formally as agnostic atheist: I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I claim to know whether one exists (agnostic). To repeat myself, atheism does not necessarily entail 100% certainty that no gods exist, neither does theism necessarily entail 100% certainty that one or more gods do exist. This famous chart categorizes the distinction between belief and knowledge:


Agnosticism is not a third way between atheism and theism; it is a separate dimension altogether. This is usually as far as explanations of atheism vs agnosticism go. However, I would like to take this one step further.

More In-Depth

The chart above is misleading. It merely states what the areas are, not how the populace actually fits into them. Nor does it address the philosophical difference between the concepts of strong atheism and weak atheism (though it mentions strong atheism at the bottom). I will try to address these points here.

Here is the same chart but with areas adjusted for  the actual proportions of people within atheism and theism (crude estimation):


In addition, I have drawn an arrow to simulate folding this chart into a line:


Again, it seems that most atheists are agnostic rather than gnostic, whereas most theists are gnostic rather than agnostic. That is, most atheists do not claim to know their belief, whereas a majority of theists are 100% certain that their god(s) exist:


Combining the two diagrams together allows for a comparison of misconception vs reality, where the sizes of the arrows attempt to match the correct proportions of people:


For this reason, I find the claim very unreasonable that atheism is “just as extreme” as theism. It is simply not true, since most atheists fall under agnostic atheism, whereas most theists fall under gnostic theism. Only a gnostic atheist could be possibly as “extreme” as a gnostic theist (gnosticism being a necessary condition), but I would still argue the gnostic theist position is more extreme.

Namely, the categorization above applies to a general concept of god, not any god in particular. It is very possible to be a gnostic atheist regarding a particular god, such as how most Christians are gnostic atheists with regards to Zeus or Thor. “I just know Zeus belongs in mythology.” I think Christians would agree that being a gnostic atheist with respect to Zeus is not as extreme a position as being a gnostic theist with respect to Zeus.

So this is where the misconceptions and the qualms of atheism vs agnosticism come from. The words “atheist” and “agnostic” as used in the wrong definitions actually point to roughly the same group of people—agnostic atheists. The primary misconception is additionally preserved by several factors, including:

  • People expect one-word answers for religious identity, thus it would be generally unwieldy for someone to answer “agnostic atheist,” and would instead answer either “atheist” or “agnostic.”
  • On surveys, “atheist” and “agnostic” are usually mutually exclusive. Thus, you are forced to pick one.
  • The word “atheist” has such a negative social stigma (mainly the result of religious propaganda) that many people would not want to deal with the repercussions of saying it, and would rather answer “agnostic.”
  • Since many people would rather answer agnostic, this leads to a harmful feedback loop: if an atheist says “I’m an agnostic because atheism is just as closed-minded,” this perpetuates the negative stigma of “atheist,” which in turn causes more people to avoid using the term “atheist.”
  • To some degree, the word “atheism” is also confused with the term “strong atheism,” and similarly, “agnosticism” is confused with the term “weak atheism.” Which brings me to…

Strong Atheism vs Weak Atheism

There is another misconception that atheism automatically entails the concept of strong atheism, which asserts that no gods exist. This is in contrast to weak atheism, which rejects the existence of gods without necessarily the positive assertion that no gods exist. The majority of atheists are weak atheists; in fact, I don’t know any strong atheists.

For another example, say you lived 4000 years ago and someone asserted that the Earth was a triangle. Without having to assert that Earth is not a triangle [strong], you can be doubtful that Earth is a triangle [weak]. To doubt the triangle Earth theory, you do not necessarily need some alternate explanation. This is why the claim, “Because they don’t believe in a god, atheists must believe that something came out of nothing and that everything is materialistic” is invalid—atheism doesn’t not entail any belief; it is nonbelief. In addition, note that gnostic atheism is even stronger than strong atheism, as it entails not only an assertion but also knowledge involved in making the assertion.

However, the atheism diagram is often mislabeled with strong atheism as atheism and weak atheism as agnosticism:


In this terminology, I would identify as weak atheist with regards to belief (I don’t believe there is any god, but I don’t make the positive claim that there do not exist any), and weak agnostic with regards to knowledge (I don’t think it’s possible to know right now, but it may be possible in the future—it is provable but not falsifiable). And again, there is a distinction between the concept of a general god and the particular god of Christianity.

From my experience in talking to people, much of the time when they say “I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” what they really mean really comes down to “I’m a weak atheist, not a strong atheist,” or “I’m an agnostic atheist, not a gnostic atheist.” Sure, this is a semantic difference, but it has a lot of real world implications due to equivocations of atheism with strong atheism and of atheism with gnostic atheism. It certainly confounds people who are thinking about these things and it enables completely wrong arguments to be made against atheists.

Of course, there’s still a lot more to cover. For example, I haven’t even addressed the atheist vs deist vs theist distinction yet, which is concerned with whether a god currently interacts with the world or not. A deist might believe an all-powerful being created the universe 13.8 billion years ago but hasn’t touched the universe since then, whereas a theist believes that a god still interacts with the world today. But this wasn’t too relevant in the atheist/agnostic distinction this post is concerned with. I hope this clears at least some of the confusion surrounding these terms.

In addition to “atheist” and “agnostic,” there are many more terms that can make the conversation even more confusing: humanist, secularist, freethinker, nonreligious, rationalist, etc., each with different connotations. This may be in a future post.