Every once in a while, something odd happens. Ok, I guess odd things happen all the time, but this is a particular odd thing. I'll be in a discussion with someone, and they'll absolutely insist I'm not an atheist. They are positive the term I should call myself is "agnostic". This usually happens right after I explain that I obviously can't be 100% certain and could hypothetically change my mind, given the right evidence.
The idea is, I guess, that an "atheist" is someone who is 100% sure; so certain, in fact, that a change of opinion is not possible.
Given that definition, atheists would be a rare commodity indeed. While I have read the odd blog post or old Usenet comment by people who claim to have "proven" there can be no gods, I'd dare say almost everyone who applies the "atheist" label to themselves leaves some room for doubt.
So, are they right? Are millions of "atheists" just millions of "agnostics"?
In one way, it doesn't matter: it's just a label. "Agnostic" means "without knowledge", "not sure", "don't know", or "can't know", depending on who you ask. So if you want to think of me as an "agnostic", go ahead. Those labels do fit. But you'll have to admit there are levels of agnosticism. I'm not exactly without opinion on the question: If you ask me "Do you believe in a god?", I'll say "No", so if I'm agnostic I fall to the "atheist" side rather than the "theist" side.
"Atheism" literally means "not theism" or "without theism". A "theist" has a belief in a god; an "atheist" does not have a belief in a god. So in that way, agnostics are atheists, too: A theist is someone who answers "yes" to the question "Do you believe in a god?", so an "atheist" is anyone who doesn't answer "yes". So if you answer "Do you believe in a god?" with "No", then you are an atheist, but also "I'm not sure.", because you lack a positive belief in a god.
Obviously I'm not serious in relabeling agnostics into atheists. For one thing, we'd lose some ability to make distinctions between people's beliefs. Also, relabeling people in ways they disagree with would be rude (hint hint).
But anyway, back to the main issue. Can someone who is not 100% sure call themselves "atheist", or are they "agnostic"?
One clue is that this line of reasoning is only ever applied in one direction.
It's rarely applied to a Christian (or Hindu, or Muslim, etc) who harbors some tiny bit of doubt. I bet if you'd poll (anonymously) at a church, you'd find a good number of self-professed god-believers who say they're not 100% certain as well. Maybe 99%, but not 100. But it'd be silly to relabel them all as "agnostics" and add them to the same pool as people who are 99% sure there are no gods.
So, why does this happen? Why have several people told me, point blank, that I'm actually an agnostic? One part of it is the baggage that come with these labels.
"Agnostic" seems "softer" to the general population. It comes across as polite, humble, almost apologetic: "God? Oh, I'm not sure. I really couldn't say. Sorry. Would you like a cup of tea?" Agnosticism is a very British grandmother. "Atheist", warranted or not, comes across more like Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols: "God? Oi! Bugger off!" Still British, but much ruder.
If someone asks you if you believe in God, and you say you're "agnostic", that leaves the asker of the question room to say "Ok, they're just not sure if they believe exactly as I do, that's OK." If you say you're an "atheist", the questioner has no room. "Atheist" says, in effect "I've thought about your exact beliefs, and I reject them, specifically and emphatically." So in that sense it's more impolite. It's taken as a judgment of their beliefs, instead of a statement of my own. I think people who want to relabel me as "agnostic" are reacting against that perceived impoliteness.
I do hate to seem impolite, so I usually don't lead with "I'm an atheist". I usually don't talk about it at all, in person. (I'm a parent, so I talk about kids, mostly.) But if someone brings up religion, I usually say "Oh, I'm not really religious". Not British, and not grandmotherly, but still part of the commonwealth. An elderly Canadian aunt, I guess. If the conversation continues, I'll say I don't believe in gods. Maybe I'll even use "atheist" as a convenient label. By that time some of the sting is taken out, but I still have to have the "atheist vs agnostic" conversation occasionally.
As I mentioned earlier, I think it'd be silly to put everyone in the same "agnostic" pool. If you're 99% sure there is a god you get the same label as someone who is 99% sure there are no gods. But, I'm still OK with it. If you want to call me an "agnostic", that works, but the full label would be "agnostic but mostly atheist".
I don't have a solution. I guess "Let people label their own beliefs." And I'm not a British grandmother.