As someone who believes strongly in his opinions, and who doesn’t shy away from debate, I often find myself having heated discussions with friends. They’re not always about atheism (in fact they rarely are), but they often end up back at the same point: “look, you believe that, but other people disagree – I think there’s truth on both sides.” They seem to think this is some kind of profoundly meaningful truth that I, in my zeal, couldn’t possibly comprehend. “Here I am,” they say “happily ensconced in my island of neutrality, not dirtying myself by having an opinion on something.”
I’m not a big fan of theists as a group, but I have a great deal of respect for honest ones who are at least willing to expose their beliefs to scrutiny and will drop a bad argument once it’s been exposed as fallacious. There’s precious few of those around, but when I find them I go out of my way to express my appreciation. I hold those kinds of people in much higher esteem than I do self-proclaimed “agnostics” who are just soooo over the whole religion question. Indeed, there are few people I have more contempt for than someone who archly sits on the sidelines, piping up only long enough to shit on people on both sides for being so crass as to believe in something being true or not.
First, I would be remiss if I didn’t clear up an important issue of semantics. Atheism is a response to a claim: that there is a god. If you are going to classify yourself with respect to the god question, simply ask yourself “do I believe in a supernatural entity responsible for the creation of the universe that involves itself in human affairs?” If the answer is anything besides “yes”, then you are an atheist. If your answer is “I believe that there is some kind of superior intelligence out there responsible for the universe, but not one as defined in any religious tradition” then you might describe yourself as a deist, provided you also believe that this ‘intelligence’ doesn’t interact with humans in a meaningful way. Deism is incredibly lazy, but whatever I don’t care.
“Agnostic” is not an alternative to “atheist”. It is a question of how strong your response to that question is. If you are operating from a position that you know there is such an entity, then you are ‘gnostic’. The same goes for ‘gnostic’ atheism – if you know there is no god/gods, then you are a gnostic atheist*. If you don’t know that a god exists, but you believe and behave as if there is one, then you are an agnostic theist – my suspicion is that most moderate theists fall into this category. If you aren’t convinced that there are no gods, but you don’t believe that there are and behave accordingly, then you are an agnostic atheist. There is no such thing as “an agnostic”.
For some reason, we are conditioned by arch-liberalism to eschew any impression that we have a position on an issue. While I recognize the need for nuanced understandings of the world, and that nobody’s opinion is the complete truth, that does not mean that all positions are equal, or that we have to pretend as though we live in a fuzzy cloud of “well I’m not sure”. We can, and should, take positions on things. That does not mean we can not be talked out of those positions, only that it’s going to take something aside from “well I see it differently” to achieve that. Incidentally, the fact that I refuse to acquiesce to this completely nonsensical approach to life is the reason many people here in Canada think I’m an American upon meeting me.
It is this pathetic, mewling, Quisling approach to discourse that I find so distasteful in “agnostics”. While they think they are saying “I have a much more nuanced and mature outlook on religion”, what they are actually saying is “I haven’t bothered to think my position through.” It is the glorification of the middle ground, the haughty refusal to stand for something, the arbitrary elevation of the half-assed from vice to virtue. It is nothing more than trumpeting your own intellectual laziness and cowardice, and I have less patience for it than I do for someone who disagrees with me, but does so for honest reasons.
Possibly the most galling part of dealing with “agnostics”, but really this is the problem when dealing with most people who have half-baked opinions they’re proud of, is that they seem to have a hard time understanding that their argument isn’t new. It’s not that atheists don’t understand the idea that the world is complicated, it’s that we (for the most part), have already been there. We get that dogmatic certainty is foolhardy – that’s why we don’t claim it. We get that there are times when there is truth on both sides – that’s why we ask for evidence. We get that not everyone sees things the way we do – we’ve never said otherwise.
Someone who proclaims themselves to be “an agnostic” would perhaps do better to apply the label “an ambivalent” (although the term “apatheist” is pretty good too). It’s not that you don’t know about a god, it’s that you don’t care. You see the whole debate as being a waste of time – what does it matter what people believe? Let them believe what they like! Those atheists who are so gauche as to bother speaking up against religion are just as bad as fundamentalists who try to convert everyone to their beliefs, right?
This is why I can’t take self-identifying “agnostics” seriously. It’s one thing to say that you’re not interested in putting a lot of energy into the debate – I am growing less and less interested in the question of the gods in my personal life. I have a bunch of Youtube debates between atheists and theists sitting in a folder, unwatched, because I just don’t find the constant restatement of the same arguments/counterarguments interesting anymore. I have been pretty much convinced of where the truth is, and the question isn’t relevant to my day-to-day life. That being said, simply because I don’t have a burning desire to hash out the issues doesn’t mean that I am somehow licensed to shit on others who do.
And the reason why I don’t have that license is because the issue of gods is important. There are still crazy people out there who, every day, are doing crazy and illegal and harmful shit to the world and their fellow creatures because they have selectively blurred the line between fantasy and reality. The debate is crucial to moving forward as a civilization, and at arresting the backward slide we see in many places across the globe. Saying that the debate about god doesn’t matter is announcing that you proudly live your life with your head up your own ass, all the while chastising everyone else for arguing about turning on the lights.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
*I am, for the record, a gnostic atheist. Insofar as I ‘know’ anything to exist or not exist (I ‘know’ my apartment exists, I ‘know’ that my mansion doesn’t), I ‘know’ that there are no gods. I find the dithering over 100% confidence in something as a qualification for ‘knowledge’ to be a bit ridiculous, but I don’t really care all that much.