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Jul 28 2005

Agnostic or atheist?

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it “weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic.” But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that “an agnostic is a cowardly atheist.”

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O’Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban “‘coercive’ public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools.” (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its “Wedge” document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O’Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement’s close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

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