Feb 11 2009

The social appeal of agnosticism

In yesterday’s post I tried to understand what makes agnosticism different from atheism from agnosticism in any logical or observable way, and did not have much luck, but there were some very interesting responses in the comments.

I suspect that one reason that some nonbelievers find agnosticism appealing is that it is more socially acceptable in religious societies to say that one is an agnostic than that one is an atheist. Because the common (but erroneous view) view of the difference between an agnostic and an atheist is that the former does not know for sure if there is a god or not (or that it may be an unanswerable question) while the latter is sure that god does not exist, religious people may feel that agnostics are not directly contradicting to their own beliefs. They may even feel that they might be able to ‘win’ over agnostics to god since their minds are not made up.

As a result of this greater acceptance, those non-religious people who do not wish to ruffle feathers with their religion neighbors may prefer to adopt the label of agnostic. For some (like Elizabeth in yesterday’s comments) calling oneself an agnostic may serve as a rest stop on the road to complete disbelief, a place to prepare oneself and one’s religious friends and family for the reality that one has stopped believing.

Charles Darwin is a good example of this. A shy and retiring man, who sought to avoid controversy and personal conflicts, he preferred to call himself an agnostic instead of an atheist, although by the age of forty it was clear that he had lost all belief in god and religion and had very harsh words for both. As he said in his autobiography:

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine. (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen, p. 246)

And yet, he shied away from calling himself an atheist. Edward Aveling, a professed atheist aware of Darwin’s reluctance to adopt that label, recounted how at a dinner with Darwin, he tried to convince him “that the terms ‘Agnostic’ and ‘Atheist’ were practically equivalent – that an atheist is one who, without denying the existence of God, is without God, inasmuch as he is unconvinced of the existence of a Deity.” (The autobiography of Charles Darwin and selected letters, edited by Francis Darwin, 1958, p. 60.)

Darwin’s biographers pick up the story:

They lit cigarettes and Darwin, completely our of character, pitched in. ‘Why do you call yourselves atheists?’ In his dotage, forty years since his covert notebook days, he finally dragged the issue into the open. He preferred the word agnostic, he said. ‘”Agnostic” was but “Atheist” writ respectable,’ Aveling replied, searching for common ground, ‘and “Atheist” was only “Agnostic” writ aggressive.’ But Darwin retorted, ‘Why should you be so aggressive?’ Is anything to be gained by forcing new ideas on people? Freethought is ‘all very well’ for the educated, but are ordinary people ‘ripe for it’? Here spoke the comfortable squire, seeking not to disturb the social equilibrium. (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 657, my italics.)

I think that the italicized passage captures a lot of the truth. There is no question that saying one is an atheist triggers a more negative reaction than saying one is an agnostic. I suspect that many agnostics are like Darwin, effectively atheists but uneasy about the fact that atheism is perceived as being more aggressive in its opposition to religion than agnosticism, though logically and substantively there is little difference. Those, like Darwin, who do not wish to disturb the social equilibrium may find the label of agnostic more appealing.

POST SCRIPT: Oedipus, with vegetables

The story of Oedipus is one of the strangest in classical Greek mythology and literature but the essence of the story is presented nicely in this 8 minute movie, performed entirely by vegetables.


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  1. 1

    My impression of agnosticism (at least, as all of my agnostic friends describe it) is not necessarily that one is “unsure” of the existence of god, but more that one really doesn’t care whether there is one or not. Less waffling, more apathy. Their attitude is that debating the point is a waste of time and a definitive answer (either way) would not affect how they go about their lives. The people that I know who identify as agnostic aren’t looking for more social acceptance in an annoyingly religious society — they simply do not care about god or acceptance from his/her followers.

  2. 2

    Carolyn: I think you just described a large fraction (if not majority) of atheists. They recognize *both* A) it’s impossible to prove a negative (“there is no god”) and B) science, as our best means of understanding the universe, still doesn’t yield 100% definite answers (but does provide increasingly detailed and accurate theories).

    I’d hazard a guess that, compared to other wealthy nations, atheists in the U.S. are more “aggressive” because they are more openly harassed by the religious majority. They feel compelled to fight back in defense of their own rights. In less fervent nations (e.g. Norway), I suspect that the terms are as indistinguishable as Mano says due to the lack of stigma attached to either one. It’s easy to be indifferent when the rest of the country is not actively prejudiced against you.

  3. 3


    Surely a definite answer that god existed would affect how someone lives. If I knew for sure god existed, it definitely would affect me. I would put in a serious effort to find out what he wanted.

    The fact that you say that atheists don’t care about this implies to me a tacit assumption that they live as if there is no god. I discussed this some time ago in the context of believing in an afterlife.

  4. 4

    Personally I used the agnostic label long ago purely because of the social aspect.

    However, this comparison has sparked my interest so I asked a friend, that says he is agnostic, why he calls himself agnostic and not atheist. Thought I’d post his remarks.

    “I guess you could say I’m an atheist I just don’t give a damn whether I’m right or wrong. I don’t believe in god but I don’t know much about evolution or science. I also don’t really have an interest in it so I’m not good at arguing for it.”

  5. 5


    Your friend’s comment is enlightening. Saying you are an agnostic, that you don’t know if god exists or not, does help to prevent being drawn into discussions that you would rather avoid. After all, if you say you don’t know about a topic, people tend to not pursue it further, whereas if you say you are an atheist, people are likely to ask you why you think there is no god, and then you can end up in an extended discussion.

    But it seems like your friend acts like he is an atheist.

  6. 6


    I think you’re right on all accounts.

    1. I, too, have found it quite enlightening. I’ve spent half the day pondering over his reply.

    2. I almost immediately felt reluctant to follow it further.

    3. He lives his life as if there is no god.

    I would imagine he would have no qualms about been called agnostic, atheist or even “spiritual but not religious”. I doubt he has even put much thought into finding out what those terms really mean. It just doesn’t interest him. Can’t really argue with that.

  7. 7

    Anyone familiar with the concept of ignosticism?

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