Why agnostics may find the religious more congenial than atheists

A regular reader of my former blog, who describes himself as a fence-sitting agnostic, commented in response to one of my posts at my previous site:

One objection I do have against this blog is the sense of superiority it conveys and the derision with which it refers to the religious. Atheism somehow seems to bring out the not so nice qualities of its adherents. A great pity. In my experience, being an agnostic among Atheists is more daunting than being one among the religious.

Actually it should not be at all surprising that he finds that that the company of the religious to be more congenial than that of atheists. This is because for some time, the more sophisticated religious people have been feeling the heat that the new atheists have been putting on them. Our relentless demands for evidence to substantiate their belief in a god have put them in a quandary because there is no evidence, other than the evidence from ignorance that there are some major things (the origin of life and the universe for example) that science has not yet fully explained. It has resulted in them resorting to the position that god is not an empirical entity and so evidence is not relevant to the question of his/her/its existence. If you look at the arguments of theologians, much of it now consists of finding reasons for why there is no evidence of god although, oddly enough, they seem to have no difficulty ascribing a whole range of properties to something for which they have no evidence.

For such people, agnostics are seen as allies in their intellectual struggle with the new atheists. After all, agnostics are popularly perceived as asserting that it is not possible to say definitively whether god exists or not and hence leaves open the possibility that god exists. This confers some level of respectability on the belief in god. But as I argued in my article in the July/August 2011 issue of the New Humanist, we are all quite comfortable in asserting that some things don’t exist even though we cannot prove it, and using the same reasoning we can confidently assert that god does not exist. My proposed new definition of an atheist as “One for whom God is unnecessary as an explanatory concept” was meant to make more precise what exactly can be inferred when one calls oneself an atheist. I believe that all atheists would find it an acceptable inference.

But it does have the incidental effect of squeezing agnosticism to almost non-existence as a category, and thus can make agnostics uncomfortable.

As for the charge of being derisive about believers, it is not clear what is meant. Calling believers names, using abusive language, or resorting to ad hominem attacks would be derisive. But I don’t think I have been particularly egregious in this regard, though I have made fun of some of the more absurd religious claims.

I think the charge of derision simply arises from the fact that we refuse to concede that believing in god is a rational thing to do. We think the verdict is in and that the judgment is that god is dead. And our ‘sin’ is that we say so quite directly and forthrightly. In short, the ‘problem’ seems to be that we new atheists are not agnostics, at least as far as the latter term is popularly understood. I do not think that there is any way that we could tell religious people that there is no god such that it would satisfy those critics who say we are too harsh.

Those agnostics who deplore the frankness of new atheists would do well to consider that without our presence, they would be the targets of religious attacks. In days gone by, agnostics would have been seen as being as guilty of heresy as any atheist and sentenced to death just as summarily. I recall that just a few decades ago even the now-innocuous label ‘secular humanist’ was seen as derogatory.

It is the very existence of new atheists who take a firm stand against god’s existence that makes religious people more welcoming of agnostics.


  1. Aquaria says

    Most agnostics don’t get it because they don’t even know what they are, really. To be blunt, they’re not typically very bright about what an agnostic even is. A shocking number think that their position is a middle ground between atheism and theism, which is patently wrong to the point of absurdity. The rest are glossing over something very important, to insinuate themselves into the good graces of theists--whether they are aware of it or not.

    Anyway, the key is in the words themselves. “Agnostic” and “atheist” weren’t simply pulled out of the ether to describe the concepts, agnostics.

    Gnosis = knowledge of gods. A = not. Agnostic simply means someone who doesn’t know for sure if the gods exist.

    Theism -- belief in the existence gods A = not; ergo, atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of gods.

    Knowing and believing are two different things. That’s what agnostics can’t seem to get. Or want everyone to overlook.

    You know or you don’t. You believe or you don’t. It’s binary, dears.

    If you don’t know if there are any gods but believe at least one exists, anyway--you’re an agnostic theist.

    If you don’t know if there are any gods but doubt their existence--you’re an agnostic atheist. Most atheists are--surprise, surprise!--agnostic atheists! Atheists don’t know about the existence of gods anymore than you do. They’ve just taken the next step and asked…what do I believe about it?

    No, you don’t get to try to squirm free with the “But we can’t know what to believe, really!” sniveling that some of you are infamous (and contemptuous) for.

    You believe or you don’t. Period.

    That’s how it works, agnostics. You’re the ones who are confusing the issue. You’re not in some magical middle ground that makes you safe with theists, just because you gloss over that part about your actual belief. That’s not very honest, you know.

    Welcome to reality.

  2. Marta says

    I described myself as “agnostic” for most of my life. We’re talking decades.

    For part of the time, I used the term because I was prepared to allow for the existence of a god, although I was more persuaded that god’s existence was pretty unlikely. The time came when I was ambivalent no more, but I continued to call myself an agnostic to avoid the fall-out I expected if I used the more accurate term for what I thought: Atheist.

    Genuine agnostics, the ones who are ambivalent on the existence of god, know themselves to be intellectually squishy, and the dissonance created in them by the demands for evidence can make them irritable. It’s no mystery that they find religion more accommodating, with its acceptance of ambiguity, and its aversion to evidence and proof. The religious community is just what the doctor ordered, if you’re looking for a place that won’t harass you if you can’t or won’t think straight.

  3. Alice says

    I am agnostic/athiest. And to the person who says I don’t realize that gnostic and thiest are different, yes I do (I had to argue that with some one who insisted I couldn’t be agnostic and also believe that there is no god *grumble*). Which is why I call myself agnostic and athiest (because I tend to believe that there is no god until some one gives me proof and I believe in science and I’ll even say one could retort to people who say give proof there is no god that science says the burden of proof is on proving something *is*. Not *is not*. Otherwise you can’t really prove anything! You have to set some sort of guideline).

    That being said, I don’t think anyone can truly *know* (not believe) what the truth is which is why I also say I’m agnostic (even that the reality you perceive is true, after all can you tell me the world outside you is not just some delusion of your brain?). But I do believe it is important you have faith in some sort of reality or you’d go insane.

    And until there is proof of God, I’m not believing in him. But I won’t say that it is impossible either or that it is impossible that re incarnation is true or even multiple gods. And hopefully if there is a God, he’s not the bastard type that sends you to hell just cause you don’t believe cause I’m screwed ;). (and yes, I do like to ponder on what if “insert scenario” was what was the “truth”).

    Good article though and I do think it has a point (and I am the type that it is aimed at cause I do admit I find I have more issues with die hard atheists being intolerant than theists but I could see that easily being more cause my refusal to say I know the truth is a lot less threatening to them. I think some one pointed it out, my issue is I’m a militant agnostic, it grates on me when people act like they *know* the truth and I feel like evangelizing that no, you don’t! Cause that’s my one strongest belief, that there is no way of knowing the truth).

  4. movablebooklady says

    My problem with both “agnostic” and “atheist” as labels is that they’re both “god” centered. I want a label that has nothing to do with god(s) or religion(s) and that will then reflect my personal position. If I have to choose, in this black/white scenario, I’ll choose atheist.

  5. says

    Aquaria’s comment would make a good blog post in and of itself. I think that some who “haven’t made up their mind as to what they believe” count themselves as agnostics.

    So if I were being very honest with my friends and colleagues:

    I am a gnostic atheist with respect to the deities that I am aware of (I don’t believe that they exist and I consider the probability of their existence to be too low to be worth considering)

    I am an agnostic “don’t know what I believe” with respect to a “deist” type of deity or something else that might be “out there” (perhaps a deity of some sentient being in another galaxy). I don’t spend much time thinking about this either; I am just not that interested.

    But all of the above is too wordy so I just call myself an atheist and leave it at that.

  6. Henry Gale says

    Let’s look at the functional difference between a ‘believer’ and an atheist.

    An atheist lives their daily life without acknowledging or depending on a higher power.

    A ‘believer’ lives their daily life acknowledging and depending on a higher power.

    So when we consider an agnostic which are they closer to?

    I don’t know any agnostics who prayer or seek help from a god. Therefore, it seems that agnostics (or at least the vast majority of them) are living as atheists.

    So, regardless of how they label themselves, as far as day to day life is concerned, they’re atheists.

  7. Jeffrey says

    I don’t see a need to identify with either construct: atheism or agnosticism. Belief and identity do not need to go hand in hand. When we assume that a belief or position should lead to an identity, we give in to a religious fallacy.

    I trust the scientific method as a means to understand the world. In my attempts to understand the world, I do not include unscientific principles like God or spirits. I cannot include them because they don’t stand up to the method. They are outliers that do nothing to help me understand myself or the world. In practice, then, I assume atheism.

    I do not, and cannot, know if there is a god, or whether they might inspire or demand my belief. Fortunately, the well-documented human origins of all gods make them irrelevant. There may be a god out there, but they clearly don’t have absolute power, don’t have human characteristics, and don’t care about us enough to communicate with us. Again, this leads to atheist concepts: if a deity exists, I still shouldn’t believe in it.

    The issues in this post have a semantic origin. Our dependence on to be verbs forces us to define things we need not define. It leads us to identify with belief instead of honestly seek the truth; our desire to define things b what they are trumps the need to practice proper inquiry.

    In short, I agree with Mano in his suggestion that no middle ground exists between theism and atheism; however, I think the discussion doesn’t stem from God’s existence or non-existence. Instead, it stems from faulty semantic constructs.

  8. RW Ahrens says

    Actually, my position is similar to yours, in that while I don’t believe in any gods, I also realize that a positive knowledge of that position is impossible. Give me proof, and I have no choice but to believe, just like seeing a blue sky is enough to get me to agree that the sky is blue.

    I’m just not using fancy labels, but I just note that I am an atheist, because that is closest to my thinking. As a believer in science, that position is subject to change, should any valid scientific proof be developed to show otherwise.

  9. says

    Functionally speaking we have a different issue. Many educated “believers” don’t believe that a deity will actually intervene in their lives directly; they, in effect, see their religion as a type of metaphor to help them live a better life. They also practice things like prayer and meditation to help their own attitudes rather than to attempt to find some magical intervention; here is an example of this (at least from some of the candidates):


    Note how several of these “believers” point out that prayer can’t stop a bad thing (like a hurricane) but faith can help someone be more compassionate in their response; one might say that these people are acting like atheists in that regard.

  10. stonyground says

    I think that many of those who call themselves agnostics do so because they mistakenly believe that atheists claim to be able to disprove the existence of god(s), rather than simply seeing no reason to believe that they exist. The burden of truth is on the theist after all.

    Is one who dispenses with God as an explanation called a Laplace-ist?

  11. says

    Bertrand Russell, for example, was an agnostic and had more to do with the consequent rise of the atheists than you will likely ever have to do with advancing their cause.

    And that new definition offered of atheism is, to put it kindly, inadequate.

  12. says

    By the way, Russell’s pal, Whitehead, in his process philosophy, felt in a sense that the universe itself was godlike, so chew on that if you’re a diehard atheist.

  13. billyjoe says

    Irreverant Bastard,


    That is a very good starting point on any discussion regarding agnosticism v atheism.

    I am an atheist by which I mean that I do not hold a belief in theistic gods.
    But someone who had never heard of theistic gods would also be an atheist because, not having heard of theistic gods, they obviously could not hold a belief in them.
    I am an atheist not only because there is no evidence that theistic gods exist, but becasue there is lots of evidence that they do not. This evidence does not amount to one hiundred percent proof, but it’s pretty close.
    That would make me a gnostic atheist.

    My message to agnostics:
    It is simply untrue that there is no evidence against gods

  14. says

    Meh. The only kind of deities I care about are those that can directly influence outcomes in this universe (e. g., stop a hurricane, get you a parking spot, win a battle, etc.)

    If people wish to speculate on non-intervening deities or to say that nature is some sort of “spiritual being”, whatever.

  15. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    The problem with this is there are several possibilities for god(s):

    ● There’s the interventionist god(s) who answers prayers (except from amputees, for some reason) and otherwise interferes with the universe.

    ● There’s the god(s) who do interfere with the universe but do it so subtly the interference is undetectable.

    ● There’s the god(s) who got everything going and then, either through choice or ability, do not interfere in the universe again.

    The last two types of god(s) are effectively indistinguishable from no god(s). It’s the first type of god(s), who decide which team wins football games and worry about teenagers masturbating, that can be tested for. The results of those tests are usually negative and are, at best, ambiguous. These are the sorts of gods we can say there’s no evidence for.

  16. says

    I expect that the biggest reason that agnostics get along better with the religious is that the religious get along better with them. Atheists (such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair) were and are seen as much as god haters as they are as simply god deniers. And it’s the agnostics that actually find no evidence to believe as opposed to the many atheists who search out and find evidence to disbelieve that which they would otherwise hate.

  17. ollie says

    Well, most of us reject benevolent deities as there is no evidence for such.

    But yes, the god of the bible is certainly worthy of scorn and disgust (mass murders, rapes, enslavements, etc.) as much as any character of fiction. Also, the “faith” that this deity is somehow good “just because” is worthy of contempt.

    Of course, the obnoxiousness of this character irrelevant as to whether it exists or not.

  18. billyjoe says

    Atheism or a-theism means no belief in theism.
    Theism is a belief in interventionist gods.
    So, I think we agree

  19. says

    You reject benevolent deities out of hand, but those obnoxious varieties are a bit more dangerous to imagine? Makes you a closet agnostic, no?

  20. ollie says

    Uh, what I said is that the degree of benevolence or degree of obnoxiousness has no bearing on existence questions.

  21. julian says

    So, I just reviewed what ollie said, Roy Niles, and I can’t find where ollie says xe’s unwilling to consider cruel or sadistic deities.

  22. Anii says

    Agnosticism is not the insecurity of believing in a deity or not. It is about the existence of deities. An agnostic might believe in a god/gods or not but they do not draw an immediate conclusion that a deity exists or not. Hardliner atheists think that the nonexistence of a deity is fact while strong theists view the existence of a deity as truth. Agnostics just say that we shouldnt be so sure about it.

  23. Warren says

    It is this arrogance that you actually think you know what “reality” is, that makes an athiest like me run a mile from your intellectual position. .

  24. says

    Actually, we find the religious more congenial specifically because it’s NOT trying to give us hokey pokey brainwashing nonsense but at least IS trying to give us a better sense of reality even if still failing at it.

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