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.