In a follow-up to my brief series on the Pew Religious Knowledge Survey, I thought I’d put up a post on my views on atheism and agnosticism as someone who identifies primarily as an atheist when it comes to theological matters.
One of the first issues when it comes to atheism and agnosticism are their definitions. There are a set of subtly different definitions used which can be made to be greatly more or less inclusive with small tweaks in language. As for Pew, the definitions that were used in the survey for the two groups were that an atheist is:
Someone who does not believe in God
and an agnostic is:
Someone who is unsure whether God exists.
These are fair and relatively generic definitions. I am very comfortable with the definition of atheism used, though I would modify the definition of an agnostic to:
Someone who does not to know whether God exists.
It’s a similar definition and for the most part, it catches the same set of people, so it’s not an incredibly important difference. I just like to explicitly state it in a form referencing knowledge since that is the key issue of agnosticism.
One thing that you may notice about these two definitions is that they are not mutually exclusive. One can not know whether God exists while not believing in God. In fact, I suspect that such a situation is the default for agnostics.
The main difference, then, in those who profess to be atheists and those who profess to be agnostics is where one places the emphasis on one’s viewpoint. Atheists emphasize their own lack of belief in God or gods, while agnostics instead emphasize their lack of knowledge and uncertainty on the topic. This emphasis becomes more important and more of a dichotomy when one looks at the approaches to religion discussion that individuals identifying as one or the other take.
Those identifying as atheists run a wide range of attitudes toward religion, but certainly the most prominent self-identified atheists are the so-called “New Atheists”, which include the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others. Other atheists use the label as a means of arguing against what they see as the excesses of the brand of affirmative atheism put out by the New Atheists.
Agnostics, on the other hand, tend to portray themselves as neutral players in the fray between theists and atheists. By analogy to politics, they seem to play the role of the “undecided” or “independent” voter. This is in spite of the fact that agnostics can very firmly hold to their agnosticism, often insisting that the existence of God is “unknowable”. While many agnostics may technically be atheists, in that they don’t actively believe in any God or gods, they tend to describe their stance in terms of neutrality and indecision.
Now, this picture isn’t entirely accurate. There are theistic agnostics, those who believe in a God or gods but who have doubts about their existence, and there are non-agnostic atheists who not only do not believe in God’s existence but believe that God does not exist, with no acknowledgment of uncertainty. Furthermore, there are a range of views that can be held within the atheistic agnostic framework, not matching the broad generalizations I sent forth above.
So, where does my view on the matter fall? I would be an agnostic atheist. I do not believe that any entities that would be considered supernatural…intentioned entities who act in ways that are well beyond the laws of physics as we know them…exist. However, I do acknowledge that their existence is not logically impossible, but simply unlikely. Furthermore, I see an impersonal God more akin to that of Deists to be more likely that they type that dominates the Abrahamic faiths. In essense, I act as if no God or gods exist and thus find the identification as an atheist to be the most fitting.
I do not share the same antipathy toward religion that one can find among the New Atheists. While I don’t think that a God or gods make up part of the fabric of reality, I don’t see the acceptance of such beliefs to be morally abhorrent or corrosive to society, just unlikely to be factually accurate. And so long as such beliefs don’t hinder the pursuit of truth in other domains, I see no need to “fight” against them. I’m not bashful in expressing my own beliefs if asked, but I don’t feel the need to actively proselytize atheism to the woefully uninformed masses.