One of the most interesting things I find myself discussing when I am amongst my skeptical peers is the idea of agnosticism versus atheism. Many people see my brash and outspoken stance against religion and in advocacy of atheism and wonder why exactly I am that way. Usually I can simply direct them to many of my previous articles on this blog and they can find out exactly why it’s so important to argue in favor of rationality and critical thinking rather than theism and credulity. Often a ha-rumpf is given and my peer adjusts their monocle and sips their martini to exclaim:
“Well I don’t know why you are so up in arms. There is no way you can know for sure! Therefor I’m an agnostic since that is the only way to go. You silly atheists claim to have all the answers but you do not and neither do I!”
At this point I usually take a glance around, especially if we are among theist company. They will often gain favor with theists and anyone not especially interested in religion and be seen as somehow intellectually superior to not only themselves but any atheists that may happen to be in earshot. And this is typically exactly what the self-described agnostic wants; to feel superior by admitting they do not have all the answers while refraining from joining the socially undesirable atheists that are about. Theists will say “well at least Mr. Agnostic over there is willing to concede that I may be right, unlike the atheists who claim to have no belief at all”. Even though, any self-described agnostic would be loath to agree to that statement-that theists may be right- that is the effect that is given by sitting on the fence. Theists tend to think in terms of absolutes when it comes to their religion and if an agnostic is not on the other side of the fence, then by de facto they are on the theist side of the fence.
I am writing about this to explain why exactly I think this line of reasoning is intellectually dishonest. Now, anyone that has attempted to pull this “I’m-an-agnostic-not-an-atheist-but-all-religion-is-bunk” on me is familiar with my example of agnosticism being a subset of atheism. Let’s look at it like this. We have a continuum from 1 to 10, with 1-4 being strong theist to weak theist, 5 being an agnostic and undecided, and 6 to 10 being an atheist weak to strong. There are specific terms such as gnostic atheism and the like, but for the purposes of this piece we will not delve into that. So if you are a self-acclaimed 5, unwilling to commit to either side of the spectrum, are you a theist? Do you believe in a personal deity that listens to your prayer and guides your moral actions? Can I throw your lot in with the Christians, Muslims, and Jews? No, of course not. You are an agnostic, you do not commit to any of those points of view. By definition then you are not theist, or to put it in a really dazzling new way, an atheist.
“But Jason! I don’t think all religion is evil and I definitely don’t advocate not believing! I just am not convinced myself!” the agnostic may say. And that’s perfectly fine for an atheist too. Many atheists do not actually see religion as evil or harmful and none are obviously convinced of the validity of the theist schools of thought. Atheists don’t necessarily advocate for the abolishment of all religion, only the really outspoken ones do. Here, let me adjust that monocle for you and refill your martini, my fellow atheist!
“But what about the existence of a non-personal god? A Deist god, a god that doesn’t care or is far beyond our comprehension that we may never know?” This is often the first rather than last counter as the agnostic is forced to realize his dishonesty with himself before about atheism. Again though, this is perfectly fine for atheism, Deism is also by definition non-theistic and thusly, atheistic. A belief in a higher power or a non-personal deity is actually a valid way of thought under the umbrella of atheism. The deity isn’t personal, he has no interaction in human life, there is no mandate about morality or how one should think, the deity simply Exists in Deistic thought. We should give it no mind as it gives us none. That is still an atheistic way of looking at things and as such Deism finds itself solidly a 5 or above on our theism chart as laid out above, strictly non-theist. Atheist.
So the next time an agnostic, or even if you are one yourself, prepares to adjust their monocle and attempt to “shoot down” those swaggering atheists, just remember: They are atheists too; they just don’t want to admit it because they think present company may not approve. Agnosticism is more and more becoming a social construct to deflect negative attitudes rather than a standalone method of thought. Agnosticism is a subset of atheism and be sure to question anyone that believes otherwise. There is no logically consistent way to go about it otherwise.