One question I regularly get asked is about where I stand on the agnostic-atheist divide — that is, which am I. I usually confuse people when I tell them I’m both. I’ve posted about this on the blog before, but it’s been a while, so I thought I should give it another airing here.
When I became an agnostic – 25 years ago? I’m not even sure any more – I thought that “agnosticism” and “atheism” were two *degrees* of basically the same thing. My sense is that this is what most people think. According to this idea, an agnostic is someone who says that s/he does not *know* whether God exists, and an atheist is someone who makes a definitive statement that God does *not* exist. Agnostics don’t know and atheists are sure.
At the time I was rather surprised that so many agnostics and atheists (most of whom had this view I’ve just described) were so militaristic about their own positions. As I found, to my chagrin (having thought naively that agnostics and atheists were “all in this together”), many atheists think of agnostics as simply wimpy atheists — that is, they don’t have the courage to admit that they don’t think God exists — and many agnostics think of atheists simply as arrogant agnostics: how the hell would *they* know whether there was a superior being in the universe?
My view on all this changed radically, not too long after I had started calling myself agnostic. I now think that in fact agnosticism and atheism are not two degrees of the same thing, but two different kinds of thing. And because of this new view, I think it is possible to be both an agnostic and an atheist. And that’s how I understand myself.
So, in this newer view of mine, agnosticism is a statement about epistemology – that is, about what a person *knows*. Do I know whether there is a God in the multiverse? Nope. I really don’t. How could I know? I’m just a peon on a very big planet, circling around a very big star, which is one of some 100 billion stars in this galaxy, which is only one of anywhere from 100 billion to 2 trillion galaxies in this universe, which may be only one of trillions (infinite number?) of universes. So, well, I don’t have a broad perspective on the question. So I don’t know. I’m agnostic.
Atheism, on the other hand, (in my way of thinking) is not about knowledge but about belief. Do I *believe* that there is a God? No I don’t. I especially do not believe in the biblical God, or in the traditional God of Jews and Christians (and Muslims and so on). I simply do not believe that there is a God who created this world (it is the result of forces beyond my comprehension, but it goes back to the Big Bang, and we are here because of evolution, and I exist only because of some pretty amazingly remote chances/circumstances…); I don’t think there is a divine being who is sovereign over this world who interacts with it and the people in it, who answers prayer, who brings good out of evil. I don’t believe it. So I’m an atheist.
So I’m an agnostic atheist. Or an atheistic agnostic. Take your pick! I don’t know if there’s one (or very, very many) greater, superhuman intelligences in the multiverse; but I really, really doubt it and simply don’t believe it.
For what it’s worth, I sometimes call myself a “Christian atheist.” That’s because I try to implement what I see to be the best moral teachings of the Christian religion in my life. But usually I just call myself that to myself and to close friends, since most people get confused enough when I say that I’m an agnostic atheist, and throwing “Christian” in there does not do much to unmuddy the waters….