06/09/2016 03:08 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2017

Atheist vs. Agnostic: Why The Difference Matters. A 2nd Dialogue

The agnostic (AG), while sympathetic to the atheist's arguments, still wants to accommodate other belief systems and confronts the atheist (Ath) for attacking religion. The atheist attempts to respond to the challenge.


AG: You have argued against Thomas Huxley, who coined the term "agnostic," by insisting that atheism is a more intellectually coherent position than agnosticism based on evidence that wasn't available to Huxley in 1869.

Ath: Yes, but I do think Huxley would have acknowledged the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed agnostics who are atheists in regard to the thousands of gods that have been invented by humankind, except for one of these thousands, in which case they "aren't sure." They're certain that Apollo was a mythical Greek creation, but not so sure about Yahweh.

AG: But agnosticism has evolved since Huxley to connote open-mindedness and acceptance, both of which are sadly lacking in your worldview. You have argued that the difference between atheism and agnosticism ultimately reduces to confusion over what it means to be certain, but I think we are much further apart than mere definitions because I allow people of faith to have knowledge that I cannot claim. I accommodate the theist's certainty whereas you presumptuously reject it.

Ath: I understand the need that some have for believing, including the inertia of preserving the core beliefs with which one is raised. While empathetic, I can explain both why they are wrong and why they believe they are right: I can argue for both the impossibility and the improbability of God and I can also offer a coherent explanation of why many people believe in a god. To water down my atheism with "I don't know for sure" is to resist an inescapable conclusion for the sake of political correctness or a misdirected sense of wanting to be open-minded.

AG: What can possibly by wrong with being open-minded? Why do you care that theists have a different view?

Ath: The problem is that because faith precludes rational scrutiny, it results in conflicting and irreconcilable beliefs between people about what the will of God is. We can see these conflicts both among the Abrahamic religions and within each of them. Because tribalism was presumably once conducive to survival, we have a natural instinct to be tribal, but at this point in our evolutionary history we should be mitigating the artificial differences between us rather than empowering them. My concern is that religion separates us - it feeds our tribal instincts.

AG: So you're more of an anti-theist than an atheist, because you advocate against religion, which is going one step further than simply denying God.

Ath: While I don't think there's much leverage in trying to convince believers that they are wrong, I do believe there is value in trying to convince the hundreds of millions of agnostics that we should move beyond theism. Perhaps the so-called "new atheists" are too shrill in their condemnation of religion, but Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the rest play an important role in making it safe to speak out in favour of atheism. We need to build on our instincts for kindness and co-operation, which many religions espouse, but avoid the religious beliefs that provoke our instinct for tribalism, xenophobia and war.

AG: Do you really believe that religion in the 21st century is responsible for all the tragedies in the world?

Ath: Of course not. I'm arguing that we have to fight our tribal natures and religion is unequivocally an enabler of persecution, hatred and violence. Religion is not solely responsible for these evils, but it fuels and exaggerates these damaging instincts. There may have been a group survival benefit to religion at the dawn of civilization, but it is now more of a divisive and often destructive meme than a productive one.

AG: But your approach is equally combative: you are judging others for their beliefs and criticizing them for the tribalism that their beliefs foster. Do you not see the irony of your efforts: you are merely trying to persuade others to abandon their tribe in favour of yours! And all on the grounds that your belief system is superior, so you're just as guilty of proselytizing as theist are.

Ath: Here's the difference as I see it. I am not advocating for a particular belief system so much as an approach to reconciling all belief systems - call is rationalism or science or logic. Without a common currency in language and thought, we have no mechanism for resolving disputes and working together for common purposes. Our liberal, democratic society can only function at its best when it is based on a common currency of understanding, but theism is an impediment to this goal.

AG: Sounds to me a bit naïve if not Pollyanna. You won't be convincing theists anytime soon to abandon their strongly-held belief systems for the sake of your utopian vision.

Ath: It's a long process that will outlive my efforts. But it starts by staking out a coherent and compelling argument for atheism and an attempt to convince those on the fence, such as yourself, that there is merit in being less timid. I'm not advocating war against theists. I'm trying to generate momentum for the adoption of a more universally acceptable perspective, by persuading agnostics.

AG: Easier said than done.

Ath: All worthwhile projects are.