Being an Agnostic Isn’t so Simple Anymore

July 20, 2012

It's only natural to suppose that a person doesn’t have to think of one’s self as an atheist in order to be a nonbeliever. These are more liberated times, right? If religion can’t dictate your creed, then nothing else should be able to, either.

Stay flexible, right? You might have heard yourself say “I’m spiritual but not religious,” just to avoid a deep theological discussion while maintaining an appearance of friendly neutrality. Or perhaps the phrase “I’m an agnostic” has been useful at times, when you need a non-offensive way of taking no position about religion.

I'm starting to see how there are two very different kinds of nonbelievers who are both using the label of "agnostic" for themselves. Traditional agnostics think carefully about the “God belief” question, so carefully that they claim that don’t know either way. Being an agnostic means never having to say you know. Agnostics won’t say that they know either way, whether a god does exist, or whether no god exists. But if you pointedly ask an agnostic if she has a belief that god exists, the answer is not affirmative. (If you meet someone calling themselves an agnostic who admits to believing in god without knowing for sure, then you are dealing with a humble religious believer, not a genuine agnostic.) The point to being an agnostic is that you don’t have to claim to know that you’re right about not believing in god. It’s those brash atheists who feel confident knowing no god exists, according to the patient explanations of typical ardent agnostics. 

Agnostics are the ones who don’t know, since they thoughtfully believe that it’s possible that a god does exist, and also that perhaps god doesn’t exist. Being an agnostic requires one to have considered beliefs about balanced possibilities that god exists or not. It turns out that it isn’t so easy being an agnostic. You have to take serious positions on matters of deep religious significance, as if you have ahold of a few insights into ultimate mysteries, and comprehension of the right and wrong ways to think about them. You wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that agnosticism was invented by a philosophically-minded intellectual intrigued by metaphysical questions. Lots of intellectuals showing off their deep thoughts about religion and god have flocked towards agnosticism ever since.

If you are feeling disappointed that joining the category of “agnostic” can’t be as noncommittal and unthinking about religion as you want to be, don’t worry. You have good company. Demographers figuring out how many people have religious beliefs discovered another option. Polls discover about 2-3% willing to accept the label of “atheist,” and only another 2 to 3% at most who prefer the label of “agnostic” instead. Since polls keep finding that around 15% or more Americans can’t say “Yes, I believe in God,” then there are lots of additional people who are unable to be believers and also unable to be atheists or agnostics. Maybe that’s where you fit in.

You might be that second kind of agnostic -- the kind of nonbeliever who simply uses the term "agnostic" to mean "I don't think about God much." You certainly think about the whole god question a lot less than those philosophical agnostics. And maybe you're on to something here. Perhaps those agnostics know a whole lot less about not knowing god than they think they do.