As is common in the religious world, the concepts of both agnosticism and atheism are unforgivingly complicated. Even the standard Google search does not adequately resolve inquiry into their basic definitions. My own attempts to tackle these two subjects were in fact quite humbling — I realized, once again, that my personal knowledge in the realm of religion, and its tangents, is not only lacking, but sometimes decidedly incorrect. Therefore, I have entered into this endeavor alongside the uninformed, and my first question is simple: What are agnosticism and atheism?
To best understand these terms, I should probably even back up one step further. The ideologies behind agnosticism and atheism seem linked, in my opinion, in that both of them are outside of “religiosity.” By that I mean, when someone asks “What religion are you?”, people respond in a few distinct ways: “I am (fill in the blank with religious affiliation),” “I am not religious, I’m spiritual,” “I’m agnostic,” “I’m an atheist,” or “I don’t know.”
The first two seem relatively self-explanatory, but the third and fourth often give way to only a vague understanding. And this ambiguity is not going to be entirely quelled by my following efforts because both agnosticism and atheism — like most other religious or spiritual convictions — have various forms and features. Nonetheless, I think it is important to consider what these identities entail.
From the very beginning of my columns, I have freely shared my own religious beliefs — or perhaps more appropriately, my own nonreligious beliefs — as a self-professed atheist. To me, this means that I do not believe in a god or any sort of higher power, and I don’t believe in an afterlife.
Yet even while I read the definition of atheism on the American Atheists web site, I remarked the bleakness of this position when outlined in such a way. The site says that atheists essentially feel that there are “no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are ‘super’ natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.”
Though I do agree with these statements, my lived experience as an atheist is not nearly as bleak as “believers” might think. My worldview is arguably just as ordered as that of a religious person’s, and I find comfort in that. I see my time on Earth as an absolutely incredible culmination of science and history that I feel obligated to take advantage of on a daily basis.
Agnosticism is not the same thing as atheism by any account. According to the multiple definitions that I happened upon in my research, agnosticism can most readily be defined as a state of incertitude. The website Faithology asserts that agnosticism is characterized by the opinion that “the existence or non-existence of a deity is ultimately unknowable” and that they “neither accept nor reject the possibility that deities are indeed real and may play a part in human life.”
Over the years, I’ve known several people who were self-identified agnostics at one point or another, but most professed a fundamental belief in a higher power — they just didn’t know exactly what that looked like. And, understandably, it is difficult to track down agnostics to speak with — or even agnostic websites — because this “ideology” does not have any fundamental concepts. On the contrary, it can be viewed as a wholesale rejection of fundamentalism.
However, I think the agnostic state is not unlike the state of being a college student. Bombarded by information, opinion, facts and truths, we often resort to the classic “I don’t know” response that summarizes our inner turmoil. I respect agnosticism because it allows people to admit — and embrace — their incertitude. The world is not always as black and white as one might want it to be, and agnostics engage with the gray.
To be clear, this is not about endorsing any one belief set. It is about understanding difference. Last week in front of Dwinelle Hall, I witnessed a showdown between a fundamentalist Christian and a hardcore atheist, both decrying the truth of the other’s claims. I shuffled by with most other passersby, uncomfortable with the confrontation. But my discomfort was not the only reason why I fled.
Categories within the religious context are essentially different, but I don’t feel that anything productive emerges from harping on that difference. Even identities such as atheist or agnostic include much internal variation. It is important to approach difference through understanding. And while definitions may sometimes be daunting and unsatisfactory, labels are not always helpful in discovering what someone truly believes. Just ask the question: “What religion are you?” Then, embrace the confusion and dialogue that ensues.
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