No word sets atheists to foaming at the mouth more than agnostic—not evangelical, not born-again, not even Baptist. To the avowed atheist, the mere agnostic is a lily-livered, weak-kneed and spineless specimen of infuriating indecision.
Besides a fundamental misunderstanding of what an agnostic is, and a possible ignorance of the fact that almost all their cherished and oft-quoted icons considered themselves agnostics and not atheists, self-proclaimed atheists may be confused on another point: Their attitude toward the non-nonbeliever.
First, the misunderstanding:
While an atheist rejects all religions, and denies the existence of God (and so flaunts the same certitude as the devoutly religious), the agnostic admits that he does not know.
There might not be a God: Science alone can explain the universe, for example, all except for how something can arise out of nothing, and if we need an explanation for that, why bring in God?—why not say that if something always had to exist, it might as well be the universe as God?
There might not be a God, which might explain the random nature of life and death, the prevalence of misery and suffering, the apparent predominance of evil.
Yet again, there might be a God, which might account for our intimations of something greater than ourselves, for our apperception of mystery and beauty in the universe, for our love and fellow-feeling, for our sense of individual and collective purpose and destiny.
There may be a God we can apprehend and explain, but none of the world’s religions have yet apprehended and explained Him to the atheist’s satisfaction. The agnostic doubts all the explanations, but admits that he can’t be certain they’re all fallacious. It may be highly unlikely that a God of love will one day roast me like a peanut forever and ever for dancing on Sunday, but the agnostic, while doubting it, admits that it is not impossible.
Atheism is a belief; agnosticism is based on knowledge (or, rather, the lack of it).
Now, for the attitude:
Many an atheist is put out by the agnostic’s “gutlessness,” and his scorn implies that he himself is genuinely gutsy. Why is the agnostic gutless?-For not avowing something he’s not sure of? And why should the atheist see himself as courageous?—just for avowing something that most people don’t agree with, even if it’s unprovable?
The atheist proclaims that there is no God, standing up to ridicule and censure from those people whose judgments he doesn’t value in the first place. The agnostic says he doesn’t know, incurring no one’s wrath but everyone’s pity.
The atheist basks in the novelty and daring of his opinion, while the agnostic cowers in the corner with his uncertainty.
The atheist forms his conclusions based on the puerile or pathetic beliefs of the religious; the agnostic concedes the value and sometimes the power of belief.
The atheist insists that his certainties are more certain than the believer’s; the agnostic suggests that there are no certainties.
The atheist scoffs, openly or to himself, at the religious impulse, seeing it as weak-minded or deluded. The agnostic is confounded by the fact that so many people—including people far more intelligent than he—are religious.