Agnostic people need to pick a side. I think they’re all secretly either atheist or spiritual.
Let’s start with the atheist ones. Why don’t they just call themselves atheists?
Agnostic people like to say “I’m agnostic because I’m not sure whether God exists. I’m open to the possibility.” Okay. But surely you’re agnostic about more things than just God.
To take a classic and oft-cited example, I’m open to the possibility that the Tooth Fairy exists. If a live Tooth Fairy appeared in front of me, and other people they could see and hear her too, I would start to believe in the Tooth Fairy. But I don’t go around telling people I’m an agnostic Tooth-Fairy-ist. Likewise, there is no need for me to say I’m agnostic about God (or anything else), even though I would consider believing in God if there were any evidence for him/it.
Perhaps agnostics-who-are-actually-atheist think “agnostic” sounds less offensive to religious people. This was, in fact, the main reason why the word “agnostic” came about.
In The Kingdom of Speech (chapter two), Tom Wolfe writes that biologist and early Darwin supporter Thomas Huxley is responsible for the term:
Huxley became such an ardent Darwinist not because he believed in Darwin’s theory of natural selection—he never did—but because Darwin was obviously an atheist, just as he was. No one dared flaunt such a loaded term [in mid-nineteenth century England], of course. Huxley said he was not an atheist but an agnostic. He made up the word. An agnostic, he said, was the opposite of a gnostic. Gnostics held an early Christian and even pre-Christian belief that people should separate knowledge of the material world from the only true knowledge: the spiritual. An agnostic like him wasn’t even sure there was a God.
And sure, that made sense back then. But now that atheism no longer dooms you to being a social outcast, there’s no reason to stick to the watered-down label “agnostic.” Why not just embrace what you really are?
The other type of agnostic is someone who’s actually spiritual. These people think, or hope (and let hope delude them into believing) that something God-like exists. They just don’t want to come right out and say it.
Why won’t they just state their beliefs outright? Perhaps because it’s rather uncool to believe in that stuff. (It’s cooler to be a nihilist and believe in nothing but the inevitability of death and taxes.) I don’t think that’s the case, though, because as David Chapman points out in “Pop spirituality: monism goes mainstream,” spiritual-but-not-religious beliefs pervade our cultural thought-soup.
Perhaps agnostics-who-are-actually-spiritual can sense I’m an atheist, so they tell me they’re agnostic while telling their religious or spiritual friends that they’re spiritual. That way they can avoid being judged by anyone, or so they think. (The religious people and I will both be judgmental anyway.)
Do you know of any other reasons why people would call themselves agnostic? I’m genuinely curious, because I tried to think of as many as possible while writing this blog post, and this is all I could come up with.
Until I hear of a better one, then, I’m just going to keep assuming that agnostic people are either atheists or spiritual monists in the closet.
I always struggle with whether or not to capitalize “god.” I went with “God” in this post because I was referring to the singular Abrahamic God, and since God is his name, it would be grammatically incorrect to lowercase it.
(Notice that whereas a Christian would write “His” just there, I did not, because that would be grammatically incorrect and there is no need for me to show deference to a non-existent entity.)
My atheistic reasoning applies equally to all religious gods, of course; it’s just that because I was raised Christian, God is the one I’m most accustomed to arguing about.