Thursday, December 18, 2008

Agnostic vs. Atheist: A Fairly Pointless Distinction

In college I was once treated in my dorm room to an argument between a devout Jew and a Baptist. (It sounds like a joke, and believe you me, at the time I wished it were. At least now I'm getting a blog post out of the ordeal.) I had to study and I was tired of the parade of nonsense. I got them to leave by telling them that they would be literally better off debating whether Batman could beat Superman in a fight.

Admittedly I've never witnessed a near fistfight like this about agnosticism versus atheism, but I do hear non-religious people debating it sometimes, and I wish we would stop. In the end, it makes no difference, and it's a potential source of divisiveness, which our community has enough of.

In technical terms I guess I'm an agnostic, mostly because I don't even worry about the goofy question of whether invisible superheroes can even exist, let alone do they, let alone are they the one(s) that certain groups of humans claim to know about. These are the kinds of basic questions I insist on discussing with evangelists who initiate conversations with me about the Qu'ran or the Book of Mormon or whatever their Kool-Aid happens to be. I suspect there are a lot of people who, if it weren't for the "anesthesia of familiarity", as Dawkins puts it, would express their feelings in similar ways.

There are really three possible positions on the atheist-agnostic spectrum:

1) You don't know the answer to "Do/es G/god(s) exist" because there's not enough evidence (traditional agnostic)

2) You know, and the answer is no (traditional atheist)

3) You've realized that no one can know the answer, because there can't be such evidence, because it's a goofy question

Bertrand Russell's teapot thought experiment makes an end-run around the philosophical heaviness and gets us to the same take-home lesson. Russell said that he had no opinion about whether there is a teapot in orbit around the sun somewhere in the solar system, as yet undiscovered by humans. That is to say, he was an orbital teapot agnostic. The take-home is that, whether you hold any of those three positions about gods or orbital teapots, you live your life the same way.

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