There is a noticeable difference in the reaction of the average religious person to the response to the question of belief between “I’m an agnostic” versus “I’m an atheist.”
The former conveys that the declarant remains on the fence and is “swayable” to a belief system, while the latter conveys I’ve evaluated your belief system and consciously rejected it.
Atheism connotes, for right or wrong, a certain amount of surety that is often perceived as almost arrogant. That perception — even among some atheists – that they are better educated and if only the religious were better informed, they too would be able to see the truth.
Agnosticism lacks that level of surety, and therefore, the arrogance factor – which may play a large factor in making it more palatable for believers.
When you get down to brass tacks though, the difference between atheists and agnostics is simply a sleight of hand. Both are essentially cuts from the same clothe – which is why atheists and agnostics are often lumped together when polling and research studies of religious views are conducted.
Both groups have a shared absence of belief in a deity. After this, it becomes a naval gazing exercise. Agnostics claim there is no way of knowing whether a god or gods exist while atheists claim with a level of certainty that there is in fact, no god.
But these bumper stickers tend to obfuscate the larger commonality between them. “There is no way to know” is a sleight of hand – it requires a level of understanding of current religious doctrines and a rejection of these dogmas.
Atheists contend that after evaluating the religious landscape that there is a certainty that none of these gods exist. It’s a subtle, but important, hair to be split and it can be the source of tension that sometimes exists between atheists and agnostics.
In my humble opinion, as mentioned earlier, there is little daylight between an atheist and an agnostic. Neither believes in god(s), nor does either worship, pray to, or observe theistic customs associated with a required dogma. However, we’ve created our own artificial labels to further define ourselves. My thesis is that most agnostics are in fact atheists and that most atheists are actually agnostics — myself included.
So why is that I wear (literally) the atheist label en lieu of the safer, more palatable term, agnostic?
My best response is that I have a certainty that all religions are a man-made construct we’ve created over the millennia to best explain the world around us and our place within it.
That said, I’m the first to admit that I do not know if an actual “god” does or does not exist. I adhere to the prevailing scientific explanation of our origins – from the Big Bang start to the universe 13.8 billion or so years ago to the shared evolution of life on our planet. So, did god initiate the Big Bang and put all this in motion? I don’t know — big maybe! I’m open to the that idea, but I know that the whatever caused the Big Bang is NOT the god of the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Baghavad Gita – each of which is simply a human attempt to understand the origins and meaning of life and incapable of keeping up with the advancing knowledge we’ve collectively acquired over the last 500 or so years.
Very few atheists, if pressed, could sit there and say there is no god – period. What they will say is based on what they’ve seen and experienced, none of the gods of current world religions exist.
For me though, the label “agnostic” is something of a cop out. While accurate by definition, the label conveys the idea of an active search for spiritual belief that has yet to be found. Atheist on the other hand, conveys I’ve looked, and I’m not buying.
I think many agnostics have come to that same conclusion, but are uncomfortable with the idea of swapping their label. Though I think if society afforded atheists with the same treatment when asked, agnostics more might be willing to take that next step.