Agnostic or Atheist: Does It Matter?

April 5, 2012 — 30 Comments

I haven’t forgotten. Well, I have forgotten far too many things in recent years, but I didn’t forget my recent “promise” to address the challenging subject of the distinction between agnosticism and atheism. Last week I wrote: “I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.”

It’s not my desire to offend anyone with the discussion which follows. After all, God loves the “lost” just as much as he loves those who have surrendered their lives to him. In fact, there’s an amazing passage that hints at how the rescue of one of those who has “strayed” is even more exciting to the hosts of heaven than the faithfulness of his dedicated disciples. (Check out verses 12-14 in chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew . . . and remember what I have said in the past about how eager any of your Christian acquaintances will be to provide you with a copy of the Bible if you don’t already have one.)

Every soul is precious to God. And yet, many don’t recognize that fact. Many worship false gods (religious and secular). Among those who deny the existence of supernatural deities, there are essentially two camps. Agnostics who (technically) do not deny God’s existence, but merely profess that it is unknowable. Thus they personally remain unpersuaded. Atheists, on the alternative hand, are more adamant about denying God’s existence. Some, in fact, make a living by stridently refuting God himself and all things holy.

Intuitively, most people assume agnostics are not quite as distant from faith as are atheists. After all, agnostics are generally more polite and respectful toward those of us who naively cling to such superstitions . . . right? Atheists, by contrast, tend to ridicule those who would worship a God who laid down his very life, and died a human death.

Take, for example, what is arguably the earliest surviving illustration of Christ’s crucifixion. The illustration above was carved on an ancient plaster wall near Palatine Hill.

It’s a bit difficult to discern, but historical consensus sees the graffito as a pagan insult directed towards a Greek Christian. The scribbled inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” The crucified figure on the cross clearly bears the head of a donkey. The Church Father Tertullian wrote in the second century of slanders alleging Christians followed just such a deity.

Would something like this be likelier to come from the mind of an agnostic, or an atheist?

Agnostics would rarely summon the energy to rail against God like this. However, atheists sometimes feel so imposed upon by God’s children that they lash out with invectives.

So, as I noted above, the gut feeling of most observers would be to say vocal atheists are farther from God than their kindred disbelievers. However—I am convinced that is not the case!

Ironically, it is the tepid individual who lacks any serious conviction who is in greater danger of perishing without seeing God. This is due to the fact that agnostics have, as a rule, come to grips with the fact that there may or may not be a God . . . but they are content to proceed through life without caring much either way. To them the issue is rather trivial, in a sense, since they rarely lose sleep over it.

This is not true of the atheist, who recognizes that the matter is of the utmost importance; that’s why he is not content to simply ignore it. If God truly exists—they comprehend in the core of their being—nothing could be of greater significance.

Agnostics typically have an unreasoned impression that if there is a God, he is probably benevolent, and most likely more concerned with other elements of the universe he created than their small life. They echo the thinking of liberal “Deists” who imagined God as a distant “watchmaker” who set creation in motion and then left it forgotten on the shelf. This Great Watchmaker is not threatening. He isn’t angry at us, because he doesn’t even deign to notice us. He remains oblivious to humanity, just as we presumably live out our lives anonymous to him.

Atheists don’t want to believe in God, because of their overwhelming doubt. Simultaneously, they recognize that the stakes of the gamble are enormous. Eternal, in fact. And they resent God for placing them in this difficult predicament. Why can’t he just make his existence undeniably evident? Faith is the leap they are unwilling to take. But, by the same rational premise, the wise among them realize that in opting against theism, they are actually placing their faith in an equally unprovable tenet. And this has a tendency to make some of them mildly cranky.

Which brings us back to my suspicion that “the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.” You see, when someone deeply ponders the mystery of whether there is a Creator, they understand he would never have created a sentient being with this yearning to cleave to him, without possessing a compassion for them in return.

Agnostics walk about like spiritual zombies, pursuing their various interests. Atheists, though, are tormented by the nagging “fear” that a loving God just may exist. Certainly, they do whatever they can to exorcize the notion, and they publicly celebrate their liberation from ancient and medieval superstitions, but unlike their unaffected agnostic relations, they have recognized the enormity of their choice. Oh to be a blissfully ignorant agnostic, the more thoughtful might muse.

Sadly (from their present perspective), the lot of the atheist is to be closer to God than the agnostic. Atheists may rail against their Maker, but the agnostic’s spiritual indifference causes them to drift farther and farther from the Truth.

The Scriptures offer a parallel to this distinction in the description of one of the early Christian churches. Apparently the believer in Laodicea had grown lackadaisical about their faith and lived lives that differed little from their pagan and agnostic neighbors. The Lord’s judgment of them begins: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Strange, it seems to us, that God might prefer a militant atheistic mindset to an aimless agnostic worldview. But the amazing truth is that, in most cases, atheists are closer to the kingdom of God than their disinterested peers.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his own pre-Christian disposition. The grandson of an Anglican priest, he had consciously rejected the faith. Yet, as the possibility of its truth grew more real to him as an adult, he reacted against it. He clearly describes his condition as differing from that of the lukewarm agnostics I’ve described above.

Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.

In the same volume he elaborates on the sentiments I’ve been describing.

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

So, if you consider yourself “angry with God for not existing,” you may be closer to meeting him than you ever imagined. If you do follow C.S. Lewis’ example, heaven will host a more resounding celebration for you than it does for the ninety-nine who have always remained part of his flock. And, if you’re a dispassionate agnostic who is weakly amused by this thought . . . my sincere prayer is that you, my friend, would become either hot or cold!

30 responses to Agnostic or Atheist: Does It Matter?

  1. 

    While I don’t agree with your conclusions, I think you might find Bertrand Russell’s essay “What is an Agnostic?” interesting.

    • 

      Christopher, thanks for the comment. With your encouragement, I just reread Russell’s essay. (It’s been several decades since I last read it.) More on my reactions to it in a moment.

      I assume that the reason you and I do not agree on this subject is because we are viewing it from opposite sides of a chasm. From “my” side, what I wrote makes perfect sense. I don’t expect it to make much sense at all to someone who has not had their own Damascus Road experience (i.e. encounter with the risen Lord). It is merely my hope that I could, in as inoffensive a manner as possible, raise some questions for people’s further reflection.

      Returning to the essay . . . It comes as no surprise that, as a Christian, I find the “Christianity” Russell battles to be a bit of a “straw man.” The “arguments” for the faith that he for the most part successfully dismantles, are not, in fact, the actual reasons why I and most of the Christians with whom I am acquainted, believe.

      It would be too much, I suppose, to expect him to deal with the true heart of the matter—the intangible element of faith. Likewise the supernal presence of the Holy Spirit of God himself within the redeemed.

      The closest I feel that he comes to this is in his recognition that it is sometimes associated with early learning. As when he said of Kant, “in intellectual matters he was skeptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother’s knee.” This, however, hints of indoctrination, which is not the true essence of faithful trust.

      Among the weaknesses of Russell’s argument is the fact that Christian (biblical) doctrine doesn’t measure up to his refined (aristocratic) tastes. Most notably, he is offended by the existence of a place (i.e. Hell) for those who refuse to voluntarily dwell in the presence of their Creator. Russell betrays this fundamental bias that of necessity causes him to ultimately reject the gospel when he writes: “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell.”

      By the way, C.S. Lewis has an insightful fantasy treatment of this very subject in his book, The Great Divorce.

      Ultimately, for Russell, I get the sense the entire activity is somewhat moot. After all—unlike most of his contemporary counterparts who doubt Christ’s divinity but not his historicity—Russell believed: “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him.”

  2. 

    Interesting piece. This reminds me of the line of thinking you get in Yan Martel’s Life of Pi, where Pi states, “atheists are my brothers and sitters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap. […] It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt asa philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

    And later:

    I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: ‘White, white! L-L-Love! My God!’ – and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeast less factuality, might to to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”

    Anyways, thanks for the post.

    • 

      You’ve got it. Strong parallels there to what I think. Believe it or not, I’d never heard of Life of Pi, but after reading your comment, I read a couple reviews of the award-winning book. Looks quite interesting and (dare I say) a tad bizarre. Thanks for the comment!

  3. 

    A thoughtful read…thanks for the insights!

  4. 

    Nice post. I agree with your take on atheists vs agnostics. There was an atheist that didn’t agree with me that she is actually an agnostic (she had written, “Who knows? God(s) could exist for all I know.” She also said that there can be agnostic atheists.

  5. 

    Well written post. I laughed remembering how mad teenagers in Sunday School were when the Prodigal Son seemed to be treated so well upon his return. A lot to think about here. Enjoyed the comments, too

  6. 

    Thanks. That visceral reaction to the “bad guy” getting the rewards is something we “dutiful” children of God struggle with. My absolute “least favorite” lesson from Jesus is found in Matthew 20:1-16). It grates on me, even though I’m grateful for the good news it conveys to all humanity!

  7. 

    Wow. Great insights! Agnostics don’t care. Atheists do – so much that they rail against a God they don’t believe in. Maybe we should have hope for atheists! Look at Paul before his conversion – angry at God and angry at Christians. Atheists have passion, which is what we all need. They just need to switch their passion from the wrong camp to the right one.

  8. 

    WordPress seems to think I am a spammer, currently. I have yet to discover why, but I hope you find this comment among your spammity spam.

    Love this post! This whole thing echoes to me of my own experience. I was raised Chrisitan, then had a crisis of faith for about two years. During that time I was unable to believe in God, because

  9. 

    Aaaand I apparently accidentally hit the wrong button. To continue what I was saying:
    I was unable to believe in God because I could not prove His existence. My faith in my intellect had become my false god, though at the time I failed to understand. My epiphany came when I realized that proof was beyond me, and all that I had was a choice. Did I want to put my faith in Jesus, or in the belief that he did not exist? It was as clear a crossroad as I have faced so far in my life. To my Joy, I chose Jesus, and over the course of the next year He began to rebuild me. I also realized that I needed to be torn apart to be fixed. I anticipate that the unmaking and remaking of me is a process that will, and should, be repeated throughout my life.
    Because of this experience, I especially appreciate your post here. If an atheist struggles, as I struggled, in the dark violence of disbelief, then that atheist is nearer to God than he or she can imagine, just as I was. At my most distant from Him, or so I thought, I was closer than when I was complacent.

    Thank you for this post.

  10. 

    William James said that when it comes to forced options, there is no in-between–one must make a commitment one way or the other. The agnostic, practically speaking, is an atheist, even if not theoretically an atheist.

    • 

      True . . . but the self-avowed atheist–the one possessing what might be described as a gnawing animosity toward God–is even more likely than the lukewarm, “contented” unbeliever, to hear His voice.

  11. 

    This was an excellent article followed by a great discussion. Love the C.S. Lewis quotes! Here’s one that applies: The greatest trick the devil ever played is making people believe he doesn’t exist. -C.S. Lewis

  12. 

    I was raised a charismatic evangelical but went through a roughly 7-year period when I lost faith in God and considered myself agnostic (I refer to this as my “angry agnostic” phase!). Granted, I didn’t sit down and develop a carefully thought out set of reasons for my unbelief; rather, it was largely a visceral reaction against bad examples set by a number of the Christians I had encountered, as well as frustrations stemming from a host of personal problems.

    Looking back on that period of my life now, I see how sophomoric–even downright puerile–my thinking was. I foolishly thought I had embraced the most “honest” position–neither denying the existence of a deity nor embracing it. “We don’t know, we can’t know” had become my unspoken motto. Of course, I recognize now that an agnostic position is really no better than an atheist position, as it is still a rejection of God. And I call that time my “angry agnostic” phase because I was so full of anger, especially anger that God wouldn’t meet my expections. (In contrast to Lewis, I wasn’t angry at God for not existing but for not abiding by my standards!)

    Fortunately, the Lord was not finished with me and gradually drew me back to Him. My spiritual “muscles” atrophied a great deal during my agnostic period, so it’s been a long struggle to get back on my feet spiritually. But with His grace, I’m gradually getting there. Praise the Good Shepherd for rescuing this poor lost sheep!

    Evan

  13. 

    And let me just add that we should feel compassion, not contempt, for those lost in the wastelands of agnosticism. I recall a college professor sharing about how he’d known people that he referred to as “desperate agnostics” who admitted that they truly wanted to be able to embrace religious faith but didn’t feel they could honestly do so. I too was a very desperate agnostic, as well as an angry one. Being agnostic, frankly, stank! Thank God I’ve been set free.

    Evan

  14. 

    I highly recommend Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr.’s book, “The Question of God.” The subtitle is, “C.S. Lewis and SIgmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and The Meaning of Life.” Dr. Nicholi is a psychiatrist who has taught at Harvard. There’s even a play in New York based on this book. Worth the time to read if you’re interested in this topic.

  15. 

    Reblogged this on theodorvisanmiu and commented:
    “Among those who deny the existence of supernatural deities, there are essentially two camps. Agnostics who (technically) do not deny God’s existence, but merely profess that it is unknowable (and).atheists, (that are) more adamant about denying God’s existence (and, sometimes) make a living by stridently refuting God himself and all things holy.
    Agnostics walk about like spiritual zombies, pursuing their various interests. Atheists, though, are tormented by the nagging “fear” that a loving God just may exist.
    Sadly (from their present perspective), the lot of the atheist is to be closer to God than the agnostic. Atheists may rail against their Maker, but the agnostic’s spiritual indifference causes them to drift farther and farther from the Truth.” – Robert Stroud

  16. 

    Thanks for a thought provoking take on atheists vs agnostics. It was particularly meaningful to me because I’ve been having interchanges online with self-proclaimed atheists. These take place on the website of a Christian publication, and I have often wondered why so many atheists comment on the articles in a deliberately provocative way. I think your post has given me some answers.

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