Monday, April 13, 2009

Do Not Confuse Atheists with Agnostics

I would do anything in the world for my sister, Mary. Therefore, when she asked that I address on this blog the thorny problem of the vast multitudes mixing up agnostics with atheists, there was no way I could say no.

Atheists are people that do not believe in the existence of any deities. It's not like atheists don't just agree with Christianity, or Judaism, or whatever. There cannot be a deity of any sort, if you are an atheist. Celebrity atheists include Woody Allen, Ani DiFranco, Keanu Reeves, and Katharine Hepburn.

Agnostics, on the other hand, aren't willing to commit to a solid religious dogma. I believe that most actually want a higher power to be running the show, want to know that they be secure in the knowledge that they will float on soft fluffy clouds and play harps with other angels after earthly death. However, agnostics are aware that this scenario (and really most dogma) are kind of ... uh, shall we say, far-fetched. For that reason, agnostics doubt. They question. They are unwilling (or unable) to truly, 100% back up the idea of a puppetmaster God pulling all the strings. The list of celebrity agnostics is kind of telling, actually: Vincent Bugliosi, Matt Groening, Carl Sagan, Uma Thurman, Stephen Hawking, Dave Matthews.

Perhaps one of the most articulate agnostics was the British poet Robert Browning, who depicts the murder of a young woman in his poem "Porphyria's Lover." Basically, this guy strangles his girlfriend to death with a strand of her own hair then sits up all night with the body. Despite this atrocity, Browning makes the point at the poem's end that "God has not said a word." Surely, Browning is screaming with this fairly graphic and disturbing piece, if there was a God, He/She would have done something. Knocked the guy dead with a lightning bolt, maybe. Nope, nothing. However, the true depth of Browning's agnosticism (not to be confused with atheism, which would mean not believing in any sort of deity) is present in that his poem's homicidal lover continues to sit alongside a corpse, continues to wait for a punishment to be doled out. He believes that a punishment can and should and probably is coming ... he just has some lingering doubts about the nature or even maybe the veracity.

Mary is a scientist--she got the brains in the family. She's always been a hundred times better than me at everything, except possibly this little thing called writing (although she's no slouch). Therefore, when Mary asks me to do something for her, I do it. She's two years younger than I am, but I look up to her. There's some strange dynamics in my family. Anyway, Mary, hope this addressed your concerns.

To recap:
If John believes that deities cannot, have never, and will never exist, John is an atheist.
If Jessica believes that there might be a God, that she even hopes there is a God, but she's on the lookout for solid proof, Jessica is an agnostic.

And then, of course, there are true believers, but they go in so many directions I wouldn't even know where to start : )