“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Odds are, though, most of the people you’re likely to encounter are not that prejudiced. Most of the people you’re likely to actually talk to (most of the people you’re most likely to be related to or work with) are busy actually living their lives and aren’t concerned enough to be dogmatic in their beliefs. If they don’t identify themselves as “Christians” or “Jews” or “Muslims” on various surveys, they’re probably more likely to check the box next to “None” than “Atheist”.
Their beliefs are similar to atheists. They don’t believe in God. They don’t believe in the supernatural. They don’t attend religious services, and they don’t belong to religious organizations. But they’re not willing to make a big deal out of it.
These are the agnostics. They’re sort of like the Unitarians of Atheism. Inoffensive and humble. Open to conversation. Uninterested in persuasion and sometimes self-effacing.
I actually like agnostics. In fact, I think hardcore atheists are intellectually dishonest agnostics with personality problems. I can’t be friends with a hardcore atheist because his atheism always gets in the way. But I have lots of friends who are agnostic.
My friend Kevin recently came out to me. We were sitting in the St. Andrews bar in midtown Manhattan, and after he’d sufficiently imbibed enough liquid courage, he threw down the gauntlet.
“I’ve been looking forward to this conversation and dreading it all day,” he said. “I even read some of your most recent blog entries to know what you’ve been thinking about and reading lately. Then…” he paused for a big drink and a deep breath, “I went to Richard Dawkins’ blog and read up on how I might respond to some of your questions.”
“I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment,” I replied.
“Please do,” he insisted. “You are the two smartest and most accessible writers I know when it comes to your different perspectives. It’s just that…I tend to agree with him more than I agree with you. I’m an…atheist,”
he blurted out expecting some sort of horrified reaction. After all, I know his family. What would they think?
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
“But it’s true. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I don’t believe in God anymore.”
My friend had been raised in a fairly rigid Christian environment. I’ve known him since he was very young. In fact, I used to babysit him and his younger brother when I was in high school.
“I think you don’t believe in the god you were taught about when you were young. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t believe in God.”
“John, you’re not hearing me. I said I am an atheist.”
“Well, you said that, but then what you said after that contradicted it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you don’t believe in God, and that’s different from saying that you know there is no God. If you’d said that, then you’d be an atheist. But you didn’t say that. You’re too humble to say that.”
“Humble isn’t usually used to describe me. Tell me more of this humility of mine!” Kevin said.
Me: “Suppose this table is all the information in the universe.”
Kevin: “Okay, this table is all the information in the universe.”
Me: “Thank you. Now, how much of this table do you actually possess?”
My friend put drink coasters over a larger portion of the table than I thought he should, but he intentionally left a large section of the table uncovered.
Kevin: “There. That’s how much of the available information in the universe I currently hold in my possession.”
Me: “Okay. So, you’re saying you don’t know everything, right?”
Me: “Now, suppose that over here in this knowledge that you don’t have is the knowledge that God does, in fact, exist. Is that even a possibility?”
I could see the wheels turning in my friend’s head. “This is a trap, isn’t it?” he asked.
“No,” I assured him. “Well…maybe,” I confessed.
After another few moments of hesitation, Kevin said, “Sure. That’s possible. But it’s not probable.”
Me: “Okay, I’ll accept that. So, you’re a soft atheist or, more likely, an agnostic. You don’t know, but you’re doubtful. Maybe God exists but probably not.”
Kevin: “Sure. That sounds right. You can’t ever know anything for certain – positive or negative. I get that. But I don’t like to be a soft anything. I’d rather be a hardcore agnostic. Can I do that?”
Kevin’s not much different from another friend of mine named Patrick. We'll talk about him tomorrow.