Apologists, Please Stop Lumping Agnostics Together With Atheists

Apologetics – like any area of study – has its pros and cons. One of the pros of studying apologetics is that one quickly gains a birds-eye-view of the many positions that are out there, as well as the tension-points in each position. Seeing the bigger picture helps one to assess different worldviews by checking how they fit with particular facts. Unfortunately, one of the cons of apologetics has been its tendency to lump agnostics together with atheists in rather damaging ways. But before I defend that claim, let’s look as some definitions first.

Agnostics are those who neither believe nor disbelieve in God because they think that (1) the evidence is equal on both sides, or that (2) the answer to the God question is humanly unknowable. By contrast, atheism is the belief that there is no God because they think that God’s existence is unlikely. With these definitions in place, apologists correctly argue that atheism cannot be defined merely as a lack of belief in God. Such a definition has more in common with agnosticism than with atheism. Atheism is a truth claim that needs to be supported by evidence, grounds, or at least by background beliefs that make it likely. Otherwise, atheism is without warrant.

Atheists believe that God's existence is improbable on the evidence, but agnostics do not.
Atheists believe that God’s existence is improbable on the evidence, but agnostics do not. Agnostics neither believe nor disbelieve, for various reasons.

So yes, apologists are correct to distinguish atheism from agnosticism by pointing out that one is a belief, whereas the other is not. Indeed, they insist on this distinction so that atheists are rightly made to shoulder their side of the burden of proof in contexts of debate. But the irony is that many apologists then go ahead and lump agnostics back together with atheists by assuming they both choose against a religious life: “surely, people must believe in God in order to engage in practices like praying, participating in a faith community, and studying sacred texts for the purpose of personal sanctification. But since agnostics (like atheists) don’t believe in God, it would be inconsistent and hypocritical for them to choose a religious life,” or so the apologist reasons.

However, the assumption that agnostics are united with atheists in choosing against a religious life is mistaken.[1] After years of advising seekers in my ministry work, I have come to know agnostics who desperately want God to exist and keep searching in hope that God will make his existence and presence more evident. These people are frequently tormented by the inner tension generated by (1) their desire for God and (2) their sense of duty to believe in proportion to the available evidence – which appears to them equal on both sides. They deeply hope for God and express that hope by praying to a God who might be there, studying religious texts diligently, and contributing to a community of faith. Engaging in these practices from the stance of hope (rather than belief) is perfectly justified in their eyes, and I am inclined to agree. Moreover, consider what the agnostic philosopher Paul Draper has the say on this topic. He writes, “it is reasonable – indeed, I would say rationally required – for me to behave differently than I would if I were an atheist. For example, I ought to pray – unlike the atheist, I believe there just might be a God listening. More generally, I ought to do what I can to cultivate or at least prepare for a relationship with God.[2]

Some agnostics jump into the theistic pool by adopting a religious life of hope, rather than belief.
Some agnostics jump into the “theistic pool” by adopting a religious life of hope, rather than belief. They don’t believe (let alone know) that God exists, but they don’t need to.

So why is it commonly assumed that agnostics are in the same camp as atheists on the issue of religious practice? I have some theories. First, some Christian apologists convey an “us-against- them” mentality in their zeal to win debates. This mentality ends up polarizing the key players in a debate so that those who disagree get lumped in the same category. Second, because agnostics and atheists often make similar criticisms of religious belief, Christians are quick to assume that both parties are on the same page in terms of religious practice. Third, many of the skeptical societies on college campuses invite atheists and agnostics to join. They even put the terms “Atheist/Agnostic” in their names. But while this conflation of terms is unfortunate, apologists are not thereby excused to be as sloppy; in fact, this conflation is detrimental to the task of apologetics because it sways agnostics into thinking they are no closer to belief in God than their atheist colleagues. Not only is this untrue, but it creates unnecessary barriers to faith.

So what should we do? As apologists, we must learn to treat agnostics as their own species. They are closer to belief (in terms of probability) than atheists, and this presents unique opportunities for hope-based prayer and preparation for a relationship to a God who just might be there. If you are an apologist and are interested in learning more about what agnostic religious practice looks like and how it can be rationally defended, I have written about it at length here.]

[1] It’s not even clear that atheists must discard all religious practice either. For example, philosopher Alain de Botton argues that such practices can (and should) be edifying for an atheist, even after God has been “deleted” from them.

[2] Paul Draper, “Seeking but Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays eds. Moser and Howard-Snyder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp.210-11.

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