Religion 101

As mentioned in my previous blog, a fair percentage of my community college world religions students (and also of the general public, whom my students probably represent a fairly representative sample of) often exhibits some confusion or uncertainty over the precise meaning of such terms as atheism and agnosticism.

Atheism can actually mean a couple of things. It can refer to a belief in the unreality or non-existence of any God or gods; alternately, it can also refer to a mere lack of belief in any God or gods.

The distinction between those two positions may seem subtle at first, but it’s an important one, especially among those who regard themselves as atheists. That alone makes it a distinction worth attempting to fully grasp and appreciate.

Some atheists are positively certain that there is no God; they fully “believe in” the non-existence of any deity whatsoever. This position is sometimes referred to as “hard” atheism.

Other atheists, while still very much “atheistic” in the literal sense (being nonbelievers in God), do not feel the need to go quite so far. Rather than flatly asserting a firm assertion that God cannot exist, they instead take the somewhat more modest position that they simply find no compelling or convincing reason to believe in the existence of God, and so they therefore simply do not hold such a belief.

In other words, rather than positively affirming a definite belief or conviction that God simply does not exist, they merely negatively point out that they see no reason whatsoever to believe or assume that God exists. Put differently, theirs is not “belief” per se, but actually just a lack of belief. This position is sometimes referred to as “soft” atheism.

At first glance, the difference between “hard” and “soft” atheism may seem elusive or even nonexistent. However, a little reflection on the very specific stance which each type of atheism maintains toward the question of the existence of God may make this distinction clearer.

A hard atheist may insist that no God exists, whereas a soft atheist may simply point out that they have no more reason to believe in God than they have to believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Consequently, theism (belief in God) is simply not a belief that they hold or accept — and that makes them “non-theists,” or “a-theists.”

Once again, soft atheists emphasize that their position is is not a matter of holding a particular belief, but a matter instead simply of an absence of a particular belief. (There’s a difference.) They generally further emphasize that all of this additionally means that atheism, per se, is by no means a “religion” or a “belief system” itself, but merely the absence of religion or the lack of a belief system.

Some oft-heard slogans popular among such atheist circles wittily underscore this distinction: “If atheism is a religion, then baldness is a hair color”; “If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby”; “If atheism is a religion, then silence is a sound”; “If atheism is a religion, then not playing baseball is a sport”; and so forth.

So, in a nutshell, that’s atheism (in both of its varieties). Now, what about agnosticism?

(To be continued, in Part Three.)