On July 11, 2012 Alternet Website published an article, “When Atheists Confront Mortality”. The article was a summary of some recent social science research on the difference between atheists and agnostics.
Agnosticism almost by definition is ambivalent. The agnostic says, for example, “there’s not a strong case for the supernatural. But who knows? Religious people could be right. There’s a lot we don’t know. Maybe there is a God or a spiritual force which is sort of like God.” The atheist would reply, “Agnostic cut the B.S. Stop dreaming. We live in a world without God or Gods. And have you forgotten the Inquisition, the modern jihads, the horrors of the Indian Caste system, the close connection between Zen and Japanese militarism? Religion doesn’t make bad people good it just makes good people behave badly.” Perhaps the differences between atheists and agnostics are more difference in temperament than belief. Agnostics are less confrontational than Atheists, born appeasers, or simply less stubborn than the more militant ranks of non-believers.
Science might help us think more deeply about the difference between the atheism and the agnosticism. We’re all afraid of death. The real distinction between atheists and agnostics is how they handle this fear. According to Prof. Vail of the University of Missouri, atheists accept their own mortality better than agnostics. He wrote in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin “the psychological comforts of religion do not appear to be of universal necessity.” Not so fast, counters Prof . Jong of Oxford University, writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. By using a word association test, he found that non-believers “wavered from their disbelief” after thinking about death.
Of course these kind of question: involving faith, lack of faith, intensity of conviction, are not easily answered by social science. Even if they don’t admit to any personal bias. I suspect that both Prof. Jong and Prof. Vail’s research programs were deeply affected by the values they hold dear. The quantitive methods of science can never really provide answers to these deeply personal questions about the meaning of life. I will attempt to describe the impossible.
Agnostic don’t think there is a real possibility of life after death or the existence of a supernatural being. Atheists know there is no Sky God or mystical forest beings. Late at night, or in the midst of an existential crisis, or if they have bad stomach ache, the agnostic will hope that their whole rational world view is wrong and yes there is magic left in the world. Maybe that kid in the coma will recover and yes maybe you can live forever. Atheists are made of sterner stuff.