Believing Jew > Atheist > Agnostic
Which is not too dissimilar from the change in my beliefs, which went like this:
Believing Mormon > Agnostic > Atheist
The main difference in the progression of our beliefs, aside from the Jew/Mormon aspect, is the order in which Alda and I became Atheist or Agnostic, but to really appreciate this difference, it's important to understand the subtle difference between Atheism and Agnosticism, and Alda does a great job addressing this in his essay:
"As I understood the word [atheist], it meant that I was someone who didn't believe in a God; I was without a God.... But, slowly I realized that in the popular mind the word atheist was coming to mean something more: a statement that there couldn't be a God. God was, in this formulation, not possible, and this was something that could be proved.... The problem for me was that just as I couldn't find any evidence that there was a god, I couldn't find any that there wasn't a god. I would have to call myself an agnostic."
Therein lies the distinction between Atheism and Agnosticism -- and it is one that ties Atheism closer to Theism than one might think -- namely, faith. Yes, Atheists are as much believers as Theists: Theists believe God exists, in one form or another; while Atheists actively believe God does not exist. Agnostics are the only realists in this picture -- they recognize that it is impossible to prove one way or another the existence of God. God's existence or non-existence is a matter of faith.
When this realization about the distinction between Atheism and Agnosticism occurred to me not long ago, I was somewhat alarmed to be able to connect the word "faith" to myself again. I have always deemed my mind to be very staunchly based on reason as opposed to faith. (Reason and faith are traditionally viewed as a dichotomy, meaning that they are mutually exclusive, opposed, or even contradictory of one another.) When I first made the leap from believing Mormon to Agnostic, I had come to think of myself as incapable of faith; I based my knowledge solely on evidence. But when I finally stepped down from the fence-sitting position of Agnosticism, I decided that there was no evidence that I could point to to explain why it is that, deep down, I really did believe there is no God. That's different from just not believing in God, which both Atheists and Agnostics do, but it's adding an affirmative stance to an otherwise negatively-defined position. Instead of merely not believing, you are actively disbelieving. And in my case, it's me being true to myself and my own mind, which seems to have a little faith intermingled with its reason after all.
Like Lady Justice with her scales, Theists and Atheists alike must use reason to weigh what they know, and then they must add a little belief one way or the other to tip the scales in favor of one view about God. Agnostics, on the other hand, look at the scales and speak the realist perspective: one cannot know.
While the principle of uncertainty is beautiful to some, like physicist Richard Feyman (whom Alda mentions in his essay, and who wrote several lovely and very readable books, my favorite being The Pleasure of Finding Things Out), not knowing makes most people uneasy. And this uneasiness is the main motivation for making a choice about belief.
Many people are comforted by a belief in God, and I can understand why, since I am just as comforted by my belief that there is no God. But I have just as much respect for the Agnostic perspective, because it takes a lot of courage to admit that we don't know.
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