Religion and atheism are not opposites of each other

What is the opposite of a devoutly religious believer? Not atheist, but agnostic. The issue is faith, the ability to believe in the absence of any evidence supporting rational analysis. And faith is what the believer and the atheist have in common. The believer is convinced God exists, utterly in the absence of evidence convincing enough to lift their belief out of mere faith. And the atheist possesses an equal measure of faith, but directed at the opposite belief that God cannot possibly exist. The hitch is, as believers are wont to quote, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because the positive hypothesis (that there is a God) cannot be proved, the same lack of evidence cannot logically be used to prove that there is no God. Belief that there is no God is thus as much an act of faith as the belief that God exists.

Thus the opposite of both believer and atheist is the agnostic. The agnostic’s posture is one of nonbelief — it is simply impossible to know which side of the coin, believer or atheist, is correct. The term was coined by Darwin contemporary and defender (he was nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog”), Thomas Huxley, who tacked the “a-“ prefix to the Greek gnosis, popular with early Christian writers as a reference to spiritual knowledge.

The posture of an agnostic is thus one of respectful diffidence in the face of mystery. It is a middle way, which unfortunately, in this age of extremes is a difficult place to occupy, open to attacks by believers and atheists alike. But though difficult, it may be the only intellectually defensible ground. And even if one is unmoved from their posture as devout or atheist, all of us can take a lesson of humility from the stance of the agnostic. As the motto often seen on bumper stickers goes, “I don’t know — and you don’t either!” Even servants of faith should take care not to confuse faith for certainty.