I have just discovered on a fellow-blogger’s blog (“Critic of Christianity”) a discussion she came across on yet another blog about the distinction between agnostics and atheists. It features a diagram with four boxes where non-believers are pigeon-holed, in the boxes on the left, as either, in the bottom one “I am certain that at least one god exists”, or in the top one “I am certain that there are no gods”, and in the boxes on the right as either, in the bottom one “My best guess is that god(s) exist but I am not certain”, or in the top one “My best guess is that no gods exist but I am not certain”. (The diagram is on the Critic of Christianity blog.)
In my Management seminars I often exploited what its authors, Blake and Mouton, called their “Management Grid”. It was a pedagogical tool to present four management styles in four boxes, comparing a manager’s dedication to getting Results from his staff, with his desire to promote more or less friendly Relationships with them. Not only did the Grid pigeon-hole managers by their degree of commitment to “the two dimensions of management”, but actually attributed numerical scores identifying their management style as anywhere between 9.0 (the brutal whip-cracker whose only concern is meeting objectives and getting results) and 0.9 (the weak-kneed, permissive manager who dares not ruffle his employees’ feathers even when their results are poor). You end up with 5.5, 6.4, 2.3 managers, and the ideal manager – like me – a 9.9, totally dedicated to getting maximum results from happy, motivated, respected staff. Seminar-participants loved it, until I revealed the Hershey-Blanchard graph of “Situational Management”, where there was no ideal management style except the one most adapted to the current economic circumstances, the harsh realities of business and an objective assessment of what could be expected of a staff-member in a given situation. The best management style ? Whatever works. It all depends …
Classifying degrees and differences in agnosticism and atheism also oversimplifies, but worse, misses the point. As a convinced atheist, I am as certain as I can be about the fact of God’s non-existence. But I have always admitted that no one can be absolutely certain of anything except mathematical axioms like 2+2 = 4 and confirmed results of DNA analysis. In this sense all atheists are agnostics. At the risk of alienating fellow non-believers who describe themselves that way, I would submit that agnostics refuse to call themselves atheists because they want to nip in the bud any accusation of the arrogant certitude which they feel atheists deserve. They insist that they are being honest and imply that atheists are not. In fact we atheists dare to state that while we admit that we do not KNOW that God does not exist, we are convinced, given the lack of evidence, that He doesn’t. Agnostics do not share our conviction. They prefer to say “Maybe He does, maybe He doesn’t”.
I submit that that is enough to clarify the distinction. Putting religious convictions into boxes is even less useful than plotting management styles on a two-dimensional grid.