In some ways, it’s perfectly understandable why atheists should dislike deists, and vice versa. Each group tends to define itself in opposition to the other; by definition, they cannot come to an agreement because the positions held on each side cannot all be true at the same time.
But there’s one thing they seem to be able to agree on: They don’t seem to like agnostics very much. It’s a very curious thing, if you think about it. Why all the contempt?
You’re either with us or against us
The most obvious reason that deists and atheists alike would despise agnosticism is simply that agnosticism is not deism or atheism. It is different and is therefore not to be trusted. In fact, a person’s agnosticism is not really all that important, rather the fact that they refuse to agree with either side is what gives rise to the contempt.
And yet, there still seems to be a special sort of contempt reserved for the agnostic. Something that is characteristically different than the dislike of the avowedly religious or atheistic.
Occasionally, you might hear an atheist describe agnosticism as “cowardly.” But in order for this accusation to be correct, one must accept certain assumptions that have never been fully proven.
For example, there is the idea that an agnostic, lacking faith in god, is basically an atheist anyway, but is afraid to say so for fear of provoking unwanted attention, which is cowardly. But that’s nonsense. Firstly, there are plenty of non-strident atheists who keep their faithlessness to themselves, but will readily admit to being such when asked. And then there is the fact that being an agnostic is in no way more safe or respectable than being an atheist, at least as far as many theists are concerned.
A more apt justification for charging agnosticism with cowardice is that, by refusing to take a side, one is withdrawing from a crucial intellectual debate. In this view, an agnostic is someone who throws their hands up and quits the field, either unwilling or unable to face the arguments in either direction. “It’s too hard to think about this stuff, so I won’t.” There are, of course, agnostics who are like this, but then again, there is a tremendous body of thoughtful writing on the nature of agnosticism, by agnostics, so one cannot say that the philosophy, in and of itself, is a retreat.
Fear of uncertainty, doubt
The human mind seems to recoil at uncertainty. We don’t like not knowing things. Of course, sometimes we just have to lump it — unsolved mysteries abound — but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
How many times have you run across someone who will say of a mystery, “We just don’t know,” without proceeding to give you their own unproven (or unprovable) theory? If we wonder at something, we investigate. If that investigation turns up no hard evidence, we guess at the answers, trying to come up with something that makes sense. To put it more bluntly, we start bullshitting.
An unanswered question tends to linger in our minds. They are like tiny little voices in our heads, annoying us with their mysteriousness, and the only thing that shuts them up, when real answers are nowhere to be found, is a line of plausible codswallop. There is a certain amount of honesty and tolerance for ambiguity that is required to admit to yourself that you don’t know something. Admitting it to others just pisses them off. They’ve settled this question in their own minds, and the “evidence” that got them there is plain as day (to them); why, if you’re the reasonable person you claim to be, can you not see that? On the other hand, if you’re just a big dummy, then why haven’t you gone the other way? What is this fence-sitting bullshit? Do I hate you for your (lack of) belief or not?
Caught up in the smug
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not sure any of those reasons are totally correct. It’s all too complicated and mixed up of course. There may be no good, satisfying answer, here. Except — maybe there’s one more thing to consider.
If you tell an atheist you believe in God, he’ll tell you you’re wrong (with varying levels of rudeness). If you tell a theist you don’t believe, they’ll say the same (with varying levels of post-life torment implied or explicated). If you say either thing to an agnostic, you’ll usually get some version of, “Well, maybe.”
What the hell is that? For one thing, it sounds like somebody trying to pivot out of the fight you’re spoiling for, but more to the point, it sounds smug. And we hate smug, don’t we? Even the most politic attempt to neither agree or disagree comes across as someone patting you on the head and saying, “Well, who knows, you might even be right!”
I’m not saying there aren’t condescending agnostics — there’s condescending everythings in this jerk-filled world of ours — but I wonder it we’re not being assigned more haughtiness than our fair portion. I mean, yes, it can be quite irritating when someone responds to your heartfelt declaration of un/faith by peering down their nose at you, slight smirk on their lips, and saying, “Mm-hm, but are you sure? You can’t ever be sure, you know.”
But most agnostics I’ve met aren’t like that (though I wish we could fund a study to check the population at large — because even I would find those jerks annoying). I think it’s something that projected on to us by a smallish number of hardcore people on either side. You know, the loudest people.
The truth is that people, I think, mostly don’t think about agnostics at all. Some may not even believe in us. Or, at least, they’re pretty sure they can’t prove we’re us.
Which is different.