Truthdig has posted an interview with Sam Harris (previously discussed 1,2), in which he has an interesting answer to the question of what distinguishes an athiest from an agnostic.

The typical distinction is well-known, but after re-iterating what we all know, Harris goes on to say:

But it’s not an intellectually honest position, because everyone is walking around presuming to know that there isn’t a Zeus, there isn’t a Poseidon, and there isn’t a Thor. Can you prove that Thor with his hammer isn’t sending down lightning bolts? No, you can’t prove it. But that’s not the right question. The right question is, “Is there any reason whatsoever to think there’s a god named Thor?” And of course there isn’t. There are many good reasons to think that he was a fictional character. The Batman of Scandinavia.

In other words, the very existence of the category “agnostic” is loaded in favour of theism (at least, one flavour of theism – namely the one dominant in whatever culture you happen to find yourself), in that if all sorts of other metaphysical fantasies don’t get the benefit of this fence-sitting position, why should the big monotheistic religions benefit from it? The answer most likely lies in “agnosticism” developing as a social response, where people find themselves nervous about confessing their heretical doubts, rather than developing as a serious epistemological stance. Harris’s is one of those observations that seems obvious once someone points it out, and also where you feel you should have thought of it yourself…

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.