Dear Donagh,

As you know there is much discussion today in many quarters about the existence of God and so on.  Its hard to get excited about it but I'm always interested to see how other people are handling it.  Its like watching a game.  I think a lot of people pay their respects to religion, just like saluting the flag, but how far does it go?  Theyre too lazy to really believe and too lazy to disbelieve.  A good hellbound atheist would be like a strong player on a weak team.  What I'd like to ask you is this.  Which is better, an atheist or an agnostic?  Rob

Thanks, Rob, but you didn’t tell our readers that we’ve known each other for many years.  We’ve been over this ground lots of times, and I enjoy talking with you; but this is the first time we've used this format! 

I know you read a lot, so I'm going to pop a poem on you in a moment.  But first I'd like to agree with you that there are many practical agnostics in the world.  That's not surprising at all.  A living faith sets the bar so high that nobody can claim to be clearing it.  But the urge to succeed is alive and well in all of us.  Who wants to be a failure?  But in the matter of faith, it seems, we can't win.  Remember the verse in the gospel: “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves” (Lk 17:10).  And St Paul referred to “sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim 1:15).  So it appears we are destined to failure.  How could that help you to play a strong game?  If you stay with it, you come to see that it’s not a game that you play, it’s more like a game that God plays.  But many good people quit because it seems impossible; they don’t take grace into account at all.  If they don’t become filled with anger and hatred they settle down, probably, to become quiet agnostics, whether or not they still retain some religious practices.   

Your hellbound atheist is a different kind of player altogether.  I presume you mean a militant atheist, not the quiet type.  They don’t quit the game; they play hard, as you say.  Now for that chilling poem.  It was written by a minor 19th-century poet called Henley, and is entitled 'Invictus' (Unconquered).  It captures perfectly the desolate vanity of the ego. 
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I get the creeps whenever I think of this particular poem.  To add to the creepiness, it was quoted by the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, before his execution.   I don’t know if McVeigh was an atheist or not, but this poem represents one atheist position very clearly.  It was also quoted recently by somebody at the funeral of a Dublin criminal.  It has a distinctive readership.  When I first read that poem I wondered if Henley was ever married.  I never found any information about him, but I hope for the sake of some woman that he remained a bachelor all his life.  No softness, no openness, no love, no relationship to anyone or anything…nothing but that empty defiance.  Such a life would not be human.  I hope, for their own sakes, that not all militant atheists are like that. 

So, your question, Rob: “Which is better, an atheist or an agnostic?”  First of all, not being God, I'd rather rephrase it: Which is better, atheism or agnosticism?  (But what if I don’t care especially for either one?)  Secondly, I presume you would want them to be in the same weight division, as in boxing.  No use matching a militant atheist with a gentle intellectual agnostic…. Or a fiercely serious bookish atheist with a lapsed Catholic who couldn’t care less….  

It’s coming home to me, Rob, as I write, that this is an absurd question!  There are too many variables to make a real argument, and all of them are ambiguous.  I'm reminded of the Irishman who announced to his parish priest that he had become an agnostic.  “You’re no agnostic!” said the parish priest, “You’re just a fat slob who’s too lazy to go to Mass.”  I'm reminded too of a student, years ago, who was filling out an enrolment form for Trinity College, Dublin, and put ‘Agnostic’ as his religious affiliation. The supervisor said to him: “We have a slight preference in this college for Latin over Greek, so I shall put you down as an ‘Ignoramus’.  You know that these two words are exact equivalents. 

I think we should sort it out over a pint of Guinness, Rob.  Everything will become much clearer then!


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