Some key distinctions for the science-religion debates: agnosticism vs. atheism and secularism

If 'atheism' means “100% certainty or conviction that there is no god or cosmic intelligence which created or sustains the universe” then there must be few who can – on proper reflection – subscribe to its literal sense. To do so it to become a rigid know-all who thinks his conviction is infallible. By ‘atheism’ however very few generally intend such an absolutist pronouncement, they leave open the remote possibility that – despite all evidence and likelihood, there may be a (remote) possibility that they could find out they were not right. A sensible reservation of judgement at all times! However, to call oneself an atheist is reasonable without having to hold oneself permanently infallible. It is impossible finally and scientifically to prove or disprove the existence of God (whatever or whoever that is supposed to be). To deny this is to become like those fanatics who preach the various religions as being the absolute truth and word of God, or that they have personal contact with God.

Though Professor Dawkins tends to uphold an iron distinction between agnostic and atheist, it does not take account of ordinary usage, of common sense or scientific scepticism (i.e. reservation of final judgement). His agenda with that schism is to try to confront certain all-too-religiously-tolerant ‘agnostics’ aware of their actual position and its consequences. He no doubt wants to firm up their skepticism. However, I regard myself as a convinced non-believer and sometimes speak of my attitude as agnostic, sometimes atheist. The term 'non-theist' is often preferable, though it tends not to cover certain kinds of mysticism which accept a depersonalized cosmic intelligence of some kind.

Based on definitions in Prof. Sindre Bangstad's book "What secularism is and is not" the following is important to recognize:-

Secularism is not the same as Atheism, it is primarily a political doctrine which makes it possible to take many kinds of positions with regard to the place of religion in the public sphere, including politics. Secularity is something else, which mainly describes a cultural process in which religious faith only gradually becomes one possibility among many others; while secularization refers to social differentiation in which the secular spheres are separated from one another and from religious institutions.

These distinctions may seem meticulous but they show that what seem to be the same positions are often quite different. Secularism says nothing about whether people are religious or not, but about the institutional structures in place to guarantee representation of different ways of life. Secularism may be thought of as a society which embraces cosmopolitism.

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