Why our Lack of Understanding leads to Conflict on Religion
(and why we are all really agnostic)

By Robert A. Vella

Human beings are rather interesting creatures. We are quick to form strongly held opinions even on matters beyond our understanding. And, there is no subject further beyond the understanding of human beings than the origin of the cosmos. This combination of strong opinion and lack of knowledge creates a contentious, volatile environment for conflict.

Examine the definition of these four key words while comparing them to your own understanding:

Religion (from Wikipedia): an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.

Theism (from Oxford): belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures.

Atheism (from Oxford): disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

Agnosticism (from Wikipedia): the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether or not God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable.

Did you know that religion is not necessarily dependent upon a belief in god(s)?

Did you know that a belief in god(s) is not necessarily dependent upon religion?

Did you know that atheism can be both active (“gods do not exist”) and passive (“I do not believe in gods”)?

Did you know that agnosticism is not an indecisive middle ground between theism and atheism, but a completely distinct belief of itself?

Did you know that agnostics can be religious or non-religious, theistic or atheistic?

Did you know that science is agnostic on the origin of the cosmos (based on current evidence)?

Did you know that you are agnostic?

Yes, you. Even the most ardent theists cannot specifically explain what their god(s) are and how they created the cosmos. All such explanatory attempts are extremely generalized, incredibly vague, and ascribed to mythological supernatural powers wholly outside normal human experience. Even the most strident atheists cannot concretely explain the origin of the cosmos, nor can they empirically disprove the existence of gods (although they try to using rationalist arguments). So, regardless of our subjective beliefs, we are all objectively agnostic. With respect to humankind’s greatest existential questions, none of us truly know the answers.

* * * * *

Knowing something to be true requires empirical reasoning and evidentiary proof. Believing in something only requires faith. Both are important to the human experience, but are uniquely separate concepts. Conflating the two is the clinical definition of irrationality.”


Why then, is there so much conflict surrounding such ambiguous topics? Let’s examine the definition of two more key words:

Secularism (from Encarta): 1) the belief that religion and religious bodies should have no part in political or civic affairs or in running public institutions, especially schools; 2) the rejection of religion or its exclusion from a philosophical or moral system.

Sectarianism (from Wikipedia): bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religion, class, regional or factions of a political movement.

Did you know that religious people can be secular?

Did you know that sectarians can be non-religious?

Now, we’re starting to see what’s at the heart of the controversy. It isn’t so much about what people believe, but about how people’s beliefs affect social organization and governance. Secularists fear the authoritarian, and potentially totalitarian, dictates of religion which have continuously plagued mankind with all kinds of disastrous inhumanities. Sectarians fear cultural progressivism which threatens their influence in a world steadily moving away from organized religion. This is no contest of ideas. This is a battle for power, and it has always been so.

* * * * *

“Social instability feeds the growth of sectarianism – the dominionist who works behind the scenes to establish a Christian fundamentalist theocracy in America, the Islamist who brazenly and ruthlessly attempts to build a similar nation for Muslims in the Middle East, and a new brand of young secular radicals who now wage a cold war on religion throughout the developed world.”


We, as individuals, may self-identify our spiritual or cosmological beliefs any way we wish. Labels aren’t as important as how we express ourselves. It is our words and actions which substantively define our identity. However, the words we choose have meaning. Understanding their meaning – objectively, not subjectively – is necessary to avoid miscommunication and conflict. We should also understand that sectarianism does not seek to avoid conflict; rather, it sees conflict as a means to an end. It chooses words not for clarity, but for purpose.

In an ever uncertain and dangerous world, conflict is unavoidable. We have fought and will fight over many crucial issues – land, water, energy, and other natural resources, who rules, how we are ruled, just to name a few. These are tangible points of contention which are inherently resolvable. The existence of god(s) is intangible and not resolvable within the foreseeable future. To spend time and effort debating it may serve some psychological needs we may feel, but it is ultimately a counterproductive exercise. Such a contest of will serves to further fracture an already disunited people, much to the delight of those engaged in divide and conquer tactics.

* * * * *

“In the very first words of the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, America’s founding fathers agreed to adhere the fledgling nation to a profoundly simple principle – that neither oppression from religion, nor oppression towards religion, could ever be codified into its laws.”


Further reading and discussions:

Between the Lions: An Agnostic’s view of the Theism versus Atheism debate

atheists are no fun to talk to – comment 25893

* * * * *

“The admission of ignorance is not weakness, it is wisdom.”


14 thoughts on “Why our Lack of Understanding leads to Conflict on Religion

      • You know, grading was my least favorite task – and I sometimes asked students to grade themselves and provide evidence that supported their suggestions. (I know they would have preferred it if I had merely assigned grades.) 🙂

        I usually made comments instead – so here’s what I would say in addition to the comments I already shared. This essay is timely, relevant, and crucial for people to read carefully and consider in these times.

        Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary, Robert!


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