By Mathew Goldstein
Is there a significant difference between the religiously unaffiliated or between agnostics and atheists? People who are skeptical that we have knowledge about a judgmental deity tend to live their lives much like atheists. Nevertheless, a December 2017 New Age beliefs Pew poll result indicates that there is at least one significant difference between self-described atheists on the one hand and self-described agnostics and other religiously unaffiliated “nones” on the other hand. Self identifying atheists as a religious belief related demographic are unique in their tendency to consistently reject New Age beliefs.
My guess is that atheists tend to be better grounded and more consistent in recognizing the significance of the distinction between properly justified beliefs and fictions than other people, including other “nones”. Being agnostic or unaffiliated suggests having a skeptical outlook, which is good, but skepticism by itself, while it is a requisite component for critical thinking, is not the same as critical thinking. Critical thinking recognizes, seeks out, and firmly adopts as dictates, conclusions which are best fit overall with the available empirical evidence, it is not compatible with a pluralistic, all beliefs have equal standing, perspective. Knowledge and ignorance are meaningfully and substantially different, it is a distinction that underlies competence versus incompetence. Not respecting that distinction can be as insidious as, or even more insidious than, getting the facts wrong
At the same time, individuals can be wrong about many things, including ontological or metaphysical supernaturalism, gods, and New Age beliefs and still do fine overall. There are also the questions of whether the goals of socially and psychological navigating life each day successfully conflicts with the goal of critical thinking about more distant concerns and, insofar as there is a conflict, why the latter should be deemed more important than the former. That is more of a personal issue, so the answer will be different for different people and can depend on the individual context and circumstances. It is unfortunate that we have this tendency to mix these different goals that we too often perceive as being in conflict and sacrifice the integrity of our identification of what is true about how our universe operates goal to our other goals.