Can a ghostly radio sway a skeptic’s views on the afterlife?,” the Jan. 28 Book World review by Wray Herbert of Michael Shermer’s “Heavens on Earth,” cited polls indicating the widespread belief in an afterlife: “So pervasive is this conviction that even a third of agnostics and atheists proclaim a belief in an afterlife.” Here the reviewer should have taken the book’s author to task for not taking to task poll-takers for repeatedly lumping together agnostics and atheists as if they were members of a homogeneous assemblage separated by a matter of degree. They are not. There is a qualitative distinction between them.

Agnostics are a heterogeneous group in terms of what they might question about religious beliefs, whereas atheists deny the existence of God because they recognize no evidence for any god. Atheists, for that same reason — absence of evidence — would also reject a belief in an afterlife. The lumping together in surveys of the views of agnostics and atheists to conclude that a third among them believe in an afterlife most likely reflects the views largely held by agnostics, as I strongly suspect atheists would contribute near zero to that percentage. 

Bruce Grant, Charlottesville