Why not agnosticism?

A reader writes:

I still have some investigating to do, but I am nearly ready to give up on organized religion for good. With that almost out of the way, there are two possibilities left: some other god(s) such as a deist god or no god at all. I agree with the notion that our ignorance of the origin of the universe does not necessitate god’s existence, but I don’t understand how it (or any other evidence we have at the present) could necessitate god’s absence either. Therefore, I am having trouble finding a single reason to think god does not exist. Unless I am missing something, rationality can only take someone as far as rejecting organized religion and its general anti-rationality attitude and becoming an agnostic. Actual denial of god seems to always involve a gut feeling, AKA a belief.

Since you made a point to clarify that you have “concluded” god does not exist rather than just “believing” he does not exist, I thought maybe you could shed some light on the issue. You imply that you have found some rational reason to take the extra step past doubting the Christian God to doubting any god at all, which makes me very curious. Could you please elaborate on what evidence led you to rationally deduce that there is no god, dismissing even a deist god? I would love to hear what you have to say.

Thanks,
Mike

First, thanks for the great question, Mike. It’s one that comes up pretty often, and one I had to wrestle with myself. I can only answer as to what convinces me, so for what it’s worth, here we go.

You reasonably ask, “what evidence led you to rationally deduce that there is no god”? My simple answer is, the best evidence against the existence of a god is the lack of evidence for that existence. This question, and how it is framed, plays a large role in debates between atheists and religious people (and sometimes agnostics). Religious people are often forced to admit, “OK, fine, I can’t prove that god exists. But you can’t prove that there is no god.” Atheists sometimes reflexively respond, “No, the burden is on you to prove that god does exist, and you can’t, so QED, there is no god.” I agree with the latter position, but my reasons need a little explanation.

Religion claims that god acts interacts with the physical world in extraordinary ways — hearing and answering prayers, healing sick people, providing help in times of crisis, etc. Although these acts are supposed to come from a supernatural being that defies observation, the effects of “acts of god” are claimed to be real and tangible. As such, they could be observed and measured. There is a strong cultural taboo against even undertaking such research (at least in the US), but some have argued convincingly (Daniel Dennett, in particular) that all aspects of religion should be open to experimental testing. Those experiments that have been conducted, such as studies on the effects of intercessory prayer, have failed to yield any convincing evidence of supernatural agency.

Moreover, it is logically impossible to prove the absence of something that is, by definition, not observable. Bertrand Russell had a great response to this issue – imagine I believe there is an ordinary teapot orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. You cannot disprove my belief because there is no technology, not even the Hubble Space Telescope, that could observe such a small object as such great distances. Because you can’t disprove it, is it necessarily true then that I am justified in believing my celestial teapot is there?

Ultimately, these points lead me to declare myself an atheist not because I conclusively know that god does not exist, but because it appears to me highly improbable that it does. Richard Dawkins explores factors that, to him, make the probability of god rather low in The God Delusion. I’ll list a few others that factor into my probability calculation: the ability of natural processes to explain the structure of the universe at large and life on this planet; the contradictory nature of the myriad religions that have existed throughout human history; the proven falsity of claims about the physical world made by religions; the history of obvious human influence on the development of religions. I could go on, but you get the flavor of my thoughts on this.

Finally, I want to address your direct question — why not a deist, non-interventionist god? I answer with another question — without a religion in which to understand god, to discern its desires for our lives and how we conduct ourselves (morality, etc.), how can we say anything meaningful about the characteristics of such a god? A deist god is just sort of there and has no relevance to our lives. If we don’t and can’t know what god is like, why bother with the idea at all? Aren’t you then, functionally at least, an atheist?

I hope that gives you something to chew on. Not high philosophy, but the best I can do over breakfast!

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5 Responses to Why not agnosticism?

  1. eblack says:

    well, my short response is simply a difference of opinion based on what the word “evidence” implies. What really IS “evidence”? Is reproduction capability evidence of intelligent design? Is the universe? or do we accept millions of simple coincidences as truth or a complex plan as “evidence”? I believe your thoughts are well thought-out, but we cannot ignore the fact that everything exists. Frankly, it may just depend on perspective….
    for example… if you already deny the existence of God you may see life and the world around you as chain reactions of what was bound to happen… certainly not evidence.
    but if you already believe in intelligent design, then everything that is seen would support the belief that life was created.

    Frankly neither of these are good enough reasons to believe or not believe. I don’t know how any human could honestly be intelligently atheistic. Any human should know his limitations and could not definitively prove that there is no God.

  2. eblack –

    There is a lot packed into your comment, so I’ll do my best to address it.

    First, I have to reiterate that I do not claim to definitively know that there is no god. I have rationally concluded, however, that god is so highly improbable given a number of things I know about science, religion, and life in general, that I do think god very likely does not exist. In my daily life this translates into acting (and often speaking) as if the chance of god is 0%, but I don’t intellectually claim such certainty. If there was a revelation tomorrow of some fact that could only be explained by the existence of a supernatural being, I would take that into consideration and it would alter my probability calculation.

    Second, when I say “evidence,” I mean objective, observable, testable facts that reveal something about how things work, whether in terms of the universe at large, life on earth, or what happens inside my head to give me a concept of “me.” Because you mentioned intelligent design, I’ll just note that ID is a conclusion, not evidence. To support it, I’d be looking for objective observations of the world that support the conclusion that some aspect of nature was intelligently designed and that indicate other conclusions are less likely. So far, ID is failing miserably on that front.

    I also want to address your idea that “we cannot ignore the fact that everything exists.” I’m not sure exactly what you’re getting at with that statement. If your argument is “things exist, so they must have been created,” I don’t agree. The only thing proven by the fact that things exist is that they exist, or more specifically, that the conditions required for them to exist are present. As to how things came to exist or how the required conditions came to be present, well, we simply don’t know yet. Science (and especially astronomy, a particular love of mine) are constantly making new discoveries, winding the clock back closer and closer to the start of it all, learning more and more about the early years (and in some cases, the early minutes) of the universe. Biologists are likewise moving closer and closer to understanding the processes that led to the first emergence of life on Earth. We may reach a point where we cannot look any further back — who knows if we’ll ever be able to explain why the Big Bang happened, or how organic compounds organized into reproducing units that we consider “life.” But even if we reach that frontier, our inability to explain it doesn’t require the existence of a god to fill the gap (as you rightly acknowledged).

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Curious Agnostic says:

    Midwestern Gent,

    I was beginning to think you were dodging my question, but then you got to it in the last paragraph. What you said there made sense to me though: if god is deistic, there is no reason to bother with him, and if I’m not bothering him, I am functioning as an atheist, and if I am functioning as an atheist, why not just be an atheist?

    I agree that outwardly, there isn’t much of a difference between the kind of agnostic I would be and an atheist, but I am still curious about it from an intellectual standpoint. I think a deist god is a much more reasonable possibility for the origin of the universe than a teapot, which is why arguments like that often come off as pretentious to me – not in this case, but often so.

    I wonder what discoveries about the origin of the universe will be made in my lifetime. Have you heard any good scientific theories on it yet? I’ve heard of things like the universe expanding and contracting indefinitely or the possibility of there being many universes, but I haven’t found anything that didn’t sound like wild, uninteresting, and unconvincing speculation yet. I’ve heard quantum physics and the not-yet-understood physics present within a singularity may have the potential to explain uncaused events, but I honestly don’t know much about it yet.

    Atheists say its fine not to have an explanation for the universe for now because the nature of science is to work toward discovering the unknown and refrain from using god to explain gaps. I agree with this from a rational standpoint, but it honestly bothers me emotionally that I can’t even imagine a reasonable explanation for the origin of the universe. I suppose I just need to come to terms with the fact that the origin of the universe is this era’s lightning, stars, light, sound, etc. Any comments? Also, do you know of any websites or books that offer cogent science pertaining to the beginning of existence?

    Thanks,
    Mike

  4. Mike,

    Sorry for the delay in responding. One of the best sources of cosmological information I’ve found for a layman is Astronomy magazine. It frequently features articles on everything from the earliest moments of the universe to the eventual fate of everything (which currently seems most likely to be unending expansion of the universe until all star creation eventually dies out and the entire universe goes “dark”). The articles are usually well written and don’t assume a deep level of background knowledge (luckily for me!). To your other question, I’m not sure there is a theory that currently tries to explain the very beginning of everything. Physics has carried us back to the very first fractions of a nanosecond after the Big Bang (a period called “cosmic inflation”), and we know a good deal about the conditions that existed in the period after that.

    I appreciate what you’re saying about cold science being less emotionally satisfying than even a deistic god setting things in motion. For a lot of atheists (me included), coming to terms with facts like these is a point of pride and some liberation. My personal philosophy is, “To truly live is to embrace the world the way it is, not how I’d like it to be.” We will likely in our lifetimes learn much, much more about how the universe is, but I accept the possibility that we may never be able to wind the clock all the way back to the beginning. That doesn’t lessen my wonder, however, at everything we know.

    All the best in your explorations,

    MG

  5. cl says:

    This is a nice thread, and for all I can see an indication that humility and learning are actually still going on in the atheosphere!

    Cheers to all involved. I’d like to add a thing or two because I was inspired, but I’m a year or so late it seems..

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