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Atheism vs. Agnosticism

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” - Carl Sagan

Throughout most of history the Christian world was divided between those who believed in God and a daring minority, who did not – that is, between theists and atheists. The term “agnostic” was coined less than 150 years ago by the English philosopher and scientist, Thomas Huxley, as a way to distinguish himself from both groups. To use Huxley’s delightful phraseology, he did not enjoy “the luxury of unqualified assurance” on either side of the question.1 Many religious believers consider atheism and agnosticism to be equally reprehensible, but for the rest of us is there a practical distinction between them?

In order to answer that question we need to look at the evidence available to those who take a position on one extreme or the other. Can anyone really say with assurance that God does or does not exist? Unfortunately for those who would welcome objective proof, the age of miracles is long past. Confronted today with a voice from a burning bush, all but the most credulous among us would suspect hidden electronics or at most a nearby ventriloquist. The exponential growth of scientific knowledge since the Enlightenment has reduced the need to invoke supernatural causes to such an extent that the only place for God in the natural order of things is a last ditch and logically indefensible role as the ultimate creator. Even that slender justification is narrowing, as advances in cosmology provide new insights into the early Universe. 2

If empirical evidence for God is lacking, the same can’t be said for personal testimony. Most religious people profess to have experienced God directly in one form or another. These claims are circumstantially suspect, because they so clearly depend on cultural indoctrination; as Christopher Hitchens points out, the Holy Spirit apparently overlooked places like Bora Bora until after Christian missionaries had invaded the island. 3 Nevertheless, it’s as impossible to deny the assertions categorically as it is to critique another person’s perception of the color blue. The mind and what occurs in it has so far resisted the kind of detailed exploration that we take for granted for most physical processes. This limitation may soon vanish. Investigations into changes that occur in the brain during mental activity – including religious experience – are providing new information about these as well 4, but for the time being the veracity of divine revelation remains unknowable.

In the final analysis, therefore, no one can say unequivocally whether God exists or not, even in the impersonal sense that Einstein intended, when he referred to “Spinoza’s God.” 5 Believers and non-believers alike, we’re all agnostics whether we admit to it or not. How then are we to understand the term atheist? I suggest parsing the word into two syllables, as “a / theist”, that is someone who abjures not only belief in God, but the ways of thinking that go along with religious belief.

Using this understanding of the word, an atheist prefers to confront the world honestly and forthrightly without wishful thinking and without reliance on supernatural authority, particularly when it comes to decisions about right and wrong. An atheist doesn’t spend a lot of time debating whether God exists, not because the answer seems self-evident, but because this isn’t the most important question. Far more significant is whether religious faith provides a satisfactory framework for thought and action. If you feel that the answer is no, then you’re probably an atheist.

Further reading:

1. Hume with Helps to the Study of Berkeley, Thomas Huxley, P 70-71, quoted from “The Origin of the Word Agnostic” by Bill Young -
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/reason/agnosticism/agnostic.html

2. “The Endless Universe” by Paul J. Steinhardt -
http://www.actionbioscience.org/newfrontiers/steinhardt.html

3. “Searching for God in the Brain” by David Biello -
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=searching-for-god-in-the-brain&print=true

4. The Christopher Hitchens Web -
http://www.hitchensweb.com

5. “Einstein the Agnostic” in Thinkers on Religion -
http://skeptically.org/thinkersonreligion/id8.html

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