“I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist.” – Bertrand Russell
Atheism, I find, is often misunderstood. To a significant number of people, it is seen as a firm belief that God does not/cannot exist – meaning it’s ‘just as bad’ as religion itself. This is wrong.
Calling Atheism a belief (or ‘belief system’ as I made the mistake of referring to it in an earlier post, hoping my poorly judged conversational sarcasm would be picked up and my true meaning made clear) is like calling baldness a hairstyle. Again, Atheism is not a belief in the non-existence of God, it is simply a lack of belief that ‘he’ does.
There is no faith element in Atheism. ‘Belief’ in certain things from the non-religious is earned when there is a significant amount of evidence to support them – like evolution, or the ‘Big Bang’.
Apply this empirical mindset to the God Hypothesis (in it’s many forms) and what you’re left with is a very easy-to-define scientific standpoint on the plausibility of the issue; which is that there is no physical evidence for God and we therefore cannot verify ‘his’ existence… And people interpret this in different ways (while being free to do so, of course).
One way is to declare oneself an Agnostic. Agnosticism – as a stance – concerns knowledge, and some things, it may state, are, despite utilising all possible scientific methods, intrinsically impossible to address. These things, many would say, are not even worth debating. The fence is the adopted position (a reasonable stance in its own right), and Agnostics are likely to neither believe nor ‘disbelieve’ in God. But this is of course a spectrum, and self-identifying doubters may choose to find the God Hypothesis likely but not certain; unlikely but not impossible; or just not care either way.
Atheists tend to agree with this. The only major difference between the two philosophies, I find, is the interpretation of the inherent unfalsifiable nature of deities, as well as each individual’s motivation.
As with much of science (although I’m not implying that Agnosticism isn’t a scientific stance), when it comes to investigating phenomena we work in proving. New discoveries are made, new data is recorded and new insights are realised; and these all point towards or back-up new or existing theories. Yes, some theories are discredited – or ‘proven wrong’ – but this is all part of the process of self-scrutiny which leads to superior (in ability to describe nature) theories.
For the most part, there is a high burden of proof on the part of the scientists developing these theories. A scientific (and that’s to say realistic) theory only holds up when it is possible to accurately and reliably empirically prove it – it’s never enough to say “it can’t be dis-proven” as its only evidence for credibility.
But this, in essence, is the stance of a lot of Agnosticism.
Saying something cannot be dis-proven - like saying that ‘God is outside of the universe’ (whatever that means to the person saying it) – is rather synonymous, I feel, with saying that it might as well not exist; and perhaps by definition, practically, that it doesn’t altogether.
As I began with a quote from Bertrand Russell, I think it’s best I illustrate my point with another one of his (from the same article, “Is There a God?” – commissioned, but never published - as the first quote):
“nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice.”
All of this is about likelihood. God, to me, seems so unfathomably unlikely that I may as well, for all practical purposes, not waste neural resources even considering the infinitely tiny possibility that there may be a God, as prescribed by the ‘we just don’t know’ argument. The universe can be explained without the need for a divine middle-man – so I don’t waste time entertaining the possibility in my day-to-day life.
On the ‘Spectrum of Theistic Probability‘, as popularised by Richard Dawkins’, I’d place myself on a 6.9 alongside him - meaning that I would argue that the probability of a creator is so very close to zero that it may as well be regarded as such. But I still leave, for the sake of scientific open-mindedness (and a show of the fact that I’d be happy to change my mind if new, solid, physical evidence chanced to turn up), that rather small – yet generous – 0.01.
Another reason I choose to identify, outwardly, as an Atheist and not an Agnostic is because of the identity it brings itself. I want to identify with confident, passionate (but not angry) godlessness – not my (perhaps stereotypical) knee-jerk reaction to ‘Agnosticism’ as being a philosophy which doesn’t care either way, puts the likelihood of God’s existence and (more likely) non-existence on odds of about 50/50, or declares that ‘arrogant’ Atheism is just as much about faith than theism (though this last branch is rare).
I suppose I would openly identify with Agnosticism (for the same reason I left that ’0.01′), if only it didn’t take so much explaining… I mean, each time someone was to ask, I’d have to clarify that the only reason I have to doubt the non-existence of God (in any form) is that ‘the question may be beyond the reach of current science’.
But, then again, so is the question of Russell’s teapot.