Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why I Consider Myself an Agnostic

Human beings seem to have a propensity for religious experience.

I do not believe this propensity is sufficient reason to infer the existence of God. The rationalist in me says that it is probably some adaptation hardwired into the human psyche by evolution hundreds of thousands of years ago in order to cope with the overwhelming profundity of consciousness.

The problem for me is that what science knows about the workings of the human mind pales in comparison to what it doesn’t know. Science can’t tell us exactly how this spiritual propensity in man developed. More importantly, science can’t presently tell us that religion still does not fill some important psychological need. So while I am fully sympathetic with the more militant atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens when it comes to all the evils that have been perpetrated in the name of one religion or another, I don’t think that they have come close to establishing that all mankind would be better off without any religion.

I do not believe that belief in God is inherently irrational, but I do think that rationality suffers when religions, sects, and denominations insist upon objectifying what are subjective spiritual experiences. The inability or unwillingness to distinguish between understanding founded on empirical observation and understanding based on religious faith is what I find troubling.

I realize that none of this may actually be relevant to whether I am an atheist or an agnostic. It does, however, leave me in doubt about whether there is anything to be gained by affirming that God is non-existent rather that merely acknowledging that God is unknowable. Since resolving those doubts is not a particularly high priority in my life right now, I think I think I will remain more comfortable under the label “agnostic.”


  1. I can understand and sympathize somewhat with your reluctance to self-identify as an "atheist," but I don't really think that "agnostic" is an accurate or useful description. As George H. Smith argues, "agnostic" can at best be a modifier for "theist" or "atheist" anyway -- you can't just be an "agnostic," you're either an "agnostic theist" (one who believes we cannot know whether god[s] exist, and thus behaves as though one or many gods exists), or you're an agnostic atheist (one who believes we cannot know, and behaves as though no gods exist, or as if the existence of god[s] is irrelevant).

    From what I can tell, the most accurate description of you would be a "weak atheist," although I don't like some of the connotations that come with the word "weak."

  2. A few comments:

    First, I would say that the rationality of belief in god has no bearing on yours or mine decision to be an atheist. Belief in god is rational if it has practical benefit, just as it is rational for me to believe I will succeed at a task for which I have a large chance of failing, because I'm more likely to succeed if I am overconfident than if I am honest with myself. Obviously, practical benefit is not evidence, and rationality is not credibility.

    I disagree with your statements that science "can't" tell us how we developed a spiritual propensity or that religion doesn't fill an important psychological need. Science absolutely can find answers to those questions. Perhaps we haven't yet, but we're working on just that.

    That being said, I find it very plausible that religion fills an important psychological need. However, assuming science does confirm this, it only serves as an explanation for why religious thought has survived for so long, not as a reason to continue to encourage or tolerate it (after we've discovered what that need is and how to fill it ourselves).

    You and I both know that if a person believes in God, it's not because that person is stupid, and it's not because she just hasn't taken the time to weigh the evidence. Many of the religious we hear the most about are hardheaded and irrational, but the vast majority simply do not have the means to find satisfaction in secular rapture.

    So I grant every reason of yours for extending sympathy to the faithful, but continue to maintain my atheism. For me atheism is not at all about affirming that God is non-existent. The only thing I affirm is that God is made-up. You don't have to kill the part of you that is open to transcendent experience to admit that every deity so far constructed by human beings is fictive.

    I agree with Douglas Adams that the agnostic label is a false compromise, a word for atheists who don't want to present themselves as totally opposed to the religious. Your points are all well taken, but irrelevant to your label-play.

    Technically, TG is right, you're an agnostic atheist.

    But you're certainly an atheist.

  3. P&S,

    You are correct. I should have said science cannot presently tell us whether man's spiritual instinct still meets some important psychological need.
    I consider it unexplained, not inexplicable (and I have edited my post accordingly).

    I also agree that “agnostic” is not terribly precise, although I don’t find “weak atheist” particularly accurate about anything other than the attitudes of the “strong atheists” who defined the term. Perhaps we could go with “circumspect atheist” as opposed to “obnoxious atheist.”

    I am also not sure that the term “agnostic atheist” is all that helpful because I think what I am suggesting is that the existence of god may be irrelevant to the advisability of behaving as if god exists (at least pending more complete scientific explanations).

  4. I think it's appropriate to classify both belief and disbelief by accompanying obnoxiousness.

  5. 1. Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.

    2. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the "bosh" of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.

    3. I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution of existing religions. On trial of any so-called miracle the verdict of science is "Not proven." But true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which "are not dreamt of in our philosophy." The theological "gnosis" would have us believe that the world is a conjuror's house; the anti-theological "gnosis" talks as if it were a "dirt-pie" made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.

    Thomas Henry Huxley (clarifying the word Agnostic)

  6. Well quoted Ffuege!

    It had occurred to me that the agnostic has just as much ground to challenge the atheist's choice of label as vice versa.

  7. Well, I'd like to think that I'm a strong atheist without being an "obnoxious" atheist. :) But I don't deny that there's a whole lot of dickishness in atheist circles. *cough*Hitchens*cough*

  8. I essentially put [g/G]od[s] in the same category as leprechauns and the Tooth Fairy. What does that make me, in your labeling system?

  9. TGirsch,

    My question is whether you put people who believe in God in the same category as people who believe in the the Tooth Fairy? (There are some I would.)

    Once upon a time, many leading scientists believed in phlogiston or the ether. As other scientists abandoned these theories, I suspect that many were polite enough to say things like "The hypothesis does not seem to be necessary to explain the data." Now most scientists would simply say that the ether and phlogiston don't exist, but it amounts to the same thing.

    I wonder whether the biggest difference between atheists and agnostics is how they think about theists rather than how they think about God.