Agnostic, Atheist… or Bullsh*t?
Much ink has been spilled in the skeptical community over the issue of labels. What should we call ourselves: atheists, or agnostics? Which term is more “justified”? Here, I toss my own hat into the ring on this question… and then I will argue that this issue is unimportant, distracting, and, potentially, divisive.
There is at least a small upside to this issue, which is why I’m including my own reasoning. The only potentially serious function it has, in my view, is that it provides a convenient arena in which to explore some epistemology. “Epistemology” is that branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge – how do we know what we know? Hashing out the atheist vs. agnostic question can be an entry way into how we approach questions of knowledge. We can sharpen our critical thinking skills and learn some philosophy to boot. To the degree that they serve that purpose, such debates can be informative, maybe even useful. There’s a serious downside, though, but I’ll save that for the end. So, for what intellectual exercise it’s worth, here’s my take on this question:
I start by defining terms: theism, of course, refers to belief in god(s). Atheism, then, obviously refers to a lack of belief in god(s). Agnosticism is the assertion that it is not possible to know the answer, and thus a refusal to opine (with any confidence) on the existence of god(s).
Now, some atheists define atheism broadly. They suggest it can mean one who asserts, “there is no god”, but also one who simply lacks (by choice or happenstance) any belief in god. This is a rather fine distinction, but real enough, I think. The former position is sometimes called “hard” atheism, the latter, “soft” atheism. However, since a “soft” atheist (a) does not assert “there is no god”, and also (b) does not assert “there is a god”, for my part I do not see any difference between this position, and agnosticism. So, for my usage of these terms below, I will restrict the word “atheism” to the “hard” variety: an atheist is one who asserts “there is no god.”
It seems to me that this question hinges on what the baseline position is taken to be. In other words, if we are convinced there is a god, we are theists. However, if we are not convinced by theistic arguments, what position are we in “by default”? As my first pass effort, I suggest that this, in turn, depends on whether you consider the question of god’s existence to be a philosophical question, or an empirical question.
If you think it is a philosophical question, then it would seem that the more natural position is one of Socratic ignorance. Philosophy starts by saying “I don’t know”. An argument that fails to convince simply fails to convince; that is not the same thing as demonstrating the opposite. Thus, you will consider yourself as remaining agnostic.
If, however, you think it is an empirical question, then the failure to produce convincing evidence of a god would seem to suggest that we reject the hypothesis that god exists, and accept instead the logically opposite hypothesis, that god does not exist. Thus, you will consider yourself as remaining an atheist.
So if we are more philosophically-minded, I suggest we are likely to be agnostics. If we are more scientifically-minded, we are more likely to be atheists. However, that is not the end of it. I think I can show that, even if god’s existence is considered an empirical question, agnosticism still remains the appropriate position in a wide number of cases.
Unicorns and Aliens
Consider an example offered by many empirically-minded atheists themselves: unicorns. If we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant belief in unicorns, as we do not, then we properly say we disbelieve in unicorns. We do not remain agnostic about their existence. To do so would be unnecessarily waffling, and kind of weird. Take a stand, already! “There are no unicorns.”
However, I do not think it is that simple. Consider an alternate example: extra-terrestrial life. Currently, we have no good evidence at all for the existence of any non-Earth-based life. None whatsoever – just like with unicorns. So what is our epistemic duty in this case? Are we somehow obligated to claim (and believe) “there is no extra-terrestrial life” until such time as evidence is produced?
It seems to me that clearly the answer is no. It would be much more appropriate to stay agnostic and admit “we don’t know whether or not there is any extra-terrestrial life”. The difference between these two cases, I suggest, is one of background expectation. In other words, if there were any evidence to be had of unicorns/aliens, would we expect to actually have it?
The world is pretty small place. We’ve been all over it. If there were unicorns to be found, it seems reasonable to suggest we would have done so. The same cannot be said for alien life. The universe is a very, very, very big place, and we have looked at almost none of it. There are a gazillion reasons why the universe might be teeming with aliens (sentient or not), and we’d never know it, at least not now.
So: is god more like unicorns, or more like aliens? If there were a god, would we expect to have evidence of him/her/it? (If, on the other hand, you’re looking for evidence that aliens abducted all the unicorns I don’t think I can help you.)
Here again, I think it depends: what kind of god we are talking about? In theology, there is a debate concerning “divine hiddenness”. I.e., an omnipotent god could easily make his existence unmistakable to everyone, if he wished. So if there is a god, why hasn’t he done so?
Fundamentalist conceptions of God have a hard time answering this question, I think. If there is an omnipotent God, who is morally perfect and good, and who loves us infinitely, and has one singular message to us about how to be “saved” from our corruption, and thereby have a relationship with Him, it becomes hard to see why he does not once and for all settle the question of his existence for everyone. This would not be hard, for a God. Even we humans can do this without effort: I suspect that you, dear reader, spent very little time and effort convincing your friends that you exist. Explanations can and have been offered to explain why, if there is a God, there can be such a thing as atheists. But these tend to be contorted and rely on positing things like the “noetic effects of sin” (you are so thoroughly corrupt you can convince yourself God doesn’t exist, so you don’t have to face your judgment – a problem the IRS somehow does not seem to have to overcome.)
Liberal conceptions of God, however, though much fuzzier and ill-defined than fundamentalist versions, have other options open to them. Their God is not going to send you to hell for disbelief. So, perhaps She might want to make Her existence unclear. Some suggest there is virtue to be had in struggling with the question, or with uncertainty itself, or with doing the good work of “God” without knowing for sure that there really is one. Others suggest that learning to do good for its own sake, rather than concern over punishment and reward, is intrinsically valuable.
I don’t mean to suggest I myself find these arguments convincing. For me, the lack of a good, plausible answer to “divine hiddenness” was one of the main reasons for my de-conversion. However, I would be willing to grant that we can’t be sure a liberal sort of God might not exist. I think probably not, but who knows? Such a God might have Her reasons for staying out of sight. We can’t be sure we have a “right” to expect sufficient evidence for Her. The universe is a very big place.
In the end, my conclusion is this: from a philosophical perspective, nontheists should be agnostics. From an evidential/scientific perspective, we are justified in being atheists about the fundamentalist gods, and agnostics about liberal sorts of gods.
Why It Doesn’t Matter
So, that’s my take on the matter. That an $4.95 will get you an venti iced mocha latte. That, and not much more, not even a biscotti. It was fun, for me, thinking it through. But it’s an issue of very limited importance, in my view. There’s a downside to obsessing over this distinction, and it’s a doozie:
Those who prefer the term “atheists” and those who prefer the term “agnostics” have far more in common than not. It is therefore crazy, I think, to go after each other when the goofballs who think the earth is 6,000 years old, and the truly scary people who want to reinstate “stoning” as a valid judicial sentence in U.S. courts, are out there doing their thing. That is where our focus should be, not on silly semantic differences.
I think we in the skeptical community get way too invested in seeing ourselves as “rational” – and thus we get very nervous at any hint of being seen as “irrational.” So we concoct these elaborate defenses of every stance we take about anything, no matter how inconsequential. It’s almost as though irrationality is to us what doubt and heresy is to believers: an unforgivable admission of flaw, of imperfection. And that’s a big mistake.
So atheists think agnostics are hopeless fence-sitters, wishy-washy and emotionally unwilling to take the final, logical step. It’s irrational. You already don’t believe. Why not just say it?
And agnostics think atheists are asserting with confidence something they cannot possibly know. Isn’t that what the fundys do? Isn’t an emotional need for certainty part of the problem? It’s irrational. And besides, humility is a virtue.
But so what? The truth is, we all have little pockets of irrationality. Maybe I am a bit too hesitant to commit to a position (because fully “letting go” of religion makes me sad). Or maybe I am a bit more confident than I have a right to be (because admitting uncertainty makes me anxious). Or maybe both. Is this really the end of the world? We are all human, after all. The non-believing community needs to let up on each other – and let up on liberal religious believers, too, but that’s another article – and get on with the business of what really matters: teaching critical thinking, fostering tolerance and plurality, encouraging open-mindedness, and promoting scientific education.
So: show me where my reasoning is wrong. And then let’s each pick our own label, forget about it, and go watch Penn & Teller.