Why I am not an agnostic

Redirected from an article I had written last year:

“If God did exist”, asks the advert for the Alpha course that I see on a regular basis in London tube stations and across buses “what would you ask?” After spending a couple of minutes deciding what I’d ask God (namely, why am I an atheist?) I wonder why Alpha has chosen to present the question with the indecisive subordinating conjunction if. The atheist bus advert, too, adds its own measure of uncertainty: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (I’ve added my own italics for emphasis).

Despite my knowledge of Alpha’s obvious Christian motives and the evident conviction of the likes of Richard Dawkins, who supported and partly funded the atheist bus campaign, both questions, for me, really hit the mark. That is to say uncertainty on the question of God is the only logical conclusion to make.

But why then am I an atheist and not an agnostic? Surely, it could be asked, agnosticism would be the obvious philosophical view to subscribe to? Not the case.

My reasons for being an atheist, unlike many others, do not promptly derive from appeals to science for there seems to be an inherent dead end to any scientific endeavour on matters of God. This has particular appositeness at the moment when debates on how atheists and the religious should treat Darwin reignite, 150 years after the publication of his book On the Origin of Species.

The cosmological argument for example, like the problem of evil, has compelling adherents from both sides. The principle that everything is caused has some people asking who or what caused the first cause, on one side it is God who caused the first cause whereas on the other side the existence of God puts into jeopardy the original principle evoking the question “who caused God?” God, some might say, is not bound to the same physical laws that inhabit the world of phenomena for he is a transcendental being. And of course, though the other side cannot argue this case to be false, they might not accept it to be true.

Similar are the arguments from beauty which could potentially have some asking how such a beautiful universe couldn’t have a designer and, also, some agreeing with the original premise while disagreeing with the sentiment wondering why we have such an obsession with positing an intelligence. The anthropic principle has support from people with arguments that the universe is so fine-tuned to meet the needs of human existence that there must be a God, and arguments that demand to show how lucky we are that humans were able to exist without such an omnipresence.

I view the natural sciences in much the same way; the theory of evolution for example should not be limited to atheists solely, as Richard Dawkins would have it. Dawkins’ atheism is in fact entirely drawn from his belief in science, something that encompassed one of his many debates with fellow atheist and palaeontologist the late Stephen Jay Gould. For Gould the natural sciences might present challenges to certain theistic beliefs, but they cannot rule out the existence of God. The discipline of science covers empirical facts like what the universe is made of and how it works but cannot deal with some of the magisterium (a word that Gould designates for “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” in his book Rock of Ages) that religion deals with. A common error is that scientific pursuit lends itself easily to a worldview, a mistake that Dawkins and the Creationists both have in common.

So my atheism is more Gould than Dawkins in the sense that the natural and physical sciences do not logically assert any one worldview or even answer the question of whether or not God exists. I also feel that religion is a decent contender in the multitude of ethical systems that exist in society, and have nothing against the approach Archbishop Rowan Williams took with his students that he talks about in a recent book by Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson entitled Conversations on Religion, regarding the principle of biblical selection, saying “St. Paul didn’t think he was writing the New Testament. He was just writing letters, you know “Dear so and so…”.” The lesson being that Paul was not faultless and didn’t set out specifically to write the most influential text the world has ever seen and will ever see again. He, for this reason, might have been short of the mark in certain specific areas or a product of his time in his personal attitudes, but there are obvious moral precepts there that should be embraced, and even the most hardheaded atheist should remember the religious root in those morals.

All of us, whether religious or not, have perfectly reasonable beliefs that we cannot prove to be true (indeed atheism is the belief in a non-belief in God) in the sense that if someone was to say that the computer with which you are typing on does not exist, though it is not entirely possible to prove that their claim is false, we probably shouldn’t believe it to be true and follow it with the question of how they ever came to reach that conclusion in the first place. The same, I think, goes for belief in God, though I cannot prove true or false the premise, I question the logical and empirical grounds the claim is based upon, and that is why I am an atheist and not an agnostic.