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Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic? Explain Please!

Written by Jeff Drake
8 · 17 · 22
The Thinking Atheist

Q. Jeff, are you an atheist or an agnostic? Please explain.

A. It might surprise those of you who know me that technically speaking, I am not an atheist. What do I mean by this? Well, the dictionary tells us that an atheist is someone who “disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.” This is accurate, but there is an implication in this definition that the atheist knows for certain that there can be no god, and herein lies the rub. You see, neither I nor anyone else, can prove with 100% certainty that there is no god. You can’t prove a negative. This means that technically there is still that chance that a god exists.

Q. If this is correct, then why do you still refer to yourself as an atheist?

A. Let me digress for a moment and ask you: Are you an atheist?

I am certain many of you reading this will say that you are not an atheist. You will say this because you believe in God, and more than likely, the Christian God. But, do you believe in Zeus? Or Odin? No? Then you are an atheist, too! At least, you are an atheist with regard to Zeus and Odin! Anthropologists tell us that there have been over 18,000 gods throughout human history. And you, dear reader, are an atheist with regard to 17,999 of them! Who knew? I just happen to be an atheist who believes in one less god than you do.

To explain why I still refer to myself as an atheist I’ll use the 2nd law of thermodynamics a.k.a. the law of entropy.

Q. Wait, what?

A. Stay with me here. It’ll be quick and painless.

Put simply, the 2nd law of thermodynamics says that in an ordered closed system, change will always proceed to disorder. The 2nd law is why we don’t grow younger, why you can’t put an egg back in the shell after it’s been broken, why time always moves forward and never backward, etc. It is a very cool law, but truthfully, the 2nd “law of thermodynamics” is not a law at all. Everyone calls it a law, but scientists know that it really isn’t a law, it’s actually a rule. Hell, it’s not really even a rule, it is simply a statement – a statement about probabilities. (I’m skipping a lot of math that I would never understand let alone explain. We have to depend on the scientists who know this shit.)

You see, statistically there is still a chance, a probability, if you will, that there may be a distant point in time in the future of our universe when spectacularly, this 2nd rule will fail and suddenly, the glass that has just broken on the floor reverses itself and is made whole again. This, we’re told, is possible within the realms of physics, mathematics and statistics. But, what do they tell us about the odds of this ever happening in the world you and I live in? Ruh, roh. We would have to wait longer than the age of the universe and then wait some more. Still, according to statistics, hey, it could happen…

So, to me, the odds of there being an actual God are about the same as watching a popped balloon reassemble and reinflate itself. Is it possible statistically? Apparently so. Is it at all even remotely likely? Nope. So, while there is the “chance” I’m wrong on this, I feel extremely confident saying that God does not exist and so I still call myself an atheist. The reason I feel so confident in saying this is quite simple: In the history of the world, no such scientific proof has ever been found. Not once. Not ever.

Q. Okay, now what is being an agnostic all about?

A. Good question! I had to refresh my memory on this.

Here is the dictionary definition of an agnostic:

…a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God. In other words, the agnostic, when confronted with the question as to whether God exists, would respond with, “Maybe. I don’t know for sure.” Thus, an agnostic holds off making a decision, knowing full well there is zero evidence to support the God proposition, holding out for the chance perhaps that such evidence will be discovered at some point in the future. Note that in academic circles this position is now being referred to commonly as “weak agnosticism.” And let’s face it, this is a fairly weak position to take on such a huge question. I’ll stifle a cry of, “Grow a pair why don’t ya!” LOL!

It’s partner is predictably, “Strong agnosticism,” which goes a step further. The strong agnostic claims that not only do they personally have no knowledge whether any gods exist, they also claim that no one else does either, nor in fact, can anyone at all ever know if gods exist. Yep, this is a step further! But, consider this: In the first instance, the weak agnostic position only describes the state of knowledge of a single person e.g., “I don’t know for sure.” In the second instance, however, the strong agnostic is making a statement about both knowledge and reality, a much broader position for sure, as this statement is inclusive of everyone, like you and me.

Admittedly, the weak agnostic argument is fairly easy to defend. Its premise is that one shouldn’t make knowledge claims in the absence of clear and convincing evidence. Hard to argue with that, at least on the surface. Of course, I’m in the camp that says there are degrees of certitude and the chance that an invisible super being that rules the universe exists is off-the-charts remote.

The strong agnostic position is more difficult to support. They look at the lack of evidence or good arguments to support any god existing and say that the responsible thing to do in this case is to suspend judgement altogether. Sounds reasonable, right? But this has no bearing on their more expansive claim that knowledge of gods is impossible for anyone.  To make this second point, the strong agnostic is going to be compelled to explain just what they mean by “gods.” They will have to make the case that it is impossible for humans to achieve any knowledge of a being with the specific powers they attribute to the celestial creature, whatever those powers are. Attempts to do this, however, quickly result in narrowing the field of – who or what does or does not qualify – as a god and inevitably leads to something much less than what most of the believing public think God is like. In logic, this results in what is called a Straw Man fallacy, because not everyone believes in God the way strong agnostics define the concept. So you end up arguing about a shadow puppet. This is a failed argument in logic.

I should point out here an interesting tidbit I picked up online – that the strong agnostic position – that knowledge of gods is impossible – is itself a statement that says they do know something about gods already, not to mention reality itself. Doh! This is a good indicator that so-called strong agnosticism is self-refuting and an indefensible argument.

For me then, I still feel comfortable referring to myself as an atheist, at least until a more meaningful word appears, of which, antitheist is likely the best prospect. But that’s another discussion!

However, before leaving the subject I want to try and dispel a couple things that are often said about atheism, and said incorrectly.

First, atheism is NOT a religion, In fact, insinuating that it is a religion is a bit insulting. Because this statement, even when delivered with a smile,  is always tinged with darker intention, one that says, “Atheists are hypocrites.” I beg to differ. And atheism is also not a philosophy, it’s not even a particular view of the world! Seriously. As neuroscientist Sam Harris[i] puts it, atheism… …is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.[ii] 

Sam Harris also reminds us that it is worth noting that no one has ever had to identify themselves as a non-astrologer, or a non-alchemist. I’ve certainly never heard of such a thing. And further, he tells us that there aren’t really any labels for anyone willing to deny any particular pseudo-science. And he goes further still, telling us that the term atheism itself shouldn’t even exist! Why? Because atheism …is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87% of the population) who claim to never doubt the existence of God should be obliged to present evidence for his existence and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.[iii]

Lastly, atheism is NOT a belief system! It’s just not the case where the beliver has a belief in God and the atheist has a belief too – that there is no God. Wrong! Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Think about this. Atheism is the absence of belief in gods. As someone once said, “If atheism is a belief system, then not collecting stamps is a hobby!”[iv]

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Harris

[ii] An Atheist Manifesto, by Sam Harris. December 7, 2005.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Unknown author.

 

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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