Category: Atheism and Religion

Atheism vs. Agnostism

The basic dichotomy of god belief is simple:  A person is either a theist or an atheist. Theism denotes a belief in one or more deities while atheism is simply the non-belief.  Strictly speaking, if one answers the question of, “Do you believe in God?” with anything but a solid ‘yes’, then they are an atheist.  I’ll reduce the possible answers to ‘yes’, ‘I don’t know’, and ‘no’ for simplicity’s sake.  The first indicates theism, while the latter two would put the responder in the atheist camp.  Whether someone wears the dreaded ‘atheist’ name tag is their choice, and a topic for another day.

Someone might say that the ‘I don’t know’ answer implies agnosticism.  This is where the common error begins.  Remember, the question isn’t “Is there a god?”  The question is, “Do you BELIEVE in God?”  To say “I don’t know” indicates a lack of certainty of one’s own belief.  It’s not about what the person knows.  The difference may be subtle, but it’s important.

There is a difference between the questions “Does a god exist?” and “do you believe a god exists?”  The former asks about knowledge and the latter asks about belief.  The key is to recognize the difference.  You can believe something to be true, but not actually know it.  Conversely, if you know something is true, unless you are insane in the membrane, you will also believe it to be true.

‘Agnosticm’ was coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869 to describe the rejection of spiritual knowledge.  In this vein, it’s the assertion that there is a lack of actual knowledge.  Some people go a step further and assert that agnosticism is a claim that one can’t know.  This is a later usage of the term, which I find interesting.  It’s self-contradictory.  The claim that one can’t know something is a knowledge claim about that topic in and of itself. It carries an extremely large burden of proof which I think can’t be supported.  That’s my belief anyway.  I can’t prove it, of course.

The word Gnosticism is based on the Greek word ‘gnosis’ which means ‘knowledge’ conveniently enough.  The Gnostics were a religious sect in the second century which made claims of religious knowledge.  Huxley added the prefix ‘a-’ which means ‘without’ to form the word ‘agnostic’.  While we rarely see people using ‘gnostic’ with a lower-case ‘G’ to describe a knowledge claim, it’s a convenient bookend term for a scale to describe one’s knowledge.

“Very interesting,” you say.  So what’s my big freakin’ problem?!

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A Lantern in the Dark #1

by J. Lantern.

Skeptics seem to shed belief in gods.  This is not universally true; but, it’s a pretty good rule-of-thumb.  For me, embracing skepticism meant trying to apply critical thinking to everything in my life, including beliefs that I had long held.  If there was no good evidence to hold something as true, I found I could no longer believe.  Such was the case with the supernatural.  Time and again, when tested scientifically, the supernatural fails to impress.  Perhaps there is a transcendent intelligence that created the universe.  Given that it appears to want to hide from our view, the only honest answer I can think of to the question of its existence is: “I don’t know.”

Note that admitting ignorance is not the same as being “agnostic” in the colloquial sense.  I can’t say for sure that leprechauns are non-existent; but, I wouldn’t say that I was “leprechaun-agnostic.”  I don’t believe there is a god, or, at least, if such a being exists it is utterly disinterested in my existence.  This, of course, is a major departure from the doctrine of most of the world’s religions, the majority of which postulate a being or beings who view humanity as special.

The Christian god (with whom I am most familiar), apparently, is intimately interested in what we eat, who we take pleasure with, and on what days we work (among other things).  Apparently, this god is a jealous one.  If I exercise my intellect and ultimately can’t believe in its reality, based on the flimsy evidence at hand, it would condemn me to an eternity of torment.  This, more than anything else, convinces me that the Christian god is a fiction.  Such a god would be, in my view, the worst kind of monster.  In the more enlightened societies of our planet, the intended outcome of punishment is (in theory) corrective, in addition to deterrence.  The punishment meted out by the god of the bible is never-ending.  It becomes punishment for the sake of sadistic vengeance.  An infinite punishment for what is, by definition, a finite crime.  Somehow, I think this would be beneath the dignity of a real god.  I know many would disagree with me; but, even history’s worst criminals do not deserve this fate.

Many find this last point disturbing.  One can be a heinous criminal in this life and entirely escape punishment.  Is death-bed repentance any more just?  According to some Christian doctrine, all that is required to be washed of sin is to believe Jesus died for your sins and honestly ask God for forgiveness.  I can be a reprehensible human being for my entire life and, as long as I meet these two conditions, I will enjoy eternal bliss.  Christianity does not provide the justice so many seek.  I think it highly unlikely that Hitler, Stalin, and Chairman Mao are right now writhing in agony in some eternal torture chamber.

What comfort can there be in the existence of such a god?  An ever-watchful god.  Every ill-considered deed, every wayward thought, every moment of weakness, recorded in some voyeuristic “Here is Your Life” for perusal by a sadistic tyrant who will use it to determine your eternal fate.  A god that created us with all our human frailties, then faults us for it.  I derive much comfort from the thought that such a god probably doesn’t exist.