Atheist, not agnostic. Honestly.

Scavella has a post about her religious belief, the general drift of which is entirely reasonable. Obviously I don’t actually agree with it all—no surprise there—but I don’t feel the need to argue with it. I do have a problem with this, though:

I tend to regard agnosticism as more honest, and more politically palatable. The fundamental truth is that we do not know what lies beyond our experience (which for some people is a religious experience and for others is a material one, and both experiences are similarly bounded by our physical and physiological limitations), and to assert that we do know is fallacious.

I accept that I can’t prove the non-existence of gods. I think there are good reasons to believe that there are no gods, but in the end it has to be an assumption. Nonetheless I describe myself as an atheist rather than an agnostic. I believe there is no god, although I can’t prove it. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes there is a God, although he can’t prove it. Why should I be described as an agnostic if he isn’t?

Adam alone

The other reason I feel there’s a difference between an agnostic and an atheist is that I’ve been both. I come from a non-religious family—I think my father identifies himself as Church of England on the census, but as far as I can tell he’s nothing of the kind—but I got the usual English kind of low-key religious education at school. I’m sure there was a point when I sort of believed that it was sort of true, in the non-critical way that children believe things that adults tell them. I’m not saying that I ever had any kind of religious period, or strong sense of identity as a Christian, but Christian ideas were floating around in my head along with a jumble of other stuff like Father Christmas, astrology, the wolf in the attic, and that eating carrots help you see in the dark.

As I got older and more sceptical these beliefs got winnowed out. Naturally you start by losing things like Santa and vampires, which are universally understood to be fictional. But there are a range of more-or-less supernatural beliefs which are widely endorsed by adults and so are much harder for a child to confidently dismiss: UFOs, astrology, homeopathy, dowsing, ESP and of course religion, which has the whole weight of centuries of European culture giving it authority. So there was a period when although I was sceptical by inclination and certainly not a believer, I described myself as an agnostic, and actually meant ‘I don’t know what I believe’.

But after spending years thinking about these issues, arguing them with people, learning more about both religion and science, and encountering the usual arguments for and against, my position became clearer (or firmer, or more rigid; pick your own adjective) and I reached a strictly materialistic view of the world. For me, as I never had much emotional investment in Christianity and I never lived in a very devout community, it genuinely was as much a rejection of dowsing, ESP and crystal healing as a rejection of God or religion. The point is that it wasn’t a quick or impulsive decision.

To call myself an agnostic now would feel like a denial of a process, which was, for me, real and important. I can see the temptation; ‘agnostic’ is a label I can live with, and it’s softer and less confrontational than ‘atheist’. But in the end, for me, it’s calling myself agnostic which feels like the less honest option.

3 Comments

  1. 16 July 2007 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    I call myself an agnostic because a recognition of the limits of knowledge, and the consequent need for humility, are so central to my belief system. The question of the existence or nonexistence of a demiurge has always struck me as rather peripheral to the core concerns of religion, which have to do with ethics and morality. I should think it incumbent on a Christian to act as if God and heaven do not exist, and do good anyway. Didn’t Jesus command his followers to give up all they had?

  2. Harry
    17 July 2007 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    “The question of the existence or nonexistence of a demiurge has always struck me as rather peripheral to the core concerns of religion, which have to do with ethics and morality.”

    I’ve always felt it was rather a striking piece of symbolism that the first four of the ten commandments are about God’s pre-eminence and how to worship him, and it’s only then that they move onto questions of morality. And similarly there’s the centrality of the Muslim testament of faith: there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. Nothing about morality or ethics there.

    Cheap jibes at religion aside, I guess I feel that ethics and morality are core concerns of all humanity, whether expressed through religion, philosophy, politics, literature or just daily life.

  3. 17 July 2007 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    To call myself an agnostic now would feel like a denial of a process, which was, for me, real and important. I can see the temptation; ‘agnostic’ is a label I can live with, and it’s softer and less confrontational than ‘atheist’. But in the end, for me, it’s calling myself agnostic which feels like the less honest option.

    I must admit that I rarely think of atheism as the outcome of a process, which sounds pretty stupid to me now that I think about it, but rather as a fait accompli. I tend to assume that most intelletuals with whom I engage are athiest or agnostic, and that they start from a default position of “there is no god/no out there/no other”. For some reason I rarely think of atheism as the end product of something.

    Fair enough, Harry. I agree with you — in your case, atheism is the honest choice.

    Cheers.

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