- Published on Wednesday, 18 August 2010 07:26
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 1711
Why would anyone call themselves atheist when it can't be proved that there is no god. The absence of something or even someone, can never be proved with 100% certainty. So wouldn't agnostic be a better description? But consider that I can't 100% prove that my mother and father are really my mother and father - yet I go through my life assuming that they are. I "believe" that they are; I act as if they are. I also can't prove many other things around me - but it's not useful to make a complicated philosophy about these things. There's no value to me in worrying about whether other people visualize things the same as I do, or whether computers really work the way I've been told. Once things get to be highly probable, I act as if they are certain. It's highly probable that lightning will not strike me dead in the next 15 minutes. So I do not get my affairs in order just in case. Life is full of these highly probable things.
In the case of god, if you cannot prove the existence of god one way or the other, you can approach it from two directions:
- I feel that god probably does not exist but I'm a bit worried that he might - if there is one, it's best not to deny his existence - I'll take Pascal's wager (Cobourg Atheist article; Site dedicated to Pascal's Wager). This fence sitter would call him/herself an agnostic.
- I feel that god probably does not exist but I think that if he does, he would not be a personal god and would not punish me in any way for not believing. This person would call him/herself an atheist.
I know that there are other variations on these options but these are the main choices. Many agnostics would not consciously think in terms of Pascal's wager, but that is the essence of what they are deciding.
As Christopher Hitchens has said, the main argument to support the existence of god is the "cannot begin from nothing" argument - essentially, what caused the big bang?. While that argument has been refuted, the rebuttal requires acceptance of modern physics so is rejected by many. But even if that argument is accepted, it does nothing to prove anything about a personal god let alone any of the religions. If you accept the "cannot begin from nothing" argument but nothing more, you might call yourself an agnostic but you are still really rejecting the god described by all religions with the possible exception of Hinduism and its derivatives.
Notice that nowhere do I say, nor do most atheists say, that there is certainly no god. I just say that a god is highly improbable, so much so that it would be a bad thing to live my life believing that there is. I think it is even more improbable (somewhere around one chance in a billion billion or 1 in 10^18) that any god is a personal god. The chance that any existing religion is true is even less likely.
Agnostics are really saying that they don't believe in any of the gods of established religions but are keeping their options open. They are taking Pascal's wager; they are not taking a position. But they are rejecting all religions or at least saying none appear to be right. They are not willing to reject the idea of god because it is highly improbable - but they don't reconcile why they sit on the fence on this and not on other improbable things (like being struck by lightning in the next few minutes). Maybe they don't think god is highly improbable; perhaps he's a 1 in 10 chance?
By the way, if the whole subject of probability seems obscure and impossible to understand, I suggest the highly readable book by Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.