What is the essential difference between agnosticism and atheism? People sometimes make silly assumptions about these things. My tongue-in-cheek definition has always been, “An agnostic is a person who is afraid that if he admits he’s an atheist, God will strike him with a bolt of lightning.” In plain language, the professed agnostic is avoiding a commitment to his own covert beliefs out of a fear that he might be wrong, and it might be important.
Look: If it’s important, God has totally fucked up and fucked us over by not explaining the situation more clearly. We’re not responsible for God’s fuck-ups. If you think the Bible provides a clear explanation, what can I say? If the Bible is indeed the Word of God, then God is obviously a sadistic monster. Vigorous atheism is the best and most healthy alternative. But really, we need say no more about the Bible, a very old book that is of lasting interest only to the culturally challenged, the emotionally tattered, and the mentally defective.
There may, nonetheless, be some value in exploring and articulating the varieties of non-belief.
Among the religiously inclined, there’s a popular misconception to the effect that the atheist flatly asserts that there is no God. I’m certainly capable of asserting that, and from time to time I do so. But my assertion is not intended to be a rigorous statement of principle. It’s intended merely to puncture the bubble of some religious delusion that I happen, at that moment, to find irritating.
The core principle of atheism, as I stated in another post earlier today, can be set forth as follows: We have no scientific evidence whatever of the existence of any entity whose attributes match or approximate those of any deity (“God”) described or mentioned in folklore, theology, or the visions of mystics. There is no credible evidence that such an entity as “God” exists.
If you care to dispute that, please, go ahead: All you have to do is show us the scientific evidence. If you don’t have any such evidence — and it seems very unlikely indeed that you do — then your belief in God is grounded entirely in fantasy, sentiment, and wishful thinking.
How, given that definition, does atheism differ from agnosticism? The atheist says, “We don’t know anything that would lead us to think there is such an entity as ‘God.'” As a first approximation — I’m not an agnostic, so please feel free to correct me on this point — the agnostic says, “There may be a God or not, and the truth of the matter is not something that humans can ever know.”
In saying that, the agnostic implicitly denies the validity of scientific inquiry on the subject. The agnostic says, in effect, “Yes, I’ll admit we have no scientific evidence of the existence of God, but there may nevertheless be a God who is, in some manner, beyond the reach of scientific inquiry.”
This position suffers, it seems to me, from a grave deficiency. If there is an entity whom we can reasonably call God — that is, an invisible entity who is (a) aware, (b) capable of significant, effective action, (c) concerned in some manner with the course of human events, and (d) actually doing things from time to time, things that would not happen if there were no God — then what exactly is it that this entity is doing?
If this “God” were to take any action whatever, the action would, one is bound to think, be visible in the material world. As such, it would be perceptible. Scientists would be able to perceive it. Having perceived it, they would be able to investigate it using scientific methods. And because we’ve posited that the things “God” is doing would not happen if “God” weren’t doing them, the things that happen would be, by definition, miracles.
But whenever scientists think they may have found something of that sort, on closer investigation the explanation proves to be entirely mundane. Miracles are in remarkably short supply.
The God hypothesis is not needed to explain anything, with the possible exception of the existence of the entire Universe — and if you assume that the Universe could only come into existence if created by God, you’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole. The rabbit hole is called “infinite regress.” If the existence of the Universe implies a Creator, then who or what created the Creator?
Even if we grant that the Universe might have been created, 14 billion years ago, by an immensely powerful being of some sort, that belief is hardly comforting, because we have no evidence that the Creator stuck around afterward. He might have gone on to bigger and better things. He might have died, or gone insane, or just be taking a really long nap.
The agnostic, then, is forced to cling to the conception of a (possibly existing) God who is deceased, gone elsewhere, oblivious, unconcerned with human affairs, incapable of effective action, or so darn sneaky that He can remain quite persistently unobserved. Those are the only possibilities.
Personally, I don’t find any of them very comforting. And they’re messy. They raise questions that they don’t answer, questions around which the helpless agnostic flutters like a moth. Atheism is much simpler and more sensible. Atheism says, “I’ll believe it when I see it. Until then, no.”
In his book Spiritual Envy, Michael Krasny (an agnostic) appears to be quite obsessed with the possibility of finding or understanding God. I’m pretty sure he’s wasting his time. Me, I’d rather play the piano.