The Impenetrable Veil

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.

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6 Responses to The Impenetrable Veil

  1. Harry Palmer says:

    I tend to stop reading any arguement which early on has to make the arguement Think like me or you’re culturally challenged and mentally defective. Thaks for getting it into the first paragraph or two. Saved me a bunch of time.
    Say hi to Bob.-

    • midiguru says:

      It wasn’t an argument (and by the way, that’s how the word is spelled). It was an observation, and one that you’re free to dispute, if you feel up to marshalling an actual line of thought rather than just shutting down and marching away.

      Just out of curiosity, though — if you’re asserting, as you seem to be, that the Bible is of some continuing interest or importance to people who are possessed of a wide-ranging comprehension of our culture, in robust emotional health, and intelligent, what would the nature of that continuing interest or importance be, precisely?

      If you’re looking for reliable moral precepts, for example, by which to guide your daily activities, the Bible sucks. It advises you in no uncertain terms to stone people to death if they gather firewood on the Sabbath. Is this the sort of moral precept an intelligent and emotionally healthy person would find useful? It’s not an isolated example taken out of context, either. The book of Leviticus is chock-full of disgusting and sadistic instructions from the alleged Almighty.

      I return, then, to the question: What is the continuing interest or relevance of the Bible to anyone who is intelligent, emotionally healthy, and culturally aware? If you’re culturally aware, you can hardly avoid knowing that Jung, Thoreau, or even a psychologist like Eric Berne would be a far, far better source of moral instruction than the Bible. I honestly don’t see how anyone could dispute this — unless, of course, their mind has been so warped by religious indoctrination that they would qualify as mentally defective.

      • Ben Cressey says:

        The Old Testament provides a written record of a prehistoric culture’s myths and traditions. The New Testament offers a broadly contemporary account of a significant figure in human history from a period where such accounts were rare. The King James Version is notable for its literary merits, if not its accuracy.

        In my perhaps damaged estimation, these are sufficient grounds to assert the continued importance of the Bible in contemporary Western culture. Whether it still offers a viable moral framework is a matter of debate, but even in that context it occupies a significant place in the tradition, much as Aristotle’s works do in philosophy.

      • midiguru says:

        In my original post I mentioned the Bible only in passing, and only in order to dismiss it. I freely acknowledge, though with profound sadness, its “continued importance … in contemporary Western culture.” But really, debating its merits and tallying its shortcomings is far less interesting to me than debating and exploring the merits and shortcomings of the writings of Freud, Marx, Thoreau, or Morris Berman.

        Why does the Bible deserve any special stature? Answer: Because of long tradition, and because of the credulity of the ignorant and misled. I reject tradition as a basis for taking a book seriously, and feel no obligation to coddle the ignorant. The misled we can perhaps help, but not by quietly respecting their mistaken and hurtful beliefs.

        If we’re going talk about what’s actually IN the book, let’s talk about books that were written in the 19th or 20th century, shall we? Talking about the Bible is a complete waste of time.

  2. Ave says:

    You seem to have ignored most of Ben’s points, though you also seem to have have retracted the original assertion.

    As for the alleged primacy of works from the 19th and 20th century, Shakespeare begs to differ with you, as do his friends Cervantes, Chaucer, Voltaire, Swift, Machiavelli, Spenser, Malory, Smith, Locke, Montaigne, Murasaki Shikibu and Wu Cheng’en (among many, many others.)

    • midiguru says:

      Hmm. Not sure which of Ben’s points you think I ignored. If I didn’t comment on them, you might assume I agreed with them — although, technically speaking, the New Testament doesn’t offer an account of “a significant figure in human history,” because we don’t have a shred of independent evidence that such a figure ever existed. The influence of these stories is undeniable, but the whole production could easily have been a work of fiction.

      I don’t think you can possibly find, in what I wrote, any implied dismissal or criticism of Cervantes, Shakespeare, et al. By all means, let’s add them to the curriculum with which we teach morality to our children! In a well-formed curriculum of this sort, the Bible would be no more than a footnote. Some good moral precepts are to be found in the Bible — along with a lot of monstrous savagery. Taken as a whole, it’s not a book to which children should be exposed.

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