Recently, I have been asked several times why I feel it is rational to be atheist, or even why I believe that that is the unique rational position to take on the question of religion. Mostly, this is due to this essay I wrote recently.
It would take some time to give a reasonably thorough dismissal of religion based on my own perspective; perhaps I’ll attempt that at some point in the future and see if I what I end up with is more amenable to being an essay here or a multi-volume treatise. However, that’s not what I want to talk about here.
Instead, what I’d like to discuss is why I feel that being an atheist makes more sense than being an agnostic. Actually, that’s not quite right. I’d like to discuss why I feel that declaring myself an atheist makes more sense than declaring myself an agnostic.
First, we need definitions. An atheist is someone who believes that there is no god, or who otherwise does not believe that there is a god. (Those two aren’t quite the same; someone who has never considered the question will fit into the second group but not the first.) An agnostic is someone who is not certain, one way or the other, about whether there is a god.
Technically, I’m an agnostic. It’s a bit hard not to be, on some level; how can we ever be certain about anything? I’m not even certain about the veracity of theorems that are relevant to my everyday life: what if there is a deep and subtle flaw that no one has ever noticed?
So, when I’m asked if I’m an agnostic, I say that I am, perhaps with an appropriate caveat. But I would never voluntarily identify as such; I only identify as an atheist. By strict adherence to the definitions, I am both an agnostic and an atheist: I’m not sure whether or not there’s a god, but I don’t think there is.
The point is that I want to avoid making content-free statements. (Oh, whom am I kidding? I love making vacuous statements! But at least I like to avoid making non-vacuous content-free statements.) If any reasonably honest person is agnostic in this sense, by admitting to the smallest shred of uncertainty as to whether there is a god, what point is there in identifying as such? It’s a bit like identifying with the property of containing at least one water molecule: technically true, but completely unhelpful for any meaningful discussion, as it fails to distinguish between any people, or even almost any visible object around us.
There exists no evidence that there is a god. Anywhere. If I were to identify with being agnostic, I would feel bound to identify with my uncertainty for all sorts of other things for which no evidence exists. Relatively innocuous examples would include the tooth fairy, magic invisible unicorns, and a manuscript proving the Riemann Hypothesis taped to the back of my head. A rather less innocuous example would be that I would be forced to doubt my belief in lots of theorems whose statements and proofs are relevant to my everyday life. I would also doubt that my house will still be there when I try to find it tonight. It becomes tough to live a functional life while holding on to these obscure ideas as being serious possibilities.
So, I don’t. I’m nearly as confident in my assertion that there’s no god as I am in my assertion that certain quintic equations cannot be solved in radicals. The latter might be false, even though thousands of people have read the proof; there might be a subtle error that invalidates it, and no one has been careful enough to notice yet. But I doubt it. It would be tough to be a serious mathematician who suspects such things.
There are two facets that separate religion from these other things. The first is popularity. Many people are timid in declaring themselves atheists because there are so many theists out there. But truth isn’t a popularity contest; the veracity of a statement is not determined by democracy. If most people were to decide, suddenly, that humans have three arms, we wouldn’t start growing more arms. Nothing would change, except that more people would be wrong.
The other, which is likely more important, is a matter of offense. Many people, even nonreligious ones, seem to think that religion should be free from any sort of criticism, no matter how mild. See, for instance, the reactions against the following advertisement on buses and ones like it:
(Really!? People get offended by this!?!?!) As a result, a lot of people feel the need to tread very carefully around the issue of religion. I guess it’s a bit affrontive to declare oneself an atheist to a religious person. But, as I touched on in this essay, nothing changes without some people making noise. Still, many people are afraid to do so, or do not wish to for some other reason.
Not I. I don’t think that there should be special rules regarding what we can say, or even believe, regarding religion compared to other beliefs people might have.
So, I think we have to choose. Either we can say we’re agnostic and then agree that we don’t really know anything at all, or we can say we’re atheists. The latter is certainly more appealing to me.