Friday, February 24, 2012

Am I agnostic or atheist? Well I'm both and yes that does make sense...

In a recent debate Richard Dawkins (who has become a common subject on this blog) stated that he was not 100% sure that a god does not exist to the extreme surprise of the moderator. This is a position he has often stated and anyone who has read his books will know this is Dawkins' position. However, most people assume that an "atheist" completely denies the possibility of any god's existence. This is a general misunderstanding of the position of most skeptical atheists.  By skeptical atheist I mean one who comes to atheism due to scientific skepticism.

I call myself a skeptical atheist by which I mean I do not believe in god because I have never found any evidence presented to prove his existence to be convincing even in the slightest. However, at the same time I call myself an agnostic because I cannot know for sure whether or not a god exists. This is not a contradiction or a paradox though, on its face, it may seem to be one. To explain lets start with the definition of each:

  • Atheist: a person who does not believe in god.

  • Agnostic: a person who does not know whether god exists

Note the difference. Atheism is a statement of belief while agnosticism is a statement of knowledge.  There is a somewhat nuanced difference between these two terms. The difference lies in the degree of certainty we apply to each. We generally say believe when we are less than certain about the truth of an issue because we lack the evidence to really be sure we are correct. Knowledge on the other hand generally refers to ideas that are supported by so much evidence that we feel absolutely sure they are true.

Take Santa Cause for example. I do not believe in Santa Clause and most adults would say that they do not believe in Santa clause. On the other hand most children do believe in Santa Clause. But can we say that we know Santa is not real? Some people might say yes because Santa is obviously a fictional human invention. I would disagree.  Despite the fact that the modern version of Santa as a Jolly old white bearded man living at the north pole was an invention of fiction this does not mean he does not exist...

It is possible that our stories of Santa arose from people who actually had knowledge of this real Santa. They had seen him and spoke with him and wrote stories about him but pretended they did not believe so others would not question their sanity. Perhaps there is an old man at the North Pole who flies around in a sleigh on the night of Christmas Eve and delivers presents. Perhaps he does leave presents under trees. When both mother and father pretend to not have delivered the present they both assume the other purchased it and thus Santa's secret delivery goes unnoticed because we simply assume someone else left the gift.

How then could we possibly prove that Santa does not exist? No matter what we do a believer could continue to invent ways by which Santa has eluded our detection.  We could scour the whole north pole looking for his secret toy factory. However, it would be nearly impossible to cover the entire vast expanse of the north pole. Even while we diligently traverse the snow covered expanse of the pole the Santa believers could laugh at our efforts and say that Santa has hidden his base so well that we will never find it.

Maybe we could disprove Santa's existence by showing that reindeer cannot fly and that one person could not possibly deliver presents all over the world. Again the Santa believer could claim Santa has powers that science cannot understand. We could dismiss Santa saying that he is just a fictional story. But again the believer points out that the fiction was based on truth and points to all the children who believe in Santa. They clearly do not agree that he is fictional.  No matter what we do we cannot prove that Santa does not exist thus we cannot know that he does not exist.

At the same time why should we believe Santa exists?  The Santa story is just one out of millions of stories written by men. Should we be required to disprove each and every store before we say we do not believe? The answer is no. Even though we do not know for sure that each and every story is false we can simply refuse to believe these stories until there is some sort of evidence showing that they are, in fact, true.

This is the theory of infinite hypotheses. Human minds can invent nearly an infinite number of different stories. So what then separates the fact from the fiction? The answer is evidence. We do not believe in Santa because there is no evidence that he exists just as we do not believe in Harry Potter because there is not sufficient evidence of his existence.

Religion is one of these infinite hypotheses. Imagine how many different religions exist across the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, or any other belief among the vast number of religions that have existed or still exist today. Then imagine the diversity of beliefs even within a single religion. The different sects of Christianity provide the perfect example where, out of a single set of books, a vast array of very different beliefs have arisen. Some Christians believe their belief allows birth control while others claim it does not. Some Christians believe homosexuality is immoral others do not. Even within a single sect you can find individuals with very different beliefs.

Each one of these beliefs is an individual hypothesis on what God is.  Do we know that any of them are true? That is a question each of us must answer personally. I of course have not seen enough evidence to justify saying that I know god does not exist, thus I am an agnostic. But, on the other hand to me God is just one of many hypothesis about our world no different than the hypothesis that Santa clause exists. Until evidence of Santa or God is produced I choose not to believe in either and I will remain an atheist.

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