Wednesday, March 07, 2007

An Agnostic Creed from Tom

Why I am not an Atheist

I don't care for faith. I came to this realization toward the end of High School, during that weird period of time when I was really questioning my beliefs and trying to figure out what it is I believed personally. I went through a bout of self-motivated, self-centered depression as a sophomore, and then an identity overhaul or two the following year, so my religious beliefs were naturally in flux a little.

Of course, "in flux" suggests that they were ever really solid. See, the church I grew up in was a little off the beaten path. My religious education was pretty light; I never learned a lot of the stories that the more devout kids hear, and some of the stories I did hear didn't have the ring of truth. Even as a kid, I thought "man finds special magic breastplate and seeing stones, which allows him to read a holy book written on golden plates" was farfetched. As I grew older, I found out that the official church history didn't exactly jive with the official historical history, and that really didn't sit well with me. So, while I'd play in the handbell choir and whatnot, I don't know how much I ever bought into all of it.

Anyway, by the time my third year of high school comes to a close, I'm not really buying any of it. I still prayed, and I still believed in God, but I quickly realized that I didn't believe in the god of any extant religious tradition. The one thing I felt certain of in those days was that the universe had a distinct sense of humor, and that such a thing wouldn't occur naturally, therefore god.

Yes, my spiritual beliefs were rooted in the comedic principle.

As time wore on, as my god donned and shed traits with the shifting winds, and as I toyed with calling myself a panentheist, I realized that I really didn't have a clear concept of my personal beliefs, except that I didn't like organized religion. This didn't necessarily bother me; I was able to say "I know what I personally believe, and it doesn't fall in line with any one religion. It's a personal thing," but the situation seemed to warrant further attention and self-examination.

I wasn't an atheist. Maybe for a short time, but I couldn't bring myself to really call myself that, and I couldn't figure out why.

Ultimately, sometime during my first year of college (or thereabouts, I can't recall the actual date of epiphany), I realized that my problem wasn't with what I believed, but with belief itself. I realized that I couldn't handle faith, that I really didn't like believing in the unseen, belief without evidence. Once I figured that out, everything else kind of fell into place.
In those early days, I'd wax philosophical and say "I don't like faith, I don't trust it, and it's just as much of a faith statement to say 'there is no god' as it is to say 'there is a god.' So, that's why I'm not an atheist."
And so I decided that I was an agnostic. I might have some beliefs some days, other beliefs other days, but all my spiritual beliefs were based around one very important caveat: I don't know. Any spiritual beliefs I had, one way or another, were predicated on the fact that I didn't have any evidence, and that an influx of evidence could overturn whatever beliefs might be hanging around at any given time.

But, I started hanging out at atheist websites, and reading that argument I presented against atheism, and recognizing the subtle difference between "not believing" and "believing a negative." There are atheists who claim that "there is no god," and I continue to assert that that's a faith statement. And I'm sure that a significant portion of atheists will continue to regard agnosticism as a wussy position.

But as far as "not believing"? I don't really have an answer for that one. Not yet anyway. And maybe that's why I don't feel so bad for siding with the atheists about most everything.

But I'm not an atheist. Maybe it's not because I "don't believe" in god, but that I do believe in my own lack of knowledge. I can be pretty certain about that, anyway. My beliefs about faith haven't changed any; I don't trust it any more now than I did a few paragraphs ago. No, I am an agnostic, and I plan on remaining agnostic until there's sufficient evidence to suggest a better alternative.

Augie Physics said...

Agnosticism is not a wussy position. Admitting that you don't know and don't have proof is only realistic.
What's really wussy is being afraid to ponder the possibility of faith...
OR being afraid to ponder the possiblity of doubt.

Anonymous said...

God loves you. Agnosticism is not a wussy position, because it is humble to say you don't know when you don't know. It's blasphemy when you do know, but refuse to believe.
If there is willingness to believe, open your heart and pray earnestly to God to reveal Himself to you. I pray He will Tom. But like when you meet any new person, you won't know Him well. It takes a long time of friendship with anyone to know the person enough to really love Him or Her, or invest trust and faith in. it is the same with God. If you have willingness to believe, my friend, God can use that.
Just make sure you are sincere and you are willing- because miracles can happen all the time, and you may not believe and say future scientific developments will explain the phenomenas. I am not saying that some things that appear supernatural are not that extra-ordinary. Be willing Tom. Please. You don't know what you are missing.

Filby said...

That's a very reasonable position, and it takes a lot to come out and say it. I'm an outright atheist -- I deny that God or gods exist -- but you're right: it's totally a statement of faith. I can't prove it, it's just what I'm most comfortable with.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the labels. I want to be accurately labelled too, but it's difficult to find one that fits just right. Maybe we should all just go with "hellbound heathen."

I just say I'm an atheist, because for all intents and purposes it's close enough. If anyone cared to question me, though, I'd point out that while I don't think there is a god, I would never say that I know for certain there isn't one. And it is a knowable thing, at least in the positive. If the Big Dude shows up and starts smiting and slinging thunderbolts or whatever, man, I'll know.

Heck, I don't think there's a Bigfoot either, but if I sat next to him on a flight to Chicago I'd change my tune.

In the meantime, though, I don't believe in God, just the same as I don't believe in the island of Atlantis or a giant floating banana. I will if I ever see some solid evidence of their existence.

So I dunno what that makes me. An athenostic?

Randy Kirk said...

I liked this statement, also, Tom. I appreciate that you are seeking, and I suspect you always will be. I get more frustrated with Christians or atheists who think they've got it all figured out, and there is no longer any reason to "think."


bernardo said...

So are we supposed to post over on that other blog or on this one? I'll just post on this one if that's OK.

I guess I'm agnostic too. I don't claim to know that there is no God, and I have never met an atheist who strongly believes this negation. I called myself an agnostic for years, until I understood that atheism does not mean you say "There is no God, no way, I know it" - atheism just means you say "I don't think there is a God, and I live my life as though there is no God".

Heck, even Richard Dawkins' most direct essay against theism is called "Why there almost certainly is no God". If Dawkins does not have the ability to say "There CERTAINLY is no God", then neither does any other atheist, I'd guess.

So it's not that agnosticism is a wussy position. It's just that atheists are pretty much the same as agnostics, but aren't afraid of calling themselves "atheists". So to an atheist who is honest enough to call himself an atheist, an atheist who calls himself an agnostic might appear as somewhat of a wussy.

I would be curious to meet an atheist who is sure that there is no God. You can find the God of a certain religion self-contradictory (and thus logically impossible), and you can point out that there is no evidence for God... but you can't know that the universe WASN'T deliberately created.

(Then again, you also can't know that there ISN'T a teapot orbiting Pluto, so while most people are technically teapot agnostics, for practical purposes they act as though there is no teapot, and don't think that a Plutonian teapot make much sense or is very likely).

Could there be a God? Sure, I guess. But I'll assume that there isn't and act accordingly, since I have no reason to do otherwise, and since to me this feels like the more natural, right, and simple thing to do.

bernardo said...

Actually, I ended up posting over there as well.

I have one more thing to ask, though: You guys who read and contribute to this blog understand my position pretty well. I basically think that certain kinds of people, who are compelled to ask certain kinds of questions, end up believing in God because there is no way to answer those questions without God. Other people, though, don't think that those questions are very meaningful or answerable - they don't need the universe to have an overall "Why" - so they don't need to believe in God, and many of them end up atheists or agnostics. I don't think one side or the other is "right". I think you believe what works for you. We all make assumptions/axioms and rationalize them using logic and interpreting observations, but neither the logic nor the interpretations can really justify the axioms. I also think that many theists support their beliefs using "the God of the gaps", so most of what I do in this blog is respond to theist arguments with my views on why those arguments are not "proof" of God. Despite this, I think that people can reasonably believe in God, but that they do so because they need the universe to have a purpose - the other reasons are just added to the structure in order to justify the conclusions one gets to given this need.

Anyways, the reason I reiterate this is... Do you guys think I should not be calling myself an "atheist"? Is "agnostic" a better label? The fact that I strongly suspect that there is no God, and the fact that I do not need (or like) the idea of God to explain the things I see around me, qualify me as an atheist in my opinion, even though I don't know that there isn't a God, CAN'T know that there isn't a God, and don't see anything wrong with people who believe in God because they need the universe to have a "Because".

Tom Foss said...

Yeah, I'd kind of like the posts to be over there too, if they're going to show up both places.

Not totally sure if this is going to accomplish anything more than a link would, though.

Randy Kirk said...


feel free to grab any and all content you want. I did.

Randy Kirk said...

Choosing how we identify ourselves is always a fun thing. I have chosen Bible Thumper. Maybe I should even use that as my onscreen name. On the one hand it is obnoxious, but it is really honest. Then again, it suggests narrow-mindedness, and I hope I'm not.

Fundy would work, but it has been trademarked by the crowd who have no interest in really knowing Christians as people. Kind of the N word for this debate.

Right-wing religious wing nut? Naa

Christian? Too broad. Nobody knows what it means without a modifier.

Evangelical? They've decided that GW is man caused and a major crisis. Well at least the major organization that claims leadership of all evengelicals.

I guess I'll stick with BIBLE THUMPER for now.

Anonymous said...

I prefer to call myself a "nontheist" because it's my opinion that theists have greatly distorted the definitions of "agnostic" and "atheist" to better suit the theists' beliefs.

It's also an effort to do away with the trick of reversing the burden of proof by being asked "why do you say there is no god?" Unfortunately, I'm still asked that question far too often, even though I've never stated that "there is no god."

What I say is: "I don't see a reason to believe in a god."

Also, regarding the use of the word "fundy". It's my opinion that it's nothing like the "N word", since the word "fundy" is used by a minority when talking about a majority, which is the reverse of the "N word". Also, I don't see a long history of theists being oppressed by nontheists, even if you were to include communists (which I don't really see as nontheists... they're more in competition with the theists, by replacing "god" for "the state").

Lastly, I use the word for a large group of people, including christians, muslims, scientologists, ufo-believers, psychic-believers, and so on. There are *plenty* of christians that I would never even think of calling them "fundies", because they're not fundamentalists. It's certainly not a word I use nicely but, in my defense, I use it on people who aren't nice.


xiangtao said...

I agree that it is a faith statement to say that god does not exist. However, it is also a faith statement to say that leprechauns do not exist. I have never seen one, nor have I ever seen any convincing evidence of any kind that they are real, therefore I am pretty damn confident that there is no such thing. I feel the exact same way about god.

Randy Kirk said...

I'm going to subject myself to some real potential for undermining my own arguments, but that's how this blog should work.

While in Ireland, driving along 1000 year old roads with no car in sight for miles in either direction...with 1000 year old stone walls covered with 1000 year old vines creating the borders of 1000 year old fields. As I drove through woods that probably predated the walls, crested hills that overlooked valleys with multiple rainbows fully formed, and fields of the 7 shades of green, it was much easier to consider that the wee folks might exist. Back in the city, it was but an afterglow.

bernardo said...

"I don't see a reason to believe in a god."

Well said.

"I prefer to call myself a "nontheist" because it's my opinion that theists have greatly distorted the definitions of "agnostic" and "atheist" to better suit the theists' beliefs."

So what you're saying is, as each word is ruined by our opponents loading it with unfair and negative connotations, we must move on to a new word? That doesn't sound practical, or very fair for that matter. I say, let's hang on to our words and fight to promote the definitions and connotations we want.

"It's my opinion that it's nothing like the "N word", since the word "fundy" is used by a minority when talking about a majority, which is the reverse of the "N word""

Just because we're a minority, doesn't mean that it's right for us to refer to the majority using stereotype-loaded terms that lead to alienation and discrimination. When a majority discriminates against a minority, I'm not sure that the best remedy is for the minority to discriminate back. Of course, none of this would matter if more people actually bothered to try and understand what/how/why the other side believes (or doesn't), but I know that I'm preaching to the choir here when I say this.

Anonymous said...

"So what you're saying is, as each word is ruined by our opponents loading it with unfair and negative connotations, we must move on to a new word? That doesn't sound practical, or very fair for that matter. I say, let's hang on to our words and fight to promote the definitions and connotations we want."

I wish I could agree, Bernardo, but I've fought that fight, and I don't believe that it's pratical to continue doing so. Those definitions seem to be far too hard-wired within some people, and so I feel it's more practical to use words that I and the theists I talk with can agree on, regarding the definitions.

I agree that it's not fair at all, but my experiences show that it's absolutely practical, to avoid semantic nitpicking and get to the heart of the disagreements and misunderstandings.

Basically, when I talk with people, I try to minimize the number of axioms that we disagree on, even if that means using words I'd rather not use.

"Just because we're a minority, doesn't mean that it's right for us to refer to the majority using stereotype-loaded terms that lead to alienation and discrimination."

I completely agree; that's why I made a point to say, "It's certainly not a word I use nicely but, in my defense, I use it on people who aren't nice."


Randy Kirk said...

I suppose at the end of the day, I think most folks are way too thin skinned. On the one hand I took major offense when an adult called my 7 year-old playmate a GD Kike in 1955. Given the way it was said and the times made it reprehensible. However, I don't really care if folks call me a fundy. I care a little more if they hate me just because I'm a Christian, and imply that they would like to do away with my religion or those in my faith.

But most of the time I'm not to worried about the name calling.

One more caveat. The use of name calling and or put downs totally gets in the way of a good discussion. Such behavior appears to dismiss the opponant. My wife refers to it as not validating her. Kids refer to it as a lack of respect. We can respectfully disagree while validating our opponants reasonability to have his pov.

Scifi said...

Hey everyone. Just putting this out there before I start: I am a Christian. I believe in the God of the Bible.

Something I've always wanted to know is this:
How does an atheist/agnostic explain all the miracles I have seen- Prayer healings, speaking in tongues etc?

I have had numerous replies to this of the phrase "I'd have to see it to believe it" or something to that effect, but I actually want a logical answer- How does an Atheist/Agnostic explain, for example, the prayer healing of someone with a shattered foot due to an accident with a chainsaw, to the extent that said person was running around on the stage ecstatically?

I believe in God because what I have seen clearly shows me that God does exist, and I participate in worship of God because he is my creator, and since he did this, it would be silly not to.