Michelangelo: Creation of Adam (c.1511-12)
There was an embarrassing moment at our house this Christmas when I opened up one of my presents only to find that it was a copy of Richard Dawkins' autobiography. My mother - who is religious - made a few muttered remarks about Dawkins' general arrogance and "refusal to debate," and even my brother - who isn't - started in on poor ol' Rich.
What is it about Richard Dawkins? Why is he such a bugbear? I guess there's a certain intransigeance in his defence of the strict Darwinian party line, but it's interesting that other equally inflexible ideologues don't seem to generate the same amount of heat.
Richard Dawkins: An Appetite for Wonder (2013)
I was reading his book The God Delusion last year - "The statements was interesting, but tough," as Huckleberry Finn remarked of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress - when I had a little epiphany (so to speak).
Essentially, I suddenly understood the true meaning of the word "atheist," and the reason why people who label themselves thus are so resistant of the apparently more placatory term "agnostic."
An atheist, I'd always been taught, is someone who asserts the absolute impossibility of the existence of God. Given that providing an absolute proof of the non-existence of anything is a virtually impossible task, Thomas Huxley's compromise term "agnostic": one who simply refuses to claim definitive knowledge on the subject, had always seemed more intellectually defensible to me.
Dawkins, however, asks how many people nowadays would claim to be "agnostic" on the subject of the existence of Zeus, or Odin, or Osiris, or any other member of the traditional mythological pantheons? Not many, if any (to paraphrase our local rapper Scribe). In other words, we don't take the question seriously enough to bother with entertaining the notion that Hermes or Aphrodite might actually be hovering about, listening in on our thoughts and conversations.
They could be, mind you. It's ridiculously improbable, but not by any means impossible. So perhaps one should declare agnosticism on the question of the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction also ...
Why don't we? Because (I suspect) in these cases, at least, we don't feel that the burden of proof should lie on the unbelievers. It should lie firmly with the true believers (if there are any). If Odin is real, I'd need to see some proof of it. And it had better be pretty convincing proof.
David Hume, in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) reminds us that "A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence." This principle has been popularised by Carl Sagan (among others) in the form: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." In the absence of that extraordinary evidence, I'm going to go on assuming that there's no Odin. I don't know there isn't - but I see no legitimate reason for postulating the possibility in the absence of really compelling evidence.
Allan Ramsay: David Hume (1711-1776)
How does this apply to the atheist / agnostic debate? Well, my epiphany (if that's what it was) consisted simply of the recognition that the term "Atheist" should be taken to apply to a default position, rather than being confused with a statement of belief.
I don't know that there's no God. But my default position is that there isn't - since no-one has yet shown me the extraordinary evidence required to substantiate such an extraordinary claim (and not for want of asking, either). Occam's razor states that "It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer": in other words, as a basic postulate of argument, one should always go for the most economical of the various hypotheses available, the one which requires fewest assumptions.
This default position seems to me best labelled "Atheism". Like a Huxleyan Agnostic, I claim no special knowledge, assert no conviction of non-existence: just as none of us bother to with Odin, Thor, Hermes and the rest. They could all be real, but there's no particular reason to suppose so. The real problem with the Huxley position, however, is that it implies an equal probability for the existence or non-existence of God (in whatever form one wants to conceptualise such a teleological being - or "law of the universe", impersonal ethical principle, etc. etc.)
I don't think that it's reasonable to see these positions as equally plausible. Given two models of the universe: one naturalistic, subject to verification by scientific experiment, and deducible from phenomena which do indeed demonstrably surround us; the other dependent on a nebulous Catch-22 notion called "faith," which by its very nature precludes the necessity (or even possibility?) of objective verification, there's really no contest for me.
History, too, is on my side in this, I'm afraid. When one looks at the number of people throughout the millennia who have claimed to have a hotline to some almighty spirit who just happens to be in accord with everything they're planning to do, while being irrevocably opposed to everything their opponents are up to, I would ask simply how many of those people you actually still believe in? The rivalry between the twin tribal deities "God" and "Gott" on the Western Front in the First World War is one classic example, amusingly outlined by Robert Graves in his war memoir Goodbye to All That.
Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That (1929)
I really don't want to be unnecessarily provocative on this subject, obviously a sensitive one. I simply want to explain why atheism is a perfectly sensible intellectual stance, and does not imply that one is automatically an adherent of a complete alternative belief system comparable to a religion. Nor, I would argue, does it involve any assertion that one is in possession of absolute proof of the non-existence of God (or any other supernatural entity, for that matter).
In the absense of convincing proofs, however, one has to position oneself somewhere. Virtually all of us moderns have already decided, willy-nilly, to take up an "atheistic" position on Ishtar, Amun-Re, Tangaroa and all the others. If you think for a moment, I think you'll acknowledge this to be so.
Why, then, should you be indignant if someone takes up the same position vis-à-vis any other belief system? You may well be making an exception in one particular case - and you might even be correct in doing so. But until you can actually prove it, can't we just continue to examine the evidence of the natural world - which should be a complex enough task to satisfy anyone?
Fantasy literature can be fun, and rewarding in many ways, but you don't have to believe in the objective existence of the Kingdom of Westeros to enjoy watching Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones (2010- )