Atheism v. Agnosticism and Faith

This is an important post for me, as what I put here is the reasoning which led me to select Atheism as the term which best describes my disbelief in the supernatural. Let me first preface this by saying that Atheism only describes what I do not believe in, so this issue is only related to my views on the divine. It is helpful to talk about this, but it is so because it is a rejection of belief in the unseen and unproven and an affirmation of the competency of my own reason.

Therefore, with this post I want to explain not just a disbelief but also the reasoning that has started me on the road to believing in the power and goodness of humanity. From here, I hope I can go to defining more of what I believe in rather than just talk about why I don’t believe one particular thing.

Introductions aside, I do not believe there is any sort of divinity, God, or gods which influence or have influenced the Universe. This is a very bold statement. Reaching this conclusion requires: (1) functionally disregarding the notion that we cannot truly know anything; (2) scientific inquiry of physical, testable evidence is a valid means of objectively and conclusively investigating the natural world; (3) testimonial evidence is unreliable to conclusively prove the existence of the supernatural; (4) there is no physical, testable evidence to support any supernatural proposition; (5) the lack of evidence is because there is no intelligent supernatural being influencing the Universe. Naturally I have simplified this reasoning somewhat to aid in discussion, but for completeness under the circumstances I’ll address each item listed supra.

1. What can we truly know?
I remember taking Intro to Philosophy in my undergraduate studies, and being thoroughly fascinated with all the colorful arguments and principles philosophy had to offer. Some seemed sensible; others were not. The one principle which sparked the most debate was the infamous Brain in a Vat. As it was explained to me, the scenario illustrated the principle that there was no way of truly knowing anything, as everything I’ve experienced up until this point could have been falsified information sent to my brain. And, being a particularly prickly thought experiment, nobody in the class liked the proposition in spite of and because of the fact nobody could refute it.

Admittedly it raises some issues on our fundamental beliefs about the world, and I think it’s the main difference between being able to state whether the divine exists or throwing up one’s hands and saying, “Agnosticism here I come.” That outcome has never sat well with me since I went to class that day, and ever since I’ve tried to articulate why I don’t adhere to the principle in spite of not being able to conclusively refute it.

I think, at its core, the concept is one which works in theory, but practical necessity works against it. For example, I could believe that I’ve not been typing for too long and ignore feelings of hunger. This could go on until I die from starvation. Since I’m a brain in a vat, I don’t know what comes next. The scientist running me as an experiment could just reboot my mind. Maybe I could take it a step further when I’m rebooted and throw myself off a cliff since I don’t have a body to do it with.

But I don’t do these things, and most people behave as if they are not desirable things to do. We all function under an assumption that what we are doing is real, that we exist, and that we should respond to stimuli reasonably. If I’m hungry, I eat. If I’m tired, I sleep. If I’m cold, I get a blanket. So if I’m going to operate the rest of my life under the assumption that I’m real, then I can also operate my personal beliefs under the same assumption.

2. Is science a good way of judging what’s really real?
The way I define and use science here is that it’s a philosophy that describes the natural world. If one takes careful note, that means science doesn’t seek to describe the supernatural. This begs an important question: why talk about science at all when talking about belief in the supernatural?

The answer is that science, because it defines how our natural world behaves, can be useful in defining and ruling out natural causes for things. If something results from natural phenomena, science can test and retest to determine what that phenomena is, inching understanding inexorably towards a satisfactory conclusion. Likewise if something results from a supernatural phenomena, science can rule out natural phenomena as a cause of the event.

A word of caution here: simply because science cannot reach a satisfactory description does not mean by default the event belongs to the purview of the supernatural. All it means is that no current theory adequately and reasonably explains the event. The distinction may seem fine, but one idea is affirmative in that it rules out all natural causes while the other simply is a failure to describe a natural cause. A lot of discussions revolve frustratingly around this issue, and I might write on it at some future point, but for now I think I’ve made my point sufficiently.

3. Why can’t the Bible(or other religious texts) be trusted?
Religious beliefs of its adherents aside, religious texts are written testimonies. Someone observed events, recollected them, and wrote them down. Eventually these recollections are collected and published as an authoritative text on the beliefs of the faithful. They allege the existence of the divine, they provide some historical and background information, or they can articulate new codes and morals to live by. Often they can do all three. Because I come from a Christian background, I will discuss the Bible in particular as an example of why these testimonies are not trustworthy (to me at least).

Testimonial evidence from eyewitnesseshas been proven to be unreliable in certain circumstances. Granted, religion and court proceedings are two different environs, but the situation is analogous because the faithful ask people to believe the statements of someone who witnessed an event. Also, just because some witnesses get it wrong does not intrinsically mean the Biblical authors got it wrong, but once again since there is proof that witnesses can make mistakes there is sufficient grounds to believe that some Biblical authors got details wrong in their recollection. Although people believe the Bible was written by the hand of God, human authors held the pens, and their failures of perception and reason can go into what they wrote.

Furthermore, there are also issues of bias. The writers of the Bible are starting a new religion, and that can lead to selective use of the facts. Bias also can exist in the translation of the Bible, so where the author may have described one event, by the time it reaches the current translation an entirely separate event is being described to legitimize the faith. Thirdly, bias exists in treatises on the original text, so that people who seek clarification of the Bible can get views that distort the original meaning of the text.

After misperception and bias, a third concern is the actual claims being made. The Bible is full of accounts of people coming back from the dead, being healed, prophecies, transmutations, and exotic displays of power. If people claimed these things happened nowadays (with perhaps an exception made by some for healing), such accounts would be taken by most reasonable people with a grain of proverbial salt. No reasonable person would inherently believe God told a defendant to kill his own children, or to commit genocide. Why is it reasonable then to believe it when it comes from a few thousand years ago?

These three concerns I raise are not an exhaustive list. But, these three do raise doubts as to the legitimacy of the assertions made in the Bible. Even with contemporary assertions of miracles, such pronouncements are made without physical evidence to test. Therefore these testimonies fall under the doubts I mention, and accordingly they do not receive much weight on their own merits.

4. What do you mean, there’s no evidence?
This item is the most self-explanatory of my reasoning. When I say there’s no evidence, I mean no physical, testable evidence. If God comes and speaks to a person, a video would be helpful. If God heals someone’s cancer, evidence that rules out natural or medicinal causes would be helpful. If God lets you transmute water into cold beer, there would be a line of scientists wanting you to prove it first in a laboratory and then at the after party.

Sadly for people wanting cold adult beverages on the cheap there is no testable evidence to support such claims. In other words: there is no physical example of the divine which science can rule out natural causes.

5. How can you conclude there’s no God(or other deities) from all this?
Okay, so a conclusion that no deity exists omits a few logical steps from the process. However, the conclusion is still possible and, more importantly, reasonable.

I am not here to refute every argument given to prove the existence of God, nor am I here to give a conclusive recitation of reasons to disprove the concept. There are plenty of arguments on both sides out there. Rather, I do want to say that the absence of evidence is a strong indicator that deities are not real.

Think of it this way: if an intelligent supernatural being wanted humans to worship it, and it knew we could eventually have enough knowledge to rule out natural causes, it would behoove it to give us something for us to utilize that knowledge on. I’m sure many reasons could be dreamt up for why it hasn’t done it yet, but the simplest reason is that there is no being to provide the evidence.

Coming from a previous life of faith, I had discussed with friends the abundant list of excuses and rationalizations to believe in something that allegedly killed His kid for me but couldn’t deign to show Himself in public. Other ideas thrown my way asking me to believe in that which was unproven were dismissed, but somehow Christianity was different. The fact that I couldn’t find a reasonable distinction gnawed at me. Meanwhile, I was getting reinforcement from fellow believers that I was a terrible person, and I still needed Jesus.

Why am I a terrible, incomplete person? I believed that for over three decades. I believed it so well it has done irreparable harm to my mental well-being. Nowhere in my existence was I responsible for anything good happening in my life, but I was responsible for everything bad happening in my life. It was irrational, and when I finally accepted it was irrational I realized I needed something better or it was going to end up physically harming me.

I do not begrudge anyone his or her belief in that which cannot be seen. I do not share in the belief of that which cannot be seen. And because I need to anchor myself in what I can measure, both to build myself up and ensure I do not engender false beliefs, I will not share in any belief that allows people to assume divinity exists without testable evidence.

Now, more than ever, I feel like I am finally worth something. Without needing God I am an agent capable of helping people, and that help is meaningful no matter how token or small it is. People are agents capable of improving and enriching the lives of others around them, no matter how miniscule their gestures may be. Humanity no longer is doomed to failure, but rather it can help its constituents live fully to their potentials if it seizes the will to act. Suddenly defeats are not defeats, but rather opportunities to overcome.

And that is more reassuring to me than anything faith can offer.