A Militant Atheist’s Viewpoint on Agnosticism
A talk given by Nigel Sinnott to the Agnostics Group, Melbourne, on 4 May 2014
Thank you all for coming to hear me this afternoon. I must also thank David Miller, not only for inviting me to speak today, but for suggesting the title of the talk.
I think it makes sense to begin by defining the terms used in my title.
First, atheism and atheist. In a restricted and rather obsolete sense an atheist is someone who does not believe in a particular god or goddess; but in the modern and normal sense an atheist does not believe in the god of Abrahamic monotheism, Yahweh, Jehovah, El, Allah or God with a capital G, and almost always does not believe in gods and goddesses in general.
In my case I do not believe in in the religious sense. I do not have religious faith or a faith. I do not believe in an entity or non-entity called “no God” or accept straw-man definitions by people seeking to discredit atheism. In short, my answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” is no.
I do not in any absolute sense know that God does not exist, and I do not pretend I can prove that God does not exist; but I can give some reasons why the whole notion of God strikes me as absurd. It is interesting that most modern Christians can be fairly dogmatic about saying that no gods or goddesses exist except their monotheistic god. Early Christians, on the other hand, sometimes thought that other deities existed, but were either devils or the forbidden gods of their religious rivals.
So I am not a dogmatic atheist. Why then do I term myself a militant atheist?
There are a number of reasons, one of which is that militant atheist is a bogeyman term often bandied about by the devout. Let me be clear that I am not in favour of imposing atheism on other people or being unnecessarily rude to or argumentative with people who have theistic views. I do not want atheism as an official state philosophy any more than I want a state with an official religion. I strongly support the notion of freedom of conscience and I advocate a secular state which in normal circumstances takes no account of citizens’ religious beliefs or lack of them.
I am an atheist activist who tries to follow the precepts of a responsible professional soldier. My task is to explain and defend the notion of atheism when it comes under attack from atheophobes. In the societies in which I have lived atheophobia comes mainly from Christians, but in other parts of the world it can come from absolutist or fascist Muslims or right-wing nationalist Hindus. I do not see it as my role to charge forth yelping at the slightest mention of a deity like the bulldog spotting a cat in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I aim to be combative only when this is appropriate and necessary.
The sorts of things I advocate standing up to are religious privilege and triumphalism, and people who say that religious ideas should be treated with respect. People and animals are entitled to respect, but not ideas.
I do not expect all atheists to be militant. Being militant requires aptitude, motivation and opportunity, and not everyone has the skills or the time required.
Next I come to agnosticism. This word can have a number of meanings, and I will deal with what I think are the three most common ones.
First, the meaning derived from etymology. Agnostic comes from the Greek prefix a-, meaning not or without, like the English suffix –less, and Greek gnôsis, meaning knowledge, but in theology and philosophy meaning special direct knowledge of mysteries or the divine. A man who has had a vision of a saint or has “seen God” no longer needs faith, because he has gnosis, first-hand experience, even though sceptics may say he is mistaken.
The second, and very common, meaning of agnostic is that he or she is someone who is simply not sure if God or the supernatural exists or not.
The third meaning is that originally given to the term by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869. He said agnosticism was “not a creed but a method”, namely, “Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, follow your reason as far as it can take you without other considerations. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable”. He added that “it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.”
I will now attempt to give you my viewpoint on these three meanings.
Clearly, if the divine does not exist, then those who claim to have direct mystical knowledge of it have to be viewed as, well, mistaken. But I am unhappy with the notion that the divine exists or may exist, but cannot be known. If there are gods and goddesses, why would they want to hide away like Irish fairies in raths? (A rath is a prehistoric hill-fort.) If there is a benevolent and omnipotent god, I would expect the existence of that god to be blazingly obvious. The claim that God exists, but you have to have “faith” in that existence, has for me the hallmark of the language of fraud, dishonesty and trickery. In other contexts, however, I agree that there is no such thing as absolute certainty in knowledge, as human beings perceive the outside world through the, at times, fallible medium of their senses.
Next we have people who say, “I’m an agnostic because I’m not sure if God exists or not,” or they may say, “I’m not sure if I have faith in God or not.” It is tempting, but only tempting, to retort “If you’re not sure you have faith, then you don’t really have faith, so you are an atheist of sorts.” The reply might be remorselessly logical, but I find it trite and a bit arrogant. I cannot really know what is going on in someone else’s head; and I am reluctant to infringe on someone’s right to suspend judgement.
That said, I have little time for someone who says that he or she is an agnostic because the person thinks that atheism is embarrassing, vulgar or a social liability. This is just manifesting one of the many faces of atheophobia. I remember coming across snobs, especially in England, who thought that Christianity was, if nothing else, good for keeping the working classes docile and respectful. “God bless the squire and his relations, / And keep us in our proper stations.”
At the other end of the spectrum was the American freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll, who termed himself an agnostic and was just as outspoken as any contemporary atheist. Anyone who has read Ingersoll’s “Why I Am an Agnostic” will know what I mean. Its sentiments border on misotheism, the notion that the concept of God is harmful or evil.
Huxley’s idea, and remember he was describing a method, makes sense to me. “In matters of intellect, follow your reason as far as it can take you without other considerations. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This is, after all, the methodology of good science, and the only criticism that I have heard levelled at it, by the late Dr Gordon Stein, is that a new word was not really needed here, as this is essentially the same notion as rationalism.
I make no claim to any sort of absolute knowledge; in fact the only thing I am almost absolutely certain of is that there is no such thing as absolute certainty, except about category mistakes. I do not believe in God with a capital G because I regard the existence of an all-good, omnipotent deity as monstrously absurd in a world I observe to be full of injustice and suffering. But, of course, someone can argue that, if magic and the supernatural do exist, then any absurdity is possible.
The Christian apologist, Tertullian, has been credited with saying “Credo quia absurdum est”, “I believe because it is absurd.” But he did not use the word absurdum; he used ineptus, meaning absurd, silly or unsuitable. What he actually wrote in De Carne Christi (5: 4) was, translated into English:
“The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is entirely credible, because it is absurd — or unsuitable. And buried, he rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” (Crucifixus est Dei Filius, non pudet, quia pudendum est; et mortuus est Dei Filius, prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile.)
Even so, I am appalled by this sort of sophistry and double-talk, and by the bizarre notion that an omnipotent deity needed a son to sort out the problems on a planet the deity had created. An omnipotent entity, if one existed, would not need anything, would not have needs, and would be invulnerable.
I will close with H. L. Mencken’s comment about Tertullian: “Needless to say, he began life as a lawyer.”
Thank you; and over to you.
Only found this after doing a bit of scrolling through the archives. Great stuff, loved the H.L.Menken quote, sums up a lot of theologians.
Posted by James Norman