This column is prompted by a comment from last week’s riff on “Amen/A-women” (the “pun” that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver used to end the prayer that opened the current session of the US House of Representatives): “Mr. Evans has, in earlier articles, made it clear that he is possibly an agnostic, and probably an atheist.”
Look, we’re all agnostic regarding God, which was the original coinage of the term (a-gnosis, “without knowledge”) by “Darwin’s bulldog” Thomas Huxley in 1869. None of us—from the open-minded Unitarian to the most hard-headed evangelical Christian or devout Sunni—know shit about God, any more than we “know” anything for certain. We could be brains-in-vats/dreaming or hallucinating/pawns in a sim-type computer game/robots convinced we’re free-will agents (like Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner), etc. So of course I’m an agnostic: I have beliefs, not knowledge (including what I just wrote!). So do you.
As for “probably an atheist.” First, it’s a category error (i.e. apples and oranges) to compare agnosticism with atheism—one’s about knowledge, the other’s about belief. And as I’ve written in this column several years ago, my problem with defining something by what it’s not—i.e. an atheist being someone who doesn’t believe in God (or gods)—is that you need to have at least some sense what it is you’re saying you don’t believe in. And there’s the rub. As physicist-bongo player, the late Richard Feynman, explained, having called himself a non-believer: “You describe it, I don’t believe it.” Since I have no idea what the word God (or gods) means, I’d be dishonest to express either belief or disbelief. So no, I’m not an atheist. But neither am I not not-an-atheist.
Let’s look a bit closer at this “negative definition” idea. Dark is defined as the absence of light, death by the absence of life. Similarly chastity (no sex), bachelor (unmarried), vacation (break from work)—we all understand what it is we’re not referring to. But God? Ineffable! As the very readable theologian Karen Armstrong observed, “Some [eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians and mystics] went so far as to say that it was better to say that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was too limited to apply to God.”
Which brings us, naturally to “Pascal’s Wager.” The 17th century philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote that a rational person should at least try to believe in God (use your imagination!) since you were giving up very little, while the up side (eternal life) was enormous. That is, it was a good bet to be a believer. (The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras may have been the first to so reason.) Which, in the cold hard light of day, is a pretty silly argument. Suppose you end up believing in the wrong god? Suppose God doesn’t accept your “wager”? Or that God—who until that moment thought you were OK—was insulted by your self-serving, phony attempt to believe?
I think I’ll stick with not knowing.