April 12, 2006

Atheism and Agnosticism

In an interview, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who called himself a "radical atheist," explains why he uses that term (thanks to onegoodmove):

I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as "Atheist," some people will say, "Don't you mean 'Agnostic'?" I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god - in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It's easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it's an opinion I hold seriously…

People will then often say "But surely it's better to remain an Agnostic just in case?" This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I've been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would chose not to worship him anyway.) . . .

And making the move from Agnosticism to Atheism takes, I think, much more commitment to intellectual effort than most people are ready to put in. (italics in original)

I think Adams is exactly right. When I tell people that I am an atheist, they also tend to suggest that surely I must really mean that I am an agnostic. (See here for an earlier discussion of the distinction between the two terms.) After all, how can I be sure that there is no god? In that purely logical sense they are right, of course. You cannot prove a negative so there is always the chance that not only that a god exists but, if you take radical clerics Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell seriously, has a petty, spiteful, vengeful, and cruel personality.

When I say that I am atheist, I am not making that assertion based on logical or evidentiary proofs of non-existence. It is that I have been convinced that the case for no god is far stronger than the case for god. It is the same reasoning that makes me convinced that quantum mechanics is the theory to use for understanding sub-atomic phenomena or natural selection is the theory to be preferred for understanding the diversity of life. There is always the possibility that these theories are 'wrong' in some sense and will be superceded by other theories, but those theories will have to have convincing evidence in their favor.

If, on the other hand, I ask myself what evidence there is for the existence of a god, I come up empty. All I have are the assurances of clergy and assertions in certain books. I have no personal experience of it and there is no scientific evidence for it.

Of course, as long time readers of this blog are aware, I used to be quite religious for most of my life, even an ordained lay preacher of the Methodist Church. How could I have switched? It turns out that my experience is remarkably similar to that of Adams, who describes why he switched from Christianity to atheism.

As a teenager I was a committed Christian. It was in my background. I used to work for the school chapel in fact. Then one day when I was about eighteen I was walking down the street when I heard a street evangelist and, dutifully, stopped to listen. As I listened it began to be borne in on me that he was talking complete nonsense, and that I had better have a bit of a think about it.

I've put that a bit glibly. When I say I realized he was talking nonsense, what I mean is this. In the years I'd spent learning History, Physics, Latin, Math, I'd learnt (the hard way) something about standards of argument, standards of proof, standards of logic, etc. In fact we had just been learning how to spot the different types of logical fallacy, and it suddenly became apparent to me that these standards simply didn't seem to apply in religious matters. In religious education we were asked to listen respectfully to arguments which, if they had been put forward in support of a view of, say, why the Corn Laws came to be abolished when they were, would have been laughed at as silly and childish and - in terms of logic and proof -just plain wrong. Why was this?
. . .
I was already familiar with and (I'm afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn't apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of 'truth'. (I now think this is baloney, but to continue...) What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn't stand up to it.
. . .
Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins's books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

What Adams is describing is the conversion experience that I described earlier when suddenly, switching your perspective seems to make everything fall into place and make sense.

For me, like Adams, I realized that I was applying completely different standards for religious beliefs than I was for every other aspect of my life. And I could not explain why I should do so. Once I jettisoned the need for that kind of distinction, atheism just naturally emerged as the preferred explanation. Belief in a god required much more explaining away of inconvenient facts than not believing in a god.

POST SCRIPT: The Gospel According to Judas

There was a time in my life when I would have been all a-twitter over the discovery of a new manuscript that sheds a dramatically different light on the standard Gospel story of Jesus and Judas. I would have wondered how it affected my view of Jesus and god and my faith.

Now this kind of news strikes me as an interesting curiosity, but one that does not affect my life or thinking at all. Strange.


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We lost a unique personality with the death of Douglas Adams. Not only his ideas, but the entertaining ways in which he expressed them, are sorely missed. What a wonderful warrior he'd be in our current battle against fundamentalism.

Posted by catherine on April 12, 2006 10:57 AM

Out of curiosity - and curiosity only, as I don't want this to become a debate - what are the 'inconvenient facts' that you felt required explaining away in order to believe in a god?

I ask only becase I have the exact opposite experience from what you describe. Often it is the athiest/agnostic who backs down from an intellectual challenge. For example, I have a relative on my wife's side that is all but physically abusive towards her simply because of her faith. They consider themselves her (and now, my) intellectual superior, and make every attempt to make her/us feel stupid.

And yet, when challenged in debate on the topic (as our conversations with this person always become) this person will present 'facts' that are actually based on feeling and experience (i.e., "I've never had your experience, therefore your experience can't be true...") or 'facts' that are facts but don't in themselves preclude the existence of a god ("As shown by Darwin, life could have come about without a god, therefore there is no god"). When challenged on them, or when asked to refute our arguments, they can only respond with a highly intellectual "you're stupid" (I mean that literally).

This is not an isolated case. I've had similar experiences many times with other atheists. And I realize that an argument is not invalidated simply because the person making the argument has poor debating skills. And yet, I find that when asked why the 'god hypothosis' as Laplace called it doesn't work for them, they often don't know how to respond.

One last thing about the term 'fundamentalism' which is often said (or typed, as in the comment above) with no small amount of disdain. I find that most attempts at defining the term miss the mark; they may provide a theoretical definition, but one that falls short in practice.

I hear one group of people say that our country is being overtaken by fundamentalists, people who hate this or that and want to kill such and such and throw the rest in prison; and yet, I've heard many, many, MANY people who call themselves fundamentalist who have never once said such things nor would ever condone them. And yet, because they fit someone else's definition of fundamentalist, they are immediately dismissed as evil. The word seems to mean different things to different people, and thus means nothing at all. I frankly don't use it.

Instead, I think I'll take my queue from Adams and call myself a 'radical' Christian. I believe in Christ as the son of God; I believe in the Bible as the word of God; I believe incest, rape, murder, abortion lying, homosexuality, theft, etc. to be wrong. This alone qualifies me as 'fundamentalist' in many minds. However, I do not believe that homosexuals should be denied jobs or buried alive (like the the _real_ theocracies on this planet do). I do not believe that an office where abortions are performed should be blown up. Am I still a fundamentalist? Or just a radical Christian, one 'who really means it'? I'll bet it depends on who you ask...

Posted by Mike on April 12, 2006 01:02 PM

Reading Mike's response about past debates he has had with people, I think he brings up a clear distinction. It is not the belief system that causes these poor arguments, but that some people are not well studied in their belief and those they do not fully accept. Some people have a "belief" solely based in a gut feeling or some external influence (family tradition, early education, personal experience, etc.) but have not researched that belief and counter beliefs to fully understand the full picture. You could easily get the "your stupid" response from anyone that has not fully looked inward into their own beliefs and also explored other cultures and religions.

Posted by Brian Gray on April 12, 2006 02:03 PM


You make some interesting points.

The inconvenient facts I refer to are that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the material world is not all there is. No ghosts, no spirits, no afterlife, no signs that some deity is intervening in the world in a manner not explainable by natural laws. In short,no positive evidence has been produced for the existence of god.

When someone asserts that something exists, then the burden of proof falls on that person to provide evidence of it. Failing that, the default assumption is that it does not exist. This is the basic methodology by which we normally operate.

If I say that there is an HIV virus that causes AIDS I will be expected to support that with evidence. If I say that a new subatomic particle exists, people will expect me to back it up with data. If I say unicorns exists, people will expect me to provide evidence of some kind or another. If I say that such things exist, I personally experienced them, but are undetectable by others and cannot be replicated in any way, people will dismiss my claims.

And yet, we do not apply that same standard to religious beliefs. If we do apply that same standard, the conclusion we arrive at is that this absence of evidence must be due to there not being a god, or as Laplace would say, there is no need to postulate the existence of a god. For the believer, you have to invoke a god who has the ability to be undetectable and the desire to do so.

Those are the most basic questions that have to be addressed.

Other types of inconvenient facts depend on more specific beliefs of people. If you believe the Earth was created 10,000 years ago, then the inconvenient facts are all the scientific data that suggest a much longer age. If you believe that god created all species, then you have to explain why so many species have gone extinct, why so many have seemingly poor design features, etc.

These are not insurmountable problems for the believer. There is always the option of believing in a deity who is inscrutable, all-powerful, and undetectable, so that there is no fact that cannot be swept under that all encompassing rug. The point I am making is that such an argument would not be accepted in any area other than religion.

On the other question, I have written before that labels tend to be meaningless. I quite agree with you that people's beliefs do not necessarily predict their actions. I myself don't care what people believe. It is social policy that I care about.

Needless to say, I think calling people"stupid" just because you disagree with them is an absurd thing to do.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 12, 2006 02:06 PM

Thanks for the response. I indeed have responses for each item you mention (and I think you'd be surprised by some of them), but I promised not to debate them, so I won't.

You said, "And yet, we do not apply that same standard to religious beliefs."

I think what you describe sounds like a world where there is no need for such thing as 'belief', religious or otherwise. I'm reminded of a scene in the movie _The Matrix_ where the main character is presented a choice: the 'blue pill', which allows the taker to stay 'here', in the now, the 'truth'; or, the 'red pill', which allows the taker to experience the real now, the real 'Truth'. Why not simply force the red pill down their throat? Then they would have no choice but to believe.

As in the movie, in the real world we have free will, and the question _must_ be asked (as another character says, "It is the choice that drives us"). If not asked, there is no free will, there is no requirement for belief - and there is no requirement to give something of ourselves. Which is nicer: a thing taken from the possessor, or a thing freely given to you by the possessor? I think god looks at us and our belief the same way.

(This may intimate that I believe god to be a trickster, one who presents evidence that seemingly disproves his existence and then asks us to believe otherwise. I don't, but again, I promised not to debate your response point-for-point. And I want to keep this short [ha!].)

Or consider a scene from another movie, _Contact_. (It may be in the book as well, but I have not read it.) In the scene, the main character, an athiest says that she would need proof in order to believe in god. A priest responds by asking her if she loved her father. She responds, "Of course". His response: "Prove it."

There are things, like love, which have not yet been reduced to a color on an MRI or an equation in a book. They have none of the proof that you describe. By your requirement, I cannot say there is such a thing as love because I have no proof, no natural law (yet) to explain. But all of us have experienced it, in some way, on some level. Few would suggest it does not exist.

The reason is that we have the positive proof we need, in the way we feel, the way we think, the way we act, things that can't easily be presented as 'proof'. In other words, the proof comes in a _different form_. It's not in a model or an equation or a theory, yet we experience it every day.

So yes, we can ask that a religous belief provide some proof, but we must be open to the possibility that that proof is of a form we don't expect. I wonder how often we overlook a 'proof' - of god, of love or a new particle - simply because it was not in a form we were looking for - or were willing to accept.

Posted by Mike on April 13, 2006 01:09 PM


I think you are perfectly correct in saying that whether we "see" something depends on whether we know where to look, how to look and have the tools for detection. After all, radiation was around us but no one thought th look for it until the electromagnetic theory of light gave us a framework to envisage it. So I take your point that the proof of god may be in a form that we are not yet ready to see.

The analogy of god with love is a little trickier. I think we would agree that the emotion of love is something generated by the brain and is internal to each one. When I die, my feelings of love die with me. Hence it is a subjective phenomenon.

But the traditional concept of god is someone who is external to us and exists independently of us.

There are some theologians who postulate that god is like love in that it is an idea and purely a creation of our minds, the "ground of our being" but I am not sure if that was the comparison you were making.

Interesting points!

Posted by Mano Singham on April 13, 2006 02:14 PM

To both Mano and Mike -

That is what true discussion of a very sensitive topic should be.

One can only hope more people live up to your collective example.

~ Liz

Posted by Liz V on April 25, 2006 11:52 AM