Agnosticism – rational or not?

I was reading an interesting post on the excellent “The Mary Blog,” titled “Agnostic Atheism.” In this post, Mary puts forward the argument that Atheism is not the most rational choice to make and requires an element of belief very similar to theism – in that the Atheist has to believe the non-existence of God without any evidence to support the idea.

Unusually, Mary also explains that Agnosticism is not entirely rational either and concludes that the rational position is about half way between Agnostic and Atheist. The whole post puts forward a reasonable argument for people seeking a middle ground between what is increasingly seen as “Militant” atheism and the “reasonable” agnosticism.

Sadly, while I consider myself a rational person, I have to disagree and, personally, I find the arguments for Agnosticism a bit “wet” (for want of a politer word). Before I go on, there is always the risk that this could simply be a case of semantics, so I think some definitions are required. To me, Atheist is not a religion and it certainly is not a dogmatic belief structure. My view of the term “Atheist” does not preclude the fact that if, tomorrow, Thor knocked on my door and introduced himself, I would believe he existed. In common parlance, Atheist is used to mean “doesn’t believe in the Christian God” but, personally, this is inaccurate.

Right, that said, I can explain why I feel Agnosticism is not rational and, often, seems to be a way people avoid any stigma associated with being called an “Atheist.” (Sorry if this seems to rehash some ground from a previous debate with Parabiodox over the terms 😀 ).

Often blogs claiming Atheism is irrational will use the argument that the Atheist believes God does not exist, while the Agnostic says “we don’t know if God exists or not.” In this form, the Agnostic view point does appear more rational but closer examination may change this.

The flaw, as I see it, is the assumption that the atheist has to “believe” God does not exist. Apart from being a false dichotomy, it ignores the multitude of other options. For example, while it may be argued that atheist towards the Christian God is an irrational form of belief in itself, is the same said about Loki? The same weight of evidence for the existence of God can be used to support the entire Norse pantheon, as well as the Greek gods, Roman gods, Norse gods, Saxon gods, Egyptian gods, Finnish gods, Aztec gods, Inca gods (and so on). Were the Egyptian Pharaohs deities or not?

More importantly, why limit ourselves to deities which have already been thought of. What evidence is there that the snake-people of Beta Carinae IV haven’t seen the RealGod and follow the one true faith? I assume all the reasonable agnostics are equally agnostic about this, as well as the flying spaghetti monster and the floating teacup.

The only alternative, is the acceptance that the terminology is very, very specific. When we, in the English speaking world, talk of Theism, Atheism and Agnosticism we are talking about opinions towards the Christian deity. For me, this removes some of the rationality already. We have a starting point which is based on nothing more than the random chance that we were born in a country in which Christianity was the dominant religion. There is nothing inherently rational in accepting the possible existence of the Christian deity over the alternatives – it is a position based on many years being brought up immersed in Christian culture. We grow into adults surrounded by Christian paraphernalia and, believer or not, we celebrate Christian holidays. Our laws have Christian doctrine intermingled and we are almost brainwashed into thinking that Christian clerics have a moral and ethical understanding which escapes the common person. All this goes a long way to creating the idea that the choice is Christianity or Atheism. If the world were truly like this, I could see a stronger argument for agnosticism, but it isn’t.

This leads nicely onto the issue about evidence. Without getting too torn up in a philosophical debate, I fail to see how you can, ever, “prove” that something does not exist. Over the last 2000 years, Christianity has evolved and the location of God/Heaven (etc) has been redefined as humanity learns to look in new places. In this, there will never be evidence that the Christian God does not exist.

However, requiring proof of the negative is (IMHO remember) a fallacy in itself. We have no proof Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy do not exist, but I suspect there are very few people who Agnostic towards these two creatures. Resorting to Popper, it is not scientifically valid to prove the non-existence of something in the generalised sense. There may indeed be a planet, orbiting a star seventeen billion lightyears away where Santa does indeed visit every child over night on Christmas day. I defy anyone to prove otherwise.

What we can do, however, is falsify specific claims and theories. For example, the theory that Santa exists under my chair is easily falsified (for me anyway) and I have just done so – to be sure. From this we have the opportunity to examine the claims made by [insert religion of choice], if they are valid then there may well be some chance the deity they support exists.

If, however, the claims have to be redefined, re-worded and re-presented as science progresses, then that is (largely) an accepted method of falsifying the theory which they support. Taken in this light, the evidence we have available to us today supports the argument that the World’s religions are not true – their holy books have falsified claims – leaving Agnosticism as a belief that their deity may exist, despite the Holy Books being wrong. This is not rational.

Critically, the accepted requirement for moving something out of the realms of “belief” into accepted truth is evidence. Other than in the case of religion, I can think of no areas where people have to prove something does not exist before people will “Believe” it. (All puns intended). Using Christianity as an example, the Bible talks of turning people into pillars of salt, virgin births, the dead coming back to life, walking on water and so on. These are extraordinary claims and, as such, require evidence. It is most certainly not the case that evidence is required to dismiss them.

However it is spun, woo is still woo. Religion often gets an easy ride on some aspects of reasoning, largely because people have grown up with it all their life and the idea that it has a special privilege is very, very, hard to shake. Giving it the benefit of the doubt does not make it rational.

[tags]Religion, Atheism, Agnosticism, Belief, Science, Philosophy, Culture, Religious Beliefs, Society, Logic, Logical Fallacies, Atheist, Agnostic, Popper, Thor, Pharaoh[/tags]

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