In my last post, I wrote of how – as the culmination of much reading and thought on the issue – I became an agnostic. I’m now going to jump forward twelve years from that decision and explain how I eventually moved on to atheism.
I was somewhere around seventeen (I can’t remember exactly) when I became an agnostic. It was a decision I was happy with, but never something I regarded as a ‘that’s it, case closed’ moment in life – I retained my keen interest in the whole topic and continued to read and think a lot about it, open to new arguments I hadn’t come across before. While I did in fact find one – C.S. Lewis’s moral argument – and found it quite intriguing, that one didn’t stand up under examination either (another topic I need to post about!) and I remained agnostic.
That was fine by me, but I’d also have been happy to find a convincing reason to believe in God (as long as it wasn’t the tyrant version of God that supposedly sent people of the wrong beliefs to eternal torture). I didn’t, however, think seriously about becoming an atheist, because that always seemed fairly silly to me. Sure, we couldn’t prove that God existed, but how could anyone prove that he didn’t? Surely agnosticism was a far more sensible option?
I was twenty-nine, and I was chatting to the boyfriend with whom I’d recently got together. (Who would, in fact, go on to become my husband, but that’s also a different story.) He was (and still is, for that matter) an atheist. Curious, I asked him why. How could he be an atheist when he couldn’t be sure that God didn’t exist?
And he asked me “Well, do you believe in fairies?”
Lightbulb moment. As silly as it sounds now, this way of looking at things had honestly, at the time, never occurred to me. No, of course I didn’t believe in fairies. Or ghosts, or vampires, or werewolves, or…. well, name your mythological being, really. And for none of those things did I feel the need to hedge my disbelief with disclaimers about how of course they might exist, since we couldn’t really know for sure that they didn’t and surely it was important to keep an open mind… No-one would expect me to. There was no good evidence for the existence of fairies, so my response to that was not to believe in them. Simple as, end of.
When I clung to my agnosticism about God, when I tried to tell myself I was right to be open-minded about the matter… I was actually cutting the notion of a deity a level of slack that I wouldn’t have cut for any other theoretical creature.
I rapidly realised two things:
- Logically, I really should be an atheist.
- While my commitment to open-mindedness and fairness was quite genuine… it hadn’t actually been my only reason for wanting to remain an agnostic, rather than an atheist.
Being an agnostic, you see, also allowed me to continue with the hope that maybe – just maybe – there was a God of the non-horrible type out there. (The kind of God traditionally believed in by Christians was a rather different matter, but that is yet another whole other issue for yet another of the increasing number of blog posts I totally mean to get round to writing sometime.) I liked the idea that, at the end of the day, the universe might be in charge of someone wise and kind and powerful who would a) make sure that nothing went too disastrously wrong for humanity and b) give us some kind of afterlife in which some kind of justice was done.
(That, I can see, may be misinterpreted. There seems to be a widespread belief among Christians – and among other religions too, for all I know, but Christianity is where I’ve encountered it – that we unbelievers all lead meaningless lives without God and just don’t want to admit it. My life has never felt meaningless in the slightest; I’ve been very happy and fulfilled in the here-and-now without belief. My discomfort came from the feeling of being without a safety net if things went wrong.)
However, the facts remained. Despite years of searching, I had been able to find absolutely no good reason to believe such a being existed. And I’d always striven to be as honest as I could about where my exploration of the issue led me. So… it wasn’t the kind of rapid shift that my shift to agnosticism had been, and took some months of gradually coming round to the idea, but I did eventually identify as an atheist. And, eighteen years on, I still do.
I’ve been thinking about the agnostic/atheist issue myself. I hope to write a lengthier process essay, but the brief version goes something like:
The term “agnosticism” emphasizes human fallibility: I don’t actually know every possible thing that there is to know that would absolutely eliminate the possibility of there being a God or gods. I guess I’m still an agnostic in that I certainly haven’t given up the idea that I am fallible.
But the term “atheism” emphasizes the lack of belief, not the existence of knowledge. I may not know everything, but I do know my own mind well enough to know that I don’t believe in a god or gods.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but I’m a pressed for time just now.
Your still an agnostic. Just an agnostic atheist. 😎
I.e. you don’t have a belief in a god. You make no claim to knowledge as there is no basis for such a claim.
It is very funny as “declaration of identity”, truly emotional act of working hard on a label for oneself, a tribal atavistic instinct is still so important to so many people!
You “believe” you are atheist? Good for you – does it change anything?
Maybe only clergy would be upset, they loose one more sheep to fleece off…
When you finally discovered Occam’s razor there is no need to create another whole entity…
The logical contradiction between atheists and agnostics is based on misunderstanding of semantics:
1. atheist – does not believe in gods which is not necessary non religious believer, original buddhism is atheistic; originally it is a legal roman therm to describe insubordinate citizens and slaves who did not want to pay offerings to the official Pantheon of Rome (CHRISTIANS WERE DECLARED ATHEISTS)
2. agnostic knows that his knowledge is limited and how, as opposite to gnostic who believes that he can acquire full knowledge, but sometimes does not know how
In science and philosophy – there is no connection (there is a very strong one in politics and ideology) – we have 5 senses, memory and imagination and bunch of instincts to guide ourselves through unknown the best we can – so far it works in spite of false believes 😉
Congratulations and best regards! Enjoy our wonderful World!
Thanks for writing this. I said I was agnostic for many years. Then someone challenged me, “What did I think odds were that god exists?” I thought about that and had to be honest with myself. I think chance of god’s existence are vanishingly small. Not really worth considering. Since then I’ve been happy to claim my atheism.
Dr Sarah, I love your comment on the NT God, turning the Christian assumption of a more loving god on its head.
Oops, sorry, wrong Firefox tab. #5 is for the posting “Questions! Questions for atheists!”