Agnosticism Revisited & the Case for Atheism

It is easy to understand how one can be undecided about the existence of God. I’m often undecided myself, since doubting my convictions is the first step in any serious analysis; yet I am as atheist as they come.

Agnosticism generally takes three forms today. There is the traditional agnostic who maintains that no one can prove or disprove God’s existence and therefore the only intelligent position is to say “we can’t know”. The second sees agnosticism as a beginning point, a method of skepticism or doubt from which to proceed. The third type says withholding belief in God because of insufficient evidence is identical to being atheist (generally called weak atheism).

Today a great many atheists are actually agnostic-atheists of this last sort. For an example of the 2nd group, see David Eller’s essay “Agnosticism: the basis for atheism not an alternative to it”. (Eller argues that agnosticism is a method that if properly followed leads directly to atheism.)

But my focus now is agnosticism of the first sort. Advocates of this position claim to know basicly two things:

(a) there are no logically sound proofs or disproofs of God’s existence

(b) therefore there is insufficient reason to adapt either theism or atheism

I have no doubt that to the agnostic’s best knowledge, both claims are true. He or she isn’t aware of a convincing case for belief or disbelief.

But maybe that’s because our agnostic simply hasn’t been exposed to strong atheist arguments. Which would not be surprising. Most atheists are actually weak atheists, our group three above who disbelieve because of insufficient evidence. Weak atheists, it seems to me, are often unaware of the best arguments for atheism.

The strongest philosophical argument for atheism, the Argument from Perfection, is rarely presented anywhere in full (often it has to be extrapolated from discussions of “the Problem of Evil”); likewise for the other arguments that constitute specific atheism.

As for general atheism (the scientific/naturalistic presentation of atheism) I suppose it is still an unnamed work in progress. But clearly, as the evidence for naturalism becomes overwhelming, so too the case for atheism since it is a necessary corollary.

I should probably explain that specific atheism is that atheism which purports to disprove the existence of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic monotheistic God—that is, the perfect supernatural being who is said to have created the natural world including us. Specific atheism argues either that such a God is impossible, or if possible could not have created the world we have.

General atheism, on the other hand, is an outgrowth of the scientific/philosophical case for naturalism. Advocates of general atheism like to begin their arguments with well-established science (evolution, the physiology of vision or of the brain) and move on to conclusions about the nature of human knowledge and its relationship to the world—conclusions which if correct eliminate supernaturalism (and therefore eliminate any supernatural God or gods). This is where most scientists who are atheists are coming from—though usually they still couch their arguments in terms of methodological naturalism rather than metaphysical naturalism.

But getting back to our #1 agnostic, and their two-part argument:

(a) there are no logically sound proofs or disproofs of God’s existence

(b) therefore there is insufficient reason to adapt either theism or atheism

Specific atheism has an answer for a, but first let’s question conclusion b.

Ghosts. There are no sound logical proofs—or disproofs—of the existence of ghosts. Of course we can throw doubt on the existence of ghosts by bringing up certain difficulties in the concept: how can a ghost interact with the physical world, respond to gravity, walk on surfaces, move things, appear to the living, etc. unless they are somehow physical. But if they are physical why can’t scientists detect them (outside of Hollywood, of course).

After all, science has no problem with invisible things: gravity, molecules, quarks, and so on. But the ghost hypothesis can’t be applied to any known phenomena. From the scientific perspective it’s not useful. Still, does that mean, speaking logically, that it’s impossible for ghosts to exist.

>No.

Does this bring up memories of the situation with God? It should. And it should raise the following question: are those who are agnostic toward God’s existence also agnostic toward the existence of ghosts? Do they shake their heads at the educated people who deny that ghosts exist, tsk tsking that their unbelief is unwarranted? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Next step: gods & goddesses. Think of Egyptian deities like Anubus or Isis, or Greek like Zeus or Athena, or Roman like Venus or Mars. Can we logically disprove their existence?

No.

Again we can point out a colossal lack of evidence for their existence. We can question how gods can interact with people or transform into animals; how Leda can be raped by a god disguised as a swan. We can point out that many of the natural phenomena formerly attributed to the goddesses and gods are now explained without them by science. Still, logically speaking, they could exist.

So, are agnostics agnostic about Anubus and Athena? Do they scoff at anyone who thinks he’s smart enough to assert the non-existence of these various, formerly popular deities? Again I doubt it.

We come to God, then. Scientists have discovered alternate explanations for just about everything that used to be attributed to God, including the origin of our species. As was the case with ghosts, gods, and goddesses, the concept of God is saddled with a number of difficulties: how does an immaterial being interact with material? how does a being without a body move or do anything? Like Zeus, God is said to have fathered a divine son through a human female. The similarities, it seems, are greater than the differences.

If agnosticism doesn’t apply in the case of Casper or Osiris, why does it apply in the case of Allah or Jehovah? If saying there are many gods is without foundation, why is saying there is one god any better?

In fact, the case for God is weaker than that for Aphrodite. Not only does God come with all the difficulties of ghosts and goddesses, but God is defined with two additional attributes which make his existence even less likely: God is perfect, and God supposedly created the natural world.

A perfect being created an imperfect world? On its face that would seem to be impossible. —Which is enough by itself to render the case for God weaker than the case for Minerva and Mithra, who to their benefit aren’t saddled with perfection.

Theists like to tell themselves there is a way around the perfection problem. One option is to deny that God is perfect. But that demotes him to a god, cavorting (probably) after every Venus or Virgin Mary he sees. Most theists can readily see the problem with adopting this particular option.

A second option is to admit that the world is imperfect but insist that God is not responsible. God created a perfect world, but it “fell” because one of the free beings in that world chose—freely—to disobey God. But this “free will defense” completely misses the problem. Sure, it might explain imperfect decisions made by certain sentient species, but it completely ignores the massively larger and more important imperfection which is the result of the world’s flawed design.

Almost every living thing in existence, due to its inherent physical nature, must eat some other living thing in order to survive. This isn’t the result of disobeying God. It’s the result of anatomy and physiology. It can’t be blamed on sin. It can only be blamed on God—if God is the creator.

My moral decisions can’t change the fact that other living things need to eat me to survive, or that I need to eat other living things to survive. The world of life is designed on deadly competition at its core.

The concept of “the fall” is thus laughably inadequate to explain the imperfection of the world. The only option that remains is for the theist to argue that the world “is the best of all possible worlds”—that a perfect God could do no better.

But this approach only works if we lack imagination. For example, we don’t usually think about it, but in the world we have around us physics trumps everything, even morality. For example, a criminal with a gun can kill a Pope or a saint as easily as he can kill another criminal. To kill the saint all he must do is aim the gun at the right part of the body. Physics is no respecter of goodness.

But why not? Why didn’t God create a world in which goodness trumped physics? In our fantasies and movies, in fact, that is what we often make happen. If he had enough imagination, God could have codified the nature of things so that violence never paid. So that when the bullet from the gun of the criminal reached the body of the saint, it suddenly jumped to the body of the criminal instead. Morality would then trump physics. In such a world violence could only be inflicted on oneself. Or, to put it another way, violent perpetrators would receive immediate punishment, exactly proportional to the harm they would have caused. Since God created physics, he certainly could have chosen to allow goodness to trump it.

Isn’t that the way it is, supposedly, in Heaven?

The advocates of “the best of all possible worlds” excuse have one more shot. Earth isn’t perfect, they explain, because it’s a testing ground for souls. In order to find out which of the “free will” beings he created are ready for the perfection of heaven, this argument goes, God created earth as a kind of testing ground or “vale of soul-making”—something along those lines. But a world that doesn’t need a testing ground is clearly more perfect than one which does, just as a factory which produces cars which don’t need to be tested for defects is more perfect than a factory whose output can’t be trusted. But beyond that, this argument still fails to account for embedded imperfection of the world mentioned earlier. How can earth be an adequate testing ground for heaven if in fact it’s nothing like heaven? If a car is built for the road, it needs to be tested on a road—not by dropping it into a volcano. That’s the wrong kind of test.

Other problems with the soul-testing hypothesis abound. If the idea of the test is to help God determine which free-will souls are inherently good and which are only good for an ulterior motive, then it would be essential that the souls being tested not know they are being tested. It would be best, in fact, for the souls not to even know there’s an afterlife or a God: only then could God be sure their goodness was inherent and genuine, not gamed for the test.

There is also the difficulty which results from God’s prescience. if God has foreknowledge of human events then there is simply no need to run any kind of earthly test. If God feels compelled to run the test anyway despite knowing exactly how it will come out, then it raises the serious difficulty of human freedom. It would appear that choices which are foreknown are effectively foreordained. We can not be free to change our behavior during our “test” because to do so would turn God from infallible to fallible. It would destroy divine perfection.

Other difficulties: why does God only test human embryos and fetuses for a few days or months—completing the trial even before they are born—yet spend 80 years testing the soul of a mass-murderer? Makes one suspect its not testing that’s going on at all. Then there’s the whole problem of natural disasters. Why must a 3-year old child be burned by molten lava, crushed by an earthquake, or racked with leukemia or some other incurable disease? Can there be a legitimate point to such a “test”? Isn’t it obvious that no imaginable future could make a milkshake of perfection out of such experiences.

That is the problem with sentient experience: it is real. What is experienced is really experienced; it can’t be undone. The Biblical story of Job is very instructive here. In a single day, as part of a test (the product of a little side-bet between God and Satan) Job suffers the loss of his livestock, the death of most of his servants, then the death of his ten children. But it’s ok. Because in the end, God “makes it all right” by giving him new livestock, new servants, and new children.

Could that in any way make up for the emotional pain Job endured—could it really bring things back to the way they were before God and Devil entered into their evil little agreement? New sons and daughters are nice, but still, still the first ten died. They lost their lives. And Job suffered the loss. Nothing ever undid that suffering or those lost lives: nothing could ever undo it.

When a child is lost to a tornado or a washed-out bridge, how can the pain of the loss ever be undone. There is only one way: to make it so the loss and the pain never occur in the first place. Wiping away the memory of it, even that is not enough: the loss is still a loss even if the survivors don’t remember. (If anything the loss is greater—more tragic—for not even being remembered.)

This world can’t be the best of all worlds because, put simply, it is too easy to improve upon it. One less deadly hurricane or lightning strike or killer virus. One less fetus lost to natural abortion. In fact, humans have proven time and again by the application of technology that the world can be improved. Every levee or dam, every medical advance, every hurricane warning, every antibiotic improves on God’s original creation and prevents evils which God allows.

This is the point at which theists usually throw up their hands and declare that God’s perfection is beyond human understanding.

When I hear this it always sounds like a concession: an admission that their story about God “doesn’t make sense” as far as human reason is concerned.

But to say “only God can understand it” doesn’t work against the argument from perfection. The reason is pretty simple. A world whose perfection is evident to God but not evident to the sentient beings he created is not as perfect as a world whose perfection is evident to both its creator and the creatures within it.

The problem is that as soon as God creates other sentient beings, the world has to be perfect not just for God but for those other sentient beings as well. God’s perspective is no longer the only one that exists. Even to argue that in the end those beings will also see the perfection of the world—that doesn’t work, because in a truly perfect world its perfection would be evident from the beginning. A perfect world would be perfect all along, to everyone’s experience, beginning to end.

To tell Job, for instance, after the death of his 10 children not to worry, that he will eventually experience perfection—that doesn’t work. The loss of his children and the sorrow he experienced from it was still real, not to mention the experiences of the children and servants who were killed. There was no perfection for them even if God thinks otherwise. When their lives came into existence their point of reference also came into existence, and from that moment on God’s point of reference is no longer the only one. Perfection has to be perfection for everyone.

There is really no way to get around the common sense observation that a perfect God would create a perfect world, and that our world isn’t perfect. And that our experience, our human point of view, is just as valid as God’s when it comes to the experience of evil. Perhaps mores so. If only God experiences the world’s perfection, then things are indeed imperfect.

I lingered on the argument from perfection only to show how powerful it is. But we mustn’t forget that the perfection argument isn’t even needed. It’s purpose is to show that God is an even weaker proposition than ghosts or pagan deities. Even if that argument ultimately fails (and it doesn’t look that way), the atheist’s case is compelling.

If it makes no sense to be agnostic about gods and ghosts, then likewise for God.

Slam-dunk

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14 Responses to Agnosticism Revisited & the Case for Atheism

  1. Pingback: Atheology » Am I an Atheist Whackjob?

  2. Tim Gorski says:

    What you call “The Argument From Perfection” is really The Argument from Evil.

    See http://www.churchoffreethought.org/cgi-bin/contray/contray.cgi?ID=000011006&GROUP=003 for an original Argument From Perfection

  3. Max says:

    Pertaining to: “Agnosticism Revisited & the Case for Atheism” You do a good job pointing out the irreconsilable difficulties in a particular concept of God that embodies specific attributes. It is relatively easiy to apply our rationality and find abundant reasons to reject a specific mythic representation of the concept of god. But if I do not believe in Allah, or Jesus, or any and all specific mythic representations of god, (and I dont)that does not make me an athiest. I would be an athiest if I disbelieve in the very idea of god. You did not present an argument at this level. Nor will you ever, since the concept of god in abstract of a specific mythic tradition is a completly non-falsifiable proposition, and thus cannot be affirmed or denied by any rational means. What about an imperfect god who dosnt give a rats a$$ about our ideas of morality? What about a criminal god who is just some cosmic “script-kiddie” that stole some superior encoding technology and used it in a horribly incompetent way to create a totaly F*@ked up universe? How would you address an argument for athiesm to the concept of God in abstract of any specific attributes of god? Or is agnosticism the only fallback position in that case? If you argue against the existence of god, must you not pin that argument on some imagined attribute(s) of god. The problem is that as soon as you imagine god’s attributes you cease talking about the idea of god, and start talking about some specific imagined representation of god. You can disprove a billion representations without ever even addressing the concept of god itself. I think you blew away the xian representation of god but good, however you left the basic idea of god untouched.

  4. Pingback: Atheology » Atheism as the Defense of Naturalism

  5. Pingback: Atheology » The Idea of God

  6. d.edlen says:

    Looks perfectly straight to me. Of course, I’m also the type of person who allegedly [ahem! allegedly] agree with everything.

  7. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth says:

    This argument is in line with the problem of Heaven[ ‘ ;Arguing about Gods,” “Atheism Explained,,,” and “Atheism, Morality and Meaning.”] that to be consistent ,paradise ought to be here as well as in Heaven: one would have free will with the guarantee never to do wrong.
    Also Google skeptic griggsy or rationalist griggsy to see this problem adumbrated.
    Thanks for this blog.

  8. Kathleen says:

    “Is’nt an agnostic just an atheist with no balls?”

    Love that quote!

  9. Pingback: Atheology » Can General Atheism be Proved?

  10. Pingback: Atheology » The Argument from Perfection

  11. Kathleen, no that’s with balls that work- no God can exist, because He has no referents as Prime Mover and so forth and He has contradictory,incoherent attributes. This makes for strong atheism. Analysis rather than traversing the Cosmos or having omniscience ourselves, impelss us naturalists to declare no God exists!

  12. Nat says:

    I have a understanding of God that would probably be more interesting to break down. Forget some general religion’ concept of God, the most biblically-based Christian version is what I believe (most biblically based as far as I’ve learned), and I think the only one to make sense (everything else…Zeus? just NO). So, if you ever want to, here’s (along with responses to this article) what it involves:

    Actually, I’ll start with a disclaimer of sort(?): there are some things I don’t know/understand. Like.. God may be immaterial compared to our material, but the material of God’s immaterial-ness is, well…I don’t know what a “spirit” is. Beyond my knowledge, Obviously. Who knows how our worlds are connected, though.

    So, God and Perfection. First put aside all other ideas of “God”, because I’d like to present a different one. (given that most of the theology in this article doesn’t align with what the Bible says, I’m assuming this is very different. Strange, I know.)

    Instead, view GOD, forever existing, the source of life itself. But this God is social and is also a Creator – thus he increases his social sphere, creating angels and probably even other beings in other great worlds.

    God creates, gives purpose, he gives work, creates a universe, and so he has some kind of government system.

    All follow God, follow his laws, but it’s all they really *know*. Ever knew. It’s probably not even thought of. Then one day, an angel high in the ranks thinks a NEW THOUGHT:”who is this God that we all praise, love and serve -why is he in charge? why not me?” Sure maybe he’s creator, but beyond that..? Can’t I make my own laws?

    –By the way, you can ACTUALLY you can decide whether God is perfect, or just, or good, or anything else, later…

    Maybe this high ranking angel with this new idea was on to something. Who would know? It was truly novel. So he shares his ideas around, and soon every created being now has a big ‘?’ in their mind. Perhaps God knew what it would result in, but did anyone else? But at some point, he must have made it clear to them, though, and they choose some side.

    Fast forward: There was ‘WAR’ in HEAVEN. 1/3 of all the angels left, rebelled, their final decision. Lucifer, that angel that thought he could be in the place of God, is now become ‘Satan.’ (And No horns, no pitchfork…he’s still an angel in type-of-being, just not character! (as are the 1/3 others)).

    WAR, in a supposedly PERFECT place (nevermind what kind of ‘war’, don’t know). Strife, controversy.. and some probably still had questions, as they did not know for sure the end result of this rebellion.

    God goes on to create earth. And Man was made very specially: in ‘God’s image’ -this at least means we were made to relate to God, to have a relationship on a level of understanding. Like, you and me, vs you and your cat… And that relationship is developed. Unlike the instantaneous speaking into existence, he formed man, then had to take time for man to get to know him.

    Back to the Question between God and Satan: who’s way is right? who is to be trusted? Well, apparently those events happened in heaven before earth, because Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit. NOTE: the opportunity was there. God gave them the opportunity. I’m sure after meeting God, getting to know angels, they were told about the controversy.. but we know what happened. And It was disobedience (against God’s law/sin), but there was Deception. Blame was even passed around. But was their decision final, so that man was now completely against God? Apparently not, because God made a plan to save man, so he thought he could save some.

    But Get this: this whole plan of salvation not only was a way to save man, but had the effect of displaying God’s character vs Satan’s character. The earth showed the results of sin (evil) and showed God’s character: Love, mercy, justice, etc.

    I think I’ll stop narrating there. There is probably more I should explain for some stuff I say below. But I want to make some points…some brief suggestions/explanations from this worldview (and “Godview”):

    Everything that God has done vindicated His character as a loving, just, and merciful God. So the bible says, “God is Love.”
    – Love: it requires choice. Thus the concept of ‘free-will’. And to keep that love, as opposed to fear, meant keeping free choice. Go stick a gun to someone’s head say “love me!” For God to destroy the 1/3 of angels would have caused fear in the rest. No robots here, please. Yes, ability to rebel always has and always will exist (but sin won’t happen again -those who are saved and those who saw the drama wouldn’t want it again).

    -Some other things: GOD is the authoritative figure (power is power), he is the creator, the source of life. But God, coming in the flesh was vulnerable -he went through the temptation, but prevailed, and showed that man could change (overcome sin) if he depended on God. If he failed.. I don’t know. Not good.
    -As for a perfect universe: this whole evil arising in perfect universe: vulnerability of love. Of Choice. Like having kids, and balancing protecting them and giving them freedom. (One other thing:there can’t be a cause/imperfection/excuse for sin, else God is to blame.)

    -“physics trumps goodness”- Some of these ideas just don’t exist in my worldview as they are presented here, which is understood if anything I’m saying is understood. I have to paint a different picture…
    ….I do want to point out for some things you mention: sin did change the world -there is physical effects/results from evil. It brought Death. (that’s like a major reason against any Christian’s idea of theistic evolution from a biblical viewpoint.)
    … Actually, a examination of scripture shows something: God sets things up to work a certain way, and there is cause and effect. You sow, you reap. Imagine if we took care of our earth. No pollution, natural resources. It would take care of us. Because there is a system in place. Let’s summarize this: (God)love gives. (sin) Selfishness doesn’t. Study this: look at how trees work/live. Then look at humans.
    – you mention eating to survive. Plants, fruits were made to be eaten. And as for animals, humans: everything was a herbivore of some kind. Flesh food came after the fall, but before, smaller animals weren’t food. The whole world was different before sin. This is just so different…worldview consideration.

    -earth: tesing ground..? Actually, first, a court/crime scene for God’s character vs. what the Devil ultimately led to. Which becomes a Warezone over who gets the most humans. And that means we do have to be proved… How could God save someone who later realizes they actually preferred their sin instead of God himself?
    -God’s foreknowledge? He may the know the future, but I think of it like me watching a movie I’ve already seen. Because if our choice is not preserved, love is not real, sooo…problems. No predestination.

    For whatever reason, God want’s to develop, grow a relationship, not just “BAM” and here’s the creature loving him and serving him. It’s just who God is, they way he wanted to make it.

    And the story of Job: quite different when viewed like this. Just a little agreement? I see quite an accusation there against God and Job. The devil was proved wrong. But yes, there was suffering. Justice? I’m sure God will make the devil pay. As for those who lost their lives: this life is not the end. If God is just, then he must have allowed them to make some decision at some point in their life for or against God.

    Anyways, this whole world, with the evil, shows the real results of sin -rebellion against the source of all good. Sin will never arise in the universe after this one is cleaned up, because all would know the result of it. And God can’t let this world go on forever -that wouldn’t be very loving.

    There is so much more. But I’m stopping here. Too long. (I know, it’s unfortunate, because how could anyone respond to a only-partially-presented idea? Assumptions can’t be made in the gaps…)

  13. Anonymous says:

    ^

    Worst theodicy ever.

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