Did you know Buddhists can be Atheists? In fact, an Atheist can even be religious, support religion and be Agnostic!
The term Atheist has lost its true meaning, has become synonymous with an aggressive anti-religious stance, and is now considered an irrationally strong conviction. I wish to reclaim it. Worry not – this is not a post advocating for atheism!
People often view Agnosticism as a ‘Third Way’; a nice middle ground between being religious and atheist. So much so that in common parlance one can use ‘agnostic’ to describe a feeling of indifference. In reality, it is quite different. Theism refers to belief (and atheism to its absence), whereas Gnostic refers to the knowledge of god (Agnostic to its absence). The prefix of ‘a-’ simply negates the phrase just like I am atypical, not asexual and certainly not apolitical. This forms the neat matrix below from this great article.
As such, it is possible to be an Agnostic Atheist (someone who doesn’t know whether god exists but does not believe in god) or a Gnostic Theist (an individual who knows god exists and believes in god). My point is that rather than being a substitute for Atheism, Agnosticism is only half the answer. This highlights the surprising fact that Atheism can even be compatible with being Religious (as not all religions believe in a god) and indeed, many Buddhists are atheists as this piece explains.
Dawkins has the following ‘Spectrum of Probability’ which neatly categorises the potential stances to take. Most atheists fall into 6 on this scale whilst perhaps many agnostics fall into 5 – both are atheists but its a matter of degree.
“I am not an Atheist, I am Agnostic”
This is a common response for a lot of people who would say ‘they do not believe in god’ – i.e. atheist. And yet, as we have seen, Agnosticism and Atheism are not mutually exclusive. Atheism is a belief system, it places no value-judgements on the value or importance of religion. It also does not entail proselytising or having a strong conviction. Nonetheless, Agnostics are reluctant to label themselves as Atheists thanks to the latter’s perceived religious-animosity and deep absolute conviction (although the same could be said for a lot of religious people). These associations are unfair.
Love, not hate
Feminism, libertarianism and socialism all have radical disciples but one can be a feminist without hating men (in fact, if they do, then they are not a feminist), a libertarian without wanting to arm school teachers with rifles and a socialist without being a Stalin-esque communist. Similarly, one can be an atheist with an appreciation for religion and without claiming it has caused wars as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do. In fact, atheism has been espoused for a long while with Diagoras of Melos in the 5th Century B.C. the first record of someone declaring there was no God. (Although, given the time, perhaps he was just waiting for Christ?)
I would describe myself as an atheist but also as curious and appreciative of the community and fulfilment that religion provides for some. Much like religion, atheism can be a personal belief rather than something to proselytise (assuming this article does not sound like exactly that!). I occasionally attend a church, temple or mosque and recall being invited to a friend’s church to watch a Baptism. It was heart-warming to hear of people whose lives, at the age of 18+, had been transformed and enriched by the discovery of god. I also attended a church in Nairobi with this lovely school chorus.
In both instances, a small part of me could not help but wish I could have the same ‘revelation’ – alas, I am a ‘non-believer’. Furthermore, I would describe myself as a Gnostic Atheist, knowing and believing there is no God. Why am I so confident? I am not…
What it means to “know”: a known unknown
Does gravity exist? Is the earth definitely flat? Is your life real? Is there such thing as a scientific truth?
If you think you ‘know’ the answers to these questions in an absolute sense – you are wrong. All of this ‘knowledge’ is based on empirical observation. We could all be in The Matrix, stuck in a cell with our brains connected to the machine, or in Nozick’s Experience Machine I wrote about Confessions of an Addict. We don’t ‘know’ anything for a fact (except for the fact that we don’t know). And yet, we still talk as if we do.
An Empiricist Approach
Our use of the word ‘know’ is therefore not absolute but empirical – derived from science which is based on an empirical approach to ‘truth’: we make observations, form theories, test these theories over repeated observations and eventually declare them to be facts. When we say we ‘know’ gravity exists on earth, we have repeatedly observed it and have no evidence to the contrary (except for Jesus walking on water). As Bertrand Russel wrote:
One must remember that some things are very much more probable than others and may be so probable that it is not worth while to remember in practice that they are not wholly certain, except when it comes to questions of persecution.
The evidence we use to reach ‘knowledge’ is limited to a few centuries of human observation and only decades of reliable notation. It is entirely possible there are aliens walking this earth now, we just can’t see them. Nonetheless, this form of knowledge has radically transformed our world with the scientific approach leading to much of the economic growth in the Western World.
Therefore, any atheist who is gnostic, should be using the word ‘know’ in this relative sense – from what we have observed, there is no empirical evidence to suggest there is a god. (Ironically, many religious individuals use ‘know’ in a more absolute sense but this is not considered a stronger stance.) Otherwise, they are no better than the atheists in the following hilarious David & Mitchell skit.
An Unfalsifiable Claim and Teapot Atheism
Many agnostics still argue that in the case of god, the claim to ‘know’ is too strong given that we will never be able to disprove the existence of god – it is unfalsifiable. (I will ignore the argument that makes this redundant: we cannot absolutely ‘prove’ anything.) However, there are infinite things we cannot disprove. If we can conceive of something beyond human recognition, which is hard given our human centric world, then it is easy to see how maybe the Flying Spaghetti Monster (absolutely hilarious & addictive song), or aliens are around us all the time.
In the face of this, the Philosopher Bertrand Russel argued for ‘Teapot Atheism’, here is Dawkins explaining it. In Western societies, we learn to believe in things we can prove and not in those that we cannot disprove. Why is this? Because we live in an empiricist world…
A Tentative Conclusion
Atheism is confused with the arguments of prominent atheists like Dawkins & Hitchens who challenge the role of religion in society. In reality, an Atheist can be Agnostic, Agnosticism is not a ‘Third Way’ and atheists can see value in religion.
Also, in any absolute sense of knowledge, just like Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, we know nothing. Instead, we claim to ‘know’, despite the unfalsifiability of many claims, using the relative term based on the empiricist approach. In this context, I hope, atheism seems like a more reasonable stance and this brings the certainty with which we say ‘know’ into perspective.
Bertrand Russell, in his piece here, summed up the distinction best here:
There is exactly the same degree of possibility and likelihood of the existence of the Christian God as there is of the existence of the Homeric God….Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists.
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