One of the most common philosophical conversations on the internet is the argument between atheists and agnostics as to which is the more reasonable position. This comes up so often that I thought I’d record some of my reflections on it. In particular, I am mindful that my position is somewhat at odds with my fallibilism, and I want to make it clear how I see them interacting.
First, a caveat: I am an atheist, but I don’t generally like the brand of “new atheism” that takes an antagonistic stance towards the religious. The kind of anti-religious atheism we see in Dawkins and Hitchens strikes me as counterproductive and overly influenced by partisan politics, especially when they demonize religious moderates for “providing cover” to their extremist co-religionists. If the discussion is going to be a serious one, we should ignore instrumental evaluations of the probabilities, like the question of whether we’d be better off with or without religion.
I understand why the “new atheists” got involved with this question: instrumentalism about theism is the kind of evaluation famously enshrined by Pascal in his wager that even if the likelihood of payout is low, the potential costs and benefits in the afterlife make faith a good bet. Theism and religious observance then become a kind of insurance, but this kind of instrumental believing requires you to hold your belief for reasons that aren’t tied to their being true. To be an instrumentalists is to hold your beliefs while simultaneously claiming that they have no bearing on the truth of the matter. In its most extreme form, even presented with evidence to the contrary, an instrumental theist would have good reason to continue accruing the benefits of faith. That kind of refusal to update on new information is irrational, and in most contexts it seems silly or even irresponsible. The concern isn’t that this is like preserving a belief in Santa Claus instrumentally, but it’s more like preserving a skepticism in white privilege or driving without a seatbelt: “I just don’t like thinking about it, even if I’m wrong.”
Debates between atheists and agnostics, as well as the occasional theist like Alvin Platinga, start with a debate about certitude. Agnostics suggest that we cannot know for certain whether or not there is a God, and in the absence of definitive evidence, we ought to withhold judgment. This is a version of the famous “principle of indifference” or “principle of insufficient reason.” The paradigm example is a coin flip: without precise measurements of the initial conditions and the trajectory of its flight, we don’t know if it will be more likely to end heads-up or tails-up. Without such prior evidence, we ought to remain agnostic which side will arise. In the same way, agnostics argue that we don’t know for sure whether or not there is a God.
However, the requirements for indifference or insufficient reason generally include perfect ignorance about the probability of either possibility. We can’t enforce the principle of indifference unless we truly have no prior knowledge about which of two options is more likely. One kind of knowledge about the probabilities is logical impossibility: I know, in flipping a US quarter, that neither side has a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt on it. (That’s the dime.) So while I’d be agnostic about heads and tails, I’d be justified in completely denying the possibility of FDR showing up. That’s how many atheists proceed: satisfied to show that most conceptions of God are simply self-contradictory, and thus logically impossible. In doing so, we don’t deny all Gods, just the major contenders, like those conceptions of God that are omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personally invested in human flourishing, but still somehow allow cancer and tsunamis to exist in the world.
But doesn’t that mean that atheists are still agnostics about the logically possible conceptions of God? One popular contender is a non-doctrinal creator God who chooses not to make herself known to human beings, like the God of the Deists and many natural theologians. This kind of God would not enact miracles and likely wouldn’t care about faith, and so traditional religiosity wouldn’t be particularly valuable. Another kind of God is the God of Spinoza, who is indistinguishable from the universe itself. In Spinoza’s sense, God becomes another name for Nature, and his greatest adherents are the scientists and philosophers who study natural phenomenon. Spinoza’s God was also Albert Einstein’s, who wrote: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.” Whether Hidden or merged with all things, this God would not be omnibenevolent or omniscient, and so most of the traditional complaints about suffering and evil wouldn’t apply.
Can, or should, atheists take a stance on these non-traditional Gods? I’d say no. Even atheists have no good reason to question the concept of the Creator offered by David Hume: “a Being, so remote and incomprehensible, who bears much less analogy to any other being in the universe than the sun to a waxen taper, and who discovers himself only by some faint traces or outlines, beyond which we have no authority to ascribe to him any attribute or perfection.” Though he was a famous atheist, on this remote and incomprehensible being, I think it’s clear that Hume was an agnostic.
So long as we conceive of a creator God as a distinct entity (a being, and not Being-as-such), however, some will be tempted to anthropomorphize him/her/it, which is why most “professional atheists” lend the majority of their efforts to contesting that anthropomorphic conception of God. But I here I think we go wrong. Today, we can update Hume’s discussion of the Idiot God with the Simulation Argument. Imagine we inhabit a computer simulation being run as an experiment or entertainment for people in the future, trying to imagine what life in the 21st Century was like. Thus we could have anthropomorphic creators who are not particularly interested in our well-being: instead, they might be particularly interested in tragedy and suffering.
Another version of the Simulation Argument suggests that the entire universe is an experiment in universe creation that has been running since the Big Bang, perhaps by utterly alien and indifferent intelligences. This is the premise of Walter Jon Williams’ excellent science-fiction novel, Implied Spaces. Such entitites would be very powerful. They would be our creators. But would they be Gods? Perhaps not.
Unfortunately, too often even atheists confuse the pure existence question with the subsidiary question of whether the divine entity demands obeisance. Hopefully we can all agree that Hume’s Idiot God deserves no praise or worship, but we have no way of knowing whether or not he exists. For cultural purposes, I think “atheist” is the better moniker, but to be strictly accurate, I’m completely agnostic about any God whose first word after creation could be translated as: “Oops!”
The principle of insufficient reason forces me to be agnostic on such questions. JVHV, Jesus Christ, and Allah may be supremely unlikely, but we simply don’t have enough information to evaluate Hacker Biff from the 25th Century who just wanted to finish his research for graduate school, or the Extradimensional String Things who wanted to test some interesting quantum calculations and accidentally created a universe. Maybe if you pray to him, Hacker Biff will have pity on you and keep the Simulation running just a little bit longer. Or maybe he’ll shut if off quickly, embarrassed.