Why I Do Not ‘Round Up’ to Atheism

Posted on February 11, 2011


I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now, as I am starting to fear that this blog has a bit too much politics and a bit too little philosophy. Alas, between the day of action last week and my frequent desire to sit around drinking tea and watching Battlestar Galactica rather than blogging, it fell by the wayside. So now the blog entry on which I was going to comment is a little bit out of date.

Renowned Atheist blogger PZ Meyers spoke in Montreal a few weeks ago, and he pissed some people off when he made fun of what he called “dictionary atheists”. In a later post, he had the following to say about them:

Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else; as if atheists are people who have attained a zen-like ideal, their minds a void, containing nothing but atheism, which itself is nothing. Dumbasses.

Now I don’t claim that my values are part of the definition of atheism — I just told you I hate those dictionary quoters — nor do I consider them universal to atheism. I’ve met plenty of atheists who are in our camp over issues of social justice — they see god-belief as a source of social evils, and that’s why they reject it. That is valid and reasonable. There are atheists who consider human well-being as the metric to use, and we call them humanists; no problem. There are also atheists who are joining the game because their cool friends (or Daniel Radcliff) are atheists; that’s a stupid reason, but they are atheists.

Meyers, like many atheist advocates, is probably more rhetorically aggressive than is necessary, but I agree with him so far. Nonbelievers can still find positive meaning in their non belief, and as Meyers correctly points out, they will inevitably have arrived at their non-belief for some positive reason.  In a world where religious faith is so commonplace, it is difficult to come to a rejection of it without some kind of motivation. Furthermore, it is inevitable that non-believers will seek one another out and begin to define themselves as a group through the ascription of value to certain nonreligious character traits such as rationality, tolerance, honest ethical consideration, or  wonder at the impressiveness of the world we live in.

So, reading Meyers’ post, I was all in favour until this point:

The “I believe in no gods/I lack belief in gods” debate. I have heard this so often, the hair-splitting grammatical distinctions some atheists think so seriously important in defining themselves. All you’re doing is defining yourselves as anal retentive freaks, people! Get over it. Either way, you’re an atheist — and that goes for the over-philosophized fussbudgets who insist that they’re agnostics, not atheists, because they aren’t 100% positive there aren’t any gods, only 99 44/100ths positive

As a strong agnostic, this is my biggest frustration with atheists. Even in admitting their lack of conclusive evidence, they seem to have an obsession with quantifying the probability of God’s existence. I am unwilling to do this. Examining the best available evidence for the existence of God, an honest inquiry must find the question inconclusive. Beyond the fact that you cannot prove a negative, there is also the fine-tuning argument which is actually quite difficult for an atheist to disarm. It goes roughly like this: The universe does appear ideally set up to create life, and it appears that it could very well have been otherwise. The only non-theistic way out of this is a multiverse: a very large number of separate universes, each of which has its own laws of physics. In such a situation, it would not be particularly remarkable that our universe happens to support life, any more than it is remarkable that our planet, out of all the planets in the universe, happens to have the ideal conditions to support life.

Nothing about the fine-tuning argument does anything to prove the existence of the elaborate theologies and moral codes present in virtually every human religion, of course, but in strictly metaphysical terms there is really very little to argue for or against the proposition of a designer god. We are unlikely to ever uncover any evidence of either a designer being or of a multiverse-both are, by definition, outside of our field of perception and comprehension-so we’re a little bit stuck. If there is one point on which both atheists and theists agree, it is that us human beings are pretty damn puny and insignificant. Our intellect is just not cut out to understand the fundamental basis of reality. One need only go so far as wave-particle duality to see that the universe goes well beyond the limits of our imagination. We can use some really clever tricks to figure out more than our ancestors ever thought knowable, but there is no reason to believe that overgrown flatworms like us are equipped with the necessary sensory or conceptual apparatus to understand everything there is to know about the universe. As such, we must always allow for aspects of reality which are permanently hidden from us.

Most atheists, to their credit, are sensible enough to realize this point. Even Richard Dawkins concedes that he should technically refer to himself as a very strong agnostic because he allows for a very small probability that a god exists. Both he and PZ Meyers suggest that anybody in this position should simply round up to full atheism. This is where I disagree. Rounding up is a numerical operation, and so it only works if there is a number, or an approximation of a number, with which to operate.

The problem is that probability itself is a form of knowledge, and therefore subject to the exact same deficiency of evidence I discussed earlier. There is no solid basis on which to suggest that God is either likely or unlikely. The whole point of my agnosticism is not that there is a 0.56 percent chance that God exists that I cannot rule out, but that I do not feel that I have any reasonable grounds on which to say whether the probability of God’s existence is 1% or 99%. I don’t know, and although I don’t want to spend too much time quibbling about it, I don’t think that you know either.

None of this means anything in terms of my social and political identity as a skeptic, a secular-humanist, and a freethinker. Every religion I have ever encountered displays what I see as unmistakable signs of being products of human imagination rather than divine intelligence. I have no more sympathy than PZ Meyers has for the book of Leviticus, or those believers who would try to impose its rules on the rest of us.. Metaphysical beliefs can influence political convictions, but the two are not inextricable from one another. Accordingly, while I am proud to call myself a non-theist, I reserve the right to not simultaneously call myself an atheist. If the skepticism is going to mature as a movement, it is going to have to be willing to admit some philosophical diversity.