Agnosticism and Atheism: Five Misconceptions, Five Quotes, and One Video
by Okla Elliott
[The following clarifications of popular misconceptions do not by any means exhaust the number of spurious claims made on the subject, but I hope they will help dispel some of the most rampant inaccuracies afoot in the culture. I also hope the quotes and the video will be shared widely via social media. The more we can spread these sorts of intelligent and careful thoughts, the better people can understand the growing phenomenon of agnosticism/atheism in this and other countries. It is not my goal to convince anyone of anything here, but rather to make sure we all have the facts straight so that we can choose for ourselves what we want to believe.]
1. The most common mistruth leveled at atheists is that they are completely certain that science is right and believe science explains everything in human life. While there may be a few of these people running around, none of the major spokesmen for atheism over the past century—Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc—maintain this view. In fact, Sartre pointed out that the gap between the biological facts of the body and what he called “the lived body” (where our consciousness and experiences take place) is so huge that science could never reach the core of our phenomenological experience. Martin Heidegger, another well-known atheist of the twentieth century, was famously critical of many forms of technology and once claimed that “science does not think.” Huxley was critical and praising of science/technology in equal measure. And Harris has said that just because we might know the chemical make-up of chocolate, this does not decrease or increase our pleasure in eating it. So, none of the major spokesmen for atheism have actually argued that science has all the facts and that it can explain every aspect of our lives, and no atheist I know personally holds this position. Science is one of many tools we have in our lives, and it is certainly one of the most useful ones, but like all tools, it is fallible as well as useful. And the usefulness of science has limits, like the usefulness of any tool. Furthermore, it is impossible to maintain that science is infallible, since we hear every day that some old theory has been debunked or some new technology has superseded an older one. It is therefore merely a straw-man the religious side of this debate has constructed to misrepresent the actual views of atheism.
2. Another common misrepresentation of atheists is that they are certain there is no god and have a kind of arrogance in this certainty. Again, this is not the position of any of the major spokesmen for atheism. Sartre said you can never definitively prove god does not exist, as have Russell, Huxley, Harris, Dawkins, etc. Their position is that they have been offered insufficient evidence for any particular god’s existence (be it Vishnu, which 1.2 billion people claim exists, or Yahweh, which 2.2 billion people claim exists, or Odin, which only twenty thousand or so claim exists). In effect, nearly all atheists are actually agnostics in that they admit there is the possibility of a god or many gods existing. They have merely decided to tentatively believe that there are no gods until sufficient evidence is offered to change that position. This is why the terms agnostic and atheist are nearly synonymous. Atheists might think it considerably more probable, though not certain, that no gods exist, whereas agnostics would perhaps say it’s a 50/50 chance that some sort of god(s) exist. Atheists are therefore merely further along the spectrum of incredulity than agnostics, but both admit the possibility of god(s) existing. [Side note: There are competing definitions of these terms, of course, and they are famously difficult to define. We could, for example, draw distinctions between those who are epistemologically agnostic versus those who are metaphysically agnostic, but my point here is not to quibble over definitions, but rather to show that atheists are by no means committed to some sort of absolute certainty about the nonexistence of god(s) or the efficacy of science or what-have-you.] It is, in fact, quite often those with faith who say that they have certain knowledge of their deities’ existence. They even often claim that no amount of evidence could ever sway them from this certainty. This is precisely the opposite of the atheist’s position. If evidence for gods existing were offered, atheists would happily accept it and alter their belief. So, here again, the religious side of this debate has misrepresented the atheists and agnostics of the world, and it is in fact guilty of its own accusation.
3. It is often claimed that atheists cannot be moral. This claim seems very odd to me for several reasons. First off, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre founded the International War Crimes Tribunal, and both protested the Vietnam War long before it became popular to do so. Russell agitated for equal rights for women, and he went to jail as a conscientious objector during WWI. He likewise lost positions at universities for taking principled anti-war and pro-civil liberties stances. Secondly, the claim that I cannot be moral because I do not believe in some god (or group of gods) offends me personally. I have never murdered anyone, never tortured anyone, never set any buildings on fire, don’t cheat on my significant other, et cetera; and I refuse to own a car out of environmental concerns, refuse (mostly) to eat meat out of ethical concerns, and have agitated for the equal rights of LGBT citizens everywhere, among other such activities. In short, I do not think my atheism has led me to be any less moral; if anything, it has helped me to be more moral. Which brings me to my third point: There is no evidence at all that believing in a particular god makes one moral. If anything, the never-ending cases of child molestation by Catholic priests, the religious zealotry that leads to suicide bombings, the murder of abortion clinic doctors, and the oppression of women by Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim religious institutions should cause people to wonder if religion isn’t more likely to cause one to be immoral. In fact, if you believe there is some higher power that has the right to condemn others to death and you believe you have direct contact with that higher power, you might be willing to kill other humans in that higher power’s name. But if you happen to believe, as atheists do, that humans are what matter, not some deity or set of deities, then you are more likely to view human well-being as the highest moral value and more likely to consider your highest moral obligation to be to other humans, not to some probably nonexistent higher power.
4. A corollary point to #3 is that some people claim agnosticism and atheism will destroy the fabric of society. This is the easiest to refute by far. We need simply look at two different countries on entirely different continents—Japan and Sweden—to see how this accusation has no basis in reality. These countries have some of the highest rates of outright atheism, general agnosticism, and non-affiliatedness on the globe, yet both are prospering societies with low crime rates, good economies relative to other nations, longer life spans than most other nations, and high educational marks. I am not saying that atheism is to thank for these things. I am merely saying that their high rates of atheism have not destroyed the fabric of their societies. In fact, it seems that there is a correlation between higher rates of violence and higher rates of religiosity planet-wide, so if anything is causing problems, it is religion, not critical discourse and careful evidence-based beliefs.
5. Nearly every debate between an atheist and a faith-based believer ends up with the faith-based believer claiming that a god or gods must exist because human reason cannot fathom the totality of the universe. The atheist, much like in example #1, is accused of thinking reason can do this and therefore misses the mystery of existence. First off, none of the major atheist thinkers believes that human reason in infallible. Of course human reason cannot fathom the universe, but that is not sufficient cause to believe some gods exist who can. Once again, it is the faith-based believer who, in order to not have to deal with the huge and unending mystery of existence, insists on creating various gods to explain all that mystery away. Atheists are willing to live in the uncertainty and mystery of the world we live in. We are the ones willing to admit our limits without having to fabricate deities to patch over the holes in our all-too-fallible human reason and knowledge. And I don’t want to speak for anyone else here, but I myself am filled with existential awe at the universe and all its mysteries and am overjoyed at the fraction of it I’ve been able to experience and partially understand. I would never want all this mystery and unknowing taken away by some deity. This is part of what makes being human so expansively interesting, to my mind anyway.
“The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.” —Bertrand Russell
“It is man’s intelligence that makes him so often behave more stupidly than the beasts [...] Man is impelled to invent theories to account for what happens in the world. Unfortunately, he is not quite intelligent enough, in most cases, to find correct explanations. So that when he acts on his theories, he behaves very often like a lunatic. Thus, no animal is clever enough, when there is a drought, to imagine that the rain is being withheld by evil spirits, or as punishment for its transgressions. Therefore you never see animals going through the absurd and often horrible fooleries of magic and religion. No horse, for example would kill one of its foals to make the wind change direction. Dogs do not ritually urinate in the hope of persuading heaven to do the same and send down rain. Asses do not bray a liturgy to cloudless skies. Nor do cats attempt, by abstinence from cat’s meat, to wheedle the feline spirits into benevolence. Only man behaves with such gratuitous folly. It is the price he has to pay for being intelligent but not, as yet, intelligent enough.” —Aldous Huxley
“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes […] A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence.” —Bertrand Russell
“It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley, but to believe or not believe in God is not important at all.” –Diderot
“It would be absurd to speak about Christian physics, though the Christians invented physics. And it would be absurd to speak about Muslim algebra, though the Muslims invented algebra. It will one day be absurd to speak about Christian or Muslim ethics.” —Sam Harris