In Inside Baseball we looked at the position of agnostics, and the point was made that agnostics are agnostic because they approach the God question from a position they suppose to be neutral, but which isn’t; and further, the degree of certainty they require for the evidence of God (this one question only) is an absolute, experiential, knowing, on the same level as knowing they have a body and breathe air. In this way, agnostics “put blinders on themselves.”
This deserves some more explanation, but to do so, let’s zoom out. Let’s consider that the question isn’t just whether there is a God or not. It’s tempting to think of that as the ultimate question, but it isn’t. What we’re really talking about is: What is real?
We are thinking, reasoning, creatures, and the project of all of us is to make sense of what we encounter. We use logic and narrative and empirical study and imagination to make sense of what we observe. The God proposition has explanatory power, but many people think that a God hypothesis can be removed, and reality can still be explained. The question is not just whether there is a God or not. The question is what constitutes ultimate reality.
Are physical things all that there is? Are the movements of things through space the sum total of all that there is? Do things develop from other things, including even man himself? Or, is there some other form of reality in addition to that, stamped upon physical reality in some way, but also existing apart from it? Is there a spiritual reality, too?
The word “material” is used to mean physical as opposed to spiritual things; or we might say, natural as opposed to supernatural things. “Materialism,” with the “ism,” is a constellation of philosophical outlooks that have, as their common denominator, the principle that all of reality is composed of that which is physical; that there is no supernatural.
Now unquestionably there are material processes at work in the world. Your body is physical and the processes within it are physical processes. The process by which a child is conceived and grows and is born can be explained as a natural process. Science (a mode of observation and reasoning) tells us much about the causes of movement of bodies in space and the content of space itself and of the geologic features of the planet we live on.
But materialism, as used here, does not merely mean that there are material things and processes. It means that material things and processes are all that there is.
When a person becomes an atheist, he is necessarily rejecting the idea that the reality he observes contains anything supernatural. This isn’t a statement of opinion, it’s what it means to be an atheist. Among atheists there are different ways of thinking about abstractions (truth, justice, etc.) that clearly aren’t material, and so they might quibble about some more refined philosophical concepts, “physicalism,” “naturalism,” “materialism,” and so on. But common to all atheist ideas is this basic materialism: that there is physical reality and only physical reality. It may sometimes be strange or mysterious or baffling, but there is no spiritual element to it.
Some atheists might object to excising the word “spiritual” from atheist understanding altogether, but for clarity, we must. To use a common language and actually communicate, it’s necessary to do so. That which is spiritual is that which is beyond material. It’s what the word means. We also say “spirit” when we’re talking about enthusiasm (“school spirit”) or general animatedness or alteration of our mood, but in speaking of “spiritual” in the context of a discussion of atheism, we’re talking about that which is, by definition, beyond material reality.
Atheists believe that the material is all there is, and that what they observe is adequately explained without supposing there is something beyond material reality. And of course, “observe” doesn’t only mean, in this context, what is contemporaneously seen, felt, or heard. It includes things like the origin of the universe. We weren’t there when it originated, but we “observe” that it had to have done so.
Theism (including, of course, Christianity) holds that ultimate reality consists of something beyond the material – beyond the movement of things in space. It holds that reality is comprised of that which is physical plus that which is spiritual, and that the spiritual reality transcends the physical. Spiritual reality is distinct from the physical, but also co-exists with the physical.
Theists are trying to make sense of what they observe just like atheists are. The difference is that they believe that material reality does not have sufficient explanatory power, by itself, to explain the reality they observe. Their observation plus reasoning from the evidence leads them to conclude that there is a spiritual component to ultimate reality. And if there is a spiritual reality distinct from the material, then it is a short step to the theological question of what or who inhabits that spiritual reality.
There is no overlap between atheism and theism, as the terms themselves suggest. Moreover, the contrast between them could not be more stark. The worldviews of theists and atheists are not remotely reconcilable. There is no middle ground. And, the implications of this difference are profound. Atheists and theists view reality fundamentally differently.
This is why asking the question “is there a God” is a wrong first question. Just by virtue of posing the question, we place ourselves, the questioner, in a position of neutrality, as if we are going to evaluate the evidence and then vote one way or the other.
If we set out to decide whether there is a God, then we’re necessarily starting from the point of view that there is no God. So that means we are atheist until the theist point of view is adequately proven to us. For this reason, an agnostic can reasonably be said to be an atheist by default.
But why would atheism be the default? Why would it not just as well be the opposite; that we are theist until the atheist point of view is adequately proven? One has to start on one side of this divide or the other. There is no platform in the middle from which to examine the question.
One who says “I don’t know” about the existence of God is wearing self-imposed blinders because he is demanding proof of the existence of God without acknowledging that he is assuming materialism, in doing so. He feels he’s in neutral, when he’s not.
Materialism is every bit as much a set of doctrines as theism. It necessarily holds, for example, that there is no over-arching direction to history; that there is no purpose for mankind; that there is no purpose behind the actions of any individual person; that all of what makes a person what he is is the combination of prior material influences upon him; that morality is a function of biology only. This may sound accusatory to our ears, but it’s not. It’s a simple statement of what materialism is.
So when someone who “doesn’t know” if there is a God or not remains indecisive, he is not standing in a position of neutrality. He is necessarily standing in a position of atheism. Moreover, most agnostics do not do so because they have evaluated materialism and found it to deserve a presumption of validity. They haven’t evaluated the claims of materialism at all. They’re looking in the wrong direction. They wait for an answer from theists for why there is a God, and don’t demand an answer from materialists to explain how materialism sufficiently explains what they observe.
Not only do agnostics demand proof of the wrong thing, but they demand that it be proven to an impossible degree of certainty. The reason people remain in a state of perennial agnosticism is not because they weigh the competing claims to truth (theism and atheism) and find them both to be equally compelling. They may find the claims of theism to have greater explanatory power for what they observe, and still not accept it.
Why? Because they falsely believe themselves to be in a state of neutrality on the subject. Therefore theism, the thing they imagine must be proven, must also be proven to a high standard. Not 51% certainty, but 100% certainty. They require a subjective, interior, experiential knowing certainty.
And why? Because of a misunderstanding of theology, brought to them by the modern heresies of Christianity via the culture. Christians, they imagine, have just that kind of absolute certainty, or pretend to.
We “know” things on the basis of evidence plus our reasoning, and our knowledge isn’t perfect. Agnostics are agnostics because they don’t know whether there is a God, and then they just don’t move off that position of not-knowing, though never weighing the plausibility of materialism. As a result of the mistakes in thinking that are outlined here, only on this one question (this all-important question) do they require a level of proof that is not accessible to mere humans. They falsely believe they’re in a position of neutrality, and the predominant reason for it is that they require gnostic-type knowing to move off of it.
Which means they don’t.