Atheism

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
4th July 2008

Tagged: atheism belief knowledge

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Is an atheist somebody who does not believe in God or somebody who believes that there is no God? The two options seem very similar, but in an age of intolerance it is an important distinction.

All atheists are believers. And like all believers, some are fairly rational and others merely tribal. There are some who carefully weigh all the evidence for and against God and are unpersuaded that he exists. There are others who, committed to their atheism, cannot see any evidence other than that which supports their convictions.

Belief is not the same as superstition. There is superstitious belief and there is reasonable belief. The rationality or irrationality of belief is in weighing the evidence available, not in belief itself. Christians do not have a monopoly on irrationality any more than Atheists have the monopoly on rationality. There is both reasonable and unreasonable belief.

It is possible to hold the question of God's existence open. That is a different conclusion to the belief that there is no God. Some people are unconvinced of God's existence by the available evidence or by the way that it has been presented to them. Yet they will not rule out the possibility that there still may be God. That is a further step and decision which they are unprepared to make.

There is wisdom in this position for it does not close off inquiry or lead one to claim more knowledge than is available. It is very difficult to know a negative about existence. It is possible in the realm of maths or deductive reasoning. But in the realm of reality to know that something—anything—does not exist is a very big claim.

Personally I do not believe in leprechauns. I have no real evidence that they exist, and every indication to think that they are nothing more than Irish folklore. But to claim that I know that they do not exist is more than I am able to say. For it requires me to know everything. Such intellectual arrogance is unwise. It is the arrogance of the closed mind. My belief is sufficiently confident that I never look for leprechauns, think about them, expect to see them or have any concern about them. But if some day an archaeologist digs up the bones of one or some person introduces one into the world—I will be shocked—but not refuse to believe it.

It is like the discovery of the platypus. Who would have ever conceived of such a creature? An egg-laying mammal with webbed feet, fur and a duckbill. When first examined in England it was rightly considered to be some practical joke or fraud. There is such a thing as a healthy dose of scepticism. But the evidence concerning the platypus caused a change in mind about what could or did exist. To refuse such evidence would have been an unhealthy commitment to scepticism.

It is an art form to live between open-minded gullibility and closed-minded scepticism. The gullible believe everything without evidence; the sceptics believe nothing even with evidence. The gullible are fools; the sceptics ignorant. The gullible are used by ‘friends’; the sceptics have no friends. The sceptics have the appearance of wisdom without the reality—at least the gullible are as foolish as they appear.

But nobody is quite so foolish as a gullible sceptic—one whose confidence in his superior reasoning thinks he knows what cannot be known. Such is the “wisdom” of the atheist who claims: “there is no God”.

It was Thomas Huxley who invented the word “agnostic” to get around this problem. But the word agnostic, like the word atheist, carries two different meanings. It can mean somebody who does not know whether God exists, or it can mean “somebody who believes it is impossible to know whether or not God exists” (Encarta). It is one thing to say, “I do not know if God exists” it is entirely another thing to say “It is impossible to know if God exists.”

This second definition is that of the covert atheist in his intellectual cowardice. He understands that he cannot know the negative (God does not exist) without claiming to know everything, but in his heart of hearts he actually believes he does know the negative. So he says, “it is impossible to know” if God exists. In his view every person who believes in God is at least mistaken if not a superstitious fool.

So then there are two forms of atheists and two forms of agnostics: The hard-core and the soft-core of each. The hard-core atheist says, “There is no God”. The hard-core agnostic says, “It is impossible to know if God exists.” The soft-core atheist says: “I do not believe in God.” The soft-core agnostic says: “I do not know if God exists.”

If you had described a platypus to an 18th century Englishman he could have been a hard-core sceptic and said: “There is no platypus” or “It is impossible to know if the platypus exists.” Or he could be a reasonable soft-core sceptic and said, “I do not believe in the platypus” or “I do not know if the platypus exists.”

The hard-core atheists and agnostics are what we mean today by the word “fundamentalist”. Their views are not affected by evidence. Their prejudices and commitments make their reasoning irrational and their minds closed to the evidence. It is a terrible irony that they often perceive themselves as the champions of rationality and science.

It is “fundamentalists” who call upon governments to suppress other views in society. It is these fundamentalists who are at work to change Australia into a secularist nation. They are the ones who want a secularist government and a compulsory secularist education system. They are the ones who want to censor religion out of public debate, media and consideration. But not all atheists are fundamentalists, any more than all Muslims, Jews or Christians are.

It is important to remember the warning of the Psalms about the atheist. For the Psalmist knows that our opinions are not formed by detached intellectual rationality but the corrupt self-interested desire to be unanswerable to God. “The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'.” (Psalms 14 and 53).