If the title of this article sounds hypocritical, that one isn’t “practicing what one preaches”, then you’ve taken a good first step, that of examination.
What makes living as an atheist but thinking as an agnostic not-so-hypocritical is that agnosticism isn’t a form of preaching, it’s a form of avoiding preaching because it’s a way of steering clear of dogmatism.
In this article you will learn how to hold an agnostic view toward the existence of god(s), while living more or less as an atheist. I’m mostly addressing “nontheists”, that is, those who choose not to believe in god(s), whether they merely suspend belief (agnosticism), or deny the existence of god(s) outright (atheism). If you’re a theist (as opposed to atheist), sorry to disappoint; but this article is not designed to argue with you.
1. Try to Determine Whether You’re an Agnostic, or an Atheist, Intellectually Speaking
By “intellectually speaking” I intend to mean “in theory” as opposed to “in practice”. There are two basic types of agnosticism, one that’s “softer” and one that’s “harder”. The hard type of agnostic claims that knowledge of God is beyond man’s ken, that we cannot know with certainty whether or not God exists. The softer kind of agnosticism is more personal and indicates of the agnostic that I do not know whether there is a God or not, and makes no major claims about the possibility of anyone ever knowing.
If you are an atheist then you’re making a truth claim regarding the existence of God. You’re denying God’s existence by endorsing the statement “God does not exist” or “gods do not exist.” In this regard you’re going further than the agnostic because you’re not only saying you don’t have knowledge that god(s) exist, but you’re taking it to the extreme that you know for certain that god(s) do not exist.
2. Atheists, Ask Yourselves If You’re Absolutely Certain that God Doesn’t Exist
Do some of your arguments against the existence of God also, ironically, serve as good arguments against your own position?
For instance, one of the better arguments against knowing the existence of God is that the hypothesis “God exists” is “untestable”. An untestable hypothesis is one that can’t be falsified. An example of this would be “somewhere exists a glitter-coated praying mantis that tells jokes.” Well, we could look day and night, hither, thither and yon; and if we don’t find such a mantis, it still doesn’t prove that there isn’t one. Likewise with God — just because we can’t disprove the existence of god(s) does not suffice as proof that no such god(s) exist.
3. Agnostics, Consider the Practical Sphere, Day-to-day Life
Do you live as if god(s) exist, or as if they don’t exist? You might say that you live in neither way since you don’t know. The problem here is that life confronts us with choices that often boil down to notions associated with the existence or non-existence of god(s). One overarching choice is whether to live as if there’s an afterlife or not. Strictly speaking, belief in god(s) doesn’t necessitate belief in an afterlife. However, in a culture steeped in Western religion such as Christianity, the afterlife becomes an issue. Reincarnation would be an Eastern version of similar. Do you live as if this is all there is or as if this is only a brief stage, a prelude to better (or worse) days to come?
4. Live as if there is no God, but Don’t Rule it Out Intellectually
If you’re an agnostic in theory, acknowledge that you can’t ride the fence at all times since you don’t live within the “philosopher’s closet” 24/7.
You’ve already come to the humble conclusion that you’re not wise enough to know whether or not God exists (and you may very well think that nobody is), now live as if there is no God. Going back to the untestable hypothesis argument, there seem to be infinite number of such hypotheses, and it would be impossible to live as if all of them are true, but it’s workable to live as if none is true (while still not claiming they aren’t true). For example, if we opt to believe in untestable hypotheses because we assume truth so long as there is no way to disprove, then we’d have to believe in the joking praying mantis and in a million other outlandish propositions, such as a singing ladybug or a gumball as big as Mars. Moreover, we’d be obliged to believe not only in one version of theism, but in every possible formulation of god(s). In addition to this being impracticable, we run into contradictions among untestable hypotheses, such as “there is only one God” and “there are several gods.”
5. Live by Reversing Pascal’s Wager
Pascal’s Wager (named after 17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal) states basically that it’s a better gambit to assume that God exists than that he doesn’t, since if he doesn’t, we don’t lose anything, but if we don’t believe in God and he does exist, then we have hell to pay. Similarly, we reap the reward of infinite life (in heaven) if we believe in God and he does exist, and we are punished eternally in hell if he does exist and we don’t believe.
The problem here is that virtually any belief could be used that entails such vast discrepancy between reward and punishment. For instance, belief in the joking mantis could be justified if we simply add “and if you believe in the mantis, you will go to heaven, but if you don’t, you will go to hell”.
In addition to this problem, Pascal’s Wager makes the assumption that if we believe in God, and it were to turn out that he doesn’t exist, there would be no harm in having believed. But indeed, to live as if there is a God (especially if this entails an afterlife), causes the trivialization of this life. This life becomes, in the language of theater, a dress rehearsal, in the language of sports, an exhibition game. The real play or real game comes afterward. This life is then devalued because it is evaluated relative to the infinite life afterward. Similarly, the earth may be devalued relative to the presupposed heavens, and the body may be devalued relative to the presupposed soul.
Tip & Disclaimer
- Living as if there isn’t a god (without flatly denying God) leads to practical choices, especially as we’ve seen with regard to the afterlife. This life is the precious finite and so our choices in love, politics, and cultural issues will reflect such valuation
- This article is about how to live as an atheist in practice while an agnostic in theory. It’s not presented primarily as an argument for agnosticism nor for atheism, but rather as one way to help nontheists “sort things out”