As an outspoken Atheist If I received a euro every time someone put it to me that the Universe is a big place and that I don’t have all the answers, I would undoubtedly be a very wealthy man. All too often when it comes to religious ideas, sitting on the fence is perceived as the safest and most intelligent option. The 17th century French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal proposed what would become known as Pascal’s wager. It essentially declared that the intelligent man should live as though god exists on the basis of the notion that if he doesn’t, then very little is lost whereas if god is real the individual would risk eternal damnation.
There is a difference between theoretical and practical Agnosticism
When Richard Dawkins declared himself an Agnostic in principle there was a media frenzy. In Febuary 2012 the Daily Mail published the headline ‘I can’t be sure God DOES NOT exist’: World’s most notorious atheist Richard Dawkins admits he is in fact agnostic. In relation to the same story the Daily Telegraph in Britain went with the line “He is regarded as the most famous atheist in the world but last night Professor Richard Dawkins admitted he could not be sure that God does not exist”. Because the press and secular activists don’t make for good partners, the media on this instance yet again failed to illustrate the very important message that Richard Dawkins was trying to deliver. There is a world of difference between being agnostic in theory and agnostic in practice. Like Dawkins, I too am agnostic on the issue of god. I am also agnostic in my position of whether or not the stories of those who claim to be abducted by aliens are true. Im agnostic in my position of whether or not ghosts exist or whether or not David Koresh who established the Davidian religious cult in Waco Texas is indeed a prophet of god.
No doubt if I was as high profile an Atheist celebrity as Dawkins, the media would seize on my last paragraph and have me declared insane. Yet theoretical agnosticism is the hallmark of all scientists and skeptics. We must remain agnostic to all things that cannot be disproved. If sufficient evidence existed for any of these claims I could in theory be convinced of their validity. The reason why I am so sceptical of the idea of god or any other of these claims is precisely because of a lack of supporting evidence when taken in the context of our 21st century understanding of science and human behavioural psychology. Of course neither the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail mention this, as the idea of militant Atheism spreading across Britain is a far more sensational headline and of course the militant Atheist of their imagination could never be convinced of anything other than their rigidly held irrational beliefs. In the eyes of the media and all too often society in general they are perceived as being overly dogmatic like religious extremists. The greatest irony is that articles like these are the very reason people like Dawkins feel the need to promote science and reason so vigorously. However if this theoretical position of agnosticism moved further to what practical religious agnosticism means and where people genuinely feel a pressing need to question whether David Koresh is a prophet or whether or not god is telling you to do things or that he will punish someone in an afterlife for believing the wrong thing about him then I believe this has pushed the boundary between a sane version of Agnosticism and its paranoid brother. The word agnostic refers to lacking knowledge of a subject matter. In theory no one can know whether or not god exists and in theory we can never know whether or not we will be invaded by aliens. Yet if your life is governed by a genuine uncertainty of whether or not aliens are going to attack us, then a visit to a psychiatrist might be advised. There lies the difference between scientific agnosticism and its religious paranoid version.
A question for religious agnostics; Do your fear an alien invasion?
If you believe uncertainty is the best approach to the question of god as advised by Pascal then shouldn’t we be entertaining the possibility of an alien invasion? Im sure Dawkins and most other scientists would argue the same case that they cannot be certain that malevolent extra-terrestrials are not about to invade earth any day now. By the same token we cannot be certain that there are not monsters of the sea that pose a danger to mariners that have yet to be discovered. How do we know that everyone we certify as insane for declaring themselves prophets and messiahs are not in fact telling the truth? I am presuming that by now you get the idea that the distinction between a theoretical lack of certainty and an uncertainty that alters how you perceive the world are two entirely separate world views. No doubt most people will be in agreement that we shouldn’t sit on the fence when it comes to any of these examples. These examples are not far fetched. The idea that a book such as the bible being the ultimate form of truth is less convincing to me than the prospect of our planet being attacked. Needless to say I do not live in fear of being visited by E.T but even less so for doubting the edicts of any religious texts.
Being a scientist and a skeptic makes me both Agnostic and Atheist.
By now Im hoping most people will realise that the terms Atheist and Agnostic are not mutually incompatible. Until science has a theory of everything we must be open to new objective evidence and must be willing to change our position on the basis of new evidence. This is the very essence of being agnostic. The scientific community achieves this to a degree greater than any other branch of human affairs. This is not a weakness or a failure of science as would be perceived in any other field of human endeavour but it is precisely what makes science so incredibly useful in finding out how things work. By the same token science doesn’t need to have a theory of everything to form an objective opinion. When all prevailing theories point in one direction the scientific community will state such things as our best available evidence leads us to believe that ………………….. That is why science has taught me that it is very unlikely that intervening beings alter the laws of physics and human behavioural psychology has taught me why so many people believe that they do. Probability teaches that we cannot explain one set of improbable circumstances by creating an even greater improbability as a conclusion. The known universe is less complex and therefore more probable to exist than a universe creator. Atheism is merely the outcome that blind faith and gut feelings do not trump objective scientific evidence even if on occasion science gets things wrong. The relatively small failings of science do not legitimise non evidence based beliefs. We need only look at the history of humankind to understand that religious faith will not tell us with any degree of reliability what happens when we die or whether or not god exists. Religious texts that do not understand such things as basic evolutionary biology are very unlikely to provide an intelligent counter argument to 21st century neuroscience etc. As any objective scientist would state I can’t know for certain what happens when we die but science will offer no compelling reason to believe anything other than loss of consciousness. This is a scientific question as much as a religious one and seeing as religion has never created a working knowledge of our world it is incredibly unlikely to be a source of knowledge as to what happens after death. In short the same set of skills that lead me to being agnostic also lead me to be an atheist.
Atheist activists are required because religion and other forms of evidence denial are destroying our planet and threatening our species with extinction.
I am an outspoken Atheist because all the evidence suggests that we should be more scared of our infinite ability to deny evidence with earth shattering consequences than we should be of imaginary beings passing judgement on our thoughts and beliefs. Our susceptibility to psychological cognitive biases are no longer a subject for debate within psychology and are used by political despots, con artists and advertisers the world over. I used many of them myself to demonstrate just how easy it is to influence vulnerable people in my Shooting the Messenger blog on Lorna Byrne. These psychological predispositions include 1) authority bias which leads us to be more inclined to believe those we perceive as figures of authority. A direct consequence of this is our insatiable appetite for celebrity culture. All too often the irresponsible and ignorant rants of clueless public figures falsely lead us to ignore science and data. There are countless examples such as climate change denial in the US Republican Party, Jenny McCarthy contributing to anti-vaccine hysteria etc.
2) Social bias leads us not to question evidence denial within our own cultural and social group. We are predisposed to believe dangerous dogma coming from our own social and cultural group and to be more sceptical of ideas that were not born of our tribe. This is one of the root causes of religious wars. Even within political strands within US politics the right/left political divide come with their own set of pseudoscientific beliefs. The left all too often point out the legitimate failings of the US right leaning political class when it comes to such things as fantastical religious claims or their history of climate change denial yet the political left have their own set of scientific falsehoods that they cling to such as GMO paranoia and Monsanto conspiracy or that cannabis does not cause any harm or that the pharmaceutical industry is against so called natural remedies. It is easier for both groups to accept these beliefs as they are a common badge of belief within their community.
3) The confirmation bias makes it easier for us to believe things that fit neatly within our existing set of beliefs. If people are taught from an early age that religion is good and that it is necessary for having a moral compass then when someone comes along and says that Atheists are bad, it will be much easier for that group to whip up hatred towards them. We need only look at Donald Trump’s sheer ability to stir up anti-Muslim hatred among evangelicals. Furthermore the yearning of people to have their belief system validated makes them dangerously exposed to being negatively influenced. This psychological technique has been used by politicians since the dawn of time.
4) Type 1 bias. Humans and other vertebrates are creatures of superstition. A type one error in psychology refers to our inherent bias towards seeing intention when it isn’t there. If we win a raffle we see ourselves as being lucky. If a number of unfortunate events happen in close succession we wonder if we are jinxed. I have often told the story when I thought of being in a RTA only to turn on the TV and the news reporting about a road death. If I were not a skeptic I would have possibly drawn the wrong conclusion. I am not psychic and that event although unusual was a product of coincidence. Decades of research have shown this but yet so many believe in psychic experiences and premonitions or the idea that we can tempt fate.
Practical agnosticism is not hedging your bets, it is a failure to confront what is often dangerous religious delusion where it is obviously present and granting a sense of intellectual legitimacy where none is warranted. Knowledge is like wealth and is not spread evenly. It is undermined when for cultural sake we pretend tribal religious beliefs in the absence of scientific inquiry represent counter arguments to those made on the basis of science and evidence.
Rejecting all religious texts for the glaringly obvious reason that there is nothing within them that could not have been written by the people of their time is not the other side of the false coin as those who dogmatically believe they are inherently divine. We need not spend any more time debating whether or not a book that calls for the stoning of non-virgin girls by their father on their wedding night is the word of god. A book that clearly has nothing to say about evolution or genetics or that believes that all creatures were once vegetarians demonstrably knows nothing about the origins of life. A book that fails to point out the evils of slavery or child marriage has nothing to teach 21st century humans about ethics. The fact that millions of people cannot see this is not cause for celebration of tolerance of intellectual diversity but an existential threat to mankind.
Evidence denial exists in many forms but religion is the only form that makes it a virtue. Religious leaders like to pretend that religion is compatible with scientific inquiry and social progress, however the data refutes this.
There is more than ample evidence why we should not make a virtue out of evidence denial. Islamic leaders are keen the point out that Islamic culture invented algebra and other fields of mathematics or Christians often cite the fact that Isaac Newton was a devout Christian. However it is in spite of this that they became brilliant minds. It would have been near to impossible to be openly Atheist in these periods and because pseudoscience was still rampant in the time of Newton even he was unable to resist the false charm of pseudoscientific baloney such as alchemy and belief in psychic powers and the occult. Even today within the Islamic world many doctors and medical professionals are so devoted to the religion that they join Islamist terrorist groups. Ayman al-Zawahiri is a qualified surgeon and leader of Al Qaeda.
In the 21st century the US remains the only openly devout religious country in the developed world. We need only look at its political system to realise that it is anything other than ethical or just. The entire Republican party has fallen into the hands of mobs of religious extremists, fascists and bigots. People like Donald Trump exploit the easy prey that this religious society has given him. Christian societies in Europe gave us the dark ages. In Ireland the Catholic Church left an horrific legacy that to this day has infected our political system. India is a country governed by superstition and corruption and its neighbour Pakistan is a near wasteland and home to the Taliban. Across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, cultures that have remained for thousands of years have been gutted and broken by religious mobs in ISIS. I declare myself Atheist because it is intellectually wrong to entertain what in any other context would openly be considered nonsense worthy of laughter at best but most importantly because I consider religion like every other form of cultural delusion to be extremely dangerous and worth fighting against. Our inherently flawed psychology that gives rise to such irrational belief is reason in itself to believe that even if such a god like being did exist he would probably not come in peace.