Recently someone said to me:
All rational agnostics are atheist by default.
This contrasted greatly with my own experience of becoming agnostic and thus I had to correct him. Let me explain my story and this will lead to a conclusion that will make very good sense to a ‘rational agnostic’.
I grew up a God-believing person, I use the capital G because I was brought up believing in a god that was called ‘God’. Thus I use the term as a name in this context. I do not actually remember a time where I did not believe in God, which considering I have memories going back to the age of 3 is reasonably significant. This is not surprising, my father was in church ministry and both my parents come from Christian households, so the introduction of God to my life at an early age is naturally likely. In fact, for me not to know about God would be a criticism of my parents. Any parent spending time with their children will naturally impart their beliefs on their children.
Of course, I was not understanding at a young age of the complexities of Christianity. It was not until I was about 7 that I fully understood sin, forgiveness and Jesus’ meaning in the Christian religion. I knew of these concepts and the person, but I did not connect them all until that age. However even then I really did not question my beliefs, not for about four years, when I was 11.
The year I turned 11 my father was a pastor in a small church, my mother was a physiotherapist and I was excelling at a public school. My parents encouraged me in science and exploration of my world, our holidays often included gem hunting, nature walks, learning about Aboriginal culture, fossil hunting, and gem hunting. I had a broad learning at home as well as school. It was this broad understanding of the world my parents fostered that developed into a very questioning mind. And I began at age 11 to set this questioning mind to my religion.
I asked questions like “Why do we pray if God already knows what we want?” and “Did Jesus really exist?”, “How is the world made in 7 days and yet look billions of years old?”. These are good questions, but I am not going to cover the answers here. What is mroe relevant to this topic is the question that I really delved into “What if I believed something else, or didn’t believe in God at all?”
It was this question I pondered over for most of the year as an 11-year-old. A lot of the thoughts revolved around how Christianity had no absolute proof like other things in my world had. I can know absolutely what happened this morning because I experienced it. I can see from a footprint that someone walked the ground recently, but the Bible was another matter. It relied upon only upon what people have said. Something that was awkward because other people have said different things as well. How can I believe one bunch of people compared to another? How can I believe any of them? There was no absolute proof of any of them. Even mroe so, there was no absolute proof that they were wrong. I had entered a quantum state where god could both exist and not exist in a provable way.
I had become agnostic. I determined there was nothing that I could know absolutely about God’s existence or person using absolute proof. Proof that could not be debated did not exist in the world around me.
So, I reflected on it non-biasedly as an agnostic. My 11-year-old mind took a step back and viewed it from the outside. Instead of weighing the evidence, I weighed the implications. I determined that when all options are equally viable then the decision stops being one on evidence and starts to be one consequence. After consideration I had these conclusions:
- I already believe in the Christian God, thus require a reason for altering my life from how it is now.
- Other religions, ignoring that they have less ‘witnesses’, do not provide advantages over Christianity both spiritually or physically.
- Atheism has no advantage to theism and thus is not a reasonable option. Atheism is pointless in an infinite time frame that contains death.
That last point is the most important one I considered. I did not realise it at the time, but this is something called “Pascal’s wager”, which can be summarised as the following:
“And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.”
Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées
Or in simplistic words:
If you get a free loterry ticket you will not win anything if you throw the ticket away.
As I said, I was not aware of Pascal’s Wager, but at age 11 I had come to the same conclusion as Pascal. I determined that reason was not sufficient for belief in God, thus the wisest, most logical thing to do was to believe in God, or in my case, continue to believe in God.
I had come to the realisation that reason was insufficient to claim a belief in God. I could not know absolutely that he existed, nor what he was like, however despite my not knowing absolutely, it made logical sense to believe that the bible provided that knowledge. I believe the bible contains knowledge on God, but also understand it does not provide evidence that can provide absolute proof that is not debatable. Other factors have to apply.
I had become an Agnostic Theist.
I understand that at an Earthly level I can not rely on any absolute proof for God or his personality, however, I recognize I have a personal belief that God and his personality is revealed in the Bible. I recognise this as a belief not based upon pure reason, but something else.
In this sense, I am a pure theist, although arrived there by agnostic principles and repeat that agnosticism in order to debate myself and cycle back to theism.
And this is where I return to the original quote that I disagreed with:
All rational agnostics are atheist by default.
I was a theist, became true agnostic, then became an agnostic theist, ultimately becoming a theist (that returns regularly to agnosticism to debate myself). In my case, my rationality of agnosticism led to theism, and the reason for this was covered in my first rational point:
I already believe in the Christian God, thus if there is no logical reason for changing then it is of the most sense to maintain my current belief.
I became an agnostic theist because I was already theist. It made rational sense.
Let us take an atheist that becomes agnostic.
Such a person would likely think of Pascal’s Wager, just like I did. They would identify that believing in a certain god makes perfect sense. They may even identify that Christianity seems the safest as it provides automatic salvation as opposed to having to work to a standard for the equivalent in other religions… however Pascal’s Wager may provide a reason to become an Agnostic Theist, but it does not provide the belief. An atheist would thus be conflicted by the rational argument provided versus the current non-belief. They would thus not believe in a god simply through this argument, yet still see the merits of such a belief. They may come to such a belief later, but not at that moment. This is because belief requires more than just a rational aspect.
Thus my argument would say that:
A rational agnostic would be by default whatever their belief was before they became a rational agnostic. An atheist would become an agnostic atheist and thus an atheist, and a theist would become an agnostic theist and thus a theist… at least at that moment of rationality.
I would also argue that
An agnostic whom is of the belief that agnosticism automatically leads to atheism is not rational. They are irrational. Agnosticism does not automatically lead to atheism and the idea that it does shows a failure to have taken agnosticism seriously.
Blaise Pascal agrees with the atheist Richard Dawkins on an important point: Permanent agnosticism is “fence-sitting and intellectual cowardice”, although Pascal is a bit more polite in the phrasing:
“You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?”