A paper prepared for members of the Atheist/Agnostic Club at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek
We call ourselves the Atheist/Agnostic Club here at Rossmoor and sometimes we seem to sit on opposite sides of the aisle – atheists on one side, agnostics on another. I’m suggesting that we can all pull our chairs together and be one. I believe atheists and agnostics are not two separate and distinct philosophies but actually one and the same.
Unfortunately, there is a fallacy concerning atheism that is so prevalent, so extensive that the very dictionaries themselves maintain it and espouse it. It is simply stated like this: “Atheists say there is no god.”
Or as a correspondent wrote to me recently, “I do not believe that one can be an atheist, only an agnostic. Why? You cannot prove that God does not exist.” Yes, he is quite correct: “You cannot prove that God does not exist.”
But that is a commonplace almost to the point of cliché. Everyone knows by now that you cannot prove a negative. That’s why the person who runs out in the street shouting “There is no god!” is NOT an atheist in my opinion but a FOOL. The smallest child will pull at his sleeve and demand of him, “Mister, can you prove there is no god?” Suddenly our so-called atheist is very embarrassed!
No, the smart atheist simply says “God? I’m sorry but I don’t know what you are talking about. Please explain it to me. I have no notion of god, no idea of god, no belief in what you call god. Define it, describe it; I don’t know what you are talking about.”
"Atheism,” says Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, “is the state of being without theistic beliefs.” THAT is a correct definition (one of the few you will find) and that’s all there is to it: “without theistic beliefs.” It’s as simple as that. A true atheist does not know what you are talking about when you babble about gods. He is without knowledge; he does not know. In that sense the atheist is no different from the agnostic.
But take another dictionary definition – this one from Webster’s: An atheist is “someone who denies the existence of god.” This is patently absurd! This ‘definition’ says that there IS a god but the stubborn, wicked and perverse atheist will not accept Him (Her, It?). Instead he or she denies god.
Though there are so-called ‘hard atheists’ who say “I don’t believe in god,” or “There is no god,” I still say they are fools and not atheists. I am a ‘soft atheist,’ and as such it is impossible to tell me apart from an agnostic. But NOT, mind you, not if agnosticism is taken to mean “I don’t know if there is a god. I’m not sure, there may be... I haven’t made up my mind yet... The facts are not all in; I’m keeping an open mind!”
That is not agnosticism but pathetic fence-sitting. T.H. Huxley, the man who coined the term ‘agnosticism’ did not - when it came to evolution - sit on a fence. He was known, in fact as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for he defended the naturalistic (atheistic!) ideas of Charles Darwin with a ferocious tenacity.
Ah, was Darwin then an atheist? Well, he was visited by two atheists one day - Doctor Ludwig Büchner and Edward Aveling. Darwin asked his guests “Why do you call yourselves atheists?” The great naturalist said that he himself preferred the word ‘agnostic.’ Aveling replied that “Agnostic was but Atheist writ respectable, and Atheist was only Agnostic writ aggressive.”Darwin responded by asking “Why should you be so aggressive?”
Why indeed? Bertrand Russell in a pamphlet entitled “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic” maintained that he was an agnostic in the philosophical sense in that he could not know the truth of the existence or non-existence of God. However, in the same work he admits that calling himself an atheist would best convey his religious stance to a non-philosophical audience.
So Russell is both an atheist and an agnostic. And there is even a position known as Agnostic Atheism. “While the concepts of atheism and agnosticism occasionally overlap,” Wikipedia informs us, “they are distinct because atheism is generally defined as a condition of being without theistic beliefs while agnosticism is usually defined as an absence of knowledge (or any claim of knowledge).”
But clearly an agnostic person may also be an atheist - without theistic beliefs. The proper stance, Russell tells us is to “stand on our own two feet and look fair and square at the world” with a “fearless attitude and a free intelligence.” And Huxley states that “In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration.”
In spite of himself and his agnosticism or “half-hearted atheism” Huxley’s reason took him to the very frontiers of philosophical materialism: “I am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force...” Huxley spoke of the “wonder of the conservation of force and the indestructibility of matter...”
For various social/political/economic reasons Huxley could not cross the threshold of the materialist frontier. But the idea that matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed is the most fundamental law of science and is the foundation of my philosophy, my atheism - scientific materialism.
And yet I am content to call myself an agnostic as well, for I am a ‘weak atheist’ or a ‘negative atheist.’ I lack a belief in any God or gods, but I do not positively deny the existence of any god or gods.
As for our Rossmoor Atheist/Agnostic Club, I really feel we can take this sensible position and move all our chairs together into one great compatible circle. For the genuine atheist is really an agnostic, and the true agnostic is also an atheist!