An Atheist and an Agnostic walk into a pub…

Paddy and I have been friends for years. After sixth form we both moved to different cities (in my case to another side of Europe) for studies. We were able to maintain contact because we have more or less similar interests and tend to agree about most things.

There are some things, however, that we have never been able to agree on. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of those things is religion. Although both of us come from Catholic families, neither of us are actually believers. When we were younger, Paddy was an aggressive atheist. I myself believed in the existence of god, souls and a afterlife, but wasn’t religious per se. I didn’t pray, I didn’t go the church and had a different vision of god to the traditional Judeo-Christian one. As such, we had some strong discussions. It never ended in a fistfight, Paddy never called me an idiot for believing in bronze age fairy tales, nor did I call him a heathen.

Since then our religious orientation and beliefs have changed slightly. We, I guess, have matured. Paddy is still an atheist, but he is definitely less hateful towards religion, and I have become an agnostic.

Now we would like to share our views on faith and belief. It will not be a discussion about the existence and nature of god, we will not judge the merit of different religions and beliefs. We will talk why we chose those orientations and what we perceive to be ‘true’ atheism and ‘true’ believers.

Pole: Let me start by explaining what it actually means to be an agnostic. I neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of god. The basis of agnosticism is a belief or acceptance of the fact, that it is impossible to know anything about god; his nature, his existence, his stance on social, political and moral issues. Hence, I don’t seek answers to the big questions about god or the meaning of life. I also don’t associate or identify myself with any religious group, be that atheists or Christians or anything else.

Paddy: Switzerland would be proud. On possibly the biggest philosophical question of history you’ve decided to sit on the fence. Although there is something admirable in modesty of this kind, to maintain consistency you would also have to declare to be uncertain about the existence of leprechauns, unicorns and Henry Kissinger’s conscience (all of which, you would no doubt agree, are complete fantasy). This is where I derive my atheism. I am not making a claim based on faith, I am considering the merits of other peoples’ claims, and, when it comes to the supernatural, I have found none.

Pole: What do you mean leprechauns aren’t real? Their existence hasn’t been disproved or proved. Just because we haven’t seen one, doesn’t mean they don’t exist and simply believing they exist doesn’t mean they do. But you can’t really compare an almighty being, which created the world to a little man, dressed in green and running around the Irish countryside. You cannot forget that at the basis of each myth there is a grain of truth.

My point is, what we imagine leprechauns to be, might be completely wrong. It doesn’t mean they’re not real. The thing about them though, is that they are still beings of this world, so theoretically, their existence can be proven or disproven. That doesn’t apply to transcendental beings, such as god. (Btw, it appears you have simply fallen victim to very effective leprechaun propaganda. They want you to believe they don’t exist, so you don’t go after that pot of gold. #illuminati)

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“Everything is going according to the plan, laddy.”

Paddy: According to your world view anything could conceivably exist, and by extension, nothing can be conclusively proven. Objective truth becomes a redundant concept, the study of history futile. I disagree. The world does have external meaning, we agree on points of reference all of the time. (Sky is up, things fall down, the beauty of Beyonce…)

We shouldn’t be opposed to declaring what we know. We know flowers produce energy through photosynthesis, we know how the force of gravity affects the physical world. Equally we know the religious claims about god defy the known laws of physics. In other words, we know A; claim B contradicts A so can’t we assert confidently B is invalid? Neutrality just seems pointless here.

Pole: Yes. We know A and if B contradicts A, then we can assert B is invalid UNLESS new evidence arises, proving B to be true and falsifying A. The theory of relativity states that nothing can move faster than light and that statement has been the undisputed bedrock of modern physics for decades.  Yet, now scientists are searching for neutrinos, which may in fact be capable of faster than light travel.

Paddy: The discipline of physics may experience paradigm shifts but it’s produced nothing to suggest a god figure – a being that is unaffected by space and time, the laws gravity or solidity – exists. The more we learn about our world the more such a being is shown to be ludicrous.

Archaeologists have disproved the stories of the holy texts, psychology and biology have discarded the soul. Our understanding of the Universe’s workings makes talk re: a guiding hand – being directed by an intelligence interested in some half-apes cruising passed Sol – sound solipsistic (and silly). What else do our religious brethren have? What else do we have to produce to guide them from their misguided paths? And what can be done to show you agnostics that no doubt is necessarily on your part, that you can be certain in (and somewhat proud of) your unbelief?

Pole: Yet again you miss the point. Yes, there is no scientific evidence of god’s existence. I am not disputing that YET the scientific principle dictates: never accept anything as a certainty. The whole point behind all those experiments is assuming that the other guy was wrong, or at least didn’t discover everything there is to know.

No evidence will ever be sufficient to prove or disprove god’s existence. As you said earlier, we should not be afraid to state what we know, but we should also not be ashamed to admit what we don’t know and will never know.

I agree that the existence of god is improbable, but it is not impossible. As dear old Bertrand  Russell would say, there are degrees of probability. Total scepticism serves no purpose. It is asserting that there is no more to know about that subject, thus stopping any advance.

Paddy: We have our evidence that god doesn’t exist. We can explain why the world works the way it does without a supreme omnipotent leader. The discoveries in evolution, gravity, thermodynamics and neuroscience all make short work of any Biblical explanation. No doubt you subscribe to the school that, well, a god could still conceivably have had a hand in all this – even if our scientific explanations do not require him.

I could as easily say that a giant purple teddy bear is responsible for all this – for “guiding” evolution and such – do you welcome this claim with equal merit and respect? If you do, you’re either a fool or lying.

Let me explain: if the former’s the case you claiming you treat every single claim made (regardless of how patently absurd it sounds) with respect, willing to accept, unwilling to deny. However, I do not think you truly thing that way – or any agnostic for that matter – it would mean you’re skeptical 24/7: treating conspiracy theories, maths answers and your sibling’s teasing with equal validity.

Russell was correct to say total skepticism serves no purpose. Agnosticism – the doctrine of the perpetual skeptic – serves no purpose.

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Praise our new lord and saviour.

Pole: There could be a giant purple teddy bear responsible for it all. If someone would start the Church of the Great Purple Teddy Bear, I would ridicule them for it. I would say that it sounds ridiculous, but I could not claim with an absolute certainty that it is not true. There is always a possibility; no matter how small, even if it is only 0.00001%; that any claim is true.

Coming back to my previous argument, I’ve made quite a big mistake there (and you didn’t fail to get on that like a hawk on a helpless wittle wabbit). I have failed to add the word absolute to scepticism. Yes, agnosticism is a doctrine of scepticism, but not a complete one. I agree that biblical claims are probably wrong, and god probably doesn’t exist PROBABLY is the key word here.

The point is. Some things are more probable than others. I can say that it is the movement of tectonic plates that causes earthquakes, because we have evidence for it. But I cannot say with absolute certainty that it isn’t Poseidon, god of the sea, thrusting his trident into the earth and shaking it, even though the former is far more probable.

I cannot stretch or emphasise my point any more: I CANNOT BE ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN, THERE IS ALWAYS DOUBT.

Paddy: As I’ve wrote, modesty is commendable and all that. Doesn’t change the fact, that on this one, I’m right.

Pole: Well. Let’s leave it at that lovely note. We both completely missed the point we set in the introduction. Paddy didn’t waste a second and went on the offensive from the start, a kind of philosophical blitzkrieg. I adopted a more defensive but still wanted to prove him wrong as much as he tried to do that to me. So we’re both to blame.

In any case, we both could go on, but we’ll be walking in circles. The argument continues in When Contrarians Become the Rear-Guard – Why New Atheism is (still) Terrible: http://www.poleandpaddy.com/when-contrarians-become-the-rear-guard-why-new-atheism-is-still-terrible/

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