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Agnosticism as “The Basis for a Religious Life”?

October 6, 2010

Robin Le Poideven, Professor of Metaphysics at the University of Leeds in England, has a provocative post in defense of agnosticism over and against the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and others (who have recently proclaimed in books and articles and speeches that they and all other thinking humans are–and should be–absolutely certain of the non-existence of this entity known as God).

I have long believed that when considering the universe and our own personal place in it from a purely rational and scientific point of view, we are all agnostics. That is, to paraphrase the last lines of Socrates, All we know is that we do not know. But the brute fact of our human ignorance in the face of the enormous mystery of God does not stop those like Dawkins on the one side and firebrand religious types on the other from name-calling and damning one another based on their absolute certainty that there is! or is not! a God. I, for one, live by faith, not certainty and I think there is quite a difference. Anyway, here’s Professor Le Poideven:

The conclusion [of Dawkins and others] is that, unless you think you have overwhelming evidence for God, the rational thing is to be an atheist. But it rests on a questionable assumption… that God must be complex, and so improbable. It is a part of traditional theology that God is in fact simple. Dawkins finds this incredible: how can something responsible for the creation of the world, and who has perfect knowledge of it, be less complex than that creation? There are, however, different kinds of complexity. A language is complex in one sense, in that it contains a virtually limitless range of possible expressions. But those expressions are generated from a finite number of letters, and a finite number of rules concerning the construction of sentences. A language may be complex in its variety but (relatively) simple with respect to the components and principles that give rise to that complexity. When the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz opined that God had created ‘the best of all possible worlds’, his view was mercilessly lampooned in Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. ‘Best’ here, however, does not mean most agreeable, but rather where the greatest variety is produced by the simplest laws. And indeed it is a requirement on scientific explanation that it not involve needless complexity. Elegant simplicity is the ideal.

Perhaps God is like that: his understanding and capacities may be infinitely complex, but the underlying nature that gives rise to that complexity may be relatively simple. If so, then it isn’t a given that the probability of such a being is enormously improbable. And if God is not clearly improbable, then atheism is not the default position. Rather, agnosticism is. If, before we start to look at the evidence, the hypothesis that God exists is initially no less probable than the hypothesis that he doesn’t, that neither atheism nor theism has a head start, so to speak, then we should keep an open mind, rather than be atheists until presented by overwhelming evidence for God.

So what is the point of agnosticism? That it stands for open-mindedness, for a willingness to consider conflicting perspectives, for tolerance and humanity. It may even be the basis for a religious life.

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