For some years now I have considered myself (when asked for my position) an ‘agnostic’ on the subject of the existence of God. To me this is the most natural and honest position with regards my beliefs. I am not comfortable with the word atheist, as it implied I was taking a definite stance on something I am not sure about. I have opinions and ideas about the nature of God which don’t naturally fit into any such definition, but ‘agnostic’ usually seems to be the easiest quick-fit label.
However, I came across an interesting new (to me) perspective on this. The American magician Penn Jillette argues that there are two questions here:
1. Is there a God?
2. Do you believe in God?
The first question is the one I would answer with agnosticism. I don’t know. However, if I consider the second question, Jillette argues there are only two answers. Belief is ‘active’ – you either do or do not believe. He then argues that if you say you ‘don’t know if there is a God’ then you cannot actively believe in God, thus you do not believe in God. Making you an atheist.
I’m not sure his logic is 100% infallible here – you could conceivably believe something to exist that you do not ‘know’ exists, but it is an interesting line of thought.
Ultimately however, I still would not call myself an atheist for two reasons: Firstly, my beliefs don’t neatly fit into a debate about whether an objective entity called ‘God’ exists or not. I think ‘God’ is a much more complex idea that might possibly exist beyond the comprehension of everyday human thought and may only be ‘known’ via direct experience that cannot be translated into speech. So my “don’t know” actually comes with terms and conditions attached. I don’t know….but I have some ideas…
Secondly, labels like this are not very helpful. What’s much better than lumping people into two brigades, is to talk and think about these things and to share ideas. Our beliefs are much too interesting and complex to hold inside one word.