I am agnostic, because I think it’s the smartest, most rational position you can choose. It seems to me that ‘atheism’ is a very definite [position]: “I know that there isn’t a god.” Well I don’t know that.
When I was [young] I read Protagoras [who said], “On the subject of the gods, I am unable to say whether they exist or not. There are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the brevity of human life and the obscurity of the subject.” And I went: Yeah, that’s me. That’s how I feel.
…I’m agnostic because I think it’s unknowable. I don’t have the resources required…
I understand the appeal of this position, but I disagree. It may be that my disagreement with Haynes is merely verbal. Perhaps we use words like “know” to mean slightly different things. But let me explain my disagreement.
First, atheism need not be a definite position. Atheism is about belief, not knowledge. So one can be agnostic atheist, meaning one doesn’t claim to know whether or not gods exist, but one doesn’t believe gods exist.
But also, let us consider how we commonly use the word “know.”
Do you know that fairies don’t exist?
Do you know that unicorns don’t exist?
Do you know that genies don’t exist?
One could be tempted to say “there are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the brevity of human life and the obscurity of the subject.” And that is true. And yet I think we feel comfortable using the word “know” in these cases, because we understand that to “know” that genies don’t exist is not to claim you can prove genies don’t exist. Nor is it to claim you are 100% certain that genies don’t exist. Rather, to “know” that genies don’t exist is, in the common use of the term, “to be fairly certain, on good grounds, that genies don’t exist.”
And what are these good grounds? A combination of factors. If genies existed, we would expect some evidence of their existence, for they are by definition the kind of thing that intentionally interacts with humans. And yet we have no evidence of genies, so that gives us some reason to think they don’t exist.
We have plausible stories about the origins of stories about genies. We understand what happens to the human mind when lost in the desert. We understand that humans tend to interpret events as the acts of persons – and if those persons cannot be seen, then we interpret events as the acts of invisible persons. Moreover, we long for someone who will hear our prayers and wishes and make them come true. We have powerful imaginations, and tend to see in the world what we want to see in it. So it’s not surprising we would have stories about genies even though they don’t exist.
We have a long, long history of utter failure for magical explanations and continuous success for natural explanations. Thousands of things we thought were magical turned out to be not magic when we looked closely enough. So it seems likely that when we look closely enough at other things we don’t yet understand, they will turn out to be explained by natural processes, not by genies in the desert.
Moreover, the genie theory doesn’t make much sense as far as we can tell. Why would spirits hang about in the desert and respond to human wishes or cause mischief? Where do their magical powers come from, and how do they work? What does it mean to be non-physical, and how could something non-physical have causal effects upon physical things? The idea of a genie raises a huge number of paradoxes. Genies don’t fit very well with everything we know about how things work.
These are the kinds of reasons we can talk about “knowing” that genies don’t exist. This doesn’t mean we are 100% certain they don’t exist, nor that we can prove they don’t exist. It just means that we’re pretty damn sure genies don’t exist, and we have good reasons for thinking so.
And so it is with gods.
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