I used to write fiction (never sold any) and in one story I had a character who, confronted by a Gnostic, said that an agnostic was an atheist who was just too chickenshit to admit to it. I don't know that I've ever heard anybody say it that way in real life, but I've run into the attitude quite a bit. Much depends on how you define the words. Remember when old Polycarp of Smyrna was going to be thrown to the lions or burned at the stake the Romans urged him to denounce the Christians. "Say, 'Away with the atheists,'" the proconsul told him. Polycarp obliged. "Away with the atheists," he repeated, gesturing with his arm to designate the spectators, not the Christians. It's all how you look at it. An atheist, as Mark Twain might have put it, is somebody who doesn't believe in your god.
A good piece over at Evolving Thoughts discusses the meaning of the words atheism and agnosticism, looking at the changes in the meaning of the words over time. John Wilkins has got me thinking again about the oddity of this particular situation: why is it, exactly, again, that I have to pin myself with a specific label on this point? To borrow from Wilkins' piece, it's as though everybody in the world was expected to have a particular team in some sport that they identified with. Well, what about the rest of us? Those of us who just enjoy the game, for instance? And what about the people who just flat-out don't do sports?
There are a lot of things in this universe that I don't have opinions about. Things I've never studied, for instance. Things I don't know enough about. Things where there isn't enough information to even form an opinion in the first place. What influence did Beowulf have on subsequent English literature? Who would win in a fist fight, Santa Claus or Goofy? Is there a god?
I'm sorry; I actually don't have an opinion, and I really never felt the need to form one. I know some people say it's the most important question a person can face—but I just don't see it. People have sicced their deities on me in the past, saying that their god will torment me through all eternity if I don't believe in him, but unless said god can manifest himself in some more tangible way than random bluster, can do something to give me a clue as to why I should be afraid of him and not all these other deities, I can't get worked up over it.
It's like this. Say a stranger comes up to me on the street and tells me "You must believe that Shakespeare based the character of Mercutio on Christopher Marlowe. If you do not you will burn in hell for eternity." Well that would make that a pretty important thing to believe in, wouldn't it? So isn't the safe thing to do to adopt that position, to go around loudly proclaiming that Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare's model for Mercutio, regardless of whether there was any evidence for it or not, because hey, if you're right, you won't burn in hell for eternity. And if you're wrong, you've only wasted your life making an asshole of yourself. It's just simple logic, isn't it?
This is where I have the problem. This argument can be framed to support anything whatsoever. Unless there's something resembling evidence that my believing or not believing in a thing will actually have an effect on my afterlife there's no wager here at all. It's more like betting on 00 on a roulette wheel with an infinite number of spaces. You might as well try to sell me celestial wax for buffing my aura. It's infantile.
It's so infantile I cannot believe that people seriously make this argument. Their faces must get awfully used to being laughed in. Oh, wait—I hear an objection from the audience. You—Mr. Strawman.
That's Dr. Strawman, if you please.
Okay, Doc, what's on your mind?
Why do you hate God so much?
Where are you getting that from, Dr. Strawman?
Well, you're spending all this time railing against Him, denying His existence.
No, actually I'm not, Dr. Strawman. I have nothing against any god or supernatural critter whatsoever. I mean, when Athena came down to give Perseus a hand killing a gorgon, I thought it was pretty cool. When Yahweh helped the Israelites escape from Egypt, that was great. And when Gandalf the Gray—
Gandalf was a wizard, not a deity.
I know, Dr. Strawman, but you're missing the point. I like Sherlock Holmes, too, but I don't believe in his existence and I sure as hell don't worship him. Oh, sorry about that.
That's quite all right. I'm a Doctor of Divinity.
Come to think of it, I take it back. There are deities I don't much care for. Cthulu, for one. There's a god worth fearing if you like. And I don't like Yahweh all that much when he's out ordering the massacre of the Canaanites or drowning virtually all mankind in a single flood—he's got a petty vengeful side, no doubt about it. And Hera can be a real bitch—
So you admit to hating God.
Maybe. Now you're confusing me. Yeah, I suppose, in the same way I'm not fond of Sauron or that vicious psycho-criminal that shows up in every Dick Francis novel. The first time I saw Othello I could hardly applaud the actor that played Iago, I was so pissed off at that unctuous smiling bastard. (That was Ashland 1966 I think; whoever you were, you did one hell of a job that night.)
But those are fictional characters.
Well, as far as I know so is Yahweh. Or Chemosh, or Ashur, or Dagon.
But that's a bogus argument. Nobody worships Chemosh or Dagon these days.
Is that the test? Popularity? The god the most people worship today is the real god? What about when the entire Roman Empire worshiped Jupiter and the rest, and virtually nobody had even heard of Yahweh? Was Jupiter the big god on the totem pole till Yahweh dethroned him? And what about Allah?
Hey, remember—I'm just a figment of your imagination. I can't answer arguments you haven't already seen addressed somewhere.
Oh, yeah, sorry about that Dr. Strawman. I kind of think this discussion's gone a little off the rails, don't you think?
Maybe. That's not my fault, though. You're the one that keeps trying to compare God with these made-up idols. What about the second commandment?
Uh, which one is that? "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk?"
Oh, that's very funny. You know perfectly well which one, just as you know in your heart that you are not right with God. That's why you rebel against His word, try to deny His existence, try to convince other people that He doesn't exist.
Dr. Strawman, I don't do any of these things. Maybe it makes you feel better to imagine that in my heart of hearts I agree with you, that I really know God exists and am denying it, no, pretending to deny it as an excuse to perform some nameless rituals in my basement. Whatever. Your believing it doesn't make it true. I don't even really think about your god all that much, except in the context of religions of late antiquity, and for all I know maybe you wouldn't even recognize the God that third-century Christians worshiped as yours. I don't know. You can make up stuff about me all you like; the fact is I can make up stuff about you, too. In your heart of hearts, Dr. Strawman, don't you know you're just telling yourself fairy-stories? You don't believe this stuff any more than I do, and you're just trying to convince other people of God's existence just so you don't feel alone.
Ha! I knew you were trying to convert me to atheism!
No, I'm not trying to convert anybody to anything; I'm trying to make a point, and you, as a creature of my imagination, ought to be cooperating with me, not tossing out random non sequiturs to throw me off my rhythm.
I thought that was my job.
No. This is why I try to avoid religious discussions; we always seem to end up talking past each other; we make assumptions about the other's hidden motives and try to address them, and instead of getting anywhere, we end up arguing in circles.
Now we're getting somewhere. Arguing in a circle is the only way a human being can reason in the presence of his Creator.
If I'm willing to accept that you really have some belief in a god—Yahweh or whoever—even though I have a hard time believing that any adult could seriously hold onto a notion like that, are you willing to accept that I really don't have some secret belief in your god that I'm just suppressing for some reason?
Nothing on earth will convince me of that, "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things."
Yeah, well, Paul wrote a lot of stuff.
And as for trying to retreat into agnosticism, the word just means ignorance. But the Bible tells us that there is no excuse for ignorance of God. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge."
And Second Isaiah says that Yahweh "sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers to him." And that he "stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in?" If people look like grasshoppers to him, how high up is he? A couple hundred feet? We've got airplanes that go higher than that. Even skyscrapers are higher. And do you really believe that the sky is made of some curtain-like material? Something Yahweh could spread out?
Now you're being ridiculous. And what was that about "Second Isaiah"? Are you trying to deny that Isaiah correctly prophesied the coming of Cyrus as king of the Persians over a century before it happened?
Huh? How'd Cyrus get into this?
The only reason you atheists came up with this Second Isaiah business is so you can deny God's power of prophecy.
Okay, that's it; I'm finished, Dr. Strawman. You win, there's a god, and I'm off to get some cosmic wax to buff up my aura.
Huh? I mean, uh, hallelujah, I guess. Praise the Lord.
And you know what else, Dr. Strawman? I actually do believe that Marlowe was Shakespeare's model for Mercutio. I know there's no evidence for it, and I have no rational reason for believing it, but I am quite convinced that you in your heart of hearts share my conviction and know perfectly well that it's true. And, Dr. Strawman, if you deny it, you will burn for eternity. So are you with me, Dr. Strawman, or against me? Isn't the answer obvious?
That's the stupidest argument I've ever heard. Do you think I'm an idiot?
Well, thank you for dropping by, Dr. Strawman.
You're quite welcome, I am sure.