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On Gnosticism
If asked about my religious beliefs, I call myself an agnostic atheist.

If I say humanist (more properly secular humanist), I generally have to explain it, so it is a bit easier to say atheist first.

Agnostic means unknowing or uncertain - basically, I'm saying that I do not believe in God but I'm not certain about it.

Thinking on it. though, I'm reasonably certain (insofar as I can be certain about anything).

I believe that there is no God, and that there are scientific proofs of this. It's not just the unfairness and suffering that every theologian tackles at some point. A double-blind medical study was once used to disprove the healing power of prayer. The concept of brain damage (and consequent loss of an essential part of yourself) seems to preclude the existence of the soul (an indestructible, essential parts of you). Evolutionary biology offers a logical alternative to the concept of a supernatural creator, and a study of biology turns up numerous dead ends, left over bits, and inefficiencies that seem to contradict the idea of a grand planner. Studies of human psychology have turned up inherent urges to seek causes for events and to look for fairness in the universe - needs that are satisfied by the concept of a supernatural deity.

None of this is conclusive, of course, but I find it reasonably compelling.

So why am I so hesitant to call myself gnostic (certain)?

There are several reasons, I suppose.

For one, to announce absolute certainty on such a contested issue seems horribly arrogant.

Also, at least some of my certainty comes from being 18 and clever and more certain than I probably have any right to be about how the world works, and I'd prefer to mitigate that particular brand of fallacy if I can.

For another, I don't want to associate myself with the militant atheists, nor call every theist of my acquaintance (a sizable group including some wonderful, intelligent people) an idiot. I respect Richard Dawkins as a scientist, and he obviously has the right to speak his mind about his own beliefs, but I don't think he's going about it the right way.

Atheists are a minority in modern society, and that will not change in the immediate future. Moreover, we are a distrusted minority, and every militant gnostic atheist who labels religion 'delusion' or 'superstition' only digs the hole farther. Advocating rational thinking is important and that people should be encouraged to question their own beliefs, but most people stop listening if called idiots.

Besides, to call theists idiots is to ignore the way the human mind works - we compartmentalize. Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies. Isaac Newton wrote on alchemy as well as math and physics. Thomas Bayes believed in a deterministic divine plan. Theists aren't idiots, they're people, and people I have to get along with an a regular basis. Why would I make it harder on myself?

Finally, I find absolute certainty in general to be worrisome, indicative of fanaticism, and detrimental to free discussion.

I call myself agnostic, I suppose, because it's more in line with how I want to act with other people. I find it arrogant to proclaim certainty on such a significant issue, and I don't want to say that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. I am as skeptical of gnostic atheists as gnostic theists, and as unwilling to count myself among them.

Besides, at the end of it all, if I am right, then death is cessation and people, theists included, should believe whatever makes them happy and induces them to help people. If I am wrong (which is always a possibility), then I reserve the right to quote Isaac Asimov, a particular hero of mine:

“If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul.”

I will live my life to the fullest because I don't believe there's anything else, and help other people because it's the right thing to do. Anything else is negotiable.


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