An atheist's perspective, Part Seven: Why agnosticism entails special pleading


Agnostics are people who claim not to know whether God exists or not. Is this claim tenable? It all depends what you mean by 'know'.

We can see the problems that arise from agnosticism if we apply it to some other more mundane statements, like: My breakfast cereal might be poisoned.

Is this possible? I have no evidence for it. I have no reason to believe that it is true. But it might be true. Breakfast cereals and other foods have been poisoned in the past. Mine could be poisoned now. Can I prove -- without eating it -- that it is not poisoned, in the mathematical sense in which I can prove that the square root of two is an irrational number? No. So do I know that my breakfast cereal is not poisoned? In this sense, no.

On the other hand, do I have any hesitation about pouring my breakfast cereal out and eating it? No. Do I warn anyone else that my breakfast cereal may be poisoned? No. Do I send a sample off to a chemical lab be analysed? No. I am perfectly happy to proceed with my life on the assumption that my breakfast cereal is not poisoned, and I am prepared to explain why to anyone who is interested. Do I know that my breakfast cereal is not poisoned? In this sense, yes.

'Knowing', then, can mean anything from 'having a mathematical proof for' to 'being reasonably certain of'. In everyday usage 'knowing' means something like 'acting on the belief that'. I know I will get paid on Friday so I can buy groceries today. I know that the Giants played the Tigers last night. I know that the Stock Market is down. Yes, it is logically possible I might be wrong about these, but it is logically possible that I might be wrong about anything. Maybe my breakfast cereal really is poisoned! But it would be insane and impossible to live my life as if everything I was reasonably certain of was actually in doubt. When I say 'I know that X' in ordinary conversation, nobody feels required to ask me for a mathematical proof of X.

So it is with: God might exist.

Is this true? I have no evidence for it. I have far less reason to believe that God exists than I do to believe my breakfast cereal has been poisoned. After all, I know that poisons do exist and that people have died from them. I don't know that there has ever been any reason whatever to believe in God. Can I prove in a mathematical sense that God does not exist? No.

But why should I have to? We don't require people to provide mathematical proofs when they assert that Henry VIII was the King of England, or that an overloaded plane won't fly, or that their grannie was called Ethel. What's so special about the statement God might exist? Nothing -- unless you already happen to believe God does exist. If I already believe that my breakfast cereal is poisoned then my breakfast cereal might be poisoned is a very important proposition. If I don't, and I don't have any reason to suspect it might be, then the statement is mere drivel.

Obviously if there is a supreme omnipotent ruler of the Universe holding us in judgement. then God might exist is a vitally important proposition, and we need to give it careful consideration. But this is just begging the question. Unless we already have reason to believe that God is important then God might exist is no more significant than Winnie-the-Pooh might exist. But God is only important if God exists. By making all this fuss about an ordinary hypothetical statement, so-called agnostics are demonstrating that they they accept the 'specialness' of statements about God -- in other words, they do believe in God after all.

So the burden of proof is on agnostics. If they can demonstrate why statements about God should be treated differently than statements about my breakfast cereal or Winnie-the-Pooh, then they have a tenable position. Otherwise we are justified in assuming that if they act as if God doesn't exist and talk as if God doesn't exist, then they don't really believe God might exist, any more than I really believe that my cornflakes might be laced with arsenic. Agnosticism in this vague sense is just another case of special pleading.