Why I Am Not an Agnostic

Barbara Smoker

“Some forms of atheism,” Karl Popper declared in 1969, “are arrogant and ignorant and should be rejected, but agnosticism—to admit that we don’t know and to search—is all right.” Two decades earlier, having finally abandoned the Catholic faith in which I was raised and with it all religion, I would have agreed with him. Indeed, at the time I tended to describe my emerging philosophical position as agnostic. After all, since, by derivation, atheism means “without God” and agnosticism “without knowledge (of God),” there is really no difference in meaning between the two terms—so why not choose the one that has the less dogmatic tone?

As time went on, however, I realized that “agnostic” was generally taken to mean sitting on the fence, an uncomfortable position to maintain. I felt I had to come down on one side or the other. And, since it is the tone of synonyms rather than the derivation of each that determines the general comprehension of one’s meaning, and I am “arrogant” enough to want to make my position clear, I soon jettisoned the more nebulous label.

With regard to Popper’s insistence on continuing to “search,” surely enough is enough. My years of mental turmoil before managing to rid myself of my childhood theistic indoctrination involved sufficient search, through thinking, reading, listening, and debating to last me for life. We are not expected to keep a lifelong open mind on such hypotheses as the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so why should we make an exception in the case of God? That hypothesis, like those other children’s stories, is simply adduced, without due evidence, by dissembling (or deluded) authorities.

I do not deny that it is impossible to be 100 percent certain that there was no conscious, supernatural omnipotence behind the creation of the material universe and of life—that is, the Deists’ idea of God—but we can be 100 percent certain that He (to use the traditional pronoun for God!) could not possibly be simultaneously omnipotent and beneficent, as supposed in the Abrahamic theology. (Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.)

The label “agnostic,” however, is generally taken to mean agnostic about the existence of just such an impossible god—a god that, contrary to all human experience, cares about our welfare and that of other sentient creatures. I felt unable to continue sitting on the fence about the existence of this impossible sort of putative creator. I simply had to come down on the atheistic side.

 

Barbara Smoker

Barbara Smoker was hands-on president of the National Secular Society (U.K.) for twenty-five years (1971–1996).


Since, by derivation, atheism means “without God” and agnosticism “without knowledge (of God),” there is really no difference in meaning between the two terms—so why not choose the one that has the less dogmatic tone?

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