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05/28/2013 12:11 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Why I'm Not an Atheist: The Case for Agnosticism

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I had my falling out with religion in my early 20s, and a few years ago I published a piece making the case against religious certitude and blind faith. I also read some of the works of "the new atheists" with great interest, and watched them devastate religious opponents in entertaining public debates. However, a convincing argument against religion is not necessarily an equally compelling one for atheism. Between religious certitude and atheism lies a more suitable ground for truly open and skeptical minds: agnosticism.

For clarity's sake, it is important to note that no credible atheist claims they can prove that God does not exist. Atheists merely claim that there is no evidence at all for God's existence, making "him" as probable as a pink unicorn or a celestial tea pot. In the section on agnosticism in his famous book "The God Delusion," renowned scientist Richard Dawkins mentions the "tooth fairy" analogy to argue that while we should be technically agnostic on the existence of fairies because we lack evidence in either direction, in practice we are all (or at least the reasonable among us) "a-fairyists." But is God really only as probable as a tooth fairy?

In order for the tooth fairy analogy to be accurate, we would have to modify reality in one way: teeth would have to magically go missing from under pillows in a manner that science cannot even begin to explain. If that were the reality, no one could assert with any merited confidence that tooth fairies are definitely behind the inexplicable disappearance of teeth, but the idea would not be so patently absurd either. If that were the reality, then God would indeed be as probable as a tooth fairy.

What is analogous in the real world to the magic disappearance of teeth is the very existence of existence. Yes, science can (and if we survive long enough, probably will) explain almost everything about our evolution and the development of the universe, but it can't explain why there is something in the first place rather than nothing. Dawkins argued that it is easier to comprehend simple beginnings to the universe than complex ones, but I would argue that, when it comes to the universe, beginnings are fundamentally unfathomable, be they simple or complex. What "beginning" could possibly stop us from asking, what was there before that? The alternative, of course, would be that the universe has always been here, which is equally unfathomable, as we have evolved in Middle World to think in terms of beginnings and ends because everything we know is temporary.

Beyond the origins of the universe and our inability to wrap our heads around the limits (or lack thereof) of time and space, we can't even understand how the most fundamental building blocks of matter and energy operate on the sub-atomic level. Through quantum physics, we seem to have discovered that a single particle can exist in two different places at the same time. What on earth does that even mean? Do we really know enough about the universe to be clinging to any theories at all? The fact that humans at this stage, with our scientific endeavor still in its infancy, are having heated arguments about the plausibility of God is as laughable as the idea of 3-year-olds, who can barely name basic shapes and colors, having heated arguments about capitalism and socialism. We're not qualified to have strong opinions about God and the universe because we don't know anything yet.

Of course, the late Christopher Hitchens was correct in noting that it's not just what we think that matters, but also how we think. The new atheists are correct in requiring evidence and dismissing faith and revelation for claims to truth or knowledge. They deserve criticism for many other reasons (Hitchens' support for the invasion of Iraq and Sam Harris' irrational animus toward Muslims, as impeccably demonstrated by Glenn Greenwald, are a couple of examples). But their point about the invalidity of religious certitude, particularly the kind that entails lots of specifics about the unknown, is spot-on. One thing the new atheists do overlook is that, for some, God is not some bearded man up in the clouds waiting to torture and reward us over our petty behavior in this life. Rather, God is just the name assigned to the mysterious force they believe is behind this universe; and this conception of God is not quite as silly as a pink unicorn. This world is too damn amazing for largely ignorant beings like ourselves to be utterly dismissive of the plausibility of a higher power. One great agnostic, Albert Einstein, said it best:

"To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious."

Our brains may be too biologically constrained to figure out the big philosophical mysteries of the universe in the same way that your house cat's brain is not equipped to figure out how a TV or a jet engine works. But scientific advancement in the short term and biological evolution in the long term may help us overcome all of today's intellectual barriers. Our job in the meantime is to treat our planet and each other more kindly so that our species may survive long enough to make those leaps. And until then, if anyone were to ask whether a higher power beyond our comprehension has anything to do with the existence of the universe, I think we should have the humility to say: We don't know.