More thoughts about Atheism, Agnosticism, and Neo-Paganism

February 28, 2009 at 10:42 am | Posted in math, religion | 4 Comments

I discovered something about Atheism today. I thought Atheists believed that there is no god, that gods do not exist. Apparently that is not the case. Several sources agree — 1, 2, 3. (These are the top results of googling “define atheism.” I was lazy. Sue me.)

It seems that Atheism is not the belief that there is no god, but simply lack of belief in a god, usually for lack of evidence. I thought that was Agnosticism, but I was wrong there, too. The root of the word “Agnosticism” is “gnosis,” meaning “knowledge.” Agnosticism is the either the state of not knowing that gods do or do not exist (weak agnosticism), or the view that the state of existence of a god or gods cannot be known (strong agnosticism). Agnosticism is about a lack of knowledge, or the lack of an ability to have knowledge, about the existence of gods. Atheism is about a lack of belief in the existence of gods. (I know some will object to the connotation of the language, “lack of belief.” I am not implying that Atheists or Agnostics are “lacking” in that interpretation.)

I have therefore come to the conclusion that I am Agnostic, but not an Atheist. I believe in the existence of God, Goddess, a Divine being or beings, life giving creative force(s) of the universe, Tao, … whatever you want to call it. But I do not claim to have knowledge that it exists. If I had knowledge of its existence, I wouldn’t need to believe in it. That’s part of the point.

It is just like in Mathematics. Everything that is known in Mathematics is proved from prior knowledge, which is founded on more basic knowledge about numbers, functions, sets, and so on, until finally you get down to the bottom, the first principles, the axioms of set theory. These cannot be proven in terms of prior knowledge, because there is nothing else that comes before them. These are non-provable statements; they are the axioms of set theory upon which all Mathematics is built. (See disclaimer (*) below.)

An axiom is a statement which is assumed to be true, it is not and cannot be proven. Why do we assume these axioms? Either because we feel we have to in order to do Mathematics, or because we believe them!

Similarly, there are assumptions I make that form the basis of how I imagine the universe to be, my cosmology, if you will, and how I interact with the universe and everything in it. One of my assumptions is the existence of something that is, for lack of a better term, divine.

(Side note: this something is not supernatural, but completely natural. After all, I see the word “nature” as essentially referring to the nature of existence, and if something exists, how can it be “supernatural,” or, “beyond nature?” The divine force(s) I believe in are part of the universe, not apart from it. They are not exempt from the rules of existence that govern the rest of us; in some sense they are the rules.

Systems of belief that a god or gods are so intimately connected with nature are generally called Pagan or, to distinguish them from pre-Christian religious practices, Neo-Pagan. So I am apparently an Agnostic Neo-Pagan. Cool.)

These things, I believe. But I do not claim to have knowledge of them. If we humans learn more about the universe that is in direct conflict with some of my beliefs, then I will review those learnings, and I will review my beliefs, and eventually I will perhaps come to some new cosmology.

So, Atheists, I’m sorry about misunderstanding and misrepresenting your views in my blog entry of a couple of weeks ago. My statements about intolerance still stand, though.

(*) Disclaimer: Don’t quite Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem at me. I know the foundations aren’t quite as clean as I described, and yet I still do Mathematics. Just like I don’t know that gods exist, yet I still can have an active and productive relationship with them. I am not so troubled the lack of a tidy rational explanation for everything that I cannot live in the world and do what I do. I believe that at some point you just have to make your choices and act as best you can without having analyzed every last detail.


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  1. Speaking as an atheist, I wasn’t especially offended by your previous post, so worry not.

  2. Good to know. 🙂

  3. All in all rather agreeable, but i take issue with one point (and I am not going to refer to incompleteness)! Set theory is foundational (apparently) to the mathematics that seems to describe our Universe, but category and topos theories may be going a bit further…

  4. I actually like category theory quite a lot. I might like it as a foundation for mathematics better than set theory, but set theory is more accessible IMO.

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