I used to think that agnosticism was the only intellectually defensible position on the existence of gods. Chances are, so did you. It was a popular idea. We can’t know that there isn’t a god, so we ought to be open-minded, right? I always leaned heavily toward atheism but I’d say that while I called myself an atheist this was a matter of convenience and I was technically agnostic; just as near to atheism as made no difference. Richard Dawkins makes the same point in The God Delusion; he rates himself as a 6 on a scale of 1 to 7 where 7 is someone entirely convinced that there’s no god.
On Richard’s part, this is likely a display of bending over backwards to display apparent intellectual rigour. We need to be ‘agnostic’ about everything, of course, It’s important that we accept things only provisionally and change our minds if the evidence says we should.
But the fact is that we don’t say we’re teapot- or unicorn-agnostic. It would never occur to us to say that we don’t believe in elves. But the dice are loaded when we talk about gods. Suddenly we have to justify our lack of belief in something that obviously doesn’t exist.
Russell explained this pretty clearly in the 50s and he wasn’t the first, but the notion has proved hard to let go of. We can dismiss other fanciful notions out of hand but we have to apply undue intellectual rigour to the equally foolish idea of god?
It’s disturbing that god has become the default position even among us atheists, but that’s where we are.
I’m an atheist now. I’m a 7 on Richard’s scale. I don’t believe in any gods and I don’t think there’s any evidence that could convince me that any exist. We need to stop apologising for not believing in bullshit.
And that’s what the furore about new atheism was and continues to be: some people – even some atheists – think we should apologise for not believing in things that are obviously not true. It still amazes me that the default answer is god rather than, say, no god.