One reason that I’m an agnostic (and not a theist or an atheist) is that both theism and atheism have very large hurdles between them and certainty. Theism (for instance) has never adequately dealt with the problem of extreme suffering. It is extraordinarily difficult to believe, for example, that there is a God who is both good and all powerful, and yet also permitted Auschwitz to occur. One can speak of how beautiful the rings of Saturn are, and how a god might have made such a gorgeous thing, or set the laws in place for such a thing’s evolution, but I myself do not know how to coherently make the theistic passage through both the rings of Saturn and Auschwitz, and so, on this level, I’m far closer to atheism than theism.
Still, I think that atheism has its share of very large problems. Richard Dawkins, for example, thinks that the multiple universe hypothesis tidies things up nicely for the atheist side. I agree that it does. But there would be no tidying necessary IF the universe that we actually live in wasn’t so exquisitely “tuned” to making planets, life, and us. In other words, we might have found that the universe was vastly older than it is, and had more rolls of the dice to get to us, and that the calibrations of physics did not have such narrow ranges for generating planets, life, and minds.
But right now, all we’ve got is one universe and 12 billion years.
In other words, if the theist has Auschwitz to account for, the atheist also has to have an AD HOC multiple universe hypothesis (with some sort of Darwinian sorting mechanism of these universes to boot!) to make an accounting for the apparent fine tuning of the universe. In other words, atheism would have never predicted such a fine tuned universe—and that is exactly the kind of universe that we live in.
In short, neither theism nor atheism have small hurdles to account for. As Ricky Ricardo used to say to his wife: “Lucy, you got some ‘splanin to do!”
Cocksure atheism and cocksure theism are both born of a denial of our actual position: We are embedded in a system which we cannot (as yet) account for very well. For example, if science were to definitively shut down the multiverse hypothesis, I think that the case for theism rises measurably. And so long as atheism fails to reasonably account for the fine tuning of the universe, theism is a reasonable position. Likewise, so long as theism fails to account for vast suffering, atheism will likewise always be a sensible human affirmation. An agnostic is someone who simply acknowledges the real difficulties—and strengths—in both the theist and atheist positions, and is content to live life awaiting further information. There are plenty of projects in life to occupy one without making atheism or theism one’s life project prematurely.
An analogy might be whether there is life on Mars. As of 2009, there are people who believe that there is life on Mars, and there are people who believe that there is no life on Mars. Most scientists, however, are content to hold the question in parenthesis pending further information. They will continue to do research, and send out probes to Mars, and may have leanings, but they do not pretend to know things that they do not. That’s what, in my view, an agnostic does. An agnostic has attention consuming projects while “waiting for Godot.” I think it’s the best that we can do for now.