Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism: Passing Through Auschwitz, the Rings of Saturn—and the Multiverse Hypothesis?

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism: Passing Through Auschwitz, the Rings of Saturn—and the Multiverse Hypothesis?

  1. Jesse says:

    Right on. Theists and Atheists alike like to pretend that the gulf between them contains all possibilities. Such are absolutist doctrines, methinks. But any philosophically informed manner of skepticism has a far larger gulf between it and Atheism than whatever culturally relative, culturally-defined gulf lies between Theism and Atheism alone. What’s Godot got to do with it? Read some Beckett, but not that particular work.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Jesse,

    I used “Waiting for Godot” as a metaphor for what we do while awaiting further information. In Beckett’s play, his hobos talk and engage in other small activities while waiting for Godot—who never actually shows. The play can be read existentially or agnostically as symbolic of the human condition. We do not have a centering figure in our lives (God) and so we imagine him on his way to us (in terms of an eschatology) and must find ways to occupy ourselves in the meantime. In other words, without clear direction, we nevertheless must choose to make what we will of the time given to us.

    —Santi

  3. aunty dawkins says:

    Santi
    Theists might attribute multi universes to a master designer anyway. I really see the great difficulty you have with human suffering I do too and it is atough problem to grapple with if one wants to give faith in God a chance. I don’t think that suffering is ‘good for the soul’ either, far from it .The only way I can rationalise the problem it is that surely humans need freedom? Without the freedom to make mistakes or even to allow the possibility of the dark side of human nature to come to the fore there is no freedom. Without choice there is no life. Without a dark side there is no good side, one defines the other. Competition and conflict define evolution too. These are natural laws recognised by philosophers , scientists and poets alike. Whether you attribute the creation of these laws to God or hazard makes no difference we have to accept them as sure as we do the law of gravity. Auschwitz exemplified gross human evil sure, as have other events in history but that ‘evil’ as we call it, great though it is in magnitude is an excessive outcome of freewill in human nature. Blame God for not intervening but in order for man to be capable of goodness he must be capable of the opposite. Maybe the possibility of evil in us all is what ‘original sin’ actually means.
    I can’t pretend that I think that is a good way of running the world but it is fact whether that makes us as humans grateful to God for our freedom of choice or whether we would have preferred a totalitarian perfection ? Well at least one CAN choose!

  4. Jesse says:

    Awesome. I’ll have to check it out–immediately sounds funny and insightful.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Aunty Dawkins:

    Your points about freewill are clearly stated, and I accept the notion of opposites requiring one another.

    But the freewill argument itself has problems. First, there are two forms of evil in the world (natural and human). Freewill might account for some human evils, but not for earthquakes.

    Secondly, Auschwitz baffles our categories, for the camp system, being burueaucratic, was designed to distribute responsibility, and so make free will (whether to cooperate with it or not) problematic. Many within the bureaucracy may not have known that they were assisting in taking the Jews to their doom. Bureaucracy, in other words, raises enormous difficulties. Who, for example, is responsible for the death of Iraqis and Americans in the Iraq War? The American taxpayer? The person who throws the grenade? etc. And who is responsible for the bureaucracy surrounding the home loans fiasco? Modern bureaucracies render problematic where, exactly, the evil is coming from, and who is responsible.

    Two very good books that I have found helpful for thinking about these issues are “The Holocaust and Modernism” by Zigmunt Bauman and “Evil in Modern Thought” (by Susan Neiman).

    —Santi

  6. aunty dawkins says:

    Santi
    The buck stops at the top I suppose is the short but not entirely satisfactory answer. In Greek democracy the ‘demos’ had a more direct influence but democracy has got a little more complex since then. As you say how far the individual can shift blame to the state for complicity in atrocity is obfuscated by beaurocratic machinery but any individual who knowingly cooperates with or initiates an evil act must be making a choice. Those who commit evil(or even banking mal-practice) know what they are about, even if they are not held accountable, or am I not understanding something here?
    I don’t subscibe to the view that earthquakes, sickness etc are God’s punishment either you will be glad to know. I accept evolution as a hypothesis ,it has to be the answer. Hazard in the form of natural disaster or other chance events, I also accept rules our lives. This does not make me an atheist but a sometime believer sometime agnostic who still keeps an open mind about God.Simply because there are too many unanswered questions. I kind of envy fundamentalists their unwavering but unreasoning faith it makes things very simple for them.

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