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Agnostics anonymous


The problem with atheism is that it concedes the whole argument to religion before it starts. By defining themselves in terms of their lack of belief, atheists endorse the idea that theism is the central fact of human identity. Celebrity polemicists like PZ Myers seem unable to write about science without dragging religion into it, as though the whole point of human knowledge were just to find new revelations of the inadequacy of religion.

The science pages of the Guardian reserve a lot of space for attacks on religion. But although readers are likely to be ostensibly pro-science, this often isn't a position based on any great interest in that subject. Thoroughly immersed in a liberal humanist perspective, religion is more familiar territory for them. They are much more comfortable with religion than they are with science, even when ridiculing and debunking it.

What science shows us about the universe is uncomfortable and challenging. It's easier to ridicule others who have failed to meet this intellectual challenge, their minds well-stuffed with dogma, than to meet the challenge oneself. For agnostics in turn, the temptation is to belittle both believers and atheists as narrow-minded and feel pleased to have stepped outside these parochial arguments. But this perspective too is self-congratulatory and inward-looking.
People are always keen to define themselves by what they believe. A US agnostics society recently launched a website, declaring 'It's time … time to introduce ourselves to the world. We are agnostic: we respect others [sic] belief and we are no longer afraid to talk about our own'. This demonstrates the US compulsion to define oneself by any allegiance, as long as one is defining oneself. If that allegiance lends some of the allure of victimhood ('we are no longer afraid'),  then all the better. But the pursuit of knowledge isn't about defining oneself, it's about moving beyond oneself to more interesting and rewarding subjects.

Towards the end of 2010, new evidence was found that there may be trillions of earth-like planets in the universe, and that some bacteria may be able to incorporate arsenic into their molecular structure, greatly widening the parameters of life as we know it. Such discoveries are not compelling because they demonstrate the power and creativity of a god, or because they make the anthropocentric and geocentric notions of religion look parochial. They are compelling because they are simultaneously true and incomprehensible.
It's worth contemplating this strange world in silence, rather than trying to work out what it means for ourselves and our own preciously-held worldviews.