Thursday, October 6, 2016


If anyone asks me if there is a god, for decades my honest answer has been, “No, I’m an atheist.”  However, having spent the last few years trying to articulate my point of view in this blog, I have come to the conclusion that I need to modify my answer—slightly.

Let me explain by first briefly noting the difference between agnosticism and atheism.  As I have said previously, agnosticism is about knowledge, while atheism is about belief.  When I say that I am an agnostic, I mean that in my opinion we do not know whether or not there is a god.  When I say that I am an atheist, I mean that I do not believe personally that a god exists.  

Beliefs are not necessarily rational.  Often they are not.  They are simply what one accepts as true.  That is not to say that they are purely arbitrary.  They have causes and many times those causes are discoverable.  And I have spent a good deal of time trying to understand the origins of my personal beliefs, particularly regarding the question of whether there is a god.  It has been a rewarding exercise, one that I would highly recommend to others.

OK, so where do I stand on atheism?  Now my answer is, “That might depend.  What kind of god are you talking about?  What do you mean by god?”

If we are speaking of a theistic, personal god who not only was responsible for creation but who continues to have an interest in the world and who intervenes in human affairs, then my answer is still a firm No.  I do not believe in such a god.  There simply is no credible objective evidence for the existence of such a god.  

If, on the other hand, we are talking about some deistic agency that was responsible for the creation of the universe but that has no ongoing involvement in the world, then I neither believe nor disbelieve in such an agency.  I could see it either way.  

Why this ambivalence?  Frankly, I remain puzzled by the fact that anything at all exists.  I am not troubled by the fact that the universe appears to have characteristics compatible with life, the so-called anthropic or goldilocks principle.  Nor am I troubled by the fact that the universe appears to have begun some 14 billion years ago with a big bang.  The cosmological explanations for these states of affairs are enough to satisfy my rank layman sensibilities without positing some sort of creator.  What does trouble me though is why anything exists at all.  I don’t just mean in terms of there being particles and forces; I mean in terms of there being space and time.  A number of secular cosmologists have tried to address this question, including Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing and Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?  But I have found those attempts unsatisfying.

One more note:  In the above characterization I used the word “agency.”  That is because once we abandon the notion of a theistic, interactive god, it isn’t entirely clear what the term “god” might encompass.  It could mean an intelligence that set things into motion but that simply is no longer interested—or maybe is no longer even there.  It could mean an intelligent society that set things up as a sort of experiment.  It could even mean that we and our universe are simply a computer simulation, a la The Matrix.  

In terms of the consequences for us, these alternative possibilities don’t really matter.  Whether our world is self-created or was created as a now forgotten experiment or simply as a computer simulation, it is what we have, and we each retain the opportunity to create our own personal meaning within the context of that reality.

© 2016 John M. Phillips


  1. John, That s so well written. At least now you are mulling things over in your mind.

  2. That's probably the best delineation between agnosticism and atheism I've seen.

    1. Thanks, Caleb. I don't know if you checked out one of my earlier posts in which I went into a bit more detail on the distinction.