Make some popcorn.
Isn’t this fun? Let’s see if I can get them all pissed off at me. The agnostic/atheist conflict has been simmering for a long, long time so it’s always easy to fire up an argument.
I think it’s a semantic issue (there, I’ve already irritated Larry, who has this quote on his page: “The world is not inhabited exclusively by fools, and when a subject arouses intense interest, as this one has, something other than semantics is usually at stake.”) The problem is that agnosticism is really just atheism under another name (or vice versa), and the dissent arises from agnostics who assign a false certainty to atheists, and atheists who assign a mostly false hesitancy to agnostics.
I think what Wilkins is saying (he’s getting philosophical over there—it makes for heavy going for us feebly philosophized types) is that because there are god-concepts that are not internally inconsistent and have not been shown to be in conflict with empirical reality, he is not going to succumb to the sense of definitiveness communicated by the word “atheist”. He also places an emphasis on logical possibilities that are given some weight because he’s not going to assume the methodological biases of atheists and scientists are correct.
Sure. He’s right. We can’t disprove all ideas about god, and when Dawkins talks about probabilities, he’s applying scientific presuppositions about the way the universe works to estimate them, so it’s a little bit circular.
My rebuttal, though, is that any atheist who thinks about this stuff feels exactly the same way—we acknowledge the possibilities, leave open the chance that there is some weird cosmic thing-a-ma-jig, and openly admit that we are demanding evidence for it before will give it any credence. Wilkins errs, I think, in asserting that some kind of certainty lies at the heart of any kind of thoughtful atheism. It doesn’t—it’s indistinguishable from what he’s saying about agnosticism.
It’s simpler. I don’t believe in a god, therefore I’m an atheist. Wilkins says he doesn’t believe in a god, but he says he’s not an atheist…but it’s because he’s rejecting a collection of presuppositions he holds about atheists. He’s draping the terms with a lot of philosophical baggage that just doesn’t apply—if you don’t believe, you’re an atheist—and making the mistake of thinking that declaring yourself an atheist immediately closes off serious thinking about what it all means. It doesn’t.
Wilkins probably likes tangling up the terms in all that baggage, since that’s an occupational hazard for him, so go ahead and split hairs over the semantics. The bottom line, though, is that he and I don’t believe in gods, and we’d both get burned at the stake if we made the mistake of admitting that in a medieval culture. It’s all the same. My views on the matter are probably darn close to Wilkins’, but I choose to use the term with historical priority and less operational ambiguity, is all.