Sometimes, atheists are called to come to center. This may be from believers: if you simply don’t have evidence that God exists, then the rational thing to do is to withold judgement on the matter, rather than to disbelieve in God. Or it may be from moderates who lambast atheist “fundamentalism” as much as that of the religious.
It’s a fair complaint, so I figured that I would answer it.1
So first off, I’m both a mathematician and a philosopher, so let’s hear it for definitions. “God” will refer to a personal being, who may be communicated with through prayer, who works in history, who has given some sort of revelation, and who has some level of concern for the human species. Alternative, impersonal views of God are not under consideration. Tell a random person on the street that you believe in God, but not prayer, heaven, hell, any scripture, etc., and they will practically consider you an atheist. Philosophers such as Spinoza who believed in Deus sive Natura (God/Nature as one entity) were considered atheists, as were the Epicureans who denied that the gods really interacted with human life. Also, the point under consideration is “why don’t atheists act as if there were a God,” which assumes that there would be a God who had something to do with humanity. So I am not debating whether a proof of God’s existence works (I think some do, and I think that they might simply be calling the fundamental laws of physics “God”), but rather whether there is a Being who can to some extent be understood (even if merely analogically) through human patterns of thinking, intending, willing, feeling, etc., as intimately involved with the events of the world.
So this God, being a personal God, has revealed Godself through some way of interacting with the world. Perhaps as God Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps as God inlibrate in the Qur’an as revealed by the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad. Perhaps through laws and commandments to Moshe and promises to Avraham. Perhaps through incarnations of Vishnu concerned with preserving the dharmic order. We could also go through other Hindu movements, Sikhism, Baha’i. If we wanted to extend the notion of God, we could include Buddhas and Tirthankas amongst human beings and Kami amongst more natural elements.
Now, as an atheist, I’m not terribly impressed by the arguments for any of these positions. If I were to grant that the experience of one group were truthy, I would immediately have to wonder why I shouldn’t grant the same privilege to the other groups. If this person’s experience of Christ and the Holy Spirit is indicative of God, why isn’t that person’s experience with Krishna? And so on.2
But at the same time, the reason for holding to a personal conception of God is because God has personally come down and done something. There is a particular story to God’s interaction with humanity. If I strip away the stories, I’m not left with some generic God whom I have a choice to believe in. I’m simply left religionless.
So I could perhaps be agnostic about Christianity in particular, if I thought there might be some evidence for Christianity but wasn’t sure. I could be a Muslim agnostic if I couldn’t pin down what I found appealing about Islam but heard something in the chants of the Qur’an.3 But there’s no “God” stripped of historical garb in whom to believe once I doubt all of these stories.
Now, each individual story needs to have its own evidence. If you come up to me and tell me that leprechauns might steal my girlfriend unless I pay up $100 a month (convienently to you, their emissary), I’ll laugh at you. I won’t pull a Pascal’s wager (my girlfriend IS worth a lot more to me than that money), I’ll just say that it’s nonsense. If you come up to me and say that God had a string of prophets culminating in one last one in the seventh century, with one last book that has remained pristine while all earlier ones have been corrupted, I have a default of not believing you until you give me evidence.4 Same thing with claiming that God became human, who then died to save us all from some mysterious sin-stuff (which, honestly, is a LOT harder to believe and which has many more fantastical elements, aside from the fact that I detect relatively little activity of the Holy Spirit in its most devoted followers).
In other words, it may sound compelling that one should withold judgement about God rather than actively disbelieve, so long as this God is generic. But there’s no such thing as a generic God who simultaneously works in human lives. And it is far less intuitive that we should withold judgement on this or that very specific story rather than disbelieve until evidence comes in, especially when we have a veritable smorgasbord of such stories.
tl;dr version: God only makes sense in particular stories. When you’ve got a bunch of particular stories conflicting, there’s no intellectual onus to believe that any specific one may be life-alteringly true. There is no generic God apart form these stories, so there is no God for an agnostic to (not-)believe in. Pushy moderates need to take a chill pill.
2Of course, that’s rushing through things a bit. I’m explaining why the atheist shouldn’t have to consider agnosticism, not why they became an atheist in the first place.
3I could even be agnostic about everything, unsure about Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, etc. But at that point, it sounds more like I’m too lazy to look into anything than that I am taking up the virtue of epistemological humility.
4Perhaps more technically, I have a default of not acting on your story at all until you bring evidence. But then for all practical purposes I don’t believe you, regardless of what games my neurons might be playing at.