Theologically speaking, I self-identify as a ‘deist-agnostic’, which really functions no differently than modern atheism. I live my life as if there is no God. So why even use the ‘deist’ label, why not just use ‘atheist’ or even ‘agnostic’? Sometimes I do. It depends on the situation, the audience, and the level of detail I feel like going into at the time. It’s impractical to list all situations where a theological label would come up, but I’ll give you a few. I’ll use ‘deist’ is social situations in which I know ‘atheist’ will cause unwanted trouble (I live and work in the Bible Belt of the United States). I use ‘atheist’ when discussing particular religions since I don’t believe in the god(s) of that religion. Also, I use the more precise ‘deist-agnostic’ when discussing theology and/or am interested in starting such a discussion.
My deist identity came up when discussing an interesting post about deism and skepticism with Thor’Ungal. I ended up explain the basis of my deism in light of my skepticism. The answer is the cosmological argument (CA):
1. A contingent being (a being that if it exists can not-exist) exists.
2. This contingent being has a cause of or explanation for its existence.
3. The cause of or explanation for its existence is something other than the contingent being itself.
4. What causes or explains the existence of this contingent being must either be solely other contingent beings or include a non-contingent (necessary) being.
5. Contingent beings alone cannot provide an adequate causal account or explanation for the existence of a contingent being.
6. Therefore, what causes or explains the existence of this contingent being must include a non-contingent (necessary) being.
7. Therefore, a necessary being (a being that if it exists cannot not-exist) exists.
Notice the that the phrase “causes or explains” appears multiple times. That is because there are two primary versions of the argument that share the same logical structure. One is based on a cause-and-effect regression back to a First Cause (FC), the other, sometimes called the modal cosmological argument (MCA) is based on a regression of contingencies to a necessary being (NB). The former relies on the passage of time and is problematic for several reasons not least of which is that time itself may be a contingent thing. The latter doesn’t suffer from that weakness.
An example of a contingent being in the later framework would be matter. Matter could not exist without a space-time framework to exist within. Thus matter is contingent upon space-time, which in turn may be contingent upon something else. Tracing this contingency chain back must eventually lead to a necessary being. It only makes sense to call that being ‘God’. That’s why I can call myself a deist without violating my skepticism. The conclusion that God exists was rationally based – or so I thought…
Then I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. He pointed out that an unjustified assumption in my reasoning had escaped my attention. I was presuming that when something is contingent upon another, the contingent thing must be the less complex object of the two. Thus, I concluded, the necessary thing must be the most complex thing in existence. I was wrong. Dawkins used his area of expertise, biological evolution, as a counter example to that very assumption. Simple can produce more complex.
Understanding this, I realized that all the CA concludes is the existence of a necessary being – a brute fact, as it’s been called. It doesn’t actually conclude the existence of God as commonly understood. While he makes this point very well, I think Dawkins goes too far in concluding that the NB must be simple. After all, the universe contains examples of complex-to-simple causation as well. Thus his extrapolation from one example, evolution, to the entire universe is unjustified. Furthermore, his argument only refutes the first cause version of the CA, not the MCA. This is because his counter example is time-dependent whereas the MCA is not.
Thus I see no way of knowing whether the NB is simple, complex, or anything approaching god-like. I remain agnostic on the subject. This completes my theological label of ‘deist-agnostic’. I have found no way of knowing anything about the necessary being. Not only am I ignorant of it’s level of complexity, but even if it’s complex, I have no way of knowing whether it’s worthy of worship, desires worship, or even if it has desires at all. Religions, of course, claim to know quite a lot about the necessary being. Based on what I know about those claims, I don’t believe them. Since I don’t believe in anybody’s concept of God, the label ‘atheist’ works just fine as well.