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The problem with atheism and agnosticism

December 12, 2010

I’ve been a huge fan of defining atheism as the lack of belief in deities, and in defining agnosticism (as it applies theologically) to the lack of knowledge in the existence of deities. This allows for fun venn diagrams on the kind of atheist or theist that people claim to be (agnostic atheist? gnostic theist? etc.,), and doesn’t everyone love fun venn diagrams?

…but…it also causes a lot of confusion. Most people just don’t use the words in that way.

On a private message board, the topic reared its ugly head again. The topic title: “People who claim to be “just agnostic”: why aren’t you atheists?”

(Notwithstanding what my answer would have been: i.e., “Because they may be theists!”)…Eventually, there was one poster who responded thusly:

“Atheism, in general, the critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or spiritual beings…. Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God.
-Encyclopedia Brittanica

“atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. So an atheist is someone who disbelieves in God”
-Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“It’s true that I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I’m an atheist”
-Albert Camus

“An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.”
-Carl Sagan

How about a compromise. You guys can keep calling your selves agnostic-atheists or whatever you want, While myself and 99 percent of the people who use the term go with the definition that dictionaries, encyclopedias, philosophers and scientists use.

While I wasn’t all that excited about the quote-mining (it’s nearly as bad as when atheists argue, “but the second definition of an atheist in a dictionary is disbelief.” And x, y, and z person also use this definition! Clearly, the dictionary [and other authorities] is not compelling and may not reflect how words are used in a daily sense), what got me was the “compromise.”

Even in a semantic war,  the fact is that the vast majority of the people are not going to be able to understand (and will probably not adopt) this particular system of agnosticism and atheism. At the very least, even if most atheists use this framework for defining atheism from agnosticism and theism, the problem is that most self-proclaimed agnostics and theists don’t, and atheists are outnumbered. (99% to 1%? I don’t know. But it’s not pretty.)

So, for a person to declare himself an atheist will require constant clarification and correction — because he can be sure that the person he is talking to will interpret his words different than how he interprets them. (I’ve written about this elsewhere. To summarize: if you can reasonably expect someone to take your definition of a word in a different way than you intend, then are you being honest if you do not clarify your different usage of the word?)

For me, there have been several times that when I haven’t clarified up front, I’ve been misinterpreted…and that misinterpretation has inevitably required the clarification anyway. At the end of the day, people always conclude: “…So you’re really just an agnostic.”

…So, I’m really just an agnostic?

In the past few weeks, I’ve been having some discussions with “just agnostics” that make me appreciate the distinction between them and myself. I’m not at the point of saying that the framework is broken and they are a “third” option to atheism and theism (or, that if they are a third option, the three-option model is the one that has been previously established…you know: “believe in god” for theism, “neither believe god exists nor believe god does not exists” for agnosticism, and “believe god does not exist” for atheism.)

Rather, this contingent of people seem to be that which truly sits on a fence…not in the sense of there being an actual fence to sit on, but in the sense of having six reasons for theism, half a dozen reasons for atheism. On the one hand, here are several deficiencies of theism they not. On the other hand, here are several significant horrors they find within atheism. In the balancing of the strengths and weaknesses they perceive, there is no decisive argument either way.

In this way, they are not only agnostic about whether god exists, but they are agnostic about whether they do or do not believe god exists.

I’ve thought this is a confused position. How can you not know whether you believe or do not believe? (If you don’t know you believe, that’s probably a sign you don’t believe, I have said.) But these people willingly admit that they are confused, so why not take a confused position?

I don’t think I’m in that boat. So, I would have to say I’m not “just agnostic.”

But I also don’t claim to believe god doesn’t exist. I don’t believe he/she/it/they do/es. I don’t believe he/she/it/they do/es not. I can’t even process what the term is supposed to mean in real life (which is why, unfortunately, reading testimonies, reading scriptures, and reading about miracles and the priesthood and this and that….all of these often feel like reading fantasy — sometimes it sounds really nice, but what kills the entire endeavor for me is the fact that I just can’t get absorbed into it. It doesn’t have any applicability for me. That universe is parallel to mine, and never intersects…)

That is what is so strange with talking to theists who have had really big spiritual experiences. I have to take for granted that they’ve had some kind of monumental experience, but I have absolutely no framework of reference for talking about it. (I understand other atheists, and especially other ex-Mormon atheists, differ…since they came from a position of having these spiritual experience and then over time ceasing to attribute it/them to deity.) I don’t think my life is dull/drab/mundane/boring, but then again, if it were, I can’t say I’d know what I was missing out on.

I think trying drugs or trying the God helmet would be interesting to see what it was all about.


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  1. So, for a person to declare himself an atheist will require constant clarification and correction — because he can be sure that the person he is talking to will interpret his words different than how he interprets them.

    Oh, I don’t mind having to clarify. Sometimes semantic shift needs a little push.

  2. Well, Daniel, I wouldn’t either.

    But then you have to realize that it’s *us* vs. nearly every theist and self-proclaimed agnostic. And at the end of the conversation, they still may go on thinking we are pulling “rhetorical sleight of hand” or whatever.

  3. Explain to me again why you dislike Dawkins’ framing of it as a probability scale, as in what probability you would give the phrase “God exists.”

    I think you said it was because it assumed that people could actually grasp the probability of such a statement, or maybe that probability wasn’t a good way to define it? Is it because you don’t have an answer to that particular question? I’m curious, would you say that you think that God (as defined by Mormonism, for example) probably does not exist, or do you keep yourself completely clean from forming even a vague probabilistic view of the question?

    I like that framing because at least it acknowledges that there is a fuzzy line between the people that call themselves “agnostics” and the self-proclaimed atheists. It allows one to define the level of uncertainty/certainty they have about the question, even if it’s just a shot in the dark. It seems to me that self-proclaimed “agnostics” are willing to give a lot more probability to the assertion.

    Another semantic problem that annoys me is that it’s always in terms of “God”, as though everybody was clear what “God” is. It skews the questions being asked from the beginning, as though the dichotomy was between “God” or “not God”. The phrase “do you believe in God?” assumes some common ground between the asker and the askee that the askee may not want to grant in the first place, like what “believe in” means and what the hell “God” is supposed to be. The more specific the definition of “God”, the easier it is to dismiss it on Dawkins’ probability scale.

  4. Carson,

    it assumes that you know a probability of God existing any better than you know the absoluteness of God existing.

    PROTIP: The same reason why I don’t know whether God exists or not makes me unable to also claim any reasonable probability: that is, I have no idea what the scales would be to measure God’s probability, to measure the amount of evidence we lack, what kind of evidence we should expect to find for God, whether or not I have the tools to assess such evidence, etc., etc.,

    Ask me whether it rained on December 1st, 65,000,000 BC. In this instance, there is absolutely nothing potentially supernatural involved, and with enough metereological knowledge, I could make a best case estimate of whether it rained. But if you ask me, I’d have to say, “I don’t know.” If you followed up with, “What’s your probability?” I’d still say, “I have no idea!”

    That, as I mentioned before, is a completely natural example. Theoretically, I COULD make a model with educated guess to answer the question (similar to those questions they ask in interviews: how many potholes are in San Francisco? What should you charge to wash windows in Seattle, etc.,), but with the question of God’s existence, I can’t even do this.

    I’m curious, would you say that you think that God (as defined by Mormonism, for example) probably does not exist, or do you keep yourself completely clean from forming even a vague probabilistic view of the question?

    The way you phrase it, “do you keep yourself completely clean from forming,” I suspect you’re putting too much of an aspect of choice into it. Maybe it’s just the way you’re framing it. To be completely clear, *I* don’t consciously do anything. I have no vague probabilistic view of the question, but it’s not because of anything I’ve done.

    Maybe I’m just incredibly crappy at statistics?

    I can’t say whether Mormonism’s god “probably does not exist.” What I *can* say is that I am not compelled to believe that it probably does, and I don’t feel that my lack of confidence with one position (god exist) equates to confidence with the other position (e.g., that god probably does not exist).

    BTW, in this way, I can sympathize with certain agnostics.

    Also, with respect to the meaning of the term “god,” I know that a lot of people like to inject a kind of “ignostic” or theological noncognitivist perspective here…but for me, I feel like even without any particular understanding of what “God” is, when people use the term, there are certain ideas that most people have in mind. So nailing down the direct details of any particular deity aren’t as important as the general concept.

  5. Maybe I’m just incredibly crappy at statistics?

    If so, then that makes two of us.

    I think there is more to go on about whether or not a specifically defined god exists than about whether it rained on a particular day billions of years ago. The specific claims about God are what make this easier. What about Russell’s teapot? Wouldn’t you say with reasonable certainty that it doesn’t exist, without committing yourself to the dreaded zero probability fallacy? If you say it is any object rather than specifically a teapot, then there is less to go on, and it is more probable. Now if you went the other way with the claim and specified the orbit coordinates to within a micrometer, it just makes the claim less probable. Or would you disagree? How would you describe the change in likelihood between the broad and the specific claims? Do you believe there is a change in likelihood at all?

    What if I were to claim that there is a person in the Oval Office right now? Could be, right? What if I were to claim that there was a clown in the Oval Office right now balancing on a ball while juggling cats. Which claim is more likely to be true?

  6. Carson,

    Even with specific formulations of deity, you have to be aware of the possibility that the followers of said deity could be clueless about that deity. So, the incorrectness of that deity’s followers (even his/her prophets!) with respect to claims of the deity is not necessarily a smoking gun against the *deity*.

    I think any time an atheist raises “Russell’s teapot,” the “invisible Pink Unicorn,” or the “flying spaghetti monster,” he immediately reveals an ignorance about deity claims. It’s OK; I don’t know much either…I just know that they are pretty insistent that there’s a categorical difference between deity claims and teapots, unicorns, and spaghetti.

    For example, creators of the universe that tend to be outside the universe, have ultimate power, knowledge, yadda yadda yadda do *not* compare well with very physical (albeit novel), material, limited beings like teapots, unicorns, and noodly assortments.

    Not to mention…I think people misinterpret Russell’s argument (thanks to Dawkins, I imagine). Russell wasn’t saying, “Yeah, we are justified in saying the teapot doesn’t exist” or even giving equal time to both sides. Rather, he was saying we are justified in doubting that it does exist. He wasn’t saying “absence of evidence = evidence of absence” or even *probable* evidence of absence. Rather, *despite the fact that* absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence, such absence of evidence does not give any reason to believe that x exists.

    (OK, OK, I’m wrapping up, I promise.) Finally, this distinction does point out a difference though as I started to address earlier. Although I still don’t know about Russell’s teapot, the fact that it is a physical, material thing (albeit novel) gives me a lot MORE to work with about developing probabilities than deity claims. I know what to expect with teapots because teapots tend to be things created by human beings on one planet in the universe. So, then the probability equation becomes *categorical*: is it logically possible for a physical object created by humans on one planet in the universe to exist, uncreated by humans and outside of the planet? Would that be categorically the same thing as a teapot?

    This extends to further questions. With a given coordinate, we can check that coordinate. If the teapot believer protests, “Ahh, but the teapot cannot be detected with any tools,” then I amend my question: “The thing I call a teapot has observable characteristics. Even supposing one can exist uncreated by humans, I can categorically say I wouldn’t call an unobservable one a teapot. Therefore, the “celestial teapot” doesn’t/(can’t!) exist, even if SOMETHING out there does.”

    (OK, I guess I’ll take a bit longer).

    I see your point about probabilities. It’s more likely for Mary to be bank clerk than for her to be a bank clerk and a feminist (even if I know her to be someone who is for civil rights, etc., etc.,), because the former claim is simpler than the later.

    BUUUUUUT! In some instances, I have no way to put those comparative probabilities on a scale. I have no way with a less specific vs. more specific god claim to say whether those are on the “prob. do exist” or “prob. do not exist” side, or if one is on one side, and the other is on the other.

  7. Mormon God, however, is completely physical. Flesh and bones, lives on or near Kolob (I forget), has a son named Jesus who did a lot of magical stuff and came back to life yadda yadda, appeared to Joseph Smith, said a lot of things to Joseph Smith (a LOT of things), helped him restore the one true church, etc.

    I used to believe it, but now when I think about it it’s a pretty clear no, I don’t think so. It’s not merely that I lack a positive belief in it, it’s that I have found that what I’ve been taught to believe all my life had many logical inconsistencies, contradictions, and outright lies and falsehoods. As much as I wished it was true, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that it was almost certainly not true.

    Now if someone approached me with an extreme deist version of God, completely hands off and separate from the physical universe, I have no reason to believe or disbelieve in such a being, because by its very definition it is unknowable. The question of whether I believe that such a thing exists is meaningless because you can’t even have enough information to even ask such a question.

  8. Carson,

    The issue is we haven’t analyzed Kolob (first), and we aren’t even sure whether Kolob refers to a physical place or to Jesus. I’m not making this up.

    I agree that the Mormon God has other such differences from the classical/philosophical approach, namely being materialist and physicalist. (Although the question is whether or not current science can detect the “more fine” matter of spirit.) I actually think that Mormonism’s god sidesteps some of the logical difficulties of traditional Christianity’s god because Mormonism can get rid of one of the three omnis, the idea of a formless spirit, etc., etc., but then again, you’re right in that it brings new difficulties precisely because of the physical, limited nature.

    Nevertheless, despite the tradeoff, one doesn’t seem more “probably nonexistent” than the other. That still doesn’t persuade to believe in the least that the people who claim to commune with said god have any idea what they are doing, but then again, isn’t it popular to say people are imperfect?

  9. openminded permalink

    Christ! All this probability mess.

    Remember that one story? (probably not, but here it is, from an article about Stephen Hawking’s latest book)

    “A few years ago, the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls. This law was meant to protect the poor fish from a distorted nature of reality, since bent light might show them an odd portrayal of their surroundings.

    Hawking and Mlodinow bring up the incident to make the point that it is impossible to know the true nature of reality. We think we have an accurate picture of what’s going on, but how would we know if we were metaphorically living in a giant fishbowl of our own, since we would never be able to see outside our own point of view to compare?”

    Atheist, agnostic, whatever I am; I’m at least some what of a convert to post-modernism.

  10. openminded,

    Haven’t heard that story before.

    becoming a convert to postmodernism makes you share something in common with many Mormon apologists. are you sure you want to go that path, lol?

    But yeah, sometimes I sympathize. I try to be careful not to talk about “absolute” or “ultimate” truth as much as what I perceive to be such…what I am persuaded to believe (or not persuaded to believe), etc., In this way, I can say something like, even if I have a distorted nature of reality, it seems pretty practical to work with it.

  11. Those who say that “people are imperfect” typically place an inordinate amount of trust in the people they speak of.

  12. carson,

    Duly noted. Or, to connect with something I had said, perhaps believers also believe that the poor track record of leaders with respect to speaking for a deity has no bearing on whether that deity exists or not…even though their belief in the *particulars* of that deity is dependent on what those leaders have said about it.

  13. openminded permalink

    If you google that quote, it should take you to the article. Hawking’s been very we-don’t-need-a-god lately.

    Ha, that’s why I was careful and said “At least some what of a” post mod. I’ve had somebody describe to me how it was possible that someone from the NT era come over to Mesoamerica with NT scriptures and that’s why NT verses are dispersed throughout the BoM (isn’t that one story about the guy who rafted over all the way from Egypt just the most vindicating thing ever?). Hope we were on the same page when I read “share something in common”. I think I took it as “if it’s plausible, then we might as well act like it happened or bash anyone who rules it out”.

    And I agree. If we all have a distorted nature of reality, we at least share it, and so it’s workable for us. But even though there may be unforeseen this and that, I feel pretty comfortable in saying I know a certain religion is false. Don’t know about god, but I can say for sure that a belief system isn’t true (Scientology at the very least).

  14. open,

    I mean, I was aware of Hawking’s general we-don’t-need-a-god thing lately (not sure if he’s getting that far with it, but oh well).

    I think you took one kind of po-mo position that is common, but I was thinking of a different approach: “if we all have a distorted nature of reality, then it doesn’t even matter whether x happened or not because that’s not the point. Narrative > truth!” As I mentioned…to some, it doesn’t matter if Kolob is a physical star God lives near/at, or if alternatively it brings new meaning to the musical title “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

    So, the question of “is x religion true” becomes somewhat irrelevant. Rather, does x religion’s narrative provide support for a community? Does that narrative support meaning and value formation for its adherents? Does that community engender improved lifestyles? Is it a useful enough fishbowl?

    To that extent, I think Scientology still scares the thetans out of me. That seems to be a pretty toxic community.

  15. openminded permalink

    Ha, oh god. That type. Why haven’t I come across that type yet?

    Maybe I need to take a break from Mormanity (ever visit good ‘ol Jeff Lindsay’s blog?).

    It’d be pretty refreshing to hear a Mormon say “I know, it’s completely ridiculous. But what do you think about the community?”

    As for Scientology, at least there’s the South Park episode!

  16. You just need to expand your horizons, man. Mormanity is just one sliver of the bloggernacle (and quite different than the other contingents I’m talking about). Yes, this religion is a big tent indeed, I guess…

    and still, why things *aren’t* refreshing is because most people who are taking this position don’t say, “I know, it’s completely ridiculous…but what do you think about the community?”

    Instead, they phrase it in a far more irksome way. “It’s not ridiculous; it was always about community/narrative. You’re just less nuanced/in a lower stage of faith/less informed, etc.,” People literally say, “I don’t have a testimony of the history — I have a testimony of the gospel.” To an extent, I understand what they are saying here…but to another extent, it’s frustrating because the church gospel includes historical claims. How can someone say, “I do not have faith in the history, but I have faith in spiritual claims which most people consider to be wrapped up in historical claims”?

    That’s probably the most frustrating thing. When someone says, “I believe the church is true,” you don’t know what they mean. Do they mean the church as is taught in Sunday School and General Conference is true? Do they mean that the church in a more nuanced and history-aware sense is true? Do they mean the Church is true (but the people are not)? Or do they mean that the community/narrative is *good* and *helpful* and they are using those as a proxy for “truth”.

    I think at the various sites, you can find people who take EACH position.

    I for one have like the Mormon episode(s) on South Park. IN FACT, as I wrote before, I think the All about the Mormons episode REALLY highlights the position, “I know it’s completely ridiculous — BUT DAT COMMUNITY” (and that’s probably the most refreshing, but unrealistic thing about it.)

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