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My agnostic testimony

January 7, 2011

XKCD AtheistsFor the most part, I don’t really buy the semantic system where “agnosticism” is a concept mutually exclusive to “atheism” or “theism.” (Although interestingly enough, once upon a time I did. I’ve found an early post of mine on a message board I  visit where I nonchalantly claim, “Agnosticism FTW…it’s the most logical choice.” This comment was written in a topic whose title was: “Religion is stupid, but so is atheism.” So….)

At some point, I realized that in the few testimonies I bore (especially one at Youth Conference), the phrase that was making the room deadly silent (hidden around sentences about enjoying the practical parts of church) was: “I don’t really believe in God.” At some point, alone, I said the sentence without the really and only then did I realize what I was (really) saying: “I don’t believe in God.” And I gasped: I’ve been saying I’m an atheist all along and I haven’t realized it.

I know people will say, “Well, no, atheists positively reject god. They believe god does not exist, not just do not believe he doesn’t exist.” And didn’t I once think that way too, since I thought so poorly of atheism?

And yet, there I was, with the impression that my nonbelief made me an atheist, not just an agnostic.

Since then, I’ve talked to self-professed “just agnostics” who try to impress upon me how they are neither theist nor atheist. How they neither believe nor disbelieve. I can understand as far as they say “I neither believe there is a god nor believe there is not,” because I think, “Me too!” but then, I don’t know how they follow up by saying, “I neither believe nor disbelieve there is a god.” How can one neither believe nor not believe in something? What middle option is there?

I get that a lot of people define “disbelieve” to mean “believe the opposite claim” (notwithstanding what seems to be a pretty straightforward definition), and so they take atheism solely to mean the belief that there is no god, because without a distinguished definition of “disbelief,” the alternative definitions lose any distinction. So, when they say, “I neither believe nor disbelieve,” they are asserting, “I neither believe there is or believe there isn’t.”

…but that’s semantics. Over time, I’ve come to realize that language isn’t quite as prescriptive as I thought. It changes; it is political; it aims to persuade. And in any case, some people try to say that their “withholding a position” is still different from “not believing”.

And notwithstanding the definitions that people use, and however much I agree or disagree with them, I find that there are some lines of reasoning that certain people who identify in certain ways use. These different lines of reasoning give me some way to classify them in contrast to me.

I can see now, for example, that even if I don’t necessarily agree that “agnostic” should be a term mutually exclusive to atheism or theism, many self-professed “just agnostics” have a way at looking at things or asking questions that never occur to me. Like ID_v_EGO on twitter; many of his tweets seem to me to be contrarian, and I wonder why. But then I realize that he’s really gripping with what he feels are inadequacies with both “sides” — theism and atheism. For the most part, I recognize many of his issues with theism (so I won’t list them), but in addition, he has a distinct…awareness? appreciation?… of consciousness and qualia and identity that he can’t quite mentally incorporate with materialistic reductionism that seems to be gaining steam. (He tweeted once,  “Once you get past the necessary assumption that you don’t exist, materialistic reductionism is pretty easy to swallow.” I started following him because earlier on, he tweeted something about how if he became an atheist, he would live nihilistically, only for himself — and I was curious as to why he believed atheism or materialism or anything else required nihilism without some kind of subjective value projection.)

Many of these issues just don’t really bother me. I guess that’s what theists mean when they claim atheists of “not taking their worldview seriously” or “not taking their worldview all the way through.” I dunno.

But anyway, conversations with him and a few others like him make me appreciate that if there is such a thing as a “just agnostic” distinct from atheist or theist, then I probably am not it.

…and yet, sometimes I get into conversations with atheists that make me realize I’m not all that atheist enough. From a “weak” or “negative” atheist standpoint, I think I fully qualify. But from conversations with “strong” or “positive” atheists, I have several concerns that, like ID_vs_EGO on twitter, the other party just doesn’t even seem to appreciate.

Does God exist?

I don’t know. And so, I am an agnostic by my reckoning.

Do I believe God exists?

No, I do not. And so, I am an atheist by my reckoning.

Do I believe God does not exist?

See, here’s the surprise. Unlike a positive/strong atheist, I do not. And the lengthy explanation forms the rest of my agnostic testimony.

I don’t perceive a lot of direct, objective proof for God’s existence. So, that is why I answer “I don’t know” to the first question. But I also don’t perceive a lot of personally persuasive or convincing evidence for God’s existence either. So that is why I answer “No,” to the second question.

But while this lack of personally compelling evidence doesn’t persuade me to believe that God exists, it doesn’t then somehow double as persuasive evidence that God doesn’t exist.

People like to talk about probability. So instead of believing God doesn’t (100%) exist, they’ll say, “OK, I believe that God probably doesn’t exist.” To this I respond, “But what is the wherewithal for comparing probabilities? How do you have enough evidence at all to even begin making guesses about the probability of god?”

Strong atheists often want to assert that the gods which have been proposed are “obviously ridiculous” like Santa Claus, unicorns, and the tooth fairy. But notwithstanding the vast categorical differences (e.g., novel, but material, natural beings vs. novel, generally immaterial [or, I guess with Mormonism, a finer material], generally supernatural or transcendent beings), I wonder how people get the confidence to assert a scale for ridiculousness, much less the place for things on that scale.

In all of this, the uncertainty doesn’t compel me even one bit to believe that these things exist, but the absence of evidence isn’t conclusive evidence (that is, proof) that they do not.

…I still have some thinking about some things. I feel that an argument out of logical impossibility is a different matter (assuming that we don’t go into that twilight zone of talking about deities which are not constrained by logic), but I feel that most people overstate arguments of logical impossibility. And I feel that there is more to do about the categories of different novel concepts (e.g., in what ways are a celestial teapot different from the god concept? If a “teapot” is something that is defined categorically as a human creation for the containment of tea, then of course a celestial teapot doesn’t exist — because even if there were an object in the galaxy…if it weren’t humanly created for the containment of tea, it could not be a teapot, and therefore not a celestial teapot — teapots may categorically be tied to humanity, but are god concepts similarly tied?)

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15 Comments
  1. Humans are terrible at figuring out probabilities where we don’t have access to a lot of data (are you more likely to get killed by falling airplane parts or eaten by a shark?) However, even if I said that the probability of gods existing was vanishingly small, say 99.999999% unlikely, I’d still be on more solid ground than believers who claim 100% certainty for their god, with not even the shadow of a doubt.

    This is why I try to avoid the whole probabilistic thing and say: When you have empirical evidence, tell me about it and I can re-examine. Until then, I will continue not to believe in gods. (But not to disbelieve in gods.)

  2. Daniel,

    I’m not sure if the only reason the “99.999999%” guy wins out over the 100% guy is because of the margin of 0.000000001% uncertainty. But nevertheless, I think this overstates the believers who don’t claim 100% certainty for their god, and I think it misses the point that any probabilities anyone is throwing around is as true as a ham sandwich.

  3. Yeah, just because something sounds ridiculous doesn’t mean it’s not true — Quantum mechanic sounds wacky to me, but so what? It makes testable predictions that match experimental observations. That’s where theism falls down — if it does make testable predictions (like healing people with oil), they don’t match reality, but believers will explain their way around it, cherry-pick, and keep believing.

    I don’t know what number to attach to the probability of the existence of gods or unicorns, but the more I ask believers for evidence and the less I get, the closer I estimate the probability to be zero.

    I feel that an argument out of logical impossibility is a different matter (assuming that we don’t go into that twilight zone of talking about deities which are not constrained by logic), but I feel that most people overstate arguments of logical impossibility.

    I think you’re understating this argument. It could be a conclusive blow to any particular god, though perhaps not to all possible gods, or the idea of gods.

  4. I think if you answered all three of those questions substituting “unicorns” for “God” then your position would become slightly clearer to me.

  5. Carson,

    Here goes nothing.

    Do unicorns exist?
    I don’t know.

    Do I believe unicorns exist?
    Nope.

    Do I believe unicorns do not exist?
    Nope.

    Although, here is something I wonder (the thing I said I have to “think about” in my final paragraph) How is something like “unicorn” defined categorically. Suppose there were an alien lifeform which appeared to us to be horses with horns…would it be improper to call that a “unicorn”? And why? Are unicorns categorically a claim that only describes potential earth life?

    Shifting things categorically is the only way I could see some of those answers differently. (E.g., if a “teapot” categorically describes something is created by humans, with definite mass and other observable qualities, then if I were to answer the questions for Russell’s teapot — one that lack observable qualities, then I’d say I positively believe that Russell’s teapot does not exist? Why? Because it cannot. If something exists out there like it, it simply is not a teapot.)

    I can’t be sure what all the categorical constraints are around the concept “unicorn”

  6. And people try to shift the boundaries of their categories when they’re on the verge of defeasibility — e.g. Penn Gillette’s elephant.

    You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word “elephant” includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

    That’s in there with all the attempts to define gods that are “outside” science, reason, logic, and so on.

  7. Wow, there certainly can’t be an elephant in that mess of a web design.

    Anyway, that mentions something interesting. At some point, I think that people have such a non-standard definition of things that I just feel like saying, “I’m not even buying the terminology.” That’s something about how I feel about someone saying their heartfelt definition of the word “elephant” includes mystery, order, goodness, love, and a spare tire.

    But I’m not wholly sure if that same thing applies to a word like “god” in the same way.

    To be sure, if someone says something like, “God is orderliness,” then I say something like, “I see no reason to call orderliness God.” (This is especially the case when people say “God is love.”) But I’m not quite sure that this narrows down the concept of God all that much.

    I guess I feel SOMEWHAT sympathetic to ignostic/theological noncognitivist arguments that say, “Look, I don’t even know what you mean by “god” and so I can’t really go any further,” but I sense that without knowing the particulars, there is some generic categorical difference between “god” and “elephant.”

  8. But but but God transcends human categorical boundaries! Because he’s so great and everything.

    I think this is why PZ Myers concluded that nothing would convince him that there was a god — believers had done such a poor job defining the concept, and anything would fit if only you were willing to believe it did. Guess that’s faith.

  9. God transcends human categorical boundaries by being part of a category of non-categorical things..? Oh snaps, Bertrand Russell discovered this too!

  10. If you have the same belief approach toward God as you do toward unicorns, then there really isn’t anything tangible that I can disagree with there. 😉

  11. How can one neither believe nor not believe in something? What middle option is there?

    This is exactly what I’ve been saying for years. “Theism” and “atheism” imply a true dichotomous pair. That is, P and not P. There is no excluded middle.

    It’s got to the point that when someone describes themselves as an agnostic in answering the question of whether they believe in a god or not my teeth start grinding. The answer is about knowledge when the question related to belief.

    I wish Neil deGrasse Tyson would just finally suck it up and call himself an atheist finally.

    Great post.

  12. I think this is why PZ Myers concluded that nothing would convince him that there was a god — believers had done such a poor job defining the concept, and anything would fit if only you were willing to believe it did.

    When Jerry Coyne proposed to PZ that a 900 foot Jesus would be evidence of god, I at first agreed with him. Then I thought about it. There’s a implied assumption in this proposition. Is it really Jesus? This 900 foot freak might claim to be Jesus, but how would one really know?

    And that’s the problem with the nature of this issue. I’d have accepted DNA evidence when tissue samples from the 900 foot version were compared to the 2000 year old version. So at least theoretically there might be evidence that would be acceptable. But we don’t have access to the original Jesus DNA. In fact, we don’t have anything that can reliably be used from 2000 years ago. Certainly not the so-called eyewitness testimonies that weren’t eyewitness testimonies at all, and even if they were would be woefully insufficient as evidence for the claims being made by Jesus’ believers. So, in practice, then, I side with PZ.

  13. I am sorry to post a comment on this old post. (I hope you get notifications when comments go up on old thing…)

    I wondered where you are at now. How has your thinking changed since this post?

    I have found that over the course of a year my view has shifted a lot on this topic. Last year at this time I labeled myself as being a “hopeful agnostic”. I really still felt on some level that there was a god, but I used the term agnostic because I did not feel there was any evidence to support the existence such a being. (I found your point of saying that lack of evidence is not proof of no existence to be very insightful. I had never looked at it quite that way before.)

    A year after being a “hopeful agnostic” I find that I am now pretty much where you seemed to be when you wrote this post. I don’t believe there is a god… I don’t believe it is impossible, but based on the what I know of the world around me I just don’t think there is…

    So I am curious to see what you think now.

  14. Since I am autosubscribed to all of my posts here (unlike at W&T, grrr), I still get updates.

    I think my position is pretty similar to what it was when I wrote this post. For my position to change, I would either have to start considering 1) that there is a god or 2) that there conclusively is not a god. I don’t have anything persuading me to believe 1, and I don’t have anything persuading me to agree with the arguments that would lead me to 2.

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