Monday, June 04, 2007

Atheism and agnosticism

I know a lot of people who don't believe in any sort of God but who refuse to self-identify as atheists. This used to bug me, in the same way that women who assert their own equal civil rights but refuse to self-identify as feminists bug a lot of women who do self-identify as feminists. They don't bug me any more, though. Self-identification, especially on a position as objectively vacuous as theism, is primarily a political statement, not a philosophical statement, and I don't think it's important that everyone in the world pick up my pet political cause. Fight the battles you choose to fight, or don't fight any battles at all: A person does a profound good if she lives a happy life in harmony with her conscience and fellow human beings.

So, if you want to self-identify as an agnostic, as an "apatheist" or just refuse to self-identify at all, good for you. But what really burns my shorts are self-identified agnostics who jump into the fray and criticize atheists for daring to (gasp!) take a position. We see an example of this sort of intellectual ignorance-worship today in George Jonas' article in Ottawa Citizen:
There's a big difference between knowing there is a God (the deist position), not knowing if there is a God (the agnostic position), and knowing there is no God (the atheist position). Of the three, two debate from an assumption of knowledge (the deist and the atheist) and one from an acknowledgement of ignorance (the agnostic). Because neither the deist nor the atheist can possibly know, they both operate from a delusion. Only the agnostic, who demonstrably does not know, has his feet on terra firma.
This sort of intellectual cowardice is indefensible and fundamentally irresponsible.

We can know there is no God—in the sense of "God" as defined by billions of people—as well as we know anything. I know there is no elephant in my living room—even though I haven't checked behind the couch in the last ten minutes—and I know the concept that there might be an invisible, undetectable elephant in my living room is risible on its face. Good grief: God, according to popular notions, ought to be ubiquitous; when faced with the patent falsity of such ubiquity, theologians retreat right into vacuity. To quote Sam Harris yet again, "Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma."

To say that, "Only the agnostic, who demonstrably does not know, has his feet on terra firma," is to say that only ignorance and indecision is rationally warranted; any belief at all is delusional. Because we cannot know anything with absolute certainty: not even that there is no elephant in the living room. We might as well say that those who believe both scientific evolution and six-day creationism are equally deluded; the only rational position is to say that neither are susceptible to absolute proof and refuse to have an opinion.

Jonas is right to a certain extent in his opinion of Hitchens's book, God is not Great: Hitchens is, in a philosophical sense, "shooting fish in a barrel. Dead fish, actually." The notions of God that Hitchens (as well as Dawkins and Dennett) demolishes are so patently ridiculous that we should be surprised that they are still an object of intellectual discourse. Such notions should—in the philosophical sense—be as firmly in the dustbin of failed ideas as the flat Earth or Zeus's thunderbolts.

But they aren't. Billions of people believe obviously false and tremendously damaging notions of God. To trivialize their beliefs is to trivialize all the harm that religion does indeed cause. Perhaps the author might like to discuss the Islamic tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Perhaps he might like to discuss Christian homophobia with the parents of Matthew Shepard. Perhaps he might like to have a conversation with every woman in Saudi Arabia, isolated, oppressed and often enslaved in strict accordance with the Koran. Maybe he can Google Christian Dominionism"—or perhaps he can wait until the Dominionists make good on their threat that "every knee shall bow". He might even research Islamic imperialism. And where does American imperialism and exceptionalism come from but our Fundamentalist Christianity?

Jonas does admit that religion causes great harm.
Showing that human beings have committed and propose to go on committing unspeakable crimes and unbelievable stupidities in the name of religion, often in the incongruous belief that they're carrying out the commands of a loving and merciful deity, has boggled many a fine mind long before Hitchens's.
His position is therefore intentionally craven: We can't know with absolute certainty that these people are wrong, it's all too complicated for his tiny little ignorance-worshipping mind, so let's dismiss everyone with a position as "delusional".

It is cowardly and contemptible to simply dismiss the component of religion and God-belief in these terrible human evils. Take out the notion that God demands that you do evil, on pain of Hell, and you suck the oxygen out of half the world's horror. Yes, we are capable of evil without religion, but we are capable of so much more evil with it. And religion can never be fully reformed, because it is fundamentally irrational: There is no God (or if there were one, it's taking such pains to hide that we ought to respect its wishes and disbelieve it), no heaven, no hell. There are only people who suffer and die. The obvious religious roots of this suffering is what Jonas so blithely dismisses.

Jonas closes with a poem that "scored a series of bull's-eyes on both followers and deniers of deities":
Burning stakes blossom from the footsteps of Redeemers;
the Qur'an fashions daggers carried by true believers;
the atheist has faith in what his eyes disclose,
the Sufi, in what he sees when both his eyes are closed.
It is a Buddhist doctrine that all doctrines must fail;
the Hebrew knows nothing in exquisite detail;
the Brahmin fears the risk, which in his next life he runs;
the hedonist trembles, for his life comes only once and briefly.
In the great insane asylum of this revolving earth, chaos creates the rules.
There are believing and unbelieving fools.
Wow! Atheists believe the evidence of our senses! Zinger! How fanatical! I think I just sprained my left eye from rolling it so hard.

Theistic ideas might be dead fish in a barrel in the philosophical sense (but then why does Jonas cling so tightly to his ignorance?), but in a political sense these fish are very much alive, they are piranhas, and the barrel is the same human society in which he and I—and you, gentle reader—are all swimming.

(h/t to PSoTD)


  1. Arguing as though, because there are three (ill-defined) words, there are actually three (well-defined) categories, as Jonas does, is nonsensical anyway. As you will recall, Dawkins in TGD sets up a 7-point scale, and that of course is just a more useful but still ultimately arbitrary division of a continuum.

    Presumably you're not "7" is respect of God (nobody with any interest in science could be; Dawkins says he's a "6", although maybe he's more like a 6.5!) If I count myself as a 6 in relation to God, I am about a 6.8 in relation to (say) the existence of the chair I am sitting in.

    To which of Dennett's writing do you refer in your ref to him, btw?

  2. I'm not referring to anything specific by Dennett; I just reflexively include him in the Big Three (or four, if you include Sam Harris).

    A big part of the problem in this debate is the confusion between rational confidence (6 or 6.9) and fanatic, unshakable belief (7). If you just look at the confidence, it's easy to mistake a belief with a ton of evidence behind it for a fanatically or dogmatically held belief—both are equally confident, but only one is rationally justified.

    Even such a godlike luminary as Bob Altemeyer (of The Authoritarians fame) has a difficult time distinguishing between the dogmatism and rationally justified confidence, as testified by his groundbreaking sociological study of Atheists (titled, amazingly enough, "Atheists").

    I can understand a person just throwing up their hands and saying, "I just don't want to talk about it." I'm much less tolerant, though, of a journalist who concludes from only his own naivete and moral cowardice that anyone who does have a confident belief is by definition delusional and misguided.

  3. ...both are almost equally confident...

  4. I would sometimes leave open the possibility that there are divine being(s) on some level, whatever that means, though mostly for the sake of argument. And in that sense, could be called agnostic.

    But thinking further, since there is no real evidence for any such beings, the only logical position to take is that they don't exist absent evidence.

    But either way, I would tell the theists that I am functionally an atheist because while there may be some theoretical beings out there, NONE of them likely resemble any of the various gods invented and worshipped by humans, including those for Christianity, Islam, etc. And really, if you don't believe the god of a particular religion exists, you might as well be labeled an atheist because to all members of that religion, you are one.

    Of course, since I don't see any evidence of any divine beings, the only appropriate label I think fits for myself is atheist.

  5. DBB: Indeed.

    I "leave open" all possibilities, including the possibility that I'm being deceived by malevolent demons, that I'm schizophrenic, or that Yahweh or Allah exists and Jesus and/or Muhammad had everything exactly correct.

    But I have to live in the world, and I have to make actual decisions, both physical and moral decision. So I'll decide on the evidence I have, and if I see new evidence, I'll reconsider my beliefs then.

    Regardless, I'll always take umbrage at being called "delusional" for merely making a rational decision on the enormous preponderance of evidence.

  6. potentilla6/4/07, 2:33 PM

    I think a lot of people haven't grasped ( or even necessarily heard of) the difference between rational certainty and unshakeable belief. They get seduced into thinking that because there are three words there are three referents. Agree about journos, although of course lots of them are only writing to sell papers and therefore don't think they have much of a duty to think carefully and research thoroughly before putting finger to keyboard.

    Dennett actually doesn't demolish notions of God, at least in BTS (why I asked you if you were thinking of somewhere else). Instead, he looks at why religion might exist if God isn't true. (AFAIR he says he thinks the standard arguments against God have been repeated often enougfh and he doesn't have anything new to add). Odd reaaly. Dawkins the scientists writes a book at least partly about philosophy and Dennett the philosopher writes a book at least partl;y about science.

    I wouldn't mention Sam Harris in the same breath. Haven't read CH yet, but the reviews don't encourage me to do so that much.

  7. I'm not a big Sam Harris fan either. On the one hand, any atheist voice is welcome; on the other hand his philosophy is weak even by my amateur standards.

    As utterly and stupidly wrong as he is on Iraq, Hitchens is magnificent on atheism. He's a polemicist, not a philosopher, but he lands any number of solid blows on the sort of religious bullshit prevalent in today's society. I recommend God is not Great without reservation.

    I would quibble, BTW, with the term "rational certainty"; I would prefer to call it confidence.

  8. THE Anthropic cosmological ideas of physicist John Barrow et al open another door of possibility, chaps -- namely that we are 'it'.

    I'VE Often thought that the religious dogmas, virtually all of which grow from individual works of poesis and as watered down by behaviouristic clergy and other early psychologists for the horde, are what would be to us early, or primitive, efforts at what we call 'now' science fiction.

    OF Course since there is an objective perception that semantically the term science, by definition, /cannot/ contain any more of reality than, say, the term religion, I of course should prefer future fiction.

    AT Any rate, from another viewpoint then, all of these gods, goddesses and self-reliant atheisms, all have at least these two things in common:

    ALL Are about ourselves in one way or another -- and all, just like ourselves, tend to function best by ruling out alternative reality-versions.

    THIS Last is probably mainly about necessary limits on cortical function, so that enough human organisms avoid starving to death in raptures and, thus, grow up to copulate and reproduce.

    NEVERTHELESS, Since the perception by the physical (on all levels) of the physical depends on the physical, I expect that at any instant (sic) the whole latitudinal range of perceptions of what is true simultaneously must attain a validity that can only be strengthened and enhanced by any and every statement of meaning about any perception:

    ALL Exists in the same physical field. This is the necessary axiom -- else one cannot with semantic value in cases assert ('any' -- smirk!) statements of /all/.

    THERE Now, do you perceive a little bit at least, of how narratives about truth simply go on and on; and, inadmissible of final resolution within elapsing longitude; or, language?

    RATIO Ratio est.

    Wook, Epistemologue & Aged Rustic

  9. ER...Ratio meum ratio est....

    SORRY, Wookers

  10. Emmett: I think you would enjoy the science fictional speculations about "anthrocosmology" found in the work of Greg Egan, specifically Quarantine, Permutation City and Distress.


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