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;Wow! Atheists believe the evidence of our senses! Zinger! How fanatical! I think I just sprained my left eye from rolling it so hard.
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.
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)