Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Atheist or Agnostic

The difference between labeling yourself as an atheist or an agnostic is primarily political. If you want to take a position of advocacy against religion, call yourself an atheist. If you don't want to take a position — and I don't feel anyone is obligated to do so — call yourself an agnostic.

Leave the epistemological hair-splitting to the philosophers and theologians. If you're interested enough in philosophy to contribute to the hair-splitting, then your choice of label is irrelevant.

There are some bad reasons, though, to call yourself an agnostic, reasons that fundamentally insult those of us who call ourselves atheists. If you say, "I won't call myself an atheist because I don't believe X, then the clear implication is that those who do call themselves atheists do believe X. If atheists don't in fact typically believe X, then you're insulting atheists by attributing to them a belief they don't typically have.

I'm an agnostic because I'm not certain that God doesn't exist.

This is stupid. No skeptic is certain about anything. Everything is uncertain. Everything is subject to revision... even the notion that everything is subject to revision: for all I know, some genius philosopher (or theologian!) will prove tomorrow that we can indeed be absolutely certain, beyond even the possibility of error or omission, about something. Until then I'm not going to make any distinctions on the basis of certainty.

I don't believe that God exists, but I don't believe that God doesn't exist.

This is bullshit philosophical hair-splitting. The only reason to draw this distinction is to say that "God" is always completely meaningless. Now it's true that a lot of people use "God" in completely meaningless, incoherent and often ridiculous ways (e.g. "God is not a member of any set") but millions of people mean something very specific by "God", and they're wrong: There is no such God as, say, Yahweh or Allah, the characters depicted in the Judeo-Christian bible and the Koran.

Honestly, if you take a completely meaningless term, such as "gnort", does it really make all that much difference if you say, "I don't believe that any gnort exists," or if you say, "I believe that no gnort exists?" If you think it does make a difference, you're studying for a theology degree.

Atheists are dogmatic.

If you think having any definite belief whatsoever is dogmatic, then this line is for you. If you think it's OK to have a definite belief about what's actually true, then please judge atheists on whether their beliefs are actually true, not that they have definite beliefs.

Dogmatism is believing some statement with certainty (see above) or on the basis of pure authority. If you believe that unbaptized infants go* to limbo because the Pope says so — and on what other basis could you possibly believe such a ridiculous statement? — that's dogmatism. To believe that things fall when you drop them, that the earth is round, that people and apes (and roses) descended from a common ancestor is to have definite beliefs that are actually true.

*or don't go; I don't keep up with ever-changing eternal Catholic dogma.

It's very simple: If you think 100% of human God talk is lies and bullshit, and you object to lies and bullshit, then call yourself an atheist. If you're not sure, shut the fuck up and listen until you can bring yourself to make an actual decision.

29 comments:

  1. Theism: believing that there is such a thing as a God
    Atheism: believing that there is no such thing as a God
    Agnosticism: not giving a **** about either side of the "belief" argument

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  2. @sorceror
    Exactly. Agnostics are those that don't give a fuck about religious extremism, bigotism and hatred but do give a fuck about making sure their are not part of the atheist group. They do the hair splitting under the umbrella of "I don't know" and leave others to fight for their causes.
    How about "ignosticism"? Before telling someone you are agnostic about god ask them what they think God is and make a decision about that? For example if someone says God is a monster with 3 balls you say "Go fuck yourself" just like an atheist. Or if someone says god is a non-counscious force that is behind the universe you can say you believe like a deist.

    A truely agnostic person would never get out of bad because he would not KNOW if eating, pissing, shitting is ACTUALLY necessary. I haven't seen one but I have seen a lot of ballless intelectuals.

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  3. I think most people who say they're agnostic because they're not certain are actually just speaking sloppily and mean something like "my degree of conviction isn't particularly high".

    I define as agnostic and Christian, and the agnosticism isn't political, it's just because I find my reasons for believing only marginally more convincing than the reasons against.

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  4. Personally, if I found the reasons for belief (or disbelief) only marginally more convincing than the alternative, I would simply refuse to take a position.

    For example, I'm profoundly agnostic in the sense of undecided about the metaphysical/ontological interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, even though I find the Transactional Interpretation most intuitively appealing.

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  5. Well yes, but since you're not a theoretical physicist in your day job that's easy to do. When it's a religion that makes demands about how you live your life then either you acceed to those demands, being a de facto theist, or you don't, being a defacto atheist.

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  6. It's very simple: If you think 100% of human God talk is lies and bullshit, and you object to lies and bullshit, then call yourself an atheist.

    I think that much of it is lies and bullshit, but I think that some of it is mythology and I am not convinced that mythology is necessarily such a terrible thing as long as people understand its limitations.

    Although I consider myself an agnostic, my son insists that I really am an atheist. He might be right but it is not a declaration I am prepared to make without studying the issues more carefully. The problem is that there is so much I would like to know about history, economics, sociology, and psychology that figuring out whether or not I am an atheist isn’t a very high prioritiy.

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  7. Elise: It's nice to see a Christian honestly admit that the religion makes real demands on its practitioners, demands that don't make sense if the claims of the Bible are not literally true.

    Vinny: You've explained a very sensible reason to call yourself an agnostic.

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  8. Ahem. Well this is embarrassing, but as per the latest entry on my LJ, I think you can score yourself a convert, albeit in a "straw that broke the camel's back and probably would have happened anyway" sort of way.

    That said, I've heard similar things expressed by other^W Christians who are far less shaky in their faith than I was.

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  9. But of *course* Christianity makes real demands on its followers! That's the *point*. One of the reasons that I am a Christian is because I believe that those demands are both reasonable and make me a better person.

    I'm not sure I agree with the definition of 'agnostic' being used here, either. An agnostic is not someone who *doesn't know* whether or not there is a god, but someone who believes that it is *not possible to know* whether or not there is a god.

    I am both a Christian and an agnostic: I am firmly convinced not only that there is a god but also that it is not possible to know (in the standard empirical use of the word) for certain one way or the other.

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  10. Elise: You shouldn't be embarrassed about being persuaded. It's the mark of the skeptic and the intellectually mature.

    Welcome to the club!

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  11. Persephone: An agnostic is not someone who *doesn't know* whether or not there is a god, but someone who believes that it is *not possible to know* whether or not there is a god.

    This definition (more precisely restricting the definition so narrowly) is not in line with the use of "agnostic" applied to ordinary (nontheistic) ideas. It's also incoherent in this context.

    How we know a statement to be true or false is intimately bound up in the meaning of the statement.

    The only reason in principle one cannot possibly know the truth or falsity of a statement is that it is not truth-apt. Either it's emotive ("Yay!"), a metaphysical statement, or it's meaningless.

    Reducing God talk to emotive or metaphysical statements does a lot of violence to ordinary language: Statement about God use the syntax of statements about facts and truth; ordinary, prosaic statements of fact are then susceptible to metaphysical or emotive interpretation, with devastating consequences.

    Furthermore, interpreting God talk metaphysically just leads to vast metaphysical bloat.

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  12. Persephone's use of "agnostic" does differ from modern usage but in line with the way for example Russell used the term.

    Still, I agree that if you are an agnostic you should therefore be an atheist - it makes no sense to embrace a belief whose truth value is unknowable, unless such a belief is necessary in order to reason about the world at all (something that many have tried to argue about theism, but the arguments don't hold up).

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  13. A similar extended internal exchange occurred when I began reading this blog. Larry's forthright encouragement and refusal to split hairs led me to be true to myself and stop straddling the atheist/agnostic line. While I didn't know, and still don't know, I most certainly don't believe. Larry was right, I decided, and I started calling myself an atheist. I don't regret it for a moment.

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  14. I am as certain as I can possibly be about anything that there ain't no motherfucking gods. No way, no how. Every single fucking moment of every single fucking day of my fucking life, every single fucking thing that I experience is wholly consistent with the non-existence of any motherfucking gods.

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  15. It would be more rigorously scientific, Comrade, to say that every moment of your life (and mine too) is inconsistent with the existence of any god(s), as defined in any meaningful sense.

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  16. Well, not exactly. All of my experiences are wholly consistent with the existence of omniscient omnipotent beings who simply choose to never ever do anything.

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  17. A being that doesn't do anything is indistinguishable from a being that doesn't exist; in other words, such a being is not existentially or ontologically meaningful.

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  18. As I've said before, I'm technically a strong agnostic/weak atheist:
    I don't know whether or not there was or is some sort of god(s) somewhere, but I don't go ahead and have faith in them anyway.

    I don't think human beings have enough knowledge about the universe to declare whether or not there exists something we might call gods. That said, I have no problem self-identifying as an atheist in regard to any description of a god that has so far been proffered by religion; they're either logically incoherent or highly improbable, given present evidence...and oh so quiet and invisible, unlike their followers.

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  19. I think you should be a bit more respectful in your blog. I do not have a religion as well but that does not mean I have a go at religious individuals and put myself at a higher intelligence level. Your article on agnostics was particularly hard to read because it shows a great ignorance on your part

    Agnostics are individuals who say 'Since God has not shown himself, we have no idea about whether he exists or not'. Fair enough. And Agnostics are just people who do not worry about religion, they just do not have one. An atheist can spend time and money spilling out his beliefs and waging war on religious people while an agnostic gets on with his work. Who is the wiser one here? We agnostics have long since realised that religion will gradually kill itself and till then, you cannot convince people to leave their religion.

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  20. the world,

    By saying agnostics believe X, you are almost implying that atheists cannot also believe X. In fact I've met lots of atheists who believe those same things.

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  21. the_world_in_my_eyes: Agnostics are individuals who say 'Since God has not shown himself, we have no idea about whether he exists or not'. Fair enough.

    Not fair enough. A god that does not show itself is no god at all.

    An atheist can spend time and money spilling out his beliefs and waging war on religious people while an agnostic gets on with his work.

    In case you haven't noticed — and you obviously haven't — it is the religious people who are waging war on us.

    [Y]ou cannot convince people to leave their religion.

    This is simply false.

    miller: By saying agnostics believe X, you are almost implying that atheists cannot also believe X. In fact I've met lots of atheists who believe those same things.

    I'm reporting on what atheists typically believe. I'm well aware that there are a lot of stupid atheists out there. I've said before that sometimes an atheist is someone with just one fewer stupid belief than a theist.

    However... atheists — and especially skeptical, scientific atheists — do not typically hold the beliefs attributed to us by many so-called agnostics, nor are those beliefs necessary for or entail from atheism.

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  22. Also... I show respect to everyone by assuming — until they demonstrate otherwise — they say what they mean and they mean what they say; that they are honest and sincere.

    I too say what I mean, and I mean what I say. If you find that disrespectful, you're a fucking retard.

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  23. A being that doesn't do anything is indistinguishable from a being that doesn't exist; in other words, such a being is not existentially or ontologically meaningful.

    You have obviously never met Comrade PhysioCat!

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  24. Barefoot Bum, my previous comment was in response to the_world_in_my_eyes, not directly to anything you said.

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  25. miller: my apologies for the misunderstanding.

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  26. Sorceror......

    You forgot one.....

    Deist.

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  27. T4T: Deism is indistinguishable from atheism.

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  28. A useful label is "Tooth Fairy agnostic" (see Dawkin's TED talk).

    It implies that, while you accept the logical possibility that a supernatural god might exist, you rate the probability as being roughly equal to that of the person who removes teeth from under pillows and replaces them with money actually being a 3 inch high winged supernatural female.

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