At least we know what we don't know
June 28, 2010 2:48 PM   Subscribe

An Agnostic Manifesto.
posted by homunculus (350 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is why I switched to apatheism, I don't have time or motivation for manifestos.
posted by mikeh at 2:50 PM on June 28, 2010 [20 favorites]


We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!
posted by Electric Dragon at 2:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [11 favorites]


Like I've always said, there's nothing an agnostic can't do if he really doesn't know whether he believes in anything or not.
posted by norm at 2:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


The whole "atheists have their own theism" thing really pisses me off. I'm an atheist, not because I spend all my time not believing in god, I just don't think about it at all, until someone tries to stuff it down my throat. And even then, I'm more apt to just walk away, bc I find the subject so overwhelmingly boring and done to death that it's not even worth the energy.
posted by nevercalm at 2:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [53 favorites]


The Universal Church Triumphant of the Apathetic Agnostic
posted by homunculus at 2:54 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I not sure how I feel about that manifesto.
posted by Panjandrum at 2:56 PM on June 28, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'm a "Radical Skeptic" now? Sweet! Thanks Slate! That oughta buy me about thirty extra seconds of seeming interesting at parties.
posted by griphus at 2:57 PM on June 28, 2010


I read that whole thing and I'm still not sure if he had a point.
posted by lholladay at 3:00 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have an irrational dislike of the phrase "New Atheist", mostly as it lumps together very disparate thinkers under the heading Unpleasant and then dismisses everything they have to say.
posted by muddgirl at 3:02 PM on June 28, 2010 [20 favorites]


This suffers from the same problem most religious people and even atheist have fallen into. Science is not a temple where you worship and lay all your concerns on an alter to be given up to the great all knowing science. If you view it as such, you are placing a false construct upon something that does not support this type of perception. Science is a manner of forming questions to find answers, not some great monolith of belief. By definition, it is the opposite of belief, since scientific discoveries stand on their own whether you believe in them or not. The basic of science is in finding answers using a repeatable methodology which others can use to build more experiments on to try to answer more questions. Will science ever lead us to know the meaning of life, the universe and everything? No, but people using science as a tool to understand the universe around them will lead to more questions to be answered.

And just giving up and saying "I don't know" instead of saying, really, "I don't care". That's what this screed seems to boil down to. I don't know, you don't know, and I don't care any more, everyone shut up, I need a nap, I'm a cranky person who doesn't like the anti-social atheists.

Sigh.

I know I don't know, I hope I have the ability to know, I fear I do not, and I try everyday to learn something new so I won't be bored by the rest of humanity, which, as a whole, is disappointing in more ways than galaxies visible in the great clusters.
posted by daq at 3:02 PM on June 28, 2010 [15 favorites]


Recently scientists have tried to answer it [i.e., the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?"] with theories of "multiverses" and "vacuums filled with quantum potentialities," none of which strikes me as persuasive.

Well that settles it then, no? This guy is the most least self-aware person Slate has published yet ... oh, wait. Nevermind.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:03 PM on June 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


I have an irrational dislike of the phrase "New Atheist", mostly as it lumps together very disparate thinkers under the heading Unpleasant and then dismisses everything they have to say

Really? Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, etc. seem "very disparate" to you? Have you read all of them? How many of them have you read? Like them or hate them, I wouldn't think it would be too terribly controversial to say that they're extremely similar in their values, arguments, methodologies, world views, etc.
posted by resiny at 3:05 PM on June 28, 2010


Perhaps that was too harsh. Perhaps not. I remain agnostic about your feelings.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:06 PM on June 28, 2010


Really? Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, etc. seem "very disparate" to you?

And joe lisboa had just done such a great job to avoid mentioning Hitchens. A shame, really.
posted by norm at 3:07 PM on June 28, 2010


Has this person read The God Delusion? Dawkins isn't 100% sure that god doesn't exist, but says that calling yourself an agnostic implies that you're somewhere near 50-50 on the question, so he calls himself an athiest.

I call myself an athiest because I hate when people make the argument that athiests are just people who have faith that god doesn't exist, like this manifesto does, just so I can argue with them.

Also because if he does exist, he's such an offensively douchebaggy being that he deserves to have his existence denied to his face.
posted by Huck500 at 3:07 PM on June 28, 2010 [23 favorites]


I, too, used to think I was an agnostic. Before I actually read a couple of paragraphs about what atheism really was, rather than the ludicrous strawman concept of atheism a lot of people assume is the case, including this article, and realized that atheism was pretty much exactly what I had been thinking.

(Hint: My answer to the question of "why is there something rather than nothing?" is *not* "Almighty Science will surely tell us the answer!", it is "I don't know" -- just like you! It turns out that's perfectly OK to do if you're an atheist!)

I think I came to this realization around the age of fifteen. I look forward to reading more by this author when he reaches the age of sixteen and maybe starts to understand the books he claims to have read. Or not.
posted by kyrademon at 3:09 PM on June 28, 2010 [19 favorites]


I just don't accept turning science into a new religion until it can show it has all the answers, which it hasn't, and probably never will.

I'm with him on this, but I don't think it's what atheists are actually trying to do.

Atheists have no evidence—and certainly no proof!—that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

Not all atheists think that either a) science will answer it, b) that it's answerable, or c) that it matters.

And it just goes downhill from there. The bit about the asses is especially unreadable as it seems like it was written by his own ass.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:10 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


such an offensively douchebaggy being that he deserves to have his existence denied to his face.

I deny His existence thus!:

*kicks rock so heavy that God cannot lift it*
posted by joe lisboa at 3:10 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I got about six paragraphs in and gave up, since he's basically beating up the same strawman of atheism that fundamentalists like to beat on.

Myself, I'm not sure I believe agnosticism really exists, simply because I can't find a good answer to "how would it change your life to be an agnostic as opposed to being an atheist or a theist?" Believing or not believing in god- you can totally see how both influence a person's life and decision making. But agnosticism- I just don't see how any given agnostic doesn't behave just like an atheist or a theist, particular to the agnostic. I've met agnostics who gave no mind whatsoever to the question of what a deity might think of them and their decisions, and I've met agnostics who were for all intents and purposes religious people who deeply questioned their faith. I can't find any real behaviors that can be attributed to agnosticism that differentiate it from theism or atheism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:10 PM on June 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


divine hamburger
posted by joe lisboa at 3:11 PM on June 28, 2010


Boy, he sure likes to hear himself write.
posted by Xoebe at 3:12 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I can't find any real behaviors that can be attributed to agnosticism that differentiate it from theism or atheism.

OHNOYOUDIDNT get all pragmatist on us. I concur.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:12 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


What I find remarkable about this article is its power to unite both theist and atheist in affirming its inherent silliness.

It's really pretty painful when random journalists--who don't seem to have read much beyond The Idiot's Guide to Philosophy--try to lecture on someone like Aquinas, or, worse, their own brilliant realizations.
posted by resiny at 3:13 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I clicked on the link because it's always interesting to me how people define agnosticism. Personally I don't have a shiny manifesto about my lack of belief, I spend maybe less than five minutes every couple of years wondering if God exists - not even that, just mostly wondering if I ought to be wondering about it more. Usually I get bored before an answer becomes apparent.

Most subjects on the planet are utterly, delightfully fascinating. To me this is not one of those things.

Of corse if you follow the news then religion becomes an interesting topic very often. I don't see how religion and God are related on that level though.

I'm not Bill Maher level crazy against religion or belief, if it works for some people good for them, I don't want to convince them otherwise. Every passionate argument for or against it sends me to sleep.

Sometimes it's interesting for the debate techniques used but mostly I can't stay interested that long. Maybe because I was brought up super-religiously so it holds no mystery and awe for me.

I like the word apatheism though.
posted by shinybaum at 3:13 PM on June 28, 2010


Sometimes I can't help but wish everyone would keep their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, to themselves.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:14 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Indeed agnostics see atheism as "a theism"—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Wait, who made this guy the Pope of Agnosticism?

I'm an atheist who believes that the nonexistence of god(s) is a reasonable conclusion. It's a conclusion that I came to based on reason and evidence. I could be wrong about this, but I could also be wrong about tax cuts for the rich not curing a recession, and both beliefs are open to reevaluation. Neither are based on "faith," whatever that fuzzy, ill-defined word means in this discussion.

I've known plenty of agnostics who are able to accept that someone can come to a conclusion that differs from theirs without basing it on "faith." They'll be surprised to find out they've elected this guy their spokesman and that now I can dismiss them as whiny, judgmental, and self-righteous numbwits, despite how well we used to get on.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:15 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm starting a new group that I think deserves recognition: Agnostics Underwhelmed by Advertising Supported Media.

And we'll take on everything said by anyone who's getting paid to say it. Who's with me?
posted by mondaygreens at 3:18 PM on June 28, 2010


I liked this essay a great deal. It's hard to say that you just don't know. To me, it's amusing to see people from both sides come in and mock the idea. You're certain that the essay is wrong, because you are right. But what if you aren't right? Where does that lead you?

I guess I expected a more nuanced discussion, but Metafilter is chock full of people who are sure that they are right.
posted by jefeweiss at 3:21 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


R E L I G I O N
(check one)

[ ] I care.
[x] I don't care.
posted by stavrogin at 3:24 PM on June 28, 2010


I think Rosenbaum is mistaking tone for substance.

The "new atheists" can be strident and unpersuasive in tone. Rosenbaum wants to distance himself from this distasteful crowd, and agnosticism sounds much more humble and measured. But atheists do not seriously claim to have eliminated doubt.

For me, the puzzle of agnosticism is and has always been, why single out God as the thing you're "agnostic" about? For most agnostics are not "radical skeptics," who studiously doubt the existence of everything around them and multiply entities without evidence. Rather, they profess an agnostic attitude about God only. Here I invoke Russell's teapot or a variation -- are you equally agnostic about the view that George W. Bush is the scion of a clan of shape-changing lizards? Would you denounce that conspiracy theory as nonsense, or do you piously intone that, although so far little evidence forces us to embrace the lizard theory, you remain open to the possibility?
posted by grobstein at 3:24 PM on June 28, 2010 [11 favorites]


nevercalm : I'm an atheist, not because I spend all my time not believing in god, I just don't think about it at all,

Right after I quit smoking, I was a Non Smoker! I would tell people about how great it was that I didn't have to smoke anymore and I would happily extol the virtues of being free from the need for a cigarette. Anyone watching me would have thought it was a central defining point of my character. That lasted for about a month. Now I never even think of it, if you were to ask me what I thought of myself, non-smoker wouldn't even be in the top 20. Because it has nothing to do with me anymore.

My atheism is the same way; I don't worship at the altar of no-god, I just generally don't think of it all. It's not a core part of who I am other than falling under the broad characterizations of "pragmatic" or "skeptical" which, for me, covers a lot more than my disbelief in a god.

The problem is, for a lot of religious people, their belief is what they define themselves by, and they can't imagine that others don't think the same way. So "no-god" becomes a kind of god in and of itself. Couple this with a few vocal evangelical atheists, and you get religious folk who think that atheist walk around all day thinking about how there is no god rather than the more accurate; "Hmm, I wonder what's on TV,"
posted by quin at 3:31 PM on June 28, 2010 [17 favorites]


Incidentally I agree that "something from nothing" is an unsolved problem. But it's also an unsolved problem even if you believe in God.

In fact, most of the philosophical dilemmas people claim God can clear up are problems even if you assume the existence of God. For example, metaethics can be framed as the question, In the absence of God, what compels us to do what's right and eschew what's wrong? But actually, the presence or absence of God has no bearing on this: even if God exists and gave us commandments, those commandments have moral force only if there is some moral reason to obey them. ("I am afraid of hellfire" is not a moral reason.) A God-derived ethics is roughly as hard to justify as a God-exclusive one. And so on.
posted by grobstein at 3:31 PM on June 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


Really? Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, etc. seem "very disparate" to you? Have you read all of them? How many of them have you read? Like them or hate them, I wouldn't think it would be too terribly controversial to say that they're extremely similar in their values, arguments, methodologies, world views, etc.

Actually, I have. It was for a senior-level thesis course called Science and Religion, back when I considered myself a non-practicing Protestant or spiritualist or something. I consider myself to be quite versed in many aspects of the "debate" on the role of religion in modern societies.

The three writers specifically mentioned in this "Manifesto" were
from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens
Even the author admits that they write from different perspectives.

They are all non-theists. They are all white males who adopt a certain tone (a tone, I might add, that is also common in British theological discourse of a non-atheist nature). That is enough, apparently, to paint them with a broad brush.

(Personally, I quite like Dennett and can't stand Hitchens, so perhaps this colors my own perspective on the matter).
posted by muddgirl at 3:33 PM on June 28, 2010


Personally, I get miffed at the idea that atheism somehow means absolute certainty that god doesn't exist; a shouted, "NO, HE DOESN'T!"

For me, being an atheist mostly just means that I don't play the religion game.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 3:33 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


This "why is there something rather than nothing" question is retarded. Why would you think "nothing" is the default position?
posted by fleetmouse at 3:34 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


yeah what if there was neve rnothing, and there was always something? OMG I'M A PRE-SOCRATIC!
posted by Kirk Grim at 3:35 PM on June 28, 2010


The fun of being agnostic is how much it frustrates purists of any stripe.
posted by emjaybee at 3:38 PM on June 28, 2010 [11 favorites]


jefeweiss, we are not mocking the fact that he says he doesn't know. We are mocking the fact that he claims we think we do know!

In other words, we are not saying, "What an idiot, that he claims not to have knowledge, when we so clearly know for certain what is going on."

We are saying, "What an idiot, for so completely misunderstanding the tenets of a philosophy he is objecting to that he believes we think we clearly know for certain what is going on."
posted by kyrademon at 3:38 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


The "new atheists" can be strident and unpersuasive in tone. Rosenbaum wants to distance himself from this distasteful crowd

I think that's it exactly, whether you're just being sarcastic or not. At its best, religion can facilitate warm feelings and compassion toward one's fellow man, but you certainly don't need religion for any of that. And at its worst, religion can facilitate being a self-righteous douchebag, and some "new atheists" have shown you don't need religion for that, either. If Rosenbaum would like both sides to basically STFU already -- which is what this roughly 9500-word essay basically seems to boil down to -- then yeah, I'm right there with him. I care way less about who's wrong or right in this argument than I do whether someone just is a prick, and in that regard, yeah, often the new atheists and the evangelicals seem kind of indistinguishable.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:38 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I happen to believe that both the basic atheist position (there is no God, supreme being, intelligence etc guiding the ebb and flow of space-time etc) and the basic theist position (that there is) are wrong, insofar as they don't account for all the evidence out there, and they can't account for evidence that has yet to present itself.

Does this make me an agnostic?
posted by philip-random at 3:39 PM on June 28, 2010


People have referred to many things as "god", so it's good for an atheist to specify exactly which gods he is referring to.

Gods I actively believe in:Gods I do not actively believe in because there is no good evidence for them, but which I do not actively disbelieve in because they are broadly defined and outside the scope of that for which we could expect evidence Gods I actively disbelieve in because they are somewhat specifically defined and there is no good evidence for them, so that the probability of their existence in the infinity of possibilities is infinitesimal, and one may save time and sanity by dismissing them
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:42 PM on June 28, 2010 [13 favorites]


For me, being an atheist mostly just means that I don't play the religion game.

But how is that not also an agnostic position? I certainly don't know any agnostics who go to Church on a regular basis, let alone use the directives of some godlike being to guide their day-to-day decisions, moral, ethical, pragmatic.
posted by philip-random at 3:43 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


But how is that not also an agnostic position? I certainly don't know any agnostics who go to Church on a regular basis, let alone use the directives of some godlike being to guide their day-to-day decisions, moral, ethical, pragmatic.

No one is dictating that you call yourself an atheist. Are they? I don't think so.
posted by muddgirl at 3:48 PM on June 28, 2010


For me, the problem with Rosenbaum's essay — which has lots of good points — and the problem with agnosticism in general is that it doesn't question the atheist understanding of what religiosity is.

Most atheists I read or meet, however much they rhetorically embrace uncertainty, remain certain of one thing — namely, that religiosity consists primarily of a set of factual beliefs about the world. This is what keeps them deadlocked in fruitless debate with the small and historically isolated groups of religious people (20th & 21st century Christian and Muslim fundamentalists) who accept the same definition of religiosity.

Through history, countless millions of religious people have been atheists by Richard Dawkins's definition. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:48 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I certainly don't know any agnostics who go to Church on a regular basis, let alone use the directives of some godlike being to guide their day-to-day decisions, moral, ethical, pragmatic.

Like I said upthread, I've know thoroughly religious agnostics. They were mostly too entrenched in the culture of their faith to let a little thing like not really believe all that much in God change anything else about themselves.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:49 PM on June 28, 2010


the small and historically isolated groups of religious people (20th & 21st century Christian and Muslim fundamentalists) who accept the same definition of religiosity.

Can you name a single religion which makes no factual claims?
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:50 PM on June 28, 2010


factual beliefs

I should have said "factual claims" or "beliefs".
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:50 PM on June 28, 2010


It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

How lovely, strawmanning the discussion from the second paragraph.

Atheists have no evidence—and certainly no proof!—that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

Yes, and Mr. Rosenbaum is about a century behind the times on this issue.

This is—or should be—grade-school stuff, but many of the New Atheists seemed to have stopped thinking since their early grade-school science-fair triumphs. I'm thinking in particular here of the ones who like to call themselves "the brights."

And if he had actually read Dawkins he would realize that Dawkins doesn't cop to a certainty regarding the question of "why is there something other than nothing?"

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can't wait for the evasions to pour forth.

Except of course that he's conveniently defined most of the New Atheists he wants nothing to do with as Agnostics. Whoops.

Agnosticism doesn't fear uncertainty. It doesn't cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism.

There's an orthodox atheism?

But I was troubled by the lack of intellectual ferment in the agnostic world.

That's largely because in the wake of post-modernism's attack on certainty, Huxley's contrarian shit-stirring is quaint and Victorian.

I was once called a "troublemaker" by no less than Terry Eagleton,...

Translation: "I'm so cool..."

Quoting John Wilkins: As a consequence of 1 and 2, it tries to co-opt Agnosticism as a form of "weak" Atheism. I think people have the right to self-identify as they choose, and I am neither an atheist nor a faith-booster, both charges having been made by atheists (sometimes the same atheists).

That's nice, now can you make a case for agnosticism as a unique identity that doesn't involve straw-manning us dirty atheists?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Can you name a single religion which makes no factual claims?

I said consists primarily of factual claims. It is my contention that throughout history, the vast majority of what it means to be a religious person — in any of the major traditions — has had nothing to do with believing a set of claims to be true in the sense that we believe scientific claims to be true, and that the people who take religion to be making these kinds of claims, whether atheists or fundamentalists, are very much products of their highly secularized, rationalistic times. Secularism and rationality are great, but they've led to an unfortunate (mis)understanding of what it's traditionally meant to be religious.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:54 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


"I happen to believe that both the basic atheist position (there is no God, supreme being, intelligence etc guiding the ebb and flow of space-time etc) and the basic theist position (that there is) are wrong, insofar as they don't account for all the evidence out there, and they can't account for evidence that has yet to present itself."

I don't think your definitions are correct. What category would a deist or a pantheist fall into?

I'm an atheist because gods are not part of my life. I like to call myself an ignostic apatheist because I find the word 'god' meaningless and I don't actually care about their existence. Like Muslims, Christians, pantheists, Hindus, etc. who are under the umbrella of 'theists', you cannot guess what people believe based on the fact that they don't believe or disbelieve.
posted by jdotglenn at 3:54 PM on June 28, 2010


Can you name a single religion which makes no factual claims?

Um... Scientology?
posted by hippybear at 3:55 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh let us lament the stridency of the new atheists, let us bemoan their anger and their confrontational attitudes. Let us gently roll our eyes at their shouty prosyletizing, secure in our cocoon of not-knowing.

Screw that.

Fuck yeah I'm pissed.And rightfully so! Fundamentalists are blowing shit up, Luddites are running for the school board, Texas creationist idiots are rewriting textbooks. Morons are endangering kids with anti-vaccination lies. Two terms of faith-based pious-facade "Christian" "leadership" have my country mired in two unwinnable wars, bankrupt, and sundered by culture wars fomented by fundamentalist zealots intent on walking back every good thing that progressives fought for in the 20th century.

So, no, Mr. Agnostic, I'm not buying what you're selling. Your manifesto is another narcotic, another easy solution, another go-along to get-along. Fuck that.

Call me a zealot. Call me a convert to the religion of atheism. I don't care. Because redefining your terms isn't changing the underlying problem:

If enough idiots act like the Apocalypse is imminent, IT WILL BE, WHETHER THEY WERE RIGHT OR NOT.

I couldn't give less of a fuck what you believe or not. I don't care if you think Jesus talks to you while you're taking a dump every morning or if you think the Mahdi is selling flatware from a cart by the freeway. I. Don't. Care.

But I DO care about clean air, and clean water, and working for peace and prosperity and freedom. And your little agnostic manifesto isn't helping, though it may make YOU feel better at night.

It IS a fucking culture war, and you DO hafta pick a side. Does that make me one of those obnoxious loud-mouthed atheists? Yeah, it does.

And I'm fine with that.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:56 PM on June 28, 2010 [23 favorites]


"how would it change your life to be an agnostic as opposed to being an atheist or a theist?"

It might not. My belief or disbelief in the multiverse model of physics doesn't affect how I go about my daily business, does that mean that neither of those intellectual stances "really exist"?

I'd say that both atheists and theists have settled, to their own satisfaction at least, the question of whether or not there is a God. Agnostics are either uncertain of the answer, or uncertain that an answer can be given, and (presumably) comfortable with that.

Recently scientists have tried to answer it [i.e., the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?"] with theories of "multiverses" and "vacuums filled with quantum potentialities," none of which strikes me as persuasive.

Well that settles it then, no?


Yeah, that one made me wince. Some note at least on why they seem so unpersuasive to him would seem to be called for. And I say that as a person who thinks that multiverses are the modern equivalent of epicycles - a placeholder thrown in to explain a kink in the model, until such time as we can find a better model.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:58 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Other than this Pharyngula link, I have nothing else to add here. You are welcome.
posted by Splunge at 3:58 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


philip-random, I don't know if this really answers your questions, but I like to use the Easter Bunny analogy, as it is reasonably simple and accurate.

For many atheists, the proof and evidence that a god or gods exist is pretty much exactly as strong as the proof and evidence that the Easter Bunny exists. Which means there is simply no reason to make the assumption that there are any gods.

Now, do we have hard scientific evidence that there absolutely for sure *is no* Easter Bunny? Of course not. But that's not the point. Until there is good evidence that there *is* an Easter Bunny, why would we "believe" in it? It's not so much that we know for sure there is no Easter Bunny, as we have no reason to proactively think there is one. Presented with strong evidence for the existence of an Easter Bunny, we would change our opinion -- although I for one must admit that based on past experience, I don't expect one any time soon.

The unanswered questions of life are unanswered questions, and that's fine. But it seems a little odd to posit the Easter Bunny as an answer to them.

Now, some agnostics have exactly this same belief, and simply call themselves agnostics. No problems with that; I just don't want to characterize all agnostics as being the same.

Some other agnostics, however, basically take the position -- I am undecided either way on the "Easter Bunny" issue. I do not know enough to make a choice between the option of believing or not believing.

That's also fine. But it does, counterintuitively, actually require more faith on less evidence than the type of atheist position described above. It leaves open the idea that the Easter Bunny is one of several possible answers for life's unanswered questions. Now, of course, that's not the same as simply declaring "The Easter Bunny did it!" to all questions, but it does seem to be a little, let's call it, open to faith, from the point of view of someone who classes gods and the Easter Bunny in the same category.

Please note that I don't think there's anything *wrong* with faith, either. It's just not what I like to make the basis of my cosmogeny, insofar as is possible.

But I hope you can see a difference between the idea of the atheist declaring "There is no God!" and the more common reality of the atheist who says, "Why would I believe in a God as an explanation for my questions?" And I hope you see that choosing to consider oneself an atheist rather than an agnostic is not necessarily a matter of certainty versus doubt.
posted by kyrademon at 4:01 PM on June 28, 2010 [19 favorites]


Fuck yeah I'm pissed.And rightfully so! Fundamentalists are blowing shit up, Luddites are running for the school board, Texas creationist idiots are rewriting textbooks. Morons are endangering kids with anti-vaccination lies. Two terms of faith-based pious-facade "Christian" "leadership" have my country mired in two unwinnable wars, bankrupt, and sundered by culture wars fomented by fundamentalist zealots intent on walking back every good thing that progressives fought for in the 20th century.

So, no, Mr. Agnostic, I'm not buying what you're selling. Your manifesto is another narcotic, another easy solution, another go-along to get-along. Fuck that.


...Except that being an "obnoxious loud-mouthed atheist", unfortunately for you, has the primary effect of lending credibility to precisely the version of religion that the fundamentalists want to promote. You aren't really fighting a war with them so much as helping them define it as a war in which there are two sides and they represent "religion".

I'm not joining you and the fundamentalists in accepting the terms of this battle.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:02 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Man, I'm not in this shit to subscribe to manifestoes. Boring!

Rather, they profess an agnostic attitude about God only.

Well, yes, on account of not knowing whether God exists, or if that's even a very good question.
posted by furiousthought at 4:03 PM on June 28, 2010


Fundamentalists are blowing shit up, Luddites are running for the school board, Texas creationist idiots are rewriting textbooks. Morons are endangering kids with anti-vaccination lies. Two terms of faith-based pious-facade "Christian" "leadership" have my country mired in two unwinnable wars, bankrupt, and sundered by culture wars fomented by fundamentalist zealots intent on walking back every good thing that progressives fought for in the 20th century

I think these things are definitely things to get angry about. They affect our lives regardless of beliefs. I don't think it has anything at all to do with how people feel about the existence of God though.

Whether God exists or not = do not care.
Whether other people belive or not = do not care.
Whether they try to make me live according to their beliefs - care very much.

The third thing is not a question of agnosticism, atheism or theism, or how I or anyone else feels about them.
posted by shinybaum at 4:06 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Except that being an "obnoxious loud-mouthed atheist", unfortunately for you, has the primary effect of lending credibility to precisely the version of religion that the fundamentalists want to promote. You aren't really fighting a war with them so much as helping them define it as a war in which there are two sides and they represent "religion".

Tone argument? I suppose it's a good sign for "the Atheist movement", if you can call it that.
posted by muddgirl at 4:06 PM on June 28, 2010


You're certain that the essay is wrong, because you are right. But what if you aren't right? Where does that lead you?

Not at all. I don't think the essay is wrong. I don't think that I'm right. I'm a Buddhist - I have no particular dog in either atheist or theist camps because Buddhism doesn't demand belief in a higher power, per se, unless, y'know, that's your own particular path to enlightenment. Man.

I think the essay is poorly written and trumps out trick questions that atheists aren't actually asking. The "Why is there something rather than nothing?" question is a loaded one - it presumes that theists will come down on the side of Big Man in Sky Brand creationism. His presumption of atheists replacing religion with SCIENCE! is also faulty as many atheists simply don't believe that a G-d exists. End of story. They don't necessarily feel the need to explain every mystery in the world with SCIENCE!, they just feel that "G-d" is NOT the answer.

So, I guess I do suppose that his essay is "wrong" because he's using faulty logic. That's not because he's agnostic. It's because he wrote it with his butt.

Also, things like this: "What is time?" To which I replied, "You go first."

"Troublemaker," he muttered to the woman sitting next to him. Yes, agnostics are troublemakers!


That's not troublemaking. That's evading the question and using agnosticism as a lazy kind of Pee-Wee Herman kind of spirituality in the vein of "I know you are, but what am I?"
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:07 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, to say "Maybe the Easter Bunny and maybe not the Easter Bunny" privileges the concept of the Easter Bunny beyond any reasonable point. Similarly, "maybe god and maybe not god" elevates "god" to something which it is equally reasonable to believe in as to disbelieve in, which is far more credit than the concept of god deserves. I would go so far as to say that it's blatantly hypocritical for a person to say "maybe god and maybe not god" and then believe or disbelieve in any other unproven concept.


Except that being an "obnoxious loud-mouthed atheist", unfortunately for you, has the primary effect of lending credibility to precisely the version of religion that the fundamentalists want to promote.

That is total bullshit. Nobody ever based their belief in God on whether or not atheists are mean to them.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:08 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


jefeweiss: You're certain that the essay is wrong, because you are right. But what if you aren't right? Where does that lead you?

No, I'm certain the essay is wrong because he strawmans atheists off the bat then invokes a Victorian ideal regarding the problem of ultimate philosophical knowledge.

phillip-random: I happen to believe that both the basic atheist position (there is no God, supreme being, intelligence etc guiding the ebb and flow of space-time etc)...

Yes, yes, and we stick our pinkies out in a snobbish manner while we sip our tea.

game warden events rhino: Interestingly enough those religious faiths that are not fact based don't seem to have a problem with my lack of belief. Funny that.

AdamCSnider: I'd say that both atheists and theists have settled, to their own satisfaction at least, the question of whether or not there is a God.

Not only that, but we're evil cat people
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:09 PM on June 28, 2010


Theists: Have a need of that hypothesis.
Atheists: Have no need of that hypothesis.
Agnostics: ?
posted by DU at 4:13 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


But how is that not also an agnostic position?
I never said it wasn't.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 4:14 PM on June 28, 2010


Something just occurred to me, game warden. Would you take the existence of god to be a factual claim or belief?
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:15 PM on June 28, 2010


It IS a fucking culture war, and you DO hafta pick a side. Does that make me one of those obnoxious loud-mouthed atheists? Yeah, it does.

I agree. There's a culture war. We do hafta pick sides.

I disagree. It's not atheists versus theists, as I know many so-called theists who would align themselves with both you and me on most key political issues (anti-war, anti-censorship etc), and a bunch of cynical and/or stupid atheists who wouldn't.
posted by philip-random at 4:17 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


That is total bullshit. Nobody ever based their belief in God on whether or not atheists are mean to them.

I didn't mean that, so perhaps I was unclear. My point in that comment was that the more people who buy into the notion that the debate over religion is primarily one between atheists and doctrinal literalists, the more political power the crazies have in their crazy campaigns. Increasingly, they come to represent "religion"; they force people to pick sides between two sides that don't really represent most people's understanding of spirituality; they are energized by an opponent that buys into their otherwise highly idiosyncratic notion of what religion is. The real winner in any war is always the power that gets to define what the two sides are.

Interestingly enough those religious faiths that are not fact based don't seem to have a problem with my lack of belief. Funny that.

I suspect a lot of the distortion of this debate on Metafilter comes from the fact that quite a few of Metafilter's atheists do indeed live in the small parts of the world, and the small moment in history, when they actually are surrounded by intolerant biblical literalists. The error lies in imagining these people to be in any way representative of religious people. You realize why Dawkins has to travel to the US South to debate them, right? Because there really aren't that many of that kind of religious person anywhere closer to north Oxford.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:17 PM on June 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

I have never heard or read of that proposition coming from any atheist. The whole "manifesto" is riddled with false premises like this.
posted by Neiltupper at 4:18 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


how would it change your life to be an agnostic as opposed to being an atheist or a theist?

From the constant nebulous fog of my panentheistic credo, what matters to me is that you do justice, love kindness, and not be an asshat about what you believe or disbelieve.
posted by francesca too at 4:20 PM on June 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


You're certain that the essay is wrong, because you are right.

Are you even trying to engage anyone here?

BitterOldPunk hit an interesting chord, above. It reminded me of some folks who are so adamantly into proclaiming that race is not, say, a statistically significant biological category (I agree!) or essence who nonetheless miss the point that, so long as humans (foolishly) treat it (race) as relevant, it becomes a real force (usually for shittiness) in the real world and needs to be addressed accordingly.

Like I implied, above, I think the proof is in the pragmatic pudding: if there is no relevant social or behavioral differences in terms of how a contemporary, Western atheist and a contemporary, Western agnostic behaves, then it is a distinction without an appreciable difference. Also: calling your opponent dogmatic is what everyone does. So try to avoid it. Dogmatically, even. Stick to the merits or demerits of the argument, such as they are.
posted by joe lisboa at 4:21 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I suspect a lot of the distortion of this debate on Metafilter comes from the fact that quite a few of Metafilter's atheists do indeed live in the small parts of the world, and the small moment in history, when they actually are surrounded by intolerant biblical literalists. The error lies in imagining these people to be in any way representative of religious people. You realize why Dawkins has to travel to the US South to debate them, right? Because there really aren't that many of that kind of religious person anywhere closer to north Oxford.

Combativeness is not theism's only sin (or its only sign of factual claims). Dawkins may find better sparring opponents in the American South. But he was able to film a long segment of his documentary at Lourdes, where every year millions of people make appeals to a wise goddess to heal their wounds and cure their illness.

Needless to say this ritual makes little sense unless you believe there is some nexus between the world of religion and the world of facts. Furthermore, faith-healing and similar requests for material gain are a very old part of religion, much older than modernism or modernity or whatever.

But I would really like you to take up PG's question: Is "God exists" a factual claim?
posted by grobstein at 4:23 PM on June 28, 2010


game warden to the events rhino: Um, I fully aware that not all people of religious faith are fundamentalists. I don't really care about them. In fact, I usually don't care to debate fundamentalists.

What pisses me off is when self-proclaimed "agnostics" set themselves up as the most reasonable people in the room, usually by lying through their teeth about the philosophical beliefs of others.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:24 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Something just occurred to me, game warden. Would you take the existence of god to be a factual claim or belief?

I would say that for vast numbers of religious people in many different periods of history, including plenty today, "whether god exists" is a question that misses the point, or has no meaning. "God" is a word for something that by definition cannot be captured in concepts such as words. It is a pointer to the transcendent. We all know some some lefty Buddhists and unitarians who understand god this way; my point is simply that this understanding of god is vastly more widespread than people imagine, mainly because the folk traditions through which it was historically expressed look a lot more like factual claims to modern scientific eyes.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:25 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


What pisses me off is when self-proclaimed "agnostics" set themselves up as the most reasonable people in the room, usually by lying through their teeth about the philosophical beliefs of others.

It reminds me of those centrists who are not centrists because they sincerely hold beliefs which place them at the middle of the spectrum, but because they view being in the middle of the spectrum as virtuous- the "the truth is somewhere in the middle!" people.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:26 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


And before anyone accuses me of dodging the question, I'd say: yes, absolutely I'm dodging the question. How else can one reasonably respond to such a question?
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:26 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


gwtter: ... mainly because the folk traditions through which it was historically expressed look a lot more like factual claims to modern scientific eyes.

Yes, and we cackle madly while contemplating our plans to pave the Moon with Starbuck's franchises. To the Moon!
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:28 PM on June 28, 2010


Oh, okay, this is one of those "I have a vague and unsatisfying concept of God that has no meaning whatsoever and like to pretend that I am not part of a small minority worldwide in this" sorts of things. So you're functionally an atheist. Carry on.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:29 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'd say: yes, absolutely I'm dodging the question. How else can one reasonably respond to such a question?

With an answer.

Make something up. It's what we've all been doing for millennia. Or, if you're really down with this guy, have the "courage" to say "I don't know."
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:31 PM on June 28, 2010


so long as humans (foolishly) treat it (race) as relevant, it becomes a real force (usually for shittiness) in the real world and needs to be addressed accordingly.

Sure. But why do we have to address it by insisting they're wrong and stupid? I've seen Maher, Hitchens and Dawkins all say religious people are dumbs fucks ruining the world and it makes no sense to me.

Why not just be cool with them having faith, but not allow it to affect the rest of us? Like pastors in the army were supposed to be able to help people of any faith and no faith, why not just have legislation to say 'yes you're religious, how lovely, but you can't dictate how other people live their lives'.

It's just that telling people they're idiots doesn't usually help.
posted by shinybaum at 4:32 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sometimes I think that I don't want to form my own opinions any more, and I'll just read threads like this, do a Find: for the word "you", classify whether the context is a question ("What do you think?") or a statement ("I'm sure you think"), classify which side the comment roughly falls on in the overall debate, and then pick the side that is less likely to strawman the other.

There are probably more refined ways to do this, but they'd take more time and resources.
posted by muddgirl at 4:34 PM on June 28, 2010


why not just have legislation to say 'yes you're religious, how lovely, but you can't dictate how other people live their lives'.

I concur. We have that policy in place in the USA, at least in theory. That is what the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is all about.
posted by joe lisboa at 4:35 PM on June 28, 2010


Apeimist here. God is missing, or absent (apeimi). Apeimism doesn't claim to know where he is, or whether he exists. This would free God from the problem of evil. It also doesn't conflict with either viewpoint of "I don't know" and "I don't believe." It is basically suggesting that we don't need to credit the possibility that God is playing a selfish mind game.

A supreme being cannot be jealous or angry, especially at those who sincerely declare their disbelief, or uncertainty, towards an idolatry that appeases his irrational cruelty. I would rather be true to a plausible God, who I can only imagine to be absent. Apeimism is also open to the possibility of so-called higher beings in the universe elsewhere, who may be viewed as gods.
posted by Brian B. at 4:36 PM on June 28, 2010


Why not just be cool with them having faith, but not allow it to affect the rest of us? Like pastors in the army were supposed to be able to help people of any faith and no faith, why not just have legislation to say 'yes you're religious, how lovely, but you can't dictate how other people live their lives'.

Because a) we live in democracies, b) religious people outnumber secular people, and c) the number of religious people who want to live in secular countries is far less than secular people and liberal religious people would prefer or than liberal religious people want to believe.

I mean christ, it's not like atheist anger comes out of nowhere. It's like the Voting Rights Act- the southern states proved that they couldn't be trusted to behave themselves, and so the federal government had to take away their toys.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:36 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


AdamCSnider: I'd say that both atheists and theists have settled, to their own satisfaction at least, the question of whether or not there is a God.

Not only that, but we're evil cat people
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:09 PM on June 28 [+] [!]


I have no idea what you meant by this, precisely, but it took me a few minutes to stop giggling at the picture it inspired. So thanks for that.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:37 PM on June 28, 2010


AdamCSneider: I have no idea what you meant by this, precisely, but it took me a few minutes to stop giggling at the picture it inspired. So thanks for that.

If you're going to stereotype yours truly, couldn't it be something fabulous? Us evil atheists have a reputation to uphold while simultaneously looking down our noses at others and saving the world for humanity.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:40 PM on June 28, 2010


Not only that, but we have no songs, we just sing the blues.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:40 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Because a) we live in democracies, b) religious people outnumber secular people, and c) the number of religious people who want to live in secular countries is far less than secular people and liberal religious people would prefer or than liberal religious people want to believe.

I think I must not have written that comment very well. What I mean is, why argue against the concept of God when we could be arguing against the concept of shoving religion down our throats.

What difference would it make if say, instead of telling people their God doesn't exist, we had a conversation about religious and secular freedom. I'm not trying to be snarky, I really am interested in why people discuss the one thing we can never agree on when we can all agree that freedom of (including freedom from) religion is actually a common interest of christians and atheists alike.
posted by shinybaum at 4:42 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Except that being an "obnoxious loud-mouthed atheist", unfortunately for you, has the primary effect of lending credibility to precisely the version of religion that the fundamentalists want to promote.

So what do you recommend? Shall I try to be polite? Should I be friendly and accommodating and hold their chairs when go to take a seat on my local school board to teach my kids about Jesus's pet dinosaur? Should I perhaps stay silent and sit on my hands and trust those oh-so-reasonable and enlightened "mainstream" churches to rein in their crazy cousins? Since I can't say anything nice, maybe I should say nothing at all?

Bullshit.

Every day a kid somewhere in the USA endures pointless misery because she's gay and her family tells her she's gonna burn in hell. Every day another grandmother gets scammed out of her savings by a televangelist. Every day another man beats his wife because the goddamn Bible told him to.

The vast majority of Christians and Muslims and Jews and whatever are good honest people. People who share similar values. People who want a better world. More power to 'em. But whether through fear or cowardice or apathy or ignorance it seems to me that they have ceded the reins to the Crazy People. I hope I'm wrong. Tell me I'm wrong, I'd love to hear it.

(NB: my opinion are formed by living in a Crazy Red State, surrounded by Fanatical God-Botherers. I am aware that others may have a more productive and useful relationship with their believing neighbors. Yay for them.)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:43 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Why not just be cool with them having faith, but not allow it to affect the rest of us?

I'd be more cool with them having faith if I didn't have to answer my doorbell about once a month to discover either 1) two men in white shirts and black ties or 2) a woman with her two preschool-age children standing on my doorstep trying to convince me that I need to convert to their worldview in order to live a worthwhile life.
posted by hippybear at 4:44 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Really? Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, etc. seem "very disparate" to you?

Really Hitchens's views on Eastern mysticism seem the same as Harris's to you?
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:46 PM on June 28, 2010


shinybaum: You know, I'd much rather have a conversation about religious liberty, points of common agreement, and shared experiences of beauty.

But it's kind of hard to do so when you have assholes like Rosenbaum and those who agree with him making atheists into the evil and rude boogeyman.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:51 PM on June 28, 2010


What I mean is, why argue against the concept of God when we could be arguing against the concept of shoving religion down our throats.

I don't really thinking that you can have religion in this world, due to the nature of religion and the history of human belief, and not have religion shoved down throats. I reject as a fantasy the idea that there is some pure, ideal "religion" which is inoffensive and which is carried out ideally by people who don't want to force it on other people or act negatively toward other people because of their religion or their own religion. This is not even vaguely historically accurate, and in fact comprises a tiny minority of historical religiosity; the liberal insistence that the people who do/support bad or unpleasant things because of their religious beliefs are perverting religion or misusing it places the vast majority of religious people throughout history as being unrepresentative of religiosity- an absurdity if ever there was one! It is wishful thinking, and the mistaking of wishful thinking for reality is something that absolutely destroys a person's ability to interact meaningfully with reality.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:57 PM on June 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


But it's kind of hard to do so when you have assholes like Rosenbaum and those who agree with him making atheists into the evil and rude boogeyman.

In my opinion this is a major problem with my political side (left, atheist and whatnot) is that we allow the right, christian and whatnot to dictate the conversation all the time.

I reject as a fantasy the idea that there is some pure, ideal "religion" which is inoffensive and which is carried out ideally by people who don't want to force it on other people or act negatively toward other people because of their religion or their own religion.

No but there are massive moderate swathes of most particular religions who think exactly that, and they are the people I would be interested in talking to about how my country is run.
posted by shinybaum at 5:01 PM on June 28, 2010


As an atheist, here is what I know with certainty: that I do not believe.
posted by anazgnos at 5:04 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I suspect a lot of the distortion of this debate on Metafilter comes from the fact that quite a few of Metafilter's atheists do indeed live in the small parts of the world, and the small moment in history, when they actually are surrounded by intolerant biblical literalists. The error lies in imagining these people to be in any way representative of religious people.

The idea that ancient people were vague spiritualists who did not actually believe in their god(s) seems to have sprung up more-or-less out of nowhere, at around the same time as the "distortion of this debate"... and, IMHO, it has everything to do with that debate, because it's rather clearly a revisionist reply to post-modern critiques of religion.

Too bad it's a poor one. Ancient people may or may not have been religious in the Christian sense, but as far as anyone can tell, the vast majority of them did believe that their religious traditions made "factual claims" about the world, as do the vast majority of religious people today. We have plenty of evidence which suggests that the intersection between "the transcendent" and the physical world was paramount for ancient humans, not meaningless -- papering that over with "the folk traditions through which it was historically expressed look a lot more like factual claims to modern scientific eyes" is laughable.

Why should we assume that what looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and was even reported to be a duck by pre-scientific, pre-Christian recorders is not a duck, simply because modern people also think "duck" when they see it?
posted by vorfeed at 5:11 PM on June 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


From the article:
Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

Because I'm just like all the other atheists, and I worship a certainty, and oh just go fuck off. I guess it's just really hard to put the hash pipe down and actually talk to a few people before you go creating the Next Deep Insight. Basing your understanding of atheists as a group on what Dawkins or Hitchens writes makes about as much sense as basing your understanding of Christians as a group on what you know about Billy Graham and the Pope.

The question of the existence of God doesn't interest me one-tenth as much as the question of the existence of Editors. Does Slate have one? If it does, what evidence do we have? How would a world without Slate Editors be different from a world with one? At the moment of its Creation (ok, 5 moments) did this article look different than it does now? And are there no circumstances under which the Editors consider abortion to be a viable alternative?
posted by Killick at 5:12 PM on June 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


I reject as a fantasy the idea that there is some pure, ideal "religion" which is inoffensive and which is carried out ideally by people who don't want to force it on other people or act negatively toward other people ...

Change one word and I couldn't agree more.

I reject as a fantasy the idea that there is some pure, ideal "IDEOLOGY" which is inoffensive and which is carried out ideally by people who don't want to force it on other people or act negatively toward other people ...

And please note, I consider religions to be ideologies, so I'm not trying to get religion off the hook here, just trying to point out that the big evil seems to be the supreme belief that your THING is not just better than my THING, I need it rammed down my throat.
posted by philip-random at 5:13 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's a lot of projection going on in that article; the author blasts "New Athiests" for being a stuck-up, arrogant lot, and then proceeds to talk about his time at Cambridge and Harvard, name drop intelligentsia celebrities that are his friends, and even pump himself up as "rebellious" and "punk rock" with his agnosticism. Ugh. Arrogant, indeed.
posted by zardoz at 5:15 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Agnostics simply don't believe in gnosis, just read Huxley. All atheists are therefore agnostics by definition, but some christians are agnostic too. In fact, there are some weak agnostics who merely doubt present day gnosis claims, while accepting older accounts. Anglicans for example are not supposed to buy into born again ideology or papal infallibility.

Agnostic has begun being used somewhat more broadly of course, people might say their agnostic about global warming, abortion, or thai vs. mexican for lunch. So is maybe Rosenbaum agnostic about atheism? No, atheism is merely lack of theism. You're an atheist if you don't believe in god, pure & simple.

Dawkins, et al. have actually never said they are positive god doesn't exist, just that the god idea seems silly given the evidence. All these new atheists are therefore well within Huxley's agnosticism, which isn't surprising.

Dawkins, et al. are however significant because they assert the whole god idea has "usually" been used for harm, and idea we'll term anti-theism. Rosenbaum's dislikes precisely this second assertion that religion mostly gets used for harm, and thus term Rosenbaum an anti-anti-theist.

Rosenbaum however missed the point that Dawkins, et al. attack precisely religion's role in the stories enumerated by BitterOldPunk. Christianity should clearly address these issues themselves, but when they fail, they deserve criticism.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:26 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would say that for vast numbers of religious people in many different periods of history, including plenty today, "whether god exists" is a question that misses the point, or has no meaning. "God" is a word for something that by definition cannot be captured in concepts such as words. It is a pointer to the transcendent. We all know some some lefty Buddhists and unitarians who understand god this way; my point is simply that this understanding of god is vastly more widespread than people imagine, mainly because the folk traditions through which it was historically expressed look a lot more like factual claims to modern scientific eyes

I hear what you're saying.

I'm a religion-friendly atheist. (I'm SO friendly to religion that I think, in general, it's better to be a believer than a non-believer: sucks to be me. Oh well...)

But there's a fogginess to what you're saying (or at least to how I'm perceiving what you're saying), and I'd like to get it clear.

Are you saying that it's reasonable to think of God as something completely natural? E.g. God = nature with no extra properties (He's just atoms and molecules and whatnot?). If so, then "God" is just a synonym.

If He's not nature, then that leaves two possibilities. He's supernatural or he's a construct of the human mind. Really, that latter possibility is the same as "God is nature," since the human mind is part of nature.

I don't think it's useful to call someone a theist if they think God is imaginary -- even if they like the illusion or find it useful. I also don't think it's useful to call someone a theist if he thinks God is nature. You may disagree. If so, that's interesting. Then we'll have found the locus of our disagreement.

If you accept what I'm saying, then a theist is someone who believes that God is a supernatural being or force. The theist may not be able to put the nature of that force into words. That's fine. But describable or not, God is supernatural. (If he's not, he's natural, which means he's approachable via the tools of Science.)

The theist IS then making a factual claim: he's claiming that our senses can contact -- or be contacted by -- forces outside of nature. That's as factual a claim as "fire engines are red."

This is my problem with God. I don't believe in the supernatural. (Which is really to say that I don't believe our senses (including our minds), which are constructed by and rooted in nature, can perceive anything that's not part of nature.

Now, I get that you're saying that truth claims are a small part of religion for most people. I agree with you about that, and, like you, I find it boring and misleading how SOME atheists act like that's all there is to religion. But surely, if what I've written above makes any sense, then religion is riding on the back of some factual claims, whether or not those claims are important to most theists on a day-to-day basis.

It's as if I wrote a book that claimed 1 + 1 = 5 and then made a huge, complex argument using that as a foundation. I could rightly claim that 1 + 1 = 5 is not the main point of my book. That's just the background. The book is really about how you should live your life, how you can find joy, etc. But it DOES rest on the assumption that 1 + 1 = 5. It may be tedious to you that critics ONLY harp on the fact that 1 + 1 doesn't equal 5, but, since they don't think it does, what's the point of talking about anything else?

If I was a theist, I would need to believe that supernatural forces CAN exist and that they can somehow impact my life. And THAT is a real point of disagreement with most atheists. (Granted, there are some atheists who just reject God but believe that some other supernatural forces might exist. They baffle me.) If you could somehow prove to a theist that he's factually wrong -- that there were no supernatural forces -- then wouldn't he either have to give up being a theist or continue, accepting that he was being irrational?
posted by grumblebee at 5:29 PM on June 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


My atheism is the same way; I don't worship at the altar of no-god

FORGIVE THE SINNERS, OH MIGHTY ATHEISMO
posted by jtron at 5:41 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's as if I wrote a book that claimed 1 + 1 = 5 and then made a huge, complex argument using that as a foundation. I could rightly claim that 1 + 1 = 5 is not the main point of my book. That's just the background. The book is really about how you should live your life, how you can find joy, etc. But it DOES rest on the assumption that 1 + 1 = 5. It may be tedious to you that critics ONLY harp on the fact that 1 + 1 doesn't equal 5, but, since they don't think it does, what's the point of talking about anything else?

This is the fundamental substance of the Courtier's Reply.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:42 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess my main objection to the Courtier's Reply is that I suspect some philosophical definitions of God are potentially meaningful and useful, but a transcendental foundation of "there is something objective call it 'God'" isn't very compelling, personable, or easy to understand.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:55 PM on June 28, 2010


This is the fundamental substance of the Courtier's Reply.

Well, I think one way a theist could respond is by saying, "Okay, maybe there are some factual claims at stake. But the thing is, theists believe the facts are what they think they are. They DO base their lives on a foundation of those facts. They WILL do it, whether you want them to or not. So isn't it more important to talk about how they live, love, work, etc. than about some truth claims that you're not going to be able to topple?"

I think there's some sense to that. Let's say everyone in the world except you believes that 1 + 1 = 5, and you can't sway them otherwise. At some point, it will become stupid to keep harping on the fact that 1 + 1 doesn't equal 5. Maybe you're right, but saying so achieves nothing. (I know that in our world, there are some undecided people who might be swayed by logic -- and there are even a few decided people who might be. My point is that, perhaps, there's a time to move on from basic tenets. If you think you can have a meaningful discussion ignoring those [to you] incorrect tenets, then do so. If you don't, then quit talking.)

What I wish is this:

I wish that more atheist would acknowledge that there's more to religion than truth claims. And I wish just as fervently that more theists would acknowledge that they ARE making truth claims that a lot of other stuff rests on, whether then think about those claims often or not.

(If you accept something as truth, you generally don't think about it very often. I believe that my wife exists, but I almost never think about that truth claim. I might get irritated with someone who acts as if the only facet of my my relationship with my wife is my claim that she exists. There's SO much more to it, and, in fact, her existence isn't important to my day-to-day thinking. But I'd be lying if I said it's not important. I may not think about it. But the whole foundation of my marriage rests on it. I have a MAJOR area of dispute with someone who claims my wife doesn't exist. We're really not going to have any common ground until we get past that or are somehow able to ignore it.)
posted by grumblebee at 5:58 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess my main objection to the Courtier's Reply is that I suspect some philosophical definitions of God are potentially meaningful and useful

What is a "philosophical definition"?
posted by grumblebee at 5:59 PM on June 28, 2010


I like the fact that when I hit the link, there was an ad for life insurance featuring a girl in short jeans kneeling before and clutching a tombstone, presumably weeping.

Little faith indeed.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:03 PM on June 28, 2010


I wish that more atheist would acknowledge that there's more to religion than truth claims.

I refrained from responding to a similar point raised earlier, but I can't contain myself any longer.

Is it really possible for atheists, especially in the US, to grow up without an understanding of the emotional, non-rational aspects of belief? No, it really isn't, and it shows a fundamental lack of understanding about atheists.

We weren't created whole-cloth, without the benefit of a cultural education that "normal people" receive. Personally, I "accepted Jesus into my heart" when I was 8 - several times actually, to make sure it stuck (evidently it didn't). I went to Youth on Fire rallies. I understand the overwhelming mystery of the Cross or whatever. I just don't find it to be a compelling reason for belief, considering that many people can experience the same sense of spiritual awe from other things, like mushrooms, psychic channeling, and tantra.

Greta Christina is a great voice of quote-unquote New Atheism. Why Did God Create Atheists is a long read, but well-worth it.
posted by muddgirl at 6:11 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ugh, can't believe I actually typed "quote-unquote". Shame.
posted by muddgirl at 6:13 PM on June 28, 2010


grumblebee: Well, the classic transcendental argument for God proposes that if we can say anything about the universe there must be some transcendental framework to provide objectivity, and that transcendental something can be named God. While I'm willing to grant that there might be a transcendental objective something (TOS) I'm not inclined to agree that God-language is the best to describe it, it would be largely indifferent to human concerns of morality, and the whole argument isn't very compelling.

It's my one objection to the snarky Courtier's reply that we don't need to concern ourselves with the specifics of different god claims because they can all be dismissed as a class. But practically speaking I don't feel that my agnosticism regarding TOSes (or should that be TOSers) is sufficient to cast aside my wonderful doubt, so I consider myself an atheist.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:17 PM on June 28, 2010


I wish that more atheist would acknowledge that there's more to religion than truth claims.

I refrained from responding to a similar point raised earlier, but I can't contain myself any longer.

Are you criticizing what I wrote? It's fine if you are, but I don't get whether you are or not. Do you think that most of the prominent atheists DO acknowledge that there's more to religion than truth claims? We must be reading different books.

I hope you understand that by "acknowledge," I mean more than just saying, "Yeah, I know there's more to it. Now, back to the truth claims...." I mean spending at least as much time discussing the non-truth-claim stuff as the truth-claim-stuff.

Of course, atheists should be free to discuss any aspects of religion they feel like discussing and ignoring any parts the don't feel like discussing. But to me, the blah-blah-blah Occam's Razor stuff gets old after a while. If I was a believer, I wouldn't accept it. I'm not a believer, and so I do accept it. It often seems to me as if it's either preaching to the choir or preaching to people who have their fingers in their ears. What's the point?

I just wish that the atheist books would cover a bit more ground. Or just be one-sentence long: "God doesn't exist because ... Oh, just go read Richard Dawkins' book."
posted by grumblebee at 6:24 PM on June 28, 2010


grumblebee: Well, the classic transcendental argument for God proposes that if we can say anything about the universe there must be some transcendental framework to provide objectivity, and that transcendental something can be named God.

I'm sorry to keep asking you questions. I'm not trying to catch you out. I'm just trying to understand what you're saying.

What is a "transcendental framework"? Is it natural or (all or partly) supernatural? If it's natural, then we should (at least theoretically) be able to touch it with measuring instruments. If it's supernatural, it doesn't exist (or might as well not exist, since our nature-based senses can't perceive it).

If you're a theist, you disagree. You say, "Of course we can perceive supernatural stuff!"

Isn't that the crux of the debate?

Before I become agnostic, I need someone to show me how it's even remotely reasonable to say that supernatural things MIGHT exist and be able to interact with us.
posted by grumblebee at 6:31 PM on June 28, 2010


Are you criticizing what I wrote? It's fine if you are, but I don't get whether you are or not. Do you think that most of the prominent atheists DO acknowledge that there's more to religion than truth claims? We must be reading different books.

I think that lots and lots of atheists talk about what you call "non-truth-claims". Greta Christina does. Friendly Atheist does. That's pretty much all ExFundy is concerned with - the "non-truth claims".

I don't quite know what you want Dawkins to say about "non-truth claims" - I think he would argue that it is an interesting but flawed attempt to define the terms of the debate ahead of time.

So now I find myself more confused that when I started. What is one "non-truth claim" of any religion - dealer's choice?
posted by muddgirl at 6:35 PM on June 28, 2010


grumblebee: That's a bit of a false dichotomy. The pythagorean theorem isn't natural, or supernatural, but it is a real thing within the logical system of mathematics. It is something of a God of the Gaps because the argument is that you can't entirely prove empiricism or math without some axiomatic assumptions. Therefore, call the base on which those assumptions are grounded God.

I'm certainly not doing the argument justice.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:50 PM on June 28, 2010


I don't quite know what you want Dawkins to say about "non-truth claims" - I think he would argue that it is an interesting but flawed attempt to define the terms of the debate ahead of time.

Well, I am largely being selfish here. I am fascinated by religion, and I'm a little sad at how narrow most discussions about it are. So I'm not thinking so much about "what's good for the world?" as "what would be interesting for me to read?"

After I get past "I don't believe in God," my stance is that religion is here to stay. We've never had a world without it, and I can't imagine we ever will. Atheism is also here to stay.

Pretend I'm right: pretend you asked a magic person to tell you the future, and he said, "3000 years from now, there will still be lots of religious people and lots of atheists." If that's true, isn't the most needed book "How Are We All Supposed To Get Along?"

Both atheism and religion have had HUGE impacts on the world. So there's that. For a book about religion or atheism to interest me, it would have to deal with the arguments for/against God in chapter one (because, really, there's NOTHING new to say) and then move on to how belief (or lack thereof) impacts people's lives, impacts history, impacts art, impacts ethics, impacts education, etc.

Even to someone like me, who thinks that the truth-claims of, say, Christianity, is complete hogash, if I look closely at the much of the religion -- it's myths, songs, rituals, etc. -- they're staggeringly beautiful. So there's that, too. And then there are the atrocities that have been done in the name of religion. I would like to read a book that, as calmly and reasonably as possible, tries to tease out how many of the good and bad things done "in the name of religion" were actually fruits of religion (was religion a cause or an excuse?)

Recently, there was a debate on Metafilter (I'm not sure where) about whether or not the crusades were really religious wars. Were the instigators true believers, or were they just power-hungry people who were using religion as an excuse? There were fascinating arguments on both sides, and they were MUCH more interesting than "The God Delusion."
posted by grumblebee at 6:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


The pythagorean theorem isn't natural, or supernatural,

I would say that the it's 100% natural. It's essentially a meme. It's a pattern that exists in many human brain (and, so, it is constructed out of neurons and other brain matter). It is a pattern that people have found useful for a variety of things.

Yes, math and science rest on some axioms that can't be proven. And...? Which of them is anything like a god? Or is "God" just a synonym for "axioms that can't be proven"? In which case, we don't need the word "God."
posted by grumblebee at 6:58 PM on June 28, 2010


I really wish religious people would stop telling atheists about atheism, and instead ask them about atheism, and then actually listen.

gwtterhino: Except that being an "obnoxious loud-mouthed atheist", unfortunately for you, has the primary effect of lending credibility to precisely the version of religion that the fundamentalists want to promote.

Yeah, the civil rights movement, women's lib, and gay acceptance all got stuff done nice and quiet-like.

BOPunk: The vast majority of Christians and Muslims and Jews and whatever are good honest people. People who share similar values. People who want a better world. More power to 'em. But whether through fear or cowardice or apathy or ignorance it seems to me that they have ceded the reins to the Crazy People.

All cops are bad cops.

And now, I'm off to have another cup of tea with Russell.
posted by tzikeh at 7:09 PM on June 28, 2010


When the nonreligious have a schism and start arguing semantics of their non-belief, I fear humanity is truly fucked.
posted by rocket88 at 7:12 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Agnostic Manifesto:

For whatever reason, most likely social acceptance, I am afraid to call myself an atheist, even though I don't believe in God.

End of Manifesto.

Addendum: I am also likely to own aviator shades, a Honda GoldWing, and decorative swords.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:18 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


The article makes a simple mistake, pointed out in the comments here and on Slate, about what atheism actually is. The person making an assertion (the theist) is responsible for providing the evidence for that assertion, and if they can't (or claim that "faith" absolves them of the responsibility), no one should have to accomodate them. It is up to the individual whether to also accomodate the asserter's feelings. I usually judge that one by the theist's age and proximity to Boca Raton.

What I really don't understand is why religious and so-called "agnostic" pundits are so concerned with the manners of professional atheists. There is nothing "dogmatic" or "rigid" or "religious" or "faith-based" about negating an assertion that is presented without evidence. It doesn't matter how nice the asserter is, or how many times they walk away dejected only to return later with something else. If there is no evidence, there will be no belief. Period.

This simple standard is not only applied by atheists, but by everyone else, including any believer who has ever resorted to using the word "faith" to bridge the gap between what they want to believe, or have been taught to believe, and what is right in front of their nose. Demanding evidence before accepting an assertion, and continuing to demand it when one has instead only been presented with bad poetry, apology, or evasion, is not dogmatic or religious or even rude. It's common sense - a fundamental part of human cognition that is necessary for survival.
posted by ivanosky at 7:23 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's essentially a meme.

Ohh, no no no. Can we possibly have a conversation about the reality of mathematical theorems without equating them to a stupid and degenerate bastardization of semiotics?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:28 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Something I accepted blindly as a 12 year old, but get a good chuckle at now is how one of my friends described herself--

"I'm a prognostic. I'm not sure if there is a god, but I'm optimistic that there is one."
posted by rubah at 7:35 PM on June 28, 2010


Can we possibly have a conversation about the reality of mathematical theorems without equating them to a stupid and degenerate bastardization of semiotics?

I didn't mean "it's all relative, man. If you think PI is seven, that's cool!" It's not cool, because with PI as seven, all sorts of stuff doesn't work.

Did you read the part of what I wrote where I said, "It is a pattern that people have found useful for a variety of things." Specifically, it's useful for all sorts of mathematical work. If you decide that PI is seven, good luck making an asteroids game.

But in what sense does the Pythagorean Theorems exist outside the human brain (or other human-made storage devices)? Some mathematics DESCRIBES things in nature, but the descriptions aren't the things-in-nature themselves (except in the sense that the descriptions are in the brain, and the brain is part of nature). You're not going to find the Pythagorean Theorem under a rock. If there were no humans (or intelligent aliens), there would be no Pythagorean Theorem. There would be a universe in which intelligent being would be likely to develop that meme, but the meme itself wouldn't exist.

Because they meme needs brains to invent symbols and then do symbol manipulation.

If you're just objecting to the word "meme," then I'm sorry. I meant it as shorthand for "an idea that has spread from brain to brain."
posted by grumblebee at 7:40 PM on June 28, 2010


Not sure what else to say about the somewhat disappointing thread of comments here except that a lot of it seems to be variations on No True Atheist (Scotsman). Maybe every single atheist on metafilter is in fact a kind, considerate, pleasant person who does not espouse absolute unwavering certainty or demand it from others. That seems nice.

But even a cursory glance about the internet would show that a considerably common face of atheism many people encounter on a regular basis is one of screeching lunatics going into a frenzy at even the slightest whiff of the scent of religion, declaring those involved to have no intelligence whatsoever and calling into question their claim to being human at all. It is a terrible, ugly thing to see, and for many here to behave as though there is no truth at all to this supposed "strawman atheism" mentioned in the article is silly and unfortunate.

For whatever reason, most likely social acceptance, I am afraid to call myself an atheist...

Perhaps the reason is simply because they don't want to be associated with the sort of people I described above...
posted by nightchrome at 7:44 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


For whatever reason, most likely social acceptance, I am afraid to call myself an atheist, even though I don't believe in God.

Oooh, the "you're not macho enough about unanswerable questions" bit, that's always pointful, being all big man about shit that'll never actually get resolved in our lifetimes. Yes, when this is all over and the light fades from my eyes, the last thing I'm going to see is some random forum cunt going "ha ha, oblivion for you!" and then nothingness. Or maybe he'll spring a bottle of Smirnoff Ice on me or something? Yeah, I'm really going to get served for not affiliating myself with you or against you I'm sure.
posted by furiousthought at 7:48 PM on June 28, 2010


Religion is about fear and responsibility: fear of the unknown/irrational and unwillingness to accept ultimate responsibility for our lives. Having a paternalistic invisible being about whom one can say "It's His/Her will" instead of owning one's own actions and/or the essentially random nature of things is comforting. Take that away and folks feel like orphans.

I don't believe because I've simply never been able to buy into the mythologies. Why is Zeus bad but a Christian "God" good? Everything depends on cultural setting.

That said, I resent someone attempting in any way to define or codify disbelief in the same way I resent someone imposing beliefs on others. We're complex beings, each seeing life from a unique perspective regardless of the commonality of our experiences. Such is the lonely lot of man. It's a harsh view but the only one that works for me.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:48 PM on June 28, 2010


It really surprises me that there are people who think "Is there a supernatural power which created or administers the universe?" is an uninteresting question.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:58 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also disappointed in the whole concept of "Pick a side, we're at War!" as stated above.
Consider me a conscientious objector.
posted by nightchrome at 8:00 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I still don't think I know what a "non-truth claim" is.

I would like to read a book that, as calmly and reasonably as possible, tries to tease out how many of the good and bad things done "in the name of religion" were actually fruits of religion (was religion a cause or an excuse?)

That book would be impossible to write, and it's entirely beside the point. We aren't asking religious believers to make a rational list of pros and cons, see that there are lots of cons, and suddenly deny the culture of religion in which they've been raised. There's a lot of stuff to unpack out of their knapsacks of social dominance, is all. (By the way, here's what a nice man named Richard Wade says about religious art - it's still a "win" for humanism!)

except that a lot of it seems to be variations on No True Atheist (Scotsman). Maybe every single atheist on metafilter is in fact a kind, considerate, pleasant person who does not espouse absolute unwavering certainty or demand it from others.

Nice, nice. I especially like the part where refusing to engage with strawmen characterizations means that we refuse to admit that these strawmen characterizations are true! And therefore we are being dishonest! Good show.

Here, as an official representative of the Church of Atheism, I proclaim that Dawkins is a True Atheist. Hitchens, much as I personally dislike him, is a True Atheist. We don't require a commitment of faith. Don't believe in any gods? Join the club.
posted by muddgirl at 8:04 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't believe because I've simply never been able to buy into the mythologies. Why is Zeus bad but a Christian "God" good? Everything depends on cultural setting.

Which atheist said to which Christian, "You and I are exactly like - I just believe in one fewer God than you do"?
posted by muddgirl at 8:05 PM on June 28, 2010


Which atheist said to which Christian, "You and I are exactly like - I just believe in one fewer God than you do"?


Pretty sure that is Dawkins.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:09 PM on June 28, 2010


Maybe every single atheist on metafilter is in fact a kind, considerate, pleasant person who does not espouse absolute unwavering certainty or demand it from others. That seems nice.

I've known many, many atheists, and most of them are nice people who don't hate theists. It's useful to remember that loud people != most people. I know it seems like there's a war on, but while the generals are banging their chests, most of us are sneaking out behind their backs and having tea parties.
posted by grumblebee at 8:10 PM on June 28, 2010


That book would be impossible to write,

Why's that?

and it's entirely beside the point.

Whose point?

We aren't asking religious believers to make a rational list of pros and cons, see that there are lots of cons, and suddenly deny the culture of religion in which they've been raised.

Who is we?
posted by grumblebee at 8:12 PM on June 28, 2010


Nice, nice. I especially like the part where refusing to engage with strawmen characterizations means that we refuse to admit that these strawmen characterizations are true! And therefore we are being dishonest! Good show.

I'm not saying anyone is being dishonest on the topic, I'm simply saying it was personally disappointing to me that the experiences people have with atheists who behave in the manner described seem to be getting handwaved away as nonexistent or irrelevant. In the same discussion where this has been described as a "cultural war", it seems especially disingenuous.
posted by nightchrome at 8:12 PM on June 28, 2010


declaring those involved to have no intelligence whatsoever and calling into question their claim to being human at all.

That's a common projection. It's what theists are fearing non-believers are thinking about them when they don't see the wisdom in their belief, or the need for such beliefs to make them valuable as a human. It follows pretty closely in the mind.

Most "arguments" between atheists and fundamentalists are over things like abortion and theocracy in general. Things said back and forth are taken by devout believers as being about their beliefs, rather than their fascist political ideas. I can see the inevitable confusion though.
posted by Brian B. at 8:13 PM on June 28, 2010


a considerably common face of atheism many people encounter on a regular basis is one of screeching lunatics going into a frenzy at even the slightest whiff of the scent of religion, declaring those involved to have no intelligence whatsoever and calling into question their claim to being human at all. It is a terrible, ugly thing to see

You're right, and if I have been one of those thoughtlessly contemptuous atheists who has offended you, then I apologize. Truly. Because I'm sure you aren't the kind of believer that I've encountered all my life who has told me I'm going to burn in hell, told me that raising my stepson to question the foundational assumption of his Catholic faith was bad parenting, who condescendingly offered to "pray for me", or who repeatedly called my house to "share the Gospel". I'm sure you don't belong to a church that buys billboards praising Jesus while not bothering to run a soup kitchen.

The first thing anyone trying to change the prevailing discourse hears is "don't be rude, be nice" and what that translates to is "be quiet". I don't think you're saying that. I think you're asking atheists to engage you in honest conversation, and that's a laudable goal.

But I'm still hearing "be quiet". My problem, I suppose.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:16 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


That's a common projection. It's what theists are fearing non-believers are thinking about them when they don't see the wisdom in their belief, or the need for such beliefs to make them valuable as a human. It follows pretty closely in the mind.

I'm talking about increasingly frequent occasions when atheists explicitly say that religious people are stupid, and that faith of a religious kind is directly related to stupidity and inability to think rationally. Maybe it just so happens that the places I frequent online or the sorts of things I read are unusually afflicted by this sort of behaviour, I don't know, but even though I'm not a religious person it really stands out to me as a core concept a lot of atheists seem to hold to.
posted by nightchrome at 8:17 PM on June 28, 2010


BitterOldPunk: I'm not a believer. I'm just a person who sees a lot of blind hatred being spewed around online, and I'm not fond of it.

But I'm still hearing "be quiet". My problem, I suppose.

I'd never say "be quiet". I'd say "try not to be so full of hate".
posted by nightchrome at 8:19 PM on June 28, 2010


grumblebee: I think there are strong arguments for the independent existence of mathematical theorems beyond just their cognitive utility, but that's moving a bit afield of the topic.

nightchrome: Maybe every single atheist on metafilter is in fact a kind, considerate, pleasant person who does not espouse absolute unwavering certainty or demand it from others.

The problem is that the New Atheists Rosenbaum attempts to distance himself from don't demand or espouse absolute unwavering certainty either. He's distancing himself from a manufactured straw man of his own creation.

But even a cursory glance about the internet would show that a considerably common face of atheism many people encounter on a regular basis is one of screeching lunatics ...

Well certainly. This is true of just about anything from international football fans, people who buy video games, political discussions, people who cook, other religions, and parents. And yet, we rarely see earnest calls for a new tribal affiliation based around parenting because some parents are assholes on the internet.

It is a terrible, ugly thing to see, and for many here to behave as though there is no truth at all to this supposed "strawman atheism" mentioned in the article is silly and unfortunate.

Is there truth to it? Certainly. There are no doubt atheist serial killers as well.

But his claims are only partly about bad behavior from atheists. His claims are largely based on a question of theology that's just plain wrong in the case of most atheists I know, and certainly wrong in the case of the New Atheists he attempts to distance himself from.

It's rather like saying, "I'm not a Catholic, because Catholics worship Mary." Well, certainly you have a right to identify as Catholic or not Catholic. But you really shouldn't base that on a stereotype or misconception regarding what Catholics do believe.

Perhaps the reason is simply because they don't want to be associated with the sort of people I described above...

In which case, I'm reluctant to call myself agnostic because of the bad behavior of people like Rosenbaum who build an appeal to a higher middle ground on fraudulent claims as to the beliefs of others.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:26 PM on June 28, 2010


nightchrome: I'd never say "be quiet". I'd say "try not to be so full of hate".

Yes, yes, I'm so full of hate for saying, "let me talk about my own experiences rather than have you try to explain them to me."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:28 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think there are strong arguments for the independent existence of mathematical theorems beyond just their cognitive utility

I would love to see one that involves ZERO supernaturalism. I am highly skeptical that such an argument exists.
posted by grumblebee at 8:28 PM on June 28, 2010


Yes, yes, I'm so full of hate for saying, "let me talk about my own experiences rather than have you try to explain them to me."

I would only say that to people who are actually being hateful, it was not a sweeping indictment of everyone. Even so, I think everyone would benefit from bearing in mind that hatred is counterproductive, whether they have any in them or not. It's the sort of thing that sneaks in when you least expect it, even to the best of us.
posted by nightchrome at 8:31 PM on June 28, 2010


Coming late to this thread; I was going to post something along the lines of "Rosenbaum's essay must set some kind of record for creation of the greatest number of straw men in the shortest space," but I see that many fellow MeFites have pretty well made the point already. And I was prepared to give Rosenbaum the benefit of the doubt, coming to his piece via P.Z. Myers whose scorn of "accomodationist" nontheists I have little patience for. But P.Z.'s derision of this article was fully justified.
posted by Creosote at 8:42 PM on June 28, 2010


The problem with our successful evolution is that it has resulted in us asking unanswerable questions like "Why am I here?" and "What is my purpose?" simply because we are able to conceptualise structures of thought, the linearity of existence and varied packages of knowledge, but in the end it's hopeless because the answer is the same as the question.

A toaster might well ask itself "Why am I a toaster?" and the answer would be "In order to toast." The answer to "Why are we alive?" is "In order to live." Then all you need to worry about is doing that one thing well. You are your only reason and your destiny is what you decide you want it to be. Spend it on your knees if you must, because this amazing and beautiful and endless cosmos just doesn't do it for you and surely there has to be something "else" beyond infinity, but do permit the rest of us to labour otherwise. A life spent in servitude to a tortured imagining of your own mind, when there is so much else that is solid and real and understandable, is, to me, a life poorly led indeed, and a repulsive squandering of the gift of happenstance.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


I'm talking about increasingly frequent occasions when atheists explicitly say that religious people are stupid, and that faith of a religious kind is directly related to stupidity and inability to think rationally. Maybe it just so happens that the places I frequent online or the sorts of things I read are unusually afflicted by this sort of behaviour, I don't know, but even though I'm not a religious person it really stands out to me as a core concept a lot of atheists seem to hold to.

Well, it's very difficult for some believers to venture out into the world where people will disagree with them, because they don't allow that in their churches or families, and they developed home school to avoid it in their education. I can see why they get offended so easily from being sheltered most of their lives. But at least the believers can comfort themselves by believing that the offenders will be eternally condemned.
posted by Brian B. at 8:57 PM on June 28, 2010


Agnostics are just Atheists with no balls.
posted by Bonzai at 9:03 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Recently, there was a debate on Metafilter (I'm not sure where) about whether or not the crusades were really religious wars. Were the instigators true believers, or were they just power-hungry people who were using religion as an excuse? There were fascinating arguments on both sides, and they were MUCH more interesting than "The God Delusion."

grumblebee, I believe that occurred roughly three-quarters of the way through the humbly titled thread: The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. The actual Crusades stuff starts right about here.
posted by philip-random at 9:05 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Agnostics are just Atheists with no balls.

Atheists are Agnostics with no imagination.
posted by philip-random at 9:06 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Agnostics are Atheists without crumpets and tea.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:10 PM on June 28, 2010


Thanks, philip-random. I knew it was in a contentious thread. But I found the crusades debate really interesting and indicative of how complicated this stuff can be.
posted by grumblebee at 9:12 PM on June 28, 2010


The answer to "Why are we alive?" is "In order to live."

That's not everyone's answer. It's definitely not mine. Mine is "we're alive because our heart is beating, our lungs are filling with air, our liver is functioning, etc." I'm not trying to be overly literal. I just don't think there IS any answer besides the literal one.
posted by grumblebee at 9:14 PM on June 28, 2010


muddgirl: Which atheist said to which Christian, "You and I are exactly like - I just believe in one fewer God than you do"?
joe lisboa: Pretty sure that is Dawkins.

It's Stephen Roberts: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
posted by tzikeh at 10:29 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


grar - joe lisboa's quote should be in italics. Five-second edit window for pedants!
posted by tzikeh at 10:30 PM on June 28, 2010


What I would like to know, accepting the existence of god as a given, is: Why does god exist?
posted by cytherea at 11:12 PM on June 28, 2010


"I am an evangelical agnostic: I preach the doctrine of the unknown"

I firmly believe that, given our current state of science and knowledge, the question of the existence of a creator being is unknowable. At some time in the future it may be knowable, but at this point in time it's not.

But that doesn't matter. What matters is belief in the afterlife. Do you believe that you continue after you die or not? If you believe so, then belief in a god matters. If not, it doesn't matter. If there is no afterlife, why do I care if there is a god?

I don't believe in an afterlife, as much as that scares and saddens me. I find myself unable to believe in one. So the god question is worthless to me.

On a side note, the definitions that I always encountered were that Atheism was belief in the non-existence of a deity. Absolute, iron clad sureness that there was no god. Otherwise, it was Agnosticism (first definition). Of course, people are welcome to call themselves what they will.
posted by Hactar at 11:18 PM on June 28, 2010


(In other words, I think, just as it's less interesting to discuss whether or not the world exists, as opposed to why it exists--or perhaps, how something could come from nothing, it's also less interesting to discuss whether or not god exists, but rather to wonder why he exists in the first place. Assuming he does, of course. But I'm afraid I'm quite ignorant of people thoughtfully address the topic.)
posted by cytherea at 11:19 PM on June 28, 2010


I'm an agnostic and I vote.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 11:30 PM on June 28, 2010


Atheism ruins my day.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 11:42 PM on June 28, 2010


So very lonely. I hope there is a wider agnostic push-back because right now is a shit time to be a free thinker. Used to have to deal with religious nutters, now it's scientific fundamentalist mentalists too. Nice pincer movement maniacs.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 11:50 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, you'll see people assert that definition Hactar, they are simply wrong.

You are using a strawman every time you assert that any belief or non-belief connotes some specific certainty measure, but claiming that atheists are absolutely positive god does not exists is especially stupid, given atheists would usually deny the absolutely certainty about anything.

Huxley coined the term agnosticism as specifically a rejection gnosis, which means methods for knowing about god. Agnosticism was meant as "gateway atheism" that wouldn't get you into much trouble, but nevertheless rejected the church's authority and power.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:22 AM on June 29, 2010


"Agnosticism was meant as "gateway atheism" that wouldn't get you into much trouble". There goes an atheist telling agnostics what agnosticism is, again, for the millionth time.

Agnosticism "is" the practice of applied uncertainty.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 12:43 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


right now is a shit time to be a free thinker. Used to have to deal with religious nutters, now it's scientific fundamentalist mentalists too. Nice pincer movement maniacs.

Damn straight, dude. Strawman keepin' you down.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:02 AM on June 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Guess there's one more thing I don't believe in.
The ability of people to discuss this in any sort of reasonable manner.
posted by nightchrome at 1:43 AM on June 29, 2010


"Damn straight, dude. Strawman keepin' you down."

At this point the egregious misuse of the strawman concept is basically trolling. Oh, and fuck off.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 2:41 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


The strawman is atheist ooga-booga. How much of an agenda do you have to have to need a such fucking bogus concept to buffer yourself from the reality of a differing opinion?
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 2:55 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've been watching atheists feed off each other on Metafilter for ten years and at this point the puzzlebox clusterfuck is beyond the joke. It's an ugly scene populated by people who've given in to their darkest control freak impulses. But only in the virtual world.

That's a fucking strawman.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 3:01 AM on June 29, 2010


Huxley says I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic." It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.

I've never met or read an atheists that claimed any sort of certainty that god does not exists, Dawkins pointedly does not make that claim. Atheists are often however perfectly happy to ridicule beliefs that appear ridiculous even when they feel disproof is impossible.

Huxley never meant that agnosticism would mean "inability to ridicule the stupid". In fact, he invented the term agnostic to help him ridicule religion.

Furthermore, Huxley's writings are more influential for English speaking atheists than his more explicitly atheist continental philosophers, largely due to his being a biologist and his more precise rejection to gnosis. Indeed, all atheists whom I've spoken with or read who were raised Christian but later became atheist did so by specifically rejecting gnosis, well this group includes Dawkins.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:41 AM on June 29, 2010


There are several real questions like the assertion by Dawkins, et al. that religion is largely harmful in today's world. Or Dawkins disagreement with Gould's principle of nonoverlapping magisteria. Or just if & how atheists and christians should mock one another. You'll notice however these disagreements are about specific details of modern politics. And any distinctions between atheism & agnosticism are irrelevant distractions.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:47 AM on June 29, 2010


Agnosticism "is" the practice of applied uncertainty.

Yes, and one can be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time, just as one can believe in civil rights and be an environmentalist.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:34 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Agnosticism "is" the practice of applied uncertainty.

Yes, and one can be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time


I haven't been so confused in a long time.

Why is the word "is" in quotes?

And how can you simultaneously be an atheist and an agnostic?
posted by grumblebee at 4:59 AM on June 29, 2010


And how can you simultaneously be an atheist and an agnostic?

Because there's a real and important distinction between knowledge and belief.

Can I prove God does not exists? No. Therefore, I'm an agnostic in the sense defined by Huxley.

Do I think that "God does not exist" is a reasonable and entirely provisional working assumption? Yes. Therefore, I'm an atheist.

Huxley was an iconoclast in the Victorian era when many people naively believed that a clockwork universe made everything knowable given the proper application of math and logic. Now that everyone and their uncle has embraced, or at least shook hands with, the specter of post-modern uncertainty, it's something of a quaint criticism that no longer applies. Dawkins, et. al. are technically agnostic as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:10 AM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Fuck yeah I'm pissed. And rightfully so! ...Call me a zealot. Call me a convert to the religion of atheism. I don't care. Because redefining your terms isn't changing the underlying problem...It IS a fucking culture war, and you DO hafta pick a side. Does that make me one of those obnoxious loud-mouthed atheists? Yeah, it does.

And I'm fine with that.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:56 PM on June 28


Eponysterical....
posted by magstheaxe at 5:41 AM on June 29, 2010


A toaster might well ask itself "Why am I a toaster?" and the answer would be "In order to toast." The answer to "Why are we alive?" is "In order to live."

Fun childhood story! When I was about three, my mom was having a bad day. Foolishly, she decided to ask deep questions of her toddler, thinking that whatever crap I might come up with would amuse her. Well.

She walked up to me and asked me: "Sonja, what's the purpose of life?"

Expecting something like "cheese" or "dog farts" or whatever three year olds normally say, she was deeply astonished and embarrassed when I looked up at her like she was a total idiot and said - as obviously as you would say the sky is blue - "Mom. The purpose of life is to live it."

She refrained from asking me deep questions again, afraid that her baby was more philosophically evolved than she was.

I also understood from a young age that belief is a choice. I was only slightly older (about four or five) when someone asked me if I believed in Santa - my response: "I'm gonna believe in Santa until I'm 9. Then I'm not going to believe anymore."

Kind of not surprising that after spending my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood exploring the various religions that formed my heritage (my father is a born-again Christian, half of my family is of Jewish descent, and my mom raised me as a Buddhist... before she converted to Catholicism, which is the one religion my family members practice that I didn't "experiment" with), I've ended up a practicing Buddhist. You could put me in the "agnostic" camp, I guess, where it comes to the idea of "G-d." I don't think that there's necessarily a spiritual overlord, though I am big on thinking that the power of the universe exists in a "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" kind of "we're all part of the same cosmic vibration" kind of hippie dippy way. I have great respect for both atheists and theists and anyone who grapples with spiritual questions in their own way because hey, we're all on a journey to enlightenment and who the hell am I to decide someone else's path? Man.

(It may surprise you to know I've never done drugs and was not, in fact, high when I wrote this.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:59 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can I prove God does not exists? No. Therefore, I'm an agnostic in the sense defined by Huxley.

Are you agnostic about everything you can't prove doesn't exist -- elephants that can fly, the existence of McDonalds on another planet -- or is God special case?
posted by grumblebee at 6:06 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


It IS a fucking culture war, and you DO hafta pick a side

To what end? I'm not a fan of teams or sides or groups, so you're going to have to give me a good PRACTICAL reason to join up. I am often swayed by practicalities. "Because the Fundamentalists are destroying the planet" isn't a good reason. That's a problem, not a reason.

In the fact of a problem, you have three potential options: do something practical to solve it, accept the problem as just part of life, or complain about it.

I am only interested in the first option. So when I join your army, what's the plan?
posted by grumblebee at 6:15 AM on June 29, 2010


grumblebee: Technically yes, agnosticism is a central part of my 21st century epistemology that treats most knowledge claims as provisional and probabilistic.

That doesn't mean that we can't make rough estimates on the probability of certain ideas and make plans accordingly. Which is where atheism comes in. There might be a loophole that permits a perpetual-motion machine. I doubt (place the probability at very low) that there is one. There might be a pantheistic God or something that might more appropriately be called Tao or Samsara. I doubt (place the probability at very low) that there is one.

If I'm going to take agnosticism as a distinct position separate from atheism and theism seriously, I'd like to see arguments for it that don't oversimplify atheism or theism, and ideally doesn't address them at all. Wilkins sometimes does so. Rosenbaum doesn't even come close.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:22 AM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


grumblebee: Technically yes, agnosticism is a central part of my 21st century epistemology that treats most knowledge claims as provisional and probabilistic...

Oh, okay, this is a semantics issue. To me, "God doesn't exist" doesn't mean "there's no possible way God can exist," because that's not true of anything, except outright contradictions (it can't be snowing and not snowing at the same time in the same place). "Doesn't exist" means I have absolutely no "scientific" or logical reason to believe X exists or might possibly exist."

If I claimed to be agnostic about unicorns, to me that would be a misleading statement. I'm an atheist about unicorns. But if you said, "So, are you saying you think there's ABSOLUTELY no possibility they exist or even could exist," I'm going to say, "No, of course that's not what I think. I'd have to be an idiot to think that."

To me, degree matters a great deal. Someone claims to be 120 years old. I'm agnostic about it. By which I mean I'm skeptical, because almost no one lives that long. But it HAS happened.

Someone says they're 145, I'm even more skeptical, but it seems remotely possible. If an article in Scientific American claims researchers have discovered a 145-year-old man, I won't immediately dismiss the article.

But if they publish an article claiming to have found a 3000-year-old man, I will. I won't even read past the first paragraph. Is it remotely possible there really is a 3000-year-old man? Sure. But I'm totally comfortable calling myself an atheist about it, without feeling I'm perverting language (other than perverting the word "atheist" to be used in a non-religious context).

To me, we reach a point when saying saying, "I'm agnostic because I can't prove the sun is not made out of paper, and I can't prove my arm will never be 100-yards long," becomes silly. The behavior of someone who thinks there's zero chance the sun is made of paper and someone who thinks there's a .000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% chance are functionally equivalent. Neither is gonna place a bet on it in Vegas.
posted by grumblebee at 6:40 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: To me, we reach a point when saying saying, "I'm agnostic because I can't prove the sun is not made out of paper, and I can't prove my arm will never be 100-yards long," becomes silly. The behavior of someone who thinks there's zero chance the sun is made of paper and someone who thinks there's a .000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% chance are functionally equivalent. Neither is gonna place a bet on it in Vegas.

IMO if you follow Huxley's reasoning to its ultimate conclusion, you do have to claim agnosticism in regards to those sort of things. Which again, is a proposition that made perfect sense in 1869, but doesn't make much sense in 2010 where most knowledge claims are hedged against a bit of uncertainty.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:48 AM on June 29, 2010


> Theists: Have a need of that hypothesis.
> Atheists: Have no need of that hypothesis.
> Agnostics: ?

Don't believe the hypothesis can be proven or disproven.
posted by prak at 7:00 AM on June 29, 2010


And how can you simultaneously be an atheist and an agnostic?

Everyone is agnostic. We don't credit anyone with knowing, even in churches. The debate over agnosticism versus atheism is cultural, and it comes down to whether or not people will be supported in their declaration of disbelief; that is to say whether or not declared agnostics are there for atheists (because it is implied that atheists are committed for them by default). This is no small matter in a cultural sphere, because there are forces that cause the apprehension in the first place. If we examine the force or demand behind faith, we will find fear, sometimes terror, all designed to avoid our realizing our ignorance. That's what this debate is really all about, the recovery of sense and autonomy and the best way to do it.
posted by Brian B. at 7:17 AM on June 29, 2010


Everyone is agnostic.

Except for the Gnostics :)
posted by muddgirl at 7:26 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why's that?

Whose point?

Who is we?


Why should I answer any questions when you seem to be avoiding mine? We were talking about "non-truth claims". What is a non-truth claim? Maybe I missed your response to this question.
posted by muddgirl at 7:29 AM on June 29, 2010


Agnostic simply means rejecting special spiritual knowledge. Agnosticism does not contradict either theism or atheism.

There are most definitely people who are gnostics, i.e. not agnostic, grumblebee. Papal infallibility is one major form of gnosis that still exists. Born Again Christians and televangelists are an extremely modern claim of gnosis. etc. There are most definitely agnostic theists too, like Wicca, Unitarians, probably Anglicans, etc. All atheists are agnostic afaik; in particular Occam's Razzor is not a form of gnosis.

I'd assert that Huxley's definition of agnosticism is still relevant today because christians who leave their church often do so over specific doubts about claims of gnosis.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:39 AM on June 29, 2010


Sorry, muddgirl. I wasn't avoiding your questions. There were a lot of strands going on at once, and I missed yours. And, please, don't answer my questions if you'd rather not.

I created a confusion via hyphenation. I wrote "non-truth claim," as if there was some sort of claim that didn't have to do with truth. (I guess one might say that a claim about Holden Caulfield is a claim about fiction.) But I didn't mean that. I meant "non-truth-claim," which is still a clunky bit of writing, so my apologies.

What I was saying is that the popular atheist writers I've read seem obsessed with truth claims. In my opinion, what they I was suggesting that their books would be more interesting (to me) if they wrote about "non-truth-claims," by which I meant "things other than truth claims" or, even more clearly, "things other than claims," e.g. social, political, historical, educational affects of theism and atheism.
posted by grumblebee at 7:49 AM on June 29, 2010


There are most definitely people who are gnostics, i.e. not agnostic, grumblebee.

I agree. I never said gnostics didn't exist.
posted by grumblebee at 7:50 AM on June 29, 2010


It IS a fucking culture war, and you DO hafta pick a side

To what end? I'm not a fan of teams or sides or groups, so you're going to have to give me a good PRACTICAL reason to join up.


Because this shit is real. Because theocracy has a very large number of fans in this society and they are well-connected, well-organized, and have control of one of the two largest political parties in the nation. Because they don't give a shit what you're a fan of, and because if they get their way, your dislike of "teams or sides or groups" isn't something that they're going to give a shit about.

Indifference is a privilege purchased by the caring and efforts of others, and perhaps you shouldn't shit on the people trying to keep you from being forced to join the Southern Baptists.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:54 AM on June 29, 2010


Everyone is agnostic.

This renders the word useless, as is true any time you say "everyone is X." If everyone is tall, the world tall doesn't mean anything.

You can call me agnostic if you want, but know that I think the chance of God existing to be equal or less than the chance that there's a rhinoceros living inside my eyeball. Isn't it worthwhile having words that distinguish between someone like me and someone who thinks, "Hm. Maybe God exists; maybe He doesn't. I'm not sure."
posted by grumblebee at 7:54 AM on June 29, 2010



> Theists: Have a need of that hypothesis.
> Atheists: Have no need of that hypothesis.
> Agnostics: ?

Don't believe the hypothesis can be proven or disproven.


If a hypothesis can't be proven or disproven, then the inclusion or rejection of that hypothesis makes no change in the observed state of the universe. That is, the hypothesis makes no predictions. Which means you don't need it.

Congratulations on your atheism.
posted by DU at 7:55 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


What I was saying is that the popular atheist writers I've read seem obsessed with truth claims. In my opinion, what they I was suggesting that their books would be more interesting (to me) if they wrote about "non-truth-claims," by which I meant "things other than truth claims" or, even more clearly, "things other than claims," e.g. social, political, historical, educational affects of theism and atheism.

How can I take you seriously when you say things like this? Every atheist writer has several chapters on how religion fucks up people's priorities and ability to reason, and on how religion negatively affects society.

Here's an idea: why not shut the fuck up about things you don't know about? Go read Dawkins and Dennet. Hell, go read Harris, even, for all that he's a credulous dipshit. Then come back and criticize them, instead of hearing other people talk shit about them and assuming you know enough about them to do your own shit-talking. Then you'd have credibility and the ability to form actual critiques instead of parroting the empty-headed, fact-free attacks you've seen in magazines and on the internet.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:58 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


It IS a fucking culture war, and you DO hafta pick a side

To what end? I'm not a fan of teams or sides or groups, so you're going to have to give me a good PRACTICAL reason to join up.


Because this shit is real.


I hear your passion. But I ask again, "to what end?" When someone says, "Join my army," and ask say, "Why? What is your army planning to do to actually SOLVE the problem?" saying, "Because this shit is real" isn't a meaningful answer. It maybe a meaningful fear, but it doesn't explain what we're going to do in this war.

I am not trying to say that nothing we do will have any effect. I am genuinely asking. I have zero interest in commiserating with other scared/angry people. So if all the army is going to do is complain, I'd rather opt out. If we're going to actually do something, I might join. What are we going to do? Specifically, what are we going to do that's not preaching to the choir or preaching to non-choir-members who aren't interested in what we have to say?
posted by grumblebee at 7:59 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Congratulations on your atheism.

No.

Let's say there's an indestructible black box and I have no way to find out if there's anything in it. I would not believe that the hypothesis "There's something in the box" could be proven or disproven. I'd be analogous to an agnostic, not an atheist. An atheist would be analogous to someone who believes there's nothing in the box.

I don't understand why every time there's one of these theism/atheism/agnosticism threads on Mefi, there are always some people who insist that there's no difference between atheism and agnosticism. You're free to use words however you want, but most people recognize a useful distinction between atheism and agnosticism. Atheism = "I believe God doesn't exist"; agnosticism = "I don't know if God exists." Why can't we agree that these aren't the same thing?
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:02 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


That is, the hypothesis makes no predictions. Which means you don't need it. Congratulations on your atheism.

Not needing and not believing are not the same thing.

I believe in an absolute objective, but unknowable, right. Just because you can't be sure doesn't been you can't be wrong.
posted by prak at 8:05 AM on June 29, 2010


Atheism = "I believe God doesn't exist"

Aha, I've identified the source of your confusion.
posted by DU at 8:06 AM on June 29, 2010


Sure making a lot of assumptions about my "atheist" beliefs. Who said anything about science being the answer? (I suppose lots of "atheists" do.)

I'm simply an atheist. Why are we here instead of not here? I'm good with "Who knows, who cares, but if we weren't here, we wouldn't be around to worry about it, eh?". And while I do think science will persue answers to why things are the way they are, and more importantly, how we can take advantage of the universe by understanding it, it's not my substitute for a belief in some higher being - I simply see no reason and feel no need to believe in one, and I see absolutely no evidence that such a thing exists - and it just doens't make any sense *to me*.

I'm also perfectly fine with anyone else believing what they want to believe, I won't preach to anyone or try to change them purely for religious reasons.

I'm firm in my belief (or lack thereof) right now. I'm also firm in the belief that I'm human, and that the mind is a funny thing that changes over time, and that I might some day change my beliefs completely... only time will tell. But I don't dwell on it or debate it, I simply don't need the belief in a higher being to explain my existence or the world around me... and I'm okay with that.
posted by TravellingDen at 8:08 AM on June 29, 2010


I've identified the source of your confusion.

Dictionaries?
posted by prak at 8:09 AM on June 29, 2010


Atheism = "I believe God doesn't exist"; agnosticism = "I don't know if God exists." Why can't we agree that these aren't the same thing?

They're not the same thing. But neither are they in conflict with each other to such a degree that Rosenbaum can get away with attempting to use "why is there something other than nothing?" as a litmus test to isolate himself from people he finds distasteful.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:10 AM on June 29, 2010


Indifference is a privilege purchased by the caring and efforts of others, and perhaps you shouldn't shit on the people trying to keep you from being forced to join the Southern Baptists.

However, many of the religious cases that define a strict separation of Church and State are brought before the court, advocated, and adjudicated by people of faith.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:14 AM on June 29, 2010


The whole idea of defining belief by action confuses me. There are plenty of self-proclaimed Theists who ignore basic tenets of their own belief system in their day to day life. Does that make them secret atheists, or just thoughtless individuals?

I think it’s pretty presumptuous of humans to think that they can understand the grand details of the universe, even if there is a higher power at work or not. The question doesn’t affect their day to day life. Does that make me an atheist? Maybe, for some definitions of atheism. But agnostic is the more specialized, better defined term, so I usually choose that label.

The whole ‘agnostic’= 50/50 seems like a lazy argument to me, too. Just because I believe two things could be true doesn’t mean I have to believe in them in equal measure.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:14 AM on June 29, 2010


Atheism = "I believe God doesn't exist"

Aha, I've identified the source of your confusion.


Care to explain?
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:15 AM on June 29, 2010


Jaltcoh: Care to explain?

You're oversimplifying and mischaracterizing about 2500 years of atheistic philosophy into a single statement for the purpose of creating illusionary lines in the sand.

dinty_moore: But agnostic is the more specialized, better defined term, so I usually choose that label.

That's fine, choose the label "mickey mouse" for all I care. But define your label based on your own beliefs and convictions, not your probably flawed conception of mine.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:20 AM on June 29, 2010


I think it’s pretty presumptuous of humans to think that they can understand the grand details of the universe, even if there is a higher power at work or not.

Problem is, you need to be that presumptuous to get real work done in Science. If we thought things like, "Well, gravity seems to work here on Earth, but we're not going to be so arrogant to say it works on all planets, everywhere," then we wouldn't be able to make useful predictions and test them. The tests wouldn't mean anything. As it happens, such predictions and tests have turned out to be monumentally useful.

Darwin's Theory is MONSTROUSLY presumptuous. As is Einstein's.
posted by grumblebee at 8:22 AM on June 29, 2010


Jaltcoh: Care to explain?

You're oversimplifying and mischaracterizing about 2500 years of atheistic philosophy into a single statement for the purpose of creating illusionary lines in the sand.


This isn't an explanation. Saying there are thousands of years of "atheistic thought" that don't fit my definition of atheism is begging the question.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:27 AM on June 29, 2010


That's fine, choose the label "mickey mouse" for all I care. But define your label based on your own beliefs and convictions, not your probably flawed conception of mine.

Way to make assumptions about what I do and don’t believe, Kirk!

I just said that I counted as an atheist for some people’s definitions of atheism. Does that sound like I don’t have a grasp on the fact that there’s a spectrum of ideas under the name of atheism, some of which are more hard-line than others?
posted by dinty_moore at 8:34 AM on June 29, 2010


Jaltcoh: This isn't an explanation. Saying there are thousands of years of "atheistic thought" that don't fit my definition of atheism is begging the question.

Yes, and it's a question that's reached dead-horse status as far as this thread is concerned, much less the writings of Dawkins, Russell, Hitchins, and about a dozen others. If you're confused on this point, do your fucking homework and read the thread, and perhaps actually bother to read Dawkins and address exactly what he means when he defines himself as an atheist.

If you have honest questions, you can certainly ask them and I'll answer them from my perspective. Otherwise, fuck off until you're both willing and able to offer an informed critique.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:36 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


And any distinctions between atheism & agnosticism are irrelevant distractions.

Couldn't disagree more. There's a huge distinction between one who denies that there's PROOF of a specific God, guiding force, yet is open to the possibility and perhaps even seeking it out, and one who steadfastly believes it's all juvenile bullshit and considers even THINKING about it a profound waste of time.
posted by philip-random at 8:37 AM on June 29, 2010


dinty_moore: Then I apologize for misreading you.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:37 AM on June 29, 2010


KirkJobSluder, that's not the kind of comment I'm going to dignify with a substantive response.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:38 AM on June 29, 2010


philip-random: Couldn't disagree more. There's a huge distinction between one who denies that there's PROOF of a specific God, guiding force, yet is open to the possibility and perhaps even seeking it out, and one who steadfastly believes it's all juvenile bullshit and considers even THINKING about it a profound waste of time.

Yes, almost certainly these two fictional advocates are doomed to chase each other until the end of time, rather like Lokai and Bele forever running on a doomed planet. While we're on the subject, do you think the Borg Cube could take the Death Star?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:41 AM on June 29, 2010


I think it’s pretty presumptuous of humans to think that they can understand the grand details of the universe, even if there is a higher power at work or not.

Problem is, you need to be that presumptuous to get real work done in Science. If we thought things like, "Well, gravity seems to work here on Earth, but we're not going to be so arrogant to say it works on all planets, everywhere," then we wouldn't be able to make useful predictions and test them. The tests wouldn't mean anything. As it happens, such predictions and tests have turned out to be monumentally useful.

Darwin's Theory is MONSTROUSLY presumptuous. As is Einstein's.


You're right, but there are cases where I think science's presumptuousness goes too far. Science likes to have a nice tidy working model of the universe where all the math works out and all is logical. When they find that the existence of something (free will, for example) breaks their model, they dismiss it rather than dismiss their model. When they find other flaws in their model they invent invisible phenomena (dark matter, for example) to fix the flaws.
I think one of the fundamental differences between agnostics and atheists is that agnostics tend not to have, nor need, a model of how the universe works.
posted by rocket88 at 8:46 AM on June 29, 2010


When they find that the existence of something (free will, for example) breaks their model, they dismiss it rather than dismiss their model. When they find other flaws in their model they invent invisible phenomena (dark matter, for example) to fix the flaws.

Speaking of monstrously presumptuous.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:52 AM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


You're right, but there are cases where I think science's presumptuousness goes too far.

The problem with this is that you can't sort-a, kind-a do Science. Science is BASED on those presumptions that go too far. So saying that science shouldn't always be so presumptuous is like saying that mathematicians shouldn't say that adding one to twelve will have the same effect as adding one to ANY number -- even numbers we've never counted to.

If you can't trust that's true, you need to stop doing math altogether, because it means you can't trust addition. You might suddenly reach some number you're the first person to ever have counted to, add one two it, and rather than getting X+1, you might get X+2. But HUGE amounts of mathematics -- mathematics that help us fly planes and build bridges -- is BASED on the assumption that you always WILL get X+1.

Science is a series of techniques that rest on a foundation of philosophies. If don't fully accept those philosophies, you shouldn't trust the techniques. You shouldn't trust them sometimes but not all the time. They don't make sense unless you can trust them all the time.
posted by grumblebee at 8:56 AM on June 29, 2010


But even a cursory glance about the internet would show that a considerably common face of atheism many people encounter on a regular basis is one of screeching lunatics going into a frenzy at even the slightest whiff of the scent of religion, declaring those involved to have no intelligence whatsoever and calling into question their claim to being human at all. It is a terrible, ugly thing to see, and for many here to behave as though there is no truth at all to this supposed "strawman atheism" mentioned in the article is silly and unfortunate.

Internet, hell. Theists—specifically, Fundamentalist Christians—regularly come to my house and try to push their beliefs on me and screech in horror when I tell them I don't believe their gods. Once, several of them dropped to their knees and refused to leave my property until they had finished praying. No atheists ever do that. Other theists regularly roam the Downtown area of my city with large, car-battery-powered loudspeakers screeching on about how important it is for me to believe in their god and wishing the most vile and horrible tortures on those who don't believe as they do. It is a terrible, ugly thing to see, and for you to behave as though this isn't the face of religion in the modern world is silly and unfortunate.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:57 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


When they find that the existence of something (free will, for example) breaks their model, they dismiss it rather than dismiss their model. When they find other flaws in their model they invent invisible phenomena (dark matter, for example) to fix the flaws.

Yeah. This is a misunderstanding of how science works.

Dark Matter is a hypothesis. Scientists don't considered the flaws fixed. They consider Dark Matter to be a POSSIBLE fix. More tests are needed.

Free will is also a hypothesis. One shouldn't dismiss a model based on a hypothesis. IF free will is shown to exist, then scientist WILL change models. It will be a gargantuan paradigm shift.
posted by grumblebee at 8:59 AM on June 29, 2010


Science is BASED on those presumptions that go too far. So saying that science shouldn't always be so presumptuous is like saying that mathematicians shouldn't say that adding one to twelve will have the same effect as adding one to ANY number -- even numbers we've never counted to.

Wouldn't a closer analogy be if mathematicians claimed that everything in the world is just numbers?
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:00 AM on June 29, 2010


Jaltcoh: KirkJobSluder, that's not the kind of comment I'm going to dignify with a substantive response.

Oh good, because we need more rhetorical questions that ignore the fact that we've answered that question multiple times. I mean, really how hard is it to just read the fucking thread? And really that should be the minimal bar. If you really want to harsh on these issues, perhaps you should crack open a few copies of Free Inquiry and The Humanist to understand the current state of debate within atheist/agnostic circles, and actually read some of the New atheists until you understand the kinds of probabilistic claims they make.

rocket88: Science likes to have a nice tidy working model of the universe where all the math works out and all is logical.

Which is why we have things like chaotic systems, the uncertainty principle, standard deviations, and possibly-unprovable theorems.

rocket88: When they find that the existence of something (free will, for example) breaks their model, they dismiss it rather than dismiss their model. When they find other flaws in their model they invent invisible phenomena (dark matter, for example) to fix the flaws.

Hrm, I don't know that free will breaks any models. Some psychological theories are still predictive over large sample sizes and free will doesn't really matter. Dark matter isn't an invisible phenomenon at all, it's a consequence of the same sort of observation we use to say that heliocentrism is correct. We know what it does gravitationally, we don't know what it is.

rocket88: I think one of the fundamental differences between agnostics and atheists is that agnostics tend not to have, nor need, a model of how the universe works.

Well, here both you and Rosenbaum are chasing something that's irrelevant. Models of how the universe work may contradict some flavors of theism, but certainly not all. The fathers of the Big Bang theory were a Jesuit Priest and a scientific pantheist after all, and if new images from Spitzer falsify the Big Bang theory tomorrow, I'm unlikely to have a crisis of faith because of it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:02 AM on June 29, 2010


Wouldn't a closer analogy be if mathematicians claimed that everything in the world is just numbers?

A closer analogy to what?

Scientists don't claim that everything in the world is "just science," because it's not. Science is a set of ideas and techniques. A chair is not an idea or a technique.

Scientist DO claim that everything in the world is matter or energy, and that those things act the same way in all circumstances. That claim is FOUNDATIONAL to science. You can reject it, but then you can't do Science.
posted by grumblebee at 9:03 AM on June 29, 2010


KirkJobSluder: I am not going to continue to read your comments that are as angry as you've been in this thread. So you're wasting you're time trying to make substantive points to me. I don't understand why someone would express this much anger just because you disagree with someone's opinion. You should get that checked out.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:04 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: Scientist DO claim that everything in the world is matter or energy, and that those things act the same way in all circumstances. That claim is FOUNDATIONAL to science. You can reject it, but then you can't do Science.

Woah, hold on there. The methodological materialism of the scientific method shouldn't be conflated with ontological materialism that everything is matter or energy. The first is a reasonable methodological constraint, the second is a problematic philosophical claim.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:05 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hrm, I don't know that free will breaks any models.

I would argue that free will requires supernatural action, but then people start jumping on me and defining free will down to the point of meaninglessness. Happens every single time.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:06 AM on June 29, 2010


I think this podcast has some lucid things to say about agnosticism. (Warning: the host doesn't believe agnosticism is a rational point-of-view.)
posted by grumblebee at 9:06 AM on June 29, 2010


I would argue that free will requires supernatural action

100% agreed. It absolutely does.
posted by grumblebee at 9:07 AM on June 29, 2010


Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

This statement shows a fundamental flaw in this person's understanding of atheism. I'd venture to guess that any thoughtful atheist would never say that they absolutely know that someday we will know and be able to explain scientifically how and why the universe came into being.

Speaking as an atheist, I'd say that the creation of the universe was a natural and observable event, and we may never be able to describe it.

The point being, maybe, that while (some) agnostics sit around thinking wistfully about how unknowable the creation of the universe might be, there will always be scientists out there saying, "To hell with that, I'm going to know the fuck out of this thing." And maybe failing.
posted by Huck500 at 9:07 AM on June 29, 2010


Everyone is agnostic.

This renders the word useless, as is true any time you say "everyone is X." If everyone is tall, the world tall doesn't mean anything.


I've been heard to say "Everyone is agnostic." Annoying I know but I believe it's an essential point that we all sometimes need to be reminded of. Because, for me, the greatest enemy out there is not GOD or NOT-GOD but CERTAINTY.

Which isn't to declare that there are not any pure facts out there. I'm inclined to believe that there are (no elephants with wings, no pigs living in trees, no bunnies lugging bags of chocolate around every Easter) I just doubt fundamentally anyone's ability to KNOW precisely where to draw a firm line between what is utterly absurd and conceivably, maybe, possibly so.
posted by philip-random at 9:09 AM on June 29, 2010


Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

Huck500, this is a bizarre logical error I see cropping up all the time (it transcends conversations about atheism). I find it odd, because I don't get what leads to it. (I'm sure I make my own errors, but I don't think this is one of them.)

It's pure form is something like this:

Person A: The explanation for Event X is Y.

Person B: No, I don't believe Y explains Event X.

Person A: Oh, so you think you know everything there is to know about Event X! Arrogant!

It's not true that if the atheist claim that "God didn't create the universe" means that atheists know who or what did or need to know that to make such a claim.
posted by grumblebee at 9:14 AM on June 29, 2010


Jaltcoh: I am not going to continue to read your comments that are as angry as you've been in this thread.

Oh goody.

So you're wasting you're time trying to make substantive points to me. I don't understand why someone would express this much anger just because you disagree with someone's opinion. You should get that checked out.

Let me be clear:

I'm not angry on the basis of disagreement. I disagree with Wilkins. I'm not angry at him because he's provided a well-reasoned argument for his agnosticism as a coherent philosophical position, and he at least appears to have done his homework.

I am angry at Rosenbaum and you for doing shallow critiques of strawman definitions of atheism rather than actually looking at the diversity of ways in which atheists define atheism over the last odd century. And then demanding to be spoonfed issues that have been already discussed.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:16 AM on June 29, 2010


I've been heard to say "Everyone is agnostic." Annoying I know but I believe it's an essential point that we all sometimes need to be reminded of. Because, for me, the greatest enemy out there is not GOD or NOT-GOD but CERTAINTY.

Except that there ARE people who are certain there's no God. They may be wrong, but they're certain. Certain is a state-of-mind. I am certain that my username here is Grumblebee. I am not even slightly uncertain about it. Maybe I'm wrong, but then ... I'm wrong.

Do you mean everyone SHOULD BE agnostic?
posted by grumblebee at 9:17 AM on June 29, 2010


philip-random: Couldn't disagree more. There's a huge distinction between one who denies that there's PROOF of a specific God, guiding force, yet is open to the possibility and perhaps even seeking it out, and one who steadfastly believes it's all juvenile bullshit and considers even THINKING about it a profound waste of time.

Yes, almost certainly these two fictional advocates are doomed to chase each other until the end of time, rather like Lokai and Bele forever running on a doomed planet. While we're on the subject, do you think the Borg Cube could take the Death Star?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:41 AM on June 29


So umm, Kirk, assuming you're not just f***ing with me here and that maybe there's more to your point than made it into words, could you please explain why my attempt to clarify the distinction between atheism (no-God) and agnosticism (maybe-God) is so fictional to the point of being juvenile? That is what the Borg Cube versus Death Star allusion is supposed to indicate, no?
posted by philip-random at 9:21 AM on June 29, 2010


"Free will" keeps sounding like "soul" to me. What does "free from constraints" mean, given that your choices are constrained to ... what your choices are? How is a universe with free will different from one without free will? How could I tell? If I can't tell, does the question mean anything? When people say that phrase, do they mean repeatability? Predictability? The idea that some non-corporeal entity is influencing probabilistic wave function collapses to direct what might be random? That would be the supernatural bit.

Given that we will never have the perfect, detailed knowledge to make determinism a practical option, why is free will a question? In the absence of unicorns, why discuss which way their horns spiral? (Deosil, that is the correct answer)
posted by adipocere at 9:22 AM on June 29, 2010


Scientist DO claim that everything in the world is matter or energy, and that those things act the same way in all circumstances. That claim is FOUNDATIONAL to science. You can reject it, but then you can't do Science.

I don’t think it’s betraying science to look at the whole of human history, realize how many times we’ve been wrong, and understand that some of what we take is obvious now might be considered laughable three centuries from now. And to then understand that the only way to disprove them is to test them over and over again and see where the model breaks down.

I also don’t think it’s betraying science to admit limits to knowledge, and yet still seek more. I’m not likely to understand the workings of the universe any more than I’m likely to run 500 miles. That doesn’t mean I can’t jog around the neighborhood.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:24 AM on June 29, 2010


Pope Guilty: I would argue that free will requires supernatural action, but then people start jumping on me and defining free will down to the point of meaninglessness.

I'm not convinced either way. But I don't exactly consider the debates over whether free will is material or requires supernatural action to be relevant, and don't participate in them. "Free Will" can't break scientific models until philosophers reach a consensus as to what that means, and I suspect there's little incentive for philosophy to reach the kinds of consensus you find in science or other knowledge communities.

grumblebee: It's not true that if the atheist claim that "God didn't create the universe" means that atheists know who or what did or need to know that to make such a claim.

I'm often depressed at the ethnocentric bent these discussions take because "God created the universe" isn't exactly a necessary concept for either religious faith or philosophical definitions of theism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:26 AM on June 29, 2010


Do you mean everyone SHOULD BE agnostic?

I believe that every sane, functional person on planet earth is, at the root level of their psyche, agnostic. That is, they may hold firm beliefs and argue them with passion but, when push comes to shove, they have enough doubt in them to NOT feel compelled to shove their beliefs down a non-believer's throat. And in fact in allowing this doubt to prevail, they are not somehow diminished by having made such a choice.

I'm speaking here to that weakness (illness) I see in fundamentalists of every ilk; that they sincerely believe they're saving the infidel when they FORCE their compliance/conversion. Sure there are malevolent manipulators (call them cynics) at the heart of every Inquisition but they would get nowhere without the support and energies of a far greater number of True Believers (call them fools). And oh, wouldn't it be a wonderful world if we all got it ingrained into us at a very early age that only a fool never questions his/her convictions!
posted by philip-random at 9:38 AM on June 29, 2010


The vast majority of Christians and Muslims and Jews and whatever are good honest people. People who share similar values. People who want a better world. More power to 'em. But whether through fear or cowardice or apathy or ignorance it seems to me that they have ceded the reins to the Crazy People. I hope I'm wrong. Tell me I'm wrong, I'd love to hear it.

You're not wrong, and this is a large part of a spiritual transformation that I went through over the course of the past year.

It used to really enrage me to hear or read people bring up the acts of extremists fundamentalists as examples of what's wrong with religion, because there are loads of good, decent people who, for them, have faiths that motivate them to do amazingly good things for other people. I believed that at the core of it all, fundamentalists had it wrong and were overshadowing the work of good people of faith, prompting atheists to denounce religion as a whole as wrong and stupid.

The problem with this attitude is it doesn't change the fact that this small group of amazingly decent religious people, and much larger group of decent religious people, aren't making the tiniest dent or scratch in what the fundamentalists are doing, and trying to do. I think this is probably for a combination of reasons - being able to sympathize more with people who share your faith than don't, believing you'll be able to influence them to simmer down based on your common ground with them, who knows. In the end, the result is the same - the Crazy People continue doing what they're doing without obstruction, and when the non-religious get upset about why the Christians are doing this, or the Muslims are doing that, you'll have moderates of these faiths take great pains to point out that "we're not all like that". True, but in practical terms, we might as well go ahead and say the fundies are running the show.

As far as agnosticism v. atheism goes: I had a conversation with a priest last year that really shook my faith. Not to go into specific details, it more or less concerned this question of "fundamentals" and scripture versus personal interprettation. I had to ask myself: how many rules that I find abhorrent and diametrically opposed to my entire worldview can I really ignore and still call myelf a Christian? How many ways can I bend, re-arrange and re-interpret scripture to fit into my morality? Are there any core beleifs of the faith itself that I can say I agree with 100%, what are they, and can these beliefs actually be attributed to being taught by experience? Most importantly, does faith even matter? If it weren't for Christianity, would Jimmy Carter or Desmond Tutu or Phil Berrigan be amoral people who just lived regular lives, and didn't pursue the great works that they're known for? I honestly doubt it.

Ultimately, I decided it was time to be honest with myself. I let go of faith. No, it doesn't define me. I don't call myself an atheist or an agnostic, any more than I call myself One Who Does Not Eat Raw Onions. Faith just doesn't matter anymore. It wasn't an earth-shattering transformation that changed my life, really. If anything, it made life more normal.

I feel like I should round off this rambling screed with some Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:39 AM on June 29, 2010


I would argue that free will requires supernatural action

If you adhere to the strict determinist *model* of the universe, then yes, it does. Some of us don't and yet still don't believe in a magic god.
posted by rocket88 at 9:42 AM on June 29, 2010


If you adhere to the strict determinist *model* of the universe, then yes, it does. Some of us don't and yet still don't believe in a magic god.

Good for you! Come back when you have a model of the universe which is anything near as productive as the one constructed by science.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:46 AM on June 29, 2010


phillip-random: So umm, Kirk, assuming you're not just f***ing with me here and that maybe there's more to your point than made it into words, could you please explain why my attempt to clarify the distinction between atheism (no-God) and agnosticism (maybe-God) is so fictional to the point of being juvenile? That is what the Borg Cube versus Death Star allusion is supposed to indicate, no?

Well, this really feels like throwing good work after bad, but on the Agnostic side you have, "one who denies that there's PROOF of a specific God, guiding force, yet is open to the possibility and perhaps even seeking it out..."

Well, doubtless some agnostics feel that way, but you miss Huxley who felt that the problem probably wasn't worth seeking out, and Spencer's view that a proof is impossible, as well as the pragmatic agnosticism of Russell, Dawkins, and Asimov who openly admitted that they didn't have PROOF of their lack of belief. Or James's "will to believe." (Pascal's Wager in various forms is formally agnostic.)

On the other side, you have this, "... and one who steadfastly believes it's all juvenile bullshit and considers even THINKING about it a profound waste of time."

Let's skip the loaded language of "juvenile bullshit" which is an obvious and glaring problem here. What you have is a position that might describe some outspoken ignostics but not all atheists. I may certainly find pantheism, deism, and apologietics unconvincing, but that's not even in the same realm as "profound waste of time."

So yes, it's really bad and valid only in the sense that in some rhetorical version of pro-wrestling you could doubtless find someone to fill those roles. It's not something that is really descriptive of the complexities and overlap between theism, agnosticism, and atheism if Huxley, Spencer, Russell, and Dawkins are not even on the fight card.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:47 AM on June 29, 2010


Determinism is the radical and controversial proposition that causality exists.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:51 AM on June 29, 2010


I believe that every sane, functional person on planet earth is, at the root level of their psyche, agnostic. That is, they may hold firm beliefs and argue them with passion but, when push comes to shove, they have enough doubt in them to NOT feel compelled to shove their beliefs down a non-believer's throat

Being an atheist or theist has nothing to do with shoving or not shoving things down people's throats. Some people are assholes. They exist in every group. I might say some forceful things in discussions like this, which are specifically ABOUT these issues, but I would NEVER tell religious friends that I think they're wrong. But I DO think they're wrong. The fact that I don't shove my opinion down their throat doesn't make me agnostic. It just makes me polite.
posted by grumblebee at 9:53 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty: Determinism is the radical and controversial proposition that causality exists.

Yeah, it's not radical or especially controversial. But there are some strong arguments after Hume that we can't naively take it for granted.

But this is aside from the issue and largely irrelevant as it's orthogonal to issues of atheism vs. theism. So much so, that I really dread whenever science is brought into this discussion because atheism doesn't depend on the scientific method or mandate advocacy of the scientific method.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:56 AM on June 29, 2010


That is, they may hold firm beliefs and argue them with passion but, when push comes to shove, they have enough doubt in them to NOT feel compelled to shove their beliefs down a non-believer's throat

Interesting theory. On the other hand, recorded history.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:59 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yup. It only requires you don't believe in god(s). It doesn't matter why you disbelieve. It can be for rational or irrational reasons. Either way, if you don't believe, you're an atheist.
posted by grumblebee at 10:00 AM on June 29, 2010


Good for you! Come back when you have a model of the universe which is anything near as productive as the one constructed by science.

It's certainly productive, but I believe it's incomplete and always will be, so I don't put my faith in it.
That was the point of the article that started all this...Atheists have certainty, and Agnostics don't believe absolute certainty is even possible. I guess that makes me one of them. It's not a wishy-washy Atheism. It's more of a comfort with unanswered (and unanswerable) questions.
posted by rocket88 at 10:00 AM on June 29, 2010


Atheists have certainty

I don't have certainty in the scientific model. I only know that no other system of inquiry developed in human history has revealed so many useful, reliable facts, and that the scientific model is the best we've ever developed. It could be wholly wrong, but it works better than anything else we've ever invented, and as such, I stick with it.

It's not a wishy-washy Atheism. It's more of a comfort with unanswered (and unanswerable) questions.

Get your right hand out of your pants and stop using your left to pat yourself on the back. This is exactly the sort of self-congratulating, content-free nonsense I mentioned upthread when comparing agnostics to self-righteous centrists. Being comfortable with uncertainty does not make you an agnostic, nor does it make you not an atheist.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:04 AM on June 29, 2010


rocket88: The problem is two-fold. First of all, science can't make certain claims. It just can't. Any research finding that doesn't come with a p-value attached is bogus. A study can claim that the odds of being wrong are vanishingly small, but it can't make claims with absolute certainty.

The second problem is that most atheists, including the New Atheists Rosenbaum call out both understand and accept that science likely can't solve all of the problems. His definition of agnostic includes the atheists he doesn't want to be associated with.

If someone doesn't want to be associated with New Atheists, I don't either much of the time. I am, without a lick of shame, an accommodationist who would rather break bread with Quakers than Hitch. I find the emphasis on polemicists these days to be unfortunate. But I don't need to invent reasons to disagree with Dawkins or Hitchins either.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:09 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


W.r.t. to religiosity:

It seems clear to me that the most essential characteristic of religiosity is not belief but practice.

Practice engenders feelsing which in turn are often evidenced as beliefs.

People mostly act in certain ways not because they have beliefs, but because that's what they do. It's only when we bother to think it through that we act on our beliefs. (Or knowledge.)

So I do agree with the game warden's main contention: That most Atheism and Agnosticism is failing to understand what it means to be religious. And in so doing, they're failing to understand why people don't buy their arguments. It's got nothing to do with whether the arguments are reasonable or even rational, and everything to do with the fact that they cut down the importance of what people spend a fair chunk of their lives doing.
posted by lodurr at 10:17 AM on June 29, 2010


There's a really interesting argument floating around that we're in a privileged position in the history of the universe to observe evidence of the Big Bang, and at some point in the future, both the CBE and the most distant galaxies will be beyond the horizon of the observable universe. The other side of this argument is that it's possible that certain aspects of the Big Bang are already beyond what can be realistically tested.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:27 AM on June 29, 2010


So yes, it's really bad and valid only in the sense that in some rhetorical version of pro-wrestling you could doubtless find someone to fill those roles. It's not something that is really descriptive of the complexities and overlap between theism, agnosticism, and atheism if Huxley, Spencer, Russell, and Dawkins are not even on the fight card.

Kirk, thanks for the taking the time to respond.

For the record, I don't really take issue with any of your points but do still feel that you took my initial comment out of context. That is, I was responding to a jeffBurdges comment that concluded with the rather broad point that "... And any distinctions between atheism & agnosticism are irrelevant distractions.

In the light of this, I hardly felt it inappropriate to point out that there is in fact " ... a huge distinction between one who denies that there's PROOF of a specific God ... and one who steadfastly believes it's all juvenile bullshit." Of course, these two polarities do not reflect the " ... the complexities and overlap between theism, agnosticism, and atheism". They're not intended to. That is not the context in which they were offered.
posted by philip-random at 10:29 AM on June 29, 2010


I might say some forceful things in discussions like this, which are specifically ABOUT these issues, but I would NEVER tell religious friends that I think they're wrong. But I DO think they're wrong. The fact that I don't shove my opinion down their throat doesn't make me agnostic. It just makes me polite.

But what if you were convinced that your friends were doomed if you didn't force the issue, that you'd be saving their life or their soul by ramming it down their throats? Hard to answer, I know, because you're not that convinced. Your grasp of the world etc probably doesn't allow it and this, I believe, is because like most of us, you're carrying a grain of healthy doubt with you at pretty much all times. And when it comes to the GOD-question, that doubt manifests itself as agnosticism. Note the small "a".
posted by philip-random at 10:46 AM on June 29, 2010


It seems clear to me that the most essential characteristic of religiosity is not belief but practice.

I think that's a valid point.

I was thinking about it while reading this thread, in which the OP asks if she (agnostic) might find some sort of prayer useful. I put myself in her shoes, but didn't turn myself into an agnostic. Would I -- an atheist -- possible find prayer a useful or valuable experience? My knee-jerk response was, "No, of course not. I don't believe in God, so how could praying to someone I don't believe in possible be useful?"

But then I thought a bit more about what "prayer" means. (Or might mean. I don't want to get into a definitional argument about "prayer." I'm going to make up a meaning here that others might not share.)

It could mean an honest (as in from-the-gut) form of asking, pleading, thanking, apologizing, etc. To me, it doesn't make sense to just "ask." Asking needs a receiver. You have to ask SOMEBODY. But for a moment, I'm going to ignore who or what that somebody is.

I ask people things all the times, but what I don't do is make a ritual of it. And I don't hold myself to a high standard when I ask. Of course, I vaguely and generally think about being honest, but I don't think deeply about baring my soul.

So -- assuming there's a someone to ask -- would it be useful or interesting for me to ask that person something every day, in a ritualistic way, without hiding anything?

I don't know, because I haven't tried it. It does seem worth trying.

Okay, lets assume I'm going to try it. Now I get to the question of who I'm going to ask (plead to, thank, etc.) Does it have to be a real person? I don't really think there's a person on Earth I feel comfortable being TOTALLY frank with -- not about my deepest, deepest fears and desires. I've tried therapy, but it never got to my core. I'm not an especially secretive person, but I think there would always be some social pressure that would make me think twice before I said certain things to another person. Maybe that's sad, but it's true.

Which means I need someone God-ish to talk to, if this is going to work. But I don't believe in God. In fact, I'm SURE He doesn't exist.

Does that matter?

It seems like it should, and yet ... I've worked as an actor. I've spoken quite truthfully and forcefully to people who don't exist. I've mimed holding a sword with total conviction. When it's in the framework of a play, I can do this sort of thing with no problem, and it doesn't seem silly.

I am wondering if the key aspect of prayer -- the thing that makes it such an important ritual to so many people -- is belief in some sort of god that's receiving the prayer or just the act itself.

When I was a younger atheist, this question wouldn't have even occurred to me. I would have said, "Prayer is talking to a person that doesn't exist, therefor it's stupid. End of story." Back then, I couldn't see anything to religion except truth claims. And if the truth claims are false, then the whole thing has zero worth. This attitude is part of my problem with Dawkins & Co. I agree with pretty much everything they say, but I feel that they are closing off interesting avenues of thought.

It someone says, "You should drink water every day, because it makes the water fairies happy when you do it," they're talking nonsense. But that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't drink water every day. It's fine to call people on nonsense (in certain forums), but you're doing yourself a disservice if you throw out the baby with the bathwater.
posted by grumblebee at 10:48 AM on June 29, 2010


But what if you were convinced that your friends were doomed if you didn't force the issue,

Then I'd force it. IF I thought that might work. If I thought it wouldn't, then I'd try to accept the fact that they're doomed.

I don't see how that makes me -- or doesn't make me -- agnostic.

I have a devoutly religious friend who never tries to force me, even though he thinks I'm doomed. Why? Because he doesn't believe forcing people is effective. It's not because he has doubt. He has none (as far as I know). He's VERY confident in his beliefs. And one of the beliefs he's confident in is that you can't force someone to believe in God. He and I share that belief.
posted by grumblebee at 10:51 AM on June 29, 2010


Get your right hand out of your pants and stop using your left to pat yourself on the back. This is exactly the sort of self-congratulating, content-free nonsense I mentioned upthread when comparing agnostics to self-righteous centrists.

I don't know about you, but when I give my opinion or describe how I feel or believe about a subject, I'm neither congratulating myself nor implying that anyone who doesn't share my view is wrong.

I don't know what's wrong with you, but you seem to exhibit this behaviour in almost every thread about religion or rationality. I have zero fucking desire to participate in a spittle-fueled argument about a subject I find interesting philosophically but otherwise am not emotionally invested in.
posted by rocket88 at 11:12 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Get your right hand out of your pants...

I have zero fucking desire to participate in a spittle-fueled argument about a subject I find interesting philosophically

Yeah, I agree. It's hard to have an intelligent discussion when people are getting all ad-hominem in each others' faces. Please stop. You're not going to convince anyone by being rude. And if your aim is to vent or lash out, rather than to share or convince, please find other punching bags. We're not available for that purpose.
posted by grumblebee at 11:16 AM on June 29, 2010


I'd disagree that practice has much bearing upon religion, depends what you consider practice. Any given religion's official morality has afaik virtually no impact up on the behavior of it's followers. We've obviously got some exceptional leaders like Gandhi and MLK who bucked the trend, but overall outward behavior doesn't seem very relevant. If otoh your talking about inward behavior like prayer, I'm pretty sure you'll find millions who like their label as Christian, Muslim, etc. but virtually never pray.

You know, theist, gnostic, atheist, and agnostic are all cold philosophically defined terms that provide no identity, no human connection, etc. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. are otoh identities labels that people are entitled to largely by just desiring them. Indeed, we've got the word heretic for debates inside these groups. I'd never assert that you're not Christian merely because you think god probably doesn't exist, but I might point out that you're an atheist Christian. In fact, I've been rather annoyed with Jewish friends who identified me as Christian because that simply isn't my identity.

Also, Rosenbaum & co. are in-fact objecting to the opinions of people who self-identify as Brights. If you don't like Brights, fine, but that's the identity, not atheist, not "new atheist", not "gnostic atheists", etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:36 AM on June 29, 2010


I'd disagree that practice has much bearing upon religion, depends what you consider practice. Any given religion's official morality has afaik virtually no impact up on the behavior of it's followers.

Do you mean these two sentences to have some relation to one another? Becuase I'm not seeing it.

"Practice" is what you do: Go to mass twice a week, spend all day Sunday in church, say grace before every meal, or -- and this is very important -- just plain think that you ought to be doing those things (because then not doing them is a big deal).

OTOH, I think you're dead on with the second sentence I quote. Whether your moral failings make a difference w.r.t. your beliefs is largely a function of whether you ever think about them. I don't think most people do, most of the time.

I also don't believe there's much relation between moral behavior and religion. It has seem to me for many years that people behave in a manner they identify as moral because they have either been trained to do so, or are simply inclined to do so. (For present purposes it doesn't really matter which.) I don't believe for a minute that most people behave well because they're afraid of punishment -- least of all from god. (Though I do think some people -- not as many as the Freudians would have, but some -- are scared of some ill-defined punishment to be meted out at an indeterminate time and place by a vague parental figure.) Contra Machiavelli, I don't think fear is really a very good long-term motivator -- especially not when you want people's best efforts.
posted by lodurr at 11:50 AM on June 29, 2010


jeffburdges: Also, Rosenbaum & co. are in-fact objecting to the opinions of people who self-identify as Brights. If you don't like Brights, fine, but that's the identity, not atheist, not "new atheist", not "gnostic atheists", etc.

If so, he's doing a piss-poor job in specifying it. "Brights" are only mentioned in passing in paragraph six, and the word is only used three times in the entire essay. And I find the whole idea that he's addressing brights rather than atheists to be laughable, he lays out his thesis in the lede:
Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.
He goes on to repeat these claims in the next several paragraphs: atheism involves certainty, atheism is a faith-based creed, atheism has an orthodoxy, atheists have faith that science will answer hard philosophical questions. All before he even drops the word "bright." So I see no reason not to take him at his word that he means atheism and not brights.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:55 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know about you, but when I give my opinion or describe how I feel or believe about a subject, I'm neither congratulating myself nor implying that anyone who doesn't share my view is wrong.

Oh, give me a goddamn break. That bit about how agnostics are comfortable with uncertainty, as if theists and atheists aren't? It's pure arrogant self-congratulatory back-pattery. Turn down the smug and stop acting like a jerk.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:58 AM on June 29, 2010


A person's actions matter far more than a person's beliefs.

If we compare American society today to Roman society in 100 A.D., its remarkable how much more "christian" we all act.
posted by quercus at 1:09 PM on June 29, 2010


A person's actions matter far more than a person's beliefs.

I agree, and I've said so, above. But the flip side is that a person's beliefs DO matter. If they are truth claims, they are open to debate and testing, and they are also free game for books and online discussions.
posted by grumblebee at 1:35 PM on June 29, 2010


Yes, but grumblebee, what if your testing makes no difference in their actions?

I'm not being facetious. I believe I understand what you're saying, and I would like to believe it were true. But I just don't think it is. I don't think people's beliefs have nearly as much to do with their actions as they want to think they do. (Well, as I want to think they do.)
posted by lodurr at 2:16 PM on June 29, 2010


imo most people cant justify their beliefs, assuming they can even articulate them. I include myself.
posted by quercus at 2:16 PM on June 29, 2010


Yes, but grumblebee, what if your testing makes no difference in their actions?

This is only important if your goal is to change the way people act. If it is, then one of the worst ways to do it is by poking at their foundational ideas.

It seems like it will work (topple the foundation and the whole building topples), but in my experience it almost never does. That's because foundational ideas are really more like rocket fuel than a building's foundation: they may have originally boosted the rocket into space, but now that it's in orbit, destroying the fuel back the launching pad won't do anything.
posted by grumblebee at 2:25 PM on June 29, 2010


I also don't believe there's much relation between moral behavior and religion.

At any instant, I agree. However, morality is not static. It evolves. We're all watching the World Cup right now, as opposed to watching slaves fighting to death or being eaten alive by starved wild animals. That was solid Roman entertainment. As far as I can tell, that transition is owed solely to Christian ethics. I'm open to discussion if you have other ideas.

Since Christianity is dying, it seems morality is also up for grabs. I think that what's underlies these battles over terms, i.e. atheist, theist, agnostic, etc. Over the next centuries, we're going to get a new "lawgiver", "authority" or whatever term you will, and everybody wants to be it.
posted by quercus at 2:28 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay, I’m coming in to offer some non-Western perspective on the meaning of prayer, and also what religion maybe offers those that *follow* it, and why the argument that it is nonsense usually fails in that context. I’m an agnostic – I don’t believe in a human-imagined God and am extremely skeptical that we are capable of solving the mystery of abiogenesis – but it is entirely likely that I just don’t want to imagine that kind of knowledge in human hands.

Let me begin by assuming that we agree on a couple of basic things: that no thing has an inherent meaning, and that making meaning is a human activity. To illustrate what I mean, let me take the example of that glass of water grumblebee mentioned.

I’m a human being, and if I don’t have water, I will die. This means that water is valuable to me. So, okay, lots of water all around us, and science dedicated to understanding and purifying water, and wars over water.

But you can also replace water in that example with oil. Say I’m an American, I have a way of life that depends on oil. If I don’t have oil, the peace of my life is threatened. This means that oil is valuable to me, and all the rest of it, including the wars.

And you can also replace water in that sentence with money, or thinness, or education, or beauty, or any other thing that you hold of value.

So meaning gives value to things. And the root of that “making of meaning” can be traced, for the most part, to our desire for survival and what we already, intrinsically hold as valuable: our own lives. And not just living but living well, and long, and happy – as best as we can.

We live in this world, and we live with fellow human beings. Our life and its happiness depends on two things: fate, and the people we live with. (Yes, we also have the ability, to whatever degree, to make ourselves happy – but that is not dependence, that is freedom, or free will.) Anyone who thinks that our life is not subject to fate is stupid, whether they’re theist or not. So let’s say we’re all fateists – that Fate is the only law, and that it is a law that makes No Sense. (Like all human histories, the history of modern science and capitalism themselves are subject to fate. Who knows where the West would be today without the Black Death or Albert Einstein? Did we logically deserve either?) And anyone who thinks that our life is not subject to the rules of our culture or nation ought to try to live in it as an individual whose very being is in disagreement with those rules – as homosexuals, or “mad” people, or people or color, or of any kind of persecuted “minority”, religious or otherwise.

So happiness is a very benign barometer, a euphemism, really; at their worst, such “rules” can kill us. That is the history of fascism in human thought: when a group of people just up and decide that another “type” of human being has no value, or does not have equal value. That’s injustice, that’s hate crime, that’s genocide, that’s the Holocaust.

Not only do we make meaning, we use meaning to defend ourselves from real and perceived threats. (This is called rationalization, yes?) Want to be safe from a serial killer? Okay, get together and put him in jail. Threatened by homosexuals? Agree that they belong in hell, persecute them till they quite literally can’t come out. Don’t want women to speak out? Well you know what to do. Need oil? Make the “argument” that if we don’t kill them, they’ll kill us.

So that’s meaning and value – kind of complicated and I don’t think I’ve captured it well enough, but pervasive, inherent in how we operate and take steps – misguided or otherwise – to be safer, and to feel like we’re safer. So meaning is not always logical, and historically speaking, it has rarely been logical. (Why believe in logic? is a question that I haven’t found anyone answering very compellingly. Please CMIIW!)

(Power’s a big part of it, but we might also understand power as a cumulative, cultural investment of meaning in something (like in laws or rationalism or God), and the power to survive or to outlive those that might conceivably threaten us. )

But if nothing has inherent meaning, how does a culture give meaning to specific things, and devalue other things in the process? That’s where Symbols and Rituals come in.

I have two things in my drawer right now, an old iPod and a box of seashells. Got the iPod in the US, where everyone was using it and I’d read good things about it on Amazon. So I went and bought it from a store. I gave the guy an object (a check) and he gave me an iPod. Now you can say that a check and an iPod are not religious objects, but let me argue that they are:
*They’re based on mutual belief in the (“equivalent”) value of the things being exchanged,
*The value of those things is given not only intrinsically, as in the case of an MP3 player, but culturally – in terms of aesthetics, brand appreciation and the value of money itself,
*The logic behind that transaction (that money = a certain value) is backed up the laws of written things, behind which lies the threat of retribution.

When I brought the iPod back with me to India, it had a different value – that is, it evoked a different meaning for many people around me: that of the West, and of Progress, and of Technological Comfort. They ooh’d at it, maybe a few coveted it, but others were just happy to look at it, contemplate it and let it go. It wasn't tied in with anyone's need to feel good or better - not at the time anyway.

The seashells I got when I finally saw the sea, at age 23, and was with someone that I loved. That’s my meaning, and you’ll look at them as rocks, but it doesn’t make them any less meaningful to me. And I will punch you in the face if you try to take it from me, and I will stop being your friend if you try to convince me that it’s stupid.

Someone upthread said that religious belief has nothing to do with practice. I’m sorry, but that’s an extremely ignorant way of looking at religion, and is frankly my only problem with rationalists: they get blocked and seem extremely okay with denying people’s realities just because they “don’t make sense”, instead of attempting to understand. (They also seem okay with being ignorant of the multitude of ways in which they are totally unreasonable just because things just *seem* to make sense, or they believe that they do – as in the case of capitalism, or law.) Is a baby born believing in Christ? No, religion has everything to do with practice. Religious practice is repeated, it is ritualistic, not because religious people are idiots, but because repeated, communal activities of any kind are a way of making things culturally meaningful. This is NOT limited to religion. And that’s why religions are Followed, not swallowed like a pill or an advertising commercial on endless loop.

(When you look at what most of the religions of the world say – none of it is bad. There’s shitloads of kindness and communal harmony in it. But like I said, making meaning is a precarious game, especially when you have all kinds of threats around you, and remember that all the significant religions of the world came long before science and the modern project of demystification, which often seems to me a very misguided thing in itself. They also came long before things like Nation States and the separation of church and state – which we have got to begin understanding as a separation between Fate and Human Force, and not fixate so much on the religion angle – so the security that we tend to take for granted or back up with armies, was backed up by a belief that God preferred Us over Them. It’s not reason but it is rationalization, and we are *all* guilty of that every day.)

So meaning comes from history and from acceptance. Whether it is religion or law, whether it is communal or national, and whether it is backed by religious persecution or the threat of imprisonment. You have to accept it first, only then does it make sense.

And you can say that it’s exploitative, or there’s potential for “fooling” someone in that kind of activity, but what’s more ritualistic than advertising? Please, this is how we accept things.

Now, there is a kind of pathology of non-symbolism in Christian and Islamic religions, which, and I could be wrong about this, seems to block many people’s ability to see or take responsibility for our own Power to give meaning to things. And remember that this power is unlimited because at its heart, it is unreasonable and selfish and roughly cumulative. So they’ll say, yeah, spending $500 dollars on an iPad makes total sense, because I made this money and because I want it. Or wanting anything over another thing makes sense because I want it. But that’s not the whole story. We live in a world of objects – of material things – and we imbue them with meaning. Whether it’s a person, an iPhone or an idol, we give it meaning, and that meaning is both individual and cultural.

I would like people to recognize that when they expect someone to give up their God, what they are asking them is to give up the way in which they make meaning, and the community to which they feel they belong. That would be a more compelling argument if the ones making it weren’t, for the most part, those who were themselves invested in other kinds of meaning, like that of Progress, and Science, and Technology, and most of all Money. I am not saying that people shouldn’t give up their religion – but goddammit that’s an individual choice, and it’s an extremely painful and isolating one to make for most of us. Have we all given up on our fathers just because they’re racist sometimes? Even gay kids don’t so easily give up on their homophobic parents – and I can’t imagine a worse pain than that. Can you logically convince someone to do that? No. In those cases we understand, we make allowances: he’s from a different era, he’s been through different things, he went to war etc. We make the attempt to understand. How is this different? You either talk to your dad and try to change his mind in a way that you know he understands, or you give up and are glad for what’s good. We give up only when there's no other way - not just give up because hey, dad, you're an idiot. Do we start attacking our dads? Do most dads warrant that kind of anger or animosity?

(None of this is a defense of Christianity or the Pope. Power of all kinds should be dismantled. But thinking that religion has some kind of monopoly on unreason or, worse, is the source of unreason is stupid and wrong.)

So I would say that this is not a war between religion and science, but a media-created war between different kinds of meaning, which ultimately has its roots in different eras. The era, now, happens to be driven by science and resting complacently on the assumed rationality of free market economics and the myriad pleasures of technology. It has no monopoly on the truth of what is meaning. Science has no human meaning to offer us – it offers, really, only longevity. None of the religions are against that. And if they are, I don't think dehumanizing or not listening to religious people is the answer. I really don't.

Saying that religion doesn’t make sense makes very very limited sense. The argument may be rational, but it’s attacking the very fabric of my culture and the things that are meaningful to me: myself, and my happiness, and my power. If the world ran only on reason, science would have a solid case – it could convince everyone. But it is not so simple; we are not only human, we are human subjects of fate and the power of those in power.

Finally I wanted to take a stab at the prayer question, since my parents themselves pray every day, as do most (older) people I know. Well, prayer, first of all, is an acknowledgment of fate. That yes, I am subject to the unreason of the universe and ultimately powerless before it. It is also a hope for or faith in meaning that is not just human created; that that unreason of fate is actually part of a bigger reason (which I cannot see) and which is why we are here, and that the source of that meaning (God or whatever you want to call it) cares about me enough to wish me no malice, and will take care of me. And it is also, simultaneously although not necessarily (as in the case of that Ask Me question), an acceptance of cultural meaning: that this idol or object before me, which has been made meaningful by history, holds something in it. It does hold something: it holds meaning.

It’s not logical. But it is meaningful. Can’t really argue with that. But just because something doesn't make sense, does not mean it's a lie (isn't that what homophobic Christians think of homosexuals? That they don't *make sense* and so they must be a lie?) And that’s my whole problem with the New Atheists, or at least with the way they’re being portrayed in the media as some kind of argument against the “unreason” of religion. We are not machines that compute meaning; we make it. That’s inherently unreasonable. And I have no evidence to believe that atheists are any more “reasonable” in their own lives than those who are religious. So, if we accept that under all reason lies unreason (the choice of what we value), there is absolutely no convincing argument against non-violent religion. Especially when that project precludes the possibility that we understand religion in a historical context and an awareness of our own religious impulses, which are everywhere around us – whether it’s a cross or a flag of our country or an iPhone.

As for agnosticism - none of us know what we don't know, we don't know it. This, too, is not limited to religion, and at least religion addresses it to some meaningful extent. And that is also why I think that the attempt shouldn't be to Know, like knowledge is a treasure that will save the Knowledgeable anymore than counting rosaries will, but to understand. Science does that, but it is limited and we should be able to accept that without thinking that it's an argument or justification for giving up that attempt - especially when it comes to other people. And if you want to fight, there are bigger and far more fruitful projects than beating up this dying horse.
posted by mondaygreens at 3:15 PM on June 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


tl;dr: If you think religion is terrible or wrong, try imagining a world without it.
posted by mondaygreens at 3:17 PM on June 29, 2010


Saying that religion doesn’t make sense makes very very limited sense. The argument may be rational, but it’s attacking the very fabric of my culture and the things that are meaningful to me: myself, and my happiness, and my power. If the world ran only on reason, science would have a solid case – it could convince everyone. But it is not so simple; we are not only human, we are human subjects of fate and the power of those in power.

What you don't seem to acknowledge is that the above is also an attack on the culture and the things that are meaningful to others, others who do not place the same meaning and value on religion. For someone who believes "no thing has an inherent meaning, and that making meaning is a human activity", you've got some massive assumptions about which kinds of meanings are better than others... just as those mean ol' scientists and/or atheists do. Surprise!

tl;dr: If you think religion is terrible or wrong, try imagining a world without it.

I don't get this argument. I really don't. I don't like religion, so "imagining a world without it" seems quite nice to me -- a lot like a world filled with my own values, actually. The insinuation here seems to be that I should be horrified by my own values... but, again, it shouldn't surprise anyone who believes in self-created value that I'm not.
posted by vorfeed at 3:32 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


vorfeed, thanks for reading all of that, if you did. Are you saying that there's a culture of atheism now? And that this culture is inherently antithetical to religion? How so? And if so, I do think we should be worried. First, I wasn't defending culture - only saying that it's a fact of human history uptil now. We can neither sustain life nor sustain meaning on our own - as far as I know. (Again, the meaning bit is an assumption, but the way people of all beliefs seek community and understanding and acceptance "among our own" makes me think that it's a fairly defensible one.)

Also, of course I'm arguing that my "assumptions" are my own and inherently unreasonable, but they are meaningful to me. So it isn't a defense of violence, whether the justification is religion or patriotism. It is a defense of meaning in the face of reason. Which, like I said, seems to me as limited and shortsighted as we are.

Gosh, a world without religion won't be filled with your values - what in the world makes you think that?! I didn't say you should be horrified by your values, but you should, IMHO, recognize that they are limited and influenced by the place and time you live in. And allow others their non-violent values as much as you allow yourself your own. Now if you think that religion is inherently violent, I dnno how to argue with that except say that there's other religions besides Christianity and there's other people besides the Christians You Know.
posted by mondaygreens at 3:43 PM on June 29, 2010


Yeah, the civil rights movement, women's lib, and gay acceptance all got stuff done nice and quiet-like.

Returning late to this, but: the civil rights, women's lib, and gay acceptance movements emphatically didn't achieve what they did by defining all whites/men/straights as racists/misogynists/homophobes. A few very radical groups did, but I think it's clear in retrospect that they weren't the groups that effected the most important social change.

I'm not saying BitterOldPunk shouldn't be angry about politically powerful biblical literalists trying to distort school curricula in the US South, etc. I'm just saying he shouldn't imagine that his fight is against anything that's particularly essential to, or definitional of, religion.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:48 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also - the logic behind the tl;dr wasn't that a world without religion would be better or worse, but that there isn't really any realistic world possible in which human beings don't have religious impulses or the capacity or desire to be unreasonable. The niches where we get our "meaning" from could get a lot smaller and maybe more commercialized, or the impact of our unreason could be much more significant with technology in our hands, but that's about it as far as I can tell. It wasn't a me vs. you thing at all (nor an attempt to get you to *like* religion, whatever that means; I'm not religious) but rather, that this is how I think we all operate, for the most part. We believe. We believe different things. And what we believe drives us, to whatever extent we are free.
posted by mondaygreens at 3:56 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


This renders the word useless, as is true any time you say "everyone is X." If everyone is tall, the world tall doesn't mean anything.

We live in a world where admitting one's true ignorance about God is always a sin and perhaps a crime. Agnostic is meaningless as a concept except that so few feel free admit it. It's like insisting we are all equal in a medieval hierarchy, and it is missing the point to say it is meaningless because it somehow applies to everyone.

Agnosticism is a necessary step ladder to disbelief, coming from faith, so going there is discouraged and deliberately confused by everyone with a stake against it. And it has nothing modern to do with ancient or revival gnosticism.
posted by Brian B. at 4:11 PM on June 29, 2010


Agnostic is meaningless as a concept except that so few feel free admit it.

I really, really, really don't get this.

It's a meaningless concept to say, "I don't know if there's a God or not"? That has a very clear and sharp meaning to me. And it needn't be a step-ladder. Plenty of people are life-long agnostics. That label describes many of my friends. (Who are not dead yet, so I guess there's time for them to tip over into atheism or theism, but I see no signs of that happening to most of them.)
posted by grumblebee at 4:20 PM on June 29, 2010


Are you saying that there's a culture of atheism now?

If you can describe a handful of seashells with "that’s my meaning, and you’ll look at them as rocks, but it doesn’t make them any less meaningful to me", then you must believe that other people can do the same, with disparate objects and ideas. Including atheism, including reason, including science. So yes, there are many, many people who have atheism as part of their culture, or as part of the things which are meaningful to them.

It is a defense of meaning in the face of reason. Which, like I said, seems to me as limited and shortsighted as we are.

What you're not getting here, and what I tried to point out in my last post, is that many people find meaning in reason. And many of them see religion as being "as limited and shortsighted as we are". If you believe that we make our own meaning, then this should come as neither a surprise nor a problem.

Gosh, a world without religion won't be filled with your values - what in the world makes you think that?! I didn't say you should be horrified by your values, but you should, IMHO, recognize that they are limited and influenced by the place and time you live in.

You said that I should imagine it. And just as your image of a world without religion hews to your own values, beliefs, and assumptions, mine does as well. I'm obviously not going to accept that it's impossible for there to be a world in which humans "don't have religious impulses", because I don't have religious impulses.
posted by vorfeed at 4:22 PM on June 29, 2010


I'm REALLY like the thought experiment of imaging a world without religion. I don't have much to say about that world (the one in my head), because I need to think about it for a while. But I have a sort of sci-fi scenario that might help others imagine it.

A conference of atheists lucks out and, due to some kind of geographic-based protection, they conference attendees are the only people to survive a world-wide apocalypse. Let's say there are 500 attendees. They are the only people left.

Oh, and they survive, but not un-hurt. They are all rendered sterile (so they can't have kids who become religious). They quickly enact a law in their new society: they ban religion outright. So if one of them "finds Jesus," he has to keep it to himself.

What would this be like?

(If you don't like the sterile bit, imagine that they find radiation (or whatever) kills the brain region that allows people to be religious. No survivors or offspring ever have the impulse.)
posted by grumblebee at 4:34 PM on June 29, 2010


It's a meaningless concept to say, "I don't know if there's a God or not"?

It's not meaningless to you subjectively because it's about leaving something personal. But it is meaningless as a concept for anyone else not entangled with religion. Anything negatively defined is typically meaningless. Saying I'm "non-Eskimo" is meaningless to me and almost everyone else, because I never said I was. Announcing on the evening news that nobody knows if there's a God or not would be still be confused for comedy.
posted by Brian B. at 4:41 PM on June 29, 2010


Yes, I totally do believe that others can do the same of course. I find meaning in reason too, for what it is worth, or I wouldn't be spending an hour arguing my point here, I'd just go beat someone over the head with a Bible or The Selfish Gene. Or punish or ridicule or ostracize them for not believing what I do.

Believing in reason is not a problem at all, for me, I wish we all did it, but we don't, because it's a choice every time, and because we have other impulses like self preservation and making ourselves happy and avoiding punishment in a very unreasonable world. What I do have a bit of a problem with is rationalism - which is the belief that reason is everything, or enough, or is worth causing pain to those who find it not satisfactory enough to encapsulate all that they think or believe. It's great that you believe in reason, but you do recognize that as a choice, don't you? What's your reasoning for why you prefer blue over red? What's your reasoning for the beginning of the universe? (Rhetorical questions, but feel free to answer.)

As for a world without religion, my point, again, was that that's a fantasy, and an individual one at that. I don't know what to say if you don't have religious impulses - either you didn't read my post or you think that religion Only means God. If that is what you mean, then again we are similar. What I meant by the religious impulse is that unreasonable capacity we have to value things. Valuing itself is unreasonable - why do we love our parents or spouses or friends? Can reason capture that? But again, I'm not arguing that valuing something is wrong! Anywho I doubt I can explain myself better, especially because I'm not sure what you're taking issue with. All I'm saying is that religion is not the source of unreason, nor defined by it - it is we who are unreasonable and often irrational, and are indeed subject to fate of time and place and chemistry. If you think that you are extremely or inherently different from religious people, I will accept that as your self-definition, not a definition of religious people in general.
posted by mondaygreens at 4:41 PM on June 29, 2010


grumblebee, that's very interesting. Your world begins and ends with unreason (accidents that cause the situation in which they find themselves and also end the 'line' or evolutionary purpose of our species)... in such a world, reason would Have to be tyrannical, like an enforced law. Because what reason is there to live?

They could find love - which is not rational.
They could find happiness - which is not rational.
They could take the challenge of trying to live within reason - but yeah, that experiment will come to end soon enough. And a lot of people will reasonably ask: WHY? What's the POINT?

So if you ban religion, will you also ban love and happiness and the possibility of those people finding a feeling of community in the face of their coming demise? Because none of that is very logically defensible either. Or is the logic behind banning religion that people could use it oppress each other? Well, there's very few of them, and individual unreason is usually just squashed as madness. Plus if you have the ability to enforce yourself physically, you don't really need to make sense logically. Only power has the luxury to be irrationally violent.

So: why ban religion?
posted by mondaygreens at 4:54 PM on June 29, 2010


Agnostic is meaningless as a concept except that so few feel free admit it.

I really, really, really don't get this.

It's not meaningless to you subjectively because it's about leaving something personal. But it is meaningless as a concept for anyone else not entangled with religion. Anything negatively defined is typically meaningless.

Are you confusing atheism and agnosticism? The latter is not "negatively defined." It doesn't mean "I don't believe." It means "I don't know."

it's about leaving something personal.

You're making it sound like ALL agnostics were once religious. This is not true. Plenty of them have always been agnostic. (At least from the age when they were about to first start thinking about such matters.)
posted by grumblebee at 4:58 PM on June 29, 2010


So what I'm saying is that unreason is a possibility that needs to be allowed, for individual freedom to exist or have any meaning whatsoever. That doesn't necessarily mean it shouldn't be monitored or we shouldn't be vigilant against its social ramifications.

A world in which religion (or culthood, to use a more inclusive term for what I mean) would truly be absent, would disappear? I don't see how that would not be a dystopia.
posted by mondaygreens at 4:58 PM on June 29, 2010


They could find love - which is not rational.
They could find happiness - which is not rational.


This doesn't really make sense. Love is not rational or irrational, because love is not sentient. Only sentient being can be rational or irrational. Love is a feeling (or a cluster of feelings). Love sometimes makes it hard for people to think rationally. Sometimes it helps them think rationally.

I blame "Star Trek" for a lot of mistaken ideas about logic an rationality. Mr. Spock is not being "rational" by having no emotions. That's just muddled.

So: why ban religion?

I didn't and I never would. You understand that I'm not advocating that, right? I'm fond of religion. The people in my made-up world aren't.

So if you ban religion, will you also ban love and happiness

This is simply untrue. I am not religious, and I often feel love and happiness.
posted by grumblebee at 5:04 PM on June 29, 2010


So what I'm saying is that unreason is a possibility that needs to be allowed, for individual freedom to exist or have any meaning whatsoever.

I'm not entirely clear what "meaning" means (heh) in the "meaning of life" context, but I get the general idea, and you I don't need unreason for it.

I think you're confusing irrationality with arbitrariness. They're not the same. I can arbitrarily decide that the meaning of my life is "to help others." There's nothing irrational (or rational) about that decision.

What WOULD be irrational is if I said something like, "The meaning of life is to help others. Which is why I'm stealing everyone's bikes."
posted by grumblebee at 5:08 PM on June 29, 2010


No I know you weren't advocating that, of course!

So the people in your made-up world all agree on something? Well, then I guess that's a utopia. And they don't need to ban anything. Freedom of non-religion without the need for freedom of religion. :)

I think the problem here is that I am taking a very broad view of religion and rooting it in the individual (specifically in free will and in individual needs for community), but the common interpretation of religion is as some kind of group belief (in a God) that is enforced by the group of people on the individuals that make up that group. Since that is usually how taken to be the History of Religion, then okay, I see where we can agree, as well. Forcing others is bad.
posted by mondaygreens at 5:13 PM on June 29, 2010


So the people in your made-up world all agree on something?

Not necessary. The most powerful ones agree on something and force everyone else to comply.

I think the problem here is that I am taking a very broad view of religion

That's fine, but I don't get what it is. If it's things like love and ethical behavior, then it's stuff that's claimed equally by theists, atheists and agnostics.
posted by grumblebee at 5:16 PM on June 29, 2010


That's fine, but I don't get what it is. If it's things like love and ethical behavior, then it's stuff that's claimed equally by theists, atheists and agnostics.

Yes, that's what I was saying - not things like love and ethical behavior necessarily, more like selfishness and unreason - and yes, it's claimed equally. So religious people are not different people then. And if religion is human created - which we're also all agreeing on - why is it different than any other human thing? It's human, is all I was saying. And I'm not religious and I don't believe in god, but I do understand why people are attracted to it and what they find in it, just like I'm attracted to language or to bars or to a specific sport.

If it's the history of religion you have a problem with, like I said, I agree that Christianity has been used to justify some heinous stuff. But it's a justification used by those who are empowered by religion, not the purpose that religion serves for those who are religious. And again how is war in the name of god different from war in the name of country? Both are lies.
posted by mondaygreens at 5:25 PM on June 29, 2010


And again how is war in the name of god different from war in the name of country? Both are lies.

I agree with this completely. I think almost everything that gets blamed on religion is off target. Your parents forced you to go to church? That's not religion's fault. That's your parent's fault. Some horrible leader is waging a religious war? That's not religion's fault, that's that horrible leader's fault.

I am highly skeptical that if you laced the leader's beer with some religion-killing drug, and he suddenly became an atheist, he'd recall his troops. He's using religion as an excuse. If you took that excuse away from him, he'd find another one.

I have had the misfortune of knowing a lot of assholes and the good fortune of knowing a lot of great people. Some are religious; some are atheists. If you swapped their beliefs (made the atheists religious and the religious atheists), most of the assholes would still be assholes and most of the nice people would still be nice.

Metafilter is home to a lot of smart people -- intellectuals. A common failing amongst us is a belief in a sort of utopia of the mind. It's a world in which everything is based around reason and arguments over truth claims.

It's optimistic in some ways. It's the idea that "if I can just reason with him, he'll eventually get it." And if reason doesn't get through to him, you're allowed to throw up your hands, sigh, and say, "I tried."

It's also the belief that if someone is behaving badly, it must be because he has a bad idea. (E.g. the reason the Crusades happened is because the people involved had the bad idea that there was a God had He wanted them to reclaim Jerusalem. If they hadn't had that idea, they would have just stayed at home peacefully.)

That sort of thinking is VERY seductive if you're a smart person.
posted by grumblebee at 5:47 PM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes! God I love common ground. It's so much more solid, and the happiest use of reason, IMHO. And yes, I agree with you - a sort of discussion just happened.

:) :) :)
posted by mondaygreens at 5:59 PM on June 29, 2010


Plenty of them have always been agnostic. (At least from the age when they were about to first start thinking about such matters.)

Everyone is agnostic and always will be. I'm repeating myself.
posted by Brian B. at 6:13 PM on June 29, 2010


I'm not. I'm an atheist. I KNOW there God doesn't exist. I'm repeating myself, too.
posted by grumblebee at 6:28 PM on June 29, 2010


I KNOW there God doesn't exist.

You know for a fact that our planet doesn't "belong" to someone else in the universe who has never stopped by to evict us?
posted by Brian B. at 7:09 PM on June 29, 2010


You know for a fact that our planet doesn't "belong" to someone else in the universe who has never stopped by to evict us?

I am not sure what this means. If our planet belongs to "someone else in the universe," then he's a natural phenomenon. So are you asking me if I know for a fact that space aliens have never visited Earth? No, I don't know that for a fact. I doubt they have, but I'm not sure they haven't.

But I don't accept space aliens as gods, no matter how advanced they are. I don't think they meed reasonable requirements of what most people mean when they talk about gods.

(And if they tried to evict us, they clearly failed.)

But I do know for a fact that God does not exist.
posted by grumblebee at 7:17 PM on June 29, 2010


But I don't accept space aliens as gods, no matter how advanced they are. I don't think they meed reasonable requirements of what most people mean when they talk about gods.

If an alien landlord showed up though, your knowledge of "God's" non-existence is as equally misinformed as someone who KNEW he existed.
posted by Brian B. at 8:09 PM on June 29, 2010


Your alien stuff is confusing me. How would an alien showing up change my knowledge of God? What does an alien have to do with God?
posted by grumblebee at 8:12 PM on June 29, 2010


There is no logical distinction between agnostics and atheists, ESPECIALLY from the perspective of theists. "Agnostic" is a cop out and hair splitting. There I said it.
posted by hellslinger at 8:20 PM on June 29, 2010


What I do have a bit of a problem with is rationalism - which is the belief that reason is everything, or enough, or is worth causing pain to those who find it not satisfactory enough to encapsulate all that they think or believe.

I don't think this is what people think; I think this is what people (atheist and religious) who engage in that sort of behavior may say they think (couched in nicer, "for your own good" type rhetoric, of course), and may even think they think, but I'm of the opinion that this kind of tough love horseshit is basically about someone just wanting to cause pain to others, full stop, point blank, end of sentence. The Crusades? Not about religion, but religion is a nice cover: You can do anything when God gives you permission. And I don't mean to say that's people using religion to obscure their motives; I think it's people whose religion justifies their motives, and if their motives were something else, it'd justify those instead. And I think some people now would really, really like to behave like the worst kind of fundamentalist asshole, and so they do, but it's okay because they're against those fundamentalist assholes; but the problem isn't what the fundamentalists believe in, it's what they do, and if we behave like one of them, that's all that really matters...what any of us do or don't believe in is ultimately really only meaningful to us, but our behavior is meaningful to us plus everybody else.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:21 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


How would an alien showing up change my knowledge of God?

I don't claim to know because any common acceptable definition of God includes actual supremacy over all of us, power to save and dispose. But your God is imaginary only, made impossible by extended absolutes to disqualify him from nature, not willing to entertain conditions that satisfy. Saying you know he doesn't exist is by virtue of being unbelievable. I wasn't even curious how you knew.
posted by Brian B. at 8:42 PM on June 29, 2010


quercus : We believe the gladiatorial games declined for primarily economic reasons, accompanying the wider decline of Rome. Any moral concerns were very likely secondary but perhaps discussed. All the early Christian emperors like Constantine definitely held gladiator events of course, plus public executions remained until more secular times.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:58 PM on June 29, 2010


Brain, you are using words in a way that is going over my head.

Here's my confusion. You claimed, above, that "Everyone is agnostic and always will be." I don't know if you're speaking metaphorically, "poetically" or literally, but the only way I know how to parse your words is literally.

Webster defines an agnostic as...

a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god

That is also the definition of "agnostic" I am using. Is it the definition you are using, or do you mean something totally different?

IF you mean the same thing then I don't see how you can say EVERYONE is agnostic. Again, an agnostic is "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable."

I am NOT a person who holds that view. Unless you think I'm lying, then there's at least one person in the world who is not agnostic. Therefor it's not true that EVERYONE is agnostic.

I KNOW God doesn't exist. In terms of whether or not everyone is agnostic, it doesn't matter how I know or whether I'm right or wrong. The point is I'm NOT "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable." I hold the view that it IS knowable.

You may think that's foolish of me. It doesn't matter. Maybe I'm foolish to not be an agnostic, but I'm NOT an agnostic. So WHY do you say that EVERYONE is an agnostic? Do you think I'm lying?
posted by grumblebee at 9:46 PM on June 29, 2010


"Agnostic" is a cop out and hair splitting. There I said it.

I've heard that before and I don't get it. How can an accurate description be a cop out? If someone doesn't know whether God exists or not, "agnostic" is just a word that describes the fact that he doesn't know. How can the truth (that he doesn't know) be a cop out?

Are you saying that it's impossible that he doesn't know? That everyone does know whether or not God exists and people who say they don't are lying? If that's true -- I'm sure it's not, but IF it's true -- then people who are claiming to be agnostics are lying. But how is lying the same thing a copping out?

I am baffled because, a few decades ago, I was agnostic. And I honestly didn't know God didn't exist. People kept telling me that was a "cop out" and I had no idea what they meant. I still don't know what they meant.

It was as if they asked me what happens at the end of a book I'd never read, and when I said, "I don't know," they said, "that's a cop out." HOW can it be a cop out? It's just the truth.
posted by grumblebee at 9:52 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree with this completely. I think almost everything that gets blamed on religion is off target. Your parents forced you to go to church? That's not religion's fault. That's your parent's fault. Some horrible leader is waging a religious war? That's not religion's fault, that's that horrible leader's fault.

As ever, the glory goes to god and the blame to man. Religion can never fail, but can only be failed.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:27 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree with this completely. I think almost everything that gets blamed on religion is off target. Your parents forced you to go to church? That's not religion's fault. That's your parent's fault. Some horrible leader is waging a religious war? That's not religion's fault, that's that horrible leader's fault.

As ever, the glory goes to god and the blame to man. Religion can never fail, but can only be failed.

I'm trying to understand why you quoted me, and then replied as if I said things IN THAT QUOTE that I didn't say. Why would you misrepresent someone like that?

I didn't say "the glory goes to God." (An atheist who said something like that would necessarily be a moron.) How could the glory go to something nonexistent? But whether it could or not (and whether God exists or not), I never said anything about glory going to anyone or anything.

I didn't say religion can never fail. Religion can't succeed or fail. To succeed or fail at something, you have to be a sentient being that attempts something. Religion is not a sentient being. It's a set of beliefs some people hold, and it's a set of rituals some people do. Those people can (and often do) fail at various things. Not only did I not say or imply that they didn't. I quite specifically -- in what you quoted -- implied that they DID.

I never said religion "can only be failed" either. I never would say that, because I don't even know what it means. How can you fail a thing people believe? You can fail a test. You can fail to meet a specific person's expectations. You can't fail a bunch of beliefs and practices.
posted by grumblebee at 10:48 PM on June 29, 2010


Also, please note that "all cows have four legs" does not imply that "all four-legged things are cows." That's Logic 101 stuff, right?

I said, "I think almost everything that gets blamed on religion is off target." You interpreted what I said as "religion can never fail," as if I'd said "religion should never be blamed for anything." Do you understand how that's NOT equivalent to "almost everything that gets blamed on religion is off target?"

Religion is "to be blamed" for something really, really huge in my book. For being false.
posted by grumblebee at 10:54 PM on June 29, 2010


Grumblebee, I see it this way: Agnostics and Atheists do not believe in god because if they did, they would not have either label. I assert that one cannot halfway believe in something, and that "belief" has a binary state (to apply a logic/computer programming concept); you either believe or you don't - and whether or not you are certain there is no god or you haven't made up your mind, you still do not believe. I would also claim that existence has a binary state too, something cannot halfway exist, it either exists or it does not.

Here is an analogy: Unicorns do not exist. One could say that because a unicorn shares traits with a horse or a zebra that a horse is more a unicorn than a walrus, but that fact is irrelevant to the existence of a unicorn. A subset of something is NOT that thing. Therefore, attaching a plastic horn to the forehead of a horse does not make a unicorn anymore than putting a green tophat on a small red-headed child makes the child a leprechaun because that thing does not contain the whole set of traits required to be that thing. I think in modern times, Agnostic has become a safe word to escape religious criticism and is a label that is attaching a plastic horn to your face and calling yourself a Unicorn.

I would also make the claim that atheists are not certain that there is no god, I haven't met a single atheist who has stated with certainty that there is no god. I am one of these atheists.

The real difference between Agnostic and Atheist is linguistic. Agnostic has historical usage and connotation which makes it less offensive to theists, where atheism has been associated with the arrogant rejection of theism. I see nothing wrong with this perception, however it is wrong to say that Atheists are certain that god does not exist, their SOP is just without the question of god.
posted by hellslinger at 2:43 AM on June 30, 2010


hellslinger, that's like saying a cucumber and a carrot at the same thing because they're both vegetables. Something can't be sort-of a vegetable. It's either a vegetable or it's not. That's true, but it ignores some other differences between carrots and cucumbers.

It's even more like saying, "There's no difference between a Jew and a Christian. They're both theists. You're either a theist or you're not."

In fact, I can imagine an atheist saying just that. Of course, there are huge differences between Jews or Christians, but they might be irrelevant to an atheist. To an atheist, the point might be, "Whatever. They both believe in God and I don't." It's fine if that's what's important to an atheist, but he's wrong that Jews and Christians are the same. It's not a matter of opinion. He's wrong. Christians accept Jesus as the son of God; Jews don't. Christians accept the New Testament as Cannon; Jews don't; etc.

The difference between agnostics and atheists is not just linguistic. The real difference may be something that doesn't interest you, but that doesn't make it not a real difference. There was a significant mental change that happened to me when I changed from being an agnostic to being an atheist.

You're right that I didn't believe in God in either state. But when I was an agnostic, I was open to the possibility that He might exist. As an atheist, I'm not. If you don't think that's a difference, you're wrong.
posted by grumblebee at 5:33 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


however it is wrong to say that Atheists are certain that god does not exist, their SOP is just without the question of god.

I don't know what an SOP is, but surely, having read this thread and others like you, you realize that atheist means different things to different people. It never means chair. But a reasonably use of atheist -- by reasonable, I mean a use that is generally accepted by large numbers of people -- includes some sort of rejection of God.

There are atheists who to whom it's less about the truth claim and more about the fact that God just doesn't interest them. He has no bearing on their lives.

There are other atheists to whom it's all about the truth claim.

There are atheists for whom it's a mixture.

There are atheists that "see no reason to believe in God."

There are atheist who emphatically don't believe in God. I am in that camp. I am CERTAIN He doesn't exist. But I don't tell the "I see no reason" atheists that they aren't atheists. The are using the word is a standard way; as am I.
posted by grumblebee at 6:47 AM on June 30, 2010


grumblebee: You know, I had a fairly long response pointing out that Huxley's definition of agnosticism is in no way incompatible with the Russell/Dawkins-style atheism which eschews ontological arguments against the existence of God in favor of criticism of theism as a justified belief. (Summary: Skepticism and doubt are reasonable default positions given lack of evidence.) Then I saw you posted this:

Webster defines an agnostic as...

Which means we're not even on the same rhetorical playing field, because coming into a discussion regarding philosophical positions that have filled hundreds of volumes wielding a Webster's dictionary is a spectacular failure. Agnosticism is defined by agnostics which means actually reading Huxley, Spencer, and now Wilkins. Atheism is defined by atheists which means actually reading Russell, Dawkins, etc., etc..

Wilkins actually does a better job in justifying agnosticism as a philosophical position distinct from atheism than your twaddle regarding carrots and cucumbers, Jews and Christians. But I think he makes a critical mistake in not realizing that when atheists incorporate agnosticism into their philosophy that they are responding to Huxley's criticism of theological knowledge in a way that moves the discussion to more fruitful ground.

A much better comparison would be Christians and Marxists. In spite of Cold War patriotic rhetoric and Marxism's skepticism regarding the value of religious institutions, there are certainly people who find the two ideologies to be compatible.

But I don't tell the "I see no reason" atheists that they aren't atheists.

Except that you just did. You can certainly disagree with the way in which Russell and Dawkins respond to Huxley by hedging their claims regarding God, but they've been influential in shaping contemporary atheism and are the focus of Rosenbaum's smear.

It's actually rather personal for me because I find my doubts strangely comforting in times of trouble because they're a reasonable and human response to uncertainty.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:49 AM on June 30, 2010


But I don't tell the "I see no reason" atheists that they aren't atheists.

Except that you just did.


Where?
posted by grumblebee at 8:22 AM on June 30, 2010


grumblebee: If you define atheism and agnosticism as mutually-incompatible categories like carrots and cucumbers, then yes, you are saying that folks like Asimov, Russell, Dawkins, and myself can't be atheists.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:37 AM on June 30, 2010


Kirk, grumblebee - I'm sure you've both clarified this point more than once in this thread but it's been a darned long one so ...

Do you see agnosticism + atheism as incompatible positions, or is there an ultimately gray line between them? I ask this because if someone had asked me this question a few years ago, I would have argued for incompatibility. But, precisely because of discussions such as this, unique in a way to the internet because so many different people can weigh in, I've come to take a far less severe view.

Shades of gray, baby, shades of gray.

Worth noting, I've come to feel much the same about the divide between theism + agnosticism.
posted by philip-random at 8:53 AM on June 30, 2010


philip-random: IMNSHO, the issue at hand here is that there are a wide variety of different flavors of agnosticism and atheism floating around, all of which attack the subject from different angles:

* Does god exist? (ontological arguments)
* Can we know and/or prove whether God exists? (Huxley and Spencer)
* Is theism a justified belief? (Dawkins, Russell, James, Dewey, Pascal's Wager (*))
* Is god a coherent concept about which we can make claims? (ignosticism)

Is there a grey line between them? Dawkins and Wilkins both seem to think so. My personal view is that Huxley was eclipsed by developments since 1969 to the point where much of his ham-fisted criticisms are now moot and taken for granted by many people who seriously think about knowledge. But then again, I'm not certain his arguments were that great to begin with.

But yes, many theistic apologetics are also formally agnostic. They essentially say, "We can't prove God exists, but it's beneficial to assume he does." Pascal's Wager doesn't argue for the existence of God, it only argues that the possibility of hell makes religious faith pragmatically justified. I found it interesting though to see a Tibetan Buddhist variant of it.

Although earlier comments about the distinction between orthodoxy/orthopraxy are really interesting having sat through lectures for a religion that openly entertained the possibility that Tara and Ganesh were little more than useful constructs of the mind for overcoming certain stumbling blocks in Buddhist practice.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:37 AM on June 30, 2010


While I don't think it really makes sense to say, "I'm both an atheist and an agnostic," I do think there's some gray area between the two. So it might make sense to say, "I'm not sure if I'm an atheist or an agnostic."

If I remember Dawkins correctly, his stance is that he's 99.9999999999% sure there's no God. But, of course, that leaves a fractional bit of uncertainty. He says that when your fraction of uncertainty becomes that small, it's misleading to call yourself uncertain. If you do, you'll give people the idea that you have a reasonable amount of uncertainty -- which you don't for any practical purpose.

I agree with this, and, actually, I'm the same way. When I say, I KNOW there's no God, I mean I KNOW to 99.999999999% surety. If you want to say, "Ah, well then you don't KNOW," we're in a semantic argument about what "know" means. If I agree with you, then I don't know anything, because there's nothing I'm 100% sure of. So the word "know" becomes useless. So I reserve the right to make the word useful by claiming that it means sure to a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent.

The acid test is something like this: let's say there's a folded piece of paper that has the answer to whether God exists or not. BEFORE looking at it, would you be willing to state your belief and be killed if you're wrong? Are you THAT sure you're right?

And my answer is "Yes, I am." THAT'S why I feel honest when I say I know. And that's why I call myself an atheist. The fact that I have a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of doubt is mundane. I have that same fraction of a fraction of a fraction of doubt that I'm 44 years old and that I live in New York City. But I'll happily risk my life on those facts.

My doubt isn't even real doubt in the emotional sense. Emotionally, I know there's no God to 100% confidence (in the sense that I never think about the tiny fraction of doubt, unless we're in a discussion like this). It's doubt in some intellectual, philosophical sense that almost never impacts my life.

But what if I was 98% sure there was no God? What about 90% sure? At what point do I stop being an atheist and become and agnostic. I think this is the gray area. And I'd say that there's also a gray area between night and day. But that doesn't mean that night and day are the same. There's a point at which it's definitely day and a point at which it's definitely night.

To me, an agnostic is someone who has significant uncertainty. We can bicker about what amount is "significant."
posted by grumblebee at 10:32 AM on June 30, 2010


grumblebee: My goodness, you like to pile it higher and deeper and it's becoming quite clear that you just don't have a clue about what you're talking about. Pretty much all you've given is just a bunch of irrational, subjective, and emotional feelings that doesn't have a fucking thing to do with agnosticism.

I agree with this, and, actually, I'm the same way. When I say, I KNOW there's no God, I mean I KNOW to 99.999999999% surety. If you want to say, "Ah, well then you don't KNOW," we're in a semantic argument about what "know" means. If I agree with you, then I don't know anything, because there's nothing I'm 100% sure of. So the word "know" becomes useless. So I reserve the right to make the word useful by claiming that it means sure to a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent.

Well, here you're just plain irrational. First, how do you measure 99.9999...% surety? What's your data set? What's your population distribution? How do you even break down a metaphysical concept to a statistical question? So on this point, you're just talking out of your ass. You might subjectively feel very firm in your convictions, but that's not knowledge, it's pure sentimental pap. (Nothing wrong with that, I feel the same way, I just have the good sense to recognize that it's an irrational prejudice in this case.)

IF you engage in an epistemology in which it's meaningful to put p-values on knowledge claims
THEN you must shoulder the burden that such claims are provisional and probabilistic
THEREFORE you accept Huxley's maxim of not making unwarranted knowledge claims.

IT'S NOT feelings of certainty or sureness
IT'S NOT willingness to die for your beliefs
IT'S NOT semantics
IT'S epistemology.

And these things matter if you're engaged in any kind of science literacy that goes beyond just gawking at the mysterious like the three-eyed aliens from Toy Story, chanting "The Claaaaaaaaw."

And they matter when responding to assholes like Rosenbaum who accuses atheists of dogmatic scientism without realizing that adoption of the scientific method requires the agnosticism he advocates.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:49 PM on June 30, 2010


KirkJobSluder, I was enjoying a fun, stimulating conversation with you until now. I'm going to quit. I don't participate in conversations in which people talk to me like this.

My goodness, you like to pile it higher and deeper and it's becoming quite clear that you just don't have a clue about what you're talking about. Pretty much all you've given is just a bunch of irrational, subjective, and emotional feelings that doesn't have a fucking thing to do with agnosticism.

There was a polite way for you to say what you said, but you chose a rude way to do it instead. But thanks for the awesome conversation -- while it lasted.
posted by grumblebee at 12:54 PM on June 30, 2010


gumblebee: I apologize. I'm getting angry because this is the sort of thing I have to fight all the time in defending my atheism against the likes of Rosenbaum and I get tired of having to explain over and over again how contemporary atheism (and religious apologetics) incorporates agnosticism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:06 PM on June 30, 2010


No problem. We all get upset at times. I enjoyed the discussion.
posted by grumblebee at 1:09 PM on June 30, 2010


It's not possible to have a meaningful discussion with people who make up their own definitions for words and then use those words as if their definitions are the correct ones. (Humpty Dumpty notwithstanding.)

If you want to use some idiosyncratic definition of a word, then, sorry, but you're not playing the game correctly. Make up a new term and define it however you like, and then use it.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:27 PM on June 30, 2010


Crabby: I'm drawing my definitions from Huxley, Russell, and Dawkins, and explicitly looking at the way in which those three authors deal with the problem of knowledge about god. Any argument that promotes agnosticism as entirely separate from atheism needs to deal with the fact that both Russell and Dawkins (along with several other outspoken atheists) use agnosticism to avoid getting mired into ontological arguments.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:50 PM on June 30, 2010


This may help:

Dawkins posits that "the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other." He goes on to propose a continuous "spectrum of probabilities" between two extremes of opposite certainty, which can be represented by seven "milestones". Dawkins suggests definitive statements to summarize one's place along the spectrum of theistic probability. These "milestones" are:[2]

1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, 'I do not believe, I know.'

2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. 'I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.'

3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. 'I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.'

4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. 'God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.'

5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. 'I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be sceptical.'

6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'

7. Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'


Also

I am an agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.
—Richard Dawkins

Here's a video of Dawkins called "The Poverty Of Agnosticism."
posted by grumblebee at 4:07 PM on June 30, 2010


I think Kirk is drawing a distinction between "a priori" (or "ontological"?) arguments for or against God, and the sorts of evidence one can adduce for any empirical fact. The idea is that a priori arguments can give you an answer with certainty, whereas empirical evidence leads only to probabilistic beliefs.

If you accept this distinction, it makes sense to draw a line between atheist and agnostic based on whether your evidence for disbelief is a priori or probabilistic. If you have a logical argument that proves -- without looking at empirical evidence -- that there is no God, then you are not agnostic. You are certain. You are simply an atheist. I am open to the possibility of such arguments, although I don't think I have one. (Many religious thinkers have raised arguments purporting to show a priori that there must be a god. The most famous are the descendants of Anselm's "ontological argument." Some friends tell me there are respectable versions of this argument; I don't believe them.)

On the other hand (in Kirk's view), if your disbelief in God is justified by some aspect of the empirical world, your inference must be probabilistic. So in his scheme, you can be "agnostic" at best.

I disagree because I reject the distinction above. I think even "a priori" arguments must rationally be assigned probabilistic weightings. For example, I am very sure that the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus is true, but I am not literally 100% certain, because there are unlikely but non-zero sources of doubt. Perhaps my memories of the proof are radically flawed; perhaps arithmetic is not consistent; perhaps mathematicians have made a crucial but invisible error somehow. I believe these sorts of doubts are unavoidable.

If you take my kind of view, it makes more sense to look at atheist and agnostic as specifying points or regions on the same continuum of doubt, since a sharp distinction is not possible.

I'm not sure whether Grumblebee agrees with me or holds a third view, which is partly psychological.

Anyway, Kirk, I'm very curious about whether I'm doing you justice here.
posted by grobstein at 5:37 PM on June 30, 2010


it makes more sense to look at atheist and agnostic as specifying points or regions on the same continuum of doubt, since a sharp distinction is not possible.

I'm not sure whether Grumblebee agrees with me or holds a third view, which is partly psychological.


Yes, that's how I think of things, too. I would make one additional point (which you might agree with or not). Although there's a continuum from theist to agnostic to atheist, it makes sense to call certain people (who are very far to one end) atheists. In other words, saying something is a continuum is not the same as saying, "Oh, well, it's all fuzzy. Agnostics and Atheists are the same thing."

I believe words, being human constructions, should be used in ways that are useful. There's no right way to use a word. There are only useful (or not) ways to use them.

There are two criteria for useful words. First, for a word to be useful, large groups of people (or at least the members of a group that is currently conversing) should share the same definition -- or at least compatible definitions. Second, the word must actually do some real work, e.g. conjure up an image, an idea, etc. (Maybe we can all agree that a freen is a freenish thing, but that doesn't satisfy my second criterion.)

My first criterion is why I linked to Websters. I realize that there are more sophisticated definitions of agnostic and atheist, but I think Websters is right about the most common usage. To the best of my knowledge, most people think of an atheist as someone who doesn't believe there's a God and an agnostic as someone who's unsure. And I think that's also a useful distinction, because those two mindsets really exist. (I know they are possible, because I once had one of the two mindsets and now I have the other.) Since they exist, we need words to describe them.

To me, the theism-atheism continuum is similar to the sexuality continuum: hetero--bi--homo. (It's funny that that continuum sparks similar debates: "Everyone is bisexual," etc.)

I am on the far left of that spectrum. I'm as hetero as you can get. I have never once in my life had the experience of being attracted to a man. But what if, one day, I found a man sexy? What if the experience lasted five minutes and then never happened again? Let's say I wind up living to be 90. So for five minutes in 90 years, I am attracted to a man. In the remaining minutes of my life -- 116,640,000 minutes -- I'm attracted to women. (Not really true, because I don't spend every waking and seeping minute being attracted, but you get the idea.)

Is it USEFUL to call me bisexual? It's not wrong to call me that. A definition can't be wrong, unless we believe in a cosmic dictionary or something. But (a) would most people consider someone like me bisexual, and (b) does it help us out in some way to use that word when talking about my sexuality?

I can't prove this, but I doubt most people would consider someone bisexual if his one "gay" thought -- in 90 years -- lasted five minutes. (It would be interested to ask this as a survey question. I predict most people would call someone like that "straight.")

And I don't think it's useful to call that version of me bisexual. Because to do so blunts the word. If I ask you to set me up with someone, should you think, "Well, since he's bisexual, he'd probably be into both Joe and Amy." No, that would be absurd.

What if I was mostly attracted to women but had sexual thoughts about men once a year? We could bicker about whether THAT version of me is bisexual or not. But I'm comfortable calling the previous version (five minutes in 90 years) straight without reservations. And if I have frequent thoughts about both men and women, I'm going to confidently call myself bi.

So I'm going to posit that there's a definite difference between straight and bi, even though there's a gray area between them.

If someone claims "straight and bisexual are the same thing" or "you can be both straight and bisexual at the same time," I say that person is rendering useful words useless.
posted by grumblebee at 6:21 PM on June 30, 2010


Well yes. But the first part of my comment was meant to show how, if you take a certain kind of view about what kinds of knowledge are possible, then atheist-agnostic is not like straight-bisexual at all.

To sketch how that's possible, a rough taxonomy:

Theist, non-agnostic: you believe in God because of an "a priori" reason, like an ontological argument. You have certainty, because this is the sort of reason that gives certainty.

Theist, agnostic: you believe in God, because empirical evidence tends to support the position that he exists. You do not have certainty, because this sort of reason never leads to true certainty.

Atheist, non-agnostic: you disbelieve in God because of an "a priori" reason, for example because you think God is logically impossible somehow. You have certainty, because this is the sort of reason that gives certainty.

Atheist, agnostic: you disbelieve in God, because the empirical evidence tends not to support the position that he exists. You do not have certainty, because this sort of reason never leads to true certainty.

As I mentioned, my picture of how knowledge work renders this taxonomy faulty. Perhaps yours does too. But it's not crazy and you don't have to appeal to first principles about what makes a word useful.

Clear?
posted by grobstein at 6:43 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Atheist, non-agnostic: you disbelieve in God because of an "a priori" reason, for example because you think God is logically impossible somehow. You have certainty, because this is the sort of reason that gives certainty.

Atheist, agnostic: you disbelieve in God, because the empirical evidence tends


I think for at least some of us, the a priori/empirical distinction ceases to exist once we're in a state of belief.

I have an a priori-based belief that 1+2=3. The math has been explained to me so that I see that result as inevitable. I don't need empirical evidence. I can just follow the logic.

I have empirical knowledge that I have four fingers and a thumb.

But in the end, I am (I feel) just as sure of both facts. If you ask me to defend them rationally, I may use different kinds of arguments, and if you say, "So you're saying there's NO possibility you might be wrong," I might say something different about the two, but that's intellectual glaze over my actual psychological state 99% of the time.

I am not going to claim everyone is built the way I am, but I also don't think I'm unique. My point is that if you take two atheist -- one who came to his conviction via an a priori argument and the other who came to it via empiricism -- in the end, their mental states might be the same.

This is total conjecture, but it's even possible they might be LITERALLY the same, as in if you scanned them in an MRI, you'd find that the same "belief" area would light up with the same intensity in both.

When we talk about whether someone KNOWS that God doesn't (or does) exist, we need to make clear if we mean "knows" in the everyday sense, which I think is more of a feeling than a logically-thought-out-stance (even if it was originally derived via logic and can stand up to logical scrutiny) or whether we mean "he has a rigorous proof that he runs through every time he thinks of God."
posted by grumblebee at 6:58 PM on June 30, 2010


I thought you might say that, which is why I hedged our agreement in my earlier comment. I am actually not that interested in the psychology of belief, and prefer to talk about high-level beliefs in the context of a hypothetical model rationality. (What should one believe given e.g. the arguments one has?) This may sound weird, but I think it's both fairly common and pretty defensible. It may also be a matter of taste.

However, if you hew closely to that sort of psychological view, you will encounter some problems. For example: what is the "true" mental state that is described by "belief" -- is it whatever is always on in the background, or is it what arises when you ask someone about a belief? As you note above, those may be two very different mental states. But they are both conventionally part of what's called "belief", I think.
posted by grobstein at 7:12 PM on June 30, 2010


(All that said, I do not draw a sharp distinction between "a priori" and "empirical" knowledge. I think they are both similarly subject to doubt. I was just trying to sketch how, if you do draw a sharp distinction, you might be lead to a position like Kirk's in this thread.)
posted by grobstein at 7:14 PM on June 30, 2010


I think both the "hypothetical model rationality" and the day-to-day, psychological belief systems are fascinating. I applaud you for making the distinction. Too often, in these discussions, people don't. And they wind up talking apples and oranges.

I agree with you about the problems with the psychological view. I think the problem with the "high-level" view is that it's rarely in use in real life. At least I don't think it is. It's fine to talk about things that aren't in real-world use, but the problem is that, in these discussions, people talk as if it is. As if some of us are perfect rational machines and others are buggy, broken machines. I think the truth is much messier than that.
posted by grumblebee at 7:19 PM on June 30, 2010


"Oh, well, it's all fuzzy. Agnostics and Atheists are the same thing."

Why are you beating on this dead horse when we're pretty much in agreement?

Oh really. I feel sorry for Dawkins. I thought he knew better, and he should know better because looking at his scale, it's obvious that he's flattening the two dimensions of belief and knowledge together in a way that makes his scale invalid. I expect a scientist to know about issues of validity. Heck, I expect better of tenured faculty to avoid obvious double-barreled scales.

The problem here is that we seem to be talking at cross-purposes here. From my point of view, you've pretty much reduced the distinction between atheism and agnosticism to a touchy-feely, subjective, and completely irrational "probability" (the misuse of which here makes my inner statistician wanna hurl.) Here is where I put on my cognitive psychologist hat and point out that unless you're a professional gambler or card player, your estimates of probability are almost certainly wrong.

Fine, I can deal with that. Some people identify as werewolves and Na'vi based entirely on their subjective feelings and I'm not going to argue with them. But I'm not obligated to follow you down the rabbit hole on that.

My first criterion is why I linked to Websters. I realize that there are more sophisticated definitions of agnostic and atheist, but I think Websters is right about the most common usage.

Yes, and it's a very common use to throw "Marxist" around these days over political disagreements. Webster also says (or said, I've not checked more recent editions) that I'm a hermaphrodite, look up "bisexual" if you want a laugh.

Of course, I'm insisting on more sophisticated definitions of agnostic and atheist for the same reason why I'm rather priggish about the definitions of Marxist and bisexual. If you're going to talk seriously about Marxism, you really should be willing to engage in the philosophical tradition from Marx through contemporary writers like West who are influenced by Marx. If you want to seriously talk about bisexuality, you need to be at least passively aware of not only the Kinsey scale, but Freud, Krafft-Ebing, and the Klein grid as well.

And talking to actual Anarchists using the common definition of the term and not the political theory is a sure ticket for making yourself look foolish.

Throughout this discussion I've been very clear and precise as to exactly what I mean when I say, "I am agnostic." I'm agnostic because I engage in the same epistemological critiques initiated under that term by Huxley. (Granted, that skepticism has exploded with post-modernism, but that's another subject.) I'm not going to change my view that agnostic-atheism is a coherent and compatible position no matter how many times you write, "I feel, I feel, I feel," because your feelings have nothing to do with it.

To me, the theism-atheism continuum is similar to the sexuality continuum: hetero--bi--homo. (It's funny that that continuum sparks similar debates: "Everyone is bisexual," etc.)

Um, you do know that the Kinsey scale is widely critiqued because it's a one-dimensional view of human sexuality, leading to things like the Klein Grid?

And I don't think it's useful to call that version of me bisexual.

That's nice, now exactly who is calling you bisexual or agnostic?

If someone claims "straight and bisexual are the same thing" or "you can be both straight and bisexual at the same time," I say that person is rendering useful words useless.

Well, actually within the group of people who actually look at human sexuality for a variety of reasons (as opposed to just grabbing the Kinsey scale for the purpose of making a bad argument), it actually is useful to point out that sexuality is multidimensional and complex. So you have straight men who have sex with men, straight women who experiment with women, lesbians who will have sport-sex, or even long-term relationships with men, people who are dominantly one sexuality but play otherwise in regards to specific kinks. Our current conception of gay/bi/straight is a cultural construction that doesn't translate well elsewhere, or even our own historic culture before WWII. And what do you do with people who identify as queer in gender and sexuality?

And in fact here in the United States, there's a growing awareness that HIV education needs to be pitched to straight MSM who don't see themselves as gay or bisexual, have little contact with the out gay and bisexual community, and don't consider themselves vulnerable.

This whole argument is profoundly ignorant to the complexities of sexual orientation, identity and behavior.

... I might say something different about the two, but that's intellectual glaze over my actual psychological state 99% of the time.

Sure, I'll liberally grant that my atheism is, in part, a superstitious and irrational conceit.

But, I'd like to think that my doubts are reasonably defensible as compatible with the same forms of knowing that I try to use in other aspects of my life. So unlike my former fellow-travelers in the neo-pagan movement, I'm not just farting rainbows and puking stars because it feels good.

I think the problem with the "high-level" view is that it's rarely in use in real life.

As I've said above, I think these things are critical for any kind of science literacy beyond, "gee whiz!" When I read about a study that makes a gee whiz claim, I certainly think critically about it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:27 PM on June 30, 2010


grobstein: Close. Let me put it another way.

Just as it is useful to talk about American Pragmatism in terms of the philosophy presented by Peirce, James, and Dewey, it's reasonable to talk about Agnosticism as a school of criticism regarding the epistemology of theological claims following Huxley and Spencer.

It's my opinion that key figures in atheism including most of the New Atheists (following Russell) have adopted formally Agnostic stances in order to avoid dealing with the ontological quagmire. Rather than arguing, "God does not exist," they make the argument "in the absence of evidence, the provisional belief that God does not exist is reasonable." I see lowering the bar from knowledge to provisional belief to be a concession or appropriation of Huxley's maxim.

Central to the confusion here is conflating belief with knowledge. A belief is merely a cognitive state that can be reasonable or unreasonable, true or false, tested or untested.

In contrast, if you want to claim something as knowledge (in the philosophical meaning of the term) you bear a burden of evidence to show that knowledge is valid and justified.

I'm agnostic because I consider both ends of the spectrum proposed by Dawkins to involve unjustified (and possibly unjustifiable) knowledge claims. For that matter, I'm now skeptical that "theistic probability" is justified or justifiable either because I can't think of a way it can be reasonably estimated or falsified.

Now I believe God doesn't exist, but that's a hopefully reasonable belief, not a claim to any from of knowledge that's valid beyond my own skull. Likewise, grumblebee's insistence that he knows atheism like he knows his thumb is on the order of "I feel pretty, oh so pretty. I feel pretty, and witty, and bright." It's effusive and heartfelt, but idiosyncratic and impossible to justify beyond one's own subjectivity.

And the whole point of having either a priori systems or empiricism is create valid and justified knowledge claims rather than a warm fuzzy mash of subjective ones.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:25 PM on June 30, 2010


I'm not sure you've labeled the "non-agnostic atheist" correctly, grobstein. I'll observe that "non-agnostic" is logically equivalent to gnostic, but logical deductions are not gnosis.

In particular, if you're a primitive tribesman who's seen toilet paper, but never seen paper money, then you might conclude that money is never made of paper using Occam's Razor. You are wrong of course but you have not stretched Occam's Razor excessively. And you've not made any appeal to gnosis since others can follow your reasoning perfectly.

Are you aware of any gnostic atheist? I've never encountered one. Huxley has little patience for several continental philosophers that derive atheism logically, but afaik they're all agnostics too. We know however that Huxley's primary target was organized religions that profit through ignorance, not those philosophers. And that's we he coined the term agnostic, not say empiricists.

Agnostic means precisely that you don't believe people who say they talk to god, that doesn't prevent you from believing in god yourself of course, just keeps you honest.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:24 AM on July 1, 2010


And there's nothing wrong with grumblebee farting rainbows here because it certainly is the case that many people are using these terms in ways that are sloppy. His argument that we should all fart rainbows and ignore the agnostic epistemological critique crosses the line into anti-intellectualism.

If you want to use a variant of Russell's Teapot, IMNSHO you have to be comfortable with the fact that it accepts the agnostic epistemological critique from the start.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:28 AM on July 1, 2010


This whole argument is profoundly ignorant to the complexities of sexual orientation, identity and behavior.

Possibly. For the record, I've read a lot of sex-research, both Kinsey and later stuff. It's a big interest of mine. The fact that someone disagrees with you does not necessarily mean he's ignorant.

So you have straight men who have sex with men, straight women who experiment with women,

Yeah. I personally reject "straight" as a meaningful label for such people. Before anyone gets pissed, I totally respect people's rights to apply any labels they want to themselves and to identify as anything they want. If a guy whose never been to police academy and isn't employed by a cop wants to call himself a policeman, that's his right as far as I'm concerned. And I would never say to him, "No, you're not a cop." But I can't think of him as one.

To me, words aren't useful unless they have sharp, clear meanings. If they don't, we should throw them out.

Forget "straight," "bisexual," "homosexual," "heterosexual" and "gay" for a minute. There are men in this world, like me, who have often been attracted to women but who have never experienced attraction to another man and can't even imagine what that would be like. There are other men, like my friend, John, who have never experienced being attracted to a woman. And, of course, there are people who are regularly attracted to both men and women.

Forgetting, for a moment, about how those people identify and what cultures they are part of, just that difference by itself -- just who people are attracted to -- is a notable and interesting (at least to me) trait. We need words for it. We need words because "Man who is only every attracted to women" is too long and clunky to work for long.

So what words should we use? I propose that straight, bi and gay work well. Those words mean other things to other people, and that's fine, but I think my way of using them makes sense, as long as I'm clear how I'm using them.

That's nice, now exactly who is calling you bisexual or agnostic?


Sorry. I must have been unclear. No one is calling me anything. I was making a counter-factual in order to explain my idea about one way certain words might be usefully employed.

Similarly, if I said something like, "If I was a dog, it would be silly for people to call me a cat," I'm not claiming that anyone actually calls me a cat. Nor, of course, am I claiming to be a dog.

I'm not going to change my view that agnostic-atheism is a coherent and compatible position no matter how many times you write, "I feel, I feel, I feel," because your feelings have nothing to do with it.

Well, I'm not expecting you to change your views or trying to make you change them. I'm just trying to make my views clear. I thought that's what we were both doing.

I hear you when you get irritated with me for using the word "feel" or "feeling." I'm not saying, "I feel 'atheism' means such-and-such, and, therefor, based on my feelings, everyone should use the word the same way." I'm saying that theism and atheism (belief/non-belief) are feelings -- or are based around feelings. Those feelings may have been caused by completely-neutral, rational thought-processes (though I don't really believe such thought-processes exit), and people may be in the habit of defending their feelings by employing logic, but the mental process of belief (or rejection -- or being unsure) is a feeling.

You, of course, may disagree.

This confuses me:

Me: Agnostics and Atheists are the same thing.

You: Why are you beating on this dead horse when we're pretty much in agreement?

Then, later:

You: I'm not going to change my view that agnostic-atheism is a coherent and compatible position

By rejecting the notion that "Agnostics and Atheists are the same thing," I'm rejecting the notion that they're compatible -- that using those two words to describe one person is a meaningful/useful use of those words.

So I'm confused that you say we're in agreement and then say what you've been saying, that the two philosophies ARE compatible.

This seems, to me, like the crux of our disagreement, and its not a small matter. You think it makes sense to use those words one way; I think it makes sense to use them another.

Um, you do know ... That's nice, now exactly who ...


This sounds condescending to me. Am I misreading it? If it was intended to be condescending, it's out of line. Let's keep things civil and polite. You are clearly a smart person who as thought deeply about these matters. I am too. I am not speaking off-the-cuff. I've been thinking and reading about this stuff for 30 years. That doesn't in any way make me right. But I do work hard to be clear and thoughtful.
posted by grumblebee at 6:36 AM on July 1, 2010


grumblebee: Well, I guess I don't understand your objections, and I suspect they are largely incoherent.

First of all, I was being generous in calling your argument ignorant. It is, in fact, just plain wrong and actively dangerous when applied to the public health concerns of and surrounding MSM. In looking at the literature regarding sexuality, people are usually very clear whether they mean "straight" as an internal sexual orientation, as a pattern of behavior, or as an identity.

If you want to object to straight MSM as a meaningful category, please show that:
1: There are not men who identify as straight but have sex with men (validity).
2: That it's difficult or impossible to identify straight MSM in a consistent manner (reliability).
3: That looking at straight MSM isn't useful for understanding certain issues in public health (utility).

The empirical utility of that category trumps your selfish need to personally reject that as meaningful.

We need words for it. We need words because "Man who is only every attracted to women" is too long and clunky to work for long.

I don't know who is arguing that we don't need words. I'm arguing that we need a word for, "And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable." It just so happens that we have a word for that, and it's agnosticism.

I hear you when you get irritated with me for using the word "feel" or "feeling." I'm not saying, "I feel 'atheism' means such-and-such, and, therefor, based on my feelings, everyone should use the word the same way." ...

Except that you are when you say that more sophisticated and rigorous definitions are meaningless. My problem here is that in reducing agnosticism and atheism to emotional states of being that you're erasing the fact that both are also traditions of philosophical critique.

By rejecting the notion that "Agnostics and Atheists are the same thing," I'm rejecting the notion that they're compatible -- that using those two words to describe one person is a meaningful/useful use of those words.

I honestly don't understand your objection here. It doesn't make a lick of sense. Compatibility is in no way, sense, form or manner, even close to "are the same thing." We don't say that a toaster is the same thing as the wall socket that powers it. We don't say that a JPG file is the same thing as Photoshop. We don't say that a Democrat is the same thing as an environmentalist. We say they are compatible.

I'm pointing out that I see Huxley's agnosticism as being a critical influence behind arguments such as Russell's teapot. And heck, the Websters definitions of the two terms are compatible with each other.

This sounds condescending to me. Am I misreading it? If it was intended to be condescending, it's out of line.

No, I'm just pointing out both that your sexuality analogy was based on a model that's now considered to be dangerously obsolete (and was significantly hedged from the start) and asking you to cite the origins of an argument I've not seen made.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:31 AM on July 1, 2010


If you want to object to straight MSM as a meaningful category, please show that:
1: There are not men who identify as straight but have sex with men (validity).
2: That it's difficult or impossible to identify straight MSM in a consistent manner (reliability).
3: That looking at straight MSM isn't useful for understanding certain issues in public health (utility).


I agree with all of this.

Let's say a schizophrenic says he's the president of the USA. (I'm not likening bisexuals to schizophrenics -- I'm just trying to make a point clear via an extreme example.)

As far as I'm concerned, he's NOT president of the USA. I define president of the USA as our country's elected leader, head of the Executive Branch. That's an arbitrary definition -- like all definitions -- but we do HAVE an elected leader, and it's useful to have a term for him.

Now, I could rewrite two of your three points as follows

1: There are not people who are not leaders of the USA but who identify as president, anyway.

3: That telling the them they're wrong could endanger their health.

(3 is debatable, I'm sure, but I don't want to get into what's healthy or unhealthy for a schizophrenic. Let's pretend it's unhealthy to tell schizophrenics that they may not be who they think they are.)

I agree that, from a public heath perspective, it's unwise to say certain things. I also agree that, from a respect standpoint (your first point), it's rude to contradict people's personal identifying statements. I wouldn't do that.

That has nothing to do with what I'm saying. Which is that health-concerns and politeness-concerns aside, it's useful (for me, anyway), to classify Obama as president and the schizophrenic as not-president.

It's useful to me (I don't work in public health) to classify people as straight, gay and bi in the simple way I did so. And I'm met many other people who also find that useful. I'm not claiming it's universally useful to define those words that way.

I am not being selfish. Selfish would be telling someone who says, "I'm straight" that he's wrong. I would never do that. I don't even think he IS wrong. I just think he's employing classifications that aren't useful to me.

I honestly don't understand your objection here. It doesn't make a lick of sense. Compatibility is in no way, sense, form or manner, even close to "are the same thing."

Agreed. To me, the only clear and useful definitions of atheist and agnostic is "I know for sure" vs. "I am unsure." I hear that you define things differently, as is your right.

I will NEVER say your definitions are wrong. I don't think definitions can be wrong. All definitions are arbitrary -- though hopefully useful.

But IF you agreed to use my definitions -- I know you don't -- and then said, "It's possible to both know and be unsure a the same time," I would disagree. Since those are my working definitions, I can not accept that the two are compatible. "I know for sure" and "I'm unsure" are not compatible.

My only other point was about what "I know for sure means," and that's why I brought up the 99.99999999% thing. I didn't mean that literally. Of course I can't calculate my degree of confidence to many decimal palaces. What I meant is that a reasonable definition of "I know for sure" has room for THEORETICAL doubt (a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction) that isn't real doubt in the emotional sense.

Sorry, at this point there's no way I can divorce emotion from what I'm saying. I think it's integral. You are free to reject it.
posted by grumblebee at 8:04 AM on July 1, 2010


Okay, now I think I get it. Huxley says you're agnostic if you don't reason from gnosis. You should be agnostic, because gnosis is impossible. And if you're agnostic, you should be atheist because forms of evidence other than gnosis strongly favor an atheistic worldview. So you can be and should be agnostic and atheist.

No one seems to talk this way anymore. It seems to require that you know what "gnosis" is, which (unless you just interpolate "bullshit") strikes me as a hard problem. (If you are a platonist, what is the status of knowledge from logical argument?) And many religious people do not indicate that they derive their religion from gnosis. Seemingly we must call those religious people "agnostics."

But that's all fine as far as I care, and I'm just happy to feel like I understand this argument.
posted by grobstein at 8:07 AM on July 1, 2010


And I'll point out that I've explain exactly how and why I see agnostic atheism as compatible in this post and it's relationship to Russell's Teapot in this post.

In my opinion, if you're going to evade ontological questions with a variant of Russell's Teapot (including Invisible Pink Unicorns), you should consider that a position that grants Huxley's agnostic method from the start.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:12 AM on July 1, 2010


grobstein: No one seems to talk this way anymore.

I disagree because issues of "what is justified knowledge" are central to debates ranging from environmentalism, to intelligent design, to business practice. Heck, there was recently a major flamewar on metafilter surrounding the epistemology of History and whether History can be considered "scientific." (IMO, not necessarily, and that's a great thing for history.)

The problem is that no one seems to get bent out of shape over Evolutionary Biology following Huxley's maxim, but does get bent out of shape if we suggest that Russell's teapot follows Huxley's maxim. Unfortunately, this discussion is turning out to validate Wilkes' and Rosenbaum's complaint that we have tribal lines drawn in the sand here.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:23 AM on July 1, 2010


In my opinion, if you're going to evade ontological questions with a variant of Russell's Teapot (including Invisible Pink Unicorns), you should consider that a position that grants Huxley's agnostic method from the start.

That's fine, but I really NEED two words: one for someone who knows and one for someone who isn't sure. That's a very important distinction for me, and so I need labels in order to talk about it and think about it.

So if I go with your definitions of atheism and agnosticism, what words should I use for those not-compatible states-of-mind?

I'm not being a smart-ass. I really would be fine giving up my definitions of those words if you gave me other words I could pin those definitions to -- but they'd have to be words that most people would easily understand. They can't be BLEH and SMCHME. People have no idea what those words mean.
posted by grumblebee at 8:30 AM on July 1, 2010


Which brings me back to Webster again. If someone says, "What do you mean by agnostic?" I can point them to that definition, which is easy to grasp. They may not use "agnostic" that way, but they will almost definitely understand how I'm using it, and they will almost definitely have come across that use before. I won't be alien.
posted by grumblebee at 8:32 AM on July 1, 2010


I disagree because issues of "what is justified knowledge" are central to debates ranging from environmentalism, to intelligent design, to business practice. Heck, there was recently a major flamewar on metafilter surrounding the epistemology of History and whether History can be considered "scientific." (IMO, not necessarily, and that's a great thing for history.)

I do not see the relevance, unless you think that people in the environmental debates (etc.) are reasoning from "gnosis." In general, they are (or purport to be) simply offering different interpretations of empirical evidence. If they have disputes over "what is justified knowledge," they are generally practical ones. No?

Incidentally, Kirk, can you quote "Huxley's maxim"? I think I am beginning to understand the Huxleian position you are taking. But if there is a literal maxim, reproducing it here would probably help everyone. Is it this?
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle... Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
I see this as a very weak principle, in the sense that it will command assent from most people in most contexts (though religion may be an exception), but resolve few disputes.
posted by grobstein at 8:43 AM on July 1, 2010


grumblebee: I don't really see a problem with multiple definitions as long as we recognize that they all have meaning within a given context.

grobstein: Well yes, many disputes over justified knowledge are practical ones. What is the quality of the knowledge claims regarding anthropomorphic climate change? Advocates of anthropomorphic climate change as a concern point out that we have multiple lines of evidence with thousands of data sources pointing to a casual relationship between CO2 and mean atmospheric temperature. Critics often take an epistemological attack arguing that while the existing data is provocative, the claims are not certain enough to justify major economic changes.

Debates over evolution in the biology curriculum rest critically on the nature of scientific knowledge.

But in this case, it's important to constructing a counter-argument to Rosenbaum who accuses atheists of being dogmatically certain in their claims about God.

I see this as a very weak principle, in the sense that it will command assent from most people in most contexts (though religion may be an exception), but resolve few disputes.

Well, epistemology isn't about resolving disputes, it's about figuring out the quality of the knowledge we use to resolve disputes. That doesn't mean epistemology is worthless, even though most people take it for granted.

But yes, my big criticism of Huxley is that he's been largely made irrelevant by later developments in philosophy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:23 AM on July 1, 2010


Well, epistemology isn't about resolving disputes, it's about figuring out the quality of the knowledge we use to resolve disputes. That doesn't mean epistemology is worthless, even though most people take it for granted.

I meant, it doesn't resolve disputes among competing epistemologies. It is a "weak principle" because it doesn't differentiate mainstream views. For example, "Don't be evil" is a weak principle in ethics.

However, your own arguments seem to suggest that it should (help) resolve live disputes in environmentalism, science education, etc., which I still find implausible and confusing. When critics invoke some kind of precautionary principle, saying in essence "We don't know enough to act," I don't think this constrains epistemological views very much. Two people could easily agree completely on the foundations of knowledge, while disagreeing about whether we have enough information to take drastic action against climate change.
posted by grobstein at 9:37 AM on July 1, 2010


... Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

I see this as a very weak principle, in the sense that it will command assent from most people in most contexts (though religion may be an exception), but resolve few disputes.


I agree that the religious fundamentalist is always going to have a problem with this principle. The counter-argument's as simple as, "Of course God is demonstrable. He made the earth that we walk upon, didn't he?"

But I think you're letting the Science side off the hook here. Yes, anyone with any formal science training at all will give lip service to " ... do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable." But once in action, I can't help but feel that this breaks down. A LOT. In fact, I think it's where this whole thread begins, with Ron Rosenbaum's frustration (lamely presented, I agree) with the oh-so superior tone that the LOUDER of the big deal atheists seem to have adopted. They are so convinced with the accuracy of their position that no serious discussion is possible anymore with "the other side". Look no further than the claims throughout this thread that there is no functional difference between atheism and agnosticism.

And any distinctions between atheism & agnosticism are irrelevant distractions.

This is a bullshit position, and what bugs me about it most is that it seems to be adopted for political reasons. That is, "Shut the fuck up, Agnostics. You agree with us more than you do with them, so stay the hell out of it."

I can only speak for myself here (and a few dozen like-minded types I've had discussions with over the years) but, trust me, I'm no closer to believing Science will someday have all the answers than I am to believing that Theology already has all the answers. I am fundamentally in between where the ground is perhaps less firm, but far more realistic, given not my grasp of theory (one way or another) but my personal experience of life-the-universe-everything.
posted by philip-random at 8:18 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it's where this whole thread begins, with Ron Rosenbaum's frustration (lamely presented, I agree) with the oh-so superior tone that the LOUDER of the big deal atheists seem to have adopted. They are so convinced with the accuracy of their position that no serious discussion is possible anymore with "the other side".

I think this is an unsolvable social problem.

I suspect most people -- on all sides of this issue -- would agree that there are some debates that are not worth having. For instance, let's say a group of people start insisting that 1 + 1 = 5.

Out of politeness, I'm not going to say anything about that, if I'm in one of those people's homes or whatever. But if a rigorous discussion, I'm going to say 1 + 1 = 2 and I'm going to say I'm SURE of that.

Unless you think simple arithmetic is open to debate, presumably you'll agree that 1 + 1 IS 2, and that it would be a lie for me to say I'm "agnostic" about it.

(I am NOT saying theists are like people who don't get simple math. I have theists friends who are smarter than I am. One of them is a mathematician. I am using a metaphor to make a point about arrogance.)

But, from the point-of-view of the 1+1=5 people, I'm arrogant. I'm not even willing to consider their arguments. It's true that I'm not willing to consider them, but I would argue that arrogance has nothing to do with it. I WOULD be arrogant if I thought there was any chance that 5 could be the answer, but I don't. I don't think it can't because I think I'm always right; I think it can't because of some rules that are exterior to me.

But if you think the answer IS 5, and I won't listen to you, then, from your point of view, I AM being arrogant. I understand that. I don't know how to solve it. I don't think it's solvable.

So in terms of arrogance, it comes down to this: is "there is no God" the same as 1+1=2. For me, it is. It's not my opinion that there's no God. The fact that there's no God comes from rules that are outside of me. It's a fact. (If there's no money in your bank account and you insist there is, is the teller being arrogant if no matter what you say, he insists your balance is zero?)

I may be wrong about that, but that's what I sincerely believe, so then if I'm wrong, I'm wrong. But I'm not arrogant. But, again, I'm sure I come across that way.

I guess you could argue that there's one sense in which I'm arrogant: let's say 50% of the people in the world believe that 1+1=5. And let's say, for the sake of argument, that they are definitively wrong. Still, you could say that, since SO many people think 5 is the answer, you're being arrogant if you insist it's not -- even if you're demonstratively right. You're arrogant because you know that stating the truth AS a truth will piss off many, many people. And yet you're willing to do it anyway.

That's an interesting piece of ethics. I don't necessarily disagree with it, but it's problematic. It states that sometimes speaking the truth can be arrogant.

That may be true. If it is, I am sometimes going to be arrogant, and I want to live in a world in which others are arrogant in that way, too. But I realize that's not a perfect world. It has its problems.
posted by grumblebee at 10:54 AM on July 2, 2010


Grumblebee, it now sounds like you are conflating the notion that There is a definite answer to whether God exists with, I know the definite answer as to whether God exists. Clearly you think both are the case, but they are logically separable.

For example, I believe there is a definite answer to the question of whether there is alien intelligence in the universe. In this sense it is like 1+1=2. It is not a matter of opinion. Such a thing either exists or doesn't.

But I do not believe I know that answer with high confidence. So I might say I am agnostic about aliens. If someone told me they were completely confident there were no aliens, and ignored my arguments for doubt, it might be fair to call them arrogant. It would be no defense for them to say that there definitely is a right answer. I agree. In order to defend against arrogance, however, they would have to have good reasons (like the bank teller, who has privileged access to evidence about your account balance).

So if you are atheist and refuse to listen to agnostic arguments, you may be arrogant so long as your trust in your evidence / arguments is not justified. You'd have to argue it out to establish that point well, although (as you point out) such an argument would frequently be a waste of time.
posted by grobstein at 11:13 AM on July 2, 2010


Plus, grumblebee, 1+1=2, because that's how we define 2 and disagreement about it is wrong because it's not like saying, faith means belief without proof or something (which can be debated), but more like, faith is NOT made up of the letters f, a, i, t, h. Which it is, fundamentally, and you can be confident of that 100%.

So yes, the debate about what 1+1 equals would be stupid and we neither do it nor entertain it. However, debate about whether God exists or not is a totally different matter, because it comes down to what God means to people, as an abstract idea or ideal. And also because, well, it's historically a very significant and controversial ideal, and has truly only opened up to vigorous debate after we've settled on what vigorous debate is (e.g, after things got demystified enough to actually create a very strong scientific argument that he doesn't). At the end of the day, science's case is limited because our limits of knowing are limited. So I think the argument here (and maybe in the original piece) is that atheists should acknowledge the limitations of what they're using as PROOF, because even science can't prove with 100% certainty that God does not exist.

It's a very compelling case though, and both the agnostics and atheists side with it. Where I think the difference is coming - in this thread, for example - is when atheists claim that this is demonstrable *knowledge* that God doesn't. But it isn't, it's only a refutation of an ideal based on what we know. Based on what we know, it's extremely unlikely that God exists.

People also believed that ether must exist for the same "reason" that they believe God must - because there must be something which explains what cannot be explained. But ether was proven not to exist because we were able to prove that nothing existed, nor had to exist, to explain the phenomena wherein ether was being used as a placeholder. As the source of life and the world, God has not been summarily displaced, because we simply have not solved that mystery beyond doubt. Still, yes, the case for the existence for God is extremely weak, mostly because there's no real case except What Has Not Yet Been Explained. You might believe, as some atheists seem to, that science will eventually solve that mystery, but that's not a defense of atheism, especially as separate from agnosticism. We cannot prove what we don't know, and *all* agnostics believe that we don't know. Where they might reasonably differ from atheism is that they believe we *can* find out (whereas agnostics, at least on this thread, including myself, seem skeptical), but that's not a significant difference. Until and unless we do solve that mystery, agnostic and atheism are on the same spectrum of disbelief. And if we do, I suspect that most agnostics would happily identify as atheists.
posted by mondaygreens at 11:57 AM on July 2, 2010


But, again, I think many agnostics (like myself) are also agnostic because we believe that how scientific knowledge is defined or agreed upon will make it impossible to disprove God beyond doubt... because scientific fact depends on observable, repeatable phenomena. All we have are models and theories, and it's likely that that's what we'll always have. We cannot go back and confirm.

So the absence of God is not scientific fact. Science does not make a case for that absence, it simply *assumes* that God doesn't exist and manages to explain everything that we can see - which is a very convincing argument of course. But again: the absence of God is not a fact. So the only reasonable kind of atheism is that: this is all the evidence I need.

Cool, me too, for all intents and purposes. But what about what we can't see and probably can't know and still don't have any definitive answer for? That's all I think agnostics are taking into account, that you might not be.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:08 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


So the absence of God is not scientific fact. Science does not make a case for that absence, it simply *assumes* that God doesn't exist and manages to explain everything that we can see - which is a very convincing argument of course. But again: the absence of God is not a fact. So the only reasonable kind of atheism is that: this is all the evidence I need.

In my opinion, the bolded text (properly generalized) is a good definition of "scientific fact."
posted by grobstein at 12:13 PM on July 2, 2010


Aha, okay, then - science assumes that God doesn't exist. Agnostics acknowledge the working limits of that assumption. Better?
posted by mondaygreens at 12:44 PM on July 2, 2010


And atheists, maybe, think that the assumption is justified enough to be accepted as a kind of fact itself. Yes?

But that doesn't make it a fact, yes? Not a scientific fact of any kind, certainly. I'm trying to point to the slight difference there... might need more coffee.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:49 PM on July 2, 2010


science assumes that God doesn't exist... But that doesn't make it a fact, yes? Not a scientific fact of any kind,

You can't prove a negative, so no. Science isn't trying to disprove god, science is simply trying to make sense of what it observes, and it's not factoring in god, because god doesn't have anything that can be measured and applied to those observations, therefore, as a concept, it does nothing to advance scientific theory.

In other words, Scientists might care if there is a god, Science doesn't and won't until a god does something that can be measured and not explained in any other way.
posted by quin at 12:59 PM on July 2, 2010


And if science is the way we prove things or make facts of them, then we cannot prove that God doesn't exist. Okay, yes, I think that's what I was trying to get at, re: agnosticism.

Again, like I said, it isn't different from atheism, because neither can argue from a position of certainty that God does not exist. If the New Atheists are saying that God is meaningless to science, that seems very sensible. If they're saying it should be meaningless to people... I can see why they're being considered shrill.
posted by mondaygreens at 1:07 PM on July 2, 2010


until a god does something that can be measured and not explained in any other way.

like magnetism?
posted by philip-random at 1:17 PM on July 2, 2010


mondaygreens: Science does not make a case for that absence, it simply *assumes* that God doesn't exist and manages to explain everything that we can see - which is a very convincing argument of course.

I disagree with this. Methodological materialism isn't necessarily an assumption that God doesn't exist. It's reasonable to argue that God exists but is beyond the scope of subjects that can be examined by scientific methods.

But then again, so is the Pythagorean theorem.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:26 PM on July 2, 2010


KirkJobSluder, I guess a better way of saying that would be that science disregards the possibility of God and gets along fine - nothing we know is made less reliable or contradictory as a result of that omission. And that science, or what we can know through it, is limited, as you said, in scope.
posted by mondaygreens at 4:24 PM on July 2, 2010


Huck500: "Has this person read The God Delusion? Dawkins isn't 100% sure that god doesn't exist, but says that calling yourself an agnostic implies that you're somewhere near 50-50 on the question, so he calls himself an athiest."

I think it's like Christianity in that there are a zillion different "sects," if you will, of atheism and agnosticism. I think everyone defines it for themselves. I once watched Penn Jillette's PennSays on Agnostic vs Atheist and thought I was an atheist, but reading this article reminds me that I'm more agnostic.

What being agnostic means to me: You can't ever be sure if there is or is not a God until it's "too late," that is, at least not until you're dead. However, I do not believe in the Christian God of the Bible... if that God is real, to me we are nothing more than Sims in the God's computer game. "All my Sims are misbehaving? I'll just flood the place and kill them all!" Can't remember exactly where I read that the God of the Bible is more like a spoiled child. No, if there is a God I must believe that he or she is not hateful like that. But since I can't know that there isn't a God, then I am skeptical, and agnostic.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:51 AM on July 3, 2010


Someone said it last night 'round the bonfire. Life/existence as we know it is like a picture inside a frame. None of us can see the whole thing (has the whole picture) because we're in it. By definition, we can't get outside the frame.

If that doesn't give you pause for doubt either way, you're not me.
posted by philip-random at 8:56 AM on July 3, 2010


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