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An open letter to a Christian trope July 16, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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More specifically, this is an open letter to one Christian blogger who apparently ‘liked’ my post from earlier today and who wrote an open letter to doubters of god.  The letter I sent to him just a few minutes ago is quoted below.

[edited to fix formatting issues]


So, through and email notification, I was informed that you liked a post of mine from today.  The notification linked me to this post of yours:


As well as a couple others.  But I have only looked at this one, since it is, at least I think it’s intended to be, directed towards me (in part).
The reason I am writing to you is that you are making a common, but annoying, error here in your classification.  In order to try and educate you, I want to give you a brief run-down of who I am and what I (dis)believe.

Philosophically, I am a skeptic first.  Not in the tradition of radical skepticism from the ancient Greeks (although I appreciate that as well, to some degree) but as in the Skeptic movement, which is related (though there are tensions) to the atheist community.  Skepticism, in this sense, is the position whereby one accepts a proposition as true iff sufficient empirical and logical evidence has been demonstrated which supports said proposition.  In the case of theism a skeptic, if they are applying their skepticism, will hear the claim “god exists” and will ask for evidence, then iff evidence is presented (which should not be logically fallacious, is at least somewhat empirically demonstrated, and repeatable) then the skeptic can rationally accept the claim.  They should keep themselves open to new evidence always.

You don’t want to argue, so my point in the following is not to refute theism, per se, but rather to clearly explain my position.  I see no valid evidence for the existence of any gods. especially the ‘omnimax’ variety which tends to come from the Abrahamic religions.  I see YHWH/ALLAH/Jesus as a non-demonstrated proposed being, and I also see no evidence for any “philosophers’ god” or even a deism.  After many years of reading theology, religious apologetics, and criticisms of religion, I have concluded that no evidence for any gods exist.  If there are any gods, then I want to know.  So either none of the gods want me to know about them, the gods do not care, or there are no gods.  And if gods exist that don’t care whether I believe in them, then so what?
I am an agnostic-atheist.  That is, while I cannot, logically, disprove the general concept of god (specific gods which are logically impossible can be disproved, but not all gods are clearly defined enough for this), I lack belief because there is insufficient evidence.

In your post, you respond to agnostics and “militant atheists,” leaving out non-militant atheists.  In fact, I will point out that despite having been part of the atheist community for more than a decade, I have never met a militant atheist.  I’ve met some angry ones, and often their anger is justified (not always), but never a militant one.  In what way are atheists militant? Have we taken up arms? Have we been violent towards the religious (as a group; individual examples are anecdotal and do not address atheism per se.  Also, Hitler was a Catholic and Stalin/Mao/etc killed in the name of an absolutist political regimes, not atheism.  What person or group has done anything militant in the name of atheism?)?

I do not wish to eradicate religion.  I find that to be a fruitless goal.  My concern is with faith.  I see faith as a fundamental problem for human psychology, groups, and ultimately the progress towards greater understanding of the universe.  I’m using faith as it is defined in Hebrews, where it is belief in things not seen.  In other words, belief in things despite the lack of evidence.  This is a dangerous phenomenon.  Would you apply that methodology in any other aspect of your life besides religion or spiritual pursuits? Isn’t it fascinating that the more we understand the universe, the further away god is pushed into that gap of what we don’t know?  Compare the concept of god as it was understood hundreds, even thousands of years ago, and how modern theologians talk about god (the “ground of being” and such).  The more we can explain, the more vague and abstract gods become.

I find that fascinating–and telling!

But I don’t hate religion and want it gone merely because it does bad things. While I am very bothered by the many atrocities that people have committed in history, often in the name of some religion, god, or other type of doctrine, my larger concern is with the lack of critical thinking, skepticism, and willingness to transcend oneself towards a greater potential for humanity.  Skepticism, science, philosophy, and even humanism are what is needed, not superstition.
Your post does not seem to carry sufficient understanding of what an atheist is, what many of our goals are, and even what “militant” means.  So while I am not seeking to eradicate religion (I’d prefer people organically outgrew it, which I doubt will happen anytime soon), I am trying to eradicate poor comprehension of atheist arguments and tropes which perpetuate the othering of our community.  I have seen posts like this many times from Christian bloggers.  In fact, I looked at the date it was posted to make sure I had not read this post previously, since it was so predictable and trope-laden.

I suggest reading an atheist blog or two regularly.  Perhaps read a book by a former-Christian atheist, who can communicate that issue much better than I can.  I can refer you to some if you are interested, since there are many.  In fact, this one, by my friend Jerry DeWitt, was recently published and looks excellent (I have not read it yet).
But in general, keep up the conversation, so the next time you write a letter to agnostics and atheists, you at least have a better grasp of the relevant issues.  I wish you the best.

In reason,


Gnosis, pt 2 February 29, 2012

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
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In my last post, I wrote about my own ups and downs with knowledge and belief about God, and the several-years-long transitional phase where I was truly neither a theist nor an atheist. Today I want to dig into what I think was going on with that.

I’m inclined to compare my transitional phase with the apparent beliefs of a lot of non-theists who nonetheless talk about things like “the universe,” “fate,” or “karma” on a regular basis.  There’s a kind of animistic habit of mind which seems very common to human nature, which insists on attributing intention and consciousness to everything. It’s this habit of mind that remained when my explicit God-belief had vanished from my brain; it’s this habit of mind that made me say “God took away my belief in God.”

On top of that animistic habit, I had a deep and thorough understanding of an internally consistent Christian worldview. Everything that I perceived in the world could be interpreted through the lens of Christianity in a way that made sense on its own terms. Even my loss of belief could be interpreted that way. It did not require mental effort or self-deception to come up with an interpretation of the world that was consistent with Christianity: having grown up Christian, it was easy, almost second nature. That meant that it was still possible to continue believing in (a form of) Christianity with full intellectual integrity; what had changed was that it was also possible not to.

I did some studying; I read The God Delusion and some other writings; and I came to the conclusion that an atheist worldview was also internally consistent. I had hoped that there would be features of reality that couldn’t adequately be explained without a deity, but in my search I found none. I found myself looking at two complete, coherent accounts of reality, both plausible to me, both accounts that I could accept with full intellectual integrity, and entirely incompatible with each other. At that time in my life, I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that I was a theist or an atheist. I found both believable, and consequently couldn’t truly believe either.

I said before that I don’t like to use the word “know” in relation to questions of theism, because of its ambiguity. But if asked at that time in my life whether I believed in a god or not, all I could have honestly said was “I don’t know.” For a few years there, I’d say I was a true agnostic, an agnostic lacking both knowledge and belief.

Halfway through those transitional years I returned to Christianity, not because either my beliefs or my assessments of the truth had changed, but because I wanted it to be true. Not a strong reason, but it was all I had. If I’d had more unbelieving friends at that time, it probably wouldn’t have happened — I’d probably have continued in my agnostic paralysis until the unbelieving neural pathways clicked into place. (I just made that up, but it’s a terrific way of thinking about it… the whole thing was basically like a gear shift, and there was a long period there where the chain was suspended, adjusting over the gears, neither one thing nor the other.) But I was lonely, and all but one of my close friends and family were Christian, so I was looking for a way back in. I never thought that my desire for the Christian God to be real made it more likely that he was real; I just seized on desire as an acceptable stand-in for “faith,” since I didn’t have any of that. And I was backed up in that interpretation by some statements in the first few chapters of Introduction to Christianity, by Joseph Ratzinger, who did rather well in the ranks of his faith profession.

I’ll write more about my ins and outs with religion later; now I have to go rant about truth!

Gnosis February 26, 2012

Posted by Ginny in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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In the last week or so, I’ve begun a project of going through the emails, blog posts, and private journal entries I wrote throughout my deconversion from Christianity. There are a lot of them, and I may pull them together into a book project in the near future, but for now I want to comment on some thoughts they’ve provoked.

One advantage to having detailed personal records like this is that they guard against hindsight bias and retroactive interpretation. I haven’t looked at most of these writings for years, and I find, looking back, that the story I tell now about the trajectory of my deconversion isn’t entirely accurate. When I want to give the short version of my history with religion, it goes something like this: I was raised in a conservative branch of Christianity and accepted it pretty much without question for the first 25 years of my life. Around the time I was 25, I began seriously questioning my faith, and actually stopped believing in God,  although I wasn’t happy about that. I was basically an atheist, though I didn’t use that word, for about a year and a half, then I found a definition of “faith” that allowed me to go back to calling myself a Christian, although never with the same kind of faith as before. Then, around my 29th birthday, the last reasons I had for clinging to Christianity fell away, and I became a full-fledged atheist.

That’s the short version, and it’s broadly accurate, but in retrospect I missed a lot of the complicated nature of that in-between time, between “Yes I am definitely a Christian” and “Yes I am definitely an atheist.” For those who have never had God-belief as an element of their psyche, it might be difficult to understand exactly what was going on there, and it certainly muddies the definitions of “belief” and “knowing” that I’ve been using in the last couple of years. So let me try to explain it.

During part 1, the Christian part of my life, I absolutely believed in God. I would have found it impossible not to. Even if someone had rationally convinced me that there was no good reason to believe in God, I’d have been nodding along and saying, “You’re right, there isn’t a good reason to believe,” and wondering the whole time what God thought of this conversation. It was not something I was consciously maintaining or defending: it was just there, in my brain, a part of the way I thought about the world. To say “I don’t believe in God” would have been a lie, even if I had wanted to disbelieve and had every rational cause for disbelief.

At this time in my life, nearly the opposite is true. If evidence for a god’s existence started springing up all over the place, that internal state of belief still wouldn’t appear in my brain, at least not immediately. I could acknowledge, “Yes, given a Bayesian probability analysis it seems overwhelmingly likely that a deity is the cause of these things we are witnessing,” but in the back of my head I’d still be thinking, “But there can’t really be a deity… let’s keep looking for other explanations!”

It’s important to note before I go further that neither of these belief-states are unchangeable: as evidenced by the fact that my first one did eventually change. I’m no neuroscientist, but my guess is that these belief-states are simply strong neural patterns, habits of thinking that can’t be changed instantly, but only worn away over time as new patterns are developed and rehearsed.

The middle state, that transitional period of 3-4 years, is where things are weird. The things that were going on in my brain at that time don’t fit into a simple category of belief and knowing. The moment that really kicked off that whole transitional phase of my life was a moment where my rock-solid, undeniable belief in God was removed: and my emotional response was anger at God for removing it.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I stopped believing in God, and I was angry at God for making me stop believing in him. Clearly, then, on some level I still believed in God, and interpreted even my unbelief through a theistic worldview. But something very significant had changed in my brain, and the best way I could put it to myself was that I had lost my belief.

This state continued, by the way, even after I reclaimed a “Christian” identity. My state of belief didn’t change very much during this time; instead I changed my definition of “faith” to give myself a way back in. My reasons for doing that belong in another post, but from the point of view of mental states of belief and knowing, I didn’t change very much during those 3-4 years.

In atheist circles there’s been a lot of buzz recently about the difference between knowledge, belief, and certainty (prompted mostly by Richard Dawkins’ “shocking” revelation that he wasn’t 100% certain that no god existed, which anyone who’s actually read The God Delusion already knew (actually, anyone who’s read the subtitle of The God Delusion should have known: the word almost is there for a reason, people)). The relevant ground has been pretty thoroughly covered (and is being added to by Shaun even as I write… we’ll see which of us posts first! (I have a parenthetical addiction, by the way; I try not to use at all, because when I start it gets hard to stop)), so all I want to add is my own experience, and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the tidy “atheist/theist” “gnostic/agnostic” categories.

At no point in my life have I been 100% certain that my beliefs about God or gods were accurate. Even aside from evil genius / brain in a jar / Matrix scenarios, I recognize that my foundational assumptions about what constitutes a good basis for knowledge are just that: assumptions, that could be incorrect. I do the best I can with what I have.

I don’t use the word “know” a lot with reference to theism, just because its meaning is too ambiguous. Some people use “knowledge” synonymously with “certainty” (in which case I am an agnostic atheist), some people use it in less absolute terms (in which case I might be a gnostic atheist, depending on how severely you draw the line), and some people equivocate (in which case I’m not playing.)

Belief, now, is a harder question. I don’t think belief is a simple idea, based on my own experience. If all I’d ever experienced were those two states of initial full belief and present full unbelief, I probably would think it was simple. But my transitional phase leads me to think that there are several different strains or mechanisms of belief, which in most people (perhaps) are concordant, but which can also be conflicting. With part of my brain I believed in God, and with part of it I did not, and that was a very different mental state from the ones that came before and after.

Next up: digging a little deeper into the anatomy of that in-between time.

100% certainty and atheism February 25, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, there has been some discussion all over the web, especially the atheist blogosphere, about Richard Dawkins’ recent revelation that he is not 100% certain that god does not exist (actually, this has been his consistent view for many years, as many have already commented).

Much has already been said, so much of what will follow may be redundant, but in an email exchange today on a local email list, someone said the following:

I’m 100% certain god doesn’t exist as well. I’m also 100% certain that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and I’m 100% certain that gravity is not the cause of microscopic or invisible elves that apply glue to the bottom of my feet….

He went on, but this is the important part.  I responded to him and wanted to post that response here, because while it is not comprehensive of all the relevant issues, it addresses something that is overlooked by many atheists who claim more certainty than they can chew.

Here is my reply:

The problem with this 100% certainty is the meaning of the term ‘god’ there.  If you mean, by that generic term, the specific god as described in the Bible (for example), then you are on pretty firm ground.  But the term itself does not point to any specific god, but to the larger metaphysical/theological concept with many possible referents.

While it may seem trivial, I can point out that in history certain political figures have been thought of as gods.  The Sun has been considered god to many cultures as well.  You may argue that the definition of god does not allow such things to be meaningfully called “gods”, and there is some room for argument there, but my counter to most of them would be to say that the more transcendent, incomprehensible, etc concept of god that we think of today is basically a theological pull-back to vagueness as a response to the advance of empirical knowledge about the world.

What I mean by this is that while gods were once commonly thought of as either real beings which people could interact with (Zeus liked the ladies, for example) or general forces in nature which were directly responsible for events in the world, our understanding of nature, exponentially increased by the evolution of the scientific method, has pushed those concepts further and further from physical things which were super-human to completely transcendent and supernatural in nature (if that sentence can even be sensible at all…).

And even given the arguments against the supernatural in general (at least in terms of its ability to interact with nature and still be transcendent), there are still concepts of gods still used which either could not be dis-proven and which are also compatible with what we understand about the universe (therefore there is no way to be 100% certain of them not existing) or they are actualy physical things, like people, idols, etc which can be demonstrated to exist, even if we don’t think of them as being worthy of the title ‘god’.  It is not for us to determine what the definition of ‘god’ is for believers; it is for us to ask “what do you believe, and why do you believe it?”  Let semantics stand aside.

I am guessing that your certainty is pointing to very specific, and probably Abrahamic, definitions of gods.  If so, I will say that those concepts are logically incoherent, assuming you take all scripture to be equally valid.  Because if you consider some scripture more relevant, then all you need to do is decide which descriptions from scripture you like (based upon some logical criteria, say) and use those verses to define what god is.  And depending on how one does that, they could believe in a god which is logically coherent but which has no evidential support.   And many theologians do just that.

To such gods, all you can say is that “I have no proof that such a being does not exist, but I also see no reason to accept any claims that it does exist.”  That is what being an agnostic-atheist is; not 100% certainty, but lacking belief (whether due to lack of evidence or otherwise).  By making the broad statement that you are 100% certain that god doesn’t exist, you have not allowed for the possibility that the person who hears that phrase has a logically coherent concept of god which, technically, cannot be dis-proven. Therefore, claiming certainty of that level would seem unjustified to that theist.

And that seeming, by that theist with their logically-coherent god, would be correct.  Because even while they still have the burden of proof to demonstrate such a god, you then claim the ability to demonstrate that their god certainly does not exist, which you cannot do in every case, especially theirs.

Penn Jillette agrees with me about agnosticism! April 4, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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So, when I saw this video just now, I was getting ready to be frustrated, because I have had to correct people (namely, Gary Gutting in those links) on this question about agnosticism a number of times in the past, starting with one of my very first posts on this blog called “A Message for Agnostics.” This is a point I have had to explain many times, and it appears as if I am not the only one.

In any case, take a look at this:

(from Atheist Media Blog)

But, I was not disappointed (except for the dizzying back-and-forth between the cameras that Penn was doing).  As it turns out, Penn and I see eye-to-eye on this point.  I say that because Penn, while I do like Bullshit, tends to have opinions that I disagree with, especially politically.  Also, I have heard some stories about him that make me think I would not get along with him, despite the fact that we are both atheists, he also is not particularly monogamous (from what I have heard), and we have some common friends.

But, I do like a good beer, and Penn is pretty vehement about not drinking, which means if I ever did meet him the obnoxious part of me would order a beer.  But I’m just that kind of guy who likes to start trouble, even around other strong personalities.

But, in any case, we agree on something.

Accommodation; faith in moderation November 30, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Anyone who has been paying attention to the atheist blog-o-sphere in recent months is familiar with the issue of accommodationism.  Anyone who has been following the atheist community at all knows a little about the issue of labels;  Atheist, weak atheist/strong atheist, agnostic, humanist, etc.  Within these, and many other, issues lie a multitude of canards about atheists and issues related to the philosophy of religion that atheists commonly talk about.

One of those issues that comes up by people attempting to be reasonable has been annoying me recently, although it certainly is nothing new.  Just yesterday I was watching a documentary about one man’s search for whether God makes sense, called (appropriately) “Does God make sense?”  In it, we see interviews in which religious leaders and atheists answer questions about belief, skepticism, etc.  In the end, we get a sort of cop-out, a non-controversial moderation of opinion that will offend few and say little.

Does God makes sense? Our documentary narrator and interviewer concludes that both arguments have “circularities” and “endless regressions”; “Arguments? I love them all.  But they all falter.” And finally, “I wish I were certain.”

Ah yes, this old canard! Both the atheists and the theists think they are certain, and that reasonable people are not certain so we therefore reasonable people cannot unambiguously side with any ‘extreme’.  I’ve dealt with this before, somewhat, in talking about arrogance.  I’ve also dealt with the canard of atheist and theist being the extremes of a continuum with moderate positions (say, here and here).  But now I want to deal with another facet of this poorly cut piece of glass being passed off as a beautiful jewel.  I want to deal with the idolization of the moderate.

Shared by large swath of people in our culture, there is a sense that it is somehow laudable, and perhaps a prerequisite for being considered respectable, to eschew the extremes.  Jon Stewart’s recent Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is a prime example of this trend occurring in our culture.  The idea is that those on the extremes are, well, extreme and therefore unreasonable.  In order to be reasonable and sane we must keep a distance from both shores and sit comfortably somewhere in the middle, safe from controversy that might start a *gasp* conversation  that may challenge others’ views.  We may lean one way or the other, but be should sit near the middle.

But, as the atheist prophet and wordsmith PZ Myers so eloquently commented:

squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshiping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.

That is, sometimes the extreme is not a position of crazy.  Sometimes the extreme position is just right.  So when I see people trying to navigate the question of religion, god, etc and they conclude that the only reasonable position to be in is somewhere between the crazy theist fundamentalists and the crazy atheists, I want to ask why the atheist position is crazy.

And when I do, I get back either a look of perplexity upon being unable to identify examples of atheist fundamentalism or a bunch of positions that no atheist I know holds.  In other words, the extreme they point to is a straw-man, if they can point to anything at all.

But hidden within this is an admittance that I find interesting.  These moderates seem to recognize that the beliefs supported by religious fundamentalism–that is, supported by what the various scriptures actually say–are crazy.  They seem to recognize that the faith that those on the side of religious belief are not-acceptable to reasonable people.  They reject literalism, yes, but they also reject rejecting some watered-down version of that same faith (erroneously labeling that rejection as an equivalent faith).  And, instead, they maintain a new kind of faith; a faith in the moderate, the in-between, the safe. They create the watered-down religiosity that they refuse to reject, in fact.  It’s why they refuse to reject it; it’s their faith.
No, this is not to say that it is really safe, at least not in any way that will stand up to intellectual scrutiny.  It has to do with the fact that it will be culturally safe because so many people accept (without evidence or question, usually) the canard that a moderate position between apparent extremes is preferable, respectable, and will not make you stand out at a party.

It’s politics, really.  It’s an attempt to not be controversial.  Again, it’s not an attempt to not actually hold a controversial opinion, just not to hold a controversial opinion around the people they hang out with; other moderates with the same faith.  They have the numbers on their side, surely, and even when they don’t they will often appear rational.  The religious crazies will at least be sated that they are not atheists (even if they are), and the atheist will be sated that they are not thanking Jesus before dinner (even if they are).  You see, moderation is not so much about the opinion itself as it is about the being quiet among people with which they might otherwise have differences.  They neither discuss or think much about such controversial issues, so they default to the position of moderation while dismissing strong opinions as non-preferable.  They accommodate in order to get along.

Politics.  Except that when the polemical politicians speak up, they simply regard them as more of the crazies, even if they are not.  (And yes, they often are)

My mother is fond of the phrase “happy medium,” implying a pseudo- Aristotelian temperance of opinion.   A very close friend is usually of a similar temperament, and tries to find some position of compromise; but being a government attorney, this is not surprising.  And these skills are often good skills to have, and I employ them myself.  But more is going on here, I think, than good practice of rationality.  In some cases, I think it’s a kind of faith in the truth of moderation itself.  I It is, I think, a cultural phenomenon that is perhaps as predictable and as common as it is, well, average.

And I, who will stand near the so-called “extreme” of opinions about theology and sexuality, look at the people trying to be moderate and see them as, well, conservative.  This is essentially how I view accommodationism; as a position of being stuck in a respectful position in regards to religion mostly for the sake of appearing reasonable to the moderates of the world.  And it is not that they are trying to be conservative; they are not intentionally trying to maintain the status quo in any way, they just simply stop progressing at some point, and became comfortable.  Whether out of discomfort, fear, disinterest, or the occasional actual intent to stay where they are because they prefer it, it creates a cultural phenomenon that to those still progressing, looks like rigidity and sterility.

I will observe that I think that the liberalism of many generations often becomes the conservative of the next.  Where sex outside of marriage was rebellious and liberal for a couple of generations ago, while I was growing up casual sex started to become normal.  And now that I look at those with whom up I grew, I see them as being conservative sexually.  You know, idealizing  monogamy and all that.  A close friend told me not so long ago that polyamory is not for adults.  I find this funny and ironic.

I see those same people not being religious (although they may retain some emotional connection to some vague “spirituality”), and they are not willing to call themselves atheists or even to consider that my position, which they don’t understand and which they assume must be as crazy as the fundamentalist warning hellfire on the street-corner (without having any idea what that would imply), is reasonable.

Why can’t the position of the gnu atheist be reasonable? Simple.  Because it is not moderate, and moderation is good.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the new faith.  It is a new faith of non-controversial, ‘let’s just live and let live’, mentality.

But it’s really always been this way, I think.  But I think they often forget that there should perhaps be moderation in everything; including moderation.

Strong opinions are not always crazy.  Sometimes they only seem extreme and strong because they reject things that really are ridiculous, and the contrast is glaring, loud, and diverting.  Perhaps it is time for great, diverting, contrast to faith of all kinds.  Perhaps it’s time for the anti-faith to arrive.  But to be anti-faith is to be loud even in a whisper.  But perhaps it’s time for more people to stop whispering and proclaim loudly that faith is not a benefit but a detriment to being reasonable.  Perhaps it’s time to call out that accommodationists are accommodating something crazy, even if they are only half-way to crazy town.

Gary Gutting on Atheism and agnosticism August 31, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Gary Gutting is a professor at Notre Dame, in the department of philosophy.  About a month ago, he wrote this article for the New York Times.  I rather liked the article, as I remember.  But there was a small annoying catch that caught my attention.  It happens here:

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.   This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.


I have addressed this.  I even re-addressed this.

No, Dr. Gutting, this is not the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.  This is ignorance displayed as consensus by gobshites who are so far removed from the atheist community and feel the need to feel superior.  OK, maybe they just have not thought this through….

I was moved to respond.  And so I hopped on my keyboard and churned out a quick response, while including my link from one of my favorite posts about agnosticism.  You know, the one linked above.

I didn’t hear from him after a few days, and forgot about it.

Then, the other day, I happened to glance over at my left-hand panel on my gmail page and noticed that I had a draft email.

What could that be? I thought

For some reason, the email to Dr. Gutting had never sent.  It was just sitting there, unsent, all this time.  So, I decided to send it, finally.

He replied to me today:

Thanks for your thoughts.

Of course, you can use the terms the way you think best.  But your way of putting things ignores two importantly different ways of not believing that God exists. You might not believe in the sense that you withhold judgment as to whether God exists OR in the sense that you believe that God does not exist.  In ordinary usage, the first sense of not believing in God is called “agnosticism” and the second is called “atheism”.  It seems to me that this is a useful distinction, and I don’t see what you gain by eliminating it.
I also think you confuse the discussion by assuming that the agnostic claim “I don’t know whether or not God exists” must mean “I am not absolutely certain whether or not God exists”.  In most contexts, knowledge doesn’t imply absolute certainty; it’s consistent with at least a small degree of uncertainty.  So, if someone says he knows that Paris is the capital of France, but admits that there’s some small probability that a coup in the last few hours moved the French capital to Lyon, we don’t think he’s contradicting himself.  Of course, you can insist that anyone who allows the slightest bit of doubt about a claim is agnostic about it.  Then almost everyone becomes an agnostic about almost everything, and the term has little use.  But  that’s only because of the artificially strong sense you’ve given to “know”.  And, even if you use “know’ that way, there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge): There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.

Well, nice.  He responded quickly, if not tersely.  Of course I didn’t give him much to chew on, and I have no way to know if he ever read my post I linked him to.  I doubt he did.

So, what about his response? I thought he was still missing the point, so I sat and started typing, and eventually replied with the following:


I think you have misunderstood my perspective, and would like to try and be more clear, if I can.  I’m mot saying that I am reserving judgment NOR am I saying that I believe that god does not exist.  Neither of those positions are those of the atheist who has considered the philosophical implications of the question at hand.   That’s what you are missing, I think.  The position of the vast majority of atheists I know from the atheist community is that we are not convinced that a god exists.  Our judgment (again, not a reserved one) is that the claim has not been sufficiently demonstrated towards rational belief, while recognizing that we cannot say with absolute or high certainty that the proposed being cannot or does not exist.

This goes to your second point; I am not using the term “know” in this absolute sense either, but rather it’s more fluid common usage accepted by philosophers of many stripes.  I’m an agnostic because I recognize that there is information I do not have, perspectives I have not considered, and because it is not logically impossible for many concepts of god to exist.  Thus some god might exist beyond my current level of knowledge (or not exist beyond my current state of knowledge, depending, of course, on whether I actually believe in such a being currently) but this is not the point.  Again, this is not a epistemologically absolutist position, but rather one of relative strength in the vein of scientific knowledge; overwhelming evidence is sufficient for using the term “know.”

You said:

And, even if you use “know’ that way, there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge): There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.

This does not touch my use of the term agnostic at all.  In fact, it coheres with it, somewhat ironically.  Allow me to explain;

The first clause I will not grant aside from the trivial point that any word could be used in any way a person chooses to use it.  But if we are striving for philosophical precision, we must try to maintain a consistency of terms insofar as they do not stray too far from usefulness in distinguishing concepts in context to the discussion at hand.  ‘Agnostic’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘knowledge’, and in the context of the question of god’s existence this term plays the role of the question of knowledge, rather than belief, because these are epistemologically different concepts (knowledge and belief) and thus need to be distinguished in being precise.  By allowing ‘agnosticism’ to bleed into the question of belief, one fails to recognize that this distinction is relevant.

And if you think that knowledge and belief are not that easily distinct, then you need to demonstrate why and how this impacts the question at hand.  I do not believe you have done so thus far.  However, I do think that this issue might be a point of our misunderstanding of one-another.  I’ll leave that aside for the moment.

In terms of your second clause from above,

There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.,

this is possibly trivially true, but again you miss the point.  You are creating the wrong dichotomy to understand how I’m using the term ‘atheist.’  I’ll try and pry apart the relevant issues.

I accept, from the start, that there is no rational way to demonstrate that there are no gods of any kind.  I cannot prove a negative, nor am I trying to.  The problem here is that the antecedent ‘dis-‘ in ‘disbelieve’ is ambiguous in that it can mean both “opposite of” or “absence of,” and the logical distinction between these meanings is the very heart of this misunderstanding.  It’s precisely why I use the terminology of “lacking” belief, so as to get rid of this ambiguity.  The term “lack” implies that I’m not saying “there is no god” or “I believe that there is no god” but rather that “the evidence is insufficient to believe, and so I don’t believe.”

The implication of this is that I will go about my day as if said being does not exist even if I know, when pressed, that I cannot logically believe that it does not exist.  The further implication is that the position of “believing that it’s false” is off the table; it is not a position under consideration.  (At least for me.  There are some that try to move in this direction, especially about specific concepts of gods, but this is beyond atheism and into another topic, perhaps anti-theism or some other term that may be more appropriate.  But I digress….).

Thus the dichotomy that you, and many others, draw between [edit*] belief in and the belief of absence (“in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.”) is not the same one that I draw.  You are drawing a distinction between two beliefs, while I am drawing a distinction between believing and not believing.  Again, this is a judgment, just not in favor of any belief.  My judgment is that the evidence and reasons proposed for the existence of any gods fail to demonstrate what they seek to demonstrate towards rational belief, and thus I lack belief. I disbelieve. I am an atheist.  I am without belief.  I do not ‘believe that their is a lack of gods’, I ‘lack belief in any gods.’  I hope you understand the distinction now.

So those that can fall under “neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false” do not make the point I think you wish to make.  Why?  Your formulation of the statement fits the definition of ‘agnostic’ in the same way that a ‘carpenter’ could be defined as a person who either believes in fairies or that the proposition of fairies is false; the term has nothing to do with the dichotomy at all.  That was my point; whether one is a theist (believes), an anti-theist (believes a god does not exist), or an atheist (simply lacks belief) any of them could be an agnostic because agnosticism deals with what one knows, not with what one believes.  The term ‘agnostic’ has nothing to do with “neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false” except in the trivial sense in which the formulation and the term are not mutually exclusive.  They do not touch each-other at all.

You make the claim that “there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge)” but do not support this.  I tried to show here why your subsequent clause did not wed agnosticism to belief in any way but a trivial one of non-exclusivity.  In other words, I have not seen sufficient evidence (or reasoning) for your claim, thus don’t believe it.  It may still be true, but that’s for you to demonstrate.  The burden of proof still resides with you.  See the analogy?

I’ll state my position again, and hope you’ll understand this time.  I’m an agnostic; I don’t know if any gods exist.  This is a given because nobody knows, either absolutely or by use of the term ‘know’ in a less absolutist sense.  The term is thus redundant and thus useless; I toss the word to the side because it does not clarify my position in any way, except in the semi-trivial sense of being clear about my use of the term.  Anyone who says that they know there is a god (or that they know there is not one) has the burden of proof, and I shall await their proof or overwhelming evidence.

I have not been convinced either way. The theist has not convinced me, and neither has the one claiming that there are no gods. I have judged both of their arguments to be insufficient to demonstrate their propositions.

Since I have not been convinced by the proposition (again, either one), even in light of attempts to demonstrate said being(s) existence (or against it’s existence), I lack belief in the proposed being (and the proposed lack of being), and lack belief.

Atheists are not going around trying to show why god does not exist (except in rarer cases, who are the extreme exception.  These people are atheists, in that they lack belief, but are trying to take a further step in presenting an argument that gods do not exist, which goes beyond the definition of ‘atheism’ when we are being precise).

No, atheists are going around talking and writing about why they don’t believe in gods.  They are presenting their arguments as to why the arguments proposed for gods fail to be rationally, empirically, or emotionally compelling.  They are reacting to theology, not doing some bizzaro-world anti-theology (again, except for rare exceptions).

Don’t get caught up in the strong language of people saying “there is no god” because they are saying this in the same non-absolute sense that you objected to using “know” in your response above; They are not saying “there absolutely is no god” but rather “there is no reason, as far as I can see, to believe in one.  Thus, I go about my days as if there is no god.”


Atheism: definitions June 14, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , , ,

I while back, I wrote this blog post about how I viewed the distinction between agnosticism and atheism, and offering a definition of atheism that I thought stood up to scrutiny in the world of discourse about such things. And despite some argument from some, I still hold that the best definition of atheist is someone who lacks beliefs in any gods.

Then just today I watched this video, whch makes many of the same points, and does so in a very tight little presentation.

It is a new video in a great series by Evid3nc3, all of which I highly recommend to theists everywhere.  He does a great job of charting his course from being a Christian with questions and becoming an atheist.