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.
Had a great time at the Reason Rally, despite the rain and chilliness, and despite it using every last scrap of social energy this introvert could muster. Adam Savage’s was perhaps my favorite speech, especially this part at the end:
I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of. I believe they know everything I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me.
This nicely summarizes a thought that I’ve meant to write about for a while. It’s one of the less obvious negative consequences of religion, and something I myself didn’t realize until I’d been an atheist for several years. The idea of God I grew up with was everything Adam Savage describes in the quote and more: an ever-present companion even in my most profound loneliness, someone to pour out my worries to, share my joy, amusement, and exasperation with, someone who understood me at the deepest level, and, while he might not always approve, always loved and forgave me. Atheists mock theists for their “imaginary friend,” but perhaps they don’t really consider what it would be like to have such a friend that you actually believed existed. It means always being loved, always having support, never being alone. I, like many ex-believers, mourned the loss of this friend deeply when I found it was impossible to believe.
It took me a lot longer to realize that those experiences of feeling loved, supported, and listened to were real. Of course they were: I genuinely felt them. The interpretation I put on them was false, but the feelings were real. And what that means is that that support, that love, that listening ear, was only ever myself. The wise, calm voice I heard speaking back to me, giving perspective on my problems: that was me too. I had all those resources within myself the whole time, but I believed they came from outside of me. I didn’t give myself nearly enough credit. That friendly presence is not lost to me; it’s where it always was.
I started out saying that this was a negative consequence of religion, and I still think it is: religion, for many people, teaches us that the best and wisest part of ourself is not ourself at all, but external. It teaches us that we are dependent on someone else for love, forgiveness, wisdom, and encouragement. And that is a travesty. But on the other hand, perhaps the teachings about God enabled me to develop that part of myself. I don’t know; I’d have to hear from people who grew up atheist, whether they have anything like that sense of self-affirming internal companionship. (Evidently Adam Savage does, but I don’t know his religious history.) My guess is that some do and some don’t; and certainly not all religious people gain that particular thing from their notion of God. For some, indeed, God seems to embody many of the worst aspects of themselves, the bigoted and judgemental, the hateful and fearful. But I was lucky enough to be raised with a version of God that was everything best and wisest and most loving, as I could conceive of it, and perhaps that helped me develop that part of myself in a way I might not have otherwise.
So it may be that this is a possible positive as well as negative aspect of religion: providing a venue for people to shape and nurture their own best impulses. To the extent that my childhood religion did this for me, I’m grateful to it, as much as I resent it for telling me that those things were external to myself. Perhaps one thing the atheist movement should work on is encouraging those impulses, teaching people how to develop that supportive, forgiving, wise voice within themselves. Even though I recognized that it was present and accessible to me, I’ve lost sight of it in recent months, and I think I’d do well to recover it. I’m never as happy, healthy, and well-balanced as when I’m being my own imaginary friend.
I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:
Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”
De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”
De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)
In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”
A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.
I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.
The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accommodationist.
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!
Part of understanding science is understanding that we should accept things provisionally, or probabilistically.
Right. To accept something provisionally is to accept that we might be wrong. Now in all fairness, I have not heard anyone who is claiming to be 100% certain about a god not existing say that they would not be willing to be proven wrong, nor even that they could not be wrong. Certainty is not the same thing as proof, after all.
But more importantly, to accept something provisionally should mean that we should not maintain 100% certainty about it. How do we justify absolute certainty in the face of a probabilistic proposition? I really don’t know.
Christina concludes her post by saying that
Science is probabilistic – which is one of the things that separates science from dogma. That’s good. That means science does not close itself off to new information or evidence. A scientist who says, “I don’t care if my data falsify my hypothesis, I am 100% certain my hypothesis is true” needs to hang up hir lab coat, as ze is not doing science. Someone approaching the world rationally is therefore agnostic about everything.
Now, here is where I think that the differences of opinion stem from. For me, certainty is about recognizing our epistemic limitations. It is about being provisional about all conclusions, even if the evidence is overwhelming. I am not merely hiding behind any sort of radical skepticism in saying that there is some non-zero possibility that I am wrong about any conclusion about the world. I am simply being honest about my limitations, especially where I am not even sure what the thing being claimed is supposed to be in the first place (i.e. “god”).
See, here’s the thing. If deities are scientific propositions (and I know that this has been a question of past blogosphere arguments), then any conclusions about them have to be provisional. If the claim that a god exists is an empirically-testable one, then even after if is has not been demonstrated after hundreds or thousands of tests (assuming you have not proven it to be logically nonsensical), there is still a non-zero possibility that the proposition is true, even if believing it is completely non-rational.
Surely, you can have an extremely high certainty that it does not exist, and even more surely you are rationally justified in denying its existence, but the words “100% certainty” have to mean something, and what it means is absolute certainty.
Look, if this certainty is nothing but a mere rounding up to the nearest whole number…well fine, but make that clear. But what appears to be the claim is not merely a rounding up (at least in some case), but a finer logical error that I tried to dispel yesterday, but apparently was not able to. So here we are again.
Noncognitivism and certainty
Even if I were to accept absolute certainty as a real and meaningful epistemological position, there is still the fact that the being in question (“god”) is not even defined. What does that word mean? Theologians can’t agree on a definition, and that’s what they do academically and professionally. Sure, the fact that they have no evidence, no body to dissect, is part of the reason why this is the case, but it’s not all of it.
Further, I am not even sure what the necessary criteria of ‘godness’ are to determine if a definition for ‘god’ is legitimate. So, if I were to define god as my cat, then I can demonstrate god’s existence, right? But is this definition legitimate? And if not, why not? And if you have an answer why not, then what about Kim Jong Il? What about Q?
What are the boundaries of criteria for definitions of god? And if those boundaries include definitions which are not in contradiction with known facts about the world, even if they are not demonstrated as real right now, then they are not disproved and therefore claiming absolute certainty about their non-existence is not a rational position.
The noncognitivist position makes this question that much more absurd. The implication seems to be that not only do certain atheists know what the definition of god is (or at least the right criteria for definitions), but that they know that none of the referents for those definitions exists anywhere in the universe (someone alert Ray Comfort!*).
As I said yesterday, this is rational for specific concepts of god, but not for all concepts of god. Noncognitivism explodes the premises of any 100% certainty of a god’s non-existence by showing that because we cannot be sure what the term even means, we cannot say it does not exist.
In conclusion, the only way it is sensible to claim that one knows, or is absolutely certain, that gods do not exist is to start with a definition, or criteria-based set of definitions, of gods which allows one to do this. But this move is not legitimate, because it is essentially begging the question. All such a person can be 100% certain of, at most, is that the definition of ‘god’ they have in mind does not exist.
If these certain atheists** (see what I did there?) were to actually address real definitions of gods used by many real (“sophisticated”) theologians, they will find that those slippery sophists have created gods which survive logical scrutiny because they are designed to be non-disprovable.
And yet those sophisticated gods have still not been demonstrated. Of that we can be absolutely certain.
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.
I have been told by many people, over many years, that doubt is part of faith. The idea is that a person who does not challenge their faith has a weak form of faith. I sort of appreciate the sentiment here, but I wonder how genuine this is. I wonder how deep this lauding of doubt goes. I wonder if it is real, skeptical, doubt.
Skepticism is about doubt. A skeptic is a person who demands substantial evidence in order to accept something as true. Yes, a person may not be ideally skeptical about everything, and therefore may accept as true beliefs which would not stand up to even their own scrutiny if they were to apply it. But I think this is simply the nature of our cognitive limitations. In other words, we are all credulous to certain dumb beliefs, but we’re just human.
It take a certain amount of courage to dig deep into your own beliefs. To be an archaeologist of the soul, as Nietzsche put it, is a hard task. And not everyone will be up for it, nor would most know how if they tried; we sometimes need a little help from our friends, I suppose. And so when I meet a religious person who has the courage to at least make a surface or moderate attempt to doubt, to dig beneath the surface of their convictions, I find myself bestowing respect upon them, at least provisionally.
The provisional nature of this reverence is necessary, I have learned, because the institutions of religion, the insistence of doctrine, and the fragility of faith’s foundations are such that such ego-archaeological excavations often lead to one falling into holes, and thus clutching onto the ground of such landscapes in order not to feel the true exhilaration of freethought. To fall into oneself, underneath the facades of our social selves padded with commitments to supernatural hopes, is a terrifying prospect in the face of oblivious alternatives. The human condition of being, in the end, alone and finite (it’s alright) is a reality which doubts lead to, and which is less often the object of faith.
How often have you met a person committed to a faith that they will cease to exist upon death, and that there is no god that loves them? These ideas are conclusions reached upon careful thought and skepticism, not hope and desires. The claim that these ideas are equally based upon faith are absurd, and are an attempt to level the playing field. It is a rhetorical trick with no substance. Faith seems to almost exclusively own subjects which we seem to prefer (like Heaven), or at least fear as an alternate to what we prefer (Hell).
So, does this imply that faith and doubt are truly at odds? The snark-laiden answer is to point out that if people had evidence (the answer to doubt), then they would not need faith. And while I think that this snark contains an important insight into the nature of the question of faith and doubt, I think that we can go elsewhere to address this issue. The skeptical methods, science and reason, are a means to figure out what is likely to be true given our best tools for determining such things. Doubt, in other words, is the seed of science and all of our (limited) mastery of the natural world. Faith seems to be opposed to this progressive methodology, both philosophically and practically. Anyone who has a long conversation with a true believer will ultimately hear the faith card played; all of our questions, doubts, and debunking of theological apologetics runs into this wall at some point.
Recently Eric MacDonald weighed in on this question of doubt and faith with the following, which was a concluding comment to his long piece about a Julian Baggini article in The Guardian:
If the kind of questioning ”theology” that [Richard] Holloway now indulges in were to become the norm, the churches would simply fly apart from the centrifugal forces of doubt and questioning. And that is why religion will remain dogmatic at its core, and why openness to changing one’s mind is simply not accessible to the religions. It may happen one by one, as religious believers are leached away from religion by the corrosive forces of science and reason, but a religion whose leaders were open to changing their minds in the way that [Julian] Baggini suggests is necessary in order to avoid fundamentalism would spell the end of religion, because religions have no foundation. They are built on air, and openness to revision would quickly expose this.
That is, even where doubt, or questioning in general, is encouraged (whether by accommodating atheists or moderate or liberal theologians), it is a recipe for the excavation of holes in the landscape of religion and the faith which binds people to it. Doubt may be considered a part of being a faithful person, but the religion that survives this process is not the same as the religion that was handed to us from pre-scientific ages. This religion is moderated by compromise, non-literalism, etc and away from fundamentalism. Eventually, it erodes away into postmodernism, metaphors, and empty vessels with sentimental import.
And this is precisely what religious academics, such as the Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and King’s College president Dinesh D’Souza have been doing for some time; we “new atheists” are addressing a straw man, they say, and religion is full of doubt, questions, and nuance which are ignored by comments like Eric MacDonald above. For such people of faith, doubt is part of their lives and to imply that faith is somehow antithetical to doubt is to be unfair and biased in a way that does no justice to sophisticated theology. But it all falls apart, at some point. Eventually, in the corrosive environment of doubt, religion becomes a shade in tattered robes that haunts our ivory towers and sanctuaries, largely unseen by the masses whom insist upon feeding on the corpse of literal truth, real historical promises, and miracles.
Well, Eric MacDonald (who is no stranger to sophisticated theology), Jerry Coyne, and others have said a lot about this very subject, and I shall not try and sum up their thoughts on such things here, as this would quickly turn into a small ebook if I were to do so. So what I want to do is pose some questions which I intend to follow up on in the future. They are questions about faith which I have some perspective on already, especially in conversation with former Christians (almost exclusively) about the role of questions and doubts in religious communities. Having known people who would pose tough questions, voice doubts occasionally, etc within their religious communities, I have seen how some moderate religious communities (like Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, where I visited a couple of years ago) respond to such things. Doubt and questions are not met with curiosity or answers, they are often met with ostracism and loss of friends, as I have had it explained to me. Also, in my experience, outsider’s questions and doubts are treated with initial interest and then silence, in the vast majority of cases.
My questions are as follows (and I intend to ask them of people in positions of leadership in religious communities in coming months):
Are questions, doubts, and criticism welcome?
(if so) are doubts about any and all doctrines acceptable?
Have you seen or heard of people being socially sanctioned for having questions, doubts, or criticisms?
(if so) do you condemn such sanctions?
Is doubt more likely to be lauded or demonized?
Would the answer to the above change depending on the severity of the doubt?
As I said above, I have some experience with exposing religious ideas to doubt. In the extremely vast majority of cases (I have not maintained a running count, but there are few exceptions) even when questions, responses, or criticisms are proposed, they almost always fizzle into nothing. It is almost as if the leaders of these communities, whether they are priests, pastors, or whatever are so glad to hear some commentary, feedback, etc that they don’t notice at first that you have some serious objections to the message they are conveying, and then once that sinks in, they simply close off. They are not interested any longer. I suppose I am not surprised, nor should I be.
But right now, from where I sit, true skepticism, the kind of doubt which seeks to excavate the very foundations and assumptions of one’s worldview are not healthy for faith. But perhaps I err in using “faith” as the Christian scriptures do:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
Because that seems, on the surface, to be in philosophical opposition to skepticism, and therefore to doubt. Perhaps some other religious tradition has a use of the word faith which differs from this. I don’t remember much about what the Quran says about faith (there is this, for starters), but I doubt that it says much that is friendly to skepticism. And insofar as many religious people do have and maintain doubts, how far do they push those questions, are their questions they would refuse to apply doubt to, and would they truly be open to changing their mind?
I have long said that I want to know the truth. If there is a god (or gods) I want to know. I am open to being convinced of things which I do not currently believe. Do believers share this quality? And if so, how many and to what degree?
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.
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.”
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.”
All too often I will hear from theists (but not exclusively), that there is plenty of evidence for what they believe. And sometimes there is. In that case, well bravo! Now we have something to talk about. But inevitably, somewhere along in many discussions, the dialog comes down to their faith. That is, when the evidence that they demonstrate either has not convinced someone else or they are shown why the evidence is insufficient, they pull out the faith card.
But what is faith? It is the believe in things despite the lack of evidence. It actually may be, in some cases, the belief in something despite contradictory evidence. Creationism is a prime example. Despite the overwhelming evidence for evolution by natural selection, some people still think that magic man done it.
And, of course, creationists don’t have any evidence of their own, just lame apologetics. But the same goes for gods in general. What’s worse is that the evidence pointed to, even if reasonable, points to some vague higher power rather than their very specific deity with all of its personality. But they believe anyway.
There is a very short and quick response to such faith and the attempt to show such evidence.
If you had evidence, you would not need faith.
That’s right, folks, faith is what is pulled out because you have insufficient evidence. The whole idea of faith is that one believes something despite the lack of evidence. So if one actually did have evidence (as theists, creationists, birthers, etc do not) then their belief would never have to appeal to faith because they would have something demonstrable to point to and then we could all take a look at their evidence and deal with it.
Pulling out faith is akin to admitting that one has no rational reason to believe in what they believe. They have admitted that they have no evidence to bring. Sure, they will trot out apologetics, but these are only brought out either in some ironic sense (they are putting us on, perhaps?) or or because they don’t see the extreme irony of being people of faith trying to provide evidence. It’s almost like saying that one does not need evidence (faith, after all, is better in many of their minds) but insisting that they show evidence anyway because they know, deep down, that evidence is how the rest of the world (including themselves for every other belief they hold) is how the world makes decisions. It’s a beautiful little display of compartmentalization and irony, unfortunately not intended to be funny.
It’s quite adorable to watch. It’s almost as adorable as watching a small child pour tea for their imaginary friends while introducing you to them. It is play, so you say hello and drink some pretend tea (perhaps its supernatural or transcendent tea–what is the difference between the transcendent and the non-existent anyway?).
Except they are adults, which makes it a little weird.
So, the next time someone tell you that they have faith AND evidence, perhaps you could stifle your laughter at the joke, because they might not get the irony.