So, this is pretty awesome. I have spent many years reading about the history of religion, and i think that the subject is very interesting. I could have spent all of those years doing nothing except reading about religion, and still only scratched the surface of this:
That’s just a snapshot. To see the whole thing (and to zoom in and scroll around), click here or the image itself. The complex history and sheer number of religious traditions is astonishing to see displayed this way. I could get lost in this image for hours.
Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the fact that we can categorize religious traditions into a tree says something about the nature of religion, and of human culture in general. Human culture, including religion, does not come out of a vacuum. Religion is not revelations from up high, it is natural, organic, and growths from us.
In one sense, religions are beautiful in that they represent not only what is amazing and sublime, but also what is terrifying and dangerous, about our ability to create and to interpret the world. They are windows into our “souls;” glimpses of what we could be–both good and bad. They are dreams and nightmares all at once, prying under our mundane lives into the engines of possibility.
And yet, for all that is good in them, there are paths which can clean up the mess and the grime attached to these fantastic reveries. There is a way to drain out the dirty water of fantasy and to know what is real, and as we advance in our understanding we learn more and more about how to do this. The growth of this religion tree will not cease, but it may be pruned by this method. There will always be branches of this religious tree, I’m willing to wager, but the branches which survive will have to contest with another tree.
Science, empiricism, and skepticism generally owe much of its existence to the intellectual traditions of this religion tree, but it is a different type of organism. Entangled, all too often, with this massive faith tree, skepticism takes root in a part of us which seeks to avoid the siren songs of Nietzsche’s old metaphysical bird catchers. That ground is fertile, but for many it is foreign soil. I hope that changes, because our culture needs better soil, if we are too grow, thrive, and survive.
So, once again I get to quote my favorite passage from Nietzsche, referred to above, because I think it encapsulates my values better than just about any collection of words I’ve yet seen:
To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task
Every once in a while it strikes me that people really believe this god shit. I mean the simple fact that theism exists and that people are actually religious never really escapes me, but occasionally I’m reminded that some people actually have to deal with the fact that they used to really believe it, and that they have friends, family, etc who really do, and that is a thing for them. They think about the concept of identity after that change, how they have a feeling of either being split or otherwise unclear concerning their past self and the self they are trying to reconstruct. They have to re-build their worldview in the context of a mind trained in crazy thinking. I cannot fully sympathize, although I try to empathize.
I never believed in a god. I played with the idea of a “philosopher’s god” for a while, but ultimately found it no more than mental masturbation. People taking religion seriously, especially conservative Christians, was something I discovered towards my adulthood. It was not something I grew out of, it was something I found after most of my cognitive development was done, and so it became a strange curiosity for me. So I spent time around religious groups in college, talking and trying to understand. What I saw was that it was hurting people. They didn’t know it was hurting them, but I did. So I grew to despise it.
As I learned more, I also learned about the history of such ideas, and the philosophical reasons why they were bankrupted–not only in terms of truth, but in terms of morality! I know, some theists out there just read that and scoffed. What could an atheist know about morality, right? Well, frankly I believe that not only does religion not hold the title on morality, in many cases it actually fails at it spectacularly. I’m not going to address that issue right now, because that’s too much content for what I want to keep a short post.
The point is that religion, theism, and especially conservative theologies which seek to rationalize atavistic emotions which hold us back from progressing, learning, and exploring human potential are things which I sometimes forget are real. Or, at least, I am incapable of fully accepting them as real, because they are so absurd. Sometimes, it seems as if they are part of some intricate fantasy or sci-fi plot, part of a narrative which is not real, but only pretend. But when I see recent legislative actions based upon these fantasies, read stories of how real people are actually hurt all over the world based on them, and watch as people close to me struggle with family, friends, and their own self over these narratives, it comes home for me. And then I get annoyed, frustrated, and angry with our culture.
Our species would be better without faith, unjustified metaphysical doctrines, and the unconscious bowing to fear. We would be better without Christianity (even the liberal types), Islam (oh, if only there were more liberal types), etc. The ideas that most people hold, about religion, sex, relationships, politics, etc are, frankly, largely crazy. And while I had to climb out of some of that mire, religion was not really one of the issues for me. What little “indoctrination” I went through, at a Quaker school, was minimally harmful and I never really believed it anyway. This world of religion is often an alien one to me.
I’ve always been an atheist, probably always will be, and I will continue to criticize the values of this culture because this culture, in many ways, is fundamentally broken. We have a legal and political structure which has the potential to be a place for real human growth, and while much of our culture is squandering that right now there is room for improvement. As a cynic, I don’t think we are getting there soon; too many really stupid people with poor fundamental values about truth and personal challenge. But we have an opportunity within the rights we have been granted (they are not, in fact inalienable) by ourselves (some illusions are useful, I suppose) to push forward and make ourselves–and our culture–superior.
Conservatism will not help. Theism will not help.
Skepticism fed by a desire to transcend oneself and grow will help. Science will help. Sound sex education will help. Honesty, to ourselves and those around us, will help.
“The Biggest ruse of the devil is making us believe that he doesn’t exist,” said Baudelaire. Except the devil does not exist. The ruse here only makes sense within a very specific framework; Christian mythology.
There is a meme, a lie, really, within much of the Christian world that atheists are Satanic, or at least deceived in this Baudelairesque fashion. According to this meme, the devil is a liar, thus atheism is a lie. This idea is rooted in Christian scripture where Satan is seen as the father of lies:
43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. 44 You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”
So, if you accept this mythology as true, or at least inspired by a god that tells the truth, then thinking of atheists as living a lie makes sense, right? Well, I suppose, but let’s look at it this way. The devil is a character in a set of stories–the mythology which emerges from the biblical collection of books. This character is, by definition, evil and wrong; the narrative of the story is such that he loses, eventually, and in the mean time his power in the universe is based upon deception and lies. Those who do not believe the story of YHWH and his various acts through “history” are seen as, essentially, conspiracy theorists who do not accept the “truth.”
But this myth cannot be stretch onto the terrain of reality. Christianity is simply not true, and to try and live it as real can only go so far before the fabric tears and reality pokes through. But for those who are deluded in this strange and inhuman form or LARPing, those of us who are not playing by the rules of that universe will be pegged as a kind of “muggle” who has been projected as wearing a devil mask.
We can’t seriously despute the reality of the story, can we? We can’t really actually not believe that God exists and that Jesus is our savior, Mohammed is the seal of prophets, or whatever Mormons believe, right? Because they are convinced of the truth of their worldview, when we enter their periphery we are forced into their role-playing and seen as playing characters which represent us in their narrative.
We are devils, liars, and we have been draped with a cloth of deception to make us fit into their worldview.
But from the atheist point of view, we are a bunch of people who wandered into their D&D, Harry Potter, or Christian universe where everyone within it is LARPing fully in character. So while we know it’s all pretend, from the point of view of the players we have to play the role of muggles or devils, otherwise they have to break character.
Except, in the real world, there are people who don’t know they are playing a character, they think that the role-playing is real. And that’s religion. Atheism is simply being aware that the script(ure) is just pretend, and we cannot believe that so many people take it so seriously. We simply want them to break character, and enjoy reality.
Yesterday, Ginny and I spent a fair amount of time editing a new post for today. We had wanted to make sure that we got the wording just right, trimmed it down enough to not be overwhelming (I do have a tendency to go on and on…), and were almost done….
So, firefox crashed. The crash message was there so briefly before the window disappeared that I don’t know the nature of the crash, but crash it did. “No problem,” I thought. “WordPress saved most of the work, and it’s fresh in my mind.” But no. The work was gone, irretrievable, dead. I had never seen firefox crash in this way before, and that it happened right then was extremely irritating, as if some intelligent force were at work.
I was angry. Ginny came back into the room and was annoyed too. I considered re-writing the post, but I was too frustrated, tired, and didn’t have the heart for it.
That was the problem, I didn’t have the heart….
So Ginny came over to me and held me and we grieved together briefly and then, well, something else happened. This time this new thing happened to both of us, in apparent unison. A feeling of assurance and understanding washed over both of us and looked at each other in coterminous understanding.
It occurred to both of us that perhaps that strange crash, at that moment, was not mere accident. Why would it happen then, as we worked on a post together for the first time (sort of like a preamble to our coming wedding vows), rather than any other time? What was the significance?
What if some power, some force, or even some intelligence saw this as the right opportunity to reach out to us. I have been saying for some time that if a god existed, I’d want to know. Also, I have said that this god would know how to make itself known to me. Apparently, god was waiting for the right time. He surely does work in mysterious ways.
What happened next was too sudden, too intense to record. Most of it was a blur. There were tears, prayers, and we had to go out to get what we needed in order to complete the right ritual. We didn’t have time to call a priest or consult the book, we had to get moving before God smited us. Of course, finding a goat so late at night would be hard, especially without a car.
But eventually we found a supermarket that had some goat meat which was open all night, and proceeded to acquire it. It was not much of a “sacrifice,” but it was all we could do under such short notice. The meat department were nice enough to supply some goat blood too, as that would be necessary.
We burnt it on an altar to the Lord, as is demanded by Him, and left it for the high priests.
Of course, not having our own altar, we had to go to the local Jewish temple. But their altar was probably inside, and the door was really hard to get through, so we stopped trying and instead used the front steps and left it there for them. They will be so happy to know that people are returning to the old ways.
I know, I know…I’m new to this, OK? I have not read Leviticus in so long that I just sort of winged it. It came from the heart. That’s all the Host of Hosts demands, right? Later today I will re-read the chapters and do it right, but I thought that the attempt was enough to please the nose of the Lord at the time.
It did smell pretty good. That YHWH sure loves BBQ.
In any case, we then walked home and prayed loudly in the streets for all to hear and enjoy, sharing our new-found relationship with the true god, the King of Kings, with all who were out sinning in the Babylon which is downtown Philadelphia on a Saturday night. By this time, the bars were near to closing and we were getting nowhere with the people coming out of the bars drunk on their own dirty sin. So we just had to try and go in and spread some more good news.
Most people were friendly, but they were not in the mood for helping us find an unblemished male goat for a morning ritual. Plus, the blood all over us from earlier was apparently off-putting.
If these unforgiven Sodomites and Gomorrah-dwellers would only read Leviticus, they would understand that we hadn’t just slaughtered a room full of children, but in fact had been trying to please the God they were ignoring.
But they were too busy ignoring His Throne in their drunken orgy of Baal or whatever. Hey, I read the gosh-darned book years ago, it’s not exactly fresh in my memory!If not Baal, it was one of those false idols, like Vishnu or something. That false god loves drunk people.
So, after getting a few hours of sleep (I slept on the couch, not being married to Ginny yet and all), we woke up for an early church service at the local Baptist church, where we tried to show them all how to properly sacrifice a dove (OK, pigeon. We were short on time, again). But they were not interested and asked us to leave. So we left them to their luke-warmness and proceeded down the street.
We were lucky enough to catch the start of a Presbyterian service, and since they were already started we quietly sacrificed the pigeon in the back rows, which seemed to offend a few people. Perhaps they were upset because we did it at the wrong time? I’m not sure, but I don’t remember where the scripture tells you precisely when to do these things, so perhaps they were yelling at us for no reason except that they preferred to sacrifice birds after the communion.
Apparently, our timing was really bad, because they kicked us out too, a few of them following us down the street. Something about returning a “collection” plate, whatever that is.
But before trying to catch the noon Mass at the Catholic church, we decided that we should share our good news. Also, sorry Gina and Wes, but we can no longer take part in your sinning lifestyle. I guess we can still hang out and stuff, so long as you see the light. You do have a good back yard for burnt offerings, after all. However, if you don’t see the truth, we don’t want to be associated with people who will burn for eternity. And no, it’s not classism, whatever kind of Commie talk that is!
We will also have to take the website down soon, or at least change it to burntofferings.com (if that’s available!). But right now we have to get to Mass!
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.
In the recent conversations I have been having about agnosticism, atheism, etc in the last week or so, I have left out a very potent idea. Ignosticism.
Over at Tristan D. Vick’s Advocatus Atheist, an analysis of this idea was posted today, and after reading it I just don’t know what to say besides, well, read it yourself! I have to say that I’m a bit humbled in that I might be starting to re-think my view on the place of agnosticism in this issue, but I will have to think more about it.
In any case, the post defines ignosticism thusly:
Ignosticism is the theological position that every other theological position assumes too much about the concept of God.
Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Well, follow the thread there and see what you think. he immediately follows the above definition with this:
Ignosticism holds two interrelated views about God. They are as follows:
1) The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed. [which I have been advocating in recent discussions]
2) If the definition provide is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God is meaningless.
Now, I had been on board with both of these points, but I have been insisting that despite this, uncertainty remains, and agnosticism is unavoidable. Tristan discusses this as well, but in order to see how he surrounds this issue, I will insist that you read the rest yourself.
If this issue interests you, you will not regret doing so!
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.
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.