Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics and the meaning of atheism

Religious literalists and creationists can be annoying, and liberal believers whose theology is entirely apophatic can also be annoying; however anyone who espouses atheism on the internet will soon encounter an even more annoying group: the Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics.

The what? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms?! Sadly not, the Militant Fundamentalist Agnostic, while pretending to complete ignorance of gods, will confidently assert the central dogma of the agnostic faith, and cling to it tenaciously. Their one dogma is the claim that atheists make dogmatic assertions about the non-existence of gods. And hence, by declaring themselves to be free of such unwarranted, beyond-the-evidence assertions, they feel themselves superior, not only to the believers, who have no proof of their deities, but also to the atheists, who have no proof to back up their supposed claims of certain non-existence.

It is pointless trying to argue with the Fundamentalist Agnostics, telling them that, no, atheists usually do not make dogmatic assertions of non-existence. Such a correction undermines the very core of the agnostic identity, and will be rejected with fervour. If an agnostic once accepted that atheism is not about making categorical non-existence assertions, then they’d have no good reason to call themselves agnostics. They might — oh the horror! — have to consider whether they themselves might be (I shudder to write the word) atheists!

And so the Fundamentalist Agnostic Covens meet every full moon at midnight, dancing round ancient stones, chanting their One Article of Dogma: “Atheists make dogmatic assertions and we are superior because we do not!”.

One might naively suppose that atheists would be the ones who get to say what atheism entails. “Not a chance” retort the believers and the agnostics. The atheistic stance is so challenging to their very identity that they insist that they are the ones who know about atheism, as they construct a straw-man atheist, to be danced around and ritually burnt at Midnight Mass.

Given the long history of theistic domination of the word “atheist”, it is understandable that some can be genuinely confused over what it means. For most of Christendom atheism was illegal, to be suppressed by both church and state. Allowing a kid to say that the emperor had no clothes was far too dangerous.

As just one example, in 1689, Casimir Liszinski, a Polish nobleman and landowner, was charged with the ‘crime’ of writing an atheistic treatise entitled De non existentia Dei. Bishop Zaluski of Kiev reported, with obvious relish:

After recantation the culprit was conducted to the scaffold, where the executioner tore with a burning iron the tongue and the mouth, with which he had been cruel against God; after which his hands, the instruments of the abominable production, were burnt at a slow fire, the sacrilegious paper was thrown into the flames; finally himself, that monster of his century, this deicide was thrown into the expiatory flames; expiatory if such a crime may be atoned for.

Thus, atheists were not allowed to speak for themselves, and the ghastly spectre of atheism would be spoken about and denigrated by believers. Even as late as 1980 the article on atheism in the Encyclopedia Britannica was, of course, written by a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, the Rev. Cornelio Fabro.

Conceptions of atheism were therefore not based on evidence, not on talking to and listening to actual atheists, but were about constructing a straw-man position that was easier to attack. Thus the “atheist” is considered to be going around angrily asserting, with absolute 100% confidence and spittle-flecked lips, the non-existence of gods.

This reassures the believers by painting atheists to be as bad as the theists are, in adopting an ultimately faith-based position. And it reassures the agnostics by giving themselves an excuse not to call themselves atheists.

As atheists patiently and repeatedly explain (and as everyone else usually ignores), atheism and agnosticism are about different things. Atheism is about lack of belief, agnosticism is about lack of knowledge. Since the two words refer to different things, ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ are not mutually exclusive categories. It is possible to lack secure knowledge of the existence of gods (agnosticism), and also to lack belief in them (atheism), and thus be an agnostic atheist; and it is possible to lack secure knowledge and yet believe (thus being an agnostic theist).

atheism-agnosticism

Calling yourself an agnostic is thus a poor excuse for avoiding asking yourself whether or not you believe in any god. As originally coined by T. H. Huxley, the word ‘agnostic’ meant someone without gnosticism, the revealed knowledge of God’s existence that some believers claimed. Thus agnosticism was a process, not a conclusion. An agnostic was someone who, lacking revelation, had to decide the matter on the available evidence. And that decision could go either way.

After fully considering the matter, get a blank sheet of paper and write on it all the names of all the gods you actually believe to exist (if your god-concept is too vague to have a name, an outline description will do). If, once you’re done, the paper is still bank, then you are an atheist. And if so it really is ok to admit it!

You don’t have to retreat into claiming to be an agnostic (so are all the other atheists who leave the paper blank, they don’t have any revealed knowledge of gods either), you can just come clean and accept that you are an atheist. See that blank bit of paper? There are no dogmatic assertions on it, are there? That’s all there is to atheism (no matter how often believers trot out the falsehood “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”).

At this point the agnostic might resort to the dictionary, asserting that atheism is athe-ism (belief that there is no god) when instead it is a-theism (lack of god-belief). Or they point to definitions about ‘denial’ of gods, thinking that this entails assertions of non-existence, but overlooking that to ‘deny’ is only to withhold something, in this case acceptance of the claim, and thus to ‘deny’ gods is simply to lack belief in them (though to be fair, even atheists can get this one wrong). And while we’re on, note that ‘disbelief’ also means only ‘lack of belief’.

The believers and agnostics may make claims about what atheism has “always meant”, and yes it is true that many have used the word to denote “claim of non-existence”, hoping to set up a dogmatic position that is easier to critique (and yes, dictionaries may reflect that usage), but from the first atheism has actually meant “lack of belief”. After all, among the first people called atheists were Christians and Jews, people who lacked belief in the Roman pagan gods and refused to worship them.

So why bother with this distinction, especially since it needs explaining repeatedly to those who misunderstand atheism?

Firstly, why on earth should we make assertions about your god? To expect or demand that we do so elevates your god-concept to more importance than it deserves. I’m willing to bet that you have never looked into and explicitly asserted the non-existence of Tezcatlipoca, Qailertetang or Ayida-Weddo, so why should we do so about Yahweh, Baal, Jesus, Zeus or Allah? Lack of belief is the default position about Makeatutara, Ometecuhtli and Tengri, and we have no obligation to consider the matter further in the absence of any actual evidence for any of these gods.

Secondly, many god-concepts are too vaguely defined to even discuss sensibly, or are postulated with an array of get-out clauses designed to explain away any lack of evidence. If you define ‘God’ to mean “the ground of being” or “the unity of everything” or some-such then obviously we’re entitled to withhold assertions about it until you say something concrete enough to be meaningful.

Similarly, if a god is postulated as being “benevolent and omnipotent such that sick children are always healed when their parents pray” then it would be easy to accumulate evidence for or against (and thus we could then assert existence or non-existence as appropriate). Which is why, of course, theologians would never be so foolish as to postulate their god that way.

Instead theologians postulate a god who is “benevolent and omnipotent but who moves in mysterious ways and sometimes says no, who are we to understand why?”. By neatly constructing a god to be compatible with any outcome and any evidence they rob the postulate of any meaning. A human who could easily heal a sick child but refuses to do so would not be considered ‘benevolent’, and a god who doesn’t heal sick children cannot be both benevolent and omnipotent (the ancient Greeks realised this, but it’s amazing how even today theologians squirm around this elementary point).

An apophatic god, constructed to be un-disprovable, and to be compatible with absolutely any and all outcomes, is a vacuous construct that literally has no meaning. To even assert the non-existence of such a being is to descend to the theologians’ level of empty world-play and evasion.

Thirdly, there is the matter of the burden of proof. The whole “atheists make dogmatic assertions” gambit is a devious ploy to try to reverse that burden. If you are postulating some fact about reality, such as the existence of a god, then it is your job to make the claim concrete enough to mean something (see ‘secondly’ above) and then to put forward sufficient evidence for it such that it demands to be taken seriously (see ‘firstly’).

But because the religious are so bad at those two steps they instead repeatedly resort to: “Well you can’t prove my god doesn’t exist, can you? Ha, got you! So how then do you justify your dogmatic non-existence claims? Huh?”.

This is feeble — particularly so for a god-concept designed to be so vague and meaningless that it is immune to any encounter with evidence. It’s your claim, so it’s your job to prove it, not ours to refute it. Yet, so common is this reversal ploy that the atheists have had to invent a long line of rebuttals starting with Russell’s Teapot, about which Bertrand Russell said:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Since then Invisible Pink Unicorns and a host of other imagined beings have done sterling service in trying to get the religious to see the point: that making a claim is empty in itself, and making a claim designed to be un-refutable is particularly vacuous. What matters is the evidence you have produced.

So, if you postulate a god that is well-enough defined and described that the concept can be tested, then we can accumulate and examine the evidence. And, at that point, atheists may indeed make declarations of non-existence, at an appropriate level of confidence given the available evidence.

Such has been the historic demonization of the word ‘atheism’ and the prevalence of straw-man versions of atheism that, even today, many shrink from adopting the label for themselves, and the euphemism ‘agnostic’ is considered more acceptable in polite society, less harsh on the delicate ears of the religious. But we should accept that the term is a cop-out, an evasion; we do not even have a comparable word for any other topic.

All atheists are also agnostics — yes, even Richard Dawkins, who explained it all in The God Delusion, but then finds his agnosticism reported as though it were news or as if it were a major conversion, by puzzled Christians who haven’t yet realised that ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ are not exclusive categories.

As eloquently explained by Paula Kirby:

How can an atheist also be an agnostic? The answer is simple. It is the simple acknowledgment that it is possible to be mistaken. An agnostic atheist recognizes that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of deities (agnostic), while also finding arguments for their existence utterly unconvincing (atheist).

Likewise, if you are a Christian who finds arguments for God convincing but recognizes that his existence is impossible to prove and that it is at least possible you could be mistaken, then you are an agnostic theist. I strongly suspect that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself would be the first to acknowledge there can be no absolute certainty either way and, if I am right, this would make him an agnostic to precisely the same degree as Richard — yet I doubt anyone would claim this means he is no longer a Christian!

Calling yourself an agnostic may tell us how you approach the question, and your lack of secure knowledge, but you are not being fully honest with yourself if you don’t then go on to ask yourself whether or not you believe in any god.

Addendum:

When writing the above I came across a blog post which neatly illustrates how confused Christians are over the meaning of atheism. Dr. Tim Tennent, President of the Asbury Theological Seminary, wrote an article “Are there really any atheists?”. The site christian-apologetics.org, which claims to make a “reasoned defense” of the Christian message, echoed the blog post, and, in the comments following it, an unnamed “Admin” shows himself to be equally confused. The first quotes are from Tim Tennent’s article:

Professor Richard Dawkins has been called the world’s most notorious atheist.

Good start!

Indeed, his atheism is so militant that he is widely regarded as the poster-child for the modern so-called “new Atheist” movement.

And what does this “militancy” actually consist of? Terrorist attacks? Burning down buildings? Threatening people in the street? Err, no, it consists of writing and speaking and expressing his opinion. That’s it.

It is, therefore, worth noting that Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, does not actually call himself an atheist.

Wrong, he does.

Rowan Williams referred to Dawkins as the world’s most famous atheist. Dawkins responded by saying that he is not an atheist, but rather considers himself an agnostic.

Wrong. At no point did he disclaim being an atheist. He was asked “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” and he replied that he did. Tennent is confused because he thinks these must be mutually exclusive categories.

Apparently, the world’s most famous atheist has really been an agnostic all along.

Yep, he has indeed been both all along!

First, let’s clarify the two terms. An atheist believes that there is no God.

Aargh, nope, wrong! But wait … what’s this …?:

The word theist, for example, means one who believes that God exists. By placing a privative ‘a’ prefix on the word ‘theist’ an a-theist is one who does NOT believe in God.

Amazingly here he gets it right! “… an a-theist is one who does NOT {believe in God}”. (I’ve added curly brackets to make this even clearer.) Equally amazingly Tennent hasn’t noticed that what he’s just said conflicts with what he said in his previous paragraph; joined-up thinking is not a Christian strong point.

… the corollary must also be true; namely, that it is impossible to “prove” that God does not exist.

Yes indeed, if by “prove” we mean 100% certainty.

This seems to concede the very point that many of us have made to our atheist friends; namely that propositions such as “God is” or “God is not” fall outside the normal boundaries of scientific discovery and enquiry.

Wrong again. Science is not about proof with 100% certainty, scientific claims are always provisional, and are always open to revision given better data. That doesn’t mean, though, that they don’t pass lower standards of proof, such as “balance of probability” or “beyond reasonable doubt”. (Dr. Tim Tennent looks suspiciously fundamentalist on his website, so understanding science is likely no more his strong point than joined-up thinking.)

In fact, the very fact that the proposition “God does not exist” cannot be scientifically proven, means that (by their own testimony) there really are no atheists in the world. There can only be agnostics.

Obviously this hopelessly confused Christian has little idea of that atheists’ “own testimony” actually is.

Even Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion should be reprinted as a question, not a statement. It should be, The God Delusion? since Dawkins cannot prove (by his own testimony) that belief in God is delusional. He clearly thinks so, but he cannot know for certain.

And presumably Tim Tennent thinks that no jurors should ever bring in a guilty verdict in any court case, since they can never “know for certain”.

In the comments to the blog post, commentators helpfully try to explain. For example:

“An atheist does not necessarily believe that there are no deities. More correctly, an atheist does not believe that there are any deities.”

To which the confused Christian “Admin” can only offer an uncomprehending:

Huh ???

The explanation continues:

“Most atheists are also agnostic: we don’t have a belief in any gods, but we also don’t believe it’s possible to prove that they exist or do not exist.”

To which “Admin” replies, amazingly, that it is others who are confused (and he still doesn’t get the point that one can be both atheist and agnostic, despite it being clearly stated in the comment he is replying to):

I think you are confused. Lack of belief in God or Gods makes you an agnostic, not an atheist.

Another Christian commentator adds in support:

Please remember that it was Dawkins himself who said he is not an atheist, but rather considers himself an agnostic.

The “said he is not an atheist” is simply false (it is an erroneous presumption made by those who think that calling oneself an agnostic entails saying that one is not an atheist). The thread then retreats to the usual reversal of the burden of proof. With amazing chutzpah “Admin” says:

If you want to believe something, you should provide evidence for it. … You want to be an intellectually serious atheist? Then own up to the claim you are making, shoulder the burden of proof, and show us your evidence.

He follows this with a clear and blatant illustration that attributing “there is no God” claims to atheists is all a ploy to place on them the burden of proof (added bold):

No, you are not logically entitled to your presumption of atheism -— that yours is the default position -— and that you do not need to offer evidence in support of your belief that there is no God.

Sigh!

logic

This entry was posted in Atheism, Religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

87 Responses to Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics and the meaning of atheism

  1. Coel says:

    Admittedly there’s nothing particular novel in the above post (including one
    of the most-quoted of all xkcd cartoons) but it seems to need repeating frequently, and an agnostic acquaintance of mine had been pushing the “fundamentalist” agnostic line so regularly that I felt inspired to write the above in order to point him to it.

  2. Gary Hill says:

    As an agnostic atheist I agree with you. In fact, I’ve spent 55 years living on this planet and I can honestly say I have only ever met one person who openly classifies himself as a gnostic atheist – a friend of over 30 years who has always claimed to have knowledge of God (i.e., there definitely aren’t any, even taking into account vacuous definitions), therefore he is atheist.

    Which is indeed what most believers I meet assume all atheists to be.

  3. I too am an agnostic atheist. It is always shocking how many people slag off The God Delusion, in which Dawkins clearly articulates this, when they clearly have not read it.

    I do have sympathy with one confusion, though. Surely, the statement that “An atheist believes that there is no God” is true, even if the implied causal link is a bit backwards. I don’t believe in any gods, therefore I believe that there is probably no god. I don’t *know* this (hence the “probably”) but if it were not true that I believed there was no god, surely that would mean that I believed there was at least one god – even if I didn’t know which one – and therefore I would not be an atheist?

    • Chris says:

      Linguisticly speaking, is it possible that “God” is such a complex, varied, and nuanced subject that it’s not possible to define the meaning of the word through a dichotomous framework of either existence or nonexistence?

    • I don’t think so. Something either exists or it does not. Although it possible not to know which, I cannot see any semantic benefit to defining something as both existent and nonexistent.

  4. fedorsteeman says:

    Thank you for this! I used to be an “agnostic”. I got better.

  5. Pingback: Einstein the atheist on religion and God | coelsblog

  6. ADL says:

    As an igtheist, I think this entire argument is ridiculous.

  7. Tom says:

    I’m an atheist too. I usually remain an atheist in my day to day life, but only become a militant fundamentalist agnostic when I run into someone (or a LOT of people) whose dogma appears to be; “I don’t believe in any gods, so you can’t either.” When I see that going on, you bet I preach my militant fundamentalist agnostic ideology, not because “the important thing is that [I] can feel superior to both” but rather; to point out to the atheist he/she doesn’t have all the answers yet ;-)
    It’s only in those cases where I see control issues going on. When it’s flipped; “I believe in a god so you must as well” then I go militant fundamentalist atheist on them. It’s because I don’t like my choices being controlled, and I’ll bet others don’t either. Just a hunch.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Tom,

      … when I run into someone (or a LOT of people) whose dogma appears to be; “I don’t believe in any gods, so you can’t either.”

      Can you give examples of any significant number of people in Western countries today taking that line?

  8. Phil says:

    I’m an Agnostic Fundamentalist and would welcome a friendly discussion and/or debate with the writer of this article and any other interested parties. I do realize this article is now a couple of years old and the writer’s interest may have moved on to other issues.

    I have a site dedicated to such a discussion, but realize that participants may prefer a more neutral territory, which is agreeable with me. Perhaps we could pick a philosophy forum for such a discussion?

    A friendly challenge. If a reader feels the Agnostic Fundamentalist position can be dismissed as easily as the author implies, well, why not try that for yourself and see if it’s true.

    Best wishes to all.

  9. Phil says:

    Ok, thanks Coel, blog comments are not the best medium for a real conversation, but it’s a place to start. Let’s try it….

    First, I am speaking only of my own views, and not trying to define the term Fundamentalist Agnostic for anybody else.

    Second, there can be much more to Fundamentalist Agnosticism than just a critique of atheism. But I’ll set all that aside for now and address your points.

    You said, “Their one dogma is the claim that atheists make dogmatic assertions about the non-existence of gods.”

    I would put it this way…

    While holy books have proven they can bring comfort and meaning to many people, that does not automatically equal holy books being qualified to meaningfully address or credibly answer the very biggest questions about the fundamental nature of all reality.

    In the very same way…

    While human reason has proven extremely useful in a great many areas of human life, that does not automatically equal human reason being qualified to meaningfully address or credibly answer the very biggest questions about the fundamental nature of all reality.

    In both cases, holy books AND human reason, if one wishes to assert an ability of such enormous proportion, one bears the burden of proving that ability.

    If one can not or will not prove the qualifications of their chosen authority for the specific task at hand, then all conclusions derived by reference to that authority are matters of faith.

    The atheist faith is the belief that human reason is qualified to meaningfully address or credibly answer the very biggest questions about the fundamental nature of all of reality.

    This belief is not proven, and nobody seems willing to even to try to prove it. I believe this is because most atheists sincerely take those qualifications as an obvious given.

    Your well written intelligent article merits more attention than this, but this seems wordy enough for now.

    Nice to meet you!

    • PeterJ says:

      “In both cases, holy books AND human reason, if one wishes to assert an ability of such enormous proportion, one bears the burden of proving that ability.”.

      Agreed. That the holy books and our reason can address the fundamental questions about reality can and has been be proved, A lack of interest in the issues seems to be the biggest problem since the proof is not inaccessible. .

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      First, I should admit that I’m not arguing against agnosticism at all, indeed almost all atheists are also agnostic to some extent. The article is (in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way) criticising “Fundamentalist Agnostics” for their Absolute Certainty that atheists make a dogmatic claim of 100% certainty of non-existence.

      In both cases, holy books AND human reason, if one wishes to assert an ability of such enormous proportion, one bears the burden of proving that ability.

      Agreed. Now, it can be shown that human reason can do a pretty good job of understanding the world, after all science and technology do work and do work remarkably well. You are entirely right that this doesn’t amount to 100% reliability in all things, which is why doubt and self-checking is a major part of the scientific approach.

      The atheist faith is the belief that human reason is qualified to meaningfully address or credibly answer the very biggest questions about the fundamental nature of all of reality.

      Well no, not really. We have good evidence (as above) that human reasons works pretty well in understanding the nature of reality. From there we just do our best. We don’t claim infallibility.

      I believe this is because most atheists sincerely take those qualifications as an obvious given.

      No, it is rather that most atheists accept their limitations and so don’t make the claim that you are attributing to them.

  10. Phil says:

    A bit more…

    You said, “Thus the “atheist” is considered to be going around angrily asserting, with absolute 100% confidence and spittle-flecked lips, the non-existence of gods.”

    In recent years, this is essentially what the most public atheists have been doing. They typically assert with great confidence, and then retreat in a more qualified stance as a dodge only when challenged.

    I agree these most public atheists do not represent all atheists, most of whom most likely rarely give such matters much of a thought.

    But the most public atheists are out there, claiming to speak for you, and often making a living at it, and they are becoming your brand unless you reject their dogmatic extremism as vocally as you reasonably reject religious dogmatic extremism.

    I propose that the meaningful divide is not between theists and atheists, but between the reasonable and unreasonable people in both camps.

    The vast majority of both theists and atheists do not cause problems for others. That’s the job of the unreasonable minority, in both camps. If we’re going to be against somebody, that’s probably who it should be.

    Says the….

    FUNDAMENTALIST!!!!

    Agnostic. :-)

    • PeterJ says:

      Nice one Phil. I would share the same view.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      In recent years, this is essentially what the most public atheists have been doing. They typically assert with great confidence, and then retreat in a more qualified stance as a dodge only when challenged.

      Well yes, lots of outspoken atheists are confident of their views and argue against the harmful effects of religion on societies. That, though, is not a claim of total and dogmatic certainty, it’s simply a strongly held opinion deriving from the evidence as they see it. The “retreat” to a “more qualified stance” is also entirely honest — they do realise the inevitable uncertainty about such claims.

      But, in most human discourse, one is not expected to re-voice such hesitancy and uncertainty all the time in every conversation. If, say, you tried to get a politician to admit that their economic policy might be wrong, or if you tried to get a Greenpeace supporter to admit that GM foods might be a good idea, or indeed asked any other activist about their claims, then generally you’ll find that, compared to what is normal in many other areas, the outspoken atheists are entirely well-mannered and open to doubt.

      It’s just that, for some reason, religion seems to get special protection, and anyone criticising religion gets extra scrutiny and criticism. It’s only in the area of gods that we even have a term such as “agnostic”, invented mostly as a way to avoid labelling as an atheist.

      … they are becoming your brand unless you reject their dogmatic extremism as vocally as you reasonably reject religious dogmatic extremism.

      I don’t see them as dogmatic or as extremist, and indeed I’m quite happy for them to be my brand leaders!

      The vast majority of both theists and atheists do not cause problems for others. That’s the job of the unreasonable minority, in both camps.

      What do you mean by “cause problems for others”? If you mean “argue against” then are you really saying that it is unreasonable to argue against religion and the effect it has on society? Religion is hugely powerful and influential in much of the world. All influential idea systems should be scrutinised and held to account. There is nothing “unreasonable” in doing that. Indeed it is a valuable public service.

      If by “cause problems” you mean something beyond “argue against”, then the leading outspoken atheists are not “causing problems” in that sense.

  11. Phil says:

    Thanks much for the replies guys, I can see I’m going to enjoy chatting with you.

    I said, “The atheist faith is the belief that human reason is qualified to meaningfully address or credibly answer the very biggest questions about the fundamental nature of all of reality.”

    It’s entirely possible we can find a better way to phrase this. I’ll try here, tell me if I’m going in the right direction.

    1) All atheists decline religious beliefs based upon an analysis conducted by human reason.

    2) Such an analysis presumes that human reason is a tool qualified for this particular job.

    3) That presumption is not proven. Typically nobody even tries to prove it.

    4) Therefore, both atheism and theism are built upon a foundation of faith.

    It is upon this reasoning that an Agnostic Fundamentalist (this one anyway) might compare the theist vs. atheist debate to a merry-go-round.

    There are many blinking lights and much carnival music which create the impression of movement. But if one steps back just a few steps one can see the merry-go-round is really a stationary object going around in a small circle.

    BEFORE THE DEBATE: Some people believe in God, some don’t, and others aren’t sure.

    Thousands of years later….

    AFTER THE DEBATE: Some people believe in God, some don’t, and others aren’t sure.

    An alternative to that debate might be to focus on understanding what fundamental human needs are being addressed by religion, and then looking for additional methods by which these needs might be met.

    Such a search for additional understanding and methods can comprise a form of agnosticism beyond merely an inability to decide between theism and atheism.

    End of rant.

    How well do the four points above work for you guys? If not, at which point do I lose you? Thanks!

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Phil. I would object to item 1.

      1) All atheists decline religious beliefs based upon an analysis conducted by human reason.

      This seems like an over-simplification. First, I decline commonplace theism but not religious beliefs. Second, there is no firm evidence that atheists are any more inclined to honest intellectual analysis than theists. There are many on both sides who shy away from using their grey matter in case they don’t like the results. Indeed. it seems to be an epidemic.

    • Phil says:

      Thanks Peter. Yes, I suspected the word “all” was probably going to be problematic. Hmm…

      I would like to make that first statement more precise, but I am unaware of any other method atheists use to reject god claims.

      I didn’t mean to argue that atheists use reason well or better than somebody else. I meant only that reason is the method atheists use to reach conclusions about god claims.

      However, I am arguing that unless atheists are willing to subject their own chosen authority to the very same vigorous inspection and challenge that they reasonably aim at the chosen authorities of theists, they aren’t really being fully loyal to their own principles.

      Challenging _ALL_ chosen authorities in an even handed manner seems a process of reason, a process I enthusiastically support, a credible alternative to religion.

      Challenging religious authorities ONLY seems not reason really, but merely anti-theism. I don’t see the logic in attempting to defeat theists, the proven masters of ideology, with just another faith based belief system, which is what atheism is until such time as the qualifications of reason to credibly address questions the scale of god claims has been proven.

      If you accept religious beliefs, are you an atheist? Perhaps you accept beliefs unrelated to the God proposal?

    • Coel says:

      I meant only that reason is the method atheists use to reach conclusions about god claims.

      The only “conclusion” that an atheist need make about god claims is that “you [the theist] have not made your case”.

      I am arguing that unless atheists are willing to subject their own chosen authority to the very same vigorous inspection and challenge …

      Which atheists are quite happy to do! But, one cannot go from “human reason is fallible and not fully reliable” to “therefore it is more probable than not that there is an orbiting teapot out in our Solar System beyond the range of our telescopes”, and nor can one leap from there to “therefore it is more probable than not that God exists”.

    • PeterJ says:

      Phil – I agree completely with your reply to me and see where you’re coming from. That it’s no good fighting one undemonstrable ideology with another one is a great point.

      The problem, it seems to me, is that folks on both extremes of the debate do not use their reason to its full extent but stop at the point where it might shake the foundations of their metaphysical dreams. Metaphysics is not for such sissies.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      1) All atheists decline religious beliefs based upon an analysis conducted by human reason.

      Yes, atheists find the claims of the theists unconvincing. We do indeed use human reason, it’s the only tool we have. We do not regard that tool as infallible.

      2) Such an analysis presumes that human reason is a tool qualified for this particular job.

      Let’s think about the burden of proof here. The theist is the one making the claim, and thus the one who should present the evidence. If the theist is making a claim that goes beyond human reason, then it’s up to them to make the case. They also need to explain how their claim stacks up, if human reason can’t be used.

      4) Therefore, both atheism and theism are built upon a foundation of faith.

      No, because the atheist does not presume that human reason is sufficient for the job, and is thus not “built upon a foundation of faith”; the atheist merely considers the theistic claims to be unconvincing and unproven and superfluous.

      Again, the claim that the atheists make this faith stance is merely the dogma of the Fundamentalist Agnostic, and is not how the atheist actually thinks.

      The point is that one should not start from theism and atheism being equally probable, any more than one starts from the position that Russell’s orbiting teapot (out of range of all modern telescopes) is equally probable as the “no teapot” default. The atheist is merely putting the burden of proof on the theist, where it quite rightly belongs.

    • PeterJ says:

      “The atheist is merely putting the burden of proof on the theist, where it quite rightly belongs”.

      In the opinion of people who endorse atheism. Other people would no doubt have a different view. Got to be fair to both sides.

    • Coel says:

      The theist is the one making a claim, about the existence of a god and the implications of that for the nature of the world, therefore the burden of substantiating that claim is upon the theist. In the absence of strong evidence to substantiate the claim, others are entitled to disregard it.

    • PeterJ says:

      There you go. Do you not see that this argument can be reversed? I’m not defending theism, but its no more of a conjecture than atheism.

      I would keep coming back to the point that mysticism represents a perfect reconciliation of atheism and theism, and that it is worth some study.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Peter,

      Do you not see that this argument can be reversed?

      Well, no, I don’t!

      I’m not defending theism, but its no more of a conjecture than atheism.

      Yes it is! Theism is a claim about the existence of a god.

  12. Phil says:

    You asked, “What do you mean by “cause problems for others”?”

    Sorry for not being clearer. I meant only that the majority of both theists and atheists are peaceful people who aren’t engaging in behaviors we need to be concerned about.

    Thus, I suggest a shift of focus away from beliefs and towards actions.

    I propose the meaningful divide is not between theists and atheists, but between the reasonable folks and unreasonable folks on both sides.

    Which is why I decided to give myself a label containing the word Fundamentalist, to remind myself even agnostics can be unreasonable. :-) Yup, and I can prove it! But I’ll try not too…

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      meant only that the majority of both theists and atheists are peaceful people who aren’t engaging in behaviors we need to be concerned about.

      True, but nor is being an outspoken atheist campaigner a “behavior we need to be concerned about”, it is merely an entirely normal part of a modern, pluralistic and free society.

      I propose the meaningful divide is not between theists and atheists, but between the reasonable folks and unreasonable folks on both sides.

      OK, but are all political campaigners “unreasonable”, all environmental activists, all campaigners and fund-raisers for charity, all advocates of any view point? Are they all “unreasonable” just because they argue for their position and try to influence society?

      If such advocacy is not “unreasonable”, but merely a normal part of Western society, then why are outspoken atheists regarded differently?

  13. Phil says:

    You said….

    “True, but nor is being an outspoken atheist campaigner a “behavior we need to be concerned about”, it is merely an entirely normal part of a modern, pluralistic and free society.”

    Then outspoken theist evangelism is too merely an entirely normal part of a modern, pluralistic and free society.

    If I shouldn’t be concerned with outspoken atheism, why should others be concerned with outspoken theism?

    My point is that theism and atheism are not really the problem we should be addressing, given that the evidence clearly shows that the vast majority of both theists and atheists are peaceful citizens concerned primarily with raising their kids and making the next car payment.

    Reason suggests we be more precise, and target our attentions at the extremists on all sides.

    So, in conclusion, I am ADAMANTLY AGAINST adamancy!!!! Adamants are wrong, so very very WRONG!!!!!!! Death to all fanatics!!!! :-)

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      Then outspoken theist evangelism is too merely an entirely normal part of a modern, pluralistic and free society.

      Sure, of course it is! And that’s exactly what Christians do, promoting their views in society. Why are you objecting to that?

      Reason suggests we be more precise, and target our attentions at the extremists on all sides.

      And I don’t accept that there are “extremists” on the atheists’ or the cartoonists’ side. I don’t accept that writing and speaking and drawing cartoons to promote ones views is “extremist”. That’s how modern society works and is supposed to work.

      If some people try to exempt their own idea system from entirely normal and usual criticism, by threats of violence or by actual violence, then they are the extremists.

      Further, anyone trying to exempt their own idea system from criticism by adopting the victim posture and whimpering “I’m so offended” needs to do a lot of growing up and learn what a free society is like.

  14. Phil says:

    Peter, I see we are very much on the same track. Cool! That doesn’t happen to me very often, so I’ll celebrate a bit. Whoopie! :-)

    Coel, all I’m suggesting is that the very same challenge we reasonably apply to holy books also be applied in an even handed fair manner to the chosen authorities of all contestants in the debate.

    I agree that theists bear the burden of proof for their assertions and that they’ve failed to meet that burden.

    Having said that, I then have to admit that using the “burden of proof” as my guide assumes that human reason is capable of doing useful calculations on questions of this scale. An example…

    You have declined the proposal that a huge intelligence lies at the heart of all reality based on your observation of reality. At the least, you feels the odds are against such thing.

    So we can then reasonably ask, what is your sample size? What is the relationship between the area you have observed, and the area “all of reality” which claims are being made about?

    If you don’t know your sample size, how will you calculate the odds of there being or not being a god?

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      Coel, all I’m suggesting is that the very same challenge we reasonably apply to holy books also be applied in an even handed fair manner to the chosen authorities of all contestants in the debate.

      Sure, and I agree.

      If you don’t know your sample size, how will you calculate the odds of there being or not being a god?

      It’s simply not my problem! I’m not the one making a claim here, so I don’t have to evaluate any probabilities of anything. All I say is that the theists have done a very poor job of presenting any argument or evidence for their claims. That alone is sufficient to withhold assent from the proposition, just as one does for the orbiting teapot that is out of range of our telescopes.

  15. Phil says:

    You said…

    “And I don’t accept that there are “extremists” on the atheists’ or the cartoonists’ side.”

    Um, explicitly atheist regimes have killed far more people over the last 100 years than theists have. Which is not to suggest theists are immune to murder, for they clearly are not.

    One of those explicitly atheist regimes, Communist China, continues to this day and has become the largest dictatorship in human history.

    If Communist China was an explicitly Catholic regime, all the atheist ideologues would be ranting against it daily. But because it is an atheist and not Catholic regime, we hear hardly a word about it.

    This is the heart of extremism, a determination to see only one side of an issue.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      In reply to: “And I don’t accept that there are “extremists” on the atheists’ or the cartoonists’ side”, you say:

      Um, explicitly atheist regimes have killed far more people over the last 100 years than theists have.

      You have a weird idea of the “sides” here. You are referring to communist regimes, which were the complete opposite of today’s “atheists'” and “cartoonists” sides.

      The communists were totalitarian and entirely opposed to free speech. They were just about the last regimes to tolerate satirical cartoons against them, or to promote the idea of pluralism and free speech. In such respects the communist regimes were/are similar to the Islamists of today.

      The whole point here is to be on the side of free speech, pluralism and a liberal democracy, and against the totalitarian Islamists and communists and their ilk.

      One of those explicitly atheist regimes, Communist China, continues to this day and has become the largest dictatorship in human history.

      So now ask, would it be better if China allowed free speech and satirical cartoons, criticising the Chinese communist party? The answer from Western atheists and cartoonists is a clear “yes”.

      Would your answer be: “oh no, the communists will get all offended and upset”?

      If Communist China was an explicitly Catholic regime, all the atheist ideologues would be ranting against it daily. But because it is an atheist and not Catholic regime, we hear hardly a word about it.

      Well no, the lack of “ranting” against China from Western atheists is because (nearly) everyone in the West agrees that communism is a bad system. If someone drew a satirical cartoon about communist China, no-one in the West would even dream of objecting. I bet you would not say “oh you extremist!”.

  16. Phil says:

    You said…

    “It’s simply not my problem! I’m not the one making a claim here, so I don’t have to evaluate any probabilities of anything.”

    Yes, you are making a claim. You are claiming that human reason is qualified to analyze questions the scale of the god proposal and provide meaningful theories and conclusions to those questions.

    Most atheists don’t realize they are making a claim, because they sincerely take those qualifications of reason, in regards to these questions, as an obvious given. This is called “an unexamined faith”.

    Not only are those qualifications not proven, nobody even tries to prove them, and it’s pretty easy to make a case that a species as incredibly small and troubled as the human race is _probably_ not in a position to understand the most fundamental nature of all reality, an arena that…

    It can’t even define!

    When we use reason to discover that both theism and atheism are built upon a foundation of faith, then we arrive at the opportunity to really decide whether we wish to be people of reason or faith.

    This is a personal decision for everyone to make for themselves. My argument is only that we should reach for clarity, and not be labeling faith as reason.

    • Coel says:

      You are claiming that human reason is qualified to analyze questions the scale of the god proposal and provide meaningful theories and conclusions to those questions.

      Well no, I’m not even claiming that. I’m putting the burden of proof on the theist and saying that it is up to them to make their case. It might well be the case that (1) human reason fails us on this point, and (2) there is a god. It is up to anyone arguing that to actually argue it! Otherwise it is just a possibility akin to Russell’s orbiting teapot.

    • PeterJ says:

      I would only add that it seems very pessimistic to suppose that we cannot know the answer. I think we can. Indeed, countless people attest to knowing it.

      Strangely, those who make this claim tend to be ambiguous about God. Existence turns out to be a more complex idea than we usually imagine, according to them, such that we may view both theism and atheism as ways of describing the truth,

      This more subtle approach would be what enables the Christianity of Eckhart, de Cusa or ‘A Course in Miracles’ to be consistent with Buddhism, Taoism and the perennial philosophy. God-language would be useful but optional. Very often the sages advise against it since it can lead to an objectification of God which would render him logically absurd.

      Just trying to muddle things up a bit for the sake of undermining both extreme views.

  17. Phil says:

    You said…

    “You are referring to communist regimes, which were the complete opposite of today’s “atheists’” and “cartoonists” sides. ”

    Both communist regimes and the most prominent atheist commentators of today are earnestly opposed to religion. Hardly the complete opposite of each other in regards to their relationship with theism.

    I’m NOT trying to paint modern atheists with communist crimes. I’m trying to offer a tangible example of one sided views, a process better described by the word ideology than reason.

    Imagine that I rant against bank robbery. But I only rant against bank robberies by atheists, and not by anybody else. What am I really concerned about? Bank robbery? Or atheists?

    When we rant against Islamic repression, and not Communist repression, we are revealing it is Islam and not repression that is our interest. Which pulls the rug out from under our own argument, by showing we don’t actually believe in our own stated cause.

    If we argue against repression in a fair, even handed, objective manner, whoever is doing the repressing, then it is reasonable to state we are against repression.

    • Coel says:

      Both communist regimes and the most prominent atheist commentators of today are earnestly opposed to religion.

      Communist leaders are also like outspoken (male) atheists in that they all wear trousers. But such similarity amounts to little. Communist regimes were totally the opposite of Western atheism today in that communist regimes were totalitarian and opposed to free speech and pluralism. Sticking up for free speech — even if it offends people — is the issue under debate here, and on that the communists were/are on the wrong side.

      As I said, the reason such atheists in the West don’t rant about communism is that it would be a rather boring conversation along the lines of “communism is bad”, “we all agree”, “err, well communism is really bad”, “yes, we agree”, “communists really should not oppress people”, “well, yes, we agree”.

  18. PeterJ says:

    I’m afraid I would agree with Phil about the general effects of choosing an ideology over a thought-process or genuine research. The effect is the same inside and outside of religion.

    If atheists would look around a bit, they’d notice that one of the strongest arguments against theism is made by the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna using logic and making no appeals to faith. This is usually unknown to them since it comes from within religion and seems to confuse the issues horribly. It is a tricky situation when any argument against an objective God will be an argument for the doctrine of the Upanishads.

    hence I would not fully endorse theism or atheism, or not with a week spent defining the terms.

  19. Phil says:

    Coel said…

    ” I’m putting the burden of proof on the theist and saying that it is up to them to make their case.”

    And I am asking the same of you.

    Please prove that “burden of proof” ie. human reason, is qualified to address such large questions as the fundamental nature of all reality, the scale of the god proposal.

    The process you are using to challenge the god proposal assumes that the rules of human reason are binding on all of reality, an arena we can’t yet define in even the most basic manner.

    I’m NOT objecting to your challenge of theism at all. Really I’m not. I completely agree their main claims are unproven.

    I’m objecting to your apparent unwillingness to apply that same valid challenging process to atheism.

    If we don’t perform that challenge too, then all we’ve accomplished is the creation of yet another faith based belief system in conflict with competing faith based belief systems, the very process you reasonably wish for us to escape from.

    Peter, please tell us more about the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna and his argument. A quick summary or link is a good start if you can.

    I found your comment interesting because one of the things I’m learning is that if we wish to challenge some system of thought, the most effective way to do that is from within that system of thought, not from the outside.

    As example, sometimes I challenge Christians about the HUGE amounts of money they spend on fancy church buildings, while a billion human beings live on the edge of starvation.

    The effective challenge here is “Is that what Jesus would do?” and not “You’re being an illogical fool!”

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      Please prove that “burden of proof” ie. human reason, is qualified to address such large questions as the fundamental nature of all reality, the scale of the god proposal.

      I have no proof that it is and I am not claiming that I know that it is. It may not be. However, it’s not me who is making these big claims about “God” and the “fundamental nature of all reality”, it’s the theist doing that. All I’m doing is doing the best I can with the evidence I have.

      The process you are using to challenge the god proposal assumes that the rules of human reason are binding on all of reality, an arena we can’t yet define in even the most basic manner.

      But I don’t have to make any such assumption. The theist’s god proposal is flawed for any number of reasons, I’m simply saying that their account us unconvincing.

      I completely agree their main claims are unproven. I’m objecting to your apparent unwillingness to apply that same valid challenging process to atheism.

      But all the atheist is saying is that the theist’s claims are unproven and that we find them unconvincing and thus that we lack any such belief.

  20. Phil says:

    Coel,

    If I say I don’t agree with your post because my ouija board says it’s wrong, I am effectively making a claim that ouija boards are qualified to deliver a useful perspective on your writing.

    I am not claiming that human reason is not now nor never will be qualified to address such large topics in a useful manner. I couldn’t possibly know such a thing. I’m claiming only that such an ability has not been proven yet.

    What troubles me more is it seems nobody on the atheist side feels the need to try to prove that ability. You know those theists who quote Bible passages as proof of their assertions, but never feel the need to defend the Bible’s qualifications because to them it’s an obvious given? That’s how much of atheist ideology reads to me, unexamined faith.

    To me, the reason-able thing to do is to aim our reason at projects that reason might be qualified for now.

    As example, reason may be able to help us understand the fundamental human needs that fuel religion, and provide a greater variety of ways to address those needs.

    I object to the “theist vs. atheist merry-go-round to nowhere” mostly because it’s a huge distraction from more constructive projects that reason might actually be able to accomplish.

    If religion is ever ended, it will because somebody came up with a way to meet these fundamental human needs that theists like better than theism. We will never be able to sell such alternatives to theists if our focus has long been on yelling at them.

    • I don’t think its faith in reason, it’s just extrapolation from experience. The same approach to understanding the world has given us functional technology, including the iPad on which I type this. It demonstrably works. If you could demonstrated the same for your ouija board, then yes perhaps we should trust it! (Experience-based trust is not the same as faith.) Some religious people claim to have experience-based trust in a deity yet they cannot demonstrate any causal link between said deity and life events, unlike the way that we can demonstrate how our understanding of a physics predicts whether a plane will fly or not, for example.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      If I say I don’t agree with your post because my ouija board says it’s wrong, I am effectively making a claim that ouija boards are qualified to deliver a useful perspective on your writing.

      But atheists are not saying to theists “we know for sure that you are wrong, because our reason says so”. Atheists really say “you have presented totally insufficient evidence and argument for your claims, what evidence we do have, as far as we can tell, says that you are wrong, and all the signs are that the idea is constructed out of wishful thinking and anthropocentric projection”.

      The latter version contains no claim to human reason being adequate for the task, all it says is that we make the best assessment that we can.

  21. Phil says:

    Hi Rich,
    You said…

    “I don’t think its faith in reason, it’s just extrapolation from experience. The same approach to understanding the world has given us functional technology, including the iPad on which I type this. It demonstrably works.”

    Your sentiment is very common, and very understandable. It is however an unwarranted leap.

    Holy books are also very useful. They have brought comfort and meaning to billions of people over thousands of years. They have rescued lives from disaster and so on.

    But it doesn’t follow that because holy books are very useful in some areas, they are therefore automatically qualified to meaningfully address the very largest questions.

    I’m selling agnosticism here in part because it affords us an extra dose of much needed objectivity. When one doesn’t have a dog in the theist vs. atheist fight it’s much easier to see that just as holy books are not automatically qualified for every task, neither is human reason.

    Of course, I am a dog in my own little fight to sell agnosticism, so just because I can be objective about some things does not automatically equal an ability to be objective about everything.

  22. Phil says:

    Coel,

    You said…

    “The latter version contains no claim to human reason being adequate for the task, all it says is that we make the best assessment that we can.”

    A child of nine can make a better assessment than a child of three. So what? They will both probably be hilariously wrong about any sophisticated complex topic.

    Perhaps I’ve made this point often enough by now, and should leave it to readers to digest on their own.

    I’m really not trying to attack atheists, and if I am, such a project would certainly be ineffective.

    My larger more worthwhile goal is to claim that we are all essentially ignorant on these topics, and that this shared ignorance is a readily available asset which can be mined more profitably than any collection of fantasy knowings ever can be.

    It’s a point of view which is not alien to atheist culture, as it’s based on a hopefully clear minded observation of reality, a facing of inconvenient facts, and a practical willingness to make good use of that which we have in abundance, ignorance.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      A child of nine can make a better assessment than a child of three. So what? They will both probably be hilariously wrong about any sophisticated complex topic.

      Agreed. But atheists are not making the claim that we know for sure!

  23. Phil says:

    Apologies Coel, I hope this is not too controversial, apologies if it is, but…

    This is the standard tactical retreat found in pretty much all atheist ideology conversation.

    First the writer starts a forum, blog, or article where they basically claim religious people are clueless ninnies and that religions are the primary source of most problems in the world etc etc. Everything about the writing strongly suggests at least great confidence.

    If they are challenged ineffectively the confident to adamant tone is taken up a notch to try to overwhelm the challenger.

    If they are challenged effectively then they retreat in to “but we never said we are 100% sure!”

    It’s like arguing with Bill Clinton over the exact meaning of the word “is”, if you remember that famous Monica Lewinsky episode. It comes across as intellectually dishonest, a purely tactical game, instead of a real inquiry.

    It’s not a crime against humanity, but it’s not credible either, at least to this reader. And me beating this point to death would not be credible either, so that’s probably enough said.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      Everything about the writing strongly suggests at least great confidence. […] then they retreat in to “but we never said we are 100% sure!”

      That’s just real life. Take acting as a jury in a criminal case. You have to be sure “beyond reasonable doubt” in order to return a verdict sending someone to jail for many years. But you do not have to be 100% sure. We need to be pragmatic and do the best we can. 100% certainty is unattainable, but we do need juries willing to being in guilty verdicts, otherwise the criminal justice system wouldn’t work and there would be no deterrent to robbing banks.

      In just about all areas of life we proceed like this, doing the best we can and proceeding on our opinions and convictions, while never having 100% certainty. It’s all we can do.

      It’s only atheists who get told they have to be meek and retiring and not make any claims at all, unless they can supply 100% proof. It’s only in this area where we even have the word “agnostic”, invented as a way of avoiding labelling oneself with the dreaded word.

      No smart arse (sorry!) comes along and says: but you can’t bring in a guilty verdict, even though the evidence of the bank robbery is overwhelming, because you haven’t given 100%-reliable proof that human reason is capable of dealing with bank robbery!

      Actually, atheists are far more willing to own up to doubt than people in most areas of life. Try asking a politician to admit to doubt about their economic policies!

      Atheists are somewhere above “balance of probability” against God and somewhere below “absolute certainty” — atheists do know they are not infallible. In that sense atheists are all also agnostic. But, for some reason, some people will go to any lengths to avoid accepting the label “atheist”.

    • PeterJ says:

      Great comments Phil. This is also my experience with atheists. It’s a reasonable position to take up but the arguments given for it are often very unreasonable and dogmatic. I suspect that this is because atheists tend to know very little about religion.

      Which brings us to your question about Nagarjuna and his argument. It is a big topic but…

      In summary he proves that all positive metaphysical positions are logically absurd. This would include theism and atheism, although this may be a special case because of the difficulty of the definitions,

      His proof and the theory that can be derived from it represents the philosophical foundation of Middle Way Buddhism (inc. Zen). This solves all philosophical problems. Whether it is the correct solution is debatable but I know of no other solution.

      It is interesting here because it can be read as an argument for logic and reason and against theism. Francis Bradley, who makes the same argument in two millennia later, states bluntly that metaphysical analysis is the death of ‘commonplace theism’.

      Here we have two ardent supporters of religion telling us that God is a dream and claiming that their view can not only be proved in logic but verified in experience. Standard stuff in mysticism, where conjecture and guesswork are strongly discouraged.

      So yes, theism is often naïve and intellectually risible, but it would not follow that atheism is correct. There is a view of God that is consistent wit Nagarjuna’s denial of Him, and it is found in all those mystical texts that speak of God but never mean an objective existing phenomenon.

      I suspect that what atheists are usually arguing against is their own naïve ideas of God. If we start to speak of the Absolute, the two Brahman, Nibbana and so forth then things get more subtle and sophisticated.

      Personally, my view would be that God is good swing-thought and won’t lead us too far astray, but that in the end he must be reduced, like everything else, for a fundamental theory.

  24. Phil says:

    Coel, thanks for not being offended. Appreciated. My writing skills are not such that I have social confidence about appropriately addressing delicate subjects. To me, it is a great leap forward to even be realizing that. :-)

    A few further questions…

    1) Why do we have to establish a probability of the existence or non-existence of God? What’s wrong with simply saying, “I don’t know”?

    2) How would we establish a probability of the existence or non-existence of God, given that we have not the slightest clue what our sample size is?

    3) Why should we assume, as theists and atheist both do, that the goal of this inquiry should be to establish a knowing, however qualified it may be?

    I’m trying to be a good “atheist” by examining the real world evidence. And what I see is thousands of years of effort by some of humanity’s brightest minds, which has utterly failed to create a credible knowing on this subject.

    To me, to continue in this direction despite such a huge pile of evidence is an example of doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, which according to Einstein is the definition of insanity.

    My reason suggests the inquiry can be advanced by being more serious, and more practical. First, stop doing the same thing expecting different results. Next, harvest the resource the long inquiry has shown to us, our ignorance.

    Knowing on this subject is non-existent. Ignorance on this subject is abundant. Reason suggests, do the best we can, with the resource that we actually have.

    Not the fantasy resource of imaginary knowings, the real world resource of our shared ignorance. As you can see, this perspective is not really alien to atheist values.

    But I don’t call myself an atheist, because I see the typical atheist retreating from the real world fact of our shared ignorance in to the realm of fantasy knowings, qualified to different levels of certainty. How can I call myself an “atheist” when I seem to be making a career out of challenging atheism? :-) What confuses the matter further is that I am challenging atheism with atheist principles. Perhaps you should just call me “Mr. Butthead” and we should be happy with that. :-)

    To me, the real world fact is that we simply don’t know what does or doesn’t lie at the heart of all reality. Thus, stating “I don’t know” in a clear manner seems a more reasoned claim than “it’s probably this or probably that” based on what is essentially wild speculation all around.

    My goal is to get past the wild speculation and fantasy knowings on all sides and on to something that could perhaps be more practical and useful.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,
      Don’t worry, I’m not easy to offend. Afterall, I’m used to atheistic websites, and you know what they’re like! :-)

      1) Why do we have to establish a probability of the existence or non-existence of God? What’s wrong with simply saying, “I don’t know”?

      “I don’t know” is a very good start. But then you have to decide how you’re going to live your life and what sort of society you’re going to support.

      So suppose someone says, “We should have a law against gay marriage because it offends God”, then we as a society need to decide and you need to cast your vote. So, either you’re convinced enough by the claim that you support it, or you don’t.

      Then you have to decide whether to sacrifice a goat to Baal. If you find the likelihood of Baal existing rather low, then you ignore it and don’t sacrifice the goat.

      Similarly, you have to decide whether to bow down to Mecca and pray five times a day. If you find the claims made by Mohammed convincing then you do, if you don’t then you don’t.

      Suppose, when you’ve considered all the gods that people make claims about, you don’t find any of them convincing, and you don’t pray towards Mecca, you don’t sacrifice goats, and you don’t support laws based on Biblical texts. At that point you are an atheist. You are someone who lacks any theistic belief and doesn’t hold to any of the consequences flowing from it.

      At that point you’re someone who quacks like an atheist, waddles like an atheist and looks like an atheist, and you indeed are an atheist. That does not mean you’re an anti-theist or anti-religion, but you are indeed an atheist, since “atheist” is simply Greek for “lacking any theistic belief”.

      It’s only the agnostics who muddy the water, and then look for excuses to avoid adopting that term, and they do that by asserting that the atheist must also be making dogmatic claims. But, that’s not how atheists tend to think, it’s the excuse the agnostics have decided upon.

      Of course, if you are an atheist in the above sense, you might then think: Well, since I don’t accept the claims made in the Bible, I think it’s wrong to base laws on them. You might conclude that depriving gay people of the right to marriage, owing to Biblical claims that you find unconvincing, is the wrong thing to do. You might then find yourself opposing the influence of religion on society. You might, for example, dislike their opposition to the assisted-dying laws that most of the society wants. You might oppose religious control over school curricula.

      In such ways the “I don’t know” isn’t sufficient since you then do have to decide what things you will or will not support in society.

      2) How would we establish a probability of the existence or non-existence of God, given that we have not the slightest clue what our sample size is?

      From the atheist point of view we just ignore the question. It is not interesting. It is a claim from someone else’s religion. If they were to support their idea with strong evidence then we’d take notice; until then we don’t. But the atheist is — as above — concerned with the influence of such ideas on society.

      And what I see is thousands of years of effort by some of humanity’s brightest minds, which has utterly failed to create a credible knowing on this subject.

      That’s exactly what you would expect if, say, there were no actual unicorns, but a sect of people fervently wished there were and kept putting forward claims about it. After all, we can’t fully disprove the existence of unicorns, especially if they are proposed as being invisible (and pink) or existing on some distant planet beyond the reach of our telescopes.

      To me, to continue in this direction despite …

      The atheists are not the ones “continuing in that direction”, that’s the theists doing that. From the atheist point of view the topic is uninteresting. If you look at what atheists discuss on atheist websites it is mostly about (what we see as) the harmful effects of religion on society and an advocacy of secularism. Occasionally atheists deal with arguments for god, but that’s only because the theists keep advancing them.

      First, stop doing the same thing expecting different results. Next, harvest the resource the long inquiry has shown to us, our ignorance.

      The “resource” that atheists expend on the matter is about advocacy of a secular society. As with the above issues, that is a real and important practical matter. The theology is not what interests us.

      How can I call myself an “atheist” when I seem to be making a career out of challenging atheism?

      Don’t worry, plenty of atheists do that! “I’m an atheist, but …”. Atheists are really good at criticising each other!

      To me, the real world fact is that we simply don’t know what does or doesn’t lie at the heart of all reality.

      But again, that sentence implies that what is important is the theology, the existence of otherwise of gods. That’s interesting to theists, but not to atheists. To atheists it’s merely someone else’s religion.

      … and on to something that could perhaps be more practical and useful.

      Totally agree! Now, in the UK (where I am) there isn’t really an “atheist society”, there is a National Secular Society and the British Humanist Society. None of their campaigns are about theology, they are all about social issues.

  25. Phil says:

    Peter, thank you for the introduction to Middle Way Buddhism, a label I’ve heard but really know nothing about. To the degree it interests you to do so, I hope you will serve as our tutor on this topic.

    As barely a student, I don’t know what to request from you on this topic, or where is the appropriate place to begin. And it seems perhaps too big a topic for a comment section. I wonder if Coel might consider accepting a guest column for you, which could then be expanded in it’s own comment section?

    In any case, I am interested in “a solution to all philosophical problems”. You can’t just toss that out there and then leave us hanging. :-)

    • PeterJ says:

      Ha. I like throwing in bold claims in the hope that someone notices. I cannot explain here and don’t want to hijack the discussion. There’s a lot on my blog and we could discuss it on your forum. Here I just wanted to make the point that there is this other view and we can’t just assume it is wrong. .

  26. Phil says:

    Coel, gosh I hate to be a whiner, but extended conversations like this are so much easier in forum software. But, anyway, on with the show.

    You said, ““I don’t know” is a very good start. But then you have to decide how you’re going to live your life and what sort of society you’re going to support. ”

    I want to live in a society where people are judged by their actions and not their beliefs. If someone is violent, I don’t care if they are theist or atheist, I care that they are violent.

    You said, “So suppose someone says, “We should have a law against gay marriage because it offends God”

    Then we do what we would do in regards to any other political issue, out organize and out vote the other side. Yelling at theists and telling them there is no God will accomplish nothing. Out voting them will.

    You said, “It’s only the agnostics who muddy the water, and then look for excuses to avoid adopting that term, and they do that by asserting that the atheist must also be making dogmatic claims.”

    The agnostic sees that BOTH sides are making assertions, neither of which the agnostic finds convincing.

    You keep trying to position atheism as a neutral merely lack of belief. Ok, that’s true for some atheists, those who rarely give such matters a thought.

    But it’s not true for people who have blogs which actively sell atheism. Those people are making assertions, which can be accepted or declined, just like theist assertions.

    You said, “In such ways the “I don’t know” isn’t sufficient since you then do have to decide what things you will or will not support in society. ”

    I claim “I don’t know” about god, and have no trouble at all resisting things like homophobia. I know exactly how I feel about homophobia, but not whether there is a god or not. Very simple! BTW, I’ve been booted off a number of theist sites for resisting homophobia. I am an equal opportunity annoyer :-) though I can understand that would not be obvious by my participation here.

    You said, “From the atheist point of view we just ignore the question. It is not interesting. It is a claim from someone else’s religion.”

    You ignore the question?? How is that possible on a blog about atheism?

    You are making a claim about the existence of god. Your claim is based on your observation of reality. And so I ask again, what is your sample size? What is the relationship between the area you can observe, and the area “all of reality” which is being addressed by the god debate?

    If you can not determine your sample size, how will you calculate probabilities of there being a god or not?

    You said, “That’s exactly what you would expect if, say, there were no actual unicorns, but a sect of people fervently wished there were and kept putting forward claims about it. ”

    I can demonstrate the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn if you like. Seriously. Price tag for this priceless information :-) is that you consider my article on the subject as a guest column here on your blog. Review and consider, all I’m asking. Otherwise, the point here is, be careful what you label obviously absurd.

    You said, “The atheists are not the ones “continuing in that direction”, that’s the theists doing that.”

    Everybody writing on the subject is continuing the debate.

    You said, “But again, that sentence implies that what is important is the theology, the existence of otherwise of gods. That’s interesting to theists, but not to atheists. To atheists it’s merely someone else’s religion. ”

    Apologies, but I just don’t find this credible. At the least that statement doesn’t fairly represent atheist culture on the net.

    Imho, outspoken atheists usually want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to make lots of claims, and then claim they aren’t claiming anything, but merely “lacking belief”.

    I see this as an attempt to stay always on the attack, and never on the defense. While I can appreciate this strategy as a debating tactic, it’s not especially useful in terms of a real inquiry.

    Finally, let us accept the goal of ending religion for a moment. I propose this can never be accomplished by a head butting contest with theists, which will only harden positions on all sides.

    To me, the truly serious critic of religion seeks to 1) first understand religion, and then to 2) provide alternate methods of meeting these human needs that theists like better than theism. It’s not possible to understand anything if all our energy is being consumed by rejecting.

    An ambitious project for sure, but the only one with any hope of success. Theism has survived for thousands of years in every corner of the world. It’s not going to be defeated by telling theists they’re stupid.

    The kind of theists all of us should be concerned about thrive on conflict. Giving them the conflict they seek just feeds the beast.

    All social issues which we have concerns about can be addressed without lumping billions of very diverse people in to a single pot and then attacking their deeply held beliefs.

    And this is too many words from here.

    You are a good sport Coel, and an articulate proponent of your position. I appreciate that our exchanges are not being derailed by the emotions that dominate so many discussions of these topics. I hope I am not consuming too much of your time. If yes, just say so, and we can dial it back.

  27. Coel says:

    Hi Phil,

    … out organize and out vote the other side. Yelling at theists and telling them there is no God will accomplish nothing. Out voting them will.

    That presumes that everyone is fixed into one of the two “sides”. Yet people change over time. Atheistic writings such as The God Delusion do accomplish a lot. Many people who grew up in religious families start to think for themselves in their teens and early adulthood, and they can be persuaded by atheists “yelling at” theists.

    The numbers identifying as atheists in the UK is steadily increasing, and is highest among the young. Overall, 42% now say “no religion”, 19% say they are atheists. Among over-60s only 10% say they are atheists, but for under-24s it is now a third. (Stats here)

    But it’s not true for people who have blogs which actively sell atheism. Those people are making assertions, …

    Everyone with views in all areas of life and society makes assertions. But it’s only atheists who are told that they are not allowed to make any assertions at all unless they first present 100%-secure proof.

    You ignore the question?? How is that possible on a blog about atheism?

    Easy, most of what I write about “as an atheist” is about secularism and the role of religion in society. I might occasionally take note of theology or claims about gods, but that’s only because such claims are still influential in society. The topic would go away as uninteresting if theists did not keep promoting it.

    You are making a claim about the existence of god.

    What claim do you think I’m making? It is certainly not one of 100% omniscience. I would say that I find the theists’ claims very unconvincing, and that they seem to be the product of mere wishful thinking.

    … how will you calculate probabilities of there being a god or not?

    I don’t! It’s not interesting! It’s a question that arises from somebody else’s religion. Why on earth should I bother with someone else’s weird theology?

    If some crank proposes that there is an alien invasion fleet hidden on the far side of the Moon, I don’t start calculating the probability of that, I just ignore them until they present sufficient evidence to take them seriously.

    To me the claims of theists don’t have sufficient evidence to pass the threshold to be taken seriously.

    At the least that statement doesn’t fairly represent atheist culture on the net.

    Since theistic claims are indeed still influential in society, many atheists will concern themselves with the standard rebuttals. If we want to influence society we do have to, for example, rebut the “fine tuning” argument and other things that theists say. But this is not because the topic of theology is of intrinsic interest to us.

    To me, the truly serious critic of religion seeks to 1) first understand religion, …

    I think that Western atheists generally do understand it pretty much. Afterall they are used to fairly religious societies.

    … and then to 2) provide alternate methods of meeting these human needs that theists like better than theism.

    The evidence is that in places like Scandinavia, where religion is largely dying out, people’s needs are indeed met, and indeed such places are usually among the world’s highest in terms of quality-of-life indicators. When societies stop being religious they quickly don’t miss religion.

    … lumping billions of very diverse people in to a single pot and then attacking their deeply held beliefs.

    The evidence is that “… attacking their deeply held beliefs” does succeed in terms of normalising and main-streaming atheistic attitudes in society (see above data for example), and thus can change society. I don’t see any evidence that mollycoddling people’s faith works better in persuading them to abandon it.

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Coel – Mostly I’d say you’re entitled to your opinion. But the idea that on overage atheists understand religion is a non-starter. Most do not think it worth knowing anything about, so why would they? Opponents of religion rarely follow the motto ‘Know thine enemy’ so rarely make a decent case. Instead they attack straw men in the manner of Don Quixote.

      This is not to say that they are wrong, but if they are right they’re making a very poor job of proving it. If I were an opponent I’d come to the party a lot better armed.

      Thanks for starting a good discussion.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Peter,

      Most [atheists] do not think [religion] worth knowing anything about, so why would they?

      Because most atheists live in societies that are highly religious and where religious ideas are prevalent.

      Instead they attack straw men in the manner of Don Quixote.

      The atheist’s main problem is that there are a huge number of varieties of religion. Any religious person sees their own version as “true” religion, and thus when an atheist attacks any other form they consider that to be “attacking a straw man”.

      It doesn’t matter that the version being attacked might be common and widespread in society, believed by large numbers, it is still a “strawman” version because it is not the “true” religion that the speaker believes in! I still maintain that atheists are generally pretty knowledgeable about the sorts of religion that are dominant and influential in the societies in which they live.

      The other problem is this: the believer will shy away from presenting a clear and straightforward account of what the “true” religion actually is, because that would make it vulnerable to atheistic critiques. Instead the “true” version is always presented vaguely, with the path to it being a long journey of discovery. That is a way of making it inaccessible, and is a means to protect the ideas from analysis and rebuttal.

      If theologians were to come to widespread agreement on what the true religion was, and the best arguments for it, and if they presented that in a book-length account, you can be sure that atheists would be happy to rebut it.

    • PeterJ says:

      Well, I feel you have just made my point.

      ‘True religion’ is a phrase usually reserved for nondualism or the perennial philosophy. There is no secret involved but it is not an easy doctrine to understand and is certainly not for tourists. Still, it has a vast literature available these days at the touch of a button. This would be the view endorsed by Erwin Schrodinger, who was no slouch as thinker.

      As you say, there are many forms of religion. This would be why it is pretty pointless attacking religion without knowing a fair bit about it. Otherwise we may end up doing a Dawkins.

      The difficulty here is that I would agree with most of your objections to theism but there would be a big ‘so what?’ factor. Whole traditions of religion have been arguing against theism for millennia and making much better arguments than are found in current academic philosophy. This is the issue that is so often ignored.

      Okay, so God is a muddled idea. What is wrong with the nondual cosmological scheme of Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Christian mysticism, advaita Vedanta and so forth?. This would be what people generally mean by ‘true religion’. The word ‘God’ appears in this doctrine, but He would be optional, a terminological choice, not a person or an object but a natural phenomenon that can be verified and known, thus doing away with the need for dogmaticism and blind faith.

      In the end I feel that the atheism/theism debate is rather empty and pointless. But that’s me. If you we’re arguing against some born-again evangelical mid-western Bible-thumping Protestant creationist I’d be right there alongside you. Religion seems an odd business in the US, and it distorts the discussion elsewhere. Must be something to so with the tax laws.

    • Coel says:

      Hi Peter,

      What is wrong with the nondual cosmological scheme of Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Christian mysticism, advaita Vedanta and so forth?. This would be what people generally mean by ‘true religion’.

      That might be what adherents to those doctrines mean by “true religion”, but I’d suspect that the majority of Christians and Muslims (the world’s two largest religions) would disagree. So who gets to decide what is “true religion”?

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Coel – Yeah. Quite so.

      I can only say that the usual practice is to reserve the term for religion that depends on the injunction ‘Know Thyself’. If a person wants use the term differently they can but I’ve never seen instances of other uses. The Sufis, for instance, call themselves the ‘true followers of Mohammed’, the implication being that the naïve theism of everyday Islam is a slight error. I used to have an essay by a Sufi titled ‘Allah is not a God’ but seem to have mislaid it for the moment. .

      We won’t get to the bottom of all this here – I’m just trying to run interference on attempts to oversimplify the issues.

  28. Phil says:

    Coel,

    I said…

    “… how will you calculate probabilities of there being a god or not?”

    You said…

    “I don’t! It’s not interesting! It’s a question that arises from somebody else’s religion. Why on earth should I bother with someone else’s weird theology? ”

    Honestly, I find your reply very puzzling. You are a self declared atheist, with a blog on the subject. Thus, by definition, you must have calculated the probabilities of there being a god, and found the probabilities low or less. Apologies, but it’s simply not credible that you don’t find the subject interesting.

    It’s doubling puzzling that as a scientist you would be so eager to dismiss a question about sample size.

    But anyway, no matter, it’s all good. There’s no reason why we have to agree on everything, that would spoil all the fun. :-)

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      Honestly, I find your reply very puzzling. You are a self declared atheist, with a blog on the subject. Thus, by definition, you must have calculated the probabilities of there being a god, …

      No, all I’ve done is found the claims of theists very unconvincing, not substantial enough to take seriously. I don’t have to do any calculations, any more than I do with claims that there is an alien invasion fleet poised on the far side of the moon.

      It’s doubling puzzling that as a scientist you would be so eager to dismiss a question about sample size.

      The issue of sample size is irrelevant here. Sample sizes are important if we know about some parts of the whole, and then want to generalise to knowledge about the whole. That’s totally irrelevant to claims about gods.

      We also have a sample size of one with regard to our moon, but tat doesn’t help when considering whether to take seriously the claim there is an alien invasion fleet hiding on the far side.

      Presumably you, as an agnostic, would be 50:50 on that one?

  29. Phil says:

    Peter,

    You said…

    “In the end I feel that the atheism/theism debate is rather empty and pointless. But that’s me.”

    And me as well. And yet I’m hip deep in it all the time. Perhaps it is me that is empty and pointless? :-)

    I think there is a path to making discussions on these topics meaningful and constructive.

    Religion is the largest cultural event in human history. For endless centuries, and even in the age of science, some fundamental human need is refueling religion again and again, generation after generation, in every part of the world.

    This has happened for some reason. Given the huge scale and persistence of religion, whatever that reason may be, it merits careful study by anyone interested in the human condition. A serious student of this inquiry will seek understanding, not victory.

    If we can understand this human need, it may be possible to discover and present alternative methods of meeting this need, maybe even some that theists like better than theism. If the goal is to end religion, that is the only way it will ever happen.

    The way to make the conversation meaningful and constructive is to focus on understanding and meeting fundamental human needs. And not just for others, but for ourselves as well.

  30. Phil says:

    Coel said,

    “The atheist’s main problem is that there are a huge number of varieties of religion.”

    I would counter that, generally speaking, the atheist ideologue’s main problem is that they are not fully loyal to their own stated principles.

    Too often they like to sell reason, but not actually do it. Objectivity is discarded instead of sought, only the other fellow’s conclusions and authorities are challenged, the focus is on rejection instead of understanding, and so on.

    The impression arises that atheist ideologue may not really believe in their own position, which undermines that position.

    The same problem exists on the theist side. Too often they like selling love more than they like actually doing it, which undermines their message too, by suggesting they don’t even believe in it.

    Fundamentalist Agnostics are no different. We are absolutely certain there is no certainty. We know for a fact that nobody knows. We rant against conflict while leading our horse in to battle. And we have a stupid name with way too many syllables!

    • Coel says:

      Hi Phil,

      Fundamentalist Agnostics are no different. We are absolutely certain there is no certainty.

      Oh no, you’re absolutely dogmatically certain about one thing — that agnosticism is superior to atheism! :-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s