Atheism, agnosticism and theism 6: Conclusion

Previous posts in this series: OneTwoThreeFour and Five.

With all this apparatus in hand, let’s review. Every nonreligious person has a set of commitments based on the two major axes of knowledge claims and existence claims, and on the basis of what they count as contrary to theism, are one of a number of kinds or combinations of agnostics and atheists. Moreover, they have to have a stance for each claim they encounter. This forms a “volume” in which they locate their commitments as a coordinate. One way to conceive of this volume is as a card index of the old kind that one found in libraries. Instead of “borrowed” or “reserved”, each claim is marked with one of the locations on the two axes.

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A hypothetical theist’s commitment space

However, one doesn’t just take each claim as it comes and set up a unique card index for each. It gets a bit boring after a while: “Thor?” Known nonexistent. “Loki” Known nonexistent. “Wodin?” Known nonexistent … Instead you will tend to classify claims en masse, with a category for each class. Known nonexistents and known existents (possibly an empty set if one is not a theist), and unknowns, and so forth. So our third “axis” is the sets of claims one is prepared to make, and the claims one is not prepared to make.

Now such groupings are more than merely conceptual – they are also social. We do identify ourselves with others based, in part, on what we assent to. Of course we use common beliefs as surrogates for community as well, so merely sharing beliefs does not a community make, which is why it is so hard for atheists of the privative variety to form communities in opposition to church communities. One of the singular functions of religion is to form mutual aid societies. Lacking a belief is not the basis for an alternative community.

But community does affect how we form and maintain our belief sets, and what is more, it can make it very hard to hold views that are unique to you, say, as the result of rational reflection. For example, there is a strong atheist tradition in the west, that often goes by the name “skeptics” or “freethinkers” (in an earlier age). If you attend atheist meetings or skeptics meetings, you are expected to have certain political and social interests as well as adopting an atheist stance towards religion. If you are, for example, a compatibilist (a term often used in Internet debates these days is “accommodationist”) between science and religion, you can expect the kind of social exclusion that a liberal theologian would encounter in a fundamentalist church.

So the “surface” within the “space” is determined in part by the social structure of the people around you. It is hard to remain a strong agnostic when you engage with those who are positive atheists, for example, and I speak from experience. There is a constant tendency to shrug and say “yes, I am an atheist”. Only pedants and philosophers (but I repeat myself) continue to make these fine distinctions. But they matter, if we take rational reflection to be the grounds on which we should base our belief set and stances. And if we do take reason to be pre-eminent in belief construction, then we must allow that some theists are equally as rational even if we think their conclusions are false.

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How social forces can cause us to adopt a position we did not achieve by rational reflection, using a contour map metaphor.

If what matters is social cohesion and bonding, of course, then this is not the case. We see exactly the sort of attacks upon heterodoxy from many atheists as we do from theists when somebody makes an assertion (like “Religion and Science are not in necessary conflict”) that fails to meet the community rule. As in many cases, including within scientific debates themselves, reason is not always or even often the basis for belief formation so much as conformity. After all, we are social animals, not Vulcans.

The purpose of this series has been to try to disambiguate and make sense of the variety of positions people actually hold. I have not argued in favour of any of these positions, although I am an agnostic with respect to philosophical deities and an atheist with respect to the folk deities of popular culture. I began this chain of reflection because I was deeply offended by some comments made by Dawkins and Coyne, among others, that if I do not immediately reject theism as false and pernicious, I must have “faith in faith” (I saw Dawkins make exactly this claim at the opening revivalist meeting he called the God Delusion lecture tour). This is rhetoric, pure and simple. It serves no purpose in clarification or aiding reflection, but it does serve to rally the “faithful” faithless. And it is exactly the same social dynamic one sees in populism of all kinds, including religious populism.

I hold to a somewhat dated opinion that reason can give us a better view of the world, and that by using it carefully we can avoid mistakes and the contingencies of social influences. If you think that all belief sets are socially constructed, in a kind of pseudomarxian view of false consciousness, then you may not care. I do. I hope this series has helped you to care about reason and toleration.

30 thoughts on “Atheism, agnosticism and theism 6: Conclusion

  1. I began this chain of reflection because I was deeply offended by some comments made by Dawkins and Coyne, among others, that if I do not immediately reject theism as false and pernicious, I must have “faith in faith”

    I would never be “deeply offended” at that.

    This is rhetoric, pure and simple.

    Quite so. And that’s why it isn’t worthy of taking deep offense.

    Thanks for a useful series on the various stances toward religion.

  2. Was rather nice

    Made me a bit pessimistic at first as it reminded me of a cite I used somewhere else a couple of days ago from Kai Lung’s Golden Hour, that I think says something true about belief.

    “it is in reality very easy to kill a dragon, but it is impossible to keep him dead”

    I think all you can do is paint as exact and detailed a picture as you can and then you hope.

  3. I have no particular problems with John’s typologies except, perhaps, I’m not sure why belief in the Christian god doesn’t count as a folk belief. Where I do have doubts is on whether there really is very much interesting philosophy to discuss in these debates. I just don’t think that very many people are confused about their propositional beliefs. The arguments are heated and intractable not because they raise theoretical difficulties but because they involve highly emotional personal decisions about loyalties. The sociology and politics of these matters is much more interesting to me than the philosophy.

    1. I’m not sure why belief in the Christian god doesn’t count as a folk belief.

      Why do you say this? Does John make a distinction between folk Christianity and philosophers Christianity?

      1. I may have misread him. On the other hand, when Christian philosophers segue seamlessly between necessary being and God the Father, folk and philosophical Christianity tend to collapse together in my mind.

          1. I’m thinking of contemporary Christian apologists, not Aquinas et. al. The older philosophers, besides being very clear on the difference between philosophy and theology, lived in an era when something like traditional theism made a heck of a lot more sense than it does to day when our priors pretty much rule such things out of serious consideration. In an era of bad communications and when much of the Earth was unexplored, it was much more reasonable to buy into traditional religious notions. In Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, Richard Boedeus argued that it was pretty much impossible for Aristotle to rule out the existence of Gods of the classical type in additional to the planetary intelligences and prime mover we associate with him. People claimed to see such gods after all, and absent an evolutionary biology doesn’t leave much room for daemonic animals, how can you rule out a natural kingdom of spirits? Of course, even today one could imagine intelligent organisms that are intermediary between ordinary animals and metaphysical entities, but it would require a very good imagination.

          2. That makes sense. (Although I think you greatly overestimate the extent to which your priors are the priors of other people; we live, after all, in the days of the resurgence of polytheism in the West, and most of that is folk.)

  4. “This is rhetoric, pure and simple. It serves no purpose in clarification or aiding reflection, but it does serve to rally the “faithful” faithless. And it is exactly the same social dynamic one sees in populism of all kinds, including religious populism.”

    You do realize you have committed heresy and the instruments of torture are being prepared.

    1. Bring out … the comfy chair:-)

      More seriously, I liked part 6 so much I may have to go back and read the other parts. Good work Doctor John!

  5. Humans seem not to have a very good track record with gods; the vast majority have been discarded. Do we have any evidence that we getting any closer to the real ones?

  6. Here’s another note of appreciation for your series. I’ve been sharing it on Facebook with a friend who’s working on his dissertation in Philosophy and getting some commentary from others in that same venue.

    Your statement, “agnostic with respect to philosophical deities and an atheist with respect to the folk deities of popular culture” makes a very nice summary. Thanks.

    1. I wasn’t aware that atheism “had” any sort of morality, let alone that its morality is “far more inclusive and advanced” than “love your neighbor.”
      This is not a brief for or against any stance regarding theism.

  7. Jim Harrison:
    Of course, even today one could imagine intelligent organisms that are intermediary between ordinary animals and metaphysical entities, but it would require a very good imagination.

    “Suppose I think of an animated tower, with rooms in it and a human head, approaching and talking with me–can there be such a thing in the universe?”

    Step forward Madame Blavatsky’s Barnacle Goose

    “Suppose I think of an animated tower, with rooms in it and a human head, approaching and talking with me–can there be such a thing in the universe?”

    http://www.blavatsky.net/blavatsky/arts/OccultOrExactScience.htm

  8. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed reading this series.

    There is, of course, the complicated reality of these sorts of atheists/agnostics. I don’t believe there are piskies living at the bottom of the garden, but I like to imagine that there are, and so does my daughter.

    (although my desire for belief extends only as far as leaving milk in that saucer. Extraordinary claims for good Scotch demands extraordinary evidence &c…)

  9. “I’m not sure why belief in the Christian god doesn’t count as a folk belief.”

    I think that I would be more fluid rather than rigidly placing a belief in one slot. Faerie belief for example could range from the supernatural to a belief that the creature was natural and an understudied aspect of natural history.

    If you look at the range of perspectives in Victorian society regarding Faerie’s it can be supported by folk belief, religious belief, philosophical beliefs, beliefs regarding science, anthropology archaeology and even Darwin.

    http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/s/silver-strange.html

  10. p.s John, I noticed some surface similarities and what I suspect may be direct similarities between what you have said and what I’ve observed during fieldwork in Scotland on folk belief.

    I will term it “folk agnosticism” for want of a better term.

    The groups examined were all kindred’s, they contain a mix of both direct kin and also fictive kin relations. It’s the standard form of social group for much of history here.

    I think you said that you were agnostic with regard to philosophical concepts and atheist with regard to certain folk concepts.

    I was surprised to find when looking at a supernatural belief that the group I was looking at were all atheists and had been for at least a couple of generations.

    Atheist with regard to concepts of deity and agnostic when it came to discussion of the supernatural folk beliefs they used.

    They used a standard formula that is highly common in Scotland and deployed at the end of any explanatory story or foundation legend; when the story teller will suggest that he has no idea if the belief is true or false but see’s no harm in following it anyway. “just in case”.

    The beliefs in question have a high practical social value in maintaining both the in-group pecking order and a sense of group identity.

    This ambiguity in folklore between so and not so is highly prevalent and deliberate.

    This was the major form of both entertainment and education for the vast majority of the population for most of human history.

    To a small degree it encourages participants to think for themselves although the major function I think is to allow people to learn successful social navigation in a diverse group, in which any number of competing interests may exist at any one time.

    Its origins lurk in folk practice and the need to maintain a very strong sense of social cohesion.

    For most of history in my neck of the woods if you were excluded from the kindred you’re chances of survival were extremely slim.

    If you lacked highly developed social skills you were screwed.

  11. John Wilkins: “I hold to a somewhat dated opinion that reason can give us a better view of the world, and that by using it carefully we can avoid mistakes and the contingencies of social influences.”

    “Somewhat dated” (your phrase)? Everyone shares your opinion about their opinions (based in reason)!

    Too bad you didn’t define “reason” since everyone also thinks and believes the concept is inherent in their thought and arguments.

  12. John Wilkins: “I began this chain of reflection because I was deeply offended by some comments made by Dawkins and Coyne, among others, that if I do not immediately reject theism as false and pernicious, I must have “faith in faith””

    I have always understood “faith in faith” to mean “positive thinking,” a practice widely accepted by just about everyone including, of course, the non-religious.

  13. “Too bad you didn’t define “reason” since everyone also thinks and believes the concept is inherent in their thought and arguments.”

    I notice that ‘we’ was used when discussing the mistakes that social influence can cause.

    Anyone thinking in these high noise areas that does not take on board the dangers should be wearing a cap with bells on it. Its folly.

    But I don’t think it is pessimistic to suggest that their are ways of working round the problems we all are faced with, however difficult that may be.

    I don’t think the problem is universal to humanity. It just seems that way if you spend to much time in the company of academics; as it is difficult to turn off the noise and it goes on ringing in you’re ears long after you leave the room.

  14. John, thank you for posting this series I have enjoyed struggling with it.

    May I be frank and say I do not think the symbolic logic is helpful for the layman (or maybe just me!) and I am a little unsure about the axes which make up your flag. There seems to be a change between your symbolic logic which discusses where the “not” (or “no”) should be situated in the belief statement (ie I do not believe in gods, vrs I believe there are no gods) and the quadrants of your flag where suddenly you have one axis being knowledge and the other existence.

    Am I correct is summarizing the quadrants in your flag (and the positions of your “nots”) as follows :

    1. I am not satisfied that no god exists.
    2. I am not satisfied that a god exists.
    3. I am satisfied that no god exists.
    4. I am satisfied that a god exists.

    I assume what I am calling satisfied, you are calling a gnosis – but how would anyone really “know”!

    I am a little unclear what you mean by a negative atheist – my understanding is that it would be someone who is not satisfied that a god exists. If this is so, then I am a little unclear how this attitude fits in the quadrant you have put it in on your flag where you seem to be seeing such a person making an evidence statement – could you clarify.

    As far as I can understand it, a major reason for this series of posts is that you are against making positive claims of atheism – ie saying “I am satisfied that no god exists.” I think I agree with you but are you also against negative atheist statements as well?

    I assume your beef with positive athiesm comes down to the difficulty in defining God, and the evidence required for making a positive statement based on negative evidence. I assume a part of this is the difficulty in proving a negative, but there is then the bigger question of what you are trying to disprove.

    I come from the Isle of Man and hence have direct experience with arguments attempting to prove a negative ie struggling with these 4 statements:

    1. In my opinion the evidence I see for there not being a breeding population of foxes on the Isle of Man is insufficient and so I am not satisfied that there are no foxes on the Isle of Man.
    2. In my opinion the evidence I see for there being a breeding population of foxes on the Isle of Man is insufficient and so that I am not satisfied that there are foxes on the Isle of Man.
    3. In my opinion the evidence I see for there not being a breeding population of foxes on the Isle of Man is sufficient and so I am satisfied that there are no foxes on the Isle of Man.
    4. In my opinion the evidence I see for there being a breeding population of foxes on the Isle of Man is sufficient and so I am satisfied that that there are foxes on the Isle of Man.

    When it comes to foxes there is reasonable agreement over what would constitute evidence for and against their existence, but with God it is far far more difficult. And of course there is then the difficulty that people are happy to accept subjective evidence such as their percieved relationship with the deity as useful evidence. The challenge is to try to find an objective set of criteria which is viewed by all as reasonable in forming an opinion – an impossible task if you ask me!

    My understanding is that Dawkins specifically addresses only an intervening Theist belief and not an unknowable deist one. Arguing about the non-existence of an unknowable, non-intervening God would only be productive for theologians of a very unusual type!

    I am approaching satisfaction that intervening Gods are innactive in the world at the moment, and that the accounts we have of their interventions in the past are better explained by the mundane – but admit this is a long way from being able to be satisfied no intervening God exists.

    I suppose Dawkins, Coyne et al could ask whether my uncertainty over God is sufficient or insufficient to cause you to alter your behaviour to follow a particular religious sect.

    But such a question moves the argument firmly in to the social sphere and not the philosophical one so maybe we should ignore it here.

    Thanks again.

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