In the Socrates Café (Sydney) talk based on my paper “Could God have set up Darwinian Accidents?”, I addressed about 70 people, only a couple of whom were philosophers (hi Rachel, hi Tim). I like doing these talks, because they allow me to make what is otherwise fairly dry technical material relevant to folks. It’s not that you don’t give a good argument, but that you have to think hard about how to communicate.
But such talks attract a, shall we say, “element”. You know these folks. They have a manic gaze of such intensity that it is clear they would like to use their moral purity to drill a hole through your skull, and they are always the first to come up and tell you where you went wrong. Usually they are selling something. It might be something reasonable, like a particular theological position (in this context that is reasonable as I was addressing theological problems), or it might be something about resonances and quantum frequencies of chi, or Freemasonry.
The one on Wednesday night was a Christian Believer. Her comment to me was “Why are you being so divisive? Why not just accept that God is responsible for it all?” Thanking my stars that the organiser, Tim Dean, had said at the beginning that “No ad hominems are allowed here”, I said that I was taking a conditional or hypothetical approach here, but that she was getting too personal (when she started in on my personal failings), and I moved on.
So, I can understand why it is that many atheists do not want to even give religion the semblance of intellectual respectability. It encourages these people to come out and attack, defeating the entire purpose of reasoned argument. But one can attend to religious arguments without needing to overgeneralise, oversimplify or caricature. This also extend to the definitions one uses, and of course one of the most contested is what counts as atheism.
Massimo Pigliucci has a post up “On being a fulfilled atheist” which is as usual worth reading, but I was particularly taken by the comment by Joseph T. Lapp on that post. I reproduce most of it here:
What ever the official etymology of “atheism” may be, in my experience most people who call themselves atheists are certain that there is no God. That is, they not only hold no belief in God, they hold the belief that there is no God, usually pretty darn strongly.
I know this because I like to test my ‘agnostic’ position among my atheist friends periodically, usually at atheist lectures. We tend to come to agreement only when we specifically define “God” as the supernatural personality painted by the Bible – I agree that no such being could exist.
The problem is that this isn’t a very useful position these days. Even most religious people will agree that the Bible is not literally true in all its detail. The general atheist position appears to be an assertion about the fundamentalist God. So what? Everyone thinks fundamentalists are off their rocker. It’s my experience that most Americans these days believe in more amorphous, less tangible forms God – forms that I find hard to argue with because little is claimed with certainty, or because the fuzzy beliefs are compatible with the world I perceive, even if they wouldn’t survive Occam’s Razor (which only selects pragmatic theories, not truth).
In my opinion, many of these modern amorphous, if contradictory, visions of God are potentially compatible with the universe I see. I don’t find them useful, but I have no basis for concluding their falsehood, and who knows, one of these visions might possibly have some element of truth in it. It’s for this reason that I prefer to call myself an agnostic. I find that most atheist can’t allow themselves to acknowledge that any notion that anyone calls “God” could have any chance of harboring truth.
We really need a strong set of definitions for the various flavors of non-belief. The terms we have even engender confusion among non-believers.
As long-term readers will know, I have made similar points myself, but I was never entirely happy with the way I went about it – it was too reactive and not general enough, so I would like to do a series, of which this is part one, in which I address Lapp’s points as carefully as I can. Hopefully this will help clarify and perhaps settle some concerns, raised by the other, more reasonable, audience members last Wednesday night. They wanted to know why I was an agnostic and not an atheist, and why I took religion seriously. These are important questions for everyone, not just philosophers.
I will try to fit these into my other work (like looking for a paying job!), so they may be sporadic. I anticipate the sequence will be:
1. Introducing the landscape (this post)
2. What it is to have a belief
3. The first axis: Knowledge claims
4. The second axis: Existence claims
5. The third axis: Scope and indexing
To give you an idea of what is coming, let me summarise. To be an atheist is to have no belief in a deity’s existence. To be an agnostic is to neither have nor not have a belief, because the matter is undecided (or undecideable). Some atheists have, as Lapp observed, a more positive belief: that there is no deity. These depend crucially on the scope of the claims: does the agnostic think all gods are undecideable? No, so even the most inclusive agnostic must be atheist about some gods (like the fundamentalist deity). Hence, both agnosticism and atheism are indexed to particular claims of knowledge and existence.
It follows then, that someone can be both a theist and an agnostic if one believes in a God (makes an indexed existence claim) but does not claim to know the claim is true. It follows also that an atheist need not assert an existence claim (in the negative), although many do.
This is a semantic landscape, and so of course this is an argument about terms. I will try to not argue for or against any of these views, but rather to coin some useful semantic distinctions to clear up the confusion Lapp notes among believers and nonbelievers alike. At the end I will make a comment about how we classify general positions like this.
The next post in this series: Two