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In which I get Guardianed

Last updated on 18 Sep 2017

Or is that Grauniaded? I always get it wrong.

Andrew Brown, who writes, among other things, a blog at the Gurainad newspaper, linked to my comment that “religion” was a mess of pottage and not a single unitary phenomenon. He made some comments that we have often rehearsed on this blog, and similar comments were made also on his post. One in particular strikes me as underpinning a serious mistake about agnostics:

JSWilkins: I self-identify as an agnostic, and although I am definitely atheist about a good many gods, I refuse to assert that no gods exist, as that requires that I know things I do not know.

Except of course that isn’t what atheists assert. Atheists, at least this one, maintain that there is no evidence for the existence of god(s), in the same way that there is no evidence for the existence of fairies.

Are you also agnostic as to the existence of fairies?

Absent any evidence, there is no difference between fairies and gods. Of course, if you do have some evidence you can point us toward, then that would be a different matter entirely.

This seems to me to be a basic error of epistemology. I have already said why I think that atheism is a denial of the existence of a god, and agnosticism is the refusal to say one way or another that a position can be taken about the existence or otherwise of a god. Here the issue is whether as an agnostic I must be agnostic about all potentially supermaterial beings.

Every claim to know X, whether X is a claim there is a god, or there is no god, or no evidence for god, is relative to the particular god being proposed. Likewise X can be about other supernatural beings, such as fairies.

Each supernatural being (SB) has some posited properties. If an SB has properties that localise it in a place it is not observed, or involve it, and only it, being the cause of some phenomenon that we can fully explain naturally (like thunder or volcanoes) then we are fully justified in claiming that X is not existent. In short, if your SB means that you should find it in the bottom of the garden, or making thunder, and you don’t, then you have disproven that entity.

But for suitably empirically innoculated SBs, in other words, ones that either cannot make an empirical difference in their posited properties or have not yet been shown to make an empirical difference, you ought to remain undecided. The claims for each SB are hence indexed to that SB. If I decide that Thor is not real, I haven’t thereby decided that, say, Ahura Mazda is unreal. That is a different SB.

Now you might try to argue that if an SB exists only in the gaps in our empirical (i.e., scientific) knowledge, it is a pretty uninteresting sort of posited entity, and I would agree: gods of the gaps are weak and uninteresting (because there are an infinite number of states of SBs that can be consonant with gaps in our knowledge). But if you think that because you have shown they are uninteresting that they can be said with any degree of confidence not to exist, that is an error of inference.

In any case, the sort of gods that are not sensitive to empirical evidence cannot ever be shown not to exist, so long as their descriptions are not self-refuting (as, I suspect, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent deities probably are). For example, Epicurus’ gods, which are so far above us and so uninterested in human affairs, and which merely made the atoms in the void exist, are beyond disproof. Likewise, Spinoza’s deity is beyond disproof. So, too, is a suitably “abstracted” Thor, where his role is not to make thunder, but (say) to make us stand in moral awe of the natural world. These sorts of deities are the kind one must be agnostic about.

So the counterargument, often made to me by atheists, that if I am an agnostic I must be agnostic about all gods and SBs is a failure to index claims to specifics. I am atheist enough for most atheists – I certainly do not think that the Christian, Jewish or Islamic deities are existent, because to believe that involves either believing contrary-to-fact claims about the universe (and us) or involves reinterpreting them in Spinozan fashion to not be what they traditionally (and doctrinally) are. But I remain an agnostic in general terms, and so far as I can see, there is no way that could ever rationally change. There will always be conceptually possible SBs that are beyond empirical, and hence scientific, debunking and disproof.

Incidentally, as to the nature of “gods”: I apply the Greek Pantheon Test, of my own devising: If an entity would count as a god in the Greek pantheon, then it’s a god. Sprites and fairies count as gods. In the Greek religious traditions, which are anyway rather complicated, what counts as a god depends on what gets its own cult of ritual worship, which is why the Titans are not gods. Otherwise, gods are SBs simpliciter.


  1. Kel Kel

    I often wonder if this argument over agnostic and atheist is because of the difference between the meanings in a general population and an intellectual population. I really hate using the word “agnostic” when talking to regular people because it’s taken to mean lapsed theist, that I’m wavering in belief in the Christian conception of God. And in that context I’m anything but an agnostic. Because I don’t dwell in philosopher circles, atheist is a far better description of my position.

    But ultimately I can’t disprove the concept of deities, nor do I think I can. Which I guess would make me an agnostic.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      On my definition, yes. But there are others…

  2. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    The popular difference between atheists and agnostics seems to me to be largely a question of public relations.

    When pressed, most atheists will concede that of course we cannot be absolutely certain that the Christian God does not exist but the probability that it does is so small as to be negligible. In public, however, they revel in a reputation as (metaphorically, at least) flinty-eyed, square-jawed, barrel-chested, hard-hitting, straight-from-the-shoulder, no-nonsense denialists whereas agnostics, by comparison, are weak-kneed, dithering, hair-splitting, namby-pamby, Chamberlainite (spit) accommodationists with funny moustaches.

    For me, however, the key reason for calling myself agnostic is to distance myself from absolutist claims because, whether in politics or religion, they have proven to be the most dangerous. We can imagine believers holding that there is a moral imperative to kill others to save their immortal souls or because they are Enemies of the People but not agnostics. Certainty kills, not doubt.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I wish I’d said that.

  3. I’m still struggling with your definitions. As you know, I side with Dawkins in calling myself an agnostic AND an atheist. I’m an atheist because I’m not a theist—in other words I don’t believe in any god(s). I’m an agnostic because I agree with you that there are some versions of god that can’t be disproved.

    I have a friend who’s a Jesuit priest. He also claims to be an agnostic. Do you think there’s something fundamentally wrong with him? If I understand your position correctly you would maintain that being an agnostic Catholic was just as bad as being an agnostic atheist.

    Is this correct?

    • I have a friend who’s a Jesuit priest. He also claims to be an agnostic.

      Based on my experience, he may be among the majority of Jesuits.

      Do you think there’s something fundamentally wrong with him?

      No. What person with any sort of commitment to an intellectual view of the world would not question the existance of any particular god?

      If I understand your position correctly you would maintain that being an agnostic Catholic was just as bad as being an agnostic atheist.

      I won’t try to speak for John but where, exactly, did he say that self-describing as an “agnostic atheist” was wrong? The issue here is the self-described “atheist” denying that there is any difference “atheist” and “agnostic”. If you want to introduce more nuance to the terminology … and do it consistently … I’d have no objection … if we can agree on the terminology. But wait a minute! That’s what we’re arguing about in the first place, isn’t it?

      P.S. I also think Ian nailed it.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      No, being an agnostic means that you make no knowledge claims. So while you may have beliefs that you hold dearly, so long as you make no knowledge claims you can be agnostic theists and agnostic atheists. This merely indicates what I have been saying all along: agnosticism is not identical to atheism, nor is it a subset of atheism. At best, agnosticism and atheism intersect, as agnosticism does with theism.

      Glad to see you have come over to accepting my position, Larry…

      • I’m not sure that I’ve come to accept your position since I’ve *always* maintained that I am an atheist AND an agnostic. So has Richard Dawkins.

        What are you? Are you an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist? It’s not a difficult question although you’ve always found it difficult to answer in the past.

        If you don’t believe in any gods then you are not a theist. The word that describes your position is atheism. You are an agnostic atheist, right?

        Glad to see you’ve finally decided to see it my way! 🙂

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Larry I have answered this countless (okay, maybe three) times before. I am agnostic about Spinozan deities. I am atheist about Thor. I think that the Christian God of popular theology is false, but the Christian God of sophisticated theology can be possibly true, and hence I am agnostic about it. The point of this thread and others is that one has to specify the particular God or SB one is adopting an attitude towards. You ask me about a specific God, and I will answer whether I am an agnostic or atheist or theist (the latter set currently being a null set so far as I am aware).

      • Hmmm … I still don’t get it. With respect to Spinozan deities, do you believe in them or not? I understand that you’re agnostic about whether their existence can be conclusively proven or disproved&mdahs;so am I—but that’s not the point.

        The point it whether you act as though you believe in these gods, in which case you are a theist, or you act as though they don’t exist, in which case you are not a theist but an atheist.

        You seem to be accepting the concept that one can be a theistic agnostic but resisting the idea that one can be an atheistic agnostic and that doesn’t seem logical. Theistic agnostics believe that god exists even though they admit they can’t prove it. Atheist agnostics do not believe that god exists even though they admit that the nonexistance of some gods can be proved.

        You maintain, I think, that atheists claim to have proof of the nonexistence of god and that’s why they can’t be agnostic. As you know, that’s not a definition of atheism that many of us agree with.

        But here’s the problem. In order to be consistent in your definitions you will have to admit that theists “know” that god exists. Therefore, using your logic there can’t be any theistic agnostics.

        What am I missing?

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Larry, I neither act as if there were gods, nor as if there are not. I neither believe in these Spinozan empirically inoculated SBs, nor disbelieve them. They are simply outside my doxastic gaze. Ask me about species, replicators, agents, and qualia and I will announce a doxastic stance. Gods, not so much.

          I do not resist the idea that one can be an atheist agnostic; I have several times said there are such beasts. What I am saying is that being agnostic is a distinct property from being an atheist, like being blue and being a ball – something can be blue and not a ball, and a ball and not blue, even if some are both. Moreover, one can be an agnostic and neither a theist nor an atheist. It’s the division of the doxastic universe into theists and atheists that I object to. Imagine someone who divided the world into Stephen King fans and Stephen King haters… okay, maybe that’s not a good example, but you get the idea. There must be people in some forest community who have no attitude towards Stephen King. I’m in a religious forest.

          As to your final point, that has some weight. If I say that atheists make knowledge claims about gods, then I must say that theists make knowledge claims about gods as well, and hence neither of them are “agnostic”, in that they hold there are no knowledge claims to be had (indexed to some SB).This can also be a scope problem, based on a failure to index claims appropriately. One can hold to a knowledge claim about one SB, but not another. But this won’t help, since this is about being agnostic about the SB one believes in.

          So we have to distinguish between saying that knowledge is possible, and that knowledge is attained. A theist who merely believes in a god but lacks knowledge may yet be making a claim that knowledge is possible. That is a kind of gnosticism, in my view. Theists must claim that there are conditions under which it is possible to make knowledge claims about gods existing. I do not know what I would say about a theist who claimed that knowledge would never be possible (in this world), as Christian faith resolves into two kinds: trust and assent, and the latter is a kind of justified belief. So I call it a form of knowledge.

          If a theist simply states that it is not even possible to make assent to beliefs, then I would hesitate to call them a theist. But I can see how one might make a claim that one is presently agnostic about gods one believes in, so long as one does not deny that one might be able to show the gods exist, and that is exactly what ordinary Christians in fact do say – experientially, future events, and general apologetic all presume that their God is demonstrable.

          But basically I think that theists make existence claims (as do atheists), rather than knowledge claims, and I would now modify my original map to indicate that one can make existence claims about which one has no knowledge.

  4. There is nothing wrong with absolutist claims when they’re appropriate. If you’re deep in the Marianna’s trench and you suffer a catastrophic hull failure in your submersible you’re going to die. In fact: You ARE going to die someday. I don’t know when, but you will. That’s the way it works.

    As for the main thread of the topic…

    Being agnostic, that’s still, in my mind, a load of rubbish. Yes, you can IMAGINE some pointless, quantum deity that does nothing and is totally indistinguishable from random, natural processes.

    So what?

    Gods are not about hiding between the quarks and being ineffable. They’ve big guys with thunderbolts telling us to rape the virgins and kill every man, woman, child and sheep of whatever city has pissed-off the big kahuna.

    Look at Judaism as it evolved from the 14th century BCE to the 6th Century BCE.

    Jehovah lived on top of a mountain. Or he did. Then he went into the clouds. Then to some place beyond the sky called “heaven.”

    He had a wife, Asheroth, at one time. At least the part of him that came from El. His children where Baal and Lilith. The were written out of the story, in that function, and changed to demons/icons somewhat later.

    The earth was flat. The sky was a metal dome. The sun circled the earth. Man and woman were created from the dust (the Genesis story from the El/Asheroth pantheon) or from Adam’s rib (the Genesis story from the Jehovah origin).

    God, through most of his time was a fucking raving psychopath. Ordering child sacrifice, torture, rape, killing millions through plagues and natural disasters, destroying whole cities with fire and brimstone…

    All these claims. All these stories. A load of rubbish. (And poorly written I might add. L. Ron Hubbard’s lunatic religion is at least semi-cohesive, (albeit stupid) unlike the major religions of today.)

    Now he’s “the only God” and every other god, which he’d recognized (including his wife and children) were written out of the story…

    And yet you hang onto the “there could be a god rubbish.” To me, this is even worse than the bloody evangelicals with their adherence to “every word is true” doctrine. They’re deluded, but you’re coming close to the light then running away.

    Anyway, Gods (and their works) have ACTUAL real-world properties based on the stone-age/bronze-age mythologies from which they’ve descended. That agnostics ignore all these claims to imagine so airy-fairy God concept to pretend some neutrality in “the great question…”

    Oh boy. Just grasp the nettle and stop ignoring the reality of religion and it’s claims while you come up with some quantum God who is INDISTINGUISHABLE from natural, random processes. Which is to say, a God made out of intellectual meandering while chasing some epistemological ideal.

    So, sure you can IMAGINE all sorts of shit. I can imagine winning the lottery at 65-million to 1 odds. But imagining something doesn’t make it something.

    • Gods are not about hiding between the quarks and being ineffable. They’ve big guys with thunderbolts telling us to rape the virgins and kill every man, woman, child and sheep of whatever city has pissed-off the big kahuna.

      So, you agree that the whole “fairies” business that started off this post is a load of crap? Certainly, fairies don’t fit your definition of “big kahunas,” right?

      Larry’s Jesuit friend (who I strongly suspect still asserts the existence of some sort of “higher power”) isn’t “religious” in your book and need not be verbally assaulted? After all, he’s not practicing what YOU define as “religion,” is he?

      Now, all you need to do (if you want to be scientific about it) is give us some empiric evidence as to the relative frequency of your sort of “religion” and the sort of “religion” practiced by Larry’s friend … and everything in between … as well as a rational reason to treat them all the same.

  5. Rozmarija Grauds Rozmarija Grauds

    Current research by scientists who study the brain tend toward believing that a certain percentage of humans are born with a predilection towards “Belief in Beyond”, which was possibly an early survival tool enabling humans to “believe” there were fields and rivers beyond a mountain range, and lands across a seemingly endless ocean. Some perhaps carry that “vision” too far. Then there are the genetic leanings toward co-operation and compassion, we call the engineering tools for the survival, of a society, “morals” and “ethics”. Also, in creating deities one can denies one’s own mortality, the god is not only “out there”, but is ready to be joined with when the flesh dies. As one person posting here said, yes there are priests, even Bishops, who are atheist, but believe in their JOB, that with their objective intellect they can better serve those who blindly follow religious dogmas.

  6. 386sx 386sx

    In any case, the sort of gods that are not sensitive to empirical evidence cannot ever be shown not to exist, so long as their descriptions are not self-refuting (as, I suspect, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent deities probably are).

    That works for all gods and fairies though. If someone wants to “believe” in something enough, (or if they want to lie about it enough), then they’re going to find a way to make it not sensitive to empirical evidence.

    So if there’s a god or a fairy that someone believes in, then, ipso facto, badda bing badda boom, instant agnosticism.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      That depends on what they wish to claim for their SB: if they claim only things that make no empirical difference, then yes, instant agnosticism. Is there a problem with that?

      • 386sx 386sx

        Nah not really a problem I guess. Except for public relations problems like Ian H Spedding FCD said. At least believers in said hypothetical gods would have to go to the trouble of making their gods empirically invisible. (Assuming they want people to be agnostic about them.)

  7. Snarkyxanf Snarkyxanf

    If you think the test for being a god is having a cult of worship, and that Spinozian gods don’t really count, but that empirically testable gods don’t exist, what is left?

    It seems like the only sorts of gods that truly get worshiped are the kind who are disproven.

    Also, I’m not sure it’s a very good test. The Romans and Greeks (and Egyptians, etc) sometimes dedicated cults to things that manifestly do exist, like monarchs or animals.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Nice question. There are few, if any, churches of Tillich and Spinoza. However,t hey are embedded in a cultural tradition so they constantly recur. I grant Spinozan deities god-status because they occur within a cult.

      And the mere assertion that cats exist is not to make them deities, but to devote ritual worship to them does. I know people who do ritual worship of trees, so for those people, trees are gods (despite what they say about Gaia, and so forth).

  8. Snarkyxanf Snarkyxanf

    I think that the distinction of an epistemological claim vs. a knowledge claim is entirely reasonable. What about a belief-but-not-knowledge claim? It should be possible to claim to be incapable of knowing (agnostic), and yet believe in the non-existence of gods.

    Even in scientific questions, the evidence frequently allows multiple, incompatible explanations, but generally people express belief in only a subset (while allowing the possibility of error).

    Unobservable gods seem to be a similar situation, one where you might profess agnosticism, yet choose to believe in nonexistance.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Knowledge is generally regarded as a form of belief, but not all beliefs (AKA doxastic states) are, of course, knowledge claims, so that is quite right.

  9. piffletosh piffletosh

    If you are an atheist, aren’t you denying a particular category god, i.e., theist gods? And aren’t you then asserting that ultimately there is “not two” as the non-dualists say? So maybe being agnostic is a way of avoiding the more fundamental question? Is totality “One” or “not One”?

  10. Snarkyxanf Snarkyxanf

    Ask me about species, replicators, agents, and qualia and I will announce a doxastic stance. Gods, not so much.

    I like causing trouble. What is your stance on qualia?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      You define them descriptively and in terms of their actual properties, clearly and accurately, and then I’ll tell you 🙂

      • Atheist.pig Atheist.pig

        “I think that the Christian God of popular theology is false, but the Christian God of sophisticated theology can be possibly true, and hence I am agnostic about it.”

        This statement is extremely interesting. Does this mean you remain agnostic that the bible may actually hold pearls of wisdom from the almighty? Or are you just using “Christian God” for want /lack of a better term for the unknown?

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          No, the Bible, as taken literally is generally uninteresting, and the morality and metaphysics are tenuous. But there are those in theology who put forward a version of the Christian God that I cannot say with any knowledge is false, or for that matter true, and so I withhold judgement.

          As to “the unknown”, I call that “the unknown”… it seems to work for me.

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