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May I self-identify?

Eric, at the Shoulders of Giant Midgets has refused me the right to self-identify as an Agnostic, comparing me to a racist who wants not to self-identify as a racist. Nice. I suppose it’s the difference between the law and philosophy (Eric being a lawyer) that such rhetorical moves (which even in the law is known as “poisoning the well“) may be thought to resolve the matter.

Eric says that “rights are normative” and “describe an enforceable relationship”, so I do not have that right. I guess lawyers can redefine terms to suit themselves. In philosophy, a right is a presumption that one is free to do some act.

So the question is not whether I have that right (which he concedes anyway), but whether I am right to do it. Now, I have argued, pulled out historical and technical sources, given justifications, rationales and considered responses, as to why I say that agnosticism is not the same as atheism, and how it is not. I think that this is something that rests on a substantive conceptual, political, social, and philosophical difference. I think it reduces confusion.

But because Eric says they are the same, I am like a racist. Yes, he’s a lawyer all right.

But let’s not think that some atheists are just like any other ideologs.


  1. Neil Neil

    The way you present this, it is an equivocation: he is using ‘right’ as lawyers do, and you as philosophers do. But he is wrong that rights are understood by lawyers as enforceable. He must have heard of Hohfeld (in fact, rights talk is the point of closest convergence between law and philosophy).

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I had assumed some technical meaning in the law. I’m glad to know that lawyers are closer to the right view of rights…

      • jeb jeb

        I was just glancing at an article my brother wrote on Religious freedom under the Human rights act 1988.

        “The freedom of religion is considered on of the foundations of a pluralistic and democratic society.”

        Religion has a broad definition article 9 covers both athiesim and agnostisim as well as religion as a belief.

        Article 9 protects ‘thought’, ‘conscience’, and ‘religious belief’.

        Article 9 is an all encompassing right

        “It is in its religious dimension one of the most vital elements that go in to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, skeptics and the unconcerened”

        i.e the court recognises that religious belief or issues of conscience are a vital part of individual identity.

        “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; the right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion, belief, in worship, teaching, practise and observance.”

      • jeb jeb
      • jeb jeb

        You also have the right to hold unconventional beliefs not subscribed to by others.

        Article below sets out the legal framework rather well

        ” Substantive Rights and Equal Treatment in Respect of Religion and Belief: towards a better understanding of the rights and their implications “(Gay Moon and Robin Allen QC, February 2003)

        can be found here

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Well I may in Europe. In Australia the Constitution gives some protection to marginal religions in section 116:

          “116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

      • jeb jeb

        “it has to be acknowledged that one’s rights…..must be legally recognizable to be meaningful.”


        Anglo Saxon and medevial Scottish legal codes both demonstrate that exclusion from access to law, ethnic discrimination and the down- grading of legal status with it’s resulting economic effects are a highly effective means of eradicating a cultural identity utterly over the long term and perhaps the only effective method.

        I won’t wish anyone good luck with that project though.

  2. Yeah, no need to slander lawyers. Point him in the direction of Hohfeld. Even Hohfeld’s typology is probably simplistic.

    I really wish people wouldn’t bring rights into these discussions. Every time I see references to pre-legal, “natural” rights, my brain just screams: “Nonsense on stilts!” That’s not to deny that the best moral system might have moral rights built into it – maybe it would, and maybe they’d be negative rights against moral criticism in some circumstances – but it’s a long way from being demonstrated. When people blather on about rights outside of legal systems, or at least law-like moral institutions such as that of promising, it just kind of skates off me.

    Finally, the analogy between atheists and racists is rather offensive.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      For my money rights “exist” just to the extent they are offered by a social matrix. But that’s a can of worms for another fishing trip.

      The analogy was between agnostics and self-denying racists. So I guess since he thinks atheists are what agnostics are denying they are, when they are, that he is identifying atheism and racism. That’s a rather interesting analogy when you think about it. He considers the treatment of the Other as subhuman as being like a rejection of deities. I wonder what psychological associations Eric has in his head?

  3. Although, John, now I look at his post, it was you that brought up a moral right to self-identify. Well, maybe the best moral system we could devise would have such a liberty right built into it. But it would take a lot of argument to demonstrate anything like that. I don’t see how it can be used as a premise.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I’m not demonstrating any such right. I am asserting it. I have the right to call myself, to aggregate with likeminded folks, and to assert beliefs, anyway I damned well please, so long as I do nothing that harms anyone else, and so does everyone else. You may disagree with me, but you cannot tell me I do not have that right and expect me to sit nicely over here.

      As I keep saying, I am following precedent here, and I think it makes sense. Telling me that I am not what I say I am when I do this, because some small group of people want to insist I am something else in their view, is bullshit (in the technical sense), and I will call it out when it happens.

      • Yes, but that’s a political right, or a right that is based on a political principle of free association or something. I didn’t think that political rights were what was at issue here.

  4. Snarkyxanf Snarkyxanf

    What the fuck? As far as I’m concerned, you have the right to self-identify as Mr. Snuffleupagus if you are so inclined.

    His examples are idiotic. For one thing, the law says you may not practice as a doctor without a license, this much is true. But you can style yourself “Doctor” at will. In most modern democracies, you are free to subscribe to any religious confession, which clearly includes all varieties of non-belief. So although you do not have the right to act as a medical doctor, you clearly have the right to refuse to subscribe to a belief in god, and furthermore, have a right to say so.

    As for racists, they absolutely have the right to self-identify as not racists. I also have the right to call them racist jerks, and full of crap to boot. Few people are foolish enough to claim that you must respect other people’s self-identification, merely that it is polite to do so.

    One difference between you and a racist, is that I believe I owe you some politeness, while I owe a racist like Mr. Irving less than none.

    I’m not sure I owe Eric much politeness either.

    • But you can style yourself โ€œDoctorโ€ at will.

      Not in Germany you can’t! It is illegal in Germany to call yourself a doctor if you don’t have a Phud or its equivalent from a German university. There was even a case a couple of years ago when a world famous American Prof teaching at a German university was prosecuted for illegally using a doctoral title before his name.

      • Snarkyxanf Snarkyxanf

        I never said you can call yourself “Doktor” at will, I said “doctor”.

        Fair enough, the point is granted. On the other hand, I find the German rules about that to be rather creepy. Was the case specifically about using the Dr. title professionally, or using it in any circumstance (one could, I suppose, try to argue that teaching without a “real” doctorate is similar to performing medicine without a medical degree).

      • The man in question had a real doctorate but an American and not a German one! This is what made the case so extraordinary! There were apologies made at high diplomatic levels but it still remains a fact that only someone with a doctorate from a German university may call himself doctor!

  5. Bryan Bryan

    You may identify as you wish. But knowingly flouting a definition doesn’t make you honest.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Making up a definition that contradicts the commonly accepted definitions of the past in the technical arena that covers that topic, doesn’t make you honest either.

  6. Ugh. More arguing over definitions. One shouldn’t use a definition of a term that is far away enough from the normal definitions to be actively misleading. But when that’s not an issue, any reasonable definition is ok, as long as people make clear what definition they are using. Arguing over definitions is just silly. Neither “agnostic” nor “atheist” are Platonic categories last I checked.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Of course not, and yet neither are they without practical and social import. A term is useful in social ways, and also can apply to the way things actually divide up (in this case, intellectually or traditionally). I distinguish between the two for a reason (or several reasons), mostly to do with epistemic matters, what we can and cannot know. I also do not wish to identify with a trend of antireligion that is often associated with atheism, since as it happens I am not anti-religion. This is not about arbitrary or conventional definitions, as have I said, repeatedly. This is about substantive ideas and whether they map onto the (social) realities.

  7. I suppose the way I see this is that to have a negative moral right would work like this. The moral system has various norms such as, say, an act-utilitarian norm. If you breach those norms, someone talking within the system can blame you for doing so. But a moral system that has a general act-utilitarian (for example) norm, might also say that you can do certain things, such as, let’s say, snarking (or at least snarking in defined circumstances C, let’s say, without blame. Thus your negative right to snark (in C) trumps the general norms of the system.

    To establish why the moral system should contain such a right would require an argument – perhaps that snarking (in C) is so important to individual autonomy that the total system must allow it, or that the system would be too burdensome to be workable if its general norms applied to snarking (in C).

    In this case, I don’t see it so much as a moral right, though I guess you could say that getting to choose how you describe yourself is so important for your autonomy that being morally allowed to do it should trump the general norms of the system, whatever they are.

    But isn’t the argument just that you’re not even breaching any moral norm, even a prima facie one, by self-identifying as an agnostic? You’re simply using the word in a way that has a lot of historical and contemporary currency, so no one is being terribly misled?

    Of course, I’d also say that someone who uses the word “atheist” to describe herself, despite having similar metaphysical and espistemological views to yours, is in the same boat. Given the confusion over these terms, she’s also not terribly misleading anybody.

    However, if either of you went around self-identifying as a theist, despite your actual views, that would, indeed, be misleading, and no right to self-identify could save you from criticism.

    I had someone pestering me over this issue from the other side, insisting that atheism just is something like the view that all gods can be disproved, and putting puerile arguments against that position, which of course I don’t hold in any event. But the position that I actually do hold is such that I’m not terribly misleading anyone by calling myself an atheist, and explaining the nuances if needed. (Since this person kept bugging me about it on my Facebook profile page, I defriended him; it was abusing my hospitality.)

    So, John, I’m kind of on your side with this, on reflection. But I think there’s a fair bit of flexibility in the joints here, and I’d be cross with anyone who insisted that I must call myself an agnostic.

  8. I like Bertrand Russell’s solution: to laymen, he called himself an atheist — he didn’t believe in God, and that was the popular term that came closest to his position. Among fellow philosophers who like to parse the finer points of epistemology, he was an agnostic, as that would give that audience the most accurate picture of his position.

    John of course is a philosopher, and thus insists on those fine points of epistemology. Being an engineer, thus my epistemology turns on questions such as whether it makes a noise when I hit it with a hammer, or if it might electrocute me. No god-concepts meet those criteria, so I’m happily atheist in all company.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Don’t get all sensible and engineery on me…

      I have said to a few folk that to all intents and purposes I am atheist, meaning (as I said) that I am a disbeliever in the popular gods. But I am a philosopher, and this is a philosophy blog, and I do talk to other philosophically minded folk.

      On the other hand, when engineering, I recognise only hammers and screwdrivers, and sometimes they are the same objects.

      • Chris' Wills Chris' Wills

        On engineering; hammers and screwdrivers are always different objects, the fact that you may mis-use the handle of a screwdriver to hammer in a nail is neither here nor there.
        How you could use a hammer instead of a screwdriver, to screw a screw? I can’t think of a way.

        On agnostic and atheists, atheists should remember that there are agnostic theists.
        That fact that the word agnostic has, in my opinion, been deliberately abused and mis-used by some self-styled atheists is just a mark of how some people try to skew the argument/discussion.

  9. Oh, and I’ll happily respect any self-identification that I don’t think is deliberately disingenuous. Why, there are even a few pro-lifers I won’t insist on re-labelling as lying, misogynistic scumbags ;-).

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Just so long as you don’t evade the negative implications and connotations of the term “engineer”… ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    “How you could use a hammer instead of a screwdriver, to screw a screw? I canโ€™t think of a way.”

    First you define the screw as a nail….

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Don’t they teach you bush carpentry where you are? First take your screw, and position it where the hole should be. Then hit the screw with the hammer very hard and repeatedly until there is a hole, and the screw is in place.

      This is not a joke…

      • Benjamin Franz Benjamin Franz

        I think you both have never heard of an ‘Impact Screwdriver’.

        They are screwdrivers that are *designed* to be hit by hammers.

        Also, “not a joke.” ๐Ÿ™‚

      • thonyc thonyc

        But impact screwdrivers are for unscrewing screws not driving them in!

      • Chris' Wills Chris' Wills

        I sit corrected ๐Ÿ™‚

        I did find a combination nail/screw, hammer in and unscrew out. Slightly better at securing things than a nail, not so good as a screw.

  11. I am strongly in agreement with you. Insisting that legal vocabulary is the only valid vocabulary is stupid, and as for the broader issue, it’s a very sad soul indeed who wishes to pin down every label in terms of objective criteria at the exclusion of the messy, subjective, nebulous, and hence often far more interesting principle of self-identification.

  12. Benjamin Franz Benjamin Franz

    Preface: I think people can self-identify pretty much as they like. I also think it is not useful if that self-identification doesn’t at least approximately match what everyone else would expect of that categorization. Hence, ‘Jews for Jesus’ is not a useful category. Nor are “Doctors and Engineers without standard degrees and certifications”.

    The popular usage of agnosticism is a declaration of ‘insufficient evidence’ on truly extraordinary claims. And not just *any* extraordinary claims – specifically the claim that there are ‘Gods’ controlling the world.

    We don’t declare ourselves agnostic about the moon being made of cheese, river beds being full of emeralds except when people are looking, or any of the many *other* extraordinary _but unevidenced_ claims people can make.

    Extraordinary claims don’t get that ‘benefit of the doubt’ in discourse – except when we talk about “God(s)”.

    And worse, that generous suspension of skepticism tends to only be applied to “Big G” Gods – not even the ‘Little g’ gods of religions like Shinto. Are you ‘agnostic’ about river spirits/gods? How about on the existence of the many Hindu gods? Are you *consistent* that the existence of all ‘gods’ are unknowable? Or only the “Big Ones”? Zeus and Hera? Ameterasu? How about Xenu? Or only the Judeo-Christian-Islamic one?

    If you don’t put each and every one of those on equal footing, you are ‘playing favorites’ with your agnosticism.

    That makes popular agnosticism just a case of “special pleading”.

    If instead of the *popular* usage of the word agnosticism you are using it to describe the core problem of epistemology, you end up using the word in a way that scarcely anyone else uses it : Stripped of all of its religious overtones.

    And that just isn’t useful in comparing it with atheism. Contrasting that that sterile agnosticism with atheism becomes a non-sequitur. It is like saying “I’m not an atheist: I’m a jogger.” Except using a word that _normally_ would make sense in the context, *if you were using it like everyone else*.

    I would suggest using a *different* word for that. ‘Epistemologist’ would be good


    • Snarkyxanf Snarkyxanf

      I don’t understand why “Jews for Jesus” are typically considered especially self-delusional.

      There are criteria to be a religious Jew (matrilinial descent, obeying the commandments and laws, keeping the kosher laws, etc), and criteria for being a Christian (thinking Jesus was the messiah, source of salvation, son of god, etc). The criteria do not seem to directly contradict each other.

      Why can’t they consider themselves both Jewish and Christian? The historical evidence suggests that Christianity started as a Jewish movement, so it’s hardly without precedent.

      • The Jews for Jesus categorization is a particularly interesting example where self-identification is concerned. Part of the issue here is that the claim being made by most Jews for Jesus isn’t that they are people who are Jews(by right of matrilineal descent) who happen to be practicing Christianity, but rather that they are practicing some form of Judaism.

        The primary distinction between Judaism and Christianity post 100 CE or so has been whether or not Jesus is the messiah (indeed, Christianity comes from a root meaning anointed). In that regard, the two are almost dichotomous. The use of the matrilineal system is an interesting point, but it is noteworthy that many of the Jews for Jesus don’t actually have matrilineal descent anyways. In this case it may also be useful to distinguish between the JforJs and the more generic “Messianic Jews” who in general are more likely to actually have maternal descent and more likely to keep some of the classically associated Jewish practices (such as kashrut and sabbath observance). There’s an amusing detail here in that the vast majority of practicing Jews don’t consider any of the Messianic Jews to be practicing Judaism in any sense, and the majority of the Messianic Jews take great umbrage at that but then declare that the Jews for Jesus aren’t practicing Judaism.

  13. jeb jeb

    I had to redifine my identity in light of the highly vocal movement which has grown up in recent years within the athiest community.

    Little diffrent from the way I don’t identify or refer to myself as a member of the new labour party. As I did not like the direction certian sections of the political organisation I have always supported were moving in.

    I do share enough common ground to sit in the same room with a New Labour support (I have great difficulty in doing this with members of right wing parties particularly after a few beers). Certain topics are going to result in heated disagreement but I do not want to be governed by a bunch of rabid right wing lunatics so outright dispute and disagrement are somewhat tempered by that fact.

    The diffrences that certainly exist between agnostic athiest’s seem somewhat exagerated at the moment and have for sometime.

    Hopefully we can grow up and move on at some point.

  14. AK AK

    Since the word (“agnostic”) derives from a Greek root, should we perhaps consider the sense in which 1st-2nd century Greeks would have used it?

    Without “gnosis” which had a much more specific meaning to early Gnostics than the English “knowledge.” (Of course, since the “Orthodox Catholic Church” rejected both Gnostics and their Gnosis, they were all also agnostics. (Heh!))

    One can believe in the existence of some sort of Divine entity while remaining agnostic as to its number, gender, personality (if any), and so on. Or one can be agnostic regarding the existence of any sort of Divine entity, while evaluating such evidence as the statistical relationship between prayer and/or other rituals of divine manipulation and what actually occurs (in, e.g. Bayesian terms). Or thousands of other types of agnosticism.

    I’m reminded of a statement (I don’t remember the provenance) about how often truly improbable things happen. Well, perhaps there’s so much divine intervention going on in the world (via manipulation of probabilities rather than supernatural violations of natural law) that the frequent occurrence of improbable events becomes the default hypothesis for the natural world, without noting the need for a cause for such events (or at least the high number of them).

      • AK AK

        Words have many meanings, even when a single person uses it in a single context. The fact that Huxley used “gnosis” in one sense doesn’t exclude the fact that it’s been used in other senses in other contexts.

        The word “agnostic” has a clear pencil of meanings to anyone familiar with the Greek root/prefix involved. My comment only added context. I strongly suspect the points I made were obvious to Huxley and his audience, but perhaps less so to everyone here (thus my comment).

        I also self-define as an agnostic, and I see no reason to be limited to whatever Huxley (or anyone else) means by the word. Nor, IMO, should anybody else (be limited). Of course, this brings up another whole point of epistemological philosophy: once a language is dead (as biblical Greek is), is neologism no longer valid? Or does it follow different rules?

        Anyway, the real point of my comment was simply to offer some observations I thought would interest readers. And in that spirit:

        One Episcopal priest to whom I (4 decades ago) described myself as an agnostic said: “I prefer the Latin: ‘Ignoramus'”.

        One Christian person to whom I (very recently) described myself as an agnostic said that that means I’m wishy-washy: “If God exists it’s OK and if He doesn’t its OK”.

        I won’t go into either of my replies.

  15. Paul M. Paul M.

    I am the Walrus.

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