Agnosticism, Follow-Up

John Wilkins has offered this reply to my criticism of his earlier essay on the subject of agnosticism. Well worth reading, even though I sitll think he’s wrong. He seems to think that in order to be justified in asserting “X does not exist” you must be able to prove that X, indeed, does not exist. This seems like the wrong standard to me.

Biochemist Larry Moran weighs in with these worthy senitments:

John, with all due respect, if you walk like an atheist and talk like an atheist then, to all intents and purposes, you’re a practicing atheist, whether you want to admit it or not. You can be an agnostic atheist in the sense that you act as if there’s no God but still want to be true to your profession. They won’t drum you out of the philosophers’ union if you confess your atheistic lifestyle as long as you make the right noises from time to time. I’ve was with you at a conference of philosophers last year and we met several atheists who were still card-carrying philosophers.

We spent a whole Sunday together and I know you didn’t go to church. You are not a theist. The word that describes that non-believer lifestyle is “atheist,” not “agnostic.” Please join Jason Rosenhouse, Richard Dawkins, and me, and come all the way out of the closet. :-)

Preach it, brother.

P. Z. Myers also weighs in::

My rebuttal, though, is that any atheist who thinks about this stuff feels exactly the same way–we acknowledge the possibilities, leave open the chance that there is some weird cosmic thing-a-ma-jig, and openly admit that we are demanding evidence for it before will give it any credence. Wilkins errs, I think, in asserting that some kind of certainty lies at the heart of any kind of thoughtful atheism. It doesn’t–it’s indistinguishable from what he’s saying about agnosticism.

It’s simpler. I don’t believe in a god, therefore I’m an atheist. Wilkins says he doesn’t believe in a god, but he says he’s not an atheist…but it’s because he’s rejecting a collection of presuppositions he holds about atheists. He’s draping the terms with a lot of philosophical baggage that just doesn’t apply–if you don’t believe, you’re an atheist–and making the mistake of thinking that declaring yourself an atheist immediately closes off serious thinking about what it all means. It doesn’t.

Well said!

Comments

  1. #1 Kesh
    November 15, 2006

    I have to wonder, then: if agnosticism and atheism are the same, why all the pressure to make self-identified agnostics use the term atheist? Why shouldn’t the atheists change to saying they’re agnostic, if the terms are this interchangable?

  2. #2 386sx
    November 15, 2006

    I have to wonder, then: if agnosticism and atheism are the same, why all the pressure to make self-identified agnostics use the term atheist? Why shouldn’t the atheists change to saying they’re agnostic, if the terms are this interchangeable?

    Good question. Everybody knows that agnostics are really atheists, so I don’t see what the big deal is either.

  3. #3 Steven
    November 15, 2006

    Im partial to the Universal Church Triumphant of the Apathetic Agnostic. They have an interesting and humorous website. Their motto has a lot of appeal: “We don’t know, and we don’t care”.

    Check out their Meditation #167 – Wonko Loves You. Believe in Wonko – or else!

  4. #4 John Wilkins
    November 15, 2006

    I said nothing about proof, Jason. It’s about knowledge claims. Knowledge can be had in the absence of proof, certainty or high probability (or else we’re screwed); what counts is warrantability. A knowledge claim that X is warrantable if, and only if, X is well-supported by whatever epistemic rules and probative data applies to X-like things.

    But I cannot determine, and think there is good reason to believe we never will determine, what rules and probative data could support a claim that X (where X is God-like beings of no empirical import); neither can I find any epistemic support for not-X.

    One thing atheists do do, despite the disclaimers on my, yours and PZ’s blogs by some, is they deny that there is a God. This is a claim about Xs, and there are no rules nor evidence to determine if this is a reasonable inference to make (that are not circular). I’m not saying atheists absolutely rule out of any logical possibility that there are Gods. I’m saying they make a knowledge claim that agnostics do not – it doesn’t need to be certainty, absolute, or exclusivist. Ask not “do you think there is a god?”, ask instead “do you know there isn’t one?” within reasonable conviction?

  5. #5 John Wilkins
    November 15, 2006

    Oh, and Larry? I deny there even is a closet to come out of ;-)

  6. #6 386sx
    November 16, 2006

    Ask not “do you think there is a god?”, ask instead “do you know there isn’t one?” within reasonable conviction?

    So then it’s just a matter of how something is defined. Redefine Zeus so that he doesn’t live on Olympus, and bingo, you got yourself some Zeus agnostics. The more advanced science gets, the more times “god” gets redefined to run away from science. Looks kinda suspicious, but not suspicious enough to turn an agnostic into an atheist, I guess.

    Zeus used to live on the mountain? No sorry, not so fast there buddy.

    God used to live in the Ark of the Covenant? Hmm, that one’s a tough call.

  7. #7 Richard Wein
    November 16, 2006

    John, I made a similar point in your own blog, but as you didn’t respond I’ll repeat it here. The logic of your argument requires you also to be agnostic on the question of whether the world is immensely old or made recently with the appearance of great age. Are you really agnostic on this question? If so, how could you declare in the same thread that “the world is immensely older than 6000 years”.

  8. #8 Heleen
    November 16, 2006

    Kesh wrote:
    I have to wonder, then: if agnosticism and atheism are the same, why all the pressure to make self-identified agnostics use the term atheist? Why shouldn’t the atheists change to saying they’re agnostic, if the terms are this interchangeable?

    The difference seems to be in the degree of zeal: agnostics are not aggressive, atheists are.

    How do I get HTML tags in a comment to show the style?

  9. #9 Pseudonym
    November 16, 2006

    From an armchair sociology point of view, I think Heleen might be right. Some people simply don’t want to be associated with atheists. In a similar way, many (most) religious people don’t want to be associated with the “intelligent design” crowd.

    Both groups seem to have largely stayed out of the debate over the Dawkins book. Whether or not that’s to their credit, I’ll leave you all to judge.

  10. #10 Chuck Morrison
    November 16, 2006

    I always understood agnosticism to turn on the question of knowledge, and atheism to turn on the question of belief. Most agnostics are also atheists, since they lack a belief in God, but there are also theistic agnostics who, although they think that it is impossible to acquire knowledge of God’s existence, still believe in it anyway.

    The idea of an agnostic as a “fence sitter,” refusing to decide either way, is indeed misleading. Myself, I’m an atheist, through and through — I haven’t decided whether knowledge of God is possible or impossible to attain, but I certainly haven’t seen any evidence that would lead me to believe.

  11. #11 JY
    November 16, 2006

    @Richard

    I’m not sure whether you’ve established why the logic of John’s argument requires him to be agnostic on the question of whether the world is immensely old or made with the appearance of great age.

    If I accept that evidence can be used in support of a particular phenomena, I’m making the pragmatic decision to assume that knowledge is captured by our measurements — i.e. by evidence. While there’s no logical imperative at play here, it’s a practical decision to make. Asking to entertain the idea that the evidence may be arbitrarily and undectably tampered with is similar to asking to entertain the idea of solipsism, or ‘brain-in-a-vat’ scenarios — yes they are logically possible, but of little pragmatic usefulness in deciding issues that, otherwise, we do have a means to decide (i.e. the age of the earth, etc.). Whereas the ‘god’ question is inherently in the category of things to which evidence cannot apply. By not deciding it, there’s no logical imperative to also reject evidence in other areas, because the question has no relation to evidence.

  12. #12 Phobos
    November 16, 2006

    Perhaps it’s a glass-half-full/empty kind of thing. An atheist is convinced that there is no God whereas an agnostic is not convinced that there is a God. (or…an agnostic is not convinced either way) Subtle difference. Agnosticism is not necessarily passive/weak fence-sitting as seems to be suggested by many. There could still be a concerted, perhaps life-long, effort to figure things out.

  13. #13 Koray
    November 16, 2006

    Sam Harris says that the word “god” is a semantic null, so to say that “there is no God” is identical to “there is no What??” It’s the same thing that PZ refers to as “thing-a-majing”.

    So, don’t get too worked up on whether you can or can not say “there is no god” unless you have defined god so damn well that everybody knows what you are referring to.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 16, 2006

    John-

    But we do have warrant for concluding that your empirically undetectable God does not exist. That warrant comes from the fact that it is the person who asserts that X exists who has the burden of providing evidence to defend that assertion. Where no evidence can be provided, and where the thing being proposed is something strikingly different from the sorts of things that are known to exist, the presumption is that X does not exist.

    You can say that I am merely imposing some arbitrary epistemic standard on existence claims, but it happens to be a standard that everyone seems to accept in every situation other than God. When physicists first proposed the existence of neutrinos, they did not reply to their critics by challenging them to explain how they warrant the conclusion that neutrinos do not exist. It is for the people who assert the existence of invisible floating teapots and the like to defend their beliefs, not for the skeptics to explain why they are wrong.

    Yet that is precisely what you do in the final sentence of your comment. An empirically undetectable creator of the universe resides in the same category as Santa Claus and unicorns and invisible floating teapots. If you really think that someone who denies the existence of such a God is making an unreasonable knowledge claim, then I expect you to make the same argument the next time you hear an adult tell a child that there is no Santa Claus.

  15. #15 Richard Wein
    November 17, 2006

    To JY. I believe John’s position requires him to be agnostic between the two hypotheses (world immensely old or world created recently with the appearance of great age) because no evidence can distinguish between the two. I could be wrong; that’s why I originally put this to John as a question. Unfortunately he hasn’t replied.

    To Jason. Let me play Devil’s advocate in John’s absence… we may accept that the burden of proof is on the person who asserts that X exists, without accepting that in the absence of proof we should believe that X does not exist. I belive John’s position is that if the hypothesis has no empirical significance (we would observe the same data whether it’s true or false), then we should have no view on the matter. Since he rejected your suggestion that this is equivalent to assigning equal probability to the truth or falseness of the proposition, I interpret him to mean that we simply cannot assign probabilities in such cases.

  16. #16 JY
    November 17, 2006

    @Jason

    Suppose I pose to you the following question:

    Is there intelligent life in NGC 4881 (an elliptical galaxy, about 350M light years from us)? What would your answer be? Mine would be “I don’t know”. I could try to assign probabilities to the question, but unfortunately I would be so uncertain about the validity of any assumptions I’d have to make to do so, that I’d still be left with “I don’t know”. If somebody asked me what I believed was the answer to the question, I’d probably still say I had no opinion either way.

    If, on the other hand, somebody claimed that there indeed was intelligent life in NGC 4881, then I would suggest that they present evidence. The burden of proof would be on them to explain why they made the claim. (I would assert that there is perhaps even in principle no possible evidence that could directly bear on the question, based on our current knowledge of the probability of intelligent life arising anywhere in the universe (i.e. we know it isn’t zero, but that’s it). The galaxy is so far away that I’m guessing any conceivable technologically generated signal would be too weak to detect).

    Similarly, if someone claims that there is indeed a god, I would be extremely skeptical of the claim, meaning that I would think they had no rational basis for making the claim. But as to the general question — is there some coherent god-claim that is in fact true? — I’m not sure why I would answer that question differently from the question “Is there intelligent life in NGC 4881?”. Assuming you also would answer the ‘NGC 4881′ question with ‘I don’t know’, why would you anwser the ‘Is there some coherent god-claim that is in fact true’ question differently? What makes the questions different?

  17. #17 Kapitano
    November 17, 2006

    The semantic destinction between atheist and agnostic is clear: Atheists believe there is no god, and agnostics aren’t convinced either way.

    However, have you ever met an agnostic who went to church? Or one who prayed? How about an agnostic who rested on Sunday (or Saturday, Tuesday or whatever) simply because there was an injunction in this or that religion to do so?

    No, there seems no practical difference between an atheist and an agnostic in terms of lifestyle. Given the choice, agnostics ignore injunctions and threats in holy books just like atheists do. And they celebrate christmas just like atheists too.

    But there is one other issue lurking here. When discussing the issue with christians, we tend to use “agnostic” to mean “one who is a decided unbeliever with regard to Hunduism, Taoism, Shintoism, Pastafarianism etc, but isn’t decided about Christianity”.

    I this sense, we might talk about the differences between “christian agnostics”, “buddhist agnostics”, “bahai agnostics” etc.

  18. #18 JY
    November 17, 2006

    When discussing the issue with christians, we tend to use “agnostic” to mean “one who is a decided unbeliever with regard to Hunduism, Taoism, Shintoism, Pastafarianism etc, but isn’t decided about Christianity”.

    We do? News to me. Perhaps you mean that’s how you use it, which, to my mind, is an awfully strange way to use the word.

  19. #19 Phobos
    November 17, 2006

    Kapitano may have a point with “Christian agnostics” here in the U.S., but I’m not sure that applies worldwide where the mainstream religion differs.

    Sounds similar to the typical equating of the term “creationist” with YECs, when it can actually apply to a broader spectrum.

  20. #20 Kapitano
    November 17, 2006

    Perhaps I should clarify. In a country where christianity is the dominant religion, someone who defines themselves as being undecided about religious matters defines themselves mainly as being undecided about that dominant religion.

    If someone grows up in (say) a Hundu country – where the religious practices and symbols that surround them are not of crufixes or stars but of humans with animal heads and extra arms – then when they start to call themselves agnostic, it will be these practices and symbols that they’re thinking of.

    Just like when a christian begins to doubt religion, it’s their own religion they begin to doubt, rather than one which isn’t part of their lives and they’ve never thought about much. And indeed when an atheist contracts religion, they usually don’t contract one they’ve never heard of before – it’s the one that’s been in the background all their lives.

    I think the Hundu agnostic (or, Hindu who has become agnostic) is saying to themselves, “I’m no longer sure about the cycle of time, or the lady with six arms, or the friendly man with the elephant head. Oh and by the way, there’s people who sing boring songs to a cross and others who quote a fat bloke in the lotus position, but I don’t know much about them, and I guess I’m not sure about them too.”

  21. #21 Jim
    November 17, 2006

    “Is there intelligent life in NGC 4881 (an elliptical galaxy, about 350M light years from us)? What would your answer be?”

    JY:
    I think that to take your assertion to it’s logical conclusion you would be hard-pressed to have an opinion one way or another about anything you were told exists but that you have not witnessed. I think, everything else being equal, you could in fact be “agnostic” about alien life based on your experience of life here on Earth. However, you have no experience of anything spritual & are therefore justified in claiming atheism when you might not have the same assuredness about an alien claim.

  22. #22 Tyler DiPietro
    November 18, 2006

    To JY,

    I don’t think the analogy you proffer holds water in this particular scenario. When we talk about intelligent life on other planets in other galaxies, we are within the realm of scientific knowledge, albeit in a limited way (we know quite a bit about the chemical properties of life and difficulties attached to the adaptive value of “higher intelligence, for instance). That is certainly not to say definitively whether or not there is intelligent life on planets in galaxy X, only that the question warrants discussion.

    Theists, however, not only fail to get that far, they flaunt the inaccessibility of their proposed beings to scientific scrutiny (even ID advocates claim not to know anything about the supposed “designer” they envision). In that scenario you are justified, in my view, in rejecting the existence claim. In a similar way, you are justified in rejecting the FSM and the IPU.

  23. #23 Greta Christina
    November 18, 2006

    I don’t agree that agnostics are weak-willed or fence-sitters. I think that to look at a question as important and potentially life-altering as “Is there a God?” and be willing to answer “I don’t know” — and be willing to live in that not-knowing — takes a fair amount of courage.

    But more to the point, I hate the pissy bickering on the subject. We are all basically on the same side — and there aren’t enough of us. We need to respect one another, and respect one another’s reasons for defining ourselves the way we do. I don’t think there are a lot of atheists or agnostics who are self-deluded on the subject, or who haven’t thought about it carefully.

  24. #24 JY
    November 20, 2006

    @Tyler,

    In that scenario you are justified, in my view, in rejecting the existence claim. In a similar way, you are justified in rejecting the FSM and the IPU.

    But in the alien’s in NGC 4881 scenario, we are also justified in rejecting a claim, because we know that the person making the claim has no basis for making it — no empirical evidence that it is true. What we don’t have is a way of resolving the question one way or another. So yes, if somebody comes to me and says, “there is a God, and he has X, Y, Z attributes” I am justified in rejecting this claim because I’m justifiably doubtful that this person has any valid reason for making it. Nevertheless, when confronted with the question “is there such a thing as god?”, how can I have more certainty in the answer than I have in the my answer to the question “are there intelligent aliens in NGC 4881?”.

  25. #25 JY
    November 20, 2006

    @Jim

    I think that to take your assertion to it’s logical conclusion you would be hard-pressed to have an opinion one way or another about anything you were told exists but that you have not witnessed.

    Eh? That does not follow at all. There’s no rejection of the value of evidence or inference from probability at all in my setup of the problem. There are questions we would be justified in having an opinion of with respect to the far-distant galaxy, on probability grounds. For example, the question “are there planets in NGC 4881?” is one that I would not hesitate to answer with “yes”, meaning that I think it is highly probable, based on what we know about planet formation.

  26. #26 Russell Blackford
    November 20, 2006

    Say someone comes to me and says, “There is intelligent life in such and such a distant galaxy,” am I really entitled to reject the claim? I’m not so sure. After all, it is the kind of claim that just could be right. I think I am entitled to question whether there is any basis for me to give it my belief, but that’s a different thing. I can say, sincerely, “You just might be right.”

    What if the claim goes further and my interlocutor tells me that it is the will of the aliens, which must be obeyed, that I must live my life within certain confines? E.g. it’s put to me that the aliens require that I not have sex with certain kinds of people, or that I support laws that prevent certain kinds of sexual relationships or laws that prevent us experimenting on little blobs of protoplasm with human DNA? That might be more where positive rejection comes into it. Not only is this starting to sound highly unlikely, but such unfounded beliefs seem like a crazy basis for public policy.

    It seems to me that, for practical purposes in Western societies, an agnostic might be someone who thinks there is a live issue about whether there is a “perfect being” something like the orthodox theological concept of God in the tradition of the Abrahamic religions, but doesn’t see any rational basis for being convinced of it, much less that this being wants us to worship it, or wants us to be heterosexual, monogamous, solicitous of the supposed interests of insentient human life, etc. An atheist might be someone who thinks the question is simply not analogous to the one about the aliens and thinks there is good reason to make a positive judgment that the “perfect being” does not exist.

    We can argue about which of these positions is better supported, but it looks to me as if they could be distinct positions, each with something to be said for it, and that neither need be explained by someone’s irrationality or unreasonableness. Moreover, on social and political questions, these two kinds of people should be allies.

    At the same time, there’s no reason why they should always say the same things. E.g. the atheist has every reason to expound his/her reasons for thinking that the best judgment is that the perfect being simply does not actually exist, which would short-circuit the whole argument as to what such a being might think about human politics.

  27. #27 crystalsinger
    November 21, 2006

    I classify myself as an agnostic rather than atheist simply because whilst I personally don’t believe that there ~is~ a god, I don’t have any evidentiary way to conclusively disprove it.

    I ~believe~ that it’s extremely unlikely, and further ~believe~ that most organised religions don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell (!) of having “the truth” about such a being in the event that it did exist. Ultimately, I wouldn’t really mind if there ~was~ a god, but I’m none too fond of god(‘)s(‘) fanclub. ;-)

    And I agree that the bickering is annoying – “the enemy of my enemy and all that…

  28. #28 Greta Christina
    November 22, 2006

    I’ve been thinking about this more, and am getting increasingly annoyed by the “you’re not really an agnostic, you’re really an atheist and are just afraid to admit it” arguments.

    Here’s why. I’m bisexual. (No, it’s not a tangent — stay with me). For the last 20 years or more, I’ve had to put up with people telling me either “You’re really a lesbian and just won’t admit it” or (less frequently) “You’re really straight and just won’t admit it.”

    But these people are full of crap. I am bisexual. According to my definition of the word — which is a reasonable, not-uncommon one — I’m bisexual. I may not be bisexual according to their definitions, but I am according to mine. And it’s patronizing to tell other adults that you know who they are better than they do.

    When it comes to questions of personal identity, I think we need to let people define themselves. Especially when those identities (a) are vital and central to the person’s sense of self, and (b) have many different definitions, no one of which is generally agreed upon. Again, I think most atheists/ agnostics/ skeptics/ doubters/ secularists/ non-believers have thought about this question carefully, and have chosen the identity-word that they think describes them best. And while I heartily support debates about which of our ideas make the most sense, I think ultimately we need to let reasonable people decide for themselves who and what they are.

  29. #29 Frank
    November 24, 2006

    Greta:
    With all due respect (I mean that), I’m not sure that I can agree that the two are the same; unless you are suggesting that sexual orientation is a quality that is chosen, or spritual belief is a one that is not.

  30. #30 trrll
    November 26, 2006

    You can say that I am merely imposing some arbitrary epistemic standard on existence claims, but it happens to be a standard that everyone seems to accept in every situation other than God. When physicists first proposed the existence of neutrinos, they did not reply to their critics by challenging them to explain how they warrant the conclusion that neutrinos do not exist. It is for the people who assert the existence of invisible floating teapots and the like to defend their beliefs, not for the skeptics to explain why they are wrong.

    I don’t agree that this is a standard that everyone accepts in every other situation. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is a common adage in science. Statisticians distinguish between “Type I errors” and “Type II errors,” where Type II error is mistakenly accepting the null hypothesis. And I’ve even heard particle physicists express the principle, “Everything not forbidden is compulsory,” meaning that a particle will exist unless there is a fundamental reason why it is impossible for it to exist.

    Occam’s Razor is not a law of nature. It is a heuristic rule of thumb for ordering hypotheses for investigation. Neither is a rule of belief. Acceptance of the simpler hypothesis is provisional, until there is evidence to reject it. That does not necessarily mean that we believe that the simplest hypothesis is correct; indeed the historical trend if for simple hypotheses ultimately to be rejected and replaced by more complex ones.

  31. #31 trrll
    November 26, 2006

    However, have you ever met an agnostic who went to church? Or one who prayed? How about an agnostic who rested on Sunday (or Saturday, Tuesday or whatever) simply because there was an injunction in this or that religion to do so?

    No, there seems no practical difference between an atheist and an agnostic in terms of lifestyle. Given the choice, agnostics ignore injunctions and threats in holy books just like atheists do. And they celebrate christmas just like atheists too.

    But there is one other issue lurking here. When discussing the issue with christians, we tend to use “agnostic” to mean “one who is a decided unbeliever with regard to Hunduism, Taoism, Shintoism, Pastafarianism etc, but isn’t decided about Christianity.”

    Why would an agnostic go to church? If one has no knowledge of whether God exists, then doesn’t one have even less knowledge of what God would want if It exists? Perhaps God exists but is offended by prayer. Perhaps the reason that the existence of God is not evident is that God does not want us basing decisions upon It’s existence or desires, and is hiding from us. Or perhaps God exists but is inimical to mankind, and we should be endeavoring to seek It out and destroy It.

  32. #32 Don Hamilton
    November 27, 2006

    Does God exist??

    Ever since the dawn of mankind, around 40,000 years ago, God revealed the possiblity of his existence to mankind by giving humans a powerful imagination. Since that time people have wondered about their origins. Where did we come from? Who created us? Over the centuries, to answer these very basic questions, our storytellers have invented many myths, stories and dogmas. Religions are simply the outgrowth of these ancient myths and dogmas handed down from generation to generation and formalized into faiths, rituals and traditions.

    Mankind’s powerful imagination gave it the power to begin to comprehend the beauty that surrounded it. Something must have created all this magnificient beauty. I can “see” for myself, through my imagination, the beauty of its creations – it is everywhere I look. In order to understand the true nature of God, the Creator of the universe, we must separate the myths of mankind from the physical evidence of God’s existence.

    The primary evidence of God’s existence is the beauty of God’s creations that we can see and experience. By understanding the laws of nature (physics, chemistry, etc. we are beginning to learn the true nature of God.

    God, the Creator, is not concerned about mankind’s destiny one way or the other, if we fail here on Earth (our beautiful little speck of space dust) and life is wiped out – God has trillions of other planets to watch over.

  33. #33 Kevin
    November 27, 2006

    Don,

    “The primary evidence of God’s existence is the beauty of God’s creations that we can see and experience. By understanding the laws of nature (physics, chemistry, etc. we are beginning to learn the true nature of God.”

    snort…the old god as the universe ploy. I use that now. My sisters-in-law are catholic and religious. Sometimes they ask my seven year old son if he belives in “god.” He has been trained to answer “I believe in the god of the universe”

    Do you go to church? “I belong to the Universalist Unitarian Church.”

    “God, the Creator, is not concerned about mankind’s destiny one way or the other”

    that is one figgin useless god you have there! At least when I pray to the SUN I get results~

  34. #34 Greta Christina
    November 28, 2006

    “Greta:
    “With all due respect (I mean that), I’m not sure that I can agree that the two are the same; unless you are suggesting that sexual orientation is a quality that is chosen, or spritual belief is a one that is not.”

    Frank:
    No, I don’t think sexual orientation is chosen. But I do think that, for many of us — arguably most of us — the language we use to describe and define our sexual orientation is something we choose.

    Most people aren’t true Kinsey 0′s or 6′s (completely heterosexual or homosexual). And different people use different criteria to decide whether to call themselves straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or something else. Different factors include whether sex counts as much as romantic love; whether desire counts as much as behavior; whether your sexual and romantic history counts as much as your present relationship status; whether your present status counts as much as your potential future involvements; etc. There isn’t one criteria that everyone agrees is most important, or one definition that’s generally agreed on by everyone.

    Similarly, different people use different criteria to decide whether to call themselves atheist or agnostic (or skeptic, or non-believer, or doubter, or whatever). For some people, “atheist” means you’re absolutely certain there is no God; for others, it means you’re reasonably certain there is no God (and live and act on that assumption). For some people, the literal definitions of the words are most important; for others, the connotations of the words as understood by the people they’re speaking to bear more weight. Etc. etc. etc.

    And again, in both cases, I think we need to let reasonable adults decide how to define themselves. We’re not talking about linguistic quibbles where the outcome doesn’t really matter as long as everybody agrees. In both cases, these are deep, important questions of personal identity and selfhood. And again, I think it’s patronizing to tell other adults that you can answer those questions for them better than they can for themselves.

  35. #35 Luis
    December 8, 2006

    I’ll put myself up for potshots. I’am an agnostic and an atheist. You have to take the two labels in context. I have been around a while and I know that when two people say “God” they rarely mean the same thing. To some, god is merely a creator that started the whole ball of wax going. To that theory of god, I am neither a believer nor a disbeliever and, thereby, I am agnostic.

    On the other hand, to those people who believe in a god that loves them and will reward them with a blissful afterlife while sending all the people they hate to eternal misery, I am a staunch atheist. Not only do I not believe in that god, I wouldn’t worship the @55hole even if you proved to me it exists.

    To me, it’s a matter of context. I don’t deal in absolutes when the options are undefined. Define exactly what you mean and I’ll give you an definitive answer.

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