Except for the part about getting up early on a Saturday, I’ve always kind of liked graduation. Quite a few of our graduating majors have had several courses with me, so it was nice to be able to congratulate them and meet their families. And since our stadium here is currently under construction, we have temporarily dispensed with the big, everyone-in-one-place ceremony in favor of a series of smaller productions, one for each college within the university. That gets the whole thing down to just under an hour, which seems like a good length.
And since I’m up at this hour anyway I might as well put the time to good use. So let’s do some blogging!
Writing in the British publication The New Humanist, Chirstopher Lane, a professor of literature at Northwestern University, tells us about the history of agnosticism. It’s a long essay, and the parts where he’s actually discussing the history of agnosticism are pretty good.
But there are rules to this sort of thing, and one of them is that any discussion of agnosticism must contain lots of bashing of the New Atheists for their dogmatism and false certainty. In this case the problems start right in the article’s title: The Benefit of Doubt: We shouldn’t be afraid of being uncertain, argues Christopher Lane. I certainly agree with the sentiment, but you probably already have a sinking suspicion about who is about to get lectured. So let’s consider a few excerpts:
Here’s the opening:
Our culture has become impoverished by certainty. In our overheated climate of polarised public debate, we give less credence to uncertainty; yet the crises that preoccupy us — including religious extremism — demand that we tolerate increasing amounts of it.
Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”
A poor start, I’m afraid, since this gives a badly misleading impression of what Dawkins actually said. His statement about fairies at the bottom of the garden looks to me like a succinct statement of his own views, and not a disparagement of agnosticism generally. The statement comes after Dawkins defines a spectrum of degrees of belief in God, with absolute certainty of God’s existence at one end and absolute certainty of His nonexistence at the other. He points out, quite correctly, that while the former extreme is very well-populated, almost no one identifies with the latter. He then identifies his own views as being one notch below complete certainty, by which he means that he thinks the probability of God’s existence is very low. He writes, “That you cannot prove God’s nonexistence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable. That is another matter.” This does not sound like someone who needs a lecture in avoiding false certainty.
Meanwhile, Dawkins does not quote Quentin de la Bédoyère quite so favorably as Lane suggests. Dawkins opens his discussion of agnosticism by writing,
The robust Muscular Christian haranguing us from the pulpit of my old school chapel admitted a sneaking regard for atheists. They at least had the courage of their misguided convictions. What this preacher couldn’t stand was agnostics: namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters. He was partly right, but for wholly the wrong reason. In the same vein, according to Quentin de la Bédoyère, the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson `respected the committed religious believer and also the committed atheist. He reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.
“Partly right, but for wholly the wrong reason,” hardly sounds like a full-throated endorsement of the sentiments in question. This was clearly intended as a dramatic way of opening the discussion.
My own problem with agnosticism is that I’m not really sure what it is that agnostics are claiming. I think in common parlance there’s this idea that an atheist is someone who asserts dogmatically that there’s no God, while an agnostic just throws up his hands and says who knows. Lane never actually gets around to defining agnosticism, but he’s awfully casual about equating it simply with “doubt.” This presents a problem, since doubt is something that comes in degrees. That was precisely Dawkins’s point, after all. What degree of doubt about God makes you an agnostic?
Agnostics might be claiming that the question of God’s existence simply is not the sort of thing about which you collect evidence one way or the other. I have a friend who is a devout Christian, and he describes himself as an agnostic in this sense. We could argue that we simply have no basis for tipping the balance one way or the other towards belief or nonbelief. If that is the claim then I simply disagree, at least if we’re talking about the Christian conception of God. I would argue that evil and divine hiddenness both offer strong evidence against that conception of God. Many disagree of course, but that is how it seems to me.
If anyone would like to suggest a different definition of agnosticism, then I will be happy to consider it.
To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.
Really, read Dawkins’s discussion of this issue (you’ll find it on pages 46-54 of The God Delusion), and tell me if he comes off as remotely as strident as Lane would have you believe. The very idea that Dawkins would mock Darwin over anything should make you a bit suspicious. As it happens, Dawkins discusses Huxley specifically. After quoting Huxley extolling the virtues of following reason as far as it will go, but then not professing certainty when you have reached that point (a quote Lane also refers to), Dawkins writes:
To a scientist these are noble words, and one doesn’t criticize Huxley lightly. But Huxley, in his concentration upon the absolute impossibility of proving or disproving God, seems to have been ignoring the shading of probbability. The fact that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of something does not put existence and non-existence on an even footing. I don’t think Huxley would disagree, and I suspect that when he appeared to do so he was bending over backwards to concede a point, in the securing another one. We have all done this at one time or another.
Does that sound like mockery to you?
I’m sorry to so belabor this point. If you scour the internet you can find Dawkins being misrepresented every day of the week and twice on Sundays, but normally I don’t think it’s worth a blog post to correct the record. But this one plays into a real pet peeve of mine. I find it galling that it always seems to be atheists who get lectured about false certainty, or who get likened to religious fundamentalists in their dogmatism. Unless the intention is to say that fundamentalists meticulously sift the evidence to assess the balance of probabilities, and then hold their conclusions tentatively pending the arrival of new evidence, the comparison is completely inapt.
On the other hand, I see considerably less criticism of statements like this: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” That’s from Pope John Paul II. It takes some serious audacity for the Pope, who claims to be able to speak infallibly at least some of the time, and who heads an organization that claims to be in a privileged position to interpret the scriptures, to scold others about false absolutes.
Or consider his remarks from his letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:
As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.
When I think of dogmatism and unwarranted certainty, I think of the church arrogating to itself the right to pass final judgment on scientific theories, and to declare, without the slightest qualification, what is and is not the truth about man. This letter is filled with references to the special competence of the church and theology on spirituality and revelation, with no basis provided for asserting that competence. But we were expected to ignore all that, since this was also the letter where the Pope graciously conceded that evolution was, at least, more than just a hypothesis.
Somehow, Dawkins’s suggestion that the balance of evidence allows us to say that nonbelief is more likely to be correct than belief does not seem to be in the same league as the Pope’s musings regarding the truth about man. In fact, the idea that the New Atheist books are primarily about dogmatic certainty in the correctness of atheism is simply ridiculous. In God is Not Great, Hitchens makes only a few glancing references to agnosticism, and none of them are derogatory. Agnosticism does not even rate an index entry in Harris’s The End of Faith or in either of Stenger’s two books on this subject. These books primarily promote the messages that we have no good evidence for belief in God, that religion is the source of rather a lot of unpleasantness, and that the world’s churches and religions have no basis for holding forth on much of anything. You can disagree with them, of course, but the idea that this represents some assault on honest doubt and agnosticism is simply untrue.
We are only three paragraphs into Lane’s very long essay. It’s a pity that he chose to frame his discussion the way he did, because the purely historical portions are quite interesting. I look forward to reading the book on which this essay is based. But the essay is marred by his gross distortion of Dawkins’s remarks, and by the facile equivalence he draws between doubt and agnosticism on the one hand, and between atheism and certainty on the other.