The Perils of False Certainty

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.

Lane continues:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark
    May 7, 2011

    I’ll have to read the essay by Lane, but Dawkins never struck me as an especially humble guy. Arguing that the religious are delusional (as opposed to mistaken) could be something to do with it. I’m frankly a bit tired of atheists deriding agnostics as wishy-washy. Sounds like an interesting essay if it takes on that mistaken notion.

  2. #2 L. E. Alba (Lary9)
    May 7, 2011

    Atheism like many things, is available in different flavors. Most broadly, all atheists reject belief in God. Some, based upon evidence and reason, deny that God exists. As to what subtle nuance of meaning this connotes—it beats me. It seems like splitting hairs and I fail to see any useful distinction between them. On the other hand, agnostics deny that they can ever know one way or the other, thereby avoiding unpleasant challenges by believers concerning their doomed status. It’s complicated.

    Atheists who self-define as ‘agnostics’ are more common because it’s easier to deal with the social repercussions of indecision. The broad, theism-rejecting atheism is not the only definition atheists use, but it’s supported by most comprehensive, unabridged dictionaries. Although just because dictionaries offer that definition, doesn’t mean that it is “better”. Sometimes it’s possible to make the case that another definition would be preferable — perhaps it would eliminate confusion; be more precise.
    So…this is me. I don’t ‘believe’ in any supernatuaral dieties; don’t practice any religion, but, I’d rather define myself by what I believe than what I don’t. Here’s a basic self-affirming credal statement:
    I believe in reason, evidence, the methodology of science and a naturalistic view of the world.
    That is more than enough for me and I’m as happy with that self-definition as a bacterial flagellum wriggling away on a Proteus vulgaris in a nutrient rich medium.

    The Bad News: Letting go of supernaturalistic views can be scary and bring new responsibilities. For me, it took courage, but immediately proved itself worthy of my ‘leap of reason’.
    The Good News: You don’t have to go on the journey alone.Visit The Brights, an international group for non-theists with a naturalistic worldview:

    http://the-brights.net/

  3. #3 Pierce R. Butler
    May 7, 2011

    If anyone would like to suggest a different definition of agnosticism, then I will be happy to consider it.

    Uh, well, I dunno…

    As with atheism, agnosticism is often divided into two camps, “soft” and “hard”. The former takes the position I think is being used here – we lack adequate evidence to decide the question.

    The latter, of late brought occasionally to the fore by Christina, Coyne, Myers, et al, asserts that no such evidence could be adequate: even if given abundant and convincing evidence of some superpowerful being, defining the same as (a) god inherently goes too far.

    To quote myself on a later Greta C post,

    No matter what “deistic” evidence I might be confronted with, so long as my brain is functional I predict I will prefer the hypothesis that my brain has become dysfunctional.

    Please consider, with all the happiness allowed by Virginia law.

  4. #4 SteveM
    May 7, 2011

    Didn’t Dawkins once urge secularists to call themselves “brights”? Seem to remember Hitchens somewhere taking him to task for that. Yeah, I’d say there’s plenty of false certainty in Dawkins’s position on atheism. Plenty of room for doubt about the issue, more generally.

  5. #5 Laura Marcus
    May 7, 2011

    Dawkins quotes the de la B. as saying that he “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.” Your response: “clearly intended as a dramatic way of opening the discussion.” Seriously? After Dawkins himself quotes his preacher calling agnostics “namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters.”

    Did I miss something? A “dramatic way of opening the discussion”? Maybe Lane just wanted to point out that if you deride and dismiss agnostics in this way, you also are deriding and dismissing huge chunks of thought in Eliot, Spencer, Huxley, and, yes, Darwin. I’d say he’s right. They *were* agnostics, after all. What’s to be gained from deriding their modern counterparts? If as you point out Hitchens isn’t at all derisive of agnosticism, the question surely is: Why does Dawkins repeat those lines? Drama, I suppose.

  6. #6 Ophelia Benson
    May 7, 2011

    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.

    Same here. I fully expected Lane to go on to cite a religious example of excess certainty, and was stupidly surprised when he didn’t…But it’s the New Humanist. Surely they could have said “Dawkins only? Isn’t that a bit one-sided?”

  7. #7 Doug
    May 7, 2011

    I agree with Dawkins’ assessment of “partly right, but for wholly the wrong reason.” I think some of those who choose to label themselves as “agnostic” instead of “atheist” do have many of the qualities his preacher listed. They shy away from emphasizing their rejection of religion out of social pressure, or not wanting to be labeled one of the “bad guys,” and try to play both sides. “Yes atheists, of course I agree with you that there is insufficient evidence for belief and that religions are made up.” “Yes theists, of course I agree with you that atheists are strident, militant, etc. and worse, are mean doo-doo heads!”

    A caricature, of course, but the the dichotomy of agreeing with the substantive positions of one side, but agreeing with the stylistic complaints of the other, is what I draw attention to here.

    I also think the whole debate over the certainty an atheist may hold their position with is completely unnecessary. You can say you are totally certain there are no gods, or just a smidge leaning to the atheist side, and you will behave completely the same because you are both operating under the same LACK of evidence for the opposing view. There’s nothing in the certainty of strong atheism that says “I wouldn’t believe any evidence for a god” (and indeed, Josh labels such a view as espoused by PZ as strong agnosticism because is is a question of knowledge). It is all rooted in the same beliefs in skepticism and empiricism, which lead to a naturalistic worldview in the absence of evidence for anything else. I once heard a “7 out of 7″ atheist say “I am certain I am right because I have no reason to believe I am wrong.” That’s almost a view I can get behind.

    Really, what I think the whole “certainty” debate comes down to is whether one WANTS to believe in something. By saying you are very certain in your non-belief, you are saying you actively do NOT want to believe in a god, and it would take extraordinary evidence to convince you to do something you do not want to do, whereas someone who wants to believe would have a much lower evidence threshold, and therefore be more “uncertain” in their non-belief. It does seem to me that both positions are susceptible to irrationality, though neither one inherently is. If there is evidence that very clearly points to a deity, in principle either person could change their mind.

  8. #8 Jerry Coyne
    May 7, 2011

    “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.”

    Indeed! Great post.

  9. #9 Jim Harrison
    May 7, 2011

    The politics of the issue aside, atheism is normally a more reasonable stance than agnosticism even though the non-existence of God, like any other assertion about a matter of fact, can never be completely certain. Thing is, the rules that govern discourse are not merely logical. There are also pragmatic rules. Anybody who listens to what I say, for example, is entitled to infer that I believe my utterances are meaningful, relevant, and in some sense novel. If I say that I have doubts about the non-existence of God, you are entitled to believe that I am doing something different than merely taking note of something that is true of all factual propositions. If I say that I’m not sure that I’m an American citizen, you have the right to think that there is some reason I have doubts, though anybody could make up a story in which it turns out that I’ve been hypnotized into believing I am, etc.

    I’m sure there are real agnostics out there who have genuine doubts about the non-existence of God; but if I claimed to be an agnostic, I’d simply be prevaricating.

  10. #10 That Guy Montag
    May 7, 2011

    You hit the nail on the head Jason when you point out that the so-called agnostics are very unwilling to attack the dogmatism of the religious and I think that’s quite frankly the point. Agnosticism, as a position, is simply a way to try to justify a particularly arrogant and nasty kind of hypocrisy because if these people were at all consistent in their agnosticism they would be atheists.

  11. #11 Simon
    May 7, 2011

    “Agnosticism, as a position, is simply a way to try to justify a particularly arrogant and nasty kind of hypocrisy because if these people were at all consistent in their agnosticism they would be atheists.”

    Are you kidding me? Such ignorance and circular reasoning is laughable. If these people were “at all consistent” they’d think like you, you mean–rather than continue being true to their position, as Thomas Huxley, for one, was.

    I’m going to reserve judgment about the apparent unwillingness of agnostics “to attack the dogmatism of the religious” until I’ve read Lane’s book, which by the looks of it is indeed an attack on religious dogmatism, and, I’m expecting from his essay, an historically informed one.

  12. #12 Tony61
    May 8, 2011

    Excellent post, Jason.

    To Mark: Dawkins may possess too little humility for your liking, but that does not mean his argument regarding delusional thinking is wrong– read the book. The word delusion has a particular clinical denotation, and Dawkins makes a booklength argument for its use associated with god-belief. As for Dawkins deriding anyone for their agnosticism, that’s just plain inaccurate, as Jason has pointed out in detail.

    To SteveM: it was Dennett, not Dawkins, who coined the term “brights.”

  13. #13 Lenoxus
    May 8, 2011

    There’s a good LessWrong post about this canard about how we can never be certain of things: The Fallacy of Gray. It includes all sorts of quotes with the same basic message, including Asimov’s famous one about the Earth’s roundness.

    My own place on the spectrum is technically theological noncognitivism. I think that “God” is a hodge-podge of bad definitions and vague emotions, and therefore I don’t think I could be convinced of his existence at all. It’s not just fairies at the bottom of the well, but fairies which are invisible and purple and make you feel gloovigly when they’re near (and that’s the assertion of just one sect of fairyists).

    For one thing, I have trouble imagining what sort of cosmic event that people all over the world could witness and near-unanimously agree to be God. If even people who already “believe” can’t agree what would be evidence for God, why should I be expected to imagine some?

    Already I can hear someone thinking “why not call X God?” where X is something that I do believe in both in the “plain” and “elevated” senses of “believe”. To which I can only say, “Why call it God?” It’s the same way with patriotism; if I already think Americans are mostly great, why is it important that I love “America”?

    (All that said, I can certainly imagine an event corresponding to some specific God, and one which could very well make me Officially Believe that there was something to it after all; for example, if I saw a Second Coming, I would be near-convinced that Jesus really did exist and have special powers, but I would start to entertain the question of whether he was some sort of alien rather than a vaguely defined superbeing.)

  14. #14 Mike from Ottawa
    May 8, 2011

    In regard to Dawkins, it seems to me the difference between “certainty” and sufficient confidence as to label those who disagree as being deluded isn’t really worth parsing out.

  15. #15 L.E. Alba
    May 8, 2011

    Regardless of who coined the admittedly silly term “Brights”, which is intended to convey the image of an illuminated naturalistic worldview, it’s an international community of like minded persons with its own legs now. I recommend it since it has no anti-religious cant and isn’t particularly combative either.

  16. #16 PhillyChief
    May 8, 2011

    It’s been my experience that the self-proclaimed agnostics are the most arrogant. They generally characterize the conflict between atheism and theism as a childish squabble that’s beneath them, or they chastise each group as failing to exhibit proper tolerance like they do, as if tolerance was the highest virtue. At best, they’re just closet atheists or theists who don’t want to catch flak from either group or enjoy being courted by each to go over to their side.

    Frankly, I don’t see how agnosticism is possible (I’m talking the colloquial neutral position on the existence of a god and not the state of knowledge of such an existence because we’re all agnostic according to the latter). There’s no neutral. Do the claims warrant acceptance or not? The old canards of “god is unknowable” or “it’s impossible to demonstrate the existence of god” are unsatisfactory because both are accepting the characteristics of this being. If you accept the existence of its characteristics, then you’re accepting it’s existence. When faced with the claim of a Dragon in My Garage, you don’t simply say, “well I guess the dragon is unknowable.” No, you question why one believes the dragon has such characteristics and if the answers aren’t satisfactory then you don’t accept them, thus you can’t accept the claim of the dragon’s existence. The same is true for a deity.

    I can say I don’t know if there is a god or not but that the claims of theists for a god’s existence, so far, do not warrant acceptance, therefore I’m an atheist. Failing to decide whether the claims warrant acceptance, on intellectual or emotional grounds, I think is unsatisfactory, but failing to state what you’ve decided in an attempt to game the system, as I described above, is contemptible.

  17. #17 Sarah B.
    May 8, 2011

    I may be one of the few responders here who’s actually read both books in question (The God Delusion AND The Age of Doubt), and, I have to say, the latter is far more concerned with the history of free-thought and the rise of agnosticism than it is with Dawkins and “new atheism.”

    Where Dawkins surfaces most in the book is over highly debatable statements, such as this one in _The God Delusion_: “Contrary to Huxley, I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other” (GD 50).

    And: “Agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the TAP [Temporary Agnosticism in Principle] category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It’s a scientific question” (GD 50).

    For many, of course, it’s also a metaphysical question. Debate it all you will; people obviously have for eons. But Dawkins is engaged fairly on his own terms, with the limitations of his own arguments.

    @ Tony61: Actually, Daniel Dennett and Dawkins together coined the term “Brights” for themselves and their supporters and followers. Also, the clinical definition of “delusion” is firmly tied to pathology and has specific medical implications–an obvious reason for the controversy in Dawkins’s applying it to several billion people who don’t believe, as he does, that “agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the TAP category.”

    @ SteveM: Hitchens takes on Dawkins over the cringe-worthy label in his book _God Is Not Great_.

    @ That Guy Montag, and “Agnosticism, as a position, is simply a way to try to justify a particularly arrogant and nasty kind of hypocrisy . . .”: You have basically made Lane’s point (about misplaced contempt for doubters) for him without appearing to realize it.

    @ Simon: The bulk of the book is indeed focused on religious doctrine and its many weaknesses and impositions.

    @ Laura: “Maybe Lane just wanted to point out that if you deride and dismiss agnostics in this way, you also are deriding and dismissing huge chunks of thought in Eliot, Spencer, Huxley, and, yes, Darwin. I’d say he’s right. They *were* agnostics, after all. What’s to be gained from deriding their modern counterparts?”

    Nail on the head, I’d say.

    What _is_ the animus fueling Dawkins’s (and That Guy Montag’s) contempt for agnosticism? As The Age of Doubt makes abundantly clear, the doubt that led large numbers of believers to leave the Church was frequently a stepping-stone to a full embrace of secularism. These aren’t mutually exclusive positions. So why is Dawkins making them such?

  18. #18 Greg Esres
    May 8, 2011

    you also are deriding and dismissing huge chunks of thought in Eliot, Spencer, Huxley, and, yes, Darwin. I’d say he’s right. They *were* agnostics, after all.

    Why not dismiss them the same way we dismiss religious beliefs of Newton, or the huge chunks of thought from Aristotle? Most of these people were probably agnostic with regard to the Judeo-Christian god, but probably wouldn’t be so charitable towards, for instance, Baal. That suggests that the willingness to be atheistic has a strong sociological component, rather than being a purely intellectual one. There’s more than a hint of intellectual dishonesty in the “I don’t have an opinion” sentiment.

  19. #19 Sarah B.
    May 8, 2011

    “Why not dismiss them the same way we dismiss religious beliefs of Newton, or the huge chunks of thought from Aristotle?”

    Because, for starters, Eliot, Spencer, Huxley, Stephen, Darwin, and dozens more are far-closer to us in thinking and understanding than Aristotle or Newton ever were; and second, as Dawkins realized when engaging with Huxley, they aren’t so easily dismissed because their arguments were often very well worked-out.

    “In matters of the intellect,” Huxley advised, “follow your reason as far as it will take you. [But] do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

    Yes, do not pretend; but follow your reason and intellect. That’s an eminently reasonable and defensible position to adopt; it isn’t remotely wishy-washy; nor is it the position of someone claiming the existence of Baal, and it’s both absurd and extremely ignorant to suggest otherwise.

    Sorry to say this, but clearly a few of the people posting here have very little sense of the history of these arguments. If they knew even a fraction of them, I’d wager, they’d be a lot more respectful to the people who debated the same positions in the 1870s and 1880s. To echo the advice of an earlier poster, “Read the book” in question. You’ll see this for yourself.

  20. #20 James Pomeroy
    May 8, 2011

    I’ve only lightly perused all the comments here, but I especially want to agree with Sarah B. I started off calling myself an atheist without qualifiers. Fist in the air, stern expression on my face. But over time I continued to expose myself to what people on all sides had to say, so long as they were honestly speaking within the realm of the reasonable dialogue. Of late I’ve been listening to the Conversations From The Pale Blue Dot podcast. And the position I’ve arrived at is this: I am an atheist so far as any religion I’ve come across is concerned; I do not expect that any religion I come across in future will make me reconsider; but with regard to the totality of the human experience as it has developed in the universe, I am a hard agnostic. I will continue to listen, learn and develop my outlook. My mind will remain open, but not so open that my brain falls out. I think that that is the proper course, and it bolsters the humanistic approach I hold in high esteem.

  21. #21 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    May 8, 2011

    Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”)

    Indeed. In 1869. Before then uncertainty didn’t exist./sarcasm.

  22. #22 cwfong
    May 8, 2011

    Should I not then call myself an agnostic unless it’s to a specific catechismic certainty?

  23. #23 JimV
    May 8, 2011

    The fact that nobody else so far has brought this up must mean it’s passe’, but I always liked the notion that gnosticism and theism were two separate qualities, so that one could be a gnostic theist, an agnostic atheist (like myself), or even an agnostic theist. That is, for me atheism is the same verbal construction as asymmetry, with the a- denoting the lack of something. I lack a belief in any known ‘theo’, so I am an atheist. I don’t claim to know for sure that no ‘theo’ exists, so I am also agnostic.

  24. #24 Greg Esres
    May 8, 2011

    Sorry to say this, but clearly a few of the people posting here have very little sense of the history of these arguments.

    Because it’s irrelevant. The arguments aren’t on point now or then. Everybody knows that you can’t disprove the existence of various types of do-nothing gods, so, strictly speaking, pure agnosticism is the only rational position to take. But there are various shades of that gray and to feel that the weight of evidence for or against a god are equal is an irrational point of view. The only reason that any of these people felt that the existence of a god was at all possible was due to indoctrination as a child, not because the natural world somehow suggested it.

  25. #25 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 8, 2011

    JimV –

    Note that in my original post I referred to my friend who is a devout Christian, but also describes himself as an agnostic. That seems relevant to the distinction you’re drawing.

  26. #26 Greg Esres
    May 8, 2011

    In reading through the article, I realize that I loathe books like this; books that project the author’s own views onto history as if the views were factually true, and books that broadly describe periods of time as if they were people that had a well-defined personality:

    For the Victorians, that condition came to be seen as a central fact of human experience, and it took knowledge, integrity, and understanding to face it.

    I find zero information content in that passage. Here’s more meaningless blather:

    he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

    Yuck. Just give me the data and let me figure out what it means, if it means anything at all. Of course, there are only a handful of data and without the author’s polemical interpretations, there might not be much to write a book about.

  27. #27 Lenoxus
    May 8, 2011

    Even while I am a theo-non-cog, I respect agnosticism. (And, for that matter, I respect atheists, being one myself. Some theo-non-cog folks hold that atheism is irrationally implying that there is a thing to reject, but I don’t think there’s a contradiction to calling myself atheist, due to how widespread theism is, and for the sake of putting forward the strong form of the argument.)

    That said, Jim Harrison’s earlier point about describing oneself as unsure of something is spot-on. If someone simultaneously calls herself “agnostic” and evaluates the probability of God existing as less than 1% (or otherwise as very low), I see a mild contradiction. To me, a reasonable definition of “agnostic” is someone who believes that the possibility of God’s existence is strong enough to seriously consider (and the same for its nonexistence), not just “more than zero and less than 100″.

    Greg Esres at 26: Hear, hear!

    Anyway, the extolling of “doubt”, by itself, gets tiresome when (a) we know perfectly well which proposition the author intends us to lack conviction about and (b) he couldn’t possibly get up in the morning if he fairly applied a principle of extreme skepticism/doubt to everythig. Oh, if only there were a means to sort through propositions and rank them by plausibility!

  28. #28 Blamer ..
    May 8, 2011

    Great post.

    Like many critics of Dawkins, they are less certain of what he’s written, than they are that he’s wrong.

  29. #29 Charles Sullivan
    May 9, 2011

    You could be a good philosopher with your clear thinking and all.

  30. #30 Sarah B.
    May 9, 2011

    @ Greg Esres (24 and 26). Four of out every ten Americans currently believe in strict creationism (Gallup; last December). Sorry to say, the history of these arguments about agnosticism, atheism, and freethought is not in the least “irrelevant,” as you assert rather incredibly, without any evidence. On the contrary, and alas, that history is still very much alive. Outside most metropolian areas in the States, we are still very much fighting 19th-century arguments.

    You obviously feel comfortable prejudging and dismissing without reading a book that goes a long way to explaining and documenting how that frankly very worrying state of affairs came to be. Having actually read the book and seen its explanation for why, for much of the country, “the Scopes trial is not over,” I beg to differ.

    The quotations you cite in #26, incidentally, are from “Doubt: A Parable,” a highly intellectual play about weighing evidence and what it takes and means to change one’s mind. May not be your choice of “data,” but it’s for the New Humanist, not Scientific American. If one stops to think about those four in ten Americans (far more than a hundred million people), some of whom may have seen or heard about the play, isn’t it worth considering what it will take to change their minds?

  31. #31 J.C. Samuelson
    May 9, 2011

    Great post! In particular, this bit was fabulous:

    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.

    As a minor point of interest on the term, “Bright” for those who’ve mentioned it, it’s a term that has been, unfortunately yet understandably, misunderstood. According to those who did first coin it (Paul Geisert & Mynga Futrell; Dennett & Dawkins merely added their celebrity to the PR effort), it was not a reference to intelligence. All the same, it’s awkward because of that connotation, and few “Brights” actually call themselves by that name, even the enthusiastic ones.

  32. #32 Greg Esres
    May 9, 2011

    the history of these arguments about agnosticism, atheism, and freethought is not in the least “irrelevant,” as you assert rather incredibly, without any evidence.

    As you contradict, without any evidence. Arguments stand or fall on their own merits, and it’s irrelevant who argues them or how many people argue them.

    You seem to feel that you’re the only one competent to discuss these ideas, since you’ve read this particular book. However, nothing you’ve said indicates that this author has anything new or insightful to say that we haven’t encountered in other sources a hundred times, and his own writing in the article doesn’t suggest any unusual clarity of thought.

    You say “The scopes trial is not over.” Well, duh. You had to read this book to learn that? You say that doubt is a halfway house to secularism. Well, duh again. You seem to think this book is crucial to discussing this topic intelligently, but the insights you bring from the book are pretty superficial. So, yes, I feel comfortable dismissing the book.

  33. #33 Tommy Holland
    May 9, 2011

    For me it’s simply two different methods of thinking. I can believe or not believe something without knowing either way (such as, is there life on Europa.)

    So with respect to God, it’s simple for me:

    * I don’t know if God exists (agnostic)
    * I don’t believe that God exists (atheist)

    Which makes me an agnostic atheist.

    “So what do you believe in?” I’m asked. Easy. I do believe that no god exists.

  34. #34 Jud
    May 9, 2011

    @Sarah B -

    Good comments. I want to mildly disagree with some of what you say. :-)

    I am reading into your comments an implication that you disagree with Dawkins’ position that the existence/non-existence of God is amenable to scientific methods of inquiry. I would tend to agree with Dawkins. We’ve got experimental data on quantum mechanics and relativity to as many decimal points as anyone could want and there is no “God Factor” needed to make the equations come out right. Thus observational and experimental data show either there is no God, or a God who is exceedingly careful never to tip the scales in the slightest.

    As Dawkins points out in The God Delusion, this is not the believers’ God. Why should anyone propitiate a God whose defining characteristic is never to intercede? The churches, synagogues and mosques of the world are certainly not filled with believers in such a God. It is the intervener God, the one actually conceived of by believers, that Dawkins says is a delusion. By scientific (empirical) standards of proof, I’d say Dawkins has a darned good case.

  35. #35 Sarah B.
    May 9, 2011

    @ Jud: Thanks. You’re welcome to disagree with me. Please just don’t say that the history of these concepts and arguments is “irrelevant” to us, or that a cited and dated poll doesn’t count as evidence. :)

    On the question of evidence–and certainly in his exasperation with religion, I am actually very close to Dawkins. I am definitely not arguing that atheists and the religious face the same burden of proof, so I hope that’s clear. I think a lot of this discussion frankly went off-the-rails with that presumption, which I’ve not found in any of the material cited, though I’ve heard it expressed before.

    Let me requote one statement earlier from Dawkins, since it *was* his point and it got lost in the shuffle:

    “Contrary to Huxley, I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other” (GD 50).

    Dawkins goes on to talk about shadings of probability, and he ends up arguing that there’s *probably* no God. To that end, he’s really not so far from Huxley, who spoke about the need to “follow your reason as far as it will take you.” Incidentally, Huxley took that reason as far as being completely merciless about religious dogma–something I think readers here have either forgotten or simply did not know.

    But Huxley declined to “pretend that conclusions are *certain* which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” And Dawkins, too, in the end has to argue–even “suggest”–that the “existence of God is a scientific hypothesis.” He doesn’t, for instance, take the path of Stephen J. Gould in arguing that religion and science represent “nonoverlapping magisteria.” I’m not siding with Gould, I hasten to add; merely pointing out that this is still a matter of criteria and about “shadings of probability” relative to presumptions of “certainty.”

    I am not saying, then, that “the existence/non-existence of God is [not] amenable to scientific methods of inquiry.” I just don’t think that on this vast, also metaphysical question there is unambiguous proof. Enormous proof, yes. Strong likelihood, sure. But unambiguous, certain proof? No, by my reckoning, not, which is why I’m with Huxley on this question and not with Dawkins.

    I realize it’s that last matter that exasperates atheists who view it as a) arrogant; b) indecisive; c) hedging; d) take your pick. But while I think it’s the most intellectually honest approach that I can adopt, it’s also *incredibly* close to that of many other posters here. Hence all the animus against doubters and the weird contempt for agnostics seems unwarranted, especially given their shared history. It’s been said before by other posters: Hitchens has a very different perspective on agnostics, and groups them *with* rather than *against* atheists, a move that actually seems very logical.

    I hope that helps. I’ll have to leave it there.

  36. #36 Jud
    May 9, 2011

    Thanks, Sarah B. All of what you say seems quite reasonable. I agree with a great deal of it and think our basic positions are probably pretty close. However, let me offer a slightly different (unreasonable?;-) perspective.

    First, a thought about everyday language. Much of what we say and write might fairly have appended to it, “…to the best of my ability to draw logical conclusions from all the evidence available to me.” But we ordinarily don’t, and this is generally understood.

    Second, a thought about “proof.” Though Hilbert (IIRC) showed even math wasn’t ultimately provably self-consistent, we ordinarily accept proofs in mathematics and formal logics to be a sort of gold standard, and to need no empirical corroboration. Conversely, empirical evidence, no matter how extensive, is considered insufficient by itself. In the sciences, mathematics certainly plays a role. Empirical evidence, however, can be accepted as sufficient scientific proof in its own right. This is what I was speaking of (too cryptically, I admit) when I referred above to “scientific (empirical) standards of proof.”

    As final background, a thought about a meta-characteristic of the real vs. the mythical: More instances of the real tend to be found the more opportunity there is for observation, while the mythical tends to be just the opposite.

    We haven’t seen any leprechauns or unicorns running around lately, nor flying horses. Thor may be showing up at a theater near you, but you’d be damned surprised to see him outside the pub making lightning bolts strike on a bet. We feel quite comfortable supposing this lack of empirical evidence in the context of extensive opportunity for observation disproves the existence of such creatures scientifically for all practical purposes, just as failure to observe inheritance of acquired characteristics scientifically disproves Lamarckism.

    We can also state with assurance that we haven’t seen any deities or their Earthly avatars splitting seas or feeding multitudes with a few fish and loaves of bread lately, in spite of having any number of 24-hour news channels, video cameras, etc. So why the very evidently different tone of the conversation about certain deities? After all, if a child in his Thor outfit said we couldn’t prove the Thunder God doesn’t really exist (it’s pretty well impossible to imagine an adult doing so, isn’t it?), the typical reaction might be to give him a pat on the head and send him to bed. No one invokes non-overlapping magisteria for unicorns or Apollo. And no one is careful to state, though it could fairly be said about any observation outside of mathematics and logic, that “there is no unambiguous, certain proof” when it comes to leprechauns or Zeus. But such allowances are so much the standard for Yahweh, the Trinity, or Allah, that we hardly even realize we’re being wildly inconsistent about standards of adequacy for empirical scientific proof, or the way we talk about those standards (i.e., whether we feel the need to append to our spoken or written conclusions statements such as “…in my best judgment based on all the evidence available to me”).

    The plain explanation is the social/historical context in which we have these discussions. It seems to me Dawkins says there is “probably” no God, and “suggests” the question of His existence is amenable to scientific analysis for either or both of two reasons: (1) the overly precise adequacy-of-proof language we tend to adopt when discussing particular deities; and (2) simple politeness. (In contrast to others who may or may not have read The God Delusion, I thought its tone was courteous and civil. It seems to me that many who think otherwise may have been offended by the book’s basic subject matter, so the question of civility of tone didn’t enter into their evaluations at all.)

  37. #37 Ignostic Morgan
    May 9, 2011

    We ignostics can state with certainty that no God can possibly exist as He lacks referents as the Grand Miracle Monger and so forth and He has incoherent, contradictory attributes. No atheist has to traverse the Cosmos or be omniscient herself as this comes from analysis!
    And the burden of evidence rests with theists!
    As Victor Stenger notes, where there should be mountains of evidence and none exists, and in line with Charles Moore’s auto-epistemic rule, here evidence of absence is indeed absence of evidence, and therefore, no argument from ignorance!
    Supernaturalists rely on the arguments from incredulity and from ignorance!

  38. #38 Grant C
    May 10, 2011

    “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. ”

    They might be. They *should* be since that is how the term is properly used.

    But they’re usually not. Which drives me nuts.

    Most so-called “agnostics”, at least of the variety you will encounter online, attempt to use agnosticism to differentiate themselves from theism or atheism. To somehow vaguely place themselves on that fence mentioned above so they don’t have to take a side in the discussion.

    Unfortunately, the fence doesn’t exist and attempting to use the term in this manner is just a gross abuse of the language… because when you press these people for why they’re an agnostic they’ll inevitably say “because I don’t know if God exists and neither do you” or something along those lines.

    Well fine. That’s great. Only being a theist isn’t saying you KNOW God exists and being an atheist isn’t saying you KNOW God doesn’t exist now is it? It’s saying you do or do not hold the belief God exists. And whether you think you know he exists or not, you either do or do not believe it with no third option.

    People who use agnosticism as a shorthand for a shoulder shrug and an “I dunno” to avoid identifying with either the theist or atheist camp aren’t taking some kind of well thought out philosophical position, they’re just disingenuously avoiding confrontation. Go ahead and be an agnostic, but you’re still either a theist or an atheist. And saying you can’t figure out which you are is ridiculous since it requires only that you know the content of your own thoughts. If you can’t figure that out you have problems.

  39. #39 david
    May 11, 2011

    I like the post, it’s incisive and has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not so common.

    As to T. H. Huxley, he can speak for himself, and very well. He says what he means by agnostic and in many ways.

    Huxley’s wife sheds some light on what the family thought of the distinctions attempted in this discussion, something like this to a new prospective son- or daughter-in-law, “You are entering into one of the great atheist families. Welcome.”

    Now the probability argument touched on above can be used by both sides in all sorts of ways, victory can be shouted by either or both. Huxley debated John Henry Newman, later Cardinal, sainthood now sought, by competing essays in journals. Newman argued for an illative sense as fully set out in his book ‘Grammar of Assent’. He shifts the players to inner thinkers and the field to language, not math, not measurement. From there he argues a type of probability in favor of Christianity. Huxley expressed some admiration for the skill in argument of Newman, tho Newman proceeded quite differently from Huxley’s “Method and Results.” To my mind, Huxley refrains from the rhetoric of more or less probability and sticks by the facts learned through science, or direct observation. The tactic was to give you the facts, you draw your own conclusions, though maybe you needed a little guidance in the manner of Hume and Berkeley.

    Methinks that most Christian tactics are at bottom probability arguments, strange as that may seem to you.
    Well, enough.

    End

  40. #40 Deepak Shetty
    May 11, 2011

    In my case it is how do you even begin defining what would constitute a proof for God (where God is some creator that somehow exists outside our universe) – How exactly do we go about checking whether there is something outside our universe? How would the universe look like if a being had kicked of the big bang somehow. This essentially then reduces to who cares? If a *God* does exist it doesn’t seem to care about earthly matters or interfere with them which is the apathetic position.

    Which isn’t the same as being agnostic towards a religious god. Its quite possible to be agnostic towards the concept of God and still have a position that particular religious Gods don’t exist.

  41. #41 Grant C
    May 12, 2011

    @david: “Methinks that most Christian tactics are at bottom probability arguments, strange as that may seem to you. ”

    It seems more than strange, it seems impossible. You cannot make meaningful statements of the probabilities of things you claim to be supernatural in nature since the act of claiming they are supernatural is claiming they defy the methods of analysis we use to determine probabilities in the first place.

    Any argument that invokes the supernatural throws any claim to being able to appeal to probability out the window the moment it is made, and there is no way around that. Which is one of many reasons why I dismiss appeals to the supernatural out of hand.

  42. #42 Dan L.
    May 16, 2011

    @Sarah B:

    What _is_ the animus fueling Dawkins’s (and That Guy Montag’s) contempt for agnosticism? As The Age of Doubt makes abundantly clear, the doubt that led large numbers of believers to leave the Church was frequently a stepping-stone to a full embrace of secularism. These aren’t mutually exclusive positions. So why is Dawkins making them such?

    Sorry to say this, but clearly a few of the people posting here have very little sense of the history of these arguments. If they knew even a fraction of them, I’d wager, they’d be a lot more respectful to the people who debated the same positions in the 1870s and 1880s. To echo the advice of an earlier poster, “Read the book” in question. You’ll see this for yourself.

    I think these quotes (from your own posts) go a long way to explaining why so many atheists have so many bad things to say about “agnostics.”

    A lot of it, as other posters have tried to point out, is that it looks a whole lot like the phony false equivalence used all too often in modern journalism. Worse, agnostics seem often to actively look for things to criticize atheists about. Ironically, when atheists criticize agnostics it is most often (at least as far as I can tell) for baselessly criticizing atheists or misrepresenting atheist positions.

    Again, your own arguments serve as a great example. You try to portray Dawkins as some great enemy of agnostics, and in particular grill him for very mildly criticizing a few nineteenth century agnostics. I’m fairly certain that Dawkins is aware of the intellectual debt he owes to Huxley.

    I think you’re too caught up on the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” in the first place, and it’s this obsession with the terminology that’s creating an illusion of conflict. Most of the atheists I talk to online consider themselves “agnostic atheists.” Most of them started off as atheists by becoming skeptics — by learning the value of doubt despite your assertions that atheists are too certain. For many atheists (including Dawkins if I can trust what he’s actually written on this), their self-identification as atheists proceeds directly from doubt rather than dogmatic uncertainty.

    In other words, for the most part, atheists ARE agnostics and in my view, the “tiff” between atheists and agnostics is more about agnostics chiding atheists for a dogmatic certitude that the atheists don’t believe they actually possess. Often, the atheists are really agnostics who’ve gotten bored with the “well, we can’t be certain about ANYTHING!” game and have decided to pay more attention to what we CAN be certain about.

    Finally, there is a certain arrogance to the “agnostic-not-atheist” position. “If only these childish atheists knew about Spencer and Huxley they wouldn’t be so gosh-darned arrogant and dogmatic!” We do know about Spencer and Huxley, that’s why we’re atheists in the first place. And our confidence in our atheism doesn’t come from dogmatic certainty, it comes from that very doubt you’re claiming we don’t know anything about.

    But Huxley declined to “pretend that conclusions are *certain* which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

    Many people who identify as atheists agree entirely with this. The problem is that NO CONCLUSIONS ARE EVER DEMONSTRATED OR DEMONSTRABLE. If we had to qualify every assertion that is not entirely “*certain*” we would spend our lives qualifying.

    Thus, instead of spending hours talking about how there could possibly be such a thing as God even though it sure doesn’t seem like it to me, I prefer to state simply that: “There is no God. If you disagree, make your case.” I call myself an atheist not because I’m certain there is no God but precisely because no case has been made.

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