Remember that scene in A Fish Called Wanda, where Kevin Kline, talking to a British woman who has cornered him in rhetorical combat, says, with maximal sarcasm, “Oh, you British are soooooo superior.”
That’s pretty much how I feel when I read essays written by agnostics. By all means make whatever arguments it amuses you to make for not taking a stand on the God question. But please stop acting like you’re soooooo superior. You’re not the sensible middle ground between two extremes, and you’re not the clear-thinking pluralist calmly sifting the evidence. You’re just a wimp.
The latest case in point is this essay from Gary Gutting in The New York Times. We pick up the action in the fifth paragraph:
A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them. Often this love is understood, at least partly, in terms of a moral code that guides all aspects of a believer’s life. Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular. Among other things, it typically helps believers make sense of the group’s moral code. Religious knowledge offers a metaphysical and/or historical account of supernatural realities that, if true, shows the operation of a benevolent power in the universe. The account is thought to provide a causal explanation of how the religion came to exist and, at the same time, a foundation for its morality and system of understanding.
There are serious moral objections to aspects of some religions. But many believers rightly judge that their religion has great moral value for them, that it gives them access to a rich and fulfilling life of love. What is not justified is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading of this belief, implying that the life of a given religion is the only or the best way toward moral fulfillment for everyone, or that there is no room for criticism of the religion’s moral stances.
But why, exactly, is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading not justified? Let us take evangelical Christianity as an example. It is part of their teaching that the Bible is inerrant and lays out the basic truths of the human spiritual condition. To the extent that it provides the basis for community or helps believers make sense of their world, it does so by uniting them around a series of factual propositions. Exclusivity and infallibility are built into those propositions. You can’t have one without the other.
That’s precisely the problem. Either the metaphysical and historical accounts a religion provides are accurate, in which case they should be exclusive, or they are not accurate, in which case they provide a poor basis for community.
Of course, evangelical Christianity is hardly the only form of religion out there. Regular readers of this blog know that I am a mild fan of cultural religion. (I devote a chapter to that subject in Among the Creationists.) Especially if religion is part of your upbringing, it is likely that some of the tropes and symbols of that religion will retain some meaning for you. That’s nice, but the fact remains that cultural religion is not the sort of thing that provides a rich and fulfilling life of love. If religion is that central to how you see yourself, it is hard to be moderate about the truth of your religion’s teachings.
Gutting’s next paragraph is better:
Critics of a religion — and of religion in general — usually focus on knowledge claims. This is understandable since the claims are often quite extraordinary, of a sort for which we naturally require a great deal of evidence — which is seldom forthcoming. They are not entirely without evidential support. But the evidence for religious claims — metaphysical arguments from plausible but disputable premises, intermittent and often vague experiences of the divine, historical arguments from limited data, even the moral and intellectual fruitfulness of a religious life — typically does not meet ordinary (common-sense or scientific) standards for postulating an explanatory cause. Believers often say that their religious life gives them a special access (the insight of “faith”) to religious knowledge. But believers in very different religions can claim such access, and it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.
That’s more polite than I prefer (I would have said the metaphysical arguments for God are based on very disputable premises, while the historical arguments rest on laughably limited data), but I think that paragraph looks pretty good.
Alas, things go downhill from there:
Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false. Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them. The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.
The comparisons to Santa Claus and whatnot might be overly snide, but the atheists are absolutely right with regard to the basic principle. When one side of an argument claims a certain entity exists, bearing attributes that are utterly contrary to anything with which we have regular experience, the burden of proof lies with that side. Gutting, I suspect, would accept this principle with regard to virtually every other sort of supernatural or paranormal entity. I don’t believe he is agnostic with regard to ghosts and poltergeists. The reason for actively disbelieving in such things, as opposed to remaining agnostic about them, is precisely the lack of evidence for them, coupled with the affront they pose to our best scientific understanding of the world. Those are precisely the reasons for not believing in God. That is an argument. Unless Gutting thinks people who deny the existence of ghosts and poltergeists are just dogmatic and unreasonable, then he does not have much of an argument here.
But the no-arguments view ignores the role of evidence and argument behind the religious beliefs of many informed and intelligent people. (For some powerful contemporary examples, see the essays in “Philosophers Who Believe” and “God and the Philosophers.”) Believers have not made an intellectually compelling case for their claims: they do not show that any rational person should accept them. But believers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, to cite just a few examples, have well-thought-out reasons for their belief that call for serious discussion. Their belief cannot be dismissed as on a par with children’s beliefs in Santa and the Easter Bunny. We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.
Now, I don’t agree that Plantinga, Swinburne and van Inwagen are making well-thought out arguments. I’ve read all three gentlemen, and I think their arguments, while certainly expressed with greater elan than most religious apologists can muster, are not very good at all.
More to the point, serious discussion is all well and good, but the fact is that we’ve already had those discussions. Readers who like that sort of thing (and I happen to be one) can certainly find careful, scholarly refutations of the major arguments made by Gutting’s paragons. Most philosophers are atheists, after all, and I would think that atheists who are not academics could reasonably infer that if these arguments were any good, more philosophers would endorse them. Life is short, and atheists don’t have endlessly have to reinvent the wheel.
For example, recently I read Jordan Howard Sobel’s book Logic and Theism. It’s a large, dense tome, and is definitely one of the most detailed and scholarly attacks on religious arguments ever written. Sobel devotes something like 130 pages to the various ontological arguments, and he kills them all stone dead. Is it really necessary, then, that the average atheist on the street wade through all of this material before feeling confident that the ontological argument does not work? Or can he confidently maintain his atheism knowing that properly trained scholars have done that work for him?
The cases intellectually sophisticated religious believers make are in fact similar to those that intellectually sophisticated thinkers (believers or not) make for their views about controversial political policies, ethical decisions or even speculative scientific theories. Here, as in religion, opposing sides have arguments that they find plausible but the other side rejects. Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can’t merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion. Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative. The no-arguments argument for atheism fails.
But, again, we don’t claim simply that there is no “decisive” evidence for the claims of religion. We claim instead that there is no credible evidence at all for those claims. If we’re talking about God as an abstract intelligent designer, then I don’t know what else atheists can do beyond noting that there is not the slightest reason to believe such an entity exists. If we’re talking about the Christian conception of God specifically, then we add the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness, both of which pose serious challenges to Christian faith. Gutting’s “no-arguments” characterization of atheist thought is just a silly caricature.
His analogy with political arguments is also very weak. Yes, of course, people on opposite sides of a political dispute make arguments that are persuasive to them while not convincing the other side. But I’m willing to bet that Gutting does not think that’s a reason for remaining agnostic on hot political issues. I’m sure he doesn’t say, “Democrats say one thing, Republicans something else, and since neither side has decisive arguments I guess we just have to remain agnostic.” No way! I’m betting he dives right in and says, “My side makes better arguments and the people on the other side are just wrong!” That’s all atheists are doing.
Gutting goes on for several paragraphs, but I think it’s time to wrap this up. The title of this post is meant tongue in cheek, but only slightly. I really don’t think agnosticism has much going for it as a philosophical position, and in practice it often functions as a way for pedants to act superior. Of course, in most cases agnostics are functionally indistinguishable from atheists, and so I feel I have a lot in common with them. The fact remains, though, that at the level of abstract argument I think even theism has more going for it than agnosticism.