Evolving Thoughts

On Learned Ignorance

Nicholas of Cusa wrote a book back in the 15th century called De Docta Ignorantia, often translated as “On learned ignorance”. It has nothing whatsoever to do with this post. Well, it sort of does.

Nicholas, a Cardinal, held that human reason was limited, and could not reach knowledge of things beyond the world. In short, he was an agnostic. Wait, I hear you saying – a Cardinal of the Catholic Church who thought that nothing could be known of God? Well yes, as Cusa held that “knowledge” of God was had solely by faith.

The world, as we are so often reminded, divides into two kinds of people. In this case, it divides into those who do not know about God, and do not care, and those who do know about God, and who do care. I am firmly of the former camp – an apathetic agnostic (don’t know, don’t care), or apatheist, as some like to call it.

The Rest of the World is further divided into those who think they do know about God and do care, and those who think they know there is no God, and do care. Ken Miller is one of the former. Richard Dawkins, and recently PZ Mghlsls and Larry Moran are of the latter. And what the latter think of me and my ilk (it appears to be ilk hunting season) is that we are wimps, irrational, Neville Chamberlain types who seek only to appease the former.

Now I know both PZ and Larry well enough to know they are fine fellows. Both have bought me beer, so I cannot disparage their character. But I ask you, oh neutral reader, is it really useful or important to attack those who agree with nearly everything you say, irrespective of their metaphysical commitments, because you think that certain kinds of religious believers are ignorant and misinformed?

Of course you do not. But some do.

There is a long-standing tradition among atheists – it goes back as far as I can recall (the early Quaternary) – to attack those who reject religion, but do not condemn it, as wishy washy. I can only speculate on why this is. It seems to me a peculiarly American thing (not the nation, but the continent) to divide the discussants into sharp team like that. The British tradition is much looser – you can be an Anglican agnostic, a bit like Cusa, or you can be a hard atheist who respects others’ beliefs. Perhaps it has to do with the all-encompassing nature of religious discourse in America. You really cannot escape religion there, while in more apathetic nations like mine, you have to go looking for it to have a really good debate (and even then you are likely to find it hard to get a good discussion going; in my atheist post-Christian period, I really wanted to have it out with some folk, but they unaccountably weren’t interested).

Why is it that atheists of that ilk (more ilk! Be vewy vewy qwiet; I’m hunting ilk!) want to both attack us of the Mediocracy (fence sitters, wimps, appeasers), and at the same time claim that really, we are in their camp? Do we need camps? If, as PZ suggests, we are choosing teams, then there are going to be a slew of us who are left at the end not being chosen to play, and I hate that.

Fact is, all I’m interested in is getting people to understand science (and the odd bit of philosophy). I do not care if they believe in the divine right of kings, the absence of one or more gods, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster… hmmm, maybe I’ll make an exception in that case, because global warming depends on the number of pirates who worship His Noodliness). I don’t care if they think that evolution is true – truth is for the believers (of both kinds). I only want people to know the facts of the science. If someone tries to enter a university course on biology who doesn’t know the basics of that science, then of course they should not be granted entry. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with their believing in it.

Of course, it may be hard to maintain disbelief in the face of actual data, but that’s a taxon of another clade.

Incidentally, Chamberlain is badly treated by history. It made perfect sense to try to avoid a devastating war with an industrially superior nation. He was not to know what is in hindsight perfectly obvious, that Hitler would not keep his treaty obligations (Stalin found that out as well). This is hardly an analogous case – we know perfectly well what the fundamentalists want, and it has nothing to do with science per se, but with social control. But that simply isn’t true of most religions or religious believers. The loss of secularism in social policy in America is not the agenda of most denominations, although we can expect they won’t cry if they are in the ascendancy. It is not the goal of most religious folk I know. And we can deal with the fundies without needing to draw sharp lines in the sand, and daring people to cross them.
So my unasked-for advice is to chill. If you want, in your heart, to think I am atheist, do so. I don’t think I am. I am a learnedly ignorant person, who moreover thinks the whole debate is rather irrelevant to what really matters: science. That’s all that counts.

So I’m with John Lynch on this. For God’s sake, cool it.

Comments

  1. #1 PZ Myers
    November 24, 2006

    If, as PZ suggests, we are choosing teams

    I’m going to have to start getting cranky about this (you really don’t want to see me when I’m cranky) — I am not choosing teams. I am criticizing Brayton and Hayes for not only choosing teams, but putting together lists of who’s on what team, telling me which team I’m on, and also telling me that my team consists entirely of villains.

    I’m also going to get a bit peeved about being told to cool it. I did not bring any of this up — I woke up this morning, casually read a few of my fave blogs, and see that, out of the blue, a couple are citing Brayton explaining that I and my ilk are uninterested in improving science education and are instead interested in only destroying religion by any means possible—which had me wondering what the heck I’d written in the last few days to trigger that sudden eruption of lunacy.

    And, goddamnit, none of you people are criticizing those gross misrepresentations. You’re glossing over and perpetuating them, instead. Apparently, it is really useful or important to attack those who agree with nearly everything you say, irrespective of their metaphysical commitments, because you think that certain kinds of atheists are ignorant and misinformed.

  2. #2 Jim Harrison
    November 24, 2006

    Although I’m not very interested in attacking religion—what do I care what you believe?—I recognize the political importance of asserting the rights of unbelief in a country like the United States with its powerful tradition of conformism. Babbit is armed and dangerous.

    The people who suggest that it is politic to play nice are ignoring the rules of engagement that obtain between mammals. If you want to be respected, you need to snarl once and a while and maybe bite, too, even though you really aren’t interested in becoming the king of the hill.

  3. #3 Søren Kongstad
    November 24, 2006

    I tire quickly of all these semantic debates.

    Not caring about historical origins my take on the words are simple.

    A theist believes in a deity. An atheist does not.

    Now correct me if I am wrong, but it is not my impression that you believe in any deities Dr Wilkins?

    Do you disagree in my definition of words? What is an atheist if not a person who is not a theist?

    An agnostic does not believe we can know about gods. So you can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.

    Both you, Dr. Wilkins, Dr. Myers and Richard Dawkins are agnostic on the existence of gods. If you read the God delusion Dakwins states this clearly (though not by calling himself agnostic), on his scale he is a 6 out of 7. Like Dawkins says, there are only a very few atheists who think they know that there are no gods. Dawkins himself only thinks it very (extremely) unlikely that there are no gods.

    The only thing you seem to disagree on is, if whether one should use the same standard towards gods as towards fairies in the back yard. Your stance must be that we cannot at any time say that they do not exist, Dawkins would say they didn’t exist , but acknowledge that this simply means that in his view the existence of fairies is extremely unlikely.

    Let me end this on a positive note – Its a healthy sign to have these discussions within the “ranks”. We keep hearing how the creationists have a very narrow area they are allowed to criticize, namely evolution. As an old earther you are not allowed do debate young earthers. Behe is not allowed to call Dembski silly for denying common descent etc. But still they claim it is the evolutionists that cooperate to suppress views. Well just look at all the name calling over silly semantics within the reality based community! This shows that it is not based on conspiracy, and thus heated debate is not dangerous in the long run.

    If the creationists had public heated debates likes these, they would rapidly loose what little cohesion they have and split up in smaller more ineffectual groups.

    Smaller groups of scientists still accept the same scientific method, and splits within scientists are thus not necessarily detrimental to the larger issue of good science!

  4. #4 John Wilkins
    November 24, 2006

    I don’t want to get PZ angry. I wouldn’t like him when he’s angry (he turns green and bulks up something awful). I’ll content myself with repeating this comment from Mike Dunford’s blog I just posted:

    I don’t want appeasement on scientific matters. On that I am firmly with Paul and Larry. I just think that my arguments, when I present them, against religion have nothing whatsoever to do with arguments about science (unless some religious person is claiming things that are scientifically false, and even then, my aim is not to dissuade the benighted their religion is false, but that their grasp of science is).

    Moreover, I do most firmly not think that having antitheists speak about science in the classroom is wrong. So long as in the science classroom, they speak about science, and in the philosophy or religious studies classroom they speak about theism. There is some crossover – one might need to talk about how scriptures are not legitimate sources for scientific data or conclusions. That’s about it.

    What I do declare is that I am not an atheist, I’m an agnostic. I find it annoying when some atheists want to claim me for their own, as annoying as I might find it if a theist tried the same trick. Not Paul or Larry – well, not Paul…

  5. #5 John Pieret
    November 24, 2006

    And what could be more team-choosing than Dawkins’ division of the scientific world into Chamberlains and Churchills? … PZ’s vehement protests of which I seem to have missed.

    I don’t know if one caused the other and, if so, which way ’round it works but the side-choosing is a piece with out political system, which only allows for winners and losers, and rewards stark confrontation over consensus building. We Merkins seem to be color (or even colour) blind and can only see in black and white. Dawkins must have spent too much time on this side of the pond.

  6. #6 caliibre
    November 24, 2006

    Why can Creationists &/or Intelligent Design (ID) advocates solve Sudoku Number Puzzles so quickly?

    THEY JUST PUT A “G” IN ALL THE EMPTY SQUARES.

    It’s just a matter of faith! It’s the same method creationists and now ID specialists resort to in trying to prove their unsustainable “intelligent design theory”. Creationists can just stop searching for reality by just assuming all gaps in current understanding and/or knowledge of evolution must be filled with a (G=god) solution. As Prof Richard Dawkins explains in chapter four of The GOD Delusion; “If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default must fill it.” Saves them having to think and question I suppose.

    Much like the progress one makes by eliminating the possible numbers in each square as a Sudoku puzzle is solved, “gaps shrink as science advances and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.” This of course “worries thoughtful theologians” however the greater worry for scientists (and the rest of us) is that groups through politics or fear will walk away from the “essential part of the scientific enterprise [that is] to admit ignorance.”

    Nothing is more dangerous than a, ‘I have all the answers’ arrogant preacher followed by a bunch of non-thinking ‘god-botherers’ driven by blind faith who absolve themselves from their societal responsibilities with the comfort of unquestioning feeble-minds!

    Although some see Dawkins as a bit of a raver and less scientific in his arguments than he could (should) be, if you read Pascal Boyer’s writings (e.g. “Gods, Spirits and the Mental Instincts that Create Them”), Dawkins’ ‘emotional’ approach to battling the “ID” lobby is also needed. I read recently a quote (can’t remember who’s or where) that goes along the line of: ‘you cannot logic a man out of a point of view that logic didn’t get him to in the first place’. Faith is driven by fear, passion, hardwired avoidance mechanisms and emotion and that is exactly what realists need to stimulate to reverse the current worrying trend by the slick religious nutters to sell their unpalatable and dangerous certainties.

    Its time to organise, its time to fight… I for one don’t want to leave this problem for the next generation to solve alone.

    By the way a good introduction to Boyer (Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis), can be found here:
    http://artsci.wustl.edu/%7Epboyer/LuceWebSite/LucePeople.html and there are a few notes, quotes and summaries on my own blog.

    caliibre

  7. #7 Orac
    November 24, 2006

    Incidentally, Chamberlain is badly treated by history. It made perfect sense to try to avoid a devastating war with an industrially superior nation. He was not to know what is in hindsight perfectly obvious, that Hitler would not keep his treaty obligations (Stalin found that out as well).

    Indeed. In 1938, Britain was in no way ready to take on the Third Reich, although it’s not true that Germany was yet “industrially superior.” Moreover, public opinion in Britain in no way supported going to war with Germany in 1938. Chamberlain’s announcement of “peace in our time” was greeted with enthusiastic applause and praise by his people. Britain (including Neville Chamberlain) remembered the horrors of World War I vividly and wanted to avoid them at almost all costs. Going to war with Germany in 1938 would have been very

    Contrast this to Neville Chamberlain in September 1939. Many were advocating that Britain not keep its treaty obligation to declare war on Germany after Hitler invaded Poland. Burned once, though, Chamberlain took a very hard line this second time and declared war.

  8. #8 Orac
    November 24, 2006

    oops.

    That last sentence in the first paragraph should read, “Going to war with Germany in 1938 would have been very unpopular politically.”

  9. #9 bernarda
    November 24, 2006

    “But I ask you, oh neutral reader, is it really useful or important to attack those who agree with nearly everything you say, irrespective of their metaphysical commitments, because you think that certain kinds of religious believers are ignorant and misinformed?”

    Of course I do. I think that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have explained why very well.

    How much ignorance should be tolerated–at least in the debating sphere?

    As the title of a Dilbert book said, “When did Ignorance become a point of view?”.

  10. #10 coturnix
    November 24, 2006

    I don’t want appeasement on scientific matters. On that I am firmly with Paul and Larry. I just think that my arguments, when I present them, against religion have nothing whatsoever to do with arguments about science

    Unfortunately, you cannot have one without another. We’ll never win the war on evolution if we do not understand that it is a small part of a political war against opponents who are not just interested in winning elections but in destruction of reason, rationality, freedom, equality, democracy and liberalism. One can choose to throw one’s expertise in fighting a specific component of that war, e.g., the creationism war, but pretending that it is not a part of a much bigger war is counterproducitve, and ultinately a losing strategy.

  11. #11 Larry Moran
    November 24, 2006

    John,
    I agree with you about Neville Chamberlain. He gets a bum rap. I’m not sure I would have behaved differently in 1938. Nevertheless, the name has become an easily recognized metaphor for appeasement and that’s how it was used by Dawkins. It would be nice to have a better one, do you know of any?

    There are two different discussions going on and I think you are confusing them. I’ve never accused you of appeasement when it comes to science. As far as I know you are as upset about the distored science preached by Miller and Collins as I am. I’ve never heard you advocate that we should not criticze them on the grounds that at least they’re opposed to creationism. I think you’re very much opposed to that sort of logic, as am I.

    The debate over agnosticism and atheism is a separate issue. It has to do with the meanings of those words. I’m trying to promote what I think is the correct meaning of atheism; namely, the lack of belief in supernatural beings. An athiest is someone who hasn’t become a theist.

    It’s important to me to correct what I think is a widely held misconception about atheists. Most people think that atheists are people who think they have proof that God doesn’t exist. I’m not one of those. I’m an agnostic atheist.

    You prefer the popular definition of atheism–the one that requires you to be philosophically committed to the idea that there is no God in the same sense that Christian fundamentalists are convinced that there is. I understand your position but I beg to differ. I don’t know any of those kind of atheists, do you?

  12. #12 Gary Hurd
    November 24, 2006

    My My My.

    I tend to some other interests for a few days and all Hell breaks lose. Ed Brayton, as usual, is throwing accusations around trying to seem important. One of his more absurd statements is;

    But some, like Larry Moran, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Gary Hurd and others, are involved in an entirely different battle. For them, it’s not enough to protect science education from the attacks of some religious people; religion itself, in any form, is to be attacked and destroyed by any means necessary.

    First, I am flattered to be mentioned together with Moran, Myers and Dawkins, but it is totally inappropriate. I have at best a tiny fraction of the scientific accomplishments of these men, or their public influence. Brayton has never contributed to science or education and has comparatively little influence, so this is clearly a “division by zero” problem.

    Nor have I ever considered it necessary to eliminate religion, regardless of means. I don’t think that science can do this in any event. The only certain path to atheism I know of is to study theology.

    Let me propose a simple analogy; the pro-science education effort is like a dog. There is the wagging tail at one end, and the bark and even teeth at the other. PZ, Dawkins and others are at the front. Pat, Nick and others are the friendly, inclusive wagging tail and Ed Brayton is the little part just below the wag. I’m the little flea whispering that if you don’t want to divide forces, then ignore divisive people like Ed who demand that you have to be on “his” side and don’t step in the mess he leaves on the floor.

  13. #13 Ian H Spedding
    November 25, 2006

    Since the caricature stereotypes of Churchill and Chamberlain have been dragged into this little furball, perhaps it would be instructive to read again the tribute of one to the other, in the words of one of the true masters of the English language:

    It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.
    [...]
    I do not propose to give an appreciation of Neville Chamberlain’s life and character, but there were certain qualities always admired in these Islands which he possessed in an altogether exceptional degree. He had a physical and moral toughness of fibre which enabled him all through his varied career to endure misfortune and disappointment without being unduly discouraged or wearied. He had a precision of mind and an aptitude for business which raised him far above the ordinary levels of our generation. He had a firmness of spirit which was not often elated by success, seldom downcast by failure, and never swayed by panic. when, contrary to all his hopes, beliefs and exertions, the war came upon him, and when, as he himself said, all that he had worked for was shattered, there was no man more resolved to pursue the unsought quarrel to the death. The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before the full victory of a righteous cause was won.

    Winston Churchill November 12, 1940 House of Commons

  14. #14 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 25, 2006

    As has been said so many times before, these little spats generate much more heat than light. Lines have been drawn, barbs have been hurled, egos have been bruised, words have been written and then misunderstood, positions misrepresented and both sides have luxuriated in a sense of righteous indignation at the perfidy of the other. In other words, a great time has been had by all.

    And what is the cause of all this? Surely not epistomological differences since both sides agree that evidence of any sort for any kind of god is notable only by its absence. As for the logical ‘proofs’, both sides give the impression that, while they find some of them clever, they are far from compelling.

    So what are the differences?

    Well, to judge from what has been written here, atheists infer from the above that a god – especially in the sense of the Christian God – is so improbable as to be almost certainly non-existent. While they allow – under pressure – that the existence of such a god can never be disproven, they hold that the residual possibility is so small as to be negligible.

    Agnostics, on the other hand, prefer to emphasise the imperfection of current human knowledge and the fallibility of our means of acquiring more. This does not imply that they are compelled to be philosophical fence-sitters on all questions – they can cope with as many degrees of confidence in our understanding as the next atheist – but they believe that upholding our right to doubt is the best defence against seductive but false certainty.

    The important thing is that both sides appear to agree that only science should be taught in the science curricula of schools and universities. To that end, both sides also appear to agree, high school science teachers need greater support and protection from parents, students and even – sadly – school administrators who are driven by their religious beliefs to try to suppress any mention of evolution. Both sides also seem to agree that it is essential to maintain high standards for entry into university so as to prevent the quality of education provided there from being diluted.

    In fact, as far as I can see, the real differences between the two camps are more questions of rhetoric and propaganda. As I wrote once before, some atheists seem to revel in the notoriety of being viewed as the iron men of unbelief. They teased agnostics about being “wimps” and “wishy-washy” and some agnostics – finally stung into action – rounded on the atheists and accused them of over-simplifying complex issues and pretending to a greater certainty than was justifiable – of posturing rather than postulating.

    On perhaps the one question of substance – whether theistic evolutionists like Miller pose as great a threat to the purity of science as the creationists – surely the key difference is that the theistic evolutionists shape their faith around the science rather than trying to bend or break the science to make it fit childish Bronze Age supersitions. If there ever comes a time when it can be shown that the likes of Miller or Conway Morris have corrupted their science to fit their beliefs then they will have a serious charge to answer. Until then, they should be welcome allies in the fight against The Dark Side.

  15. #15 PZ Myers
    November 25, 2006

    The important thing is that both sides appear to agree that only science should be taught in the science curricula of schools and universities.

    Yes, we are all in agreement on that. I think you are incorrect when you say the differences are rhetoric and propaganda, however. The differences are in our ideas about the public role of the scientist in the wider culture outside the classroom.

    There is an attitude that scientists are these kinds of idiots-savant who ought to stay shackled to the lab bench and not open their mouths in public. There’s also a bit of fear that scientists are full of crazy ideas, amoral, revolutionary, radical ideas, that would disrupt the social conventions if ever they obtained currency in the general population.

    What I see is that some people are willing to let scientists generate the data, but then they are to get out of the way and shut up and let other institutions and individuals transmit them to the public—filtered and cleaned up and made a little less frightening. Some of us are getting a little pissed off at the filtering being done, especially since it’s being done selectively. We’re also exasperated because those transmitting institutions are doing such a lousy job—scientists have been speaking in near unanimity for almost a century on evolution, yet somehow that message gets watered down by the media and politicians and teachers to the point that it’s lost.

    I’m not worried about the purity of science being contaminated by people like Miller. They know what good science is, and they don’t screw it up, and if they did, science is a process that will eventually (we hope) purge the taint. This is a debate about the role of the scientist in the public sphere, and that’s where we’re seeing glop from Miller or Collins being given primacy, because it better fits the dominant cultural weltanschauung…and that gets in the way of our need to change that weltanschauung.

  16. #16 RBH
    November 25, 2006

    I’m starting to get whiffs of utopianism vs. pragmatics in this whole brouhaha. I haven’t thought that through, but it’s a strong whiff.

  17. #17 BC
    November 26, 2006

    The whole commentary of “Chamberlain” isn’t at all useful anyway. It’s not as if every conflict is a re-enactment of World War 2. In fact, I think it is sophistry to make us think that it is. If you’re talking about the strengths of Chamberlain, you’ve probably accepted too much of the erroneous metaphore already. Not every conflict is World War 2, only the people out looking for a fight are going to frame it that way. (As I recall, prior to the invasion of Iraq, as well as afterwards, there were some Republicans talking about Saddam being a kind of Hitler. Gee, perhaps they were trying to convince people of the metaphore in order to legitimize the invasion in the first place? Take a step back and ask yourself whether the metaphore is correct before accepting it.)

  18. #18 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 26, 2006

    PZ Myers wrote:

    Yes, we are all in agreement on that. I think you are incorrect when you say the differences are rhetoric and propaganda, however. The differences are in our ideas about the public role of the scientist in the wider culture outside the classroom.
    There is an attitude that scientists are these kinds of idiots-savant who ought to stay shackled to the lab bench and not open their mouths in public. There’s also a bit of fear that scientists are full of crazy ideas, amoral, revolutionary, radical ideas, that would disrupt the social conventions if ever they obtained currency in the general population.

    I think this is an important point but the whole problem is bedevilled by the perception of both sides that they are the victims of a conspiracy by the other. The fear this has aroused, whether justified or not, drives what is really a political power struggle.

    The scientific/atheist/agnostic/secular camp is relatively small in numbers and the various groups see themselves as oases of rationality that are in continuous danger of being buried under the surrounding cultural desert of ignorance and superstition. Hyperbolic as this might sound, there is some justification for the anxiety to be found in the writings of the more fundamentalist religious sects

    On the other hand, the religious right, notwithstanding the opinion polls which show the American population to be overwhelmingly religious, seem to believe they are under imminent threat of annihilation by the godless. Even more absurd, although the probability of an atheist being elected to public office in the US is usually placed in the snowball-in-hell range, the religious right believe that the godless have their hands on all the levers of power in Washington. But then, of course, believers are accustomed to having faith in something in spite of the absence of – or contradictory – evidence.

    Another aspect of this problem is that while the general public welcome the benefits of applied science – better heath, better food and lots of wonderful gadgets to play with – and are entertained or even awed by what science has revealed about our Universe, they don’t entirely trust scientists.

    I know this is not a new analogy but scientists have become equivalent to a sort of priesthood who are masters of a vast store of arcane knowledge. This knowledge is not hidden but it is only comprehensible to those who have devoted many years to becoming fluent in the obscure jargon and mathematics through which it is expressed – a jargon and mathematics so obscure that, in some cases, work is opaque even to researchers in neighbouring fields. For the uninitiated, this means that scientists are not only smarter than the rest of us but, potentially, much more powerful.

    And that is something to fear, especially when some scientists talk about eradicating religion. This is why a Larry Moran or Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers, eyes glowing like a Goa’uld with atheistic zeal, are perhaps not the best people to alleviate such anxieties, even though their scientific credentials and arguments are impeccable.

    This is what scientists need to overcome if they are to change public perceptions and redirect the whole discourse about science. Better education will certainly help as will more scientists speaking out about what they do. Unfortunately – and how can I put this delicately – not all scientists are going to be persuasive advocates for their field even though they are undoubtedly expert. This is why a Carl Sagan or Jacob Bronowski is so highly-prized, because they can bring science to the masses. They can entertain and inform without being intimidating or patronising and it is a rare gift.

    This is not to say that atheistic scientists should not speak out loudly and persistently about their work and their beliefs. There should be no question of hidden agendas like the ‘Wedge strategy’. Hopefully, the more atheism is discussed openly and shown to be no bar to moral behaviour, the more it will be demystified and the less likely it will be that atheists themselves will be demonised by the ignorant and the superstitious.

  19. #19 llewelly
    November 27, 2006

    … I do not care if they believe in the divine right of kings, the absence of one or more gods, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster…

    I think part of the problem, is that for those of us in the US, the last 6 years have been a series of very harsh lessons that the influence of people who are eager to use their beliefs to justify truly terrifing actions is still great.
    I really do not wish to care what others religious beliefs are – but having watched the unscrupulous use religion to manipulate the unwary into all sorts of actions that not only endanger themselves, but result in the deaths of many, I fear that I can no longer afford to ignore the religious beliefs of others.

    (My concern is different from the atheist / agnostic debate – I might wish that everyone agreed to a single universal definition of these words (I love standardization!) but I’m well aware that it is often unrealistic to take an absolutist stance in these matters.)

  20. #20 SmellyTerror
    November 28, 2006

    Atheism does not mean that anyone “knows” there is no god. Atheism does not require that anyone “attack” religion.

    These two misrepresentations are constantly perpetuated by the common agnostic position. It shouldn’t be a surprise that atheists dislike agnosticism, when agnosticism tries to distance itself from atheism by pointing at differences which DO NOT EXIST.

    Unbelieving agnosticism is only distinct from a straw-man version of atheism.

  21. #21 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 28, 2006

    SmellyTerror wrote:

    Atheism does not mean that anyone “knows” there is no god. Atheism does not require that anyone “attack” religion.
    These two misrepresentations are constantly perpetuated by the common agnostic position. It shouldn’t be a surprise that atheists dislike agnosticism, when agnosticism tries to distance itself from atheism by pointing at differences which DO NOT EXIST.

    If the two positions are essentially the same then why not call yourselves agnostic? It is a more accurate label because it avoids the misleading, if unintentional, connotation of certainty.

    As far as I can see, the only reason for choosing to call yourself atheist over agnostic is one of public image. Atheists are perceived as more dogmatic, confrontational, even belligerent and that appeals to those who are fed up with being despised and attacked by a priggish religious right. Atheists are prepared to stand up and fight for godlessness and Enlightenment values rather than tamely trying to avoid confrontation.

    Prominent atheists like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and our own Myers and Moran are widely-known – or becoming so – and give every appearance of revelling in their notoriety. By comparison, how many agnostics have a similarly high public profile? None, I would suggest.

    The general public and the popular journalists who provide them with their news like stories to be straightforward black-and-white affairs. Confrontation between the religious (good) and the godless (bad) is good copy. Reasonable doubt is not. Atheism panders to that crude simplicity. Agnosticism does not.

  22. #22 SmellyTerror
    November 28, 2006

    Agnosticism is not different to atheism, but it’s not different to belief, either. As John wrote, believers can be – and often are – agnostic.

    If agnosticism means “doubt”, then we’re all agnostic. By its nature, faith requires doubt – so all but the most fanatical believer doubts and is therefore agnostic. And, as is well agreed I think, atheists wouldn’t be atheists if there was good evidence – certainty can never be achieved if your position requires that there is no good proof. Proof may, one day, be given.

    So agnosticism, at least from this point of view, is a meaningless term.

    But it becomes damaging: where it is placed beside atheism it makes a statement about atheism that is false. “I’m not an atheist, I’m agnostic – because I doubt, and because I’m not anti-religion” – hence implying that atheists do not doubt and are anti-religious. Read John’s post – he’s saying just that. By perpetuating this myth of difference between atheism and agnosticism, agnostics are – in effect – attacking atheism, making it seem dogmatic where it is not.

    The unbelieving atheist point of view – the popular one at least – seems to be “Neither of us believe in god, but *I* am not a zealot about it.” How is that fair? How does the implication that atheists are zealots helpful to anyone?

    To use an example I posted once before: “I’m not a miserly, money-grubbing, evil Jew. I shall be henceforth known as a Goodjew.” Do you see how this statement – this whole position – not only creates a false distinction between the speaker and his (former) group, but perpetuates a myth about that group? The growth of a Goodjew movement must surely be a concern to the Jews left behind – even though the two groups are the same, one group is (falsely) claiming a difference that makes the other look bad. Their very existence is an accusation. Should all the Jews rename themselves Goodjews? Or are they right to be a little pissed off at these Goodjews who, instead of fighting against prejudice, have capitulated and – in the process – made life harder for the old-style Jews?

    That’s why I *stopped* calling myself agnostic. Atheism is *not* a faith, and implying that it is is irresponsible.

  23. #23 Anuminous
    November 29, 2006

    Just to add a little more to the debate, I do not consider myself an agnostic. I have no belief in any deity, therefore I am an atheist. If I recall the formal use of agnosticism correctly it comes to a belief that something, especially god(s) are not fully known or knowable. Therefore, it makes no sense to me to say that the being I do not have any belief in is somehow inscrutable.

    My atheism, however, does not demand that *you* not have a belief in a deity. Of course if you try to pass legislation which restricts my rights to make your imaginary friend happy, you will find me fighting you…

  24. #24 beepbeepitsme
    November 30, 2006

    I hadn’t really heard anyone say that they “knew” god, or that they know god, until I started talking to a lot of americans. I kind of assumed that they were not using the word” know” in the same way that I would.

    When I was young, I was led to believe that no one really knew if god existed, you just had to have faith that he did. As I was brought up in the “Church of England”, which is very similar to the Catholic Church, maybe that is why I don’t find the comment of Nicholas of Cusa terribly surprising.

    So, I am continually surprised when believers say they “know god.” It always sounds a bit presumptuous to me. I don’t claim to know god, nor do I claim to believe in a god or gods.

    I went from the notion that no one could honestly know of god, to not believing in the existence of god/gods.

    I guess it all comes down to what constitutes knowledge. Personally, I find it difficult to accept metaphysical claims (subjects which are beyond the physical world) as knowledge.

  25. #25 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 30, 2006

    Agnosticism holds, quite simply, that our belief in anything should be in proportion to the evidence for it. We have no evidence for the existence of any of the many gods in which people have believed throughout recorded history so we have no reason to believe in them.

    On the other hand, we recognise that our knowledge of the Universe is far from complete so there remains the possibility that evidence of a god has yet to be discovered. In other words, as has been said many times before, absence of evidence is not eidence of absence.

    A further agnostic argument is that, for certain values of the term ‘god’, such a being may be unknowable, either because it exists in a domain entirely detached from our Universe or because, being omnipotent, it would be quite capable of concealing any evidence of its existence from us.

    The net result of this is that an agnostic can argue that, given the lack of any evidence for God, we need have no belief in such a being. If that withholding of belief is also a form of atheism then an agnostic is also an atheist.

    Some atheists, however, give the impression that they go further and deny the existence of God rather than just withhold belief. It may not be an absolute denial, they may still allow there is a minute possibility God exists, but it is a much stronger rejection than the agnostic position.

    As has been said before, when it comes right down to it, the difference between agnosticism and atheism lies more in how they are perceived by others than in actual beliefs.

    Whether the more pugnacious atheism of a Dawkins or Myers advances or hinders the cause of reason depends a lot on the particular situation. You have to ask yourself what is your objective and what are the tactics most likely to achieve it. If your objective is to force the case for atheism into the public arena, then the Dawkins approach is probably the best. If your objective is the narrower one of persuading the largely Christian population of a small mid-Western town to keep creationism out of their high school science curriculum, then a less dogmatic, more inclusive approach is probably better.

  26. #26 John Wilkins
    November 30, 2006

    beepbeep (if I may be so informal): you may not be aware of the extensive tradition in theology of the subject of the knowledge of God, particularly in the Catholic and Anglican traditions. You can find it reviewed in this marvellous little book:

    Our Knowledge of God. By John Baillie. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, I939.

    Of course, it goes back into the middle ages and is a major theme of such writers as Anselm and Ockham, as well as Aquinas and Albertus Magnus. When I did theology, some centuries past, one of the main themes of Theology I was just this topic, usually under the rubric of Faith and Reason. That is why Cusa was so revolutionary in that respect, although his position is now rather tame.

    More recently, the existential theologians like Barth, Brunner and Bultmann held to the view that knowledge of the divinity was acquired solely by faith, a theme they picked up also from the Augustinian Luther and his student Melancthon.

    I think this topic has been done to death now, so I would ask commenters not to continue it unless they have something genuinely new to say. I will close with a comment of Einstein’s, which I think sums up my own view well:

    From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist…. I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being.

    He correctly notes that the question whether one is agnostic or atheist depends very much on which standpoint one thinks defines the issue. And I think he correctly identifies the pathology of most, but not all, atheism.

  27. #27 SmellyTerror
    December 1, 2006

    I like Einstein. He’s dreamy. I betchya a hundred bucks he’s kicking god’s ass right now.

  28. #28 truth machine
    December 6, 2006

    And that is something to fear, especially when some scientists talk about eradicating religion. This is why a Larry Moran or Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers, eyes glowing like a Goa’uld with atheistic zeal, are perhaps not the best people to alleviate such anxieties, even though their scientific credentials and arguments are impeccable.

    Why is it that, no matter how many times PZ Myers says that he is not intent on eradicating religion, people tell this same stupid effing lie about him? You’re not an idiot, Ian — stop acting like one.

  29. #29 truth machine
    December 6, 2006

    a comment of Einstein’s, which I think sums up my own view well:

    … I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth

    Yes, your view is summed up by Einstein’s outrageous ad hominem. Thanks for making that so very clear. But here’s a clue for you: I never received any religious indoctrination in my youth, and neither did many other “professional atheists”.

  30. #30 truth machine
    December 6, 2006

    Some atheists, however, give the impression that they go further and deny the existence of God rather than just withhold belief.

    Some agnostics give the impression that they deny the existence of Santa Claus and unicorns, rather than just withhold belief in them.

    Likewise, I deny the existence of an intellectually honest agnostic — that is, the sort that distinguishes agnosticism from atheism the way you and Wilkins do.

  31. #31 truth machine
    December 6, 2006

    Disambiguation: “the sort” refers to “agnostic”, not “intellectually honest agnostic”.

  32. #32 truth machine
    December 6, 2006

    Read John’s post – he’s saying just that. By perpetuating this myth of difference between atheism and agnosticism, agnostics are – in effect – attacking atheism, making it seem dogmatic where it is not.

    Indeed. The fact is that, no matter how hifalutin’ or erudite, no matter how much he references the accumulated works of religious history, Wilkins is being an ass.

  33. #33 John Wilkins
    December 6, 2006

    Coming on to someone’s blog and attacking their honesty is not a wise move. You are free to think I am wrong, or even stupid. But attack my or other commenters’ honesty again and you’ll be banned.

  34. #34 truth machine
    December 6, 2006

    If the two positions are essentially the same then why not call yourselves agnostic? It is a more accurate label because it avoids the misleading, if unintentional, connotation of certainty.

    For the same reason that we don’t say we’re agnostic about the existence of ghosts or souls — that would be misleading.

  35. #35 truth machine
    December 6, 2006

    Banning me for saying that you’re intellectually honest proves my claim — which I am now making on other blogs where you are known, so threatening me was not such a wise move.

  36. #36 John Wilkins
    December 6, 2006

    If I ban you it will be for impolite behaviour. And you implied I was intellectually dishonest.

    And say what you like about me anywhere you like, so long as it is not defamatory. Those who know me will judge me by what I do or say, not what you do.

  37. #37 truth machine
    December 6, 2006

    Ah, so pointing out that you’re intellectually dishonest is “impolite”, and worth banning. What a coward. Ban away.

  38. #38 John Wilkins
    December 6, 2006

    You don’t have to come here, you know. But it’s my party and I’ll ban if I want to. I encourage strong argument. I prohibit name calling and general boorishness. Go away now.

  39. #39 PeteK
    December 8, 2006

    Hear, hear. I say “Define god(s) first…”

    If you define him/her/it in natural/physical terms, god(s) exist in this universe, are are suspectible to scientific analysis (clearly false). If you define god(s) as “above and beyond” this universe, they aren’t suspectible to analysis, or even proper description (i.e. how can a supernatural being be described by “natural” beings?) So which is it?

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