Evolving Thoughts

Atheism and agnosticism… again

Brent Rasmussen, at Unscrewing the Inscrutable, has a nice smackdown of the atheism-intolerance of Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, Professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York, with which I agree totally.

But in the course of it, Brent shows a taxonomy of the so-called “weak” versus “strong” atheism that is so common on the internet, but which is what I dispute. More below the fold…

Here is Brent’s taxonomy in a diagram:

i-0a8b60336123b78667e6de600215d84b-atheist_chart.gif

My problem lies in the primacy of the questions that are asked, to which these axes are potential answers. I agree that concepts form locations in semantic spaces, for which each variable is either a Yes/No answer or one of degrees of commitment, but there is a problem with the way he, and others (I’m not taking Brent to task personally, for this is a widely held view), set up this debate.

Each axis is in effect a question: can we know God or facts about God? (the Gnosis axis), and does god exist? (the Atheist/Theist axis). Here is my concern – can we say anything about God’s existence or not if we deny that the question of God is a knowable one, which is the agnostic position or perspective? I say that we cannot. I have absolutely no idea what a “weak theism” could be – do they believe in God’s existence but think that the question is unanswerable? It’s not enough to say they have faith God exists but think that is not knowledge – they are taking a firm position, and that counts as an epistemic commitment. Instead, I think the issues are better put together like this:

i-ca681a4330ce0c6bf1b6aaef2077c50a-Agnostic.gif

If the axes are simple binary choices, then no theist can be “below” the line of knowledge. If they believe God exists, then they have implicitly or explicitly taken a position on the knowability of God. But more realistically, if we treat the axes as degrees of certainty or likelihood (from -1 for complete rejection to 0 for ambivalence, to 1 for complete acceptance) then anything “below” the line is agnosticism. And if you think that you cannot know what the strue about God (as I do) then neither atheism nor theism are positions you will take.

Deism, or “religion without revelation” is an interesting test of this taxonomy. Deists think there is a God, but apart from knowledge of the physical world, we can know nothing about that God other than He (or They or It) exist. So they are very close to the ambivalence point. But even the simple declaration that there exists something divine is “above” the line (I’m using Brent’s scale here, so “above” is below in my taxonomy).

Why agnostics like myself reject the appellation of “weak atheism” is that we do not take any position on whether God exists or not, because we think it is simply an unanswerable question. And being told, as we are, by atheists who do take a position on the existence of God, that we are atheists is to basically deny our most fundamental commitment – that these questions admit of no reliable, knowable or testable solution. Hence, we get a bit snarky.

Atheists should like this, though, because it makes theism a minority position out of all possible views to hold. And the kind of theism that we all object to, which is contrary to science and decency, is a smaller location in the conceptual space that theism in general.

Happy New Year, agnostics, atheists and theists alike. At least we can all agree on the calendar… or can we?

Comments

  1. #1 sharon
    December 30, 2006

    Why agnostics like myself … do not take any position on whether God exists or not, because we think it is simply an unanswerable question.

    breath of fresh air in a stuffy debate.

    -Deist

  2. #2 Daniel
    December 30, 2006

    To the same quoted section as sharon, one cannot scientifically take any position as to whether demons, fairies or the Flying Spaghetti Monster exist either – while no evidence exists for them, their existence cannot be ruled out entirely.

  3. #3 Roland Deschain
    December 31, 2006

    Well, there is another caveat in this equation.

    Firstly, I agree with John Wilkins partitioning of these rather ambiguous terms (I don’t know how many times I have tried to explain them). By here comes the rub (and another hour of explanation to my dearly confused family members):

    One is agnostic to a abstract notion of God (an ambivalent universal intelligence that pays no attention to our insignificant corner of the universe).

    However, a personal God (the God of all major religions), is by definition knowable. He is directly involved with our human affairs, be it by listening to prayers or calling for mass genocide. The fact that these types of God have left behind their knowledge in book format further cements that. Therefore, by John Wilkins partitioning, one cannot be agnostic to a personal God, as he is by definition knowable.

    So the above fancy partitioning only works when one talks about a abstract God. One one wades into the territory of a God as portrayed in most (Western) religions, one is forced to either believe in him or not.

  4. #4 John Wilkins
    December 31, 2006

    I am not agnostic to a personal God who reveals himself directly to those who ask. In my opinion, that God has been falsified by experience (mine). However, if I were a theist arguing with my non-theist self, I would qualify my claims so include the (unfalsifiable) caveat that one has to have “true faith” or something similar, and now we are back in unanswerable question territory.

    A response to the Popperian notion of falsifiability was the Duhem Quine thesis proposed by Imre Lakatos. According to this, when we find a putative falsification for a claim, we are always free to (rationally) shift the failure to an ancillary claim, such as misbehaviour of the instruments or the researcher. While I think in science this cannot be indefinitely held, it can be in metaphysics, because no evidence is ultimately telling in metaphysics. If a scientific research program consistently fails to make progress empirically, then the science will be abandoned, but a religious metaphysical claim about God can always be further qualified to be protected against falsification. And there is nothing that can tell one way or the other.

    For this reason, I am not agnostic about many things, as I have said before. I do disbelieve in demons and fairies, because the empirical import of their existence leads to counterfactual claims – we know that fairies do not do anything of the kind they are claimed to do. This is not true of a suitably innoculated God concept.

    Since this regress of protection is infinite, I say that the question of God’s existence only looks like a question; it actually has no more sense to it than “Do gronks muffnordle?” Hence, the indecideability. When you get to the realm of infinite qualification, then the issue is not live.

  5. #5 SmellyTerror
    December 31, 2006

    Yeah, but can it be known whether or not god can be known?

    Don’t think so. And I guess that’s my problem with agnosticism. It introduces a whole new argument that actually has no bearing on the existence or non-existence of god, because it adds a consideration that every atheist of deist has to deal with, and then pretends it’s a separate position.

    If no-one can answer on the vertical axis (is god knowable? yes/no) – and I would argue that no-one can – then agnosticism ceases to be a distinction.

    Could the present state of play result from an all-powerful god who doesn’t, at the moment, choose to be “knowable”? And couldn’t that god, tomorrow, choose to be known?

    What possible reason could you have to disregard this? It seems a much greater leap of faith than anything a devout theist can provide.

    “…we know that fairies do not do anything of the kind they are claimed to do. This is not true of a suitably innoculated God concept.” (my italics)

    Show me one (rational) person on earth who would not agree. It’s a statement of the bleeding obvious. It does not represent a distinct position.

  6. #6 Daniel
    December 31, 2006

    I concede that I’ve spent far less time devling into such philosophical topics as yourself, John. But it seems to me that the “suitably innoculated God concept” is only innoculated by the status quo of the society in which we live; it is no more innoculated than the concept of Zeus and the Titans were in Plato’s time.

    But perhaps this is what you’re getting at with your mention of “regression of protection,” which is not a concept whose implications are familiar to me, being a casual stray into strict philosophy of science. In any case, I wasn’t asking for you to qualify against every hypothetical possibility – only that you acknowledge that some superstitions are societal constructs with little basis other than the oddity of human imagination and theory of mind, while others are actually demonstrably real. The notion of a God is clearly in the former category.

    If we’re going to pay heed to societal norms and superstitions, that’s one thing. But if we’re going to pay heed to the philosophy of science (at least as I understand it, having only taken a course on it in college and some other casual reading), then we have to rely on its basic suppositions: that of naturalism, and hence, against supernaturalism.

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    December 31, 2006

    John, I have given my thoughts on your post here. Might as well put my own blog to good use for once. ;)

  8. #8 Todd Sayre
    December 31, 2006

    You are saying that you are a “non-theist”, but not an atheist?

  9. #9 Roman Werpachowski
    December 31, 2006

    Too much importance is being attributed to the question of the existence of God. As it is, we can say that God exists because a lot of people believe that He exists. This forces even those people who believe that God does not exist to react to the fact (eg: if no one believed in God, PZ Myers would write about cephalophods only).

    A much more important question is WHY people believe that God exists.

  10. #10 Larry Moran
    December 31, 2006

    John Wilkins says,

    Why agnostics like myself reject the appellation of “weak atheism” is that we do not take any position on whether God exists or not, because we think it is simply an unanswerable question. And being told, as we are, by atheists who do take a position on the existence of God, that we are atheists is to basically deny our most fundamental commitment – that these questions admit of no reliable, knowable or testable solution. Hence, we get a bit snarky.

    You aren’t being told that you are an atheist simply because you claim to be an agnostic. You are an atheist because you don’t believe in God. You don’t practice any of the religions and you don’t comport your life as if there were a God(s). Therefore, you are a non-believer in practice. So you actually do take a position on whether there is a God or not, in spite of your denials.

    You have already made the personal decision not to believe in God. Philisophically, you maintain that it is impossible to prove a negative but that’s something that every rational being accepts.

    So, if an outside observer were to describe the worldview of John Wilkins, the term “agnostic atheist” would carry a lot more truthful information than just “agnostic.” We are all agnostics–that’s not a useful bit of information. What we need to know is whether you believe in God in spite of your philosophical position that God is unknowable. The answer is “no,” therefore you are not a theist. You are an a-theist.

  11. #11 John Wilkins
    December 31, 2006

    Larry: yes, I made a personal decision to abandon my belief in God some thirty years ago. At first I thought the alternative view was to therefore deny that a God existed – after all, if I didn’t accept that there was a God, the only other view was that there was not. Hence, I must be an atheist. After a while, it dawned on me that this was only true if the binary choice “God exists|God does not exist” were the only alternatives on offer. But if the issue is framed differently, that ceases to be the case. [I will happily accept that I am an agnostic with respect to theism. I am not an agnostic atheist any more than I am an agnostic theist. So treat the term "agnostic" here as an abbreviation for "agnostic WRT theism". That leaves out agnostic about fairies or dark matter...]

    Smelly, Todd, Tyler, Roman and Daniel: of course the framing of the debate as a debate, as a live issue, is socially and historically relative. I do not have to have a position on the existence of, say, wood spirits as believed by Oggists of the late Pliocene, because that is lost to the debate of today. All questions and all debates are set against the state of play in some social and cultural tradition. As I have said before, Socrates was an atheist to the Athenians because he didn’t accept the state gods. To us he’s a theist. Some questions shift meaning over time.

    My general point is indeed, as Tyler says on his blog, that the God-question can’t be answered and therefore is not a question as such (although he seems to miss the point that I think that. It follows from the point that the God-question is not decideable). It’s time to put it to bed as a philosophical issue, I believe, but I am realistic enough to know that it will remain a live issue in our tradition and others for the foreseeable future. It’s enough for me to know (as I think I do) that it is a non-question. What others may think is their problem.

    And finally, the play on classical etymology is no longer useful. Yes, the “a-” prefix means “without”. But “atheist” has broader connotations than derivations from past languages (just as “television” does). It means, so far as I can see from the uses in standard works since Huxley, the denial of God’s existence. That I do not do. Some who call themselves atheists think it doesn’t mean that, and say I should be happy to be called an atheist because they are. I think they are not correct, and that I have usage on my side. I am “without God” in one sense, yes, but I am not an atheist the way the term has traditionally been used. I affirm or deny nothing about this issue. I am agnostic. Moreover, I am apathetic about it: I don’t know and I don’t care. Those who think they have to take a stance on the matter do care, and they do think they know something.

  12. #12 John Wilkins
    December 31, 2006

    Oh, and it’s 1:45am on 1 January here. Happy new year again!

  13. #13 Todd Sayre
    December 31, 2006

    It means, so far as I can see from the uses in standard works since Huxley, the denial of God’s existence. That I do not do.

    None of them?

  14. #14 Carl Sachs
    December 31, 2006

    On the one hand, I think that this taxonomy covers the major bases held by “the public,” i.e. by most people, and that should be good enough.

    On the other hand, there are philosophers and theologians who insist on making things more complicated.

    For example, Kant. Clearly he’s a theist of some kind. But what kind? He doesn’t think that there can be any knowledge (Erkenntnis) that is non-spatio-temporal. So there can be no knowledge of God. But is he then being inconsistent? He is not guilty of internal inconsistency, because (a) he distinguishes between epistemic commitments and practical/moral commitments and (b) he argues that belief in God is a moral commitment, not an epistemic one.

    Granted, there aren’t many Kantians running around these days. And perhaps this point really isn’t germane, because the nuances of philosophical reflection are opaque to most of the rest of us. But I dispute that it need be that way. On the contrary: I think that the reflections and writings of Hume, Kant, James, Dewey, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Tillich are not owned by professional academics. They are owned by all of us, and they can and should be present in this debate.

    (By the way: I’m an apatheist.)

  15. #15 Tyler DiPietro
    December 31, 2006

    John,

    The point of my post is that you call yourself an agnostic when your position is indistinguishable (from what I can tell) from non-cognitivist atheism. Thus I don’t understand why you are so stubborn about calling yourself an atheist. May have been a bit long winded on my blog, but that’s all I was saying.

  16. #16 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 31, 2006

    If the axes are simple binary choices, then no theist can be “below” the line of knowledge. If they believe God exists, then they have implicitly or explicitly taken a position on the knowability of God.

    You lost me right at this point. You seem to be saying that there is no such thing as “blind faith”; i.e. believing without evidence or the possibility of evidence.

  17. #17 speedwell
    December 31, 2006

    SmellyTerror wrote: What possible reason could you have to disregard this?

    There isn’t any evidence for it. That’s why.

  18. #18 Badger3k
    December 31, 2006

    Tyler – as a guess, I’d say that John doesn’t want the baggage that people associate with the term “atheist” – actually I can relate this to a friend who calls himself a “witch” as opposed to a “wiccan”, but he takes the baggage head on rather than avoid it. Maybe I’m wrong, and only John can answer that, but John’s idea that an atheist is only someone who “denies God” is pretty funny, since the entire population of Buddhists, Hindu, Shinto, Taoist, Confuscian, Animists – hell, all the pagans and many others I forget or am unaware of – are atheists. By this line:

    “It means, so far as I can see from the uses in standard works since Huxley, the denial of God’s existence.”

    it seems he accepts the Christian usage of the term to describe anyone who doesn’t believe as they do. Now, since I do not believe in any kind of god, how can I deny what doesn’t exist? Denial of God implies that there is a God to be denied. If I do not believe in Santa Claus, but admit that there can be some somewhere, am I an agnostic? I haven’t read much philosophy, but I reading George Smiths book convinced me that agnostic was not the correct term, since there are those who believe in a god but also say that there is no way of knowing for sure. If that’s not an agnostic theist, I’m not sure what is. His point of separating the aspects of knowledge and belief seems better than conflating the two.

    Of course, this all sounds like the rows in taxonomy between the “splitters” and “lumpers” (to use terms from my college days).

  19. #19 John Pieret
    December 31, 2006

    John, thanks for taking this on again despite the inevitable attempts to dragoon us agnostics into the ranks of atheists. I like this explanation a lot and will be liberally taking … er … making reference to it.

    Dennett has an interesting definition of “atheist” (though he may just have been playing a bit fast and loose with term) in his book Breaking the Spell. He says (p. 245):

    If what you hold sacred [he allows feelings of reverence for nature and Spinoza's god within atheism] is not any kind of Person you could pray to, or to consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved one is senselessly killed), you’re an atheist.

    Now I doubt such a Person exists and have decided that, even if he/she/it does, it would make no difference in the way I’d live my life. But I deny that humans can know whether or not it exists by the only method that gives something like “truth”, i.e. empiricism and, therefore, I think it is reasonable (though not necessarily reasoned) for others to believe in such a Person, pray to it, give it credit and blame.

    Of course, like most things, there is a spectrum of reasonableness and the attempts by atheists to render the question in stark dichotomies is mere rhetoric.

    Happy New Year!

  20. #20 AgnosticOracle
    December 31, 2006

    I’ve followed the debates on this whole Agnostic/Atheist thing for some time mostly as a combatant on the Agnostic side. However I’ve reached what should have been an obvious conclusion. Agnostics and Atheist hold the same views on god. Or perhaps more exactly an atheist and an agnostic are equally likely to agree regarding a statement about god as are either with one of their fellows. The problem is they are using different definitions.

    Agnostics point to TH Huxley who coined the term “agnostic” for their definition (http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE5/Agn.html). Agnostics say they can’t prove there is or isn’t a god so they logically call themselves agnostic. Agnostics say they aren’t atheist because they don’t have faith that there is no god.

    Atheist on the other hand point to etymology or a similar source for their definition. Atheists say they are merely “without god.” Atheists say they aren’t agnostic because the burden of proof is on the theist and that calling themselves agnostic would be giving the theist the benefit of the doubt.

    Now if you examine these positions you will discover they agree on all the relevant points. Both groups believe the likelihood of god existing is so low that it isn’t worth considering. Neither group claims to have faith in the non-existence of god nor claims they can prove the non-existence of god.

    If we would merely ask the other what they believe and look for differences we would find them lacking. Instead we assume that those who use the other label must use our definition of that label, which is patently wrong.

  21. #21 Badger3k
    December 31, 2006

    So why not use both – agnostic atheist?

  22. #22 Badger3k
    December 31, 2006

    Edit – I just realized, I forgot the smiley. It should read:

    “So why not use both – agnostic atheist? ;P” – to get the proper intention of my post. Seriously, these type of discussions strike me as pretty pointless. On the one hand, what you do call yourself does mean something, but at the same time, I find labels to be annoying and rarely accurate in any real sense, as most people are more complex than the simple stereotypes that people think of when they hear a label. Ehhh….

  23. #23 Tyler DiPietro
    December 31, 2006

    Just to provide some definitional clarifications, my usages of the terms is intended as follows:

    Agnosticism: God’s existence is a valid question, but the answer is unknown.

    Non-Cognitivism: God’s existence is a non-question because it has no decidable answer.

    Now, and atheist can be either of these. I take the word “atheist” to be like the word “amoral”. That is, anything that lacks the trait of being “theist” is by default atheist. Whether one considers God’s existence a valid question (and/or proposition), one either believes or disbelieves. Thus one is either a theist or an atheist.

  24. #24 bad Jim
    January 1, 2007

    Merry perihelion to all!

    I’ve always considered myself an agnostic for the reasons Wilkins gives, and also because it was my family’s tradition. However, in much contemporary usage an atheist is anyone who does not believe in a god, which certainly includes agnostics.

    Dawkins and PZ aren’t comprehensive god-deniers, just non-believers. They do argue that there are good reasons to deny the existence of certain familiar conceptions of god.

    “Atheist” is an edgier, more confrontational label than “agnostic”, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Of course it might just mean that agnosticism needs a higher profile and better marketing.

  25. #25 SmellyTerror
    January 1, 2007

    I’m not sure John read my post, because his answer had absolutely nothing to do with what I wrote.

    What I知 saying is that all atheists would – surely? – have to agree that the question cannot be resolved, because they値l never be able to prove the non-existance of god. So all atheists are also agnostic – they don稚 think the question can ever be resolved.

    So you can稚 say 的知 not an athiest, I知 agnostic. All atheists are agnostic. It’s a necessary component of atheism that it can never be resolved.

    In fact, the only way you can be sure that the question cannot be resolved is if you believe god does not exist. If god did, it’s always possible that he could choose to reveal himself. Ask any theist, however “agnostic”, whether he thinks it’s *possible* that god might reveal himself, and surely that person must answer yes. God is not god if he’s incapable of doing so (surely?).

  26. #26 SmellyTerror
    January 1, 2007

    siorry to double post – and to do it in a re-post as well. I should just start a blog and link this sort of thing. Please feel free to delete it if you like…

    …but I wanted to answer all of those who think this is a non-argument, who think the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” are interchangable:

    But it (agnosticism) 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 (http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/2006/11/on_learned_ignorance.php) – 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.

  27. #27 John Pieret
    January 1, 2007

    Dawkins and PZ aren’t comprehensive god-deniers, just non-believers.

    I’m sorry, mere lip service to the inability to prove the nonexistence of god is not enough to take them out of that camp. When have they ever made any distinction between “superstition” (one of their favorite words) and any religious belief? Dawkins dismisses the whole of theology as “fairyology” and other similar slurs. But if you think there is someone more on the god-denier side of the spectrum than they are, I’d be interested in knowing who they are.

    … in much contemporary usage an atheist is anyone who does not believe in a god

    This “contemporary usage” is only coming from the edges of the spectrum of belief, however — hard-core antibelievers on one side and the hard-core “godless materialism is the root of all evil” crowd on the other. They share much in common. In this case, they share a single fallacy of the excluded middle.

    Atheist” is an edgier, more confrontational label than “agnostic”

    Which is a practical difference between the people who are trying to hijack the word and us agnostics. As far as I can tell, all of them are angry at religion. Me, I get angry at people, who sometimes use religion as an excuse to be … well … people. As long as they want to be angry at religion, I want a different word to describe me.

    However, etymology will go where it will. But make no mistake, the attempt to recast the word “atheist” is just Newspeak in action. I know that my position is substantially different than Larry Moran’s and Dawkins’ and PZ’s. If they succeed in changing the word, we agnostics will just have to come up with a new one.

    Letssee … “Brights” is already taken, isn’t it? …

  28. #28 SmellyTerror
    January 1, 2007

    Dawkins dismisses the whole of theology as “fairyology” and other similar slurs.

    Are you saying that agnosticism gives theology a higher status than fairyology? Surely if your position is that a thing is unknowable, and this body of work is describing that thing, isn’t that body of work unsustainable? For fairies just as it is for god.

    What exactly do you believe?

    As far as I can tell, all of them are angry at religion. … As long as they want to be angry at religion, I want a different word to describe me.

    Ah yes, that ol’ straw-man version of atheism…

    You know, John, that whether or not you are angry does not change whether or not you believe in god. Atheism describes a person who does not believe in god. It does not say anything about whether or not that person is angry, or militant, or strident, or evangelical. If that’s what you want to call someone, say it! Don’t use “atheism” in the most bigoted way possible, then discover you need to distance yourself from your own prejudice.

    If the difference between what you believe and atheism is anger at religion, then there is no difference.

  29. #29 John Pieret
    January 1, 2007

    Surely if your position is that a thing is unknowable, and this body of work is describing that thing, isn’t that body of work unsustainable?

    By what standard is it “unsustainable” simply because it is unknowable? Science cannot be logically demonstrated to deliver “truth.” That doesn’t stop us from using it.

    John has already given a good explanation why the question of God’s existence/nature is not the same as the existence/nature of fairies but maybe we shouldn’t let that get in the way of a handy false dichotomy.

    If the difference between what you believe and atheism is anger at religion, then there is no difference.

    There is nothing that does not fit in some private definition. Nor is there anything that can be done to force anyone to read what someone says if they don’t want to. (Hint: check out who “all of them” refers to.)

  30. #30 SmellyTerror
    January 1, 2007

    By what standard is it unsustainable??? You considered the comparsion with fairyology to be a ‘slur’, so clearly you think there’s a problem with the concept. You tell me why it’s unsustainable!

    And, again, does agnosticism grant a special status to religion? On what grounds? What is the difference between fairyology and religion?

    You refer to John’s argument: “I do not have to have a position on the existence of, say, wood spirits as believed by Oggists of the late Pliocene, because that is lost to the debate of today.” But isn’t “not having a position” a pretty good description of agnosticism? So he’s saying he *is* agnostic towards such things, isn’t he?

    Actually, it seems like reasoning for being agnostic towards fairyology, but not to be towards religion. Religion is *not* “lost to the debate of today”.

    (Hint: check out who “all of them” refers to.)

    Wait, are you saying you *weren’t* talking about atheists now?

    Well, let’s see John. You further mentioned “them”: As long as they want to be angry at religion, I want a different word to describe me.

    Oh, whatever could that word be, John? Whatever could be the word that describes “them”?

    No, seriously, tell us. It might be nice for you to stop “hinting”. It makes you look like you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    So far you seem to be backing up my arguments nicely, and I don’t think that’s what you’re intending.

    (Sorry for hijacking the thread. I’ll bugger off until tomorrow).

  31. #31 John Pieret
    January 1, 2007

    It might be nice for you to stop “hinting”.

    Atheist” is an edgier, more confrontational label than “agnostic”

    Which is a practical difference between the people who are trying to hijack the word and us agnostics. As far as I can tell, all of them are angry at religion.

    Do I have to parse it for you too? The humor is obviously beyond you.

    As to the rest, I did not use the term “unsustainable”, which is why I asked you to define it. I don’t know that fairyology is “unsustainable”. I do know that it is not a “live question” and dragging fairies into the discussion of the kind of theology under discussion is just cheap rhetoric on Dawkins’ part.

  32. #32 Jim Harrison
    January 1, 2007

    Defining social groups by formal characteristics such as beliefs has its limitations. I prefer a natural history approach. The atheists on public access T.V. and members of many schools of philosophy disbelieve in God just as marsupial wolves and placental wolves feature big sharp teeth, but the groups have different ancestors and differ in other ways as well, especially under the hood.

    There’s no more an essence of atheism than there is an essence of “parasite.” At best we’re dealing with a guild, not a genus.

  33. #33 Bunjo
    January 1, 2007

    Words like athiest and agnostic have simple definitions(!) in theory (there is no god/I don’t know if god exists or not). Unfortunately the words carry a lot of nuance depending on the context and social group or culture using them.

    I can see no way of nailing the definitions down as language has this way of wriggling about as time passes.
    All I can suggest is that when full understanding is important we try using concrete descriptive phrases rather than single words.

    As an example:

    1) I consider myself to be free of belief in personal god(s) and have no need to challenge believers unless their actions (potentially) affect me.

    2) I consider the existence of a ‘impersonal creator of the universe’ to be probably unknowable.

  34. #34 Tyler DiPietro
    January 1, 2007

    John Pieret,

    By what standard is it “unsustainable” simply because it is unknowable? Science cannot be logically demonstrated to deliver “truth.” That doesn’t stop us from using it.

    We use science because of it’s demonstrated effectiveness in producing useful results. It has almost always been recognized that the conclusions of science are imperfect and provisional in nature. Theology doesn’t even get that far.

    In any case, why does one have to logically “prove” that science delivers “truth”? How can one logically prove that a logical deduction delivers truth? If a methodology is incumbent to recursively prove itself, no methodology ends up being valid.

    The presuppositionalist nature of theism demands one to assume that a god-concept is worth talking about in the first place. I’ve seen no reason to think that it is, perhaps you can provide one if you are convinced, as you seem to be, of it’s validity.

  35. #35 John Pieret
    January 1, 2007

    Tyler -

    I don’t disagree with that assessment of science as the best form of knowledge. However, simply saying that theology is not science is not the same as saying it is disproven, worthless or, at its root, any more illogical than science. You have to work harder at your argument than that.

    Nor is your personal opinion about the worthiness of discussing God’s existence and nature a particularly persuasive argument, no matter how it happens to line up with my own opinion.

    As to the reason to consider it a live question, I’ve given it before: the fact that billions of people, including any number of them personally known to me to be honest, intelligent people, report their personal experience of God. Note that this is not an argumentum ad populorum, since I am not claiming that the number of these reports prove that they are true or that God exists; merely that it is a phenomenon that needs explanation. And, given what I and John have set out above, I don’t see any reason why other people may not chose to approach the question by means other than science.

  36. #36 John Wilkins
    January 2, 2007

    OK, I have broadband access at last. So I can respond to some of these very interesting (and so far uncharacteristically, of this debate, well mannered) comments.

    John’s and my point that the question is “live” here does not presuppose that the question is decideable. My taxonomy is founded on the claim that agnostics think it is not. Atheists, at least those who are perhaps loudest in this debate, such as Dawkins, claim is is decideable, at least to the extent that the weight of evidence can tell against God’s existence. Sure, they are not absolutist about this, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come out with a, as Tyler puts it, “cognitivist” position. All knowledge is fallible and limited (except a God’s knowledge, but that would be a petitio), so the fact that atheists allow that they can’t prove the nonexistence of gods doesn’t imply they don’t have a knowledge claim here. Agnostics as I have defined or described them lack any such knowledge claim. We think that no amount of evidence can make a god’s existence or nonexistence likely, or justify any knowledge claim one way or the other.

    This is not a binary choice. I am afairyist, because fairies as described have properties with empirical consequences, like being photographable by young Victorian gels, which are more parsimoniously explained as frauds. But I suppose fairyists might innoculate their conception of fairies in a way that approaches, say, Odinist deities. At that point, when they are empirically insulated I would say they are gods anyway. So some conceptions of nonnatural agents or entities can be rejected for good epistemic reasons, even if it is always possible to innoculate them from falsification in a general sense.

    Why I think the question is live is for the same reason as John – I know many smart (often smarter than I am, which isn’t hard) individuals who believe in a God. On questioning they have a conception of God that is immune from empirical disconfirmation, and which makes no claims about science that an atheist would object to (other than their view being coherent with a scientific worldview). Why I think the question is irrelevant to knowledge claims is exactly the same point – no evidence counts one way or the other.

    Since the faith of these theists is not based on the sort of crude apologetics one encounters from creationists and the like, but on a choice without any epistemic support, it follows that rejection of that choice – active rejection, not just by default – is likewise not based on epistemic considerations. It’s not a faith” in the sense of a doctrinal choice; but it is an act of faith in the sense of a decision based on no evidence.

    I can sense PZ and others immediately bridling – after all The God Delusion is an attempt to use evidence to dismiss God’s existence. I would argue that it attacks an easy target – the simplistic theism of evangelicals and fundamentalists, Islamists and Hindu exclusivists, etc. But that is not the only target. As a philosopher, I was taught to take the very best target to attack, not the simplistic and crude ones, and give it the most charitable interpretation possible. That Best of All Possible Theisms (TBOAPT) is not dismissible via evidence. In my epistmeic model, if you can’t answer a question about the existence of something on the basis of evidence and reasons, then it is a shell of a question. Hence agnosticism.

    I need to distinguish between atheism and agnosticism because there are distinct philosophical choices and moves made in each case. If anyone is inclined to say of TBOAPT that the evidence weighs against that rather than Jerry Fallwell’s or William Dembski’s simpleminded theism, then they are an atheist. If they say that the evidence weighs in favour of it (even if it is subjective or moral evidence), then they are a theist. Otherwise they are an agnostic, if they have anything to say about it at all.

    Back in the 19thC much was made of The Unknowable (capital letters included). I never fully grasped why. If it’s Unknowable, it’s unknowable. Nothing more needs saying. But everyone seems to want to make claims in favour of what they believe, I guess.

    I believe I’ll go make a coffee now.

  37. #37 Jim Harrison
    January 2, 2007

    Many commenters on these threads recognize that “God” doesn’t mean the same thing for different groups of believers. The thesis of the non-existence of God also means different things to different non-believers and not just in regard to whether they assert that they know there is no god or simply maintain a level of skepticism functionally equivalent to atheism. Atheism has a different role in the economy of the thoughts and practices of different groups. Which is why, come to think of it, the traditional theist counter argument about the crimes of various atheists such as Lenin or Stalin seem somewhat misplaced. Communists and rationalist atheists indeed share a disbelief in God, but the disbelief is analogous not homologous. Indeed, since Communism is, cladistically speaking, a form of Christianity in much the same way that that pelicans are a variety of dinosaurs, the atheism of Marxists tends to be a kind of transformed religious faith with very specific, traceable ties to traditional theology via Feuerbach, Hegel, the German mystics, and others. (Key shared primitive character: an obsession with mediation.)

    If “God” were a credible hypothesis in any serious contemporary epistemologial inquiry, where the various notions of his existence or non existence come from would be irrelevant. However, since “God” cannot even be represented in the terminology of empirical science or mathematics and contemporary philosophical versions of the concept are so vague and inconsequential as to be negligible, it makes sense to focus on the sociology of the believers and nonbelievers since that at least has real political and human importance. (Obviously loads of people–atheists as well as theists– don’t share my dismissive attitude about the importance of the question of the existence or nonexistence of God. Peace be with you. Don’t pay me any mind.)

  38. #38 Tyler DiPietro
    January 2, 2007

    John Pieret,

    I would agree that simply stating that theology is “not science” is not enough of an argument. It is certainly not one that I have made, though some have interpreted various statements of mine in such a fashion. What I critique about theology is actually two-fold: 1.) I argue that it’s presuppositionalist nature prevents objective analysis of it’s claims and 2.) that many of it’s claims defy knowledge gained in objectively transparent pursuits like science (as Christians argue about whether evolution tosses out Biblical creation, no one seems to feel it imperative to tackle whether or not basic physiology and developmental biology toss out the virgin birth).

    John Wilkins,

    TBOAPT is a neat abstraction. I have had thoughts floating in my head for a while now about such an idea. It seems such a concept manifests in two distinct forms:

    1.) The lowest common denominator theism: the most basic deism, that there is a super-intelligence that had some hand in creating the universe.

    2.) The completely unfalsifiable theism: usually an ad hoc rationalization of some sort, Ken Miller’s arguments in Finding Darwin’s God fall into this category.

    The problem I see with such claims is that, while they are internally logically sound, they seem to feel free to discard basic epistemological rules universally adhered to elsewhere. While distinctions between science and theology are neither here nor there at this point (at least in this thread) I still don’t see why theologians get to formulate claims that, with a simple change of the respective discipline’s terminology, would be recognized as sloppy and intellectually irresponsible.

  39. #39 Tyler DiPietro
    January 2, 2007

    The problem I see with such claims is that, while they are internally logically sound, they seem to feel free to discard basic epistemological rules universally adhered to elsewhere.

    This might be a bit vague, so allow to provide a preemptive clarification: By “internally logically sound” I mean “not inherently contradictory”. Such language is intentionally meant to gloss over the details discussed in my posts on non-cognitivism.

  40. #40 John Wilkins
    January 2, 2007

    Jim, I meant to say, I also agree with the cladistic view of conceptual development, and agree too that this determines the content of the knowledge claims made by various traditions. Marxism and other communisms have inherited the context and contrasts of Christian and philosophical theisms, which in turn defines what they deny or affirm about this.

    A thought: those who, like myself and Ron Numbers (see the post two after this one), have come out of religious belief often want to retain a legitimacy for those we left back in our faith communities, and will tend to be agnostics rather than atheists (unless they had a really bad experience in those communities). Others, who are raised atheist or who did or do have a bad time, tend to denigrate or deprecate the rationality of that which they are in reaction to.

  41. #41 John Pieret
    January 2, 2007

    Tyler -

    In your blog entry and your last post you said (if I may synthesize them somewhat) that

    The presuppositionalist nature of religion prevents objective analysis of it’s claims. This renders it unworthy of consideration as a factual claim. Furthermore, many of it’s claims defy knowledge gained in objectively transparent pursuits like science.

    You use the very apt analogy to the claim that “Mozart made beautiful music.”

    All of which raises the question, “what standard are you using?” While you agree that simply stating that theology is not science is not sufficient to disqualify religion as a serious topic, what are your complaints above but that religion is not subject to the objective process of science? John and I agree that it is not (at least in the case of TBOAPT). What we don’t agree is that it has to be subject to scientific rigor in order to be a live question.

    And, by the way, did Mozart make beautiful music?

  42. #42 John Wilkins
    January 2, 2007

    And, by the way, did Mozart make beautiful music?

    Of course he did. The Dies Irae movement of the Requiem is sublime.

  43. #43 John Pieret
    January 2, 2007

    A thought: those who, like myself and Ron Numbers (see the post two after this one), have come out of religious belief often want to retain a legitimacy for those we left back in our faith communities, and will tend to be agnostics rather than atheists (unless they had a really bad experience in those communities).

    I agree with this. At least it is true that my experience of religion was hardly oppressive (despite the Jesuits and all) and, in the liberal American Catholic Church of the 1960s, there was no truck with irrationality. Besides, as my wife keeps telling me: “You can take the boy out of the Church, but you can’t take the Church out of the boy.”

  44. #44 PZ Myers
    January 2, 2007

    I resent this attempt to dragoon me into the ranks of agnostics merely because you can invent a concept of god that is untestable and inaccessible and pretty much irrelevant to how the world works.

  45. #45 PZ Myers
    January 2, 2007

    Others, who are raised atheist or who did or do have a bad time, tend to denigrate or deprecate the rationality of that which they are in reaction to.

    I don’t fit.

    I was raised as a Lutheran. I did not have a bad experience with it, and in fact actually liked the people I went to church and sunday school with. The doctrines were not oppressive. I was a choir boy, I was an acolyte, and I went through a year and a half of confirmation classes…and it was actually those classes that confirmed to me that religion was all a heap of superstitious twaddle. I left with no regrets and no problems and no bad feelings towards any of the people in the church.

    I still think religion is a load of irrational crap.

    I think the Johns here are just making the standard “atheists are all angry and hate religion for emotional reasons” fallacy. I think it’s more accurate to say that agnostics are atheists who haven’t managed to purge themselves of irrational sentiment for old myths.

  46. #46 John Pieret
    January 2, 2007

    I resent this attempt to dragoon me into the ranks of agnostics …

    Whatever makes you think we’d want you?
    ;-)

  47. #47 John Pieret
    January 2, 2007

    I think the Johns here are just making the standard “atheists are all angry and hate religion for emotional reasons” fallacy.

    I’m not and the other John is usually more reasonable than me. Still, there is no denying that more than a few of the people who, for example, post at your blog, are angry at religion and some openly complain about how they feel they were abused by it and/or the parents who forced them into it.

    I think it’s more accurate to say that agnostics are atheists who haven’t managed to purge themselves of irrational sentiment for old myths.

    I’m sorry. What led you to think we were describing anything other than an emotional influence? Not everyone tries to pretend that they are 100% rational.

  48. #48 PZ Myers
    January 2, 2007

    Yes, you can find a number of people who are angry at religion (and who can blame them? A lifetime of lies is an awful thing), but it doesn’t support the generalization that was made about atheists. It’s not just me, but I think if you talk to Larry Moran or Richard Dawkins, two other examples of godless militancy, I think you’ll find that they aren’t particularly scarred by childhood exposure to religion either.

    I’m not putting up a pretense of rationality, either. I’m still always amazed that people can look at those appalling conglomerations of weirdness called Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and not break out in laughter.

  49. #49 John Pieret
    January 2, 2007

    Yes, you can find a number of people who are angry at religion …

    Which was the “generalization” that was being made (as in “often” and “tends” instead of “always” or “is caused”) and the speculation was about why that is. Maybe the speculation is off base but your reaction is revealing in and of itself.

  50. #50 John Wilkins
    January 2, 2007

    And besides, I wasn’t necessarily saying that you had to be raised that way to be an angry atheist – it is enough to have lived through the intolerance of a dominant religious consensus. Until fairly recently, Australians had no experience of this the way, say, a Midwest American has. So if we generate angry atheists, it is almost certain they were raised in some strict and intolerant religious tradition. Paul is in what, from a world perspective, is a rather unusual case in “Christendom” these days.

    And it was just a speculation…

  51. #51 Jim Harrison
    January 2, 2007

    For the record, it’s perfectly possible to like God without believing in Him, just as lots of folks are fond of various other fictional characters悠 have long had the hots for Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, for example, though hooking up with an imaginary woman would certainly count as a mixed marriage. I’m also rather fond of at least some of the divine figures that went into the composite supreme deity of the Jews and Christians. Thus J’s Yahweh is an engaging, if alarming, personality; and I like El, the prototypical Ancient of Days, who I think of as a sort of Semitic Uncle Remus, though he looks pretty take-charge as he touches Adam in the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

  52. #52 PZ Myers
    January 2, 2007

    “Often”? “Tends”? This has not been demonstrated in any way. I made a counterpoint: that a few people you tend to bring up as examples of those angry intolerant militant evangelical atheists don’t seem to fit the generalization at all. Is it that the generalization is remarkably weak, or is that that my examples of angry atheists are poor ones who aren’t really that angry after all?

  53. #53 John Pieret
    January 2, 2007

    … a few people you tend to bring up as examples of those angry intolerant militant evangelical atheists …

    Meaning you, Larry Moran and Richard Dawkins?

    When did I do that? Or John?

    Again, your reaction is telling.

  54. #54 PZ Myers
    January 2, 2007

    You’ve got no data and you’re going to ignore the counterexamples; it’s your stereotype and you’re sticking by it no matter what, I guess.

    I’m not sure what you think my reaction is telling you. I hope it’s not that the leprechauns are getting ready to invade the moon, but it’s beginning to sound that way. It should tell you that someone who knows a lot of atheists found the generalization baffling and a poor fit to his experience.

  55. #55 John Wilkins
    January 2, 2007

    Paul! Deep breath! Count to ten…

    All I did was throw out a speculation as to the motivations of those who take one of the two positions that are clearly in play in these posts and responses. I’m not even critical of those who think that religion is a totally malign influence on society – it’s a very valid position given recent history. I think it is wrong, but hey, that’s why we have blogs to debate these issues.

    In making that speculation, I wasn’t suggesting that all and only those who have a rough experience of religion are “angry atheists” (is that like the Angry Flower?). Obviously there will be many people who are angry just on principle, and many who are the victims of religious intolerance and abuse who are more forgiving. That strikes me as a matter of individual psychology rather than essential properties of atheism. But even if there are many who have had good experiences of religion and yet think the harsher form of atheism is right, the “falsification” of the generalisation is goign to need a much broader and more strictly controlled data set than the anecdotes of you or me.

    I made the generalisation because it matches my experience, which is why it is speculation, and because I live in a society that is broadly apathetic about religion, at least for the last few decades, and so the instances are less likely to be swamped by the all-encompassing religiosity of a culture like yours. But it’s a rough generalisation, as all these things are. No need to go on the defensive, as I’m not making an ad hominem argument about your view here, just wondering out loud if perhaps there’s a causal correlation. I don’t even have a p value…

  56. #56 PZ Myers
    January 2, 2007

    And I am not assuming you’re making an ad hominem argument — all I’m saying is that in my experience, the correlation doesn’t hold up. I wasn’t insulted or offended, nor was I planning to call you out to a duel at dawn.

    Man, I must have some scary reputation. I disagree with something, I toss out a few counterexamples, and you guys are reacting as if I were turning green and hulking up on you.

  57. #57 John Wilkins
    January 2, 2007

    Well, you do it once, and we all have reason to be scared.

  58. #58 Tyler DiPietro
    January 3, 2007

    In the midst of other things, this thread seems to have taken off in another direction without me. But I’ll continue anyway.

    What we don’t agree is that it has to be subject to scientific rigor in order to be a live question.

    Well, not a priori. But inquiry as we understand it always starts with questions and, given a certain methodology, reaches conclusions. I would think that theology should have a coherent explanation of what it is studying, how it reaches conclusions, etc., before it is respected as a discipline.

    As for being a “live question”, I would say that such an issue stems from my problems with theology. Properly speaking I am non-cognitivist because I have yet to understand, in most cases, what the hell the theologians are talking about when they say “God”.

    And, by the way, did Mozart make beautiful music?

    I used that as an example of how a sentence can have the syntactic structure of a factual statement when it yields no factual solution (sort of like “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”). I think that the thought is better communicated as “I find the music Mozart made beautiful.” Which is a factual statement of one’s subjective experience.

  59. #59 John Wilkins
    January 3, 2007

    A book I have often cited here and elsewhere is

    Garfinkel, Alan (1981), Forms of explanation: rethinking the questions in social theory. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

    Garfinkel talks about “explanatory relativity” in which an explanation is an answer to a question in science. The question sets up the “contrast space” of alternative possible answers. I generalised this, once (in my first ever paper) to “semantic spaces” in which each question invites the selection of a coordinate in the space (and on Garfinkelian lines, the question restricts the range of coordinates allowable for the answer).

    In science, allowable answers require evidence that might be found in their favour – they are empirically decideable. Other fields (such as engineering) also have empirical input to decide questions, but theology uses a quite different set of criteria (the Greek from which “criterion” is taken is “krisis”, or judgement. Unsurprisingly, so is “crisis”).

    Externally, what those criteria are look sociological – what suits the political purposes of intra- and inter-denominational interests. But internally, I can report from experience, the criteria include “holy inspiration”, consistency with some interpretation of the holy writings (an interesting treatise could be written, and probably has been, on the role of holy writings to maintain the cohesion of religious traditions), and so on. These are not tests to a scientifically-minded thinker, but they certainly carry enormous weight to a believer.

    If we are not to commit a petitio, we cannot say straight off that this is not rational of them. They would all agree that fundamental commitments are not rational, I think, but they would say they are being rational thereafter. If you disagree, then you are in the position of one dogma attacking another, from their own perspective.

    I do think that the scientific manner of deciding questions is the only workable one so far encountered, but if you think the question is a live one, there’s no non-question-begging way to deny theirs is workable for them. For that reason, I think that the theism question is live, but not a real question, as there’s no external way to decide one way or the other.

  60. #60 Tyler DiPietro
    January 3, 2007

    John Wilkins,

    From what I can glean from your description of the books thesis, it seems that theology is much like an “if X, then Y” endeavor. That is, assuming the core beliefs are true, what follows? One can no doubt forge live questions in such a fashion, but it doesn’t eliminate the presuppositionalist nature of the questions being asked.

    Math and science are, to lesser extents, presuppositionalist (science assumes parsimony and continuity as a matter of organizing principle, for instance). But I don’t think that should prevent us from analyzing the validity of theological questions in a scientific context, providing it makes similar claims (and most of the time, it does). Theology and science can be looked at in a similar way to alchemy and chemistry.

  61. #61 John Pieret
    January 3, 2007

    I don’t think that should prevent us from analyzing the validity of theological questions in a scientific context, providing it makes similar claims (and most of the time, it does).

    John spent a lot of time explaining the type of theology we are talking about. If you catch a theologian in an empirical statement, you can use science against him/her. If s/he doesn’t, you can’t. And if they mix the two, science only tells against the empiric claims, not against the others (and vice versa — Ken Miller’s science has to be judged only by its empiric content).

    If you want to make the claim that there is no such animal as the type of theologian John and I are talking about, then you have an empiric claim of your own to support … I’ll just point you in the direction of the nearest Jesuit.

  62. #62 SmellyTerror
    January 3, 2007

    We think that no amount of evidence can make a god’s existence or nonexistence likely, or justify any knowledge claim one way or the other.

    This is not a binary choice. I am afairyist, because fairies as described have properties with empirical consequences, like being photographable by young Victorian gels, which are more parsimoniously explained as frauds. But I suppose fairyists might innoculate their conception of fairies in a way that approaches, say, Odinist deities. At that point, when they are empirically insulated I would say they are gods anyway. So some conceptions of nonnatural agents or entities can be rejected for good epistemic reasons, even if it is always possible to innoculate them from falsification in a general sense.

    See, there’s the problem I have with the position. A “suitably innoculated” ***anything*** is a non-issue. So if the agnostic position is simply “we can’t make a decision about a suitably innoculated god” – well duh! Again, show me one rational person on earth who would disagree.

    The question, then, is what makes you so sure that god is “suitably innoculated”? Why, out of all the possible manifestations of god that could match the observable world (eg. a god who, at this time, chooses not to intervene in the world), are you so sure the only possible god is one who cannot be known?

    A theist must, surely, agree that some version of god, however unprovable at this time, could at any moment make you believe in him, if he so chose. God, as a being with some properties beyond that of humans, could possibly reach right into your brain and activate belief. If humans can do it with some success through indoctrination, chemicals or brain damage, it’s reasonable to assume that god, if he/she/it/they existed, could *potentially* do it to you.

    How do you eliminate this possibility? You can’t.

    If the nature of god cannot be known, then you cannot know that the nature of god cannot be known, because whether or not it can be known is part of the nature of god.

    A theist-agnostic must accept that god could, some day, be known, that the question could be settled if god so chose. So the only way you can be (provisionally) sure that god cannot possibly be known, and that the question will never be settled, is if you’re actually an atheist.

    …or are you claiming the same certainty over the unknowable that is, apparently, a defining characteristic of atheists?

  63. #63 John Pieret
    January 3, 2007

    So if the agnostic position is simply “we can’t make a decision about a suitably innoculated god” – well duh! Again, show me one rational person on earth who would disagree.

    http://dododreams.blogspot.com/2006/11/agnostic-about-atheism.html

    The concept of Jesus being God is “suitably innoculated” because he is supposed to be fully human and fully divine. Any evidence that might indicate he was human is already answered. Of course, there is no empiric evidence that can truly bear on the claim (and only that claim, for these purposes) that Jesus is supernatural. At least there is none at the present time and no reasonable prospect of any in the immediate future.

    If God reached into your brain and (without empiric effect. i.e. without change in your brain chemistry or structure, etc.) made you believe, you’d merely be another believer, not a possessor of knowledge because neither you nor anyone else could distinguish it from naked belief. If God used means to do it that had empiric effect, there would be no way to know that God did it, instead of it just being a natural condition. This is just the structural limitation of human knowledge, which we can know. Could we overcome that? Ask John to explain the Divinoscope but I’ll give you this preview:

    The Divinoscope (get the proprietary name right please – it’s a trademark) would tell you that a *particular* God falls into a class of “natural” (that is to say, “knowable in terms of their natures”) gods. The SCoT God might now be “natural” in this sense (this is to say, *epistemically* natural, or as the convention in t.o has it, methodologically natural). Gods whose attributes are neither observable nor predictable would remain subject to the Agnostic Provision.
    http://groups.google.com/group/talk.origins/msg/9aee9461414a0fd2?hl=en&

    We can reasonably know presently the capability of humans to know and, therefore, we can know what it is that we cannot know, at least for as long as we remain human.

  64. #64 DavidD
    January 4, 2007

    I don’t think my fundamental belief on this subject fits these diagrams. I believe God is whoever and whatever God is, not what anyone else says He is. Now maybe atheists are right in saying that my experience of God comes from a better part of me (the kindest ones say that). That would be a part of me that dies with me and has no influence except on my own consciousness, which dies with me, too. That is a very different God than I believe from my experience, which is that of an influence beyond me, bringing me direction, strength, and comfort in ways that are not in me.

    I’m sure that makes me a theist for the God I experience, but then I’m also an atheist for the God of the Bible. I don’t see any way to make sense of a loving and good God who doesn’t micromanage everything better than this, if He can, as the Bible says He can. Of course if I’m wrong about that, I return to my fundamental belief above. God tells me He understands that perfectly.

    So should there be a different diagram for every definition of God? Is there a better way, such as looking at possibilities for God, rather than everyone pretending to know the unknowable? John Wilkins wrote in a comment that he is atheistic to a personal God who reveals Himself directly to those who ask, my God in other words. That ignores the possibilities that God doesn’t answer everyone or John missed the answer. I suppose it’s human nature to cut out all possibilities and say something is black or white, or even some precise measure of gray, even in terms of whether God is knowable, but isn’t science and reason supposed to get us past such a nature?

  65. #65 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    If you want to make the claim that there is no such animal as the type of theologian John and I are talking about, then you have an empiric claim of your own to support … I’ll just point you in the direction of the nearest Jesuit.

    If a theologian makes a non-empiric claim, that is fine (as I’ve said). But this is the assumption of TBOAPT. Other theisms, those which are integral to modern religions, do make empirical claims. God who answer prayers; saviors who live, die, are reborn, and born of virgins; prophets who fly up to heaven on winged horses; the list goes on. That tosses out most religion, leaving behind the aforementioned LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) Theism and CUF (Completely UnFalsifiable) Theism. If theology would simply be reduced to ad hoc, non-confirmation sensitive nonsense, I may in fact be content. But I don’t see this happening anytime soon. Religion is simply not as rarefied as you seem to assume.

  66. #66 John Pieret
    January 4, 2007

    … modern religions, do make empirical claims. God who answer prayers; saviors who live, die, are reborn, and born of virgins; prophets who fly up to heaven on winged horses; the list goes on.

    First, let’s get the claims straight. What do you mean by “answering” prayers?

    That is not just a smart-mouthed reply. “Answering” a request of any sort can include “no”. It can also include a response such as: “I won’t give you that but, here, this will be better for you”. Most theologies that hold that prayers are answered say that the answers are of such a nature that there is no empiric standard to tell whether they have or have not been “answered”. Even the crude Word-Faith theology, that basically holds that you can “command” God to give you riches, requires that the requestor have sufficient “faith” of the right sort. So the failure to get what you pray for is the result of your faulty faith. What is the empiric standard for “sufficient” faith of the “correct” type? This goes for all the things you mention once you consider what the claims really are.

    How do you test whether someone in the past was supposedly divine, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven (and, therefore, left no evidence behind)? Simply pointing out that nobody that we have ever observed die has been observed to get up again doesn’t logically go to the claim.

    An infinite, omnipotent god could conceivably make some person be born of a virgin and all the examples of people who weren’t born of virgins wouldn’t go to show that God couldn’t do it. How do you empirically test past miracles?

    If you think those are empiric claims, then you can give me a research proposal to scientifically investigate them. I’ll wait.

  67. #67 PZ Myers
    January 4, 2007

    Fine bit of sophistry there, John.

  68. #68 John Wilkins
    January 4, 2007

    Sophistry? I don’t think it is. There are theologians who take the line John mentions – there has to be if some theologians are trying to deal with the scientific worldview intelligently. And the core of their views is that miraculous claims are not empirically investigable (whatever one might think of that).

    It’s very easy to think that because theologians claim things that are simply unsensible to us nontheists, they are false ipso facto, but that doesn’t follow without a certain amount of circularity. The initial question is whether theologians can have a coherent framework which includes both empirical reasoning and innoculated theology. I think they can, although I think that individually they may have a large amount of internal tension with it.

    On Tyler’s point about the rarefaction of theology, he is in part right. The LCD kind of God is pretty antithetical to empirical reasoning (which does not make it false except if the believer also wants to hold to empirical reasoning elsewhere, like the Disco dancers do). But the extant traditions of theology also include TBOAPT theologies, so we have to be careful to disambiguate our targets (in a way Dawkins does not). Hitting the easy mark doesn’t mean you also hit the hard one.

  69. #69 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    John Pieret,

    If you think those are empiric claims, then you can give me a research proposal to scientifically investigate them. I’ll wait.

    But the problem is not that they non-empiric in the cases you mention, is that they are empiric (in that they make claims about the observable world) but are non-reducible because they are not sensitive to empiric confirmation. Thus we have a case of something that is deliberately formulated to escape the requirements of parsimony and continuity that we use elsewhere, and only get to do so because they are labeled “religion” or “theological claims”.

    John says that this contains a certain amount of circularity, which I will agree with. But it is circular in the same way that Newtons Second Law of Motion is (force is equal to mass times acceleration, but acceleration is defined as the change in an objects motion in response to force). I don’t think that science is necessarily dependent on some sort of recursive proof of itself (as I’ve said before). We can know with a reasonable certainty in both cases, via inductive inference (Solomonoff-style, .pdf), that our observations are reliable.

    Thus I think that the question comes down the same distinction we have between Alchemy and Chemistry, or Astronomy and Astrology. That is, which of the competing methodologies for understanding empiric claims is more reliable.

  70. #70 John Pieret
    January 4, 2007

    First of all, I have agreed all along that science/empiricism is the best method of “knowing” that humans have. But it, itself, cannot show that it is the only way we have of knowing. If all you want to do is say that empiricism is the best bet among the methods we have, I’ll agree … as long as it is a subject that empiricism can address.

    Here I think your distinction between claims that are not about the “observable” world (what is observable about God answering prayers I can’t imagine, but never mind) and those that are not sensitive to empiric confirmation is one without a difference. If it is beyond resolution by empiricism, then any and all opinions about the truth of the claim are on the same footing, whether you call it an “unobservable” or an “unresolvable” claim.

    As to alchemy and astrology, as they were originally practiced both make empiric claims (about the nature of matter and the behavior of people) that could be empirically tested (though the modern newspaper “astrologers” inoculate their predictions by making them vague platitudes). Those diciplines lost out precisely because they made the kind of empiric claims that religions mostly avoid.

  71. #71 John Pieret
    January 4, 2007

    Fine bit of sophistry there, John.

    Does that mean I don’t have to be an atheist anymore?
    ;-)

  72. #72 PZ Myers
    January 5, 2007

    Does that mean I don’t have to be an atheist anymore?

    What makes you think you deserve to be in our club?

    The initial question is whether theologians can have a coherent framework which includes both empirical reasoning and innoculated theology.

    I agree that they can. Theologians and some creationists and even some philosophers can be very smart, well educated people who are experts in building intricate structures of logic—they have to be, in many cases, because often what they are building on is so ragingly absurd that it takes a genius to rationalize it. When someone like Dawkins takes out their foundation, though, we still have lots of people awed at the rhetoric who will continue to make excuses for it.

    Those diciplines lost out precisely because they made the kind of empiric claims that religions mostly avoid.

    Utter nonsense.

    Some of the fastest growing religions right now are things like prosperity Christianity, which tie their faith to promises of wealth in life right now, and Mormonism, which makes ridiculous and already falsified claims about New World history. The religious can make any silly claim they want, and invent a rationale for it later, and there will be a bunch of scholarly theological types standing around, nodding their heads and validating it for its internal structure and its references to dead priests. That’s the way it works.

  73. #73 John Pieret
    January 5, 2007

    What makes you think you deserve to be in our club?

    Excellent! This whole thing started in the first place because us agnostics resented being counted as members of your club.

    Some of the fastest growing religions right now are things like prosperity Christianity, which tie their faith to promises of wealth in life right now, and Mormonism, which makes ridiculous and already falsified claims about New World history.

    Let’s get this straight … you blow your top because John makes a generalization about certain angry atheists but you think it is okay to make generalizations about all theists based on two small (as religions go) groups? Uh, huh.

    But as long as we’re at it, would you like the truth or falsity of science to be judged based on the understanding of lay people who are non-specialists and who don’t give much thought to the subject?

  74. #74 SmellyTerror
    January 5, 2007

    Are my posts too dumb to answer?

    To repeat some of my earlier post (see above for the rest):


    If the nature of god cannot be known, then you cannot know that the nature of god cannot be known, because whether or not it can be known is part of the nature of god.

    A theist-agnostic must accept that god could, some day, be known, that the question could be settled if god so chose. So the only way you can be (provisionally) sure that god cannot possibly be known, and that the question will never be settled, is if you’re actually an atheist.

    …or are you claiming the same certainty over the unknowable that is, apparently, a defining characteristic of atheists?

    And regarding the degree of certainty: the agnostics arguing that god is unknowable seem to me to be just as certain – more certain, even – as any atheist who says god does not exist. How can you justify rejecting one unprovable property of god (his existence), but then replacing it with another (his unknowability)?

    Not only does atheism require that god be unknowable (because he doesn’t exist), but agnosticism requires that god doesn’t exist (because that’s the only way he’d be unknowable). Therefore atheists are all agnostic, and agnostics are all atheist.

    Note that at no stage have you guys said “unknown”. You’re claiming that he is “unknowable”, which eliminates future developments, too.

  75. #75 John Pieret
    January 6, 2007

    ST -

    I did answer your previous post but whatever setting Wilkins has on his spam filters ate it and I didn’t try to recast it because, frankly, I really don’t understand what you are getting at.

    [Sorry John - all fixed - JSW]

    If the nature of god cannot be known, then you cannot know that the nature of god cannot be known, because whether or not it can be known is part of the nature of god.

    There are many hidden assumptions in that statement. What do you mean by “knowing?” What do you mean by the “nature of god?”

    Your objection appears to be, at least in part, a simple problem of tense. To say that something is “unknowable” naturally means “as of now with our present means of knowing.” Positing some different, presently unknown and wholly unimaginable means of knowing is no real answer to that. If wishes were horses …

    I think it is safe to say that we have all been at least implicitly equating “knowledge” with “empiric knowledge” (I’ve said it outright). Then the issue really is the limits of empiric knowledge. The theologies that we agnostics are discussing (TBOAPT) are inoculated against empiric knowledge by the very formulations of their adherents. Since we can know the limitations of (present) empiric investigation, we can say that certain posited gods are unknowable by those means. For additional discussion of why a god candidate that was subject to empiric knowledge is no argument against agnosticism, Google talk.origins for Wilkins’ discussion of the Divinoscope[TM]. Here is a sample:

    The Divinoscope (get the proprietary name right please – it’s a trademark) would tell you that a *particular* God falls into a class of “natural” (that is to say, “knowable in terms of their natures”) gods. The SCoT God might now be “natural” in this sense (this is to say, *epistemically* natural, or as the convention in t.o has it, methodologically natural). Gods whose attributes are neither observable nor predictable would remain subject to the Agnostic Provision.

    http COLON //groups DOT google DOT com/group/talk.origins/msg/9aee9461414a0fd2?hl=en&

    A theist-agnostic must accept that god could, some day, be known, that the question could be settled if god so chose. So the only way you can be (provisionally) sure that god cannot possibly be known, and that the question will never be settled, is if you’re actually an atheist.

    You seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that we are discussing the possibility of some god of some type existing somewhere in a conceptual vacuum. We’re not (and why you would think positing something so totally unknown is an argument against its unknowableness is somewhat beyond me). We are discussing the gods that have been posited by humans (and are, therefore, “live questions”) and whether their existence can be known or not (especially given the known cleverness of the people positing them).

    How can you justify rejecting one unprovable property of god (his existence), but then replacing it with another (his unknowability)?

    We aren’t talking about the nature of gods per se. We are talking about the limits of knowledge and the nature of human conceptions of gods.

    Not only does atheism require that god be unknowable (because he doesn’t exist), but agnosticism requires that god doesn’t exist (because that’s the only way he’d be unknowable). Therefore atheists are all agnostic, and agnostics are all atheist.

    Are you arguing that humans can know everything? The obvious first question is “how do you know that?” Unless humans can know everything then there may well be things that exist and are unknowable. In fact, if God is an infinite, omnipotent and omniscient being, as TBOAPT posits, I cannot see how it could be said to be knowable at all to finite beings. But that’s a whole other hole for Alice to fall into.

    At the very least, I can say with high confidence that, with our present means and methods, I cannot know both the velocity and location of an electron. Our means of knowing are inadequate to the task of determining that question, just as they are inadequate to determining the existence or non-existence of the God of TBOAPT.

  76. #76 SmellyTerror
    January 6, 2007

    Are you arguing that humans can know everything? The obvious first question is “how do you know that?”

    That’s exactly what I’m asking you! Look at JW’s graph: the vertical axis is “Can God be known?” Well, how can you possibly judge whether or not god can be known? How do you know that? How can you possibly choose a position on that line? If the horizontal axis, the question of god’s existence, is a non-question (and you’ve both said that), then surely the vertical axis is too. What makes it any more certain, and thus any replacement for the question of existence?

    Agnosticism makes claims about god. How do you know they are true? And if you don’t, how is that different from the uncertainty necessarily a part of both atheism and theism?

    In fact, if God is an infinite, omnipotent and omniscient being, as TBOAPT posits, I cannot see how it could be said to be knowable at all to finite beings.

    If god is omnipotent, then he can do anything, and that includes being knowable to all finite beings. Just becasue you cannot think of a way for him to do it is irrelevant: you are not god.

    Anyway, if you can’t know god, then how can you make statements about what is or is not possible about god? Again, this is not a logically sustainable position.

    We are discussing the gods that have been posited by humans (and are, therefore, “live questions”) and whether their existence can be known or not (especially given the known cleverness of the people positing them).

    Define “live issue”. The god of TBOAPT is believed by – what? – a dozen people on earth? *ANY* people at all? Seriously, who believes in this non-god? It’s been posited, sure, but so have invisible unicorns and magical fairies that you dismiss as non-live issues. Yet these things almost certainly have more actual adherants than the god you are choosing to take your position on.

    How is that a live issue? Show me a church or organisation dedicated to the belief of a god of TBOAPT.

    I know you are familiar with the concept fo a straw man. How is agnosticism dealing with anything but a straw man version of god when virtually no-one is actually proposing belief in the god you choose to deal with?

    Remember, and this is important, the primary definition of god requires that it is a being, that is has some kind of will, some personality. Most of all, some power. It does not mean something that is has no will or effect. If your god of TBOAPT does not conform to the definition of god, then you are not talking about god.

    How do I know these things about god? Becuase that’s what the word means! That’s what people mean when they talk about god. And if you reject the possibility that such a being exists, if you reject these properties of god, then you are an atheist! You’re basically saying “if god exists, then he must have properties that mean he is not god – which means he doesn’t exist”.

    “No, that god doesn’t exist, but this completely different concept of god that no-one seriously believes in is – uh, no, it’s something that’s impossible to make any comment on one way or the other”.

    What on earth makes you think that your version of god is the right one? Where do you get this certainty?

    When you say that a suitably innoculated god is unknowable, no-one disagrees. But what makes you believe that god *is* suitably innoculated? What makes you think you know everything about god?

    http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/god
    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/god

  77. #77 SmellyTerror
    January 6, 2007

    Oh, and to deal with all various meanings of “knowable”:

    1. If you mean “possible to know” (and I really have to assume this is the meaning from “Can god be known”), then all theists say yes (god can do everything – or at least, a something), and all atheists say no (he doesn’t exist, so he’ll never prove himself, and it’s impossible (and unnecessary) to actually disprove).

    2. If you mean “known at this time” (as JP seems to be suggesting), then everyone (apart from the most fanatical on either side) says no.

    Either way agnosticism is either exactly the same as atheism, or it is meaningless.

    Remember that atheism *requires that god not be known at this time*. This is the entire basis of the belief. Not-knowing is also perfectly compatible with theism (faith requires doubt). The difference in position between these two camps is whether or not a person choses to believe in the concept despite the lack of evidence, whether or not a person makes the “leap of faith”.

    No-one but the most irrational claim that evidence can be shown to prove or disprove the existence of god. If that was the question then most of the humans on earth would be agnostic.

    But that’s not the question. The question is whether you – on balance – personally believe in the existence of such a being, or not. Even then, again, it’s not absolute. Most theists and most athiests have doubt, they range along JW’s horizontal axis, becuase they are all agnostic. That’s *why* people doubt, because there can be no certainty.

    If you say it’s not possible to believe in the existence of god, then you don’t believe. It is in no way impossible to “not-believe”. A rock doesn’t believe in anything, but it doesn’t need evidence to justify that lack…

  78. #78 PZ Myers
    January 6, 2007

    Let’s get this straight … you blow your top because John makes a generalization about certain angry atheists but you think it is okay to make generalizations about all theists based on two small (as religions go) groups? Uh, huh.

    Man, you’ve got some real problems here. I did not blow my top; I pointed out that there were some clear counterexamples to that generalization, and you seemed to think that meant I was about to smash you with a baseball bat. In this case, you made a generalization again, that religions avoid making refutable claims at risk of ‘losing out’, and I gave you a couple of clear counterexamples again—virtually all the major religions in this country make truth-claims that are easy to dismiss, yet they are thriving.

    Errm, and do you really think Mormonism and standard-issue generic prosperity Christianity are small? What country do you live in?

  79. #79 Paul Schofield
    January 7, 2007

    Sorry to drag this so far back, but I have to try another angle at the original argument.

    The idea that atheist and agnostic are exclusive is false to me. The most that any atheist will have is a lack of evidence for god. While there can be evidence against any specific god in terms of theological or logical inconsistencies, such arguments do not work against the whole range of possible deities. I would say that many deistic systems are logically solid and therefore can’t be proven either way.

    However, there is (for an atheist) no reason to believe them. There is no evidence in favour or against. So there is no belief.

    And I do define atheist as a lack of belief in god. You have to for the term to mean anything. If you require an active disbelief in god, then you would have to have that same active disbelief in regards to all models of god. Someone may take, in the original meaning, a strongly atheistic stance towards the Judo-Christian God, but be agnostic towards deistic models. In modern terms, they would be atheistic, but under your definition their position is blurred, at best.

    I would call such a person an atheist – they lack any belief in any god. This does not mean they have to claim that no god ever could exist. To require such a claim goes beyond human ability, if only because it would take a lifetime to dismiss every possible model of god that they would have to to earn the title.

    Defining atheist in the way you do means that no-one would be truly atheist. It takes agnostic from the much lauded ‘logical’ position to the only position other than straight theism.

    Oh, and I accept the idea of an agnostic theist as well, being a person who believes that god exists, but his nature can’t be known, or that his existence can never be truly confirmed. This is a rather common view among self claimed agnostics in my experience, so not all agnostics would be lumped in with atheists. Many to most would be theists.

  80. #80 John Pieret
    January 7, 2007

    Man, you’ve got some real problems here.

    John spoke about some people who “tend to denigrate or deprecate the rationality of that which they are in reaction to” and the next thing you are accusing him of generalizing about “intolerant militant evangelical atheists”. John said nothing like that. But that’s the thing isn’t it? You are reacting to all the slings and arrows you feel you have received from theists and if someone is not 100% on your “side” then they must be saying the same thing as your opponents. You don’t bother to listen to the actual statement, you attack the position you are hearing only in your own head. That’s blowing one’s top in my book. John also told you to take a “deep breath”, so I doubt it just my problem.

    Dennett, in Breaking the Spell has some interesting discussions of “memes” (if you believe in them) that he thinks may be at work among theists. The interesting thing is that, if true, they can easily be seen at work in the atheist community as well. One of them is the trick of making any skeptic into “Satan.” I’ll probably comment on those when I get around to writing up a review.

    As for your claim that your use of Prosperity Theology and the Mormons as “counter examples” to show that most theists make empiric claims, according to Wikipedia there are 12.5 million Mormons worldwide, compared to 76.9 million Catholics in the U.S. alone. Using groups of a few millions out of billions of believers is exactly as valid as using the DI’s list of “Dissenters from Darwinism” to show that the scientific community has rejected evolution. Until you can give me some testable empiric claims (not just things you don’t happen to believe in) made by major denominations representing a majority of believers, you are just using some minority beliefs that happen to be empirically falsifiable to denigrate or deprecate the rationality of all theists.

  81. #81 John Pieret
    January 7, 2007

    Define “live issue”.

    No, I’m not going to rehash the whole of the thread. If you want to read it all and make cogent arguments, I’ll try to answer.

  82. #82 John Pieret
    January 7, 2007

    However, there is (for an atheist) no reason to believe them. There is no evidence in favour or against. So there is no belief.

    And yet you have PZ claiming “virtually all the major religions in this country make truth-claims that are easy to dismiss, yet they are thriving,” implying (to say the least) that there is evidence against belief in those Gods. You also have Dawkins saying that the divinity of Jesus is a scientific question which, if true, can certainly have evidence against it.

    Also, I’m not sure how you can have agnostic atheists and agnostic theists and agnostics not be something other than either of them alone. If atheists are just agnostics and agnostics can also be theists, doesn’t that make atheists and theists the same? But hey! It’s early on Sunday and maybe I’m just not following along.

  83. #83 PZ Myers
    January 7, 2007

    You don’t bother to listen to the actual statement, you attack the position you are hearing only in your own head. That’s blowing one’s top in my book. John also told you to take a “deep breath”, so I doubt it just my problem.

    Wow, such breathtaking irony. You took it the wrong way; all I did was express my doubt in the generalization, backed by a few good counterexamples. I assure you that there was nothing in my head about attacking John, only a disagreement with one claim that I thought was trivially false. We aren’t criticizing religion as a reaction to difficult experiences with religion.

    As for your claim that your use of Prosperity Theology and the Mormons as “counter examples” to show that most theists make empiric claims, according to Wikipedia there are 12.5 million Mormons worldwide, compared to 76.9 million Catholics in the U.S. alone.

    Umm, what? That’s dishonest. I did not claim that I’d shown that most theists make empiric claims. I countered your claim that empirical refutation was something that would cause a system of beliefs to fail. It clearly doesn’t — as I plainly said, some very rapidly growing religions do quite well despite being nonsensical.

    And seriously…Catholicism is your example of empirical rigor in religion? So has Lourdes shut down while I wasn’t paying attention?

  84. #84 Paul Schofield
    January 7, 2007

    In reply to John Pieret

    Let me try to clarify for you.

    Agnosticism is a claim about mans knowledge, either at the moment (we don’t know this) or possible (we can never know this). Normally, in religious discussions, it is taken as the second. Someone who is agnostic about a god normally says that you can never know his nature, or know his existence. Or know for certain a lack of existence.

    However, knowing is very different to believing.

    Theism is a belief claim. Namely that a god exists. Any god. My statement about there being no evidence (positive or negative) was talking about a general deity. In the case of specific deities (especially the Christian God that PZ is riffing on) there can be evidence in the form of theological claims that do not measure up, flawed logical arguments and empirical claims made that disagree with reality. The God of Young Earth Creationists is very easily dismissed in this way.

    But to be strongly atheist (or at least, not agnostic in the sense being put forwards by the original post) you would have to make such an argument against each possible god figure. Myself, I am strongly atheist towards the Christian God and all other forms of interventionist gods, because the logic and claims made do not match up with reality. I believe that such a model of god is inconsistent with the universe we see, and so actively believe that no such god exists.

    That is what I do call strong atheism. But it is with the rider that it applies only to those gods you can make a solid argument against.

    For gods that do not have such internal logical problems (Spinozas for example, or forms of Deism) I have no disbelief. However, I do not believe that any of them exist. I am still atheist in that I have no belief in the god, but I am also agnostic towards their existence. I believe we can not know if they exist or not, but have no faith in their existence. I believe non-existence as the default state, and that only changes with evidence to believe.

    I wouldn’t really say that agnostic atheist was the most accurate, or useful, term for any such position though. More realistically you have atheists who are agnostic towards certain possible gods. They don’t believe in them, but because of lack of evidence, not evidence of lack.

    As for agnostic theists, the label is mostly used for those who believe in a god, but also believe that their position can’t be proven or certain. It is also often used for those who believe in a deity, but don’t believe that they (or anyone) can know the nature of that deity. Such people do exist, and I suspect one or two around these parts.

  85. #85 Paul Schofield
    January 7, 2007

    OK, so maybe that wasn’t that clear. I will have to try again after sleep.

  86. #86 John Pieret
    January 7, 2007

    I did not claim that I’d shown that most theists make empiric claims.

    Then I do not understand your comment before that “virtually all the major religions in this country make truth-claims that are easy to dismiss.”

    I countered your claim that empirical refutation was something that would cause a system of beliefs to fail. It clearly doesn’t — as I plainly said, some very rapidly growing religions do quite well despite being nonsensical.

    Except I wasn’t arguing that sytems of belief fail every time their empiric claims fail. I was merely pointing out that Tyler’s analogy that theology and science can be looked at in a similar way to alchemy and chemistry and astrology and astronomy was not appropriate.

    Clearly beliefs do fail because they fail empirically sometimes, as was the case with alchemy and astrology. Alchemy was once a science (which is why Newton investigated it) that failed because its empiric claims failed (as demonstrated by Lavoisier). As far as I know, it did not live on on any significant way thereafter. Astrology also aspired to empiric status and failed, though it lives on mostly in a form no more serious than ouija boards.

    That is different from the theologies of many if not most major religions that make no such claims, which was my only point. If you hold that most theists don’t make empiric claims, then you will agree Tyler’s analogy is inapposite. It seems we continued to talk past each other from there.

    As to the rest, if I misconstrued what you were saying about John’s speculation, was likely because you made major changes in his wording … apparently without any purpose.

  87. #87 John Pieret
    January 7, 2007

    Oh, and …

    Catholicism is your example of empirical rigor in religion? So has Lourdes shut down while I wasn’t paying attention?

    Well, what about it?

    I never said anything about religions having “empiric rigor”. They aren’t in that business. I merely said that most weren’t making claims subject to empiric refutation.

    But, since you raised it, what is the position of the Catholic Church on Lourdes (since you know so much about it)? And what is your research program for investigating whether any “cures” are miraculous or not? I asked for something more in the way of examples than just things you happen to not to believe in.

    Mere ridicule is not an argument.

  88. #88 SmellyTerror
    January 8, 2007

    Define “live issue”.

    No, I’m not going to rehash the whole of the thread. If you want to read it all and make cogent arguments, I’ll try to answer.

    No of course not. Most of your attempts to defend your position against my arguments consist of accusing me of misunderstanding some term or other that you use. Yet you never, never actually define them, except to say that my version is wrong. I’m wrong about “know”, I’m wrong about “live issue”, I’m wrong about your reasons for dismissing “fairyology”, yet you never actually define what you actually mean by these things. Ever.

    You never address any substantive argument, you never actually show that you understand the posts you reply to, and you just persist with these vague refutations that don’t actually say anything.

    So no, of course you won’t define what you mean by “live issue”, or why it’s relevant, because you don’t actually know. Of course you won’t actually address any points, because you don’t have answers. You will, time after time, fail to grasp what people are trying to tell you, you will present arguments that appear to refute *something*, but not what the other person actually wrote.

    I have this suspicion that John Pieret is actually an AI running a Turing Test, and somewhere a team of scientists are watching and waiting to see how long it takes human responders to realise it doesn’t actually say anything. It simply takes the position of “vague disagreement” with some posters, and “vague agreement” with others. It’s not actually capable of explaining its beliefs or reasons, because it doesn’t have any. It can’t properly refute anything, because it’s not actually capable of understanding what people are saying.

    Well guys – I’ve worked it out! You can turn it off now…

  89. #89 John Pieret
    January 8, 2007

    … you won’t define what you mean by “live issue”, or why it’s relevant

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/2006/12/atheism_and_agnosticism_again.php#comment-304312

    If you’ve worked it all out then there is no need to further respond to you … though you may want to revisit your first guess as to why no one was replying to you.

  90. #90 John Pieret
    January 8, 2007

    Paul S -

    Let me see if I can help. My experience is that, when it comes to Spinoza’s god or Deism, people who call themselves atheists (we are talking about self-identification here, rather than natural kinds) usually allow that such gods might exist but then, sooner or later, declare them to be irrelevant. Daniel Dennett, in his book, Breaking the Spell, quotes with approval Rodney Stark’s One True God (2001) to the effect that there are two “strategies” within monotheism: God as essence (Tillich’s “Ground of All Being”) and God as conscious supernatural being.

    Dennett goes on to say (p. 245) that “[i]f what you hold sacred is not any kind of Person you can pray to, or consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved one is senselessly killed), you’re an atheist in my book.”

    So what you have is people who call themselves atheists treating the Ground of All Being sort of god(s) as unimportant but what they consider the important claims about god(s) they insist can be answered (empirically) in the negative.

    On the other side of the spectrum of possible god(s), people who call themselves agnostics will usually agree that theologies that make empiric claims as “essentials of the faith,” such as a 6,000 year old Earth (though they too have an aesthetically unpleasing inoculation in the form of Omphalos) can be said to be false but insist that the concepts of god that fall between thing like YEC creationism and God as essence are just as unanswerable in empiric terms as the Ground of All Being.

    The mere fact that these two groups share some attitudes towards some god-claims does not justify lumping them together. One of the functions of language is to make subtle distinctions.

    As far as the diagram is concerned, what I think you are struggling with is what the “god” means, rather than the labels the different positions fall under.

  91. #91 SmellyTerror
    January 8, 2007

    JP: Yessss…. Once again (again again) did you bother to actually read my post? Along with my request to define “live issue” was a long discussion about how the definition that had already been provided didn’t make sense in the arguments you were giving, and didn’t mean what you apparently think it means. On one hand you say religion is a live issue believed in by billions, but on the other hand the concept of god you actually decide to deal with is one believed in by virtually no-one.

    I was inviting you to clarify your seemingly contradictory position. Instead of simply dismissing you, I offered you an opportunity to actually say what you mean.

    My posts get longer and longer because I have to try to cover every possible meaning of everything you say, because you never actually define what you mean, even in the face of clearly stated objections.

    Naturally, you can’t possibly bother to address the argument, instead you take a single line out of context and run with that. Your job is, apparently, to blindly agree with JW. You can’t clarify or expand on what he’s said becuase you don’t know what it means. And of course you can’t possibly look at the central arguments, not even when I bold them for you. You take a single line out of context and decide that is the entire argument.

    Do you understand how this could be frustrating?

    Please, show me you actually understand the issue. Please, I’m begging you.

    (And in case you don’t like scrolling, here it is again, in context):

    Define “live issue”. The god of TBOAPT is believed by – what? – a dozen people on earth? *ANY* people at all? Seriously, who believes in this non-god? It’s been posited, sure, but so have invisible unicorns and magical fairies that you dismiss as non-live issues. Yet these things almost certainly have more actual adherants than the god you are choosing to take your position on.

    How is that a live issue? Show me a church or organisation dedicated to the belief of a god of TBOAPT.

    I know you are familiar with the concept fo a straw man. How is agnosticism dealing with anything but a straw man version of god when virtually no-one is actually proposing belief in the god you choose to deal with?

  92. #92 John Pieret
    January 8, 2007

    the concept of god you actually decide to deal with is one believed in by virtually no-one

    When I teach at the University of Arizona, I tell students, ‘I am a priest, a Jesuit, but my class is a science class … and Science is about natural, not supernatural causes.

    - Father Jose Funes, recently appointed Head of the Vatican Observatory

    In his New York Times article, Cardinal Schonborn understandably wanted to counter those neo-Darwinian advocates who claim that the theory of evolution precludes a Creator’s providential guidance of creation. Regrettably, he ended up giving credibility to their claim and obscuring the clear teaching of the Church that no truth of science can contradict the truth of revelation.

    - Stephen M. Barr, a theoretical particle physicist, First Things, October 2005

    I happily concede that a metaphysically modest version of neo-Darwinism could potentially be compatible with the philosophical truth (and thus Catholic teaching) about nature.

    - Cardinal Schonborn responding to Stephen M. Barr, First Things, January 2006

    [A] number of good modern philosophers of religion have pointed out, with weary patience, that religion is not fundamentally an attempt to explain things, but a system of relating yourself and the world to a fuller or truer order of reality. Second, there is an important sense in which religion and science are equally hostile to magic; but they need to have a very keen eye for the ways in which magic steals into both religion and science and distorts their real nature.

    Those who founded King’s were blessedly free of the textbook idea that faith and science were in competition.

    - Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Service to mark the 175th anniversary of King’s College, London, October 19, 2004

    How do the conclusions reached by the various scientific disciplines coincide with those contained in the message of revelation? And if, at first sight, there are apparent contradictions, in what direction do we look for their solution? We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth.

    - Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (October 22, 1996)

    You might recognize the names of the last couple … they’ve had a few moments of fame and influence. There are, of course, a lot more.

    If you want any real engagement, you have to more than hurl insults and unsupported claims in equal dreary measure. And I’m still not going to rehash the entire thread. If you got some empiric evidence that there are no such believers, present it.

  93. #93 SmellyTerror
    January 9, 2007

    Oh! No, that’s great, that’s Something. This is good!

    I stand corrected. The problem was not the definition of “live issue” (which I still see as irrelevant to the question of belief), but in your definition of TBOAPT. See, when people say “the best of all possible theisms”, I rather stupidly assumed this meant “the best of all possible theisms” and not just “bog-standard god”. I mean, you’ve said billions of people believe this, and you’ve quoted people who have differing, but perfectly mainstream theisms, so there are, at least, *multiple* best-of-all-possibles here. How surprising!

    May I suggest you change the term? It’s a little misleading. I mean, if I sold on Ebay “the best of all possible oranges”, but then sent a pretty normal orange, at best in the top 25%, well I think the receiver would have a good reason to complain.

    You see how this works? I explain, at length, my objections (the apparent contradiction between “live issue” and “TBOAPT”) and you actually explain what you mean (though I should point out that you did it almost entirely with quotes from other people). Then we can get somewhere beyond the usual “that’s semantics!”; “not it’s not!”; “yes it is!”

    So, apparently Catholicism is a TBOAPT. Can I say “a the”? Whatever. So the Pope does not, in fact, claim that miracles occur? He doesn’t make any unscientific claims about his religion at all? Really?

    It is TBOAPT that agnosticism is addressing (or at least, that’s the impression I got). So you’re actually agnostic to the claims of Catholicism? You have no basis to judge whether or not a virgin birth occurred, or a resurrection, water-to-wine, not even a provisional position of belief or disbelief?

    That’s agnosticism? Somehow I don’t think you and JW agree.

    …and don’t even try to claim I’ve misunderstood you again. I asked who believed in TBOAPT, and you quoted the Pope

  94. #94 John Pieret
    January 10, 2007

    You made an empiric claim, that “virtually no one” believes in TBOAPT (and I refer you again to what has gone before in the thread as to what that really means) and gave you evidence that you were wrong. (And, no, those examples you gave in reply are not empirically testable claims — if you think they are, give me a research program to test them.)

    Instead of addessing that issue, however, you busily shift your ground and now we are apparently supposed to think that your “provisional positions” are the same thing as “knowledge”. You’re right that I stopped taking you seriously after my earlier replies to your objections resulted in the same kind of sneering evasion.

    Anyway, “live question” and TBOAPT are not logically linked claims. One answers the (sneering) objection of atheists that the question of the existence of god is on the same level as the question of the existence of fairies in the bottom of the garden. The other goes to the kind of core beliefs that thoughtful, intelligent thesists hold. If you had been capable of honestly discussing your own empiric claim, we could then have gone on to discuss the relationship, if any, of “live question” and TBOAPT. Sadly, that is not the case.

  95. #95 natch
    November 22, 2008

    So, if something is unknowable, you assign a 50/50 probability to it?

    It is unknowable whether there are really invisible fairies with invisible iPods strapped to their shoes flying around my ankles right now.

    So would you say the chances are then 50/50?

    This is why some atheists believe there is no God. It is a matter of probability, not a matter of certainty. And the probabilities are not 50/50.

  96. #96 natch
    November 22, 2008

    In the view of the author of the article, if something is unknowable, you can’t say anything about it.

    I suppose he has never heard of Bayesian inference.

    Yes, it is unknowable whether there are really invisible fairies with invisible iPods strapped to their shoes flying around my ankles right now.

    This is truly unknowable, so he would have nothing to say about it (according to his statement about unknowables). So then apparently he would not argue with the statement that there is a 50/50 chance that the fairies are actually there. If you say the chances are 50/50, he would say “I don’t know” or “I have nothing to say about the matter, because it is unknowable.”

    That is the position of agnosticism.

    They then make a logical error and an error of ignorance in assuming that all atheists claim perfect knowledge. We do not.

    The (non)-existence of God is a matter of probability, not a matter of certainty. And to accept a claim that the probability is 50/50 is fuzzy-headed avoidance of thinking.

  97. #97 natch
    November 22, 2008

    To the author – Which “suitably innoculated God concept” do you have in mind in your comment? Can you define it, or give us a link?

  98. #98 Brad
    November 22, 2008

    Atheism refers to belief, agnosticism refers to knowledge.

    What you are saying is that if you don’t know god exists, you shouldn’t be able to make a claim about god’s existence.

    That is most atheists.

    What you are failing to account for is that people are not always consistent.

    There are agnostic theists for the same reason there are people in denial. You can know something and not believe it, and believe something and not know it.

    Simple really.

    I didn’t fully read what #84 wrote, but at a glance I think he or she got it right.

    -doubtisavirtue@gmail.com

  99. #99 Kuba
    December 8, 2008

    Your diagram defines agnosticism as “God cannot be known” but that is just one variation of agnosticism. Another definition is that God is not currently knownable. So to say that you cant be an agnostic and an atheist/theist is wrong. Most of us are agnostic about fairies because we cant disprove their existence, nor has anyone proved it but it is still rational to disbelieve in fairies. In this case you would be an afairiest agnostic.

  100. #100 RickrOll
    December 10, 2008

    This is bad. You totally missed the non-theist category, i.e. Someone who has never been to church or really considered the concept of God (Adam Corolla is a gnostic non-theist actually lol; grew up without church and now demands that God is unnecessary and silly. He’s right of course.). people who are completely agnostic are also non-theists, because they have no actual opinion either way. That being said, i am a gnostic atheist. God can be logically discounted: perfection is nonexistent, and God is perfect, therefore *drumroll*, no god.

    Or, imperfection is perfection, but God is nearly perfect, though His association with humans ruins his reputation, as surely it would. But, His existence is defined bu logic, thus he isn’t omnipotent. His omniscience doesn’t allow him to change His mind, so he can only do what was decided for him to do. By whom? No one, it is His “Divine Nature” that is his Achilles Heel.

    A “Maybe-God” scenario is the realm of deism, which i feel to be closer to atheism than theism, because like above, they feel God to be logically necessary. If the Multiverse exists, then indeed, then anyone can fill this role without qualm. Further elaboration: http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2008/11/is_the_multiverse_real.php?utm_source=networkbanner&utm_medium=link

  101. #101 James
    January 3, 2009

    A number of posts have stated that athiests are automaticly agnostic and that the terms are essentialy the same. This is not the case. I have encountered a number of ‘devout’ athiests who have accussed me of being a panderer to the Theists for expressing my opinion on agnosticism vs athiesim. Like it or not the definition of atheism as understood by most people I have spoken to is that of a fairly strong statment of the non-existance of any supernatural power.

    Atheist
    Agnostic leaning to athiest
    Agnostic leaning to Theist
    Theist

    It’s really very simple