Evolving Thoughts

Bertrand Russell, a leading philosopher in his prime, was also a wonderful writer. And, it appears, many of my views were formed when I was but still Young in the Discipline of Philosophy by reading Russell. Here is an essay (stolen from here) from 1953, when I still was not, in which he expresses quite clearly what the differences and implications of being an agnostic are relative to atheists. He steadfastly refuses to call atheists rabid dogs or militant terrorists, however, though he was no milquetoast.

I think, re-reading this after 40 years, that we might suggest that those who think they are atheists, mean or otherwise, mostly are agnostics who are merely mislabelled…

What Is an agnostic?

An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.

Are agnostics atheists?

No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.

Since you deny ‘God’s Law’, what authority do you accept as a guide to conduct?

An Agnostic does not accept any ‘authority’ in the sense in which religious people do. He holds that a man should think out questions of conduct for himself. Of course, he will seek to profit by the wisdom of others, but he will have to select for himself the people he is to consider wise, and he will not regard even what they say as unquestionable. He will observe that what passes as ‘God’s law’ varies from time to time. The Bible says both that a woman must not marry her deceased husband’s brother, and that, in certain circumstances, she must do so. If you have the misfortune to be a childless widow with an unmarried brother-in-law, it is logically impossible for you to avoid disobeying ‘God’s law’.

How do you know what is good and what is evil? What does an agnostic consider a sin?

The Agnostic is not quite so certain as some Christians are as to what is good and what is evil. He does not hold, as most Christians in the past held, that people who disagree with the government on abstruse points of theology ought to suffer a painful death. He is against persecution, and rather chary of moral condemnation.

As for ‘sin’, he thinks it not a useful notion. He admits, of course, that some kinds of conduct are desirable and some undesirable, but he holds that the punishment of undesirable kinds is only to be commended when it is deterrent or reformatory, not when it is inflicted because it is thought a good thing on its own account that the wicked should suffer. It was this belief in vindictive punishment that made men accept Hell. This is part of the harm done by the notion of ‘sin’.

Does an agnostic do whatever he pleases?

In one sense, no; in another sense, everyone does whatever he pleases. Suppose, for example, you hate someone so much that you would like to murder him. Why do you not do so? You may reply: “Because religion tells me that murder is a sin.” But as a statistical fact, agnostics are not more prone to murder than other people, in fact, rather less so. They have the same motives for abstaining from murder as other people have. Far and away the most powerful of these motives is the fear of punishment. In lawless conditions, such as a gold rush, all sorts of people will commit crimes, although in ordinary circumstances they would have been law-abiding. There is not only actual legal punishment; there is the discomfort of dreading discovery, and the loneliness of knowing that, to avoid being hated, you must wear a mask with even your closest intimates. And there is also what may be called “conscience”: If you ever contemplated a murder, you would dread the horrible memory of your victim’s last moments or lifeless corpse. All this, it is true, depends upon your living in a law-abiding community, but there are abundant secular reasons for creating and preserving such a community.

I said that there is another sense in which every man does as he pleases. No one but a fool indulges every impulse, but what holds a desire in check is always some other desire. A man’s anti-social wishes may be restrained by a wish to please God, but they may also be restrained by a wish to please his friends, or to win the respect of his community, or to be able to contemplate himself without disgust. But if he has no such wishes, the mere abstract concepts of morality will not keep him straight.

How does an agnostic regard the Bible?

An agnostic regards the Bible exactly as enlightened clerics regard it. He does not think that it is divinely inspired; he thinks its early history legendary, and no more exactly true than that in Homer; he thinks its moral teaching sometimes good, but sometimes very bad. For example: Samuel ordered Saul, in a war, to kill not only every man, woman, and child of the enemy, but also all the sheep and cattle. Saul, however, let the sheep and the cattle live, and for this we are told to condemn him. I have never been able to admire Elisha for cursing the children who laughed at him, or to believe (what the Bible asserts) that a benevolent Deity would send two she-bears to kill the children.

How does an agnostic regard Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Holy Trinity?

Since an agnostic does not believe in God, he cannot think that Jesus was God. Most agnostics admire the life and moral teachings of Jesus as told in the Gospels, but not necessarily more than those of certain other men. Some would place him on a level with Buddha, some with Socrates and some with Abraham Lincoln. Nor do they think that what He said is not open to question, since they do not accept any authority as absolute.

They regard the Virgin Birth as a doctrine taken over from pagan mythology, where such births were not uncommon. (Zoroaster was said to have been born of a virgin; Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, is called the Holy Virgin.) They cannot give credence to it, or to the doctrine of the Trinity, since neither is possible without belief in God.

Can an agnostic be a Christian?

The word “Christian” has had various different meanings at different times. Throughout most of the centuries since the time of Christ, it has meant a person who believed God and immortality and held that Christ was God. But Unitarians call themselves Christians, although they do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and many people nowadays use the word “God” in a much less precise sense than that which it used to bear. Many people who say they believe in God no longer mean a person, or a trinity of persons, but only a vague tendency or power or purpose immanent in evolution. Others, going still further, mean by “Christianity” merely a system of ethics which, since they are ignorant of history, they imagine to be characteristic of Christians only.

When, in a recent book, I said that what the world needs is “love, Christian love, or compassion,” many people thought this showed some changes in my views, although in fact, I might have said the same thing at any time. If you mean by a “Christian” a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then, certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian. And, in this sense, I think you will find more “Christians” among agnostics than among the orthodox. But, for my part, I cannot accept such a definition. Apart from other objections to it, it seems rude to Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and other non-Christians, who, so far as history shows, have been at least as apt as Christians to practice the virtues which some modern Christians arrogantly claim as distinctive of their own religion.

I think also that all who called themselves Christians in an earlier time, and a great majority of those who do so at the present day, would consider that belief in God and immortality is essential to a Christian. On these grounds, I should not call myself a Christian, and I should say that an agnostic cannot be a Christian. But, if the word “Christianity” comes to be generally used to mean merely a kind of morality, then it will certainly be possible for an agnostic to be a Christian.

Does an agnostic deny that man has a soul?

This question has no precise meaning unless we are given a definition of the word “soul.” I suppose what is meant is, roughly, something nonmaterial which persists throughout a person’s life and even, for those who believe in immortality, throughout all future time. If this is what is meant, an agnostic is not likely to believe that man has a soul. But I must hasten to add that this does not mean that an agnostic must be a materialist. Many agnostics (including myself) are quite as doubtful of the body as they are of the soul, but this is a long story taking one into difficult metaphysics. Mind and matter alike, I should say, are only convenient symbols in discourse, not actually existing things.

Does an agnostic believe in a hereafter, in Heaven or Hell?

The question whether people survive death is one as to which evidence is possible. Psychical research and spiritualism are thought by many to supply such evidence. An agnostic, as such, does not take a view about survival unless he thinks that there is evidence one way or the other. For my part, I do not think there is any good reason to believe that we survive death, but I am open to conviction if adequate evidence should appear.

Heaven and hell are a different matter. Belief in hell is bound up with the belief that the vindictive punishment of sin is a good thing, quite independently of any reformative or deterrent effect that it may have. Hardly an agnostic believes this. As for heaven, there might conceivably someday be evidence of its existence through spiritualism, but most agnostics do not think that there is such evidence, and therefore do not believe in heaven.

Are you never afraid of God’s judgment in denying Him?

Most certainly not. I also deny Zeus and Jupiter and Odin and Brahma, but this causes me no qualms. I observe that a very large portion of the human race does not believe in God and suffers no visible punishment in consequence. And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.

How do agnostics explain the beauty and harmony of nature?

I do not understand where this “beauty” and “harmony” are supposed to be found. Throughout the animal kingdom, animals ruthlessly prey upon each other. Most of them are either cruelly killed by other animals or slowly die of hunger. For my part, I am unable to see any great beauty or harmony in the tapeworm. Let it not be said that this creature is sent as a punishment for our sins, for it is more prevalent among animals than among humans. I suppose the questioner is thinking of such things as the beauty of the starry heavens. But one should remember that stars every now and again explode and reduce everything in their neighborhood to a vague mist. Beauty, in any case, is subjective and exists only in the eye of the beholder.

How do agnostics explain miracles and other revelations of God’s omnipotence?

Agnostics do not think that there is any evidence of “miracles” in the sense of happenings contrary to natural law. We know that faith healing occurs and is in no sense miraculous. At Lourdes, certain diseases can be cured and others cannot. Those that can be cured at Lourdes can probably be cured by any doctor in whom the patient has faith. As for the records of other miracles, such as Joshua commanding the sun to stand still, the agnostic dismisses them as legends and points to the fact that all religions are plentifully supplied with such legends. There is just as much miraculous evidence for the Greek gods in Homer as for the Christian God in the Bible.

There have been base and cruel passions, which religion opposes. If you abandon religious principles, could mankind exist?

The existence of base and cruel passions is undeniable, but I find no evidence in history that religion has opposed these passions. On the contrary, it has sanctified them, and enabled people to indulge them without remorse. Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed. The persecuting character of present day communism is exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier centuries. In so far as Christianity has become less persecuting, this is mainly due to the work of freethinkers who have made dogmatists rather less dogmatic. If they were as dogmatic now as in former times, they would still think it right to burn heretics at the stake. The spirit of tolerance which some modern Christians regard as essentially Christian is, in fact, a product of the temper which allows doubt and is suspicious of absolute certainties. I think that anybody who surveys past history in an impartial manner will be driven to the conclusion that religion has caused more suffering than it has prevented.

What is the meaning of life to the agnostic?

I feel inclined to answer by another question: What is the meaning of ‘the meaning of life’? I suppose what is intended is some general purpose. I do not think that life in general has any purpose. It just happened. But individual human beings have purposes, and there is nothing in agnosticism to cause them to abandon these purposes. They cannot, of course, be certain of achieving the results at which they aim; but you would think ill of a soldier who refused to fight unless victory was certain. The person who needs religion to bolster up his own purposes is a timorous person, and I cannot think as well of him as of the man who takes his chances, while admitting that defeat is not impossible.

Does not the denial of religion mean the denial of marriage and chastity?

Here again, one must reply by another question: Does the man who asks this question believe that marriage and chastity contribute to earthly happiness here below, or does he think that, while they cause misery here below, they are to be advocated as means of getting to heaven? The man who takes the latter view will no doubt expect agnosticism to lead to a decay of what he calls virtue, but he will have to admit that what he calls virtue is not what ministers to the happiness of the human race while on earth. If, on the other hand, he takes the former view, namely, that there are terrestrial arguments in favor of marriage and chastity, he must also hold that these arguments are such as should appeal to the agnostic. Agnostics, as such, have no distinctive views about sexual morality. But most of them would admit that there are valid arguments against the unbridled indulgence of sexual desires. They would derive these arguments, however, from terrestrial sources and not from supposed divine commands.

Is not faith in reason alone a dangerous creed? Is not reason imperfect and inadequate without spiritual and moral law?

No sensible man, however agnostic, has “faith in reason alone.” Reason is concerned with matters of fact, some observed, some inferred. The question whether there is a future life and the question whether there is a God concern matters of fact, and the agnostic will hold that they should be investigated in the same way as the question, “Will there be an eclipse of the moon tomorrow?” But matters of fact alone are not sufficient to determine action, since they do not tell us what ends we ought to pursue. In the realm of ends, we need something other than reason. The agnostic will find his ends in his own heart and not in an external command. Let us take an illustration: Suppose you wish to travel by train from New York to Chicago; you will use reason to discover when the trains run, and a person who though that there was some faculty of insight or intuition enabling him to dispense with the timetable would be thought rather silly. But no timetable will tell him that it is wise, he will have to take account of further matters of fact; but behind all the matters of fact, there will be the ends that he thinks fitting to pursue, and these, for an agnostic as for other men, belong to a realm which is not that of reason, though it should be in no degree contrary to it. The realm I mean is that of emotion and feeling and desire.

Do you regard all religions as forms of superstition or dogma? Which of the existing religions do you most respect, and why?

All the great organized religions that have dominated large populations have involved a greater or less amount of dogma, but “religion” is a word of which the meaning is not very definite. Confucianism, for instance, might be called a religion, although it involves no dogma. And in some forms of liberal Christianity, the element of dogma is reduced to a minimum.

Of the great religions of history, I prefer Buddhism, especially in its earliest forms, because it has had the smallest element of persecution.

Communism like agnosticism opposes religion, are agnostics Communists?

Communism does not oppose religion. It merely opposes the Christian religion, just as Mohammedanism does. Communism, at least in the form advocated by the Soviet Government and the Communist Party, is a new system of dogma of a peculiarly virulent and persecuting sort. Every genuine Agnostic must therefore be opposed to it.

Do agnostics think that science and religion are impossible to reconcile?

The answer turns upon what is meant by ‘religion’. If it means merely a system of ethics, it can be reconciled with science. If it means a system of dogma, regarded as unquestionably true, it is incompatible with the scientific spirit, which refuses to accept matters of fact without evidence, and also holds that complete certainty is hardly ever impossible.

What kind of evidence could convince you that God exists?

I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence. I can imagine other evidence of the same sort which might convince me, but so far as I know, no such evidence exists.

I may be tweaking the odd fellow blogger here…

Comments

  1. #1 MartinC
    June 10, 2007

    I doubt that you will find too many ‘atheists’ who disagree with Russell on this point. The main trouble – in my opinion – is the inadequacy of the term ‘atheist’ in itself, or at least in the modern usage of the term. I would hazard a guess that when an individual these days describes themselves as an ‘athiest’ what they actually mean is not someone who truly believes with 100% certainty that there is no supernatural being who created and runs the universe, but rather that they accept a scientific rationalistic view of the world. The scientific method, or at least its modern aspects of falsifiability and prediction, considerably postdate the term atheism which originated when there was a much more black and white view of ‘facts’ and when an atheist probably did believe with 100% certainty that there was no God. Nowadays if you accept a scientific viewpoint you realise that you cannot ‘know’ anything with 100% certainty, rather we work on the basis that the 99.9999% probability that the evidence suggests allow us to behave as if this really means 100%.
    Dawkins 1 to 7 point scale is a better approximation of how to describe ones viewpoint but it is still rather cumbersome.

  2. #2 Richard Carter, FCD
    June 10, 2007

    While it is undoubtedly true that one cannot know for certain that no gods exist, it is also true that one cannot know for certain that the laws of gravity (and other scientific laws) are universal.

    The way I justify my atheism to people who try to tell me that I am an agnostic is to say that I have as much confidence in the non-existence of gods as I have in the universal law of gravity… If I were to let go of a hammer, and it rose into the air, I would have to rethink my views on gravity. Ditto with gods. But I’m as confident as I can be that it isn’t going to happen – which is why I call myself an atheist, and not an agnostic.

  3. #3 Chris' Wills
    June 10, 2007

    …Dawkins 1 to 7 point scale is a better approximation of how to describe ones viewpoint but it is still rather cumbersome.
    Posted by: MartinC

    I always found Dawkins 1 to 7 rather simplistic, there is an earlier posting on this blog showing a 2-D representation rather than the simplistic 1-D line that is better.

    Oh, I do like the 99.9999% probability. Made of the full cloth?

    On the “are Atheists really Agnostics”; I’m happy for Atheists to call themselves what they like just as long as they don’t confuse being Agnostic with some form of Atheism.

    I was glad that Mr Russell made it clear that being Agnostic didn’t imply faith in materialism; I don’t match all his definitions of what an Agnostic is but enough for me not to quibble.

  4. #4 PZ Mahoogaherz
    June 10, 2007

    we might suggest that those who think they are atheists, mean or otherwise, mostly are agnostics who are merely mislabelled

    You are aware that we’re going to remember that line forever, right? Next time you complain when someone argues that those who think they are agnostics mostly are atheists who are merely mislabeled…

    Russell isn’t a milquetoast, he’s just completely wrong when he tries to tell atheists what they think. Even a Big Guy can go wrong when his starting premise is a faulty definition.

  5. #5 writerdd
    June 10, 2007

    I am an atheist because I don’t see any reason to believe that there is a god, not because I think we can know one way or the other. I realize that this cannot be proven, but so what? That does not make me agnostic. We can’t prove that there are no unicorns either, but I see no reason to believe that these magical creatures exist. I am not agnostic regarding the existence of gods or unicorns.

    I like Bertrand Russel’s writings for the most part, but he’s missed the point here completely. I imagine that Russel was just trying to wiggle out of calling himself an atheist because, already, at his time this term was held in disrepsect.

  6. #6 John Wilkins
    June 10, 2007

    Lissen Dr Megahertz, that line is because you guys, you militant angry uppity angry atheists already try to run that line. Wilkins is just an atheist who won’t admit it, you say. Well it cuts both ways, I say – you are all fencesitters on the knowledge question – whether knowledge is possible at all. So you take a pragmatic decision to act as if it is, so what?

    Hmmp!

    Everybody else – this is between me and McTavish here…

  7. #7 Brian Thompson
    June 10, 2007

    I know a large number of atheists who consider themselves “agnostic atheism” – the agnosticism denotes WHY they are an atheist.

    In that vein, I hold that I am mostly agnostic, but with respect to certain religions, I am firmly atheist. I claim that not only is there no proof or evidence for these religions, there is negative proof of their existence by logical contradictions to their claims. In other words, although I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a god, I can disprove the existence of a specific god or kind of god.

  8. #8 Eamon Knight
    June 10, 2007

    There seems to have been a definitional shift concerning “agnostic” and “atheist” from Russell’s time to ours — I would call myself an atheist although I “hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice.”, which Russell classes as agnosticism. I’m certainly atheist (modulo an irreducible background of epistemic noise) towards the conventional god-concepts of Western theism; I’m only agnostic towards god-concepts so vaguely defined that it’s unclear what the claim “it exists” even means. (I’m also massively uninterested in arguments that seem purely about terminology as opposed to substance.)

    As for the rest: what he said. It’s kind of depressing that, by whatever name, unbelief is still fighting the same misconceptions and bigotries half a century later.

  9. #9 Chris Ho-Stuart
    June 10, 2007

    I think there is scope for equivocation here over the word “know”.

    I don’t know anything for absolute total certainty; but that’s not a useful definition to apply with respect to “know”.

    In fact, I do know things; quite a lot of things. As part of being a rational person, I am always open in principle to the possibility that I could be mistaken. But for all that, I still say that I know things, and don’t consider this to be misleading anyone — expect possibly philosophers. :-)

    Here is an example… I know that there is no life on the Moon. I say this in a way that I would NOT say the same for Mars. In principle I could be wrong; but I think there is ample basis for confidence than there is no life on the Moon. I’m not going to argue the case here; but I think it is solid. The information available is sufficient to go beyond “well, we’ve not detected any life so far” to “nope; no way; we can be confident that there is no life on the Moon”.

    Now this, I propose, is the opposite of agnosticism. The agnostic position with respect to Lunar lifeforms would be that we can’t check every nook and cranny, so we always have to allow for the remote possibility.

    Well, I always allow for the remote possibility that I am wrong on anything; but that is not a case of withholding judgment. It is a case of recognizing I can make mistakes; a different thing entirely. I don’t let that stop me making what are in my opinion well founded judgments on matters where information warrants.

    I distinguish my position with respect to life on the Moon, and on Mars, because I think that’s how the current state of knowledge applies. There’s no credible prospect of life on the Moon. There is an extremely remote prospect of life on Mars. I lack belief in life on the Moon and life on Mars. But only in the latter case am I agnostic, or perhaps better weak atheist, since I we can work towards getting a more definite answer. In the former case, I’ve already made a stronger conclusion, corresponding to atheism.

    I have no problem with people who declare themselves agnostic with respect to God, but that is not not my position. I could be wrong; as I could be wrong on anything; but I think there is ample warrant to conclude with confidence that there’s no such thing as God. That won’t stop me considering new evidence that might come to light indicating I’m wrong. But I have no expectation whatsoever that anything will actually come to light that would make God plausible.

    I’m happy for people to choose the term for themselves, which best expresses the nuances of their own position. If someone wants to identify themselves as agnostic, or atheist, or strong atheist, or weak atheist, or milquetoast atheist; that’s fine. I accept that they are trying to convey some nuance about their position.

    But don’t tell me I’m agnostic. I’m not; unless the word is so shorn of all meaning that we are agnostic about everything. I don’t think that is consistent with Russell’s use of the term.

    Cheers — Chris

  10. #10 jeffw
    June 10, 2007

    I find it hard to assign a probability to something so ill-defined as the “existence of God”, a concept susceptible to any number of interpretations, many of them subjective. I also have to disagree with Dawkins that it is necessarily a scientific question, or a well-formed hypothesis. Great post, BTW.

  11. #11 John Wilkins
    June 10, 2007

    Chris, Hi. Who said knowledge had to be about certainties? But knowledge has to be about reasonable assurance and warrant. To be an agnostic is to state that (for some claim of belief) that nothing can (or does to date) tell for or against that belief in a reasonable manner. Of course nobody’s saying that knowledge claims are only indefeasible certainties. No knowledge is like that in my view.

  12. #12 Chris Ho-Stuart
    June 10, 2007

    Hey, John. You may have had your tongue in your cheek; but your first comment in the thread includes “Well it cuts both ways, I say – you are all fencesitters on the knowledge question – whether knowledge is possible at all.”

    I took this as saying that there is no certain knowledge and so we are all effectively agnostic.

    It seems to be confirmed in your post where you say “we might suggest that those who think they are atheists, mean or otherwise, mostly are agnostics who are merely mislabelled”. I disagree with that; I think atheist is a perfectly reasonable term and relabelling self-declared atheists as agnostics will be actively misleading in the vast majority of cases.

    In Russell’s own text, he draws up an example of the Olympian pantheon. This just gets weird; and more seriously he makes this remark in the text “An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.”

    That removes any value from the word agnostic, as far as I am concerned. More seriously, it appears to conflict directly with your claim that Russell “expresses quite clearly what the differences and implications of being an agnostic are relative to atheists.”

    With that remark on the Olympians, I think Russell befuddles what validity there may be in making a difference between atheism and agnosticism. I think there is a useful distinction, and that Russell fails to make it clear at all.

  13. #13 Sean Davey
    June 10, 2007

    Hi Chris,

    wow, thanks, something in your first post really clicked for me as I continue to try and define the difference between an agnostic an an atheist. They both acknowledge that you can’t disprove the existence of God but they differ in whether or not to make a judgment about it. It seems like agnostics should therefore be able to defend why they choose to be agnostic about God but not about other things.

    sean

  14. #14 Taylor Murphy
    June 10, 2007

    Words change over time, and agnostic and the rest of the terms have adopted new definitions. So now we have agnostics, and philosophical agnostics.

    Nowadays they usually indicate certainty.

    atheist – someone who is fairly certain there is not a god

    agnostic – someone who is significantly uncertain about whether or not there is a god

    theist – someone who is fairly certain there is a god

  15. #15 derek
    June 10, 2007

    I disagree with Russell because he sought a name-scheme in which the name space was completely and exclusively filled by agnostic, atheist, and theist (and perhaps deist). If you fit the definition of agnostic you couldn’t be an atheist, and vice versa. And if you fit the definition of agnostic you *definitely* couldn’t be a theist.

    Whether the meaning expressed in Russell’s essay was ever what the words meant, it certainly isn’t now. I self-identify as an atheist, and consider myself agnostic. I even have Christian friends who consider themselves agnostic. From which it’s clear to me that agnosticism is a position orthogonal to, and inclusive with, atheist/theist. You can be an agnostic atheist, a non-agnostic atheist, an agnostic theist or a non-agnostic theist.

  16. #16 jeffw
    June 10, 2007

    That removes any value from the word agnostic, as far as I am concerned

    In this context, he’s talking about the Christian God only, hence the qualifier “for practical purposes”. You can be atheistic with respect to the Christian God, and still be agnostic with respect to the question of “God” (whatever that means) in general.

  17. #17 Thony C.
    June 10, 2007

    writerdd wrote:

    I imagine that Russel was just trying to wiggle out of calling himself an atheist because, already, at his time this term was held in disrepsect.

    You have got to be joking! I suggest you go away and read a good Russell biography. If there was one human being on this planet in the 20th century who didn’t give a monkey’s toss about being held in disrepect it was Betrand Athur William 3rd Earl Russell or Bertie as he was known to his friends.

    Mr Wilkins I thoroughly agree with your thoughts on Russell in the introduction to this post, I find it a shame that he appears to be out of fashion at the moment. A great writer, thinker, mathematician, logician and all round good guy. When I was still young enough to have them Bertie was definitely one of my heroes. Great post thank you.

  18. #18 Roy
    June 10, 2007

    I think he’s got it all wrong. An atheist is simply one who does not believe what a theist does.

    There are lots of things I believe in — physics, chemistry, mechanics, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and especially conservation laws.

    There are lots of things I don’t believe in — fairies, pixies, elves, leprechauns, brownies, the Sand Man, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, magic spells — and especially magic gimmicks like water witches and polygraphs.

    An agnostic is simply someone who does not believe in what a gnostic does, and a gnostic is one who claims to have secret mysterious esoteric knowledge. An agnostic is someone who disbelieves the claims of gnostics, taking them for bullshit artists.

    Thus I can be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time. I don’t believe in the sky fairy and I don’t believe in bullshitters.

  19. #19 Jennifer Ouellette
    June 10, 2007

    Ironically, while I agree with Richard Carter’s comment about having the same confidence in the laws of gravity as the nonexistence of god, for me, that’s grounds for calling myself an agnostic. But truthfully, I switch back and forth between the two terms. It’s all pretty much nomenclature in the end, isn’t it? I’ve never understood the need to nitpick over doctrinal differences; it’s unnecessarily divisive.

    People are individuals, and those who think for themselves will, of course, vary in their beliefs and convictions. There are as many varieties of atheists and agnostics as there are denominations in the Christian religion — some atheists can be just as dogmatic and intolerant as the right-wing Christians, and some self-described theists can be as open-minded, tolerant and compassionate as one could hope for in a sane reason-based society — a bit of a Utopian ideal, but one worth striving for, IMHO.

  20. #20 poke
    June 10, 2007

    Russell uses “know” and “prove” interchangeably in the above essay, so he is claiming that only certainties constitute knowledge, in fact he uses this to establish the difference between atheists and agnostics.

    An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice.

    If claiming that something is so improbable as not to be worth considering isn’t a knowledge claim, then what the hell is? He goes on to say:

    His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments.

    Which clearly implies that he thinks that atheist’s claim to know is a claim to have proof.

    This is how pretty much every agnostic argument against atheist runs, by confusing knowledge claims and proof, and Russell’s is no different.

  21. #21 Matt Penfold
    June 10, 2007

    Taylor Murphy,

    I understand the point you are making but I think it is mistaken.

    The term “agnostic” mean what John says it means. Larry Moran in his blog would go along with thins, as I suspect would PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

    The problem as I see it is in what is meant by the term “atheist”. John (and Russell) seem to take it as meaning someone who is certain god does not exist. This not not what I understand the word to mean, and Richard Dawkins in the “God Delusion” makes it clear it is not what he means when he calls himself an atheist. (I have a slight problem here in that while I agree with Dawkins, Moran, Myers …., I do not want to be considered to be speaking for them nor be considering myself on the same intellectual level so I would ask for some latitude). In the “God Delusion” Dawkins is clear that he does not know, nor can prove, that god does nor exist. He merely states that he regards the likelihood of god existing to be so unlikely as to not be worth bothering with. Unlikely in the way that it is possible for your house to suddenly jump six feet to the left. Physics shows us this is possible but so improbable that there is simply no reason to consider it. This to me is what atheism is, there is no certainty that god does not exist, just the view that the possibility is so remote it is not worth considering.

    Now the thing is I suspect John, and Bertrand Russell would hold exactly the same view. Russell suggested as much when he talked of teapots orbiting the sun. He said that it cannot proved there is no teapot orbiting the sun (ignore those on earth please!) but there is no evidence there is and so there is no rationale for thinking it a possibility worthy of consideration. I suspect John’s views are similar. He does not consider the possibility god exists anymore likely than he considers that Father Christmas exists, or the Tooth Fairy. Neither of the latter can be shown be false but how many adults think they do exist ?

    What I think we have here is two parties, Dawkins, Moran, Myers et al not talking quite the same langauge as John et al. To all intents John is an atheist. He does not, as far as I know, live his life in the assumption there is a divine being keeping an eye of what he does. I have no doubt John acts, or at least tries to act as far as he is able, in a moral manner without having to refer to a sacred book on as what to do. (Note I have no doubt John is a wonderful chap and next time he is in Wales I will happily buy him a beer!). John is a philosopher, and it would seem one of the useful kind! Dawkins et al are scientists. And that I think is where the difference lies.

  22. #22 Matt Penfold
    June 10, 2007

    Poke,

    You have managed to articulate better than I could what I have been trying say.

    I do not know of any atheist who claims for certain god does not exist. Dawkins does not, for sure, as he makes clear in the “God Delusion”. What atheists think is, as you said, the existance of god is so unlikely it not worth considering as possibility.

    We cannot “prove” anything for certain. We can know things that are so certain that to think otherwise would indicate mental illness. The theory of gravity cannot be proved, but only someone insane would think that just by flapping their arms they can fly off a tall building. The belief in god approaches that level of mental illness. Those that think the earth is only a few thousand years old despite the evidence (Note that if the person is not aware of the evidence to contrary then they are just ignorant. However the older you get the less you can plead ignorance. A schoolchild can, a 50 year old less so. There is a thing called personal reponsibility and that applies to educating yourself).

  23. #23 Matt Penfold
    June 10, 2007

    One question I need to ask (and will answer!).

    Did Bertrand Russell believe god(s) existed ?

    The simple answer is that he did not. He did not beleive in god. Not the Christian God, The Jewish God, The Hindu God nor any other.

    He might have believed in the type of god Spinoza suggested and that Einstein accepted. However that god is NOT what we consider to be a god when talk of belief in god. Dawkins is record as saying he has no objection to the god of Spinoza, although he does say he sees little point in it.

    So Russell quite simply did not think there was a supernatural being taking an interest in what us humans get up to and from time to time intervening. Well, that makes him an atheist as far I am concerned!

  24. #24 Caledonian
    June 10, 2007

    I would like to know what grounds there are for claiming that no knowledge of a purported deity or deities is possible. Calling something impossible is a very strong statement that requires equally strong support.

  25. #25 Matt Penfold
    June 10, 2007

    Caledonian,

    No one, as far as I am aware is saying that it impossible for gods(s) to exist. What many are saying is that is absolutley no evidence to support claims that they do and absent any such evidence the default position is to assume they do. The burden of proof is on person making the affirmative claim.

    So the grounds are simple, a total and complete lack of evidence to support claims that god(s) exist.

  26. #26 HP
    June 10, 2007

    There’s really two different discussions going on here, and they’re running orthogonally. There’s the philosophical/epistemological debate over which labels are more accurate, which can probably go on for several more centuries without meaningful resolution, and which is far too reductionist for my taste anyway. And then there’s the political debate over whether atheists/agnostics/freethinkers/materialists/humanists/secularists/rationalists/skeptics/etc. are entitled to be equal partners in a democratic society. This is probably not such a critical question in Europe or Australia, but in the U.S. right now, it’s a major political struggle worth fighting.

    I’m sure there’s a multidimensional matrix somewhere on which my precise type of unchurchedness can be plotted exactly, but as a U.S. citizen, for political purposes I’m a proud Atheist. I think some of the pushback you’re getting from PZ and others is because they see this endless debate about labels as diluting Atheism as a political identity.

  27. #27 Matt Penfold
    June 10, 2007

    I am not sure that saying PZ’s atheism is a political position will wash. Of course being an atheist can have political consequences but PZ essentially takes the same position on atheism as Dawkins and Moran do, neither of whom live in the US. Atheism is simply not a political issue in the UK, and in Canada it does not seem to be much of one either. Dawkins does not suffer any kind of discrimination because he is an atheist, nor is he shunned by relgious people (at least not the more liberal sort. I doubt he would care if the fundamentalists refused to talk to him). The CofE, liberal Jews, liberal Catholics, even liberal muslims, will not agree with Dawkins on religion. They do seem to have a lot in common when to comes to how we should treat our fellow man. Indeed Dawkins has far more in common in that respect with say the Archbishop of Canterbury than the latter would with right wing christians in the US. With regards the US, PZ maybe pretty leftwing in US terms but he would not be in the UK. So I do not think that political identity is anything more than a secondry consideration.

    I am beginning to suspect the divide may be pratical one. Dawkins et al see no evidence for the existance of a god, so say that there is no purpose in thinking one exists. John seems to be being a bit more philosphical about it and does not make the leap in thinking, from absence of evidence to presumption of absence, that Dawkins does.

  28. #28 John Wilkins
    June 10, 2007

    Caledonian:

    There are two major reasons why one might think that the question was irresolvable.

    The first is that no evidence has ever come up that resolves it. Call this the To-Date Argument. One might inductively infer that none is ever likely to. This is a rather weak reason, but it is a justification of a To-Date Agnosticism. Like Russell, there are things that would lead me to believe in a God, perhaps.

    The second is that no evidence could ever tell against there being a God of some kind. Call this the In-Principle Argument. Suppose I say there is a deity, and the atheist brings forth evidence that contradicts my claim. So I respond, “but of course I don’t mean that deity, but another deity not subjected to this empirical counterevidence.” Repeat and rinse. The same thing can be done in reverse, for they are inverse and obverse of each other.

    Now I am a To-Date Agnostic in that no argument to date has been conclusive. This only works for particular deities, but since we are discussing the options actually on the board, it is critical. I’m not, in this argument, putting forth reasons to deny a possible deity on Arcturus IV, but only the ones being put forth in this society and time. So the To-Date Argument is sufficient with respect to to-date deity claims.

    But the In-Principle Argument is that some deity may be possible no matter what counterarguments are put for other deities. This cannot be refuted. Since it cannot, so far as I am concerned, it is a non-argument. Any question that has merely to form of a question but cannot be answered is no question at all, so far as I am concerned.

    So the In-Principle Argument fails to convince me of a deity or not, and the To-Date Argument fails to show me that for a class of “actual” deities (or claims about them) there are sufficient ways to avoid the counterevidence that I doubt the claims will ever be resolved fully. Hence, so far, they too are not disprovable.

    So I have no reason to either accept or deny the existence of these deities (including the assignment of likelihoods).

    There’s a good reason why the To-Date Argument works – those religious claims that were falsifiable have been falsified. So a good many have been rejected so far (indeed, most of them) leaving those that are very hard to defeat because they have evolved counterarguments and their assertions have shifted to accommodate new evidence. Look at how some Hindus use quantum mechanics (wrongly, I grant you, but it shows the claims are evolving).

  29. #29 Caledonian
    June 10, 2007

    There is also a difference between a lack of evidence, and counterevidence.

    There is no known evidence for the existence of gods, and there’s plenty of evidence against specific deific hypotheses. Old-style agnosticism -in which the possibility of god-knowledge, complete or merely contigent, is rejected- is simply wrong.

  30. #30 Scott Belyea
    June 11, 2007

    Roy:

    There are lots of things I believe in — physics, chemistry, mechanics, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and especially conservation laws.

    I have no idea what this means. In fact, I think that it leaches all meaning out of the term “belief.”

    Take math – I have 2 degrees in the stuff, and it’s never occurred to me that the concept of belief had anything to do with it. It just doesn’t fit …

  31. #31 Caledonian
    June 14, 2007

    All this talk about agnosticism and not one useful definition of ‘god’.

  32. #32 Willard Bertrand
    August 25, 2007

    There are 2 things I know for sure:
    1. i exist
    2. i did not create myself

    After that I suspect a few more things:
    3. everything in my awareness appears to change incessantly
    4. i seem to have a large variety of choices
    5. memory is unstable
    6. reality may exceed my powers of observation
    7. i may be on a planet that rotates hundreds of mph while circling the sun at thousands of mph while the solar system traverses the milky way at half a million mph while the milky way traverses some universe at an unknown speed without a bump or a sense of any significant motion
    8. other beings might share this experience

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