Atheist or Agnostic?

(An essay from Cybernetic Ruminations)

January, 1998

Brandyn Webb / brandyn@sifter.org
Date: Mon, 5 Jan 1998
To: Mark Maxham
From: Brandyn Webb
Subject: Re: atheist v. agnostic
>My answer to a lot of the big questions is indeed "I don't know," which
>sounds agnostic, but for me it's much more active than what I think of as
>agnosticism. I refuse to make up answers to avoid facing "I don't know". I
>refuse to posit things that are untestable. Do I believe in the Christian
>God?  No way.  Can I prove he doesn't exist?  Um ... well, no, dammit, but
>what does that have to do with anything?  
>
>I loathe the idea that a Believer can glibly say, "You can't prove your
>position any more than I can prove mine."
>
>So, am I an atheist, an agnostic, or what?
All knowledge is probabilistic. When we say we are "sure" of something, we mean (if we are being rational, anyway) that the odds of it being any other way, given the abstract sum of our personal observations over our entire lives, are so small as to be irrelevant in the context of the discussion or decision to be made. (*)

An agnostic is not someone who admits to a near infinitely small likelihood that some particular definition of god may be correct. An agnostic is someone who attributes some significant likelihood to the possibility.

An atheist would bet their life against the existence of a (specificaly defined) god, in the same way they bet their life every time they walk out the front door in sunny San Diego that they will not be attacked by a polar bear while being struck by lightening, shot in the head, and dissemboweled by a misplaced samurai who'd been frozen in a freak boating accident and recently thawed and released by a secret group of deranged cryogenesists. _Prove_ to me that this absolutely can't happen when I walk out the door today. In fact, it's considerably more likely than most definitions of god.

An agnostic, by contrast, either openly believes the god thing has significant likelihood, or does so subconsciously. In the latter case, the result is a fear of the possible consequences "what if there _is_ a god!", derived directly from the subconscious attribution of non-insignificant likelihood to the possibility. So the agnostic does not want to say: "There is no god! I bet my life there is no god!" and yet they bet their lives on _vastly_ less probable things every day. (How many times do you have to pull the handle before it comes up 6-6-6?)

So, imho, the mistake is in assuming there is, or need be, any absolute certainty in belief. As long as you begin with that premise, you are fighting a losing battle -- the Believer will always have the truth of your uncertainty on his side.

The focus should be on the Believer's (or even the agnostic's!) unjustified confidence in the god thing. The argument is not about whether you can _disprove_ god, but about why you should even begin to consider one. This, of course, is hazardous territory, too, due to the fluidity of the god definition, but if you stick to one definition at a time, you'll find that: to the extent that "god" is merely a summary of observations, it is just science as we know it, and to the extent that "god" embeleshes observation, it is arbitrary (of insignificantly small likelihood). A common tactic of the Believer is to freely navigate between vastly different levels of detail -- they present a notion so vague that by some interpretation it may well be true, and then they fill in all the details on the blank paper you've just signed. If they won't hold still, you shouldn't play darts with them.

Understand that when people say "god", whether they openly admit this or not, they are generally referring to some thing that is _by definition_ greater than science. Even the modern unitarian-type mystics, some of whom might say that "god" as they mean it might some day be understood by science, would not be satisfied with a scientific explanation for whatever aspects or emotions they are attributing to it, and will, instead, always extend their definition to maintain this superiority of their "god" over science. Most people are scared shitless of the prospect that they're just a jumble of organic molecules, and most agnosticism and mysticism is probably born of this fear.

So, bearing that in mind, when you can ferret out what someone _really_ means by "god", it's generally pretty obvious that you're an atheist by those terms.

-Brandyn

(*) One could say that logical deduction creates certain knowledge, in that the process amounts to simply restating the same belief in a different manner. However, it is only the derived logical relationship between the encodings that is certain, while the predictive power -- what the knowledge says about the future behavior of the world of our experience -- is still limitted by the necessary uncertainty of the original premises.


Some more replies to Max from other friends...
Date: Mon, 05 Jan 1998
From: Rich Drewes
To: Mark Maxham
Subject: Re: atheist v. agnostic
Mark Maxham wrote:

I'm having a bit of trouble with a pair of labels: atheist and agnostic. I 
have this desire (mainly to irritate the religious, I think) to label 
myself atheist. But I think if I described to most people my attitude, 
they'd say I'm agnostic. But it seems there's a subtlety here that I have 
had trouble describing. 

I think I maybe have a position that will satisfy your very reasonable desire to give a definitive answer to Christians in discussions of this sort, yet still be intellectually honest.  First some background.

There is a philosopher named Wallace Matson whom I got to know a little bit while I was at Berkeley (he retired a couple of years ago).  He had an interesting personal intellectual history, including once co-hosting an Objectivist course at Berkeley way back when with Binswanger, I believe.   That's another story.

Anyway, Matson also participated in a fairly well known debate series hosted by some religious guy who specializes in debating evolution and apologetics.  A bunch of other fairly well known philosophers had debated this guy; it was Matson's turn, and he accepted the challenge.  I went to pains to dig up the transcript of the debate in the Berkeley philosophy library at the time, and it was most enjoyable reading.   Here's what happened.

Matson was well aware of the difficulties in debating from the agnostic position.  A reasonable philosopher certainly can't claim something *can't possibly exist* right?  That's the well known problem of proving a negative.  Therefore, part 1 of Matson's plan was to get the other guy to agree to a seemingly innocuous modification to the premise of the debate, changing  it from a general debate about the existence of any god to a debate about the existence of the Christian God.  Since the guy was a fundamentalist Christian, he went along with the change.

Here is the clever part:  in his opening statement, Matson explained the well known difficulty in proving a negative.  When his opponent was a little surprised that Matson had given up so easily, Matson continued by saying that there *was* one case where an honest philosopher *could* rule a proposition out entirely, could in fact prove a negative.  That's when the proposition in question contains a *logical* inconsistency.  For example, a philosopher could completely confidently state that there are no four sided triangles.

Then, he continued, he was atheistic with respect to the Christian God because (perhaps unlike other conceivable Gods) the concept of the Christian God contains several such *logical contradictions*.  He cited several.  For example, 1) if the Bible is inerrantly true and  2) if the Christian God is infinitely merciful and infinitely just, then 3a) there is a contradiction because the Bible contains lots of examples of God acting like a petulant, vengeful child.  Or 3b) sinners spend eternity burning in Hell after being committed there by an 'infinitely merciful' God.  (Note that as for 3a, these Biblical passages, shocking and heinous as they are, are still subject to interpretation.  I think no reasonable person could maintain that the acts described in the Bible are consistent with a merciful and just God (see the book "The Harlot by the Side of the Road" for an entertaining account of some of these stories).  But fundamentalist Christians are not reasonable people.  Matson did not think he could convince these close minded people that God was not just, but he enjoyed the opportunity to recount a number of Biblical atrocities sanctioned (or committed) by God, in the debate setting.  As I do.)

Therefore, the Christian God as conceived is logically impossible and Matson could say with complete certainty that He does not exist.  This is another way of saying that he is an atheist (with respect to *that* God).

One of the central difficulties in calling yourself an atheist is, as Marc, Jon, and Brandyn pointed out:  an atheist with respect to what?  This is a good opportunity to point out to the person you are discussing this with that there are countless possible deities to believe in--quite a few incompatible ones in fact that people *do* believe in--and one of those definitions might well be satisfied by a technologically advanced entity living by Proxima Centauri wearing a pink bunny suit.  Who knows.

But feel free to tell Christians that as far as *their* God is concerned, you are an atheist.  The Christian God is *logically* impossible.

I think Rich said (or quoted), "An agnostic is an atheist who lacks the 
courage of their convictions." :-) 

Don't recall saying that, though I have heard the quote before.  Mark Twain maybe?

either.  I've seen Brandyn torment Believers with his six-foot-tall 
invisible pink bunny who can do anything their God can do (except the bunny 
doesn't want to). 
Watch what you say about my savior.

Rich -- 
PGP key at http://www.interstice.com/drewes
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
--Philip K. Dick


Date: Mon, 5 Jan 1998
To: Mark Maxham
From: George Spillman
Subject: Re: atheist v. agnostic
At 10:21 AM -0800 1/5/98, Mark Maxham wrote:
>Acording to Webster ...
>atheist: one who denies the existence of God
>agnostic: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or
>the nonexistence of God or a god

>So, am I an atheist, an agnostic, or what?
If I can borrow from george smith:

a-theist:  "a" meaning absence, negation or "not"
	   "theist" meaning "having or possessing an active belief in God"

a-gnostic: "a" meaning negation or "not"
	   "gnostic" from the greek gnosis, to know
Simply, and atheist has not an active belief in god. I am one, but so is anyone else that doesn't have an ACTIVE belief in a god. (Babies would be a prime example here. They have to be *taught* that there is a god before they can believe in it. And nothing pisses of a Christian like telling them that babies are all atheists by nature (and definition!).)

Thomas Huxley (Grandfather of Aldus) coined the term "agnostic" to provide some justification for his moral cowardice. Huxley took a dim view on those that could claim to have certainty in such matters. (The Gnostics were actually an early Christian sect, who claimed to have access to absolute knowledge. It has been a while since I read some of my history of the early church (an interest of mine), but if memory serves, the sect died out due to its avocation of extreme tactics (like killing the rich or some such).) So, he tried to create a "grey" area betwixt the true believers and the hell-bound atheists.

But, for those of you that understand logic, there is nothing outside of the set of a & not-a, they are mutually exclusive. Huxley made a false distinction. Being a theist or an atheist speaks to your belief in god. Being "without knowledge" (agnostic) means that you are without knowledge. You can be agnostic about anything. For a (very bad) example: I am agnostic about the state of [insert your favorite sport here]. Okay, that's weak and stretching it, but it goes to my point that you being agnostic is just about knowledge. Now, as it happens, most people are usually talking about god in this context, but that doesn't have to be the case.

Now here's the part I have to thank George for: You can have a knowledge state in relation to your theistic perspective NO MATTER WHICH CAMP YOU HAPPEN TO BE IN. That is: there are 2 kinds of agnostics. There is the agnostic that claims that god *does* exist (thereby having an active belief in god) but it is beyond our power to know anything about that god. This would be an agnostic *theist* (or an Unitarian :) ). Or, then you can just say that there might well be a god or not--who knows?? In that case you are an agnostic *atheist*.


Date: Mon, 5 Jan 1998
To: Marc Palmaffy
From: George Spillman
Subject: Re: atheist v. agnostic

At 4:39 PM -0800 1/5/98, Marc Palmaffy wrote:
>> a-theist:  "a" meaning absence, negation or "not"
>>            "theist" meaning "having or possessing an active belief in God"
>>
>> a-gnostic: "a" meaning negation or "not"
>>            "gnostic" from the greek gnosis, to know
>>
>
>Thanks for this bit of etymology, George.  I was hoping someone would
>take the time to help out (after my sarcastic remark about the
>vocabulary of the average American).

In the previous post, I should have put my last paragraph 1st as it was both the most interesting and most important. Huxley was being a whimp with his agnoisticism. You still are either a theist or not, regardless of how certain you are about it.

> However, since it's now in the
>Webster dictionary (by popular demand, I guess), we're stuck with
>saying:
>
>"I have no active belief in God."

I have no problem with that. Keep in mind the difference between having an active belief and not. "Not" is a much larger set than you would think. (including my example of the baby, but also children (that don't have the mental/conceptual capability to understand the issues necessary to make an affirmation (ie, a parrot can mimic the words "I believe in god" without understanding them. No one (in even *half* of their right mind) would argue that the parrot believes in god.) So must a child be of a mental perspective, so as to evaluate the issues enough to take a stand.), and adults that are unfamiliar with the positions involved.) You do NOT have to have a conscious rejection of the notion of god to qualify. Most christians take the stance that everyone by default is god-fearing, and some of us just fall from grace. But that is not true at all. You have to actually do something to become a theist. Being an atheist can be a passive state. Just don't believe in god, and BINGO! One more atheist in the world.

If you have an active belief in god, you are making an assertion. Otherwise, EVERYONE ELSE IN THE UNIVERSE IS AN ATHEIST. There are more of us than you thought. And since *they* are the ones that are making the assertion, the burden of proof lay upon their shoulders. They make the claim to knowledge, "NOW PROVE IT, DAMMIT, OR SHUT UP."

Now I hope that I haven't offended any of you that went to great trouble to disabuse yourself of the notion of god, by calling atheism a passive state. You can also make an explicit rejection of the idea of a god and be an atheist. Just as long as you don't make an explicit *acceptance* of the idea of a god, your safe and one of us. So don't look down on this other class of atheists! Embrace your brethren! And together shall we all rise, turn to the theists and give them a rousing bronx cheer!

George,
Fighter for truth, justice, and whatever is holding my interests at the moment


Brandyn Webb / brandyn@sifter.org

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