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An Atheist’s Perspective: “Atheism” and “Agnosticism”

June 24, 2014 5 comments

At this point, if you have read this far, you should understand that I am an atheist. I do not believe that there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that god(s) exist. This implies, in the philosophical sense, that I also believe that there is no evidence for divine involvement in human affairs and that any religion happens to have the “Truth.” The fourth word in that definition is the word “believe,” it’s there because the definition of “sufficient evidence” can be subjective. One person might think that sufficient evidence is what they were told as a child, e.g. that a book is the direct word of god and is all the evidence needed to support the claim. Others might think that sufficient evidence is a beam of light coming from the sky and a giant voice in the heavens. While the latter would certainly change my opinion that isn’t my standard of evidence, I would like to see something that cannot be explained by natural causes or at least the same amount of evidence that we have to establish the existence of, say Julius Caesar. I believe that there is no divine personality at the center of everything, maybe Spinoza was right and that all things are divine or Xenophanes with is cosmos god, but those are points of view which get fuzzy. I remain a bit unconvinced as to them.

The term “agnostic” is different than atheist. Thomas Henry Huxley, a believer in Darwin’s theory of evolution, is credited with creating the term “agnostic,” although given its Greek roots it’s doubtful that he was the first. The Greek definition of the term means “without knowledge” as gnosis=knowledge and the prefix “a” means “without” or “lacking” (a similar instance is where we derive the word “atom” meaning “un-cuttable”). A person can be agnostic about many things, for instance, if someone asks me about who I want to win the world series I can reply that I am agnostic about baseball, since I have little to no knowledge about the sport. Calling oneself “agnostic” is just an admittance of ignorance. However, we aren’t talking about people using Greek words in the English vernacular. When a person calling oneself an agnostic now they usually mean that they don’t have an answer for the god question. If you hear someone claim that they are an agnostic, it typically means that they have some idea that a divine entity exists but that they are not members of a religion. There exists a problem with this which can be illustrated in the following conversation.

Alice: “Do you believe in god?”

Bob: “I’m an agnostic.”

The issue with this statement is that Bob is answering a question that Alice isn’t asking. Alice is asking about belief while Bob is answering a knowledge based question. Alice didn’t ask Bob if he knew whether god exists or not, she asked Bob what he believed on the subject. While the two are often linked in such a manner that if a person considers themselves an atheist they probably consider themselves an agnostic they are not logically interchangeable. An agnostic can be a person that has faith but does not have knowledge, the lesson that we were supposed to learn from doubting Thomas–the ideal, in fact that the story is supposed to communicate. So it is entirely probable that a devout Christian could consider themselves agnostic, this would probably be the most honest since the question can’t truly be known. In essence, if Bob answers, “I’m agnostic but I believe that there must be something out there,” they immediately fall into a class of theism (also the word “but” is unnecessary). The matter of belief is what matters, while Bob’s “agnosticism” is about the nature of the divinity in question.

An atheist, on the other hand may make the claim that they believe there is no god, but they must remain agnostic on that particular issue because a negative cannot be proven. I believe I’ve made myself clear on this blog as to that point. However it is perfectly appropriate to ask what would constitute the kind of proof would meet their criteria. That lack of evidence means that atheist acts as if there is no divinity but that does not mean they are “gnostic” about it (it does not mean there is a belief in the matter either, that is a confusion of the terms “belief” and “opinion”). 

In short, assuming that someone who is agnostic is also an atheist is an incorrect assumption. Agnosticism may involve a wide range of religious beliefs from a devout monotheist to the atheist. 

 

An Atheist’s Perspective: A Walk in the Woods

June 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Imagine you were taking a walk in the woods and you came across a rock. You probably wouldn’t think anything of it, because as I said, it’s just a rock. Most likely, you wouldn’t even notice the existence of the rock unless you tripped on it or kicked it in some fashion. We’re assuming that it’s a small rock, not like a boulder or anything. Anyway, you keep walking and you come across a watch, er cellphone since this is the 21st century. The first thing you would do is look around for the person that so obviously dropped it. Picking it up you notice that it’s a touch screen, and to your chagrin it’s password protected. After trying the obvious passwords such as 0000, or 8520 or 1234; you put it in your pocket. The phone weighs heavily on your mind, you think about how it got there. That it someone obviously caused it to get there, and at no point would the idea that the cellphone was naturally occurring enter into your mind—because you are not an idiot. Perhaps it has a logo on it, some sort of identifier on it that makes it very clear (other than the thing’s existence of course) that someone made this phone. It perfectly represents the thing that it is supposed to do. It has a purpose in its design.

On your way home on the sidewalk you notice that a puddle has formed on the street. You look at the puddle and for some reason you begin to reflect on the nature of the puddle. Being familiar with the street you do remember that a depression in the road had formed, and now you realize that the depression was specifically designed to hold exactly that same amount of water which currently makes up the puddle. You begin to think of the roadwork that woke you up early on your day off last year, and how they repaved the street right in that spot. The freak accident involving the ice cream truck and the clown car happening right on that very spot, while the woman on the floor above you who tossed her cheating boyfriend’s television out the window must have known to aim for that spot as well in order to help create the depression so that this specific amount of water could be held in the street. You begin to ponder the grand design of the cosmos and first causes all evidenced in the specific amount of water that is now being held in that small depression in the street to form this one puddle. 

These questions of design all come forward, some intelligence is responsible for this hole’s ability to hold this specific amount of water and no amount of posturing is going to shake that belief. Until you realize that the only reason that puddle exists is because the water that couldn’t fit evaporated away. You also realize that it rained a month ago and a puddle formed then too, and if it rains next week the same thing will happen. Suddenly the realization occurs that the puddle occurred in a place where it could, and that the road was not designed to hold it. Embarrassed, but thankful that you didn’t utter any of this out loud, your head shakes…you put the cart before the horse almost literally thinking that the horse was made to pull the cart and not that the cart was made because the horse seems like it could pull it. The same went with the puddle…you repeat to yourself, “the puddle formed because the conditions were right, not that the conditions were made so that the puddle was formed.” 

The phone in your pocket rings, and you make an arrangement to give it the person who dropped it. Just because you don’t adhere to design doesn’t mean your a jerk. 

An Atheist’s Perspective: Red Team II Tales of Flying Pasta

June 10, 2014 1 comment

Red team is a series that I will be using to tackle some of the more ridiculous and weaker arguments against the existence of god and the veracity of religious experience. I think it is important to recognize that Atheism, as a movement, ought not to have dogmas and apostates. We should recognize that a bad argument is a bad argument which should be shunned even if that bad argument supports our “side.” I do not know the origin of the term (a quick wiki search revealed that it is used in military scenarios) but I am adopting it from the second season of HBO’s Newsroom since the phrase “devil’s advocate” seems laughably out of place. 

I’ll begin by saying that I’m not against the idea behind the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (hereafter: FYM). I get the point of it, but at some instance of time its noodly appendage has gone too far…or rather it has been grasped by the wrong people, the type of people that don’t understand the Colbert Report is a satire. 

Some history is in order. In 2005, the culture wars were in full swing. I won’t lend credence to the idea that Christianity was actually under assault, what I mean is that throughout the country the idea that Christianity was under assault was given more and more news coverage. An idea that fed into the paranoia of fundamentalists and bible literalists who needed to feel that they were the last bastions of America and that all it took to destroy both America and Jesus was the allowance of a single entity which contradicted their beliefs. While some may say that the 2004 election was about the Iraq War, they also need to qualify that statement with the number of ballot initiatives passed by each state forbidding gay marriage. The presidential election was close but these initiatives and amendments passed by margins that seem shockingly wide ten years later. These were religiously motivated laws designed to keep a non-existent cabal of homosexuals and anti-Christians from “winning” a fight that was only being fought by the fundamentalists. 

The bible literalists must have seen the tide turning against them which is why they drummed up the false war. One of the battles they decided to center on was against established science. Their tactic was to argue against evolutionary theory and natural selection, which they termed “Darwinism” even though the science has left Darwin’s theory, by trying to exorcise it from school textbooks. This had been tried before where they fought to keep evolution out of the schools, but Cold War panic forced it in courtesy of Sputnik. Now they would be fighting to get their religion in via the thinly veiled guise of Intelligent Design. Their first tactic was to claim that there exists within biology a controversy regarding evolution. The idea is that evolutionary biologists are currently debating within the academic sphere over whether or not evolution better explains life or creation. This is patently false, the debate does not exist. There is, however, a debate on the mechanism of what causes mutations, how adaptations occur, and various other nuances within the sphere of evolution but that evolution is the primary mechanism for the development of life on this planet is not debated. There is too much evidence, and pretending otherwise is fantasy. “How” not “if” is the real question of evolution. 

Those behind the controversy, such as the ironically named Discovery Institute, knew that they couldn’t just place Creationism in the science class. That would be blatantly illegal. They would try and do two things: force students to learn the weaknesses of evolution which is part of the scientific endeavor to begin with by establishing certain questions that professionals in the field were researching, such as discrepancies in evolutionary history, rates of adaptation, etc. However, the goal was then to establish a supernatural explanation for the origins of life (this is evidenced in what is known as the Discovery Institute’s “Wedge Document”). They would also focus on the word “theory” opposing it to the term “fact” completely misunderstanding how the word theory is used in science versus the way we use it in daily life (theory means a hypothesis that is confirmed by evidence, not a guess). This came to head in Kansas in 2005, as ID was being pushed to be included in the Kansas State Science curriculum. 

Despite this being a violation of First Amendment separation as ID is only a Christian phenomenon which is pushed by Creationists, the Kansas school board gave it a go anyway. While numerous scientific organizations both state and national opposed the attempt on scientific grounds, Physics graduate Brian Henderson wrote a letter in which he asked for equal time in the curriculum for his belief in a flying spaghetti monster. The reasoning was that since ID is purposefully ambiguous as to what the designer actually is a space monster could easily be slipped in. It’s a reductio ad absurdum argument which exploits ID proponent’s reluctance to claim that the designer is their version of god (which they can’t because of legal issues). By what ground could they forbid the one teaching while including their belief in supernatural origins? It forces ID into a corner, if they take offense at the mockery they are admitting that their idea has a specific god and religion. If they accept it, they are then being forced to teach this un-observable anti-scientific nonsense along side their own. 

As a satire it works. As a reductio ad absurdum argument it works as well. Where it doesn’t work, is where most people encounter it. FSM, is a not an argument against the existence of god, it’s an argument against forcing people to learn specific religion teachings in the public sphere. As a semi-employed adjunct professor, I’ve encountered it in papers and it is always used wrong. Last week I talked about Russel’s Teapot and how that was misused as an argument against religion when it’s really about putting the burden of proof back where it belongs. The FSM is misused in much the same way. The purpose is to explain that ideas which cannot be proven either way do not belong in science classrooms, which is why the image of a flying plate of spaghetti was used, it’s purposefully ridiculous. To use this argument in any other manner not only misses the point but merely sets up a straw man. 

Further it presents a false analogy: religious beliefs aren’t the same as belief in the FSM. WIth regard to the FSM we all know it to be false in our heads. Not one person actually thinks there is a FSM (well hopefully but this is the internet), but religious people do actually believe in their respective beliefs. By comparing their belief to something everyone knows is false you are merely driving a wedge between the two camps and forcing the religious person to become defensive which will not lead to any kind of progress. Most religious beliefs are more like fairy tales in that they are told to people at a young age, the difference being that at a certain age the adult explains that the fairy tale is just a story. Until that point, however, the child treats the story as something real it is only an authority figure that can tell them otherwise. The FSM just creates fights not arguments when used in the typical way. Keep it in its corner, where its noodles work wonders because otherwise it doesn’t help anyone. 

An Atheist’s Perspective: Red Team 1-Russell’s Teapot

June 3, 2014 1 comment

A week or so ago, I read an interesting comment on one of my facebook posts. It was one of those comments that really ought to have been a direct message, like I posted a picture of my daughter and received a comment that had nothing to do with it at all. The message wanted me to know that I was sorely missed at a Philosophy club that I irregularly attend in my hometown of Rochester. When I say irregularly I mean it, in the four years that I have lived in Rochester I think I may have been to ten meetings, and they meet every week. I have reasons for this: one was my school schedule, after commuting an hour to UB to attend graduate level philosophy courses I’m pretty burned out to attend a club meeting. The second was that there is a surprising lack of Philosophy at some of these philosophy meetings. While I don’t expect a large group of professional academics to show up, what I have trouble tolerating is the new age bullshit, the waiting to talk dilletantes, and the people that merely attend to shout out whatever strange opinion they brought in order to sound smart (seriously one guy tried to talk about wolves for one meeting, and it wasn’t in the vein of environmental ethics or animal rights).

The message explained that there was a conversation in which some people were not the best representatives of the atheist worldview. What I took it to mean was that the question of god was broached and the asshole faction of the atheism side decided that they were going to offer up whatever screeds they learned on the internet. I could be wrong, they could have been the type that don’t do the reading, don’t understand the arguments, and worse yet do not understand the religious viewpoint. Those of the latter category just need to hit the books a bit or engage in constructive argumentation and eventually they’ll learn important lessons (like never argue with a literalist by explaining that they’re wrong).

The former category though is troubling. Atheists are a minority, and being a minority means that a stereotype exists about us: that we are godless misanthropes who hate Christians (and for some reason, America), are socialists, Satanists, and for some reason ally ourselves with Islam. It took Glen Beck to interact with Penn Jillette to even begin to understand that not all atheists are lefties. Yet, the problem isn’t just fundamentalist Christianity demonizing us, the asshole atheists are part of the problem.

Unlike the ignorant category I mentioned earlier, they don’t want to understand and nor do they think they have to. Just like the fundamentalists, they think they sit on a rock solid position and shouldn’t have to interact with people who believe in some religion. These are the “knowers,” the ones that know god doesn’t exist–even though such a thing isn’t logically possible. As I have stated in previous posts, I can’t say that god or gods do not exist, what I can say is that I have seen no evidence and will change my mind if such evidence does present itself.

These “knowers” take the absence of evidence as evidence of absence and then move to their next target which is particular religious beliefs. Typically they look for specific evidence that contradicts a religious belief and then use that one belief to mar the entire thing. This is difficult to write because I know that I am guilty of it myself, but I try and keep in contextual. I don’t use the impossibility of Noah’s Ark, which I was taught as a child was a historical event, as evidence that Jesus never existed because those are two different claims in two completely different contexts. Just because Solomon didn’t write Ecclesiastes doesn’t mean Paul didn’t write the letters of Paul. That won’t matter to the knowers, because they believe all they need to do is pull one brick out and the whole thing falls apart. Yet, that only works on literalists who will never admit that it’s wrong anyway.

So in keeping with a standard of objectivity, I’m going to play for the red team and offer up some counter arguments to some of the real bad arguments that this type of atheist offers. In a way this kind of makes me a traitor, but as far as I know there is no such thing as an atheist apostate. Further by eviscerating the bad arguments I hope to elevate the atheist who is genuinely concerned with the truth of the matter and not merely trying to piss off the society around them because they like getting a rise out of people.

Cracked.com did a good job of explaining Russell’s teapot so I’ll just let you read it in the link. I would begin with this because it is supposed to be an idea that is grounded in the scientific principle but is wielded like a cudgel despite the fact that ontologically the principle cannot be used this way correctly. The writer does a good job in explaining the correct usage but Bertrand Russell’s position is more generalizable: it’s not just a response, it’s a burden of proof shift by imperative.

A person claiming that because another person believes in Mormonism they must also believe in teapots in space is missing the point because they think that Russell’s point was to ridicule belief. It wasn’t, his point was that if you are making a claim you have to be able to prove that claim if you think others are supposed to believe in it. The teapot is silly (although NASA should put one up there as a goof) but it’s accidental to the argument. If Russell had said that he believed in a planet between Mercury and the Sun–a statement that people used to believe…and some still do–it would have the same effect. The teapot assertion isn’t that religious belief is ridiculous, it’s that if you belief a woman didn’t die but was instead lifted off the Earth into heaven (Catholic belief) you have to bring some kind of evidence to the table if you expect others to believe it. If the other person doesn’t care what you believe and is instead just explaining their view, Russell’s teapot is powerless.