Posts Tagged ‘agnosticism’

I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious.

Sarah Silverman is right. Atheists are totally obnoxious.

You know who’s especially bad though? Anyone who refuses point-blank to even consider sacrificing their only child on the altar of an unknowable deity. I mean, it’s probably not something I’d do myself – in fact, murdering children because of religious beliefs is something of a bugbear of mine – but the people who claim to know with absolute certainty that it’s wrong? They can be equally annoying.

Also, does anyone else get a little freaked out when chemists keep talking about carbon and calcium and aluminium and so forth, and just presume that those are all actual things? They seem pretty damn sure about that big table with all those elements on it, don’t they? I’m not saying that whole “air, earth, fire, water” thing didn’t have its problems, or couldn’t use some updating, but the extent to which some modern extremists so totally dismiss it in favour of their new paradigm doesn’t sit right with me.

And hey, here’s another bunch who wind me up: heliocentrists. Not all of them, by any means, just the hardcore contingent who put me off wanting to identify with the term myself. Sure, I go along with the claim that the Sun’s at the centre of the solar system with the Earth revolving around it, but is it so hard to even admit that it might be the other way around? That maybe this infinite and incomprehensible universe is stranger than we mere mortal humans can comprehend? The arrogance with which some people just tell flat-earthers that they’re “flat-out” wrong really grates on my nerves.

As if that kind of certainty were really possible within the limits of our human perception. It just comes across as narrow-minded.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Can you think of any other completely one-sided debates where it might be fun to occupy a smug middle ground?

2. How reasonable might it actually be that some people have come to this sort of conclusion about atheists?

3. Is this webcomic ever going to stop being relevant?


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When I get around to it, anyway. And after I’ve done enough housework and drunk all the tea that needs drinking. So, these questions you asked ages ago before I got lazy – or busy, let’s go with busy – again:

Internally, I self identify as agnostic, although socially, I tend to self identify as atheist in those settings in which I think someone would be more pissed off by atheism than by agnosticism. Are you of the view that agnostics are simply atheists in denial, or do you see us as a distinct flavor of unbelief?

I like your style in going for whatever will agitate people more. Outside of the capacity to be annoying, though, I think a lot of the debate over whether someone is “really” an atheist or an agnostic is pretty fruitless.

It’s not that there can’t be meaningfully different positions, or that there’s nothing worth debating and disagreeing on here. But when your language is starting to obscure the subjects it should be elucidating, or when your discussion is getting sidetracked into an argument about what words mean, or what they should mean, or what you mean by them never mind what anyone else means by them, then it may be time to change tack.

Let’s taboo the words “atheist”, “agnostic”, and any obvious derivatives for a couple of paragraphs. Now I can’t fixate on my own interpretation of those words and assume everyone else is just using them wrong. So, what do I actually believe?

Well, I believe it’s very unlikely that any god actually exists. It’s possible that some such being, by some reasonable standard of “god”, is actually real and part of the world, just like it’s possible that an elephant wandered into the garden a minute ago and is about to trample over our guinea pigs. I can’t offer an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that’s not the case, but for all practical purposes I can get so close that it’s not a situation I spare even a moment seriously considering.

Any particular named deity – Yahweh, Zeus, all the rest – I give about the same probability of being non-fictional as I do to Spiderman, to within a negligible degree. Does that make me a “strong atheist”? Could my position be summed up by positively asserting “I believe that God does not exist”? I think so.

You might argue that, unless I think God’s non-existence can be proven to 100% certainty, then that remaining shred of doubt makes me an agnostic, not an atheist – but if that’s the way you’re using words, I’d be amazed if the word “atheist” is ever remotely useful to you. It seems linguistically unhelpful to set the bar that high.

If I’m actually engaging in a discussion with someone, and they care to hear an explanation of my views longer than a single word, then I’ll explain something like the above, without simply relying on the tabooed words. They can decide whether they think I’m an atheist, or an agnostic, or something else – it doesn’t really matter how they use language, or what ideas they associate with those words, so long as they understand what I actually think.

But if I’m just looking for a succinct, approximate label – something to identify myself with as a shorthand, which doesn’t need to be nuanced or precise – then “atheist” is probably my best shot at giving the largest number of people the most accurate impression of what’s going on in my head. Many of them will still be way off, but that’ll always be the case in a conversation about something complicated where you rely on individual words with no single uncontroversial definition to carry a large amount of information.

Does that help? I sort of forgot the question for the last couple of hundred words and just kept typing.

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Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury recently entered the Thunderdome of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, and had a rather nice chat. I livetweeted most of it, and there was pleasantly little to get agitated about. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking in it either, and it reminded me that I do like Rowan Williams a good deal.

What’s been most dreary about the whole thing, though, is the aspects that the press have chosen to pick up on. The Telegraph and the Mail, among others, ran headlines with the staggering revelation that Dawkins confessed to feeling – horror of horrors – uncertainty about the non-existence of God.

On the one hand, I suppose it’s understandable why they’d make such a fuss over such an inconsequential restatement of a position he’s been very clear about holding for many years. According to the standard narrative, these militant atheists are dogmatically certain that there’s no God. If they weren’t, they’d call themselves agnostics. They think that they’ve scoured every inch of the universe in which God might be hiding and somehow proved that he’s nowhere to be found.

The fact that this is entirely at odds with mainstream atheism is neither here nor there; ditto the fact that no other truth claims about the world seem to be imbued with the same ideological certainty. If you make the claim that “matter is made of atoms”, for instance, you’re unlikely to meet much resistance from people demanding to know whether you’ve really checked every atom in existence as closely as you possibly can, to make sure they’re definitely not comprised of the classical elements of the Aristotelian tradition.

When I say there’s no such thing as unicorns, this doesn’t cause much controversy; even if uncharted parts of the planet remain where they could exist, they’re generally agreed to be made-up creatures. But if someone showed me a unicorn, and their true existence was determined to a reasonable level of scientific certainty – if it definitely wasn’t an obvious prank, and so forth – then I’d change my mind about them, once the evidence was there.

Why do so many people assume we mean something else when we say there’s no God?

It’s disheartening that the implication “I’m not absolutely certain about this, and I could be wrong” is so alien and bewildering to so many people, and an admission of doubt could cause such a stir. Or perhaps it’s just journalists who are having trouble with it.

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– Are you agnostic, atheist, or something else? Zach Weiner has thoughts that are worth reading.

– Prepare to be astonished: Richard Littlejohn’s lying again. I hope you prepared yourself or the shock might have injured you.

– How many times have you heard someone utter a phrase like “Knock ’em dead!” in casual encouragement to cheer someone on? I imagine a few times, but they were probably white so it was okay. If you’re one of those darkie Muslims, though, blowing away the competition is basically terrorism.

– Is Obama sincere in his Christianity, or not? Panderer or pastor, there’s no reason for atheists to be behind him.

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