"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Friday, August 01, 2008

A-T-H-E-I-S-M... find out what it means to them

(Look at that - you wait ages for a post and then three come along at once. They're like buses.)

There's been a bit of a debate (kicked off by the recent "Questions for atheists" meme) around the blogworld over what the term "atheist" actually denotes. John S. Wilkins of 'Evolving Thoughts' has a thought-provoking post outlining his own views on the matter - which manages to capture the distinction between positive and negative atheism (which seems to split people) quite well.

In summary, he states that:

I think there's a bit of a conundrum here for atheists. Either they have to make a positive claim and exclude agnostics and soi disant deists, or they have to accept they are defined by the religion du jour.

John thinks that atheists should go for the former - positively stating that there are no gods, as opposed to the more agnostic position of simply not accepting religious claims. I can't agree though: The absolutist claim he seems to be arguing for (as an agnostic himself) seems to me to be unsupportable - without some form of absolute knowledge it's impossible to dismiss deistic or more nebulous theistic claims about the nature of the universe. It may be that the evidence for the existence of a creator is incredibly weak, but that doesn't mean we can rule out the possibility altogether, merely that we have to pronounce it extremely unlikely - which seems to bring us closer to the second position.

And it's this position I find myself quite comfortable in: When I say that I'm an atheist, I don't intend to say anything more than that I've found religious arguments so far unconvincing (I am "non-theistic"). It is not so much a claim about the universe as a claim about how the universe appears to me now. I see no way (or need) to deny the possibility that at some point I'll encounter evidence that will change my mind.

Nor in my reading of people such as Dawkins or Hitchens do I see them as advancing much more than a similar position - neither completely rule out that possibility of God (in some form), they simply make the case that all arguments for God so far have been flawed.

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17 Comments:

Blogger John Wilkins said...

Ah! An agnostic!

6:09 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Heh.

An agnostic-atheist maybe. (or should that be atheist-agnostic?)

6:18 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Labels, labels, labels. What to wear?

I am seriously considering changing my blog title to the Ignostic Monk, though. I think it's the safest part of the fence to sit on.

10:25 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Depending on the god(s) in question, I'm an ignostic, apatheist, atheist agnostic.

Maybe we should go with militant agnosticism:

"I don't know for certain and neither do you!"

10:31 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Though there may be some validity to the concept of ignosticism I worry it may be uncomfortably close to logical positivism due to it's seeming reliance on a sort of Popperesque naïve falsificationism.

Perhaps if they were to work from a more Lakatosian research program oriented concept of falsification I'd be a little more sympathetic.

10:40 AM

 
Anonymous Eshu said...

I've yet to meet a "strong atheist" - ie: "There definitely is no god".

I love that militant agnosticism - that may become a tshirt if you don't me stealing the idea!

6:59 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I think that if atheism has to be defined as strong atheism then there are probably about 12 atheists in the entire world.

I love that militant agnosticism - that may become a tshirt if you don't me stealing the idea!

Heh, I'm sure I've stolen it from someone else.

7:56 AM

 
Anonymous Hugh said...

The religious are atheists about all gods except their particular pet god. Atheists just go one god further.

11:47 AM

 
Anonymous Hugh said...

Eshu said...
I've yet to meet a "strong atheist" - ie: "There definitely is no god".
-----------------------------------
Religionists are dogmatic. Atheists are rational and would not say dogmatically that the Flying Spaghetti Monster definitely does not exist. 'Existence', in any case, is not the issue.

12:46 PM

 
Blogger mutleythedog said...

I for one cant be bothered to form an opinion as I cant about star signs and werewolves and scientology and other nonsense...

1:20 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Matt,

The absolutist claim he seems to be arguing for (as an agnostic himself) seems to me to be unsupportable - without some form of absolute knowledge it's impossible to dismiss deistic or more nebulous theistic claims about the nature of the universe.

I think it's probably best to reserve 'atheism' to refer to the doctrine that God does not exist and use 'agnostic' for some kind of denial of knowledge about God. This is the way Huxley intended these terms when he coined 'agnosticism.' It is handy to have terminology which marks these distinctions.

After all, there are people who think there is evidence against the existence of God. The problem of evil is typically presented as an argument for atheism (in my sense). Matt, you might check out The Impossibility of God, a compilation of philosophical papers arguing for, well, what it sounds like.

1:00 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I think it's probably best to reserve 'atheism' to refer to the doctrine that God does not exist

The problems I have with that are 1) I don't see that kind of atheism as coherent (it's an absolute claim that requires absolute knowledge - something it denies) and 2) it doesn't seem to fit with the etymology of the word: The "a" prefix denotes an absence, not denial of. (Unless someone can prove me wrong here).

The book you recommend looks interesting - but from the summaries and reviews it seems as though it fails to live up to its claim, dealing only with the improbability of specific types of divine beings based on what we know of the universe.

As I've argued before, the problem of evil (and other arguments like it) don't rule out the possibility of a god (given the extremely nebulous nature of the term) as much as an understandable god.

When you look at some of the more "imaginative" ideas behind theism*, the idea that you could conclusively disprove all of them (as strong atheism requires you to do) becomes little more than a pipe-dream.

(*Take the consecration of bread and wine in the Eucharist for example - they become the blood and flesh of Christ yet remain bread and wine to all observers - how do you disprove, as opposed to simply declaring it improbable, that?)

5:22 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Matt,

The problems I have with that are 1) I don't see that kind of atheism as coherent (it's an absolute claim that requires absolute knowledge - something it denies) and 2) it doesn't seem to fit with the etymology of the word

I don't understand the problem here. The claim

(A) God does not exist.

in no way implies

(F) All of our beliefs are fallible.

And, besides, these two claims, (A) and (F), are compatible. There's no inconsistency in believing that God does not exist while also believing that none of our beliefs is guarded against all possible ways of going wrong.

Since the word 'atheism' dates back to at least the 16th century, I'm not sure the etymology will come out in the usual way.

The book you recommend looks interesting - but from the summaries and reviews it seems as though it fails to live up to its claim, dealing only with the improbability of specific types of divine beings based on what we know of the universe.

Well, those summaries and reviews are incorrect. On Amazon, you should be able to peek inside the book. Read the introduction on pages 13 and 14.

When you look at some of the more "imaginative" ideas behind theism*, the idea that you could conclusively disprove all of them (as strong atheism requires you to do) becomes little more than a pipe-dream.

Again, I'm not sure what the problem here is. From (A), it follows that the doctrine of the trans-substantiation is false. Besides, theists dispute that doctrine as well, and appeal to scriptural sources... So, the fact that one type of investigation is ruled out doesn't mean that all possible types of investigation are ruled out.

11:49 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

But if we say that god is not impossible, merely improbable, then what's the real difference between an atheist and a (weak) agnostic?

My position on the god(s) hypothesis is that I don't know for sure, but I serious doubt it.

I think most atheists would say the same.

On Amazon, you should be able to peek inside the book. Read the introduction on pages 13 and 14.

Unfortunately the excerpt only covers pages 17-18.

As I see it, in order to disprove the existence of something you must first sufficiently define it - and that's where I think attempts to disprove god collapse... the term is just too nebulous. If, as most theists assert, a god is infinitely powerful then its existence would be far beyond the comprehension of us mere limited mortals.

We could, at best, demonstrate that if god existed we'd have no way of understanding such a being - but in doing so we'd rule out serious questions on its existence.

12:24 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"As I see it, in order to disprove the existence of something you must first sufficiently define it - and that's where I think attempts to disprove god collapse..."

That's why I'm starting to feel that even agnosticism is too strong a position. To express a lack of knowing one way or the other about something, one must at least know what that something is or is supposed to be.

I can be agostic about whether a certain defined hypothesis is true or false, until there is evidence to decide otherwise. But I cannot be agnostic about a hypothesis that has yet to be proposed in the first place.

God is a somewhat amorphous concept with goal posts floating around hither and yon.

2:39 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Actually somebody linked to a quote by Augustine somewhere, where he says something along the lines of, "If you define God, then God is not that which you think you have defined."

Where do you go from there?

2:44 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incit,
Would the distinction between exhaustive vs. partial knowledge have any relevance here?

2:46 PM

 

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