Sunday, 26 July 2009

Your Cut-Out-And-Keep Guide to Agnostic Atheism

Atheist Yesterday over lunch with some immediate and extended family, the topic of religion came up. I confess I may have been the instigator in this case.

Over the course of the discussion the comment was made that atheists (particularly that awful Richard Dawkins character) can’t really call themselves “atheists”, because you can’t prove there isn’t a God.

This is a very common view and in fact, probably the single most common “refutation” of atheism out there.

Unfortunately it’s a nonsensical argument, based as it is on the erroneous conflation of atheism with philosophical materialism.

Most atheists don’t claim definitively that there is no God. This is particularly true of someone like Dawkins who, as a scientist, values empirical knowledge. That kind of absolutism just doesn’t wash under his philosophy.

In precise terms Dawkins (and I would include myself in this camp too) is what you might call an agnostic atheist.

This is of course harking back to the original definition of agnosticism, being the acceptance that certain things, particularly the metaphysical, are inherently unknowable.

One’s position on agnosticism is completely separate from what one happens to believe about the metaphysical. It should be clear that agnosticism and atheism are no more mutually exclusive than agnosticism and theism.

To illustrate the point I would like to propose the following simple numbering system:

TheGridGroup 1 is where you’ll find most religious believers, as it includes anyone who claims God is both knowable and known (usually just by them).

Group 2 houses your scientifically-minded theists and pretty much anyone who studies the philosophy of religion and somehow manages to remain a believer.

Group 2 is significantly less populous than Group 1 and a constant source of irritation to Group 3 (where you’ll find the vast majority of atheists) because it’s often trotted out in defence of religion under the pretence that that’s where most believers sit.

They don’t.

Finally Group 4 (containing your hardcore philosophical materialists) is largely empty. And because there’s hardly anyone in there, trying to refute atheism by targeting this lot is a bit like trying to kill a lion by clipping its toenails.

I respectfully request that all future religious discussions clearly indicate which of these four groups is being discussed.

Thank you.


Rob said...

I (somewhat) call shenanigans.
You are saying that you believe that some things can't be known? That one day, science will throw up its hands and say "we're done here. we've answered aeverything that can be answered empirically through the scientific method, and while there are still questions out there, they can't be known by us"?

I don't believe that's what you think at all. (Isn't it great how so many of our arguments stem from one of us claiming to know the other better than they do themselves?).
Admitting that you don't have all the answers (which is what your basic atheist, the kind that you put yourself in the same category does) is not the same as admitting that there is unknowable stuff out there.
Saying there is unknowable stuff out there, and you don't and will never know what it is is tantamount to admitting there is a god, or the supernatural, or the spiritual or whatever

I think, before you start pairing each of your categories (and particularly if you're going to start using this as some kind of basis of all future discussions), you need to better define what each mean. Tell us, for the purposes of a pairing, what an atheist is, what a theist is, what a gnostic is and what an agnostic is, and then perhaps your pairings (and your categorisation of yourself within them) might be more useful.
(btw, you didn't even explicitly say what group 3 was all about).

Matt said...

'That one day, science will throw up its hands and say ... while there are still questions out there, they can't be known by us"?'

Hasn't science already done that? Science seeks only natural explanations for phenomena.
It's not that supernatural phenomena are denied, rather that such things are recognised as being unknowable via science.

Science is a very agnostic pursuit.

Having said that, I don't think science will ever throw up it's hands and say "that's it, we're finished."

'Saying there is unknowable stuff out there, and you don't and will never know what it is is tantamount to admitting there is a god, or the supernatural, or the spiritual or whatever.'

Not necessarily, because under agnostic reasoning we don't (in fact, can't) know what it is. If it's a God then it's the kind of God that doesn't interact with our world in any way whatsoever, and hence is indistinguishable from non-existence. What kind of God would that be?

To clarify the definitions:

Agnosticism: Acceptance that the metaphysical is inherently unknowable.

Gnosticism: Acceptance that the metaphysical is NOT inherently unknowable.

Theist: One who believes in a metaphysical God.

Atheist: One who does not believe in a metaphysical God.

Quick Joe Smith said...

I think the very notion of "supernatural" is highly problematic to begin with. It sounds awfully like appealing to supermathematics in order to make 1 + 1 = 42, or using superlogic when conventional logic won't give us the conclusion we want.

I think that we should sort out if there is even anything to know before we get carried away on debating whether or not it is knowable. Ask ourselves whether we would extend legitimacy to the aforementioned concepts of superlogic and supermathematics, and if not why do we do so with regards to nature?

I would say that such things are more undefinable than they are unknowable. Even the people who claim a personal relationship with their deity of choice and make very specific claims about its characteristics will, if questioned long enough, concede the point with throwaway lines like "his ways are not our ways" or the suggestion that our minds cannot comprehend his infinite wisdom, or simply that god moves in mysterious ways and leave it at that.

Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

I feel that in this conversation it is always best to define the subject ie god, unicorns etc

The trouble with god is it has many definitions ranging from the patently ridiculous and literal to the far reaches of apologetic wankery.

While technically I am agnostically atheistic( this depends of course on the definition of the subject ie god of bible, god the personal relationship etc)

I get tired of the explanation and conversation that it takes to get there, so I much prefer to label my self atheist

Quick Joe Smith said...

That is probably my biggest beef with your average theist: they pull the definition of god right back to some vaguely powerful entity hiding in the farest reaches of the universe or beyond to get you to admit "doubt".

The kind of god that requires you to have omniscience to disprove is by definition doing their darndest to hide from us. Fair enough, I will concede this deity a small chance of existence.

Then in the very next breath they extend the benefit of this doubt to Jehovah, the plague-sending, virgin-impregnating, son-sacrificing god of peace (who calls himself a man of war) who elected a chosen race despite professing to have no favourites.

Good times, and so many dicussions that went around in circles until our mindsets achieved escape velocity and never really crossed paths ever again...