Friday, October 07, 2005

Atheism, Theism, Agnostism, and the Kitchen Sink!

This post consists of some thoughts I've accumulated over a couple day period of time thinking about the discussion that the previous blog entry spurred on. While I received many comments from a number of different individuals, Mr. Austin Cline became dedicated to the discussion, and so for his dedication I believe it was only fair that I give my full dedication to the discussion myself. Therefore I have posted this blog in response to his many well written comments.

Soo...here are some of my thoughts on this matter of discussion:

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So in a sense, does someone have to have a “knowledge” stance and a “belief” stance? Can someone not be just “agnostic?” Because in my cause, I just identify with the agnostic sense in that I don’t know whether a god (or God) exists or not, so I can’t convince myself to belief one way or the other.

But then what about those folks that are fully sold on their religion. Those gung-ho Bible beaters. They obviously are theistic in their belief, but what is their “knowledge” stance? What is the other levels on the knowledge spectrum besides agnostism? I suppose what you get from most firmly religious individuals is the term “faith.” Though I guess they can’t prove God’s existence, they don’t have a “knowledge” stance, just their reliance on their faith. Right?

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In one of your writings you spoke of such things as passive disbelief and active disbelief. In response to Mark’s comment: “an Agnostic acts very much like an Atheist - not taking part in the religious rituals of any particular faith,” I would also use the terms “passive” and “active” when describing different lifestyles taken from agnostism.

I would consider an active agnostic as one that does attend religious services and/or rituals, because he/she is actively pursuing his/her questioning knowledge; his/her struggle with wanting to know whether there is a god (or God) or not. This individual might view agnostism as a temporary stage in his/her life while they search for “answers,” so to say.

However, I also believe there are passive agnostics, who though this will come off as sounding like they are characterized as just being lazy, I would describe them as individuals who choose not to attend religious services and/or rituals based on the idea that they are completely content with their view of not knowing. They may have come to peace with the idea that they don’t think the existence or non-existence of a god (or God) can be proven, therefore, they are satisfied in the state of not “picking a side” so to say. And though this might have been described rather poorly, I think that is okay for them if they are okay with it them self.

I however, would consider myself to be an active agnostic. Though I don’t attend church regularly, nor read the Bible on a regular basis, I do catch a service now and then and I do lend a careful ear to listen for lessons in which I might be able to gain a knowledge of God that will “convert me” so to say. I’m still looking for that next “wise man.” And as for the atheist end of the spectrum, I constantly get a reminder of that possibility through many experiences in everyday life.

So don’t think I’m not constantly debating the two ends within myself. I’ve gone through times when I wanted so badly to belief IN God, and I’ve also had times when I’m fully in belief that the whole religion idea is the greatest form of therapy created (meaning I don’t think any of it is real; AKA God does not exist).

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Okay, so if an atheist isn’t someone who says God doesn’t exist, then what DO you call someone that says God doesn’t exist? If it is a “misunderstanding” that many believe that atheists think God doesn’t exist, then I think it is important to make the distinction between what an atheist truly believes (as you’ve pointed out now for us), and you call someone who does in fact state that God does not exist.

I will apologize for any offense you took from my original statement of “Honestly, I think atheists are just individuals who aren’t willing to give religion much in-depth thought.” However, I am under the impression that my statement was misinterpreted, but I take the blame for that in that it was stated rather vaguely, not to mention coming off rather boldly as a statement to make. Let me try to explain more of what I meant…

I don’t see how someone can choose to not belief in a god or God, if they can’t answer the question of whether a god or God exists or not. I suppose what I guess it comes down to is, while I can understand your explanation of theism and atheism being the two choices for a person’s stance on belief and your explanation that agnostism refers to knowledge of whether God can exist or not, I struggle with the idea of a person being able to belief one way or another (theism vs. atheism) if the person isn’t sure of God’s existence because of their knowledge.

This has always been my struggle, in that I’m a thinker and I base just about everything off knowledge or experience and though many theists can say “I can so feel God in my daily life” I don’t get that “feel” I suppose you can say. Just because something good happens to me, or I see love, I don’t associate that with a higher being or God, as they do. I just associate it with a good feeling.

So back to my original statement: “I don’t see how someone can choose to not belief in a god or God, if they can’t answer the question of whether a god or God exists or not.” The statement I’ve had before used to be “I don’t see how someone can choose to belief in a god or God, if they can’t answer the question of whether a god or God exists or not.” But with this one, which I’ve addressed to many theist friends of mine I’ve always gotten the same response, it’s a faith thing. And though I still don’t fully understand how faith can really justify that “knowledge” part, I have accepted that as “their” answer. But I’ve yet to get the other side of the story.

How is it that one can choose to have an absence of belief of a god or God if there is the potential for the existence of God? This is where I see my stance of not being able to choose a stance for beliefs, either being a theist or an atheist if I can’t say without a doubt that God exists and without a doubt that God doesn’t exist, I stand in the middle, which is what I view agnosticism.

How can someone truly choose the belief that there is no god (or God)? This is SO where I want to throw in a reference to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” which was why I asked you if you’d seen it, not to try to use it to define atheism as you assumed I was wanting to use it for. Let me try this…

I view choosing the belief that there is no God as finding an individual guilty in a court of law. We all know the whole policy in the American judicial system that for an individual to be found guilty it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Well I take that whole stance with the God thing. I feel that unless I can prove beyond reasonable doubt that God does not exist, I can’t accept an atheistic belief. I’m sure the theists would say that is a God thing that is keeping that sense of “hope” in there with me that I can’t say it until it is proven without reasonable doubt. ;)

Okay, you know what I just realized? I’m sure where I used “atheistic” in that last paragraph, you’re going to say once again that I used it under the misunderstanding that atheism is the belief in the non-existence of God, but honestly, I’m truly starting to think that though you very possibly could be right, in that by the original, dictionary definition, atheism is NOT the belief in God’s non-existence, it IS however the worldly defined meaning of an atheist, which over time I believe BECOMES the dictionary definition. I honestly think many others than myself would define an atheist as one who believes God does not exist, as I also honestly believe there are many people who don’t believe in God’s existence and call themselves atheists because of that belief; therefore making them a self-proclaimed atheist who doesn’t believe in God’s existence (AKA someone who can’t be blamed on the theists or agnostics or anyone other than an atheist for mis-defining an atheist).

Crap, real quick, back to my original trying to explain what I meant by “Honestly, I think atheists are just individuals who aren’t willing to give religion much in-depth thought.” This goes back to my idea mentioned earlier that I feel that if an atheist was to truly do any deep thought about whether a god or God exists or not they wouldn’t be able to choose a belief versus an absence of belief (theism vs. atheism) because they wouldn’t be able to prove one way or another beyond reasonable doubt. Therefore, I would think atheists need to drop the “atheist” label and stay with the view of agnostism of not picking theism or atheism.

I’m sorry…I still see agnostism as the middle ground between theism and atheism….maybe I’m stuck with the much acknowledged worldly definitions of the words….

Maybe it would be easier for me if I knew what the ends of the spectrum were that incorporate agnostism, since you say it isn’t on the spectrum with theism and atheism.

1 comment:

Austin said...

"However, I also believe there are passive agnostics, who though this will come off as sounding like they are characterized as just being lazy..."

They may also not care. The existence of a god only necessarily matters if you assume a particular definition of this god. Absent any definition, it's not clear that the existence of gods matters on a practical level.

Also, they may believe that knowledge of gods isn't possible, thus any active search won't accomplish anything.

"Okay, so if an atheist isn’t someone who says God doesn’t exist, then what DO you call someone that says God doesn’t exist?"

They are an atheist, too. Someone who asserts that no gods exists also, by definition, lacks belief in the existence of gods. The labels "weak atheism" and "strong atheism" were created in order to differentiate between those who merely disbelieve and those who actively deny the existence of gods.

Just to complicate matters a little more: it's unlikely that you would find someone who *isn't* a strong atheist with respect to at least some gods. Thus, most people whose general position is weak atheism or agnostic atheism are "strong atheists" when it comes to Zeus, Odin, etc.

"I don’t see how someone can choose to not belief in a god or God, if they can’t answer the question of whether a god or God exists or not."

It's not a question of choice. Given the absence of any good reason to believe in any gods, I can no more believe in a god than I can believe that there is a car in my kitchen, or that my cats don't really exist.

Theism and atheism aren't two "chocies," they are two possibilities. Theism is a belief, but atheism is not a belief - it's the absence of a particular belief.

"I struggle with the idea of a person being able to belief one way or another (theism vs. atheism) if the person isn’t sure of God’s existence because of their knowledge."

Really? I'll bet you don't have any problem with this when it comes to other subjects.

Do you believe that I am wearing a red shirt? Of course not. So, do you believe that I am wearing a shirt of some color other than red? Of course not. The chances are higher that I am wearing some color other than read, but you have no solid basis for making such an assertion.

You are not a red-shirt-ist. You are an a-red-shirt-ist. Why? Because you lack any knowledge that would allow you to draw either the conclusion that I am wearing a red shirt or that I am wearing some other color. I may be shirtless for all you know.

Now, we can repeat this dozens of times with different subjects: do I have a dog? Do I enjoy skiing? The result will, I hope, be consistent: when you are asked which of two positions you hold on something where you have no knowledge whatsoever, you don't have a belief. You lack knowledge and, therefore, lack a belief (belief is defined as the mental acceptance of a claim as true).

So, why do you have trouble imagining the same with respect to one more topic: the existence of gods?

"How can someone truly choose the belief that there is no god (or God)?"

As the above-linked article makes it clear, atheism is not a choice. Beliefs aren't chosen like acts of will. You can't will yourself to have a belief like you will your arm to raise. Beliefs are consequences of our knowledge, assumptions, predispositions, etc. You don't "choose" to be an a-red-shirt-ist, that's simply the only reasonable position for a reasonable person to adopt.

"I view choosing the belief that there is no God as finding an individual guilty in a court of law."

First, atheism isn't necessarily the assertion that there is no god.

Second, the analogy is actually backwards. In a court of law, the burden of proof is on those making the claim - the prosecution. They claim that a crime was committed and that a particular person did it. With respect to this debate, the analogous position is the theistic one: they are claiming that some being exists, has certain desires, and does certain things. The theist is the one who has "convicted," in a sense. The atheist simply refuses to accept this conviction on the basis of lack of evidence and argument.

"I feel that unless I can prove beyond reasonable doubt that God does not exist, I can’t accept an atheistic belief."

Atheism is not a belief. You don't need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that no gods exist in order to not believe in any. You don't need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I don't have a dog in order not to bother believing that I actually do have one.

Even if we accept the narrow definition of atheism as denying the existence of gods, proof beyond a reasonable doubt still wouldn't be necessary. Can you prove that the earth doesn't move because it's pushed by invisible fairies? No. I'll bet you don't believe it, though - and the fact that there is absolutely no good reason to accept such a thing is a sufficient basis for not believing it.

Beliefs should be proportioned to the evidence. It's rare that "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" is necessary.

"I honestly think many others than myself would define an atheist as one who believes God does not exist..."

Yes, they do. Almost 100% of the time, those people are Christians who are creating a straw man so that they can argue against "atheism" without actually tackling what real atheists think and argue. It's a dishonest debating tactic. No, I'm not accusing you of dishonesty - you're simply a victim of others' dishonesty.

"I would think atheists need to drop the “atheist” label and stay with the view of agnostism of not picking theism or atheism."

Except that agnosticism is not a "third option" outside of theism and atheism. Agnosticism is a separate issue entirely. Most atheists I've encountered are agnostic atheists - few insist that they *know* that no gods can or do exist. A few do, it is true, but not many. It's not that they "pick" atheism - that's simply the term that accurate describes the fact that they lack belief in the existence of gods.

"Maybe it would be easier for me if I knew what the ends of the spectrum were that incorporate agnostism"

The presence of knowledge and the absence of knowledge. Either you are an a-gnostic or a gnostic (not that anyone typically uses this term, given how it's been applied to a particular religious tradition now).

Knowledge and belief are related, but separate issues. You say you are an agnostic. This means that you don't claim to know. Now, what do you believe? Telling me what you know doesn't tell me what you believe. Either the belief in the existence of some sort of god is present in your mind, or it is not. If so, you're an agnostic theist. If not, you're an agnostic atheist.

Note, you might not be sure whether you *should* believe or not - but that's a separate issue as well. You might also shift as you work through the issues - one day you may feel that you believe and the next you may not. At any given moment, though, it's still a binary issue: either you actively accept the truth of the proposition "some god exists" or you do not.

Your post was long, so if I missed anything it was completely by accident - just draw my attention to it.