Absolute Agnosticism

Hello.

Thank you for your lengthy and considered response. You have touched on precisely the point I was trying to make in my cryptic message and in my blog post.

“…that someone who is not convinced that deities exist is just as correctly called an atheist as someone who insists that deities do not exist…”

By that reasoning the following sentence makes equal sense: “Someone who is not convinced that deities DO NOT exist is just as correctly called a theist as one who insists that deities DO exist.”

The inescapable conclusion then is that I, as someone who simply does not know or have an opinion, am both a theist and an atheist.

Your example of how you refer to your father is seductive but, in my view, specious for two reasons:

Firstly, that is a matter of convenience – answering in a less than 100% honest manner when less than 100% honesty is expected or required. Your answer, in that context, is not misleading, though it could conceivaby be misleading in a different context – claiming the right to an inheritance, for example.

Secondly, it is apples and oranges. Your lineage is testable. The existence or lack of existence of deities is not. They are, as I said, absolute statements based on nothing other than interpretation of wholly inadequate data or on the personal prejudice of the speaker. Indeed, both statements are what a logical-positivist would label “meaningless” or “noise”.

“If I were to call myself an agnostic on the issue of dieties, then I would feel compelled to call myself an agnostic on the issues of astrology, aliens in UFOs, fairies, and witchcraft, among other things…”

This, as I pointed out in my post, is precisely what I do. I am an agnostic on those things and others such as ESP. If asked about them my response is usally something like “I have no idea” (UFOs) or “I doubt it, but I might be wrong.” (Fairies). I find this not in the least cumbersome.

One could say:
1. An atheist does not believe in god.
2. An agnostic does not believe in god.
3. Therefore, an atheist and an agnostic share the same belief.

Once again, attractive, but nonsense.

In short, to me it is passing strange to equate an affirmative statement of knowledge – “There is no god.” – with an affirmative statement of lack of knowledge – “I do not know if there is a god or gods.”. On the face of it, it needless, non-productive, and misleading.

Thanks again for your response.

Yours in Jesus,

John

You say that my reasoning implies that one who is not convinced that deities DO NOT exist is just as correctly called a theist as one who insists that deities DO exist. I agree. However, I believe that the burden of proof is on the person who wants to prove that deities exist, whereas a person who is a theist because they are not convinced that deities do not exist seems to be taking the existence of deities as the default position.

Your conclusion that someone who has no opinion on the subject is both a theist and an atheist is valid only if you believe that the burden of proof is shared by both sides of the debate. I agree that such a person should be correctly referred to as an agnostic, but — from a scientific standpoint — I would question such a person’s assignment of the burden of proof.

Responding to my example of whether my father is my father, you say that there are times when less than complete honesty is expected or required. This is true, but I don’t see how the existence of deities should be treated differently than any other fact. But we may be getting off track a bit here — I am not convinced that deities exist, therefore I do not believe in deities, therefore I am an atheist. If I believed that there was no possible way to decide the metaphysical truth of the existence of deities, I’d be an agnostic atheist, but I’d still be an atheist because I lack belief.

Regarding whether the example of my father was “apples and oranges” with the question of the existence of deities because one is testable and the other is not — I disagree. I do not believe that compelling evidence (as opposed to absolute proof) for the existence of a deity is, in principle, impossible. Certainly many theists believe that existence of a deity can be proven.

You say that you remain agnostic about such subjects as astrology, fairies, and ESP and find it “not in the least cumbersome.” But to me it would be cumbersome, at least in those cases where evidence is strongly on one side or the other. For example, I would not say that I am agnostic on the question of evolution vs. creation, even though I admit the possibility of a divine creator of life. Since I find the arguments for creation thoroughly unconvincing, saying that I am agnostic on the subject would effectively misrepresent my position and make it more difficult for me to argue that creationism should not be taught in public schools.

I would make a similar argument regarding astrology, homeopathy, or any other heavily discredited “fringe” belief that can have a real impact on a person’s life. If someone asks whether I think a homeopathic cancer treatment might cure their cancer, I’m going to say no because an agnostic statement, while technically correct, might kill them. If my son asks me if fairies might be causing his bad dreams, I’m going to say no because there would indeed be extra burden involved in answering “I doubt it, but I might be wrong.”

You say that it is “attractive, but nonsense” to say that an atheist and an agnostic share the same belief. I think this is a matter of defining terms. I see no reason someone can’t be an agnostic atheist — a person who does not believe deities exist but believes that there is no way to prove the matter either way.

In closing, I would like to point out that I agree with you that one cannot equate “there is no god,” with, “I don’t know if there is a god or gods.” Personally, I would not make either of these statement. I am an atheist because I do not believe in deities. The fact that I don’t think anyone can prove deities (in general) don’t exist doesn’t make me any less an atheist.

As you requested, I’m leaving in your name and I linked to your blog from mine.

Posted on January 14, 2008 at 11:05 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: Agnosticism, Discussion

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