There is no denying that we live in an age of religious extremism; hell even the atheists are extreme nowadays. But just what ought one to believe about this? As some of you may know, I advocate agnosticism which is the view that the most rational thing to do when one is in our position is withhold judgment. I claim that we do not know that God exists, but nor do we know if He doesn’t exist. Furthermore I claim that we have good evidence on both sides of the dispute. Some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence are rationally compelling, some of the arguments against the existence of God are also rationally compelling. Given this the only rational choice, I argue, is agnosticism. To believe in God is to believe something with insufficient evidence; so too, though, is the belief that there is no God. Neither belief is supported by the evidence. But before I try to give an argument for what I say above I want to say a few introductory things.
1. Religion vs. Theism
But this does not mean that I am, or have to be, agnostic about organized religion. The verdict is in on that one and I am in agreement with the Richard Dawkins of the world. Religion is at best silly and at worst pernicious. Sadly a brief look at history reveals that it is mostly pernicious. It is people with religious beliefs that fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up at public places, shoot doctors who perform abortions, go on crusades, believe in talking snakes, etc, etc, etc.
This is to be distinguished from theism which is the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving being who created the Heavens and the Earth. Belief in theism in not associated with any one religion. It is, in fact, the thing that unites (most of) the major religions. Belief in theism automatically rules out (most if not all) religious beliefs. A supremely loving God would not command you to blow up innocent civilians or to go on crusades or to hate gays, etc, etc, etc.
Thus ‘should I believe in theism or atheism’ is a question that can be rationally addressed (the answer is believe neither: be agnostic), but ‘should I be a Christian or a Muslim’ is not (the answer is be neither: they are both silly). Each of the beliefs specific to these religions, aside from theism, is, in its own way, patently absurd and ridiculous and is obviously the creation of man.
2. Universal Agnosticism?
Some agnostics, like Bertrand Russell, argue that we have to be what I call universal agnostics. That is, they argue that if we are agnostic with respect to the Christian God then we must agnostic with respect to the Greek gods, the Hindu gods, etc. I do not think that this is true. I think that the evidence we have FOR the existence of God is sufficient for us to conclude that IF there is a God then it will be the all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing one that the theist posits.
3. Reason vs. Faith
The question I am interested in this ‘what should a rational person conclude vis a vis theism?’ I am not interested in questions of faith (by which I mean believing in something without evidence or in spite of the evidence). Faith, in my opinion, can be a good thing in small doses but when it gets to the point where it is totally immune from reason then we have crossed into the danger zone. This way lies religious beliefs and fanaticism. So, in this sense, it is possible for an agnostic to have faith. It could happen that someone convinced themselves that they should withhold belief in theism but nonetheless wanted the social benefits of a religion. They might conclude ‘I know that rationally I shouldn’t believe but I can’t help it, I just have faith that there is a God’. This kind of ‘Humean’ faithful agnostic is strange, but according to me, possible and consistent (not the view I have or recommend, though).
5 thoughts on “The (New) Agnostic’s Manifesto: Part 1 –Preamble”
One of the consequences of looking at this issue is that eventually the agnostic position is what we might think is the “correct” position for any claim regarding ontologically uncertain objects. One can be agnostic about anything. And the problem is often not philosophical but a matter of practical or political importance. Not everyone has time to wade through enough philosophy to understand that all claims of knowledge, even those that involve direct and repeated contact with the world, must be (properly) relegated to the “tentative theory” category. Witness the creationist’s simplistic and incorrect references to the “theory” of evolution. Scientifically minded people are perfectly comfortable with revision or even wholesale jettisoning of any theory, but that does not also mean that they think a theory such as evolution by natural selection is “just a theory” in the same sense that creationists use when they attempt to dismiss it. And the reason the creationist always gain some support is that many people are not happy with the idea that uncertainty is allowable in a system belief. More specifically, creationists wanting certainty, and knowing that others seek it too, will gain political support for their attacks on science by pointing out that even scientists admit they are not certain. This then leads to the reactionary responses of Dawkins as he attempts to simplify what he means by being uncertain, which normally gets attacked again as being either incoherent or as merely a statement of faith in science rather than a faith in god.
So every attempt to clarify on the reasonable side is met with yet another unreasonable attack. And the “unreasoners” claim a lack of reason as a feather in their cap, and start to quote from their favorite books. The funny thing is that this might also apply to disputes over, say, string theory, where the level of specific knowledge is not on par within the combatants.
This then is what it comes down to: Two people who disagree on sources for the best authority, (and on the god issue it is between belief in the real physical world and a book that was “dropped” into it), they cannot ever come to any reasonable disagreement because they, in terms of pure discourse, do NOT actually disagree. What is really happening is that they are using two radically separate paradigms for understanding and interpreting what they see and sense and reflect upon. And when it comes to claims about theoretical (and as yet unseen) entities like gods, the scientist is predisposed to only be compelled to believe in such a thing based on causal interactions in the physical world. And if no such interaction is ever witnessed, he or she might agnostically say “there is no evidence, yet” and still allow that it is an open question. But if he has a great deal of interest in the subject, there is every reason to think that the scientist will eventually abandon even this “moderate” or agnostic view in favor of the view that it seems unlikely that such a hypothesis is very viable, as it has always turned out that some other explanation or theory is not only forthcoming, but is productive to the point of manifesting itself in the real world in the form of an improvement in mankind’s control and capacity to predict natural systems. (Improved control and prediction is a fact, but that does not always mean that it is “good”. Science is mostly neutral to ethical claims, except when it realizes that someone might abuse some piece of knowledge…”progress in science is not equal to moral improvement, but that in no way should undermine what we believe is true, only that powerful people need some restraints, and that has always been true).
Therefore, your initial claim that the best advice of the reasonable philosopher is to claim that the issue of god is still open and that one cannot know to a perfect certainty either way that god exists or not is really very weak. After enough philosophy and enough proof of the truth of science (in the form of refined control and prediction etc) the avalanche evidence that relegates any god to an insignificant causal role is readily available. And taking the moderate view, especially as a PHD in philosophy candidate, seems weak to the point of appeasement. And so I can only imagine this is motivated by some sort of political desire rather than a genuine desire to leave the matter open, and to claim no certainty. We might not be absolutely certain about many things, but what seems very certain is that inserting the “god” hypothesis as an answer to any of the questions of how or why things work is like abandoning inquiry all together.
For if this god thing did exist, it would do very little for our understanding to say, “that something with a will all its own and the power to exercise that will whenever it feels” is what “explains” things, is really not much of an explanation for anything, except as a metaphor for human capriciousness. You need to re-examine issues concerning philosophy of science and general issues of epistemology especially as they relate to philosophy of language. I suggest looking at Kuhn and Kripke. But, of course, this will not be compelling to those who are believers, only those who are sitting on the fence with enough knowledge and understanding and curiosity that they feel motivated to challenge the claim that agnosticism is really the right way to go.
Hi Moe, thanks for the comment.
The evidence for the exitence of such a being is not bibilical (‘a boopk that was dropped down’) but is rather rational. That is, there are actual argument that suggest that there could be a God. But as you point out there is plenty of rational reason against the hypothesis as well. That’s the point of agnosticism.
Now is it really as explanatorily empty as you suggest to invoke God as the explanation for why there is (say) life? I don’t know why you say that. It is NOT like abandoning inquiry all together since, as many of the great scientists of history argued, natual =philosophy os the studying of God’s handiwork. True these people think that the ultmate explanation is God’s creation but there is still plenty for us to figure out.
As for your first point; if people don’t have the time to actually become aquainted witht he evidence for and against a position then they should not have believe (nor disbelieve) the theory in question.
I assure you that this is not a politically motivated claim. Agnosticism is the only rational position to take with respect to the question of God’s existence. You have not given any reason to think otherwise. all you have done is to remind people of (some) of the evidence against God’s existence, but I never denied that there was this evidence. What I denied isa that there is enough of it for us to conclude that there is not a God.
It seems you have in mind people I call ‘religious’ these people have fantasical beliefs based solely on some religious text. I distinuish this from ‘theist” which is simply the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving being who created the world.
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