Sunday, December 28, 1997

Atheism: The Case Against God


(I got sick of Art of War)

  • p. 9–10: “Properly considered, agnosticism is not a third alternative to theism and atheism because it is concerned with a different aspect of religious belief. Theism and atheism refer to the presence of absence of belief in a god; agnosticism refers to the impossibility of knowledge with regard to a god or supernatural being.”
    • I disagree strongly with his presumption that agnosticism necessarily indicates that God or the existence of god is unknowable. I think that many agnostics (myself included, in the past) would disagree with this presumption, and say that it can only mean that it is unknown—by anyone, or merely by them. His definition of atheism as including most agnostics is good, but there is no reason for everyone to accept it. I see no reason why three divisions work any less well than two.
  • p. 11:

“Whether this account represents the exact position of Thomas Huxley is not entirely clear. At times, as we have seen, he seems to indicate that the existence of the supernatural, while possible, is unknowable. Elsewhere, however, he writes that “I do not very much care to speak of anything as ‘unknowable.’” And in summarizing the fundamentals of agnosticism, Huxley does not refer to anything as unknowable or “insoluble.”

…it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism.…the application of the principle results in the denial of, or the suspension of judgment concerning, a number of propositions respecting which our contemporary ecclesiastical “gnostics” profess entire certainty.

This passage suggests that, in Huxley’s opinion, there is not sufficient evidence to justify the belief in a god, so one should suspend judgment on this matter. In discussing whether the existence of a god is unknowable in principle or simply unknown at the present time, he writes:

What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by anyone else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case.

Huxley is reluctant to uphold the absolute unknowability of the supernatural, and he wishes to maintain instead that, as far as be knows, knowledge of the supernatural lies beyond the power of man's faculties. It would not be stretching the point to say that, in Huxley’s view, the knowability of the supernatural is itself an issue which is unknowable.”

    • How odd—I understand completely what Huxley is saying. He believes that the truth in this matter is unknown, not unknowable, but that the problem may just be beyond human capacity to solve. But this does not equate to the truth being theoretically unknowable; merely that we may not have the ability, as humans, to find and understand it. The concept focuses on the limitations of humans, not of the Universe.        In fact, I cannot argue with Huxley’s position. Do I, can I, know for sure that there is no god or God? No. Neither can I know with certainty that fairies do not exist, or that alien abductions do not regularly take place, or that white mice don’t secretly run the world. I merely know that there is insufficient evidence to indicate that these things are real, and that there is significant evidence against these ideas. In fact, the only real evidence for Christianity is that so many people believe in it. If not for that, it could easily be dismissed as foolishness.
  • He is (p. 11, e.g.) being ’way too pedantic and repetitive. I’ve got it already. This is a trap I could easily fall into in my writing, as I do in my speaking. Bᴇ ᴄᴀʀᴇғᴜʟ! Have others read it to make sure.
  • Rule: Don’t fuck with other people’s definitions unless you have a damned good reason. On page 13 [–14: “Atheism may be divided into two broad categories: implicit and explicit. (a) Implicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it. (b) Explicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it. (a) An implicit atheist is a person who does not believe in a god, but who has not explicitly rejected or denied the truth of theism.”], he divides atheism into implicit and explicit. Implicit atheism is identical to traditional agnosticism! He’d better have a damned good reason for changing the splits around like this.
    • 7/11/2013 3:05 PM (quote continued from above) “For example, a person who has no knowledge of theistic belief does not believe in a god, nor does he deny the existence of such a being. Denial presupposes something to deny, and one cannot deny the truth of theism without first knowing what theism is. Man is not born with innate knowledge of the supernatural; until he is introduced to this idea or thinks of it himself, he is unable to affirm or deny its truth—or even to “suspend” his judgment.        “This person poses a problem for the traditional classifications. He does not believe in a god, so he is not a theist. He does not reject the existence of a god, so, according to this meaning which is commonly attached to atheism, he is not an atheist. Nor does this person state that the existence of a supernatural being is unknown or unknowable, so he is not an agnostic. The failure of the traditional labels to include this possibility indicates their lack of comprehensiveness.”
      • No, it indicates the author’s insistence on changing traditional definitions then imposing them on others. Such a person would traditionally be considered an agnostic, and by the sense of the word—a gnostic; one who doesn’t know—(odd that he uses the literal definition of “atheist,” but refuses to do so with “agnostic”), that would be true. Someone who denies that knowledge of god is possible could be called a strong agnostic. This changing definitions, pretending others were using the new definitions when they wrote, and then accusing them of thereby not making sense is absolutely maddening.
  • p. 14: “As defined in this chapter, the man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist. Since these instances of nonbelief are not the result of conscious rejection, they are best designated as implicit atheism.”
    • I’m really not sure I agree with all this. These are all definitions, and therefore arbitrary, but 1) it could be equally argued that atheism requires knowledge of theism to have something to not believe in. Lack of knowledge about theism would make you an agnostic, one who “doesn’t know.” By the same logic, lack of knowledge about gnosis, or lack of knowledge about knowledge, would create a fourth category, “None of the above,” which would include rocks, trees, stars and babies, which I would think appropriate, as it seems silly to call a rock an atheist, which you would have to by his definition. And 2) you can’t get away with calling all babies atheists—that is entirely the point of baptism right after birth, to bring these unthinking creatures into the arms of God and to make them theists, not atheists, by default.
  • p. 21: “From the mere fact that a person is an atheist, one cannot infer that this person subscribes to any particular positive beliefs.” This, in my view, is the major inherent flaw of atheism. It takes away beliefs, but offers nothing to fill the void. It is simple negation. This is a horrible thing to do to a person: to remove their beliefs and then to leave them empty, with no purpose or meaning or direction. I’ve been there; it’s not fun. I had to go through it, being the philosopher himself. Most people don’t need it, nor would they be likely to find their own way out. Theism, by itself, does imply a set of morals and values and reasons and answers, which vary according to which branch or sect you subscribe to. There is no such thing as simple theism. Atheism isn’t even an “-ism”—it’s the negation of others’ beliefs. Simple negation is not enough. Atheism must be only one facet of a new belief system.
  • Can we honestly analyze atheism without a deep analysis of why people believe in God? And yet he seems unwilling to do so, instead focusing on the reasons why they’re wrong. P. 24–25: Let us all now cry at the unfairness of the world. Bah. Let’s ask why, with an uncritical eye, these people behave this way. We know they’re wrong; let’s discover why they insist on this wrongness. “…these are the issues to which a theist must address himself if he wishes to confront the challenge of atheism.” And yet this is not true! These are the questions that the theist knows must not be raised, or confronted directly, for he fears the answers. This sentence of his presumes that his opponents are rational, and yet “…the average believer…was persuaded to believe for emotional, not intellectual reasons,” and “is impervious to arguments against the existence of a supernatural being, regardless of how meticulous and carefully reasoned these arguments may be.” Not the picture of a rational person who would respond to a challenge of this nature.
  • p. 26: He seems to believe that the simple absence of religion—the absence of any beliefs at all, in fact—would be better than the existence of theistic religion; that theism is inherently almost completely evil. I say that it is not enough to merely deny God; one must consider why theism exists, how it is used, how it is useful, and what its good as well as bad points are. To deny that religion has any good points is to call humanity as a whole incredibly stupid. I’m sorry, but we’ve lasted too long and done too well to be so stupid. There must be reasons. [7/11/2013 3:21 PM Rereading that page now, I no longer see it that way. He seems to be suggesting that if we got rid of supernatural belief, we would be forced to come up with better answers (“By severing any possible appeal to the supematural—which, in terms of human knowledge, means the unknowable-atheism demands that issues be dealt with through reason and human understanding; they cannot be sloughed-off onto a mysterious god”). Then again, I’ve only reread bits; the entire book up until this point may give a different impression.]


Anonymous said...

First, I have to read this book to know (entirely) what you're talking about, but I have to say that I largely agree with your arguments.
The problem with today's religious society is that there are too many groups (sects, if you will) and all of them are too alike in their differences. To call yourself a _definite_ anything is inherently false by definition of personal beliefs. No matter who you talk to and no matter what sect they say that they are there is undoubtedly going to be some nuance that is going to set them apart from the holistic beliefs of their group. This very thing is what split Christianity into 3000 different groups because everybody had a slightly differnt view on the original meaning of some obscure verse buried in the middle of the book of Malachi. (which some believe really belongs to the New Testament anyway)

Over the years I've grown more fond of talking to devout Christians than I have of so-called Athiests. I can excuse Christians who have undergone years of brainwashing and haven't had the will or the rationality to break through the religious barrier that has been put in front of them. Blind ignorance that has been violently inflicted on what would otherwise intelligent is something that I've learned to ignore mostly; for there is little that you can do to save this lost soul (without extensive de-programming).
But the Athiest, the one who claims that he/she is too intelligent for the mindlessness of Christianity and has chosen the anti-religion rather than seek the real truth, that is rationality wasted on laziness. More often than not when I'm talking to one of these I can prove that they actually DO believe in something in under 10 minutes. In my belief system believing that there is nothing is just as bad as believing that there is a single deity up there playing his sick game of chess with uor lives. It is the fact that these people who claim to be intelligent are so quick to fall into another sect (all of which claim to be equally intelligent) and simply become sheep of a different colour that sickens me.

I'll rant more L8r
The black man has spoken

Calion said...

Woah, there, Nelly! You're not agreeing with me here. I'm one of these lazy atheist sheep you mention. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, and frankly think all the supernatural stuff you believe in is so much hogwash. I believe you believe it, but I feel the same way about Christians, Muslims, Pagans, etc. You've given up your strict scientific rationality for a fuzzy supernaturalism you're not willing to examine.

What I was railing against was dogmatism in any form. Whether Christian, Atheist or Other, if you are not willing to question your beliefs, if you are not willing to examine your beliefs, if you insist on believing what you believe regardless of argument or evidence or reason, I have no desire to speak to you. You're almost certain to end up wrong, because you have no method of correction.

On the other hand, your comment about atheists believing in things rings true. I'm not sure who you've been talking to, but atheism is not belief in nothing. That's nihilism, and usually stupid. An atheist could and should believe in many things--just not in the likely existence of a higher power.

P.S.: You mention Malachi like you're referring to a specific verse. What is it?

Marcus said...

Maybe I have been talking to the wrong athiests. As a matter of fact the nihilism argument is one that I use a lot in my discussions with them.
You are not one of the sheep that I mentioned in my previous comment for the simple fact that you DO continue to question what is out there. Part of rationality itself is the continual examination of what is percieved to be the truth.
I am aggreing with your argument against dogmatism. You are not a "traditional" athiest as well as I am not a "traditional" pagan. Granted, the things that set us apart from our separate groups is different, but the thought process is the same.
There are people out there who have started paving the way to the ultimate truth but, as you said, there has to be a correction factor. The sheep are the ones that find a philosophy that they like and decide to adopt it as their own without question. Those are the people I was railing on.

BTW you suck with the not being able to post anonymously anymore... :P