Agnosticism is De-facto Atheism, Continued

I started working on a reply to some of the comments of my last post, and decided I might as well as use it as an excuse for a new post.

My last post was a bit of normative philosophy. While I’m sure the point has been made elsewhere, I argued that one of the underlying assumptions of common forms of agnosticism, namely, that the non-existence of gods is something that demands proof, is logically absurd, and thus the resulting agnosticism is nonsensical. Relatedly, common definitions of atheism (as typically defined by non-atheists) are often set in contrast to such agnosticism, and thus are similarly silly.

I didn’t make a point to take a generous view of the ways that various versions of these positions play out in different social circumstances, but certainly the terms atheism and agnosticism take on different and more complex meanings for those who identify with them. The “New Atheists” are a good example of this. For them, atheism is about more than the basic non-belief in gods; it aligns with broader conceptions of rationality. I’ve written about this previously and find their notions of combating public ignorance with scientific facts wrong-headed.

The inevitable problem of trying to prescriptively define some term is that you will find that people attach different meanings to the term, and, the crucial point here, act on these meanings in different ways. Hence why terms like feminism, or environmentalism, or really any ism, are notoriously difficult to pin down. Though, incidentally, I do think that atheism as a concept is infinitely easier to make sense of than environmentalism, for example. I guess insofar as I’m interested in relatively neat normative definitions of atheism, I would say that the ways that people like Richard Dawkins act out their atheism is just extra-baggage, certainly in no way implied or necessitated by atheism per se. Or, perhaps more plausibly, atheism is merely the subsidiary. People like Dawkins, with their particular conceptions of rationality, are the kinds of people that would also be atheists. And obviously, many people self-identify as agnostics. They think it means something different than atheism. Bertrand Russell thought it did. I don’t.

My experience with atheists has not been one which supports Dawkins-esque caricatures. I’ve never met an atheist that has tried to convince me that god certainly doesn’t exist. And if I did, I would tell them that their position doesn’t make any sense (maybe these people would call me a mere agnostic for my lack of commitment!). My post was as much about problematizing conceptions of atheism as it is about challenging conceptions of agnosticism.

My hope that exploring the internal logic of the concept of atheism will have any social effects is slim, but even though I did not deal explicitly with social-cultural dimensions, they are present, especially regarding my own social-cultural positioning.

I’m partly implying that social circumstances cause (in my eyes, silly) positions like agnosticism. In my experience, most people who explicitly identify as agnostic do so because of social pressures. Most were raised religiously (I know very few people, including myself, who weren’t brought up with some religious beliefs floating about) and think that saying they are an agnostic will be more palatable to their peers or parents than saying they are an atheist.

My views on religion, I hope, are more complicated than I can expound here but, in short, I see the prominence of agnosticism as indicative of the continued pervasive, and ultimately detrimental, influence of religion. I see it as an appeasement. Faced with the crucial question, “Do you think there are sufficient grounds to justify a belief in some god?” most agnostics will answer “no,” yet still feel some sort of obligation to be considerate of the beliefs of theists. Or, unknowingly, agnostics allow the rhetorical might of theism to determine the way they approach the question of gods. The prevalence of the refrain “you can’t prove gods don’t exist” amongst theists, manifests as “I’m not sure either way” amongst agnostics. Most self-identified agnostics think agnosticism actually makes sense as a position because they think that atheism is really about affirming the non-existence of gods. But this definition of atheism comes from theists.

Agnosticism as a matter of epistemological principle, in that questions of gods are properly metaphysical and thus ultimately unknowable, I suppose stands in contradistinction to some versions of theism, in that most claims about gods come with specific conditions that are clearly testable using normal means of investigation (the creation of the cosmos, age of the earth, origins of mankind, efficacy of prayers, etc.). But, for the most part, I see theists being appeased by this “epistemological limits” form of agnosticism, because for them to say something is unknowable is to say that it is unknowable via the means that we come to know everything else. Reserving a unique form of knowledge acquisition (i.e. revelation, faith, etc.) for gods protects beliefs in gods from rational scrutiny.

Thus, overall, the logical or philosophical issues are dependent on the social-cultural issues, so in trying to combat the philosophical misunderstandings, I’m also trying to combat religious power. I’m encouraging agnostics to recognize themselves as reluctant atheists.

It is probably the case that agnostics are more sympathetic to the religious beliefs of others. I certainly see no reason that being a condescending asshole be a necessary condition of any philosophical position. But, in itself, I find being polite and respectful towards theists a questionable basis for defining agnosticism. Moreover, I sincerely doubt that there are many atheists who view it as a requirement to be a jerk to theists (though obviously there are plenty of atheist trolls out there, but the way people converse on the internet is pretty dismal across the board). I’d suspect that the vast majority of atheists have close friends and family members that are committed theists with whom they get along splendidly and can even have sensible and pleasant discussions about theology. I’m certainly understanding of the fact that people find solace in religious beliefs. The world is crazy. And, of course, the social factors that lead to people having religious beliefs are typically well beyond individual control.

But this is precisely the reason I find it necessary to deal with a bit of normative philosophy. Atheism is not the default sociological position, theism typically is. But atheism is the default logical position. It is, I contend, the default reasonable position. For me, theism it is not so different than sexism, or racism, or nationalism, or consumerism, or any other socially determined and ultimately detrimental belief or behaviour that people uncritically accept. Such beliefs demand debunking and critique with regards to their social circumstances, but also in and of themselves.


  1. Human perception can only see 2% of material in three dimension world. The example is that an ant can walk in a line like from A to B, this is one dimension. Also the ant can walk in the paper, this is two dimensions, assume that the ant cannot see human beings (I really do not know), however humans can see ants very clearly, this is three dimension world. How about human beings, do we can see everything with our eyes, No. The rest 98% material that we cannot see is in the four dimension world? Which is invisible for us, but they may be able to see us. What kind of thing will be there? Alien around? Ghost? Or even God there? What language they used? In their world the Agnosticism is De-facto Atheism? Yes?

  2. Interesting points, but you seem to be arguing that agnosticism should be dropped/is silly because it is illogical. My point has been that agnosticism (like most declarations/affiliations) is not meant to be a pure logical signal. It’s rather performativity –and in this, the “performances” of certain popular personalities loom large, whether or not they “truly” represent the actions/beliefs of the many. (Interestingly, by this definition of looking at how “average” or “normal” adherents behave, I would argue that the argument that religion is a perniciously bad influence fades, as the majority of adherents of most religions vary hugely, and I would argue proper examination would reveal nearly the same variation as atheist population, especially when class and ethnicity are controlled for.)

    That is to say, of course Dawkins is not the way all atheists are, or must be. But he is probably by far the most famous one.

    I also don’t agree that theism demands debunking because it is “ultimately detrimental”. I really have yet to see any evidence that this is true, beyond assembled bodies of anecdotes, all of which usually can be matched with examples of theistic benefits (sense community, social justice among Quakes, abolitionists, the vital role of African American Baptism in Civil Rights) and atheistic pogroms (Pol Pot, Stalin, etc.) My point is not that religion (theism) is inherently good; it is that proof that it is inherently bad is, to my mind, lacking. And it is unlike the other “-isms” you name: sexism and racism (which have no purpose or definition but discrimination); nationalism (which is usually identified with jingoism and thus negativity); consumerism (used to specifically denote consumption taking a too-central place in life). If we use “theism” as ANY belief in god(s), then it cannot take on the inherent “too muchness” of consumerism. If we use theism to connote “religion as a too-central organizing tenet of life”, then probably most adherents in the US, and likely more generally, are not theists in this sense of the word.

    I’m an atheist. But I think defining “theism” as an inherent problem (and certainly,aligning it with “ultimately detrimental” -isms; you don’t align it with “Zapatismo” or “socialism” or “capitalism” (whichever has the less negative valence for you), or agrarianism, athleticism, ecumenicism, rationalism, estheticism, or probablism).

    I’m open to evidence to prove me wrong, but ultimately, I tend to feel that opposition to theism comes *first* from emotional reactions to specific personifications or performances of theism, *then* motivated reasoning justifying these feelings. Motivated reasoning, of course, can be correct, but it properly starts out with a veil of suspicion on it.

    I have yet to see someone propose opposing “theism” without resort to examples that drive emotional reactions, rather than examples derived from impartial meta-anaylses (say) or carefully written tracts weighing the precise possible benefits (community, cohesion, in some cases progressivism and egalitarianism) against the negatives (situational irrationality, arbitrariness, theocratic tendencies, possible oppression, hatred of out-groups), MUCH LESS compared these in the context of how much theism contributes to them per se–i.e., whether being less theistic would likely have made any given situation better (or worse).

    1. Fair enough. Notice that I say that it is the influence of religion that is ultimately detrimental, not theism writ large in all its possible manifestations. I of course have specific manifestations of theism (i.e. its most pronounced form – religion) in mind, when I speak of its detriment and excessive authority.

      Notwithstanding the innumerable horrors perpetrated (and that are perpetrated daily) in the name of religion (and again, to be fair to your point, it certainly isn’t clear how the socio-psychology of theistic beliefs are necessary or sufficient for these horrors – and whether or not dealing with the silliness of theism will have any ultimate effect on specific religiously motivated actions – as I say, I have little hope that this might be the case), I’ll just speak to the specific example that I offered:

      People who are atheists are pressured into not expressing their scepticism because of the influence of religion in their social networks. Theists often speak about affronts on their beliefs, as if merely publicly affirming yourself to be an atheist is somehow a transgression against them. I have personally had this experience, as have many atheists that I know. Yes, it’s anecdotal, and maybe someday someone will give me a grant to study such things (though I suspect that this would be very unlikely in most jurisdictions), but I suspect this is fairly widespread. And it is detrimental.

      In short, it is much more socially precarious to tell people you are an atheist than tell the you are a Roman Catholic, Muslim (depending on the place, of course – but even so, I think Islamophobes would still prefer Muslims over atheists), Jewish, etc.

      On the issue of performativity, I give unreserved respect for people’s religiosity; I have dear friends who are religious and observant. I have never admonished a stranger or acquaintance for being a theist. I, on the other hand, have been admonished on numerous occasions by strangers or people who don’t know me very well, for being an atheist. Yes, again, anecdotal. And I’m sure theists would cite the throngs of atheist internet trolls as anecdotal evidence of their discrimination at the hands of atheists. But atheists make up something like 10% of the North American population (a little higher in Canada than in the US), so internet trolls probably aren’t good evidence of anything.

      But, if you want to have a discussion about whether or not I think your belief in theism makes sense, this is what you are going to get. And socio-cultural analyses aside, I don’t really give much credence for individual belief justification on the grounds that, if taken collectively, they have some incidentally social benefit: “I know this belief is ridiculous, but it’s good for society.” And on that note, if we are going to doubt the actual relationship between theism and the various shitty things done in the name of religion, on the grounds that the connection might not be causal, sufficient, or even necessary, then we certainly can’t start talking about the possible precise benefits of religion as an extension of theistic beliefs. In which case we’re just back to talking about whether theism makes any sense, which, as we’ve established, I do not think it does.

      Relatedly, I know you were just making a small point, but I find the cliched Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, etc. example utterly specious. People actively murder in the name of religion. They literally kill in the name of God. So, I think there’s pretty good evidence that at least a few atrocities are directly connected to theistic beliefs. Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler didn’t kill in the name of atheism. Indeed, these are usually examples of personality cults (with the exception of Pol Pot) – essentially pseudo-theisms, all perpetuated by massive propaganda, totalitarian control, and excessive autocratic authority; precisely the kinds of things atheists rally against in their religious forms. If atheists don’t think there is sufficient evidence to warrant a belief in gods, it hardly seems likely that they believe Kim Il-sung’s eternal presidency of North Korea is heavenly mandated. I mean, if we are to doubt the link between theism and religious atrocities, where the connection seems quite salient, in the cases of “atheist atrocities” the connection between atheism and the atrocities is so feeble and tenuous as to hardly be worth consideration.

      There’s also a lingering false supposition about examples like Pol Pot. When theists inevitably roll out the Pol Pot example, there is often a latent implication that had he not been an atheist, he wouldn’t have committed the atrocities. As if his atheism is somehow what allowed or motivated the atrocities. But this is utterly baseless. All this establishes is that you don’t need religion (or indirectly, theism) to commit atrocities. And that’s pretty unremarkable; I’m certainly not saying that religion is the leading cause of atrocities.

      I should also add, that when I speak of the detrimental influence of religion, I’m really not thinking about atrocities at all, given that we live in an extremely wealthy part of the world, where the likelihood of some detrimental thing occurring is much more of a factor of economics than theism. I’m thinking of little things like “God” in my national anthem, crosses on public property, publicly-funded religious education, the challenges of being an atheistic politician, etc. I mean, on the issue of education, using the authority of education to teach children questionable beliefs is in itself extremely detrimental, regardless of the purported indirect benefits that might be derived. It’s a detriment to critical thought.

      But overall, I’m completely sympathetic to the research program you briefly outlined (though, as I said, philosophically, like Russell, and later, Horkheimer, I find the notion of justifying beliefs in terms of instrumental benefit, regardless of their epistemological justifiability – at one point in history people called this “truth”, utterly unpalatable). But if we are assessing the relative instrumental benefits and detriments of theism, then I would like to compare this to the relative instrumental benefits and detriments of atheism. We know that both good and bad things can be done without religion, and that good and bad things can be done with religion. But of course, the question is somewhat moot. The social reality that I envision in which atheism is more prominent than theism would just be one in which free and open discussions about theism/atheism like this one occur frequently. It’s certainly not a question of imposing religion or imposing atheism. And the conditions that would make that reality possible probably have no effect on, or are not affected by, theism or atheism per se.

      1. Interesting.

        I feel we are talking past each other somewhat in some areas, though such is inevitable and frequent in complex discussions.

        To pick out a couple of points —

        I don’t find justifying beliefs for their instrumental benefit at all unpalatable, but that’s my druthers.

        You simultaneously say that you’re not holding religion as a leading cause of atrocities, and point to the fact that people have justified their killing purely in the name of theistic beliefs. I find this specious, however, as people killing other people has happened for innumerable reasons, and if we look at the majority of religious adherents at any point in time I’d argue you find them not doing so — in other words, killing each other en masse is an anomaly and thus pointing to religion as a primary factor, whatever people say when they do it, seems woefully insufficient. One could argue that religions “primes” them, or increases the probability of violent oppression, but I find Hildyard on (parallel issues of ethnicity) convincing on this (, that said differences are more often post hoc justifications, or justifications mobilized given some other precipitating change, than primary motivations.

        All of which is to say theism is neither necessary nor sufficient for such bad outcomes, and the evidence that (a) theism exacerbates problems in-and-of-itself has not been satisfactorily shown, to my mind, and (b) the evidence that this is over and above the degree to which theism ameliorates large scale social problems in-and-of-itself is not satisfactorily shown.

        But we appear to differ on ultimate ends, anyway. I found myself in the surprising (to me) position of caring most about instrumental ends of increasing human well-being, and building satisying and non-destructive ways of living with and within ecosystems. Search for abstract truths has only indirect bearing on this, so I largely concerned myself with finding instrumental truths and query them with regards to scientific rigor, repeatability, rationality, etc., in order to see how they work “truly” and how we can do more of them.

        In this, for example then, theists have been as much allies as opponents. And while I agree with your logic, I also don’t have the passion for its truth–in terms of truth being beauty, I find the beauty of atheism’s correctness mundane (though still attractive), and agnosticisms’ irrationality immaterial to my life, even though I formerly identified with it (which may be generating an emotional reaction and motivated reasoning on my part). I am annoyed by “God” in state pledges and other intrusions, but I am also annoyed by a large panoply of other things. The day to day operations of theism as opposed to other bothers doesn’t loom large for me, especially with regards to larger sociopolitical tensions (class, race, gender, etc — though of course opposing theism doesn’t preclude one at all from other actions — many would say it helps it — but I don’t find it a place where I want to invest as much time, my inability to NOT express my opinions on things notwithstanding.)

        Where religion directly harms or opposes my goals and beliefs, I am against the actions leading to those harms. To the extent that I think people holding those beliefs are irrational–well, I long ago discovered that analyzing the rationality of others (or myself) to be a never-ending task, full of infinite regressions. To me, what grounds a search for truth that I can’t even be sure humans have the appropriate faculties for is its instrumentality. Since I am not convinced that, for example, opposing theism will advance any of my core interests, I am not inclined to spend much effort on it. I *am* convinced many manifestations of theism retard progress in my core beleifs, and I push against those. While I enjoy the thrill of debate, I realized that (for me), convincing people that I think their beleifs are incorrect or false holds usually only Pyrrhic joy or victory, and so much more joy is to be had working with those with similar democratic humanist goals, whatever their theistic stance.

        In the end, if the atheist is right, nothing is necessarily to be gained by changed people’s core beliefs unless there is also instrumental change, because there is no ultimate judgment of the content of your mind. On the other hand, if instrumental change can be made in actions without changing people’s core beliefs, it may be second best to me, but it’s a close second best.

      2. “You simultaneously say that you’re not holding religion as a leading cause of atrocities, and point to the fact that people have justified their killing purely in the name of theistic beliefs.”

        I don’t see how these are contradictory. I can simultaneously hold that nuclear bombs are not the leading cause of human deaths, and also hold that they have killed many innocent people.

        The relevant question for me is, has religion (and specifically theism), ever been the cause of killings? I’m inclined to think that the answer is yes, and not by a negligible amount.

        The broader theoretical question at hand is, are individual beliefs ever the cause of anything? Some philosophers might doubt this. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to get into this question deeply, but suffice it to say, I do think that beliefs are causal agents of actions, and I don’t think there is anything particularly special about theistic beliefs that make them somehow always post-hoc justifications for the actual causes of actions.

    2. On the issue of theism being like other isms, point well-taken. But the main similarity that I was pointing to was the uncriticalness in which these isms are accepted. Further, that I lump theism in with these other isms that I take to be negative or detrimental is my judgement. The isms I associate it with are not inherently detrimental either, at least not unanimously considered as such.

      Certainly for us sexism and racism “have no purpose or definition but discrimination,” but this doesn’t mean they are without benefit to those who perpetrate them. Sexism and racism were very effective for white slave-owning, property-owning men at one point in time. And they were also default social positions.

      Same goes for nationalism. Most Americans probably don’t view nationalism as a pejorative, and it certainly has relative benefits and detriments, quite similar to theistic religion (community on the one hand, exclusion and disenfranchisement on the other). And in many countries in the world, nationalistic superiority is taken-for-granted.

      Ditto for consumerism. I mean, there’s not shortage of economists who will tout its great benefits, and no shortage of consumers who uncritically live by its tenets.

      In other words, I could easily find a theistic, sexist, racist, nationalistic, consumerist, who only sees benefits to his/her uncritically-held beliefs.

      1. Ok. I take your point — I think — but it seems like a reach. I agree that someone can be found that thinks any particular thing is a “plus” and follow it to extremes. I didn’t think we were talking about that.

        You are quite right in your earlier point about atrocities not being committed in the name of atheism. In that regards, the comparisons with dictators is specious. I was really pursuing the instrumentality of it all, whether or not atrocities can be laid at the feet of religion in any rigorous way ex ante. I think the answer is that we don’t know, but what we do know implies that it is at least one of a large variety of precipitating paths, and like I said is neither necessary nor sufficient.

        But of course, those carrying out atrocities would say that they were good, or at least necessary, too. I thought we were talking about detrimental in an implied relatively shared humanist context, where I would say many -isms are clearly bad, but theism isn’t usually numbered as one of the *clearly* bad ones.

        If we’re not grounded to a less relativistic framework, however, then surely we’re at a point where agnosticisms’ irrationality becomes completely moot?

        But as in the previous reply of mine, it seems the core disagreement we have is the degree of use or palability of instrumental judgments of beliefs. I find it to be more and more part of my overall asseesment of them, though not the whole of the assessment. This seems like an approach you don’t desire to entertain! Another judgement where our assessments differ, regardless of shared opposition to many other isms 🙂

      2. “I thought we were talking about detrimental in an implied relatively shared humanist context, where I would say many -isms are clearly bad, but theism isn’t usually numbered as one of the *clearly* bad ones.”

        Indeed, but as you note, theism is just part of my collective of isms that I oppose and not yours; my humanist context holds theism to be an undesirable uncritically accepted belief, while yours doesn’t. It’s not a matter of relativism here, just judgement. There are plenty of humanist thinkers that would share my judgement, and plenty that would share yours.

        Even though sexism and racism seem like provocative examples, they work more subtly than that. There are sexist and racist assumptions that permeate society, are not widely held to be ultimately detrimental, are uncritically perpetuated as ideologies, and reflect and serve existing power structures. I think theism is quite similar to this once you get past the loadedness of the terms racism and sexism.

        Really, any “ism” that reflects a uncritically-held and usually authoritatively imposed belief is the similarity that I am pointing to. And this is also its ultimate detriment. Theism is detrimental because for the most part, it is an uncritically accepted, authoritatively imposed belief. And all such beliefs should be critique.

        I guess here I have more in common with people like Dawkins or Dennett or Harris than I have made explicit: Why are we (collective societal we) teaching people – teaching kids – to be theists? I have met very few theists, though I know of some, who arrive at theism out of a period of long critical reflection based on the considering of evidence and alternatives. I mean, how common are religious conversions?

        I know you say you take instrumentality as a factor in whether beliefs are justifiable or not, but what does this look like in an education setting? Or in a scientific setting? As a matter of pedagogic and research principle, I merely think we should be teaching and substantiating the ideas that meet widely-held epistemic standards of evidence and rationality.

        There are innumerable things we could teach that ostensibly have instrumental value, but we don’t because they either have no evidence supporting them or don’t make logical sense. Other than a few enclaves in the US, in North America we don’t teach creationism in schools. We don’t teach astronomy or new age healing. We don’t teach homeopathy.

        I think at least part of our disagreement has been that you think the critique of theism isn’t an extremely worthwhile pursuit. Let’s assume that you are correct, and that there aren’t good grounds to critique the logic of theism on the basis that it might combat the alleged broader detrimental effects of religion. That is to say, theism doesn’t cause any bad extra effects whatsoever – it simply does not contribute in anyway to killings or oppression or abuse (this hypothetical is even more extreme than the position that its not a sufficient cause). Then, let’s also assume that theism doesn’t cause any good effects either – it does not contribute to the alleged benefits of religion – community, social cohesion, etc. Let’s just assume that all the perceived benefits or detriments of theism are actually caused by some other factor, and theism is always just a post-hoc justification for them.

        Given these assumptions, why should anyone give credence to such unsubstantiated, illogical, and uncritically-held beliefs? Why single theism out as a form of silly belief that everyone is just allowed to have? Obviously, at this point, the question might seem entirely moot. And as a matter of day-to-day practice, I guess I don’t really care what silly beliefs people carry as long as there effects are instrumentally nil.

        And here I guess I uncomfortably return to some similarities I have with Dawkins. The effects of silly beliefs cannot be instrumentally nil, because allow them to go unchecked and uncritique contributes to a situation where you ignore epistemic standards and standards of rationality that I happen to think are pretty important. So what’s the point of critiquing theism (or agnosticism)? Because it’s silly, and I’m interested in being part of a community who are in the habit of rejecting silly beliefs.

  3. I agree with the pedagogic and research agenda as you lay it out, and that we ought to teach critical reflection, standards of proof and reasoning, and rational evaluation (paraphrasing). You ask why should theism get special hands-off–I argue that it shouldnt, but neither should it get special “hands-on”. Many beliefs are silly and irrational–some harmfully so in some context. But many only ambiguously, indirectly, or only in certain forms. I don’t spend overmuch time critiquing belief in luck; I comment on the relative safety of car and plane travel only in passing to friends; I spend rather more time critiquing capitalism. But I have found that the most effective way to convince people is not implacable critique, and with most people, certainly not direct attack on core values.

    Which is to say, “I’m on your side”, EXCEPT that I think critiquing theism per se (a) misses the point, and (b) is likely less effective than critiquing its manifestations I find the most abhorrent.

    Re: (a) I don’t have any confidence that if religion disappeared tomorrow, anyone would be more rational or any problems necessarily easier to solve. Among other things, one of the biggest problems with irrationality to my mind is the over reliance one’s own experiences as a guide to rationality, prevalence, and truth. I doubt, for example, that a peer-reviewed study saying your experiences were exceptional would convince you they were thus–maybe I’m wrong on that. But I suspect you’d engage in motivated reasoning to further bolster your pre-existing belief. Understandable, though its rationality is debatable.

    But I’m getting away from my point. I think it misses the poor because it assumes that theistic belief is a significant precluder of rational belief and action. Even if true, it does not follow that critiquing or overturning theistic belief will increase rational belief or action, outside of the (dis)belief in religion. If I convince one person that their belief in god is wrong, but nothing else in their comportment changes, not much of interest has happened. (Indeed, if it robs them of happiness or purpose, it’s possibly net negative.) if I convince them to use some preferred set of rational tools that, for the sake of argument, they eschewed wholly before now. But they refuse to apply these tools to their belief in god, or else they find a clever way of justifying it using these tools (though arguably using them incompletely). BUT, the way they act in society and evaluate new information is much more strongly rooted in inquiry and adjustment that, for some reason, never moves them to reevaluate their belief in god(s).

    The second much more closely mirrors my experiences and what I view as much more useful than the first one. Further, we KNOW that having “silly” beliefs can coexist with rational thought; that’s practically the human condition. It seems like you’re contending that critiquing theism will improve the quality of human rationality; I think that’s true for a small subset of people, and for the vastly larger majority, creating a space where people feel safe, respected, not directly attacked or their beliefs directly attacked, are much more likely to be amenable to creating/changing/maintaining instrument ally useful behavior, and may at later points be amenable to changing core beliefs–or never.

    I don’t think there’s any evidence that our highest advancements and achievements have come FROM (or due to) any lack of theism, and in terms of social justice, they have come as much from bonhomie–often religiously inspired–as they have from rationally applying a sense of good will beyond your own social in-group. Scientific breakthroughs have long came from theists and atheists alike; I think there’s little evidence more people would’ve had more breakthroughs simply because they believed less in god.

    Lastly, if we look at cultures where atheism/irrational agnosticism have grown, I don’t see any evidence tht it was from critiques of theism, though maybe some nonzero role is there. So tactically, my question to those like Dawkins is–what’s the rational, empirically informed evidence that diret critiques will have any effectiveness towards your goals? And further, what is the rational, empirical evidence that the goals of overall rationality in society (instrumental rationality) cannot be just as well, or even better advanced through not direct opposition or critique, but through erosion, inattention, and nonconfrontational tactics based in teaching rational inquiry, and not saving religion as a special case, but also not spending any special effort on it either?

    1. I wish I could write more, but I guess I agree on most points. As I’ve said even in my original posts, I have little hope of the efficaciousness of direct critique. But I have little hope of the efficaciousness of my dissertation research, but I still think it’s very important!

      As I’ve written about previously with regards to the public understanding of science, I think “education campaigns” or “debunking campaigns” like the ones that people like Dawkins champions are largely ineffective, especially if they’re aimed at adults. And not least of which, people believe things for all kinds of reasons, and being exposed to more and correct information only affects the beliefs of people who are already base their beliefs on such things.

      As for me, I take for granted that all my experiences are exceptional! I doubt the generalisability of pretty much all my anecdotal experiences, but that’s because I have honed this kind of scepticism over time (not least because of my experiences in athletic training where fellow athletes swear by some new diet or workout regimen that anecdotally “works wonders” for them).

      Regarding (a), I less think it misses the point, and more think that in itself, philosophical critique like the kind I have engaged in on my blog, is just hardly sufficient to effect any significant change. But I do think it a crucial part of the overall picture. I mean, it makes up a large part of my objection to theism, and insofar as I think it would be better if less people were theists, it’s the kind of discussion that needs to happen.

      Regarding (b) – of course. I have lots of friends who are nominally theists and amenable to philosophical discussions. It’s these kinds of conversations that are effective with them, but they are certainly the kinds of people whose theism I find least troublesome. It’s usually manifests as some sort of vague pantheism with no real practical consequences on actions.

      The crucial question is whether theism per se can be separated from the abhorrent versions of religious beliefs that they engender. I think theism is a sine qua non of every religious belief that I find undesirable or even dangerous, but I admit I need to think about this more. But I find it somewhat disconcerting when one group of theists criticizes another group of theists on the particulars of their religion. This was a common theme in the more Islamophobic recent history in the US. “Our theism is fine, because we don’t kill people in the name of of our God.” But obviously these extra-religious arguments – appealing to some humanist ethics – misses the point. You can’t allow theism but then appeal to humanist values to say why particular manifestations of theism go to far. Once you allow the theism, then all the particulars that stem from that faith need to be allowed as well. In my view, the only way to denounce the unwanted particulars of religion is to take issue with the underlying theistic faith, for it is the faith that justifies everything else, in the eyes of believers.

      Whether or not religion and theism warrant more attention than things like luck, or vague beliefs in “karma,” or avoiding black cats, or not opening umbrellas indoors, etc., I think is a sticking point here, and my views about theistic faith as being the sine qua non of the particulars of religious beliefs and practices that I find unacceptable is at the core of my position. I just think theism is more pervasive and ultimately more dangerous than beliefs in luck.

      “What is the rational, empirical evidence that the goals of overall rationality in society (instrumental rationality) cannot be just as well, or even better advanced through not direct opposition or critique, but through erosion, inattention, and nonconfrontational tactics based in teaching rational inquiry, and not saving religion as a special case, but also not spending any special effort on it either?”

      I don’t think there is any, and I completely agree with your inference. I think erosion, overall, is exactly the best approach. Teaching standards of rationality rather than tearing down specific cases of irrationality. But you need case studies! And the reason religion comes up as something that gets special attention is because it is treated as a special case, as something that is put aside to be free from rational critique, and also as a belief that is afforded amazing institutional, social, and cultural power. If there was public funding for the teaching of some idiosyncratic superstition, or if societal institutions paid special homage to the concept of luck, then I’d be spending special effort on those too.

  4. Sorry for typos — I’m on a mobile.

    Notably, I meant near the end “not directly challenged in their CORE beliefs.” Rational inquiry that tests no beliefs is pointless. I agree people (including myself) must always be challenged to think on their own beliefs.

    Also: re agnosticism, it seems like it would only be a second-level problem by your lights, as while it is irrational, it is not as obviously so, and in my experience most self-identified agnostics have given it a LOT of thought and are likely to be pretty highly instrumentally rational. The fact that a number of convincing, but not necessarily obvious or common arguments indicate that their beliefs are irrational does not simultaneously establish, to any convincing degree, that their societal comportment will not be instrument ally rational.

    And here, perhaps, is where we loop back to my original, own, motivated reasoning reaction. I have found more people turned off by, and hence unwilling to listen to, atheists, especially those like Dawkins. Unlistened to rationality doesn’t change minds. I have found agnostics to generally have an easier time empathizing–placing themselves in others’ shoes and trying to identify with them–than atheists, who my experience has split broadly into roughly 50/50 empathetic and confrontational.

    Or to quote the end if this excellent piece ( “The problem is that by avoiding any risk of being accused of “moral equivalence” – or “being PC” or ”blaming the victim” – we constrain our own capacity to fully inhabit another’s worldview. And that is the necessary condition that must precede a rational comparison of ideas. I can’t just listen to Chomsky – or David Brooks, or Heather Mac Donald, or Christopher Hitchens, or my father-in-law – talk, then set those desiccated externalizations of their ideas next to my rich self-generated notions, and evaluate them against each other. I need to permit myself to fully swallow what they suggest and regenerate it inside myself, to fully animate those ideas, so that they are as alive and vivid as my own. Only then do I get to be rational. But, again, that’s hard work. Very few of our decisions will be made that way. So, it’s sort of a terrible irony: One of our sharpest living thinkers has dedicated half his lifetime to justice, using methods that could never work. And he should already know that these methods won’t work, on account of the fact that he dedicated the other half of his life to sussing out precisely why just telling it like it is has almost no chance of causing broad political change. Changing politics means changing minds, and cognitive dissonance doesn’t do that. Cognitive dissonance triggers an array of defense mechanisms – the formulation of repetitions and justifications – that serve one end: To preserve that first thought we already had in our heads. – See more at:

  5. I lack the eloquence and philosophical predisposition of my fellow blog readers so I must apologize for the crude comment I am about to contribute.

    I think the invention of the term “agnostic” is testimony to the fact that freethinkers prefer to avoid being pigeonholed whenever possible. Intelligent people, when analyzing and conceptualizing a contentious issue, recognize the inherent complexities. It is better to say, “I am not sure about the existence of God” rather than “God does not exist.” History has shown us that “truths” are often fluid therefore it is a fool’s errand to label oneself as an Atheist when, however improbable, the possibility exists that one could be wrong. So, we invent the term “agnostic” to hedge our bet.

    I do not think we hedge our bet out of fear for being wrong. I think we hedge our bet out of an understanding that we, as humans, are imperfect and incapable of perceiving the real and total truth. So, in that sense, there is a tangible and defensible reason for denoting oneself as an agnostic even when, philosophically, we may not be distinguishable with respect to our personal inclinations from a true atheist.

    So, in that sense, there is a tangible reason for the differentiation between the two terms. The term “Atheist” forces us to refute the existence of something we cannot possibly be 100% sure of. The term “Agnostic” allows us the flexibility and freedom to develop our belief system under the constant recognition that the “truth” will escape even the most logically sound grasp of the concept.

    With that said, I believe the discussion around the semantics is a red herring. I do not care how one chooses to label oneself. My inclination is to dismiss any theory or belief which claims to champion the “truth.” Don’t tell me you’re an atheist because we both know that you don’t know for sure. Don’t tell me you’re a Christian because we both know you don’t know for sure.

    And this is why I vehemently assert that any religion which claims a monopoly on the truth is a gross detriment to human progress. The only defensible position is – as defined in this argument – agnosticism. One cannot dismiss the existence of a God in some form so I must rule out any position that manifests itself with the term “Atheism.” Likewise, one cannot prove the existence of a God so I must rule out any position that establishes a creator to whom we are all beholden.

    The difference, of course, is in the tangible effects that both camps have on the human condition. Atheism, to date, has not reached any sort of critical mass to effect policy. Atheism, though it is equally certain of its convictions, presents no immediate threat to the well being of humans therefore our need to confront Atheism’s shortcomings is less pressing. Traditional religion, on the other hand, can and does present a tangible threat to human well being. Major religions have long ago reached the critical mass to effect policy changes which reflect their respective prejudices onto others. Therefore, presently, religion is the greater evil.

    Lastly, I do not accept the arguments that religion produces a net positive to society. If it produces any negative effects whatsoever we owe it to future generations to try to establish a more beneficial alternative. For every murder committed in the name of religion there is a good deed committed in the same name – this does not mean we should accept it. What if we can capture the good deeds without the murder? This has not been tried in modern society…we cannot quantify the opportunity cost. Likewise, I do not buy the argument that, since violence and crime will still exist in the absence of religion, we should not hold religion accountable for countless abhorrent crimes against humanity. Change is incremental not absolute. We do not need to prove that religion is the absolute cause of all evils to justify the elimination of it.

    Religion, by definition, is the assertion of truth. The coercion of people to give in to the divine. Since, to paraphrase Aristotle (a tip of the cap to all you philosophy majors), true wisdom is recognizing that we do not and cannot know all – let us plainly reject any doctrine which asks of us to abandon free thought and label ourselves as an “Atheist” or a “Christian.” Let us adopt the only framework which guarantees us the freedom to withhold judgement in the absence of evidence – and that, by the definition Bernhard has laid out, is Agnosticism.

    1. Thanks for the reply! I think it possible that you might misunderstand my position.

      The fundamental point that I was trying to make is that there is no need for a distinction between “atheism” and “agnosticism,” especially as defined by Bertrand Russell (which becomes the common view of the two terms), because atheism, properly construed, is NOT the affirmation of the non-existence of god(s), but merely the absence of a belief in god(s). These are fundamentally distinct; an absence of belief is not an affirmation, nor a belief in some particular phenomena or state of affairs.

      If there are people who absolutely affirm the non-existence of god(s), this is, as you point out, a bit of logical silliness and not a position to take seriously. If these people self-identify as atheists, then I what I am suggesting here is that my form of atheism is different than theirs, and indeed, theirs is an untenable position. I wish to shed the meaning of “an absolutely belief in the non-existence of god(s)” from atheism.

      So, why not just use the term “agnosticism”? Because it too carries a bit of silliness. The notion that agnosticism means that “you don’t know for sure either way (i.e. that god(s) do or do not exist)” is superfluous. One does not need to proclaim that they don’t know for sure that something doesn’t exist, it is entirely sufficient to say that you don’t know for sure that something does exist. To add the former as a premise is actually to implicitly give credence to whatever belief in whatever things that people hold, because the burden of proof has been partly shifted to those who are unconvinced by the evidence for the existence of said thing.

      I personally don’t care what terminology we use either; I am concerned with the explicit and implicit definitions of terminology.

      Here we have two bad meanings: one which holds that atheism is the belief in the non-existence of god(s), and one that holds that agnosticism is the suspension of belief in the existence or non-existence of god(s).

      All we need is a term that means that one has suspended belief in the existence of god(s). Maybe a third term is needed, but I suggest that in practice, this is typically what atheists mean when they say they are atheists.

      As I pointed out earlier in these posts, we already have a term for the attitude that absolute certainty is not possible and that one should suspend belief (always fundamentally tentative, but some stronger than others) in some claim until sufficient evidence is available, and that term is scepticism. Agnosticism merely tacks on an unnecessary premise to scepticism. Atheism, how I would construe it, is simply a subset of scepticism. That it even needs to appear as a uniquely identifiable position is merely the result of the power and certainty of religion and theists. Otherwise, saying that you don’t believe in something for which there is no evidence would be entirely unremarkable. There are an infinitude of things I don’t believe in, not each of those non-beliefs constitutes a principled position or ideology.

  6. I agree entirely with what you just wrote.

    I see the redundancy of using the term “agnostic” and you have persuaded me that the term is only useful because of the “certainty of religion and theists.”

    I suppose the only thing that gives me reason to pause is that we do, indeed, live in a world that has been dominated (intellectually and culturally) by religion and theists. Therefore, perhaps, circumstances demand the acknowledgement of religion and theism when constructing an opposing worldview. What purpose is served by ignoring the preconditions of this debate? If the prevailing theory is overwhelmingly religious is it not encumbent on a philosopher to directly confront the status quo when labelling their own views?

    Unlike most instances where it would be redundant to proclaim that one does not know for sure, the debate on deities is different. In this case, it is remarkable or uncommon for someone to be a skeptic and, perhaps, this is why we feel compelled to label it with the term “agnostic.”

    It’s almost as if the two terms – atheist and agnostic – describe different degrees of skepticism and do, in practice, have different meanings.

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