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.