Calling All Agnostics…

I’ve always called myself an agnostic, and I think I really am, in the strictest sense. But there was a time when I wondered if I really should just go ahead and call myself an atheist, if I was being too waffle-y on the matter.

I came across an interesting article in the NY Times on this subject that I thought you might enjoy.

“…while I certainly think someone could easily be, and many people are, reasonable in being an agnostic about God…there are important goals served by our taking stands on issues where we cannot be objectively certain, or even know that we are right.”—Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame

Since I haven’t asked y’all any serious questions lately, as always, feel free to answer any or all:

  1. Do we need to take a stance on God?

  2. Does the idea of God strike you as bizarre?

  3. Which arguments for/against the existence of God do you favor?

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42 thoughts on “Calling All Agnostics…

  1. Great questions Tina.

    1. I think it’s up to the individual – if they feel it’s important to take a stance then do it. My wife has been an apatheist for pretty much her whole life and I don’t see a problem with that. We all should be able to pick whatever stances we feel are important to us. I don’t feel the need to take a stance on the proper way to do needlepoint, so why should I suggest that others take a stance on the idea of God? 🙂

    2. There are many different “versions” of what God is, and maybe some do seem more bizarre to me than others, but that’s only because I’m not used to those versions.

    3. I think the fact that we have no way to empirically detect God or gods is for me the main problem with the idea. It’s similar to the multiverse – theists like to mention that since we cannot detect the multiverse empirically that we have no reason to believe in it. I feel the same way about gods. Some people label this argument “divine hiddenness”, but I call it the “undetectability” argument. If I became a theist I’d probably pick the arguments which are more evidence based like the argument from religious experience or the argument from miracles. But the problem I see with these though is that it seems like the evidence provided for those doesn’t go beyond anecdotal.

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    • Hey Howie, thanks for your responses!

      Well, I’m definitely going to call myself a waffler. That’s my stance. Final answer.

      I think you’re right. People are gonna choose whatever label they want, and then they’re still gonna have a lot of explaining to do.

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      • Well, I’m definitely going to call myself a waffler. That’s my stance. Final answer.

        I like that one – made me laugh quite a bit. Reminds me of the extreme skeptic’s paradox: “I know for sure that I know nothing at all.”

        Oh, and I’m quite the waffler myself.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok, you’re agnostic. But you may have already taken a stance. Do you behave as if there is a god, saying little prayers now and then or observing any other kind of religious ritual? Or do you live your life without any regard to or recognition of any kind of deity? Whichever of these you follow will make you either an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist, and that would be your stance. What you do with that stance is entirely up to you, and I don’t think you’re under any obligation.

    The *idea* of god does not strike me as bizarre at all. I did enough drugs and meditation in my younger days to know that the brain is very malleable and can be made to sincerely believe almost anything. Believing in god isn’t that much of a stretch.

    For me, the argument against god is that any religion you care to name is demonstrably false. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a god, just that the claims that are commonly made about god(s) are clearly nonsense. I haven’t completely discounted the deist view which is that god is out there but doesn’t care about us at all. But if that view is true, then it’s more or less identical to there being no god at all.

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  3. 1.‘Do we need to take a stance on God?’ Clearly, some people do; the ‘need’ for emotional solace in what may a bleak life may create such a ‘need’. Conversely, the ‘need’ to assert an assumed correctness might do also, for either the atheist, anti-theist or theist.

    2.‘Does the idea of God strike you as bizarre?’ It depends what the particular conception is. Spinoza’s conception seems entirely reasonable to me for example; a pantheistic or panentheistic conception perhaps a little less so. The popular conception of a divine creator being does seem a little anachronistic to me; though as we understand the historical reasons for such beliefs, they don’t actually seem ‘bizarre’ in the least. Humans are pretty credulous on the whole.

    3.‘Which arguments for/against the existence of God do you favour?’ Again here, there’s the problem of what we mean by conceptions of ‘existence’ and ‘God’. The pragmatist might say it’s all about subjective experience, and this is sufficient to admit of an existent God. Personally, I quite like Chris Hitchen’s take on this:

    Hariod. ❤

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    • I think Chris Hitchen’s pretty funny, but he’s missing a key point in a lot of the extreme religions. The emotions that come from being a slave to a higher power are quite powerful. I think a lot of these ridiculous rituals and beliefs that people do and ascribe to come from certain personalities—one might call them masochists—who feel a certain freedom in giving oneself up. The more absurd the power, the more arbitrary and ridiculous the demands, the more reason cannot come into play, which can be liberating. The more one gives up, the more powerful the feeling. Hence, the self-mutilation, etc, that comes from the acetic life.

      Make the same analogy to sex and it might make more sense. Ever seen “The Secretary”?

      That said, any religion that enforces such an acetic life on others ought to be stopped. It’s an unfortunate fact that a lot of these horrible things that people do are enforced on others who do not feel the same liberation in slavery, and that’s just plain slavery.

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      • Yes Tina, I did see The Secretary and so understand the reference and relevance as regards some who are religiously inclined. I disagree with you that Hitch missed this as a key point, as he was not a psychotherapist but a polemicist and rationalist by trade. And his argument was largely against religion being taught in American public schools, so to have couched his anti-theism in terms of him and other anti-theists being psychologically healthy and believers not being so, would undoubtedly have proved unproductive, which in any case, I think it was in the end. The Four Horsemen of the New Atheism movement achieved little other than preaching to the converted in my opinion. Still, as you rightly say, Hitch was damned good fun – unlike Dawkins.

        Asceticism of course has a very long history in religious doctrines; notably so in Indian religious culture of the Vedic period. The arrival and spreading of Buddhist thought during the 500 years prior to Christianity acted as a counter to this given that the orthodox (Theravadin Buddhist) doctrine expressly spoke against the indulgence of extremes, and in particular those of asceticism and sensual indulgence. Sadly, we seem to be witnessing a re-emergence of asceticism in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Bill Hicks was still alive we could have sent him over there to lighten them up a little, but sadly, he’s gone.

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  4. It all depends on how one defines “God.” If God is defined as a superhuman being who intervenes in our lives, that’s one thing. If “God is love” or something to that effect, it’s a completely different matter. In respect to the first, I do feel a need to take a stance and say that I am an atheist. In respect to the second, I’m a believer 🙂
    The best arguments against the first option are found in the natural sciences, which reveal quite clearly that if there was a “Designer,” (s)he was making some pretty weird screwups for a supposedly omniscient being.

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      • Interesting. Within Christianity, evil is not considered an objection to God’s existence.
        I don’t think evil is anything metaphysical. It is massive selfishness and callousness toward other beings, and its seeds arise naturally in humans, as does altruism. Culture seems to contribute to the development of both…

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        • The “problem” of evil I think refers to the argument that if God were good, omniscient, etc, then why would He allow so much suffering to exist? How could He allow Nazis to commit such atrocities, for example? This is the argument put forward by Voltaire in Candide against Leibniz, as caricatured in “Dr. Pangloss” who uses philosophy to ‘gloss over’ the evils of the world.

          And you’re right. Within Christianity, there are many counter arguments against the “problem of evil”, many of which say that these ‘evils’ are necessary or that they are only ‘evil’ from our point of view. There might be some Christians who say that the ‘evil’ arises from us, not God, but that doesn’t really answer the question. Then the counter argument could go: So why did God make us evil? And so we’re back where we started.

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          • From my understanding the problem of evil also covers natural “evils” like horrific diseases and natural disasters. This is why some people call it the problem of suffering.

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          • Yes, definitely. In fact, those natural disasters seem like more poignant examples since they don’t come from us.

            Although, I suppose there will always be morons out there who blame natural disasters on gays and such. God getting revenge…

            Yes, thanks for bringing this up!

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          • Well, I have always favored the attitude the Greeks took. They did not assume that the gods were perfectly good (an assumption for which there seems very little evidence). Therefore they did not have to explain why there is suffering.

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          • Yes, that is true. But they also thought that sh*t just happens sometimes, as a result of “Fate.” I don’t believe in Fate, but I do agree that bad stuff just happens sometimes and that there is no explanation needed. Evil comes in when there are people with bad intentions, of course. Both can cause suffering.

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  5. I think the concept of atheism and that of agnosticism are not on the same dimension. They are two dimensions. Think of a coordinate system with tow axes: one is atheism vs. theism, the othere is agnosticism vs. dogmatism.
    The atheism/theism dimension is about what you believe. The agnosticism/dogmatism dimension is about your attitude towards your belief.
    There are agnostic theists (believing in good but conceding the possibility of being wrong and cededing that they don’t know) and there are dogmatic theists (convinced to be in possession of the one and only truth). On the other hand, there are also agnostic atheists and dogmatic atheists.
    I have problems with all kinds of dogmatic people. I am an agnostic atheist and I have no problem with agnostic theists.
    It might be possible to be neither theist nor atheist and to just leave the question open.
    It is also possible to find the question unimportant. I do and in that sense I can say that I am not an atheist. Atheism is not something I would call a defining property of mine. For example, I am not interested in soccer, but that does not make me an “asoccerist”. That game simply does not play any role in my life. In the same sense, I am not interested in dogs, but would not call myself an adogist (these animals simply don’t interst me). In that sense, I am not an “atheist”, so my atheism is a rather theoretical thing.
    Religion intersts me as a historical, cultureal and social phenomenon, something to be studied, but not as something that has a personal meaning to me. Things might be different if I was living in the US where religion is very strong and one might be forced to deal with it, but I am living in Germany where it is possible to largely ignore it, just like I ignore soccer although it is an important part of the lives of some people here.

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  6. Just take my previous comment as my answer to question one.
    About the second question: yes, I think it is bizarre idea. For one thing, I think that complex things arise from simple things, in processes of self-organization. Minds are very complex. A “super-mind” at the start of everything seems bizarre to me. The beginning should be simple, not complex.
    Moreover, god as a powerful being is a bizarre idea. Power is an evil phenomenon. see http://asifoscope.org/2012/12/01/about-antropomorphism/.
    In a sense, I find a belief in god also dispensable, it is a detour (http://asifoscope.org/2013/04/27/experiencing-sacredness/).

    I have written some things that might fit into question 3 here: https://bigarmchair.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/taking-the-bible-seriously-in-a-recent-post/
    However, those are arguments only against a bible-literalism-god, not against a more philosophical variety.

    Sorry for putting so many links.

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    • I wonder though…couldn’t god be supremely simple?

      I read your post on god-as-dispensable. My friend, a musician, had a religious experience while he was performing. He called it a feeling of peace, like the universe was good, something like that. He played his piece, not even realizing he was playing. Later he found out his playing was spectacular. From there he never did anything with it, never became religious, never went to church or read anything about it. That was it. No interpretation whatsoever. The only reason I found out about it was because I happened to bring up the topic of religious experience and how jealous I was of those who’d had one.

      William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” is an interesting study in this phenomenon in which he gives various accounts of people who have similar experiences and interpret them in vastly different ways, depending on their personality.

      I wonder how I’d interpret such an experience if I had one. Or if I would be more like my friend and just leave it be.

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      • I’ve heard the idea of god being supremely simple and even listened to some interviews on the “closer to truth” website trying to argue for that, but I haven’t been able to make much sense of it. If god really is a “super mind” that knows every possible fact there is to know then I can’t see how this is simple. That to me seems supremely complex. My thoughts go right along with what nannus said – saying that a supreme mind is at the start of it all doesn’t seem to make as much sense to me as some very basic elements (whatever they might be) at the start of it all and that everything developed from that.

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        • It’s all pretty strange to think about. I don’t really know what I think of the matter. I want to think of god as pure being—without parts—but how then did the universe get created? I certainly don’t have the answer.

          “If god really is a “super mind” that knows every possible fact there is to know then I can’t see how this is simple. That to me seems supremely complex.”

          I agree. If it “knows” everything, it must have parts. I’d think an infinite number of parts. This could very well be the case, who knows?

          Or what if, as Plato speculated, God is pure being and everything in the universe “partakes” in it? (Some scholars would take issue with my use of the word ‘partake’…but I can’t think of another way of putting it).

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  7. Nice questions Tina!

    Do we need to take a stance on God?
    No. I find the atheist vs agnostic conflict tiring. People have varying levels of certitude on this question. Some are simply more epistemologically cautious than others. Those who can’t accept that others are at different points on this spectrum, need to cut back on the caffeine.

    Does the idea of God strike you as bizarre?
    No. It’s human nature to attribute agency to nature, most likely an evolutionary adaptation to avoid predators. Some people state outright that their conception of God is a metaphor for nature.

    Which arguments for/against the existence of God do you favor?
    The cosmological argument is the only one that sometimes makes me wonder, is there a purpose to reality? Is there an intelligence behind it? But it also makes me wonder where such an intelligence would have come from, and whether it would care about us, or possibly regard us as vermin gumming up its experiment.

    Arguments against that impress me:
    Multiple contradictory religions throughout the world and history
    My judgment that scriptures are human documents without any obvious influence of a cosmic intelligence
    Absence of evidence for anything supernatural
    Absence of any evidence for purpose in nature

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  8. Pingback: The Existence of “God” (Whatever That Means) | In The Desert Of Seth

    • You know, I’ve always wanted to invite a Jehovah’s witness in to talk. I doubt the kids who come to the door can really offer satisfactory answers, but I admire their persistence and I imagine it would be an interesting conversation.

      Besides, I’ve never heard of anyone letting them in to talk. Those poor kids get the door slammed in their faces all the time.

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  9. 1) I don’t think we need to take a stance. For one thing, what would it get us? For another, sometimes I do get swept up in a quasi-religious feeling. Why not enjoy it for what it is, and allow myself the moment of wondering “what if there is a God?”. After all, being an Agnostic means entertaining both sides of the question — otherwise, it’s simply Atheism.

    2) I don’t think the idea of God is bizarre. Some of the things that religions say God wants seem bizarre, but there seems to be a tendency (maybe this is my own upbringing) to think of some kind of order governing human affairs.

    3) I haven’t seen any arguments for the existence of God that I favor, although if someone were to come up with an argument from consciousness, I’d be inclined to give it some weight. This argument would be tied to the uselessness of consciousness; after all, I can be unconscious and still do everything I’m doing now. Why do I need consciousness, unless its to enable me to feel joy or pain, and why should I have this capacity unless its to enable punitive measures to have force? Granted, not much of an argument as it’s riding on the mystery of consciousness and presumes a lot about the role of God, if God exists.

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      • Well yes, to choose not to choose is a choice, but the choice only matters if it matters. Wow, that sentence was either really profound or an utterly vacuous tautology 😛

        I hear you though; I’ve heard others state that Agnosticism was basically closet Atheism, and I think in many cases it is. But if one is genuinely open to an experience without trying to reify it to some doctrine (atheist or theistic), then I think that person is a genuine agnostic.

        For instance, if one suddenly feels a profound sense of order in the cosmos, then theists would say this is God, atheists would say this is psychology, and agnostics would say this is awesome.

        That at least is my take.

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        • EXACTLY my take too! I used to be a “closet atheist” until reading Augustine and Plato in college. Now I’m a true agnostic, not just a technical one.

          If I have that experience, I don’t know what I’ll think of it, but I won’t discount it so readily. I really want that experience. That would be awesome indeed!

          The closest I came was while reading Augustine’s Confessions, and realizing that his relationship to the Manicheans was not that much different to my relationship with modern atheism. His personal description of his spiritual journey really touched me. (It helped that he relied heavily on Plato, as I was in love with Plato and still am.) While I was experiencing this vicariously through him, I felt a kind of peace and joy at knowing how wrong I was previously. I realized how much my own distortions were making me miserable, and seeing those thoughts as distortions of reality made me very happy. Not quite a cosmic harmony sort of thing, but as close to it as I ever came before.

          What’s funny is Augustine didn’t appeal to me through argument, which wouldn’t have worked at all. I would have gone into “argumentative mode” and looked for problems. It was a psychological restructuring which then allowed me to see arguments clearer, if that makes sense.

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