Tuesday, August 29, 2006

atheist or agnostic

Will Wilkinson takes on Richard Posner over atheism. Posner thinks there's something hugely different between not believing and actively disbelieving. I think a lot of people will say that it marks the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Since I've become an atheist (not agnostic) I've believed that most agnostics would better be described as atheist. Will Wilkinson explains why better than I could.


Tracy Leigh said...

hmmm... This is very metaphysical. I suppose agnostics could fall under atheists because they don't believe in God, and they may live their lives in a similar way to atheists, but there are still differences. I like the "weak" versus "strong" atheism. But it all depends if you wish to bother with giving it a label.

Swart Donkey said...

The thing is Stu.... your atheism is not the repugnant brand. We both come from a similar religious background. We have both rejected that background. But I would like to think that both of us have the same core beliefs we always had... but we have just chosen different window dressing. Gotta question the value of giving it a label (as Trace says). Besides, I find the idea of actively disbelieving bizarre.

stuart said...

I was writing an intricate learned response but I got tired, the philosophical crap that Wilkinson?s post brings up is beyond me. As a nature person, I don?t disagree that our core values don?t change much as we toddle along in life, though I also don?t think window dressing is a little further than I would go.

My parents have also refused to be labeled, a lot of people feel like that, so in my mind I have a label, ?people who don?t wanna be labeled?. I think this says quite a lot, people who adopt this stance have no anxiety about going to hell, which I think suggests that they don?t believe in it, which is enough to make a person a non-theist in my book. I don?t doubt that there are agnostics, but I would expect agnostics to have a genuine anxiety over the god question not casual indifference. After all, an eternity of bliss, torment or ?distance from God? is at stake.

Note that there is a difference between theism and deism (which I think is your stance), as far as I know many theists would consider desists, atheists.

I find the idea of actively believing in God bizarre.

GT said...

1. What is repugnant brand of atheism, as a matter of interest?

2. Giving things labels is very important. It would be difficult to communicate without them. So it seems to me that the effort of trying to come to a common understanding of what various labels should mean is worthwhile.

3. I don't believe in the tooth fairy. I would go so far as to say that I actively disbelieve in it. Is that bizarre?

Swart Donkey said...

What I mean by actively disbelieving being bizarre is simply this....

Those who believe in God (the logical, non-brainwashed ones) will all admit that a core part of that belief is faith.

If I knew for a fact that God existed, and still chose to disbelieve in his existence. I would be a moron. And the fact that you think I am a moron anyway Stu is not proof for either stance on the existence of God.

I guess I should rephase what I said... I find saying that there is definitely no God as bizarre as saying there definitely is one.

Which I guess makes me bizzare... since it is one of the two truths I claim.

Yes.... I am aware that I am rambling.

Actively being contrarian is my concern. (Trace would claim that that is what I am... and she may have a point in specific cases). What I mean is.... I don't get Satanists for example... By believing in Satan, you believe in God by default... and worshiping Satan is therefore a little silly.

Key point is....

I know two things:
1) There is a God
2) I am not him

Someone who says

I know two things:
1) There isn't a God
2) I am not him

Is being silly...

I guess I am silly too

but hey... it is easier to point fingers

Swart Donkey said...

1. Repugnant atheism:

Given, a poor choice of words. But what I meant is the people who will actively take the core beliefs of religions e.g. christianity, and actively choose to do exactly the opposite.

Most Moderate Christians/Muslims/Budhists etc. would not object to the way Stu lives his life (i.e. his beliefs are not repugnant)

2. Labels

I agree that labels can be a tool, in the same way that models are useful in economics. But as with economics models are a simplification. I prefer the idea of dealing on an individual basis with individuals. But you are right... generalisations are useful.


Yes, Actively disbelieving in the tooth fairy is bizarre.

stuart said...

?Yes, Actively disbelieving in the tooth fairy is bizarre.?

Do you share this bizarre disbelief?

gt said...

Ok, so actively disbelieving is the same as claiming that something is definitely, 100%, beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt not true. I agree that this is silly. There are limits to human knowledge and nobody can reach that level of certainty about anything.

Unfortunately, now that we have that definition nailed down, it is quite useless. In the real world, nobody (apart from nutters) "actively" (according to our definition) believes or disbelieves anything. All sane people would, if forced to clarify*, admit to some element of doubt in all their beliefs.

* of course if people were actually made to clarify this, or to state estimated confidence levels ("I'm 99% sure that the tooth fairy doesn't exist, but only 97.8% sure about God") every time they stated any of their beliefs, it would make all communication rather tiresome and longwinded. Rather like if they were forced not to use LABELS to describe complex but commonly understood concepts...

Swart Donkey said...

Ok? let me clarify.

This is attempt two. I occasionally don?t listen to my own warning not to write directly onto the blog?..

I thinking actively disbelieving in God is bizarre. It makes more sense to say, I BELIEVE God doesn?t exist. The thing is that this is as much based on belief or a version of faith. In fact it is far easier to prove that something does exist than that something doesn?t exist.

Does the toothfairy exist? I believe that the toothfairy doesn?t exist. Symantics maybe.

My point is

Stu can?t prove to me that God doesn?t exist


Will Tsolo can?t prove to me that God does exist.

So I choose to carry on whether or not God exists. I choose to believe that God does exist? but if God doesn?t exist my world won?t fall apart, because the choices I make every day aren?t based on whether or not God exists.

There are things I do actively disbelieve?.

1) That only Christians go to heaven (if heaven exists)

Because if this is true, I would rather go to hell and be with my mates.

2) That God intervenes.

Cause if he does, he is a prick.

stuart said...

I don?t think I understand, so I'll point to where some of my confusion lies.

"The thing is that this is as much based on belief or a version of faith"

I think that "belief" and "a version of faith" are very different things.

"My point is

Stu can?t prove to me that God doesn?t exist"

I don?t know in what sense you use the word prove and this can cause a lot of confusion.

"There are things I do actively disbelieve?.

1) That only Christians go to heaven (if heaven exists)

Because if this is true, I would rather go to hell and be with my mates.

2) That God intervenes.

Cause if he does, he is a prick."

Can you prove these things don't happen?

Swart Donkey said...

1) For me faith is believing in something without proof. You believe God doesn't exist. You have evidence on which you base this, but it is still just a theory.

2) Prove in the scientific sense. i.e. in a manner in which no logical person can disagree. Physical evidence.

3) No. But my logic is that if they do happen, then God is not God. But for them to happen, God would have to exist. But if they happen, God doesn't exist. Well, at least not for me. For me those two concepts are contradictory to the existence of God, and can not both be true.

But hey, I am just a donkey.

gt said...

"...it is still just a theory."

Just like not believing in the tooth fairy is just a theory. I would find it quite hard to prove this theory (especially in the ways you require - scientific, physical evidence etc) but I choose to believe it nevertheless. You can call that faith if you like, but doesn't that kind of rob the word of all its meaning?

stuart said...

I have to say that I really don't understand why "I BELIEVE god doesn't exist" is different from "I actively disbelieve in god". That is probably just my problem, but why is one bizarre and the other not? Anyway?
I don?t agree with your definition of proof. Proof in a maths/logic sense is very different from proof in a scientific sense (or proof in a legal sense) and I believe you are conflating the two. It is possible (and happens all the time) for people to reasonably disagree with things that I would consider scientifically proven. People call them lunatic fringes but the boundaries are extremely vague. I may disagree with them but I can't call them all illogical or unreasonable. It is a cliché but still true that many of our current theories were once in the lunatic fringe.

This is not possible with logical or mathematical proof, where conclusions must follow from premises.

Saying "just a theory" relegates every single theory we have about the physical world faith (there is plenty of literature on this on the net)

I would say faith is believing in something without (strong) evidence which is an entirely different box of bananas.

3)Here you have constructed an argument which makes sense to you (which I happen to broadly agree with). There are plenty of excellent philosophers who will disagree with you and explain why in very reasonable terms. Besides I don't really see why your argument is qualitatively different to my arguments about atheism. In fact the argument from evil (which you have explained pretty well on your blog) is often presented as a logical argument which ends up in contradiction. Why is one bizarre and the other not?

Swart Donkey said...

I am bizarre

stuart said...


Tracy Leigh said...

It seems like I missed a very interesting debate. Even though it's late I'll give my comments. Hope I don't get shot!

Agnostics don't worry about hell because though they are uncertain about the existence of a God, they generally don't believe in religion at all. I don't believe hell (and religion) is a necessary part of believing in God but rather a useful construct to compel people to follow orders.

It also comes down to what you believe the probability is of the existence of a merciful/vengeful God. I would say that agonostics tend towards atheism but their doubt is greater than that of atheists (or they place more emphasis on it). I imagine that the type of God an agnostic might concede exists would be pretty inactive in the daily running of the world.

As for scientific proof/evidence.... There is little/no physical evidence that god exists (unless you say that the existence of the universe, life and religious experience is evidence, but I think science keeps explaining these away), just like I haven't seen any physical evidence that fairies exist and a whole host of other whacky ideas that people can imagine. So why should I believe that any one of my ideas is more real than any other? I would say, it should be based on how well it correlates to and explains my experiences in the real world.

To me God is a concept to help us deal with uncomprehensibles (in a psychological sense) such as infinity (space and time) versus a finite beginning and end of everything, death, suffering, consciousness and morality. Where we don't understand, we group all these perplexed feelings into a general category called "God explains it".

stuart said...

I think agnostic?s lack of worry implies atheism. It is a reverse pascal?s wager; even a very, very tiny chance of eternal torment is terrifying (the probability that I?ll be tortured is close to zero, but I do still worry about it occasionally) but agnostics are completely terror free. This implies certainty to me.

The theism part of atheism is important. The god that Trevor and Tracy mention is not a theistic god, it is a deistic god. I am both an atheist and an ?adeist?. The way I see things you guys are atheist but not adeist. More semantics.

I think shoot Tracy later.

cristi said...

i think you and i have had many a debate on the issue of faith, so i am probably just repeating myself. You say that faith is "believing in something without (strong) evidence". in my opinion, neither theism nor atheism have "strong" physical evidence backing it up, which is why I still think atheism has a certain degree of faith involved.

obviously, by saying this, i am disagreeing with gt's opinion that involving faith in issues like tooth fairies robs the word of it's meaning. i think faith is a word of degrees. So if you like, you could say that believing that there is no god requires less faith than believing that there is a god, depending on how strong you think the evidence is.

for me personally, I don't think believing in god is a constant act of faith. faith only relly plays a role, when i have those rare moments of doubt (what if i've completely missed the plot?). I cannot be entirely certain on my choice, so when i make a choice either to carry on believing, or to disbelieve, that is when i am displaying an act of faith.

So in my opinion, when you mention those rare moments when pascals wager worries you, i would say that when you decide that god and therefore hell doesn't exist, then that is an act of faith (however small it may be) for you.

I guess that means that agnostics are not displaying faith, but if they are not worried enough about pascal's wager to pick a side, then it probably suggests that they are probably leaning more towards the "no god" side, otherwise they would be sweating bullets on that fence.

stuart said...

pascals wager doesn't worry me. i was using pascals wager to show how worry free even agnostics actually are.

"neither theism nor atheism have "strong" physical evidence backing it up"

the reason atheists use the tooth fairy is to illustrate that we don't normally demand strong evidence to disbelieve in it. same goes for all of the infinite number of outlandish things that none of us believe in.

when atheists talk of tooth fairies we're saying "ok, explain why god is different to tooth fairies"

cristi said...

well i guess the biggest difference is that a much larger percentage of people believe in a god/gods than they do the tooth fairy. I'm sure there are many theories about why that is. moving on to another thought i was having while washing dishes.

You said that the faith is believing in something without strong evidence. I'm not sure thats always true. Sometimes leaps of faith is more an emotional battle than an intellectual one. for instance, there is very strong evidence that rain spiders are harmless and not man eaters. yet, if i was faced with one, it would take alot of faith (and probably tears) to convince me of that fact. if the strength of evidence was the determinig force of faith, then two people believing in the same thing (given the same evidence) would require the same amount of faith. however i think i would probably require alot more faith to believe in the tooth fairy, than perhaps a 4 year old would.

stuart said...

"well i guess the biggest difference is that a much larger percentage of people believe in a god/gods than they do the tooth fairy. I'm sure there are many theories about why that is."

Thats all true, theists can find it weird n all, but the fact is that to atheists like me dont really see the difference between god and tooth fairies. its an explanation of why we find it weird when people say we have faith.

i think you have faith that the spider is dangerous. i dont think you require faith to, not be afriad.