Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Against Agnosticism

I don't know if Gordon Brown is really a lesser spotted horn-toad from the far off planet ZzzzOilipants but, whilst it seems plausible, until there is evidence of the fact I'm in the "No, he's from Scotland" camp.

If something weird existed - why would it be interested in us anyway?Perhaps my neighbours are plotting to murder me, or perhaps they aren't, but I don't lie awake wondering about it because I have no reason to suppose that they are, although I did accidentally try to steal their bin yesterday. Sorry.

But suppose I started to believe they *might* want to kill me, based on a feeling in my water. My friends might be kind enough to calm me down and give me herbal tea. Unless of course they were in on it too... so the tea might be poisoned! No, this way lies madness. My neighbours are far too polite to plot murder, especially over one misplaced bin.

It seems to me that people often believe that an agnostic is someone who has any doubts at all about the existence of God/Gods/Souls/Whatever. I don't think this is a meaningful way to look at it. An atheist who has an open mind, accepts the "possibility" of God and is willing to examine evidence presented to them is still an atheist, just a more interesting one. Likewise a Christian going through a crisis of faith is just that, a Christian with issues not an agnostic.

It is my contention that most self proclaimed agnostics actually know what they think but are just too embarrassed to admit it. Some are atheists who think that the term makes them sound dogmatic or that to accept the label "atheism" automatically makes them nihilists of the most black hearted order. Obviously that is not the case. Morality is socially conditioned not supernaturally implanted and, to my mind, it's perfectly feasible to regard atheism as a moderate position rather than a hard line, extremist one.

Atheists are not claiming that an all powerful being created mountains, seas, and plant life then a guy called Adam and after that made animals so that Adam did not get lonely - that is quite a specific set of beliefs, don't you think? If I say that I believe God's name is Allah and he gets annoyed if I have red wine with my dinner I'm making a very specific truth claim. To suppose these claims are not true until some evidence comes to light would seem a reasonable fall back position.

Without God there would be no morality like thisOther self proclaimed agnostics are, in fact, people who are certain that there is a world beyond the physical, scientifically examinable realm but are, perhaps understandably, disillusioned with organised religion and have no proper way of articulating where they're coming from spiritually. I have great sympathy for these people - not only are they trying to work out what the universe is "all about" on their own using just the power of their imagination they don't even have a word to describe what they are, despite the fact that there are a significant number of these people sloshing about.

After all, who'd want to associate themselves with the author of this piece on Comment is Free who's belligerent refusal to discuss honestly and openly the ideas of Richard Dawkins ends up undermining her own argument for a supposedly loving and forgiving God. Cristina Odone's odious approach, which includes pretending Dawkins believes in God really(!), is rivalled only by some of her supporters in the comments box who attack Dawkins for being ignorant whilst clearly being completely unfamiliar with the arguments he puts forward in "The God Delusion" (there's an interesting review of the book on the blogosphere by Liam).

Not that there aren't interesting critics of Dawkins, there are. It's just that lots of people don't even try to look beyond scandalicious titles like "The Selfish Gene" to read the often nuanced and thoughtful ideas within. I have to say I've not been Dawkins greatest fan, he can come across like a bit of a thug sometimes - but he's an excellent and interesting writer whose ideas can't simply be dismissed - but actually have to be engaged with.

Cynicism 1 Prayer 0It would be useful to have a proper term for these people who want spirituality without institutions. "I have a personal relationship with the universe" sounds a little wanky - perhaps it should - but if there is a technical term for those who know there's something - just not what it is - it is not in common usage.

Scratch most "agnostics" and you'll find someone without the courage to tell you, or themselves, what they really think. By refusing to come down, even tentatively, one way or the other they end up preventing a discussion that explores an interesting area of human experience, one that is, if you'll excuse the expression, ultimately ultimate.

There aren't many people who don't have an opinion on whether Thor is a living breathing force in the world or not, likewise those who don't know whether they think there is one God who is split into three named parts, are few and far between.

Let's all join hands in united hatred of atheismTake Agnostic Dog - he's clearly an unwilling atheist. He doesn't believe there is a God, but thinks that *fact* makes the world a less happy place. That doesn't make him an agnostic, that makes him a misery guts, and an atheist.

After all there is a difference between thinking it would be beneficial if there was a good God who likes us all and watches each and everyone of us as we tie our shoelaces and actually thinking that makes it true. I like to think I'm one of the wittiest and ground breaking bloggers around but that doesn't make it... scratch that... bad example.

Anyway, I'm calling on you agnostics out there, tall and short, black and white, thick and thin - come out of the closet - go the whole hog, have the courage to believe what you believe... after all you can always change your mind later.


Anonymous said...

Since we seem to be heavily into terminology at the moment, is your graphic "God hates Fags" refering to homosexuals or cigarettes?

Peter said...

The novel Scepticism Inc was so good that it persuaded me to call myself an agnostic for a while. It's the funniest satirical book I've ever read.

It persuaded me that agnosticism is not about woolly fence-sitting, but a militant clarion call against all grandiose unknowable claims. Rationally, agnosticism is the only correct position to hold, and Agnostics can charge into battle with a hearty cry of "WHO KNOWS!"

My rational side is agnostic. However, I cannot shake my belief that there is something immanent and divine in the universe.

So I am simultaneously a gnostic and an agnostic.

Basically, I'm confused. Or, as I describe myself in my blog, an anglican agnostic with pagan tendencies.

Renegade Eye said...

You hit the nail on the head. I have a friend who is as secular as can be, calls herself agnostic. You defined atheism correctly, as allowing for possible evidence of a Supreme Being.

Daniel S. Ketelby said...

God hates Fags is a homophobic hate campaign with a notionally Christian agenda run by Fred Phelps and his cohort - a small, strange but highly visible cult which the vast majority of even 'right-wing' Christians would disown. Look him up on Wikipedia for more info.

Phugebrins said...

I don't think there's a need for an end to the word agnostic, I think it's a useful word to use for (and, more importantly, to be used by) people who have not come to a conclusion, are not sure, do not think about, or vary from one day to the next in their view about the question of religion.

However, like all beliefs, there are those within the scope of agnosticism who take on a zealous and dogmatic tone. In this case, there is a subtle, but essential shift from "I'm an agnostic: I don't know" to "I'm an agnostic: no-one knows". And that's not something that's easy to know.

MJ Ray said...

Bah, some agnostics are out of the closet and really believe that The Answer is unknowable, at least in this life. It's not the absence of an opinion - it's the absence of knowing The Answer. Look up what gnostic is before making random wrong claims about agnostics. There's a sort of honesty in saying that you simply don't know The Answer.

Misguided rants like this show why someone needs far more courage to admit to being an agnostic than to proclaim a belief. In addition to all the wrong-religion hatred, you get silly stuff like this.

Jim Jay said...

phu: I don't think there's a need for an end to the word agnostic either - it describes something specific - my contention is that most agnostics (not all mj, not all) are in fact not agnostics but lack backbone. That doesn't mean it is not possible to be agnostic, nor have i put forward a position against agnosticism per se, i've called upon those who are hiding behind the term stop doing so.

mj: i suggest you read the piece properly rather than telling me to go look stuff up. The piece is pretty clearly talking about what happens in practice - not what is ideologically possible.

Incidently "misguided rants like this... you get silly stuff like this" actually agnostics get an incredibly smooth ride, rarely if ever having to defend or explain their position, it is only very rarely that you get anything taking on their position, they are a long way from being the persecuted or harresed group you seem to think they are.

Dave Marlow said...

What a wonderful post! I whole-heartedly agree, this coming from a follower of Christ who has recently had some faith issues.

Agnosticism actually does have some legitimacy as a.. faith? but in recent times it has been used as a cop-out instead of an actual label.

Your distinctions on atheists is noted also. In many ways, I think atheists get just as much of a bad reputation as Christians and Muslims.

Anonymous said...

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