Monday, May 30, 2011

Why I am not an agnostic

"In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." *
Everyone has heard this old adage, and everyone understands its basic truth. The humor lies in comparing a political evil to a physical one, a contrast between the abstract and debatable, and the concrete and undeniable. My point here is that death is understood by all adults as inevitable; indeed, one could plausibly claim that the dividing line between childhood and maturity is the knowledge of the inevitability of death. If there is to be any meaning to the word "certainty," it must include the certainty of death.

Yet the central thesis of Christianity is the outright rejection of this self-evident truth. The message of the cross is Jesus' triumph over death; the message of His ministry is that death can be defeated. To speak of the Christian god is to implicitly assert that death is not certain. By death I don't mean a brief sleep before the bodily resurrection, or the trivial shedding of our physical bodies; but actual death: the final goodbye, the eternal absence, the hard lesson we all learned when a pet or a relative passed away.

Here, then, is reason enough to justify atheism (at least with respect to Christianity). If we can know anything, we know that people die, and that means we know that Christianity is false. When I say I am certain that God does not exist, what I am really saying is that I am certain that death is real.

Therefore, the existence of God is not a neutral proposition, unweighted by evidence for or against; it is an active denial of what we all know to be true. To make that assertion requires a positive act of faith; to lack that faith is to be functionally indistinguishable from an atheist. There is simply no room for agnosticism with respect to the Christian god. One either believes; or one does not; one either has faith, or one does not. One does not simply not know whether or not people die; rational adults do not lack sufficient information to form an opinion on mortality.

Thus agnosticism, with respect to Christianity, is philosophically untenable, however socially useful (an agnostic is sometimes defined as an atheist who doesn't want to argue about it). The only way to pretend that the claims of Christianity are in a state of uncertainty is to revert to a child-like innocence on the topic of death.

Well, there is another way, which is to redefine terms and conditions until all meaning is lost: but that way lies solipsism.

* Attributed to Ben Franklin, although, ironically, we are not certain it originated with him.


Gabriel said...

I didn't realize that you could define atheism, or agnosticism with respect to individual religions. What you seem to be doing here is defining Christianity down to a philosophy that denies death, and then arguing that atheists are right because this argument is wrong. I'm not a Christian, so I can't argue very knowledgeably on their behalf. My limited knowledge of the religion conists of the notion that Jesus died for their sins. Isn't "die" the operative word? And don't you think that Christian conception of "defeating death" might be somewhat more nuanced and metaphorical than the equivalent of your relative or pet literally springing back to their old self and coming over for dinner, the absence of which debunks their entire religion?

In any event, I think trying to "prove" what happens after we die misses the point. I'm starting to believe that the real point is that atheism is a gut-level, ideological aversion to religious conservatism, which might explain why you equated religion with racism in your previous post. When was the last time someone tried to combat racism, in the way you're trying to combat religion, by trying to argue that race didn't exist?

Anonymous said...


I'm writing after a mutual friend shared this blog entry on her wall.

This is the second entry of yours that I've read - the first being about society's near moral-compulsion to openly challenge those holding onto untenable religious beliefs. However, in this instance, I do not believe that this article stands as well-reasoned.

As background, my interpretation of an Athiest is somebody who declares with complete certainty, that there is absolutely no higher power, while of course rejecting all theories of an afterlife.

The reason I remain agnostic is reasoned by that religious experience is not scientifically testable. If religion's premise is based on events that are not observable by (living) human experience, then the existence of "higher powers" can neither be proven - and most importantly - disproven. For that, religious debate is *not* scientific whatsoever - nobody can design an experiment on many fundamental topics, including that of a possible afterlife. One can try to hazard a guess, but it's sort of like trying to report what somebody's subjective experience would be if they were to be drawn in past the event horizon of a black hole (assuming they survived long enough to reach it.)

Just as it's an act of faith to believe in a particular religion, I've always viewed Athiesm as a faith all unto itself.

MCPlanck said...

Gabrial: You are right that these days the word atheism is normally used to mean "metaphysical naturalism," which denies the entire spectrum of supernatural beliefs. All I was trying to say was the argument I presented was limited to a particular religion; other religions that lack a belief in the after-life are addressed by other arguments.

Also, I wasn't arguing (in this case) that atheism was right. I was simply arguing that agnosticism - the withholding of judgment - was wrong. Death is a familiar enough subject that nobody lacks an opinion on it. To the extent a religion denies death, it requires an opinion.

As for the Christian concept of death, first you tell me you aren't Christian and can't argue on their behalf, and then you proceed to argue on their behalf about their doctrines which you just said you don't know anything about. :P

To be fair, many Christians would agree with you that their vision of resurrection is more nuanced; but they would be wrong. The doctrine of bodily resurrection is pretty well established by the Bible, and was the dominant theological position for a really long time. Freely redefining terms risks slipping into solipsism, as I said. Anyway, I'll make another post on why I believe in death. Perhaps this will address the scare quotes you put around "prove".

As for combating racism by arguing that race does not exist, this is in fact the scientific argument against racism. The cultural construct known as race that underlies the belief system called racism is bunk: there is nothing scientifically identifiable as Caucasian, Negro, or Mongoloid. There are geographic distributions of genes, but these do not map to the popular concept of races. (See Scientific American, etc.)

I would assume that proving the entire concept of race to be nonsense would go a long way to convincing people that racism was nonsense; but your mileage may vary.

MCPlanck said...

Anonymous: I'll grant that it's not as brilliant as my first article. :D

Your definition of atheist is wrong. To know that gods do not exist with absolute certainty is to have faith. Atheism is defined as a lack of faith. The only people who will tell you that they know that a god does not exist as a matter of absolute unquestionable truth are religious people, talking about other gods than their own.

Most atheists today are really metaphysical naturalists; they reject all supernatural claims, of which God is merely one. However, they reject this claim for the same reasons they reject the existence of the ether or the validity of astrology: provide evidence of any of those, and they'll change their mind. Again, the existence of God is merely one claim among many that lacks evidence; there's nothing to separate it from claims of Santa Claus, nor is there any reason to oppose it should the appropriate evidence be forthcoming.

The fact that religious experience is not scientifically testable is reason enough to reject it. This is the entire basis of the scientific enterprise. Claims that can't be tested can't be defined as true. They can, at best, be defined as untestable; but think about what that means. You are saying that the truth or falsity of the claim is indistinguishable, even in theory. There are an infinite number of claims that are indistinguishable, and you reject all but one of them without even hesitating. This is why I invoked Occam's Razor; I'll try to do a post on that.

In any case, when it comes to the physical world, we can do a lot more than hazard a guess. Science is in fact extremely accurate at its guesswork; the mysteries are all down at the quantum level, which (despite popular misunderstanding) leaves no room at all for any funny business at the macro level.

To assert that we can only guess at what happens to human consciousness after the destruction of the brain is to imply that Alzhiemer's is a guess rather than a diagnosis.

madhava said...

This blog format deemed my response too long and thus I have to put it in two parts
Part 1
I too was once an agnostic. Here is what I have learned about agnosticism from my years as one. First of all, agnostics are really atheists unwilling to be combative, or more likely unwilling to align themselves with the seemingly more arrogant atheist crowd. An agnostic will endlessly argue with an atheist about how they don't KNOW God doesn't exist, and thus who are they to tell religious people what to think. It is a strange argument because the agnostic in question here doesn't actually believe in God either, but they seem intent on not aligning themselves with this anti-religious person. Why do us agnostics do this?

Because we are filled with a false sense of humility. I, humble little humanoid me, may think about the world from a humanist naturalist perspective, but I don't want to insult my religious friends. I call it a FALSE sense of humility because true humility involves an individual accepting that they are insignificant in the face of some other significant and great person or idea. An agnostic does not for a second think a priest or any other religious authority is greater or wiser than them, therefore they aren't actually being humble, just non-confrontational.

Agnostics love to say, once again, that atheists can not disprove the existence of God. But do agnostics believe in God? Do agnostics belief the world around them, the skies, the rocks, the plant life, the humans, were all created in 7 days. No. That would be ludicrous. Atheists do not believe that either. guess who does believe that: Christians, Jews, Muslims. Agnostics, with all their false humility and lack of confrontation, have decided, as a group, to align themselves right in the middle of two groups: the people willing to outwardly say they do not believe the world was created in 7 days (atheists), and on the other end the people who do. These two beliefs are not as similar as one person preferring mexican food and the other preferring italian food. If this was the case I could understand an agnostic foody saying something like, "Well i cannot prove one food is better than the other so your both right." This analogy however is in no way similar to the subject in question. Both Italian food and mexican food taste good, both have lots of tomatoes and more importantly both serve the same purpose, to appeal to our senses and thus give us the nutrition we need to live. God creating the world in 7 days, preparing a great expanse of land in the sky that no one can see called heaven, and smiting evil doers by punishing them to an eternity in some fiery pit in the ground is not very similar to................. well to anything any human being on this earth has actually seen. it is quite dissimilar to studying the earths core and the natural plant and animal life and being pretty damn sure it took more that 7 days to put all that together. Do agnostics really want to give both these claims equal merit?

madhava said...

Part 2

More on the topic of arrogance v humility
It is the religious persons claim that is filled with arrogance. they say I know because I have faith, because I believe. Someone is watching me, Im just right about that, right, right, right. I know it, I know it. i don't need to gain more knowledge I am just right. Atheists don't actually say they know, they say they have never seen anything resembling heaven, but that they have seen geological and evolutionary evidence suggesting the world was not created in 7 days, and they would like to know even more. In short, they say they do not know everything about the meaning and existence of everything, but they are curious and would like to know more. isn't this acceptance of lack of knowledge closely related to the concept of humility?

So fellow agnostics posting on this blog, please tell me, and in very specific, personal, subjective terms: Do YOU believe that when you die you will go to heaven? Do you believe the world was created in 7 days? yes or no answers will be fine. Please answer just these two questions. if your answer is no, which I suspect it will be, than why do you spend so much time arguing with people you agree with, atheists, in defense of something you obviously don't actually believe? I finally gave up my agnosticism for a set of beliefs much more aligned with the world view I actually hold. Nature is what it is, it is amazing and wonderful, I am very lucky to be here and be able to observe it, and in the grand scheme of things I am an absolutely worthless piece of nothing that will be dead eventually. In that worthless nothingness i am a part of this really weird and cool thing called life. i have no idea why it exists in the first place and furthermore no idea why I exist, but I know my wife and family think I am pretty damn special so I must be special. Plus I recently made a kid and am thus participating in this really cool thing called life so after all maybe I am really important. Being an atheist allows me to stair in wonder at all these things.

MCPlanck said...

Madhava, in case you haven't seen it, this comic is for you (be sure to hold your mouse over it and read the text):

You've hit on the classic weakness of solipsism: the knowledge claim that knowledge claims are untenable is untenable.

This is actually a really common position, and I don't quite get it, except in a social context. I can totally see people reacting this way to the heartless intellectual who tells the little kid that puppies don't go to heaven. Except... we're not talking to kids. We're talking to adults. Surely lying to them to indulge their fantasies is more insulting than telling them the truth?

I confess: I was that guy. I was the guy at the party, when everybody was sharing a joint and grooving, who said, "You know this oregano, right?" That was me.


Gabriel said...

First of all, some minor points: Appreciating life and entertaining the possibility of the spiritual world is not a zero-sum game, as Madhava implies. You can do both, I promise. Also, I’m not an atheist, nor do I deny that people die. If I say that I'm open to the possibility of something after death that I can't know of beforehand maybe because the possibility could be awesome, especially if the afterlife meant the ability to fly and eat an unlimited amount of hot dogs, I'm expressing an opinion, not the lack thereof.

And to answer an earlier question Madhava raised, about why agnostics wouldn't align themselves with the anti-religious people, I think I'd point to the fact that the world athiest has been replaced by anti-religious as the answer. I'm not anti-religious. Atheists are. Sure, if you define religion as believing in the after life and that the earth was created in seven days, then yeah, I'm totally an atheist. But if you define it that narrowly, I don't see what the point of the argument is, at least on its philosophical merits, since it is going to result in people talking past each other, having two different arguments on two different sets of terms. I try and avoid those kinds of situations.

The problem I'm seeing is that you have on one side a group that is trying to rid the world of religious belief by logic and reason, and the other side that by and large doesn't give a shit about the logic and reason the other side is serving up. Many people can enjoy religious activities and still believe that the earth was created 4.6 billion years ago by a consolidation of rocky debris orbiting the sun. Most people don't choose their religion based on its philosophical merits; they choose it because they were born into it, and it represents a sense of belonging, meaning, and guidance, three things that even atheists want. Religion grows over millennia by accretion, and doesn’t necessarily purge some of the more backwards elements that somebody can choose to seize upon to everyone else’s horror, like deciding stoning is okay because it’s there in the bible. Most people can choose to ignore the stoning clause because they recognize that it’s outmoded and wrong, and don’t see much problem or inconsistency in that, again because they don’t treat their religious experience as a philosophical exercise.

Gabriel said...

(Part 2)

I'm sympathetic to atheists’ arguments, but I just don't think you can go to most non-atheists, or agnostics, and present this straw-man literalist version of religion and tell them they have to be either for or against it; that if they think death is real, they can't be a Christian, and if they say otherwise, they're wrong, even if they see themselves as Christian. For most people facing such an argument, it would convince them simply that the other arguer is kind of obnoxious.

Again, I think the real issue is that atheists are horrified at some of the things that religious people do in the name of religion, and believe that dissuading its followers is a struggle akin to the civil right movement. I live in Oakland, CA, and know no one who goes to church. Nor do I know any atheists. I would hazard a guess that prime atheist territory is in places where there's a strong religious conservative presence. I went to college with Madhava's wife at Berkeley, and I don't recall discussing atheism with her there. Now she lives in AZ, and here I am typing essays on an atheist blog Marisa recently linked to Facebook. I also think a lot of things done, especially in this country, like the shooting of abortion providers, is horrifying, and the fault of conservative Christians. But to go back to the racism analogy, you can't get very far with a real racist by arguing race doesn't exist, even if you have a logically sound argument. Racism merely uses the scientific construct of race as a proxy to express deeper, less rational impulses (although you could say that the phenotypic variation among difference races is very real, even if it's incredibly superficial). I think the same can be said with religion. My point is that if you want to go about defeating religion, I think there are ways to go about it that get to real meat of religious belief, which is emotional and not swayed by reason. Focusing on some of the more outlandish claims made by the bible and then triumphantly debunking them with logic and reason will never win atheists more than minority status in any society. Thus I’m not sure you’re serving your own ends here, and believe me, I’m sympathetic to them, even if I won’t call myself an atheist.

MCPlanck said...

Gabrieal: You've hit upon an important distinction. Most atheists today are actually metaphysical naturalists, and they are less interested in destroying religion than they are in destroying superstition (of which religion is just one example). In that context, the battle is even more important: you can say that California is free of religion, but is it free of harmful woo? How many anti-vaxxers have you encountered in your non-religious, non-atheist environment? Don't they need some mockery?

You seem to think that we don't really need to pay attention to these outmoded barbarities, and they'll just go away on their own because people are basically decent. From this I can conclude several things: you're not gay, black, handicapped, or female. Those groups are generally aware of how much time and effort it took to reduce the outmoded and wrong barbarities imposed on them by religion, and how much still has to be done.

This makes the case for mockery. It is by relentlessly shaming and mocking racists that we managed to reduce racism; the same for sexism, and the same battle is going on against homophobia. When religionists are viewed the same way racists are, we atheists will consider that adequate; and this is a goal you seem to have implicitly agreed to. Indeed, you positively assert that cold reason and calm logic are waste of time. What other weapon do we have but derision?

But you don't want us to that, either, because it will just piss people off. We can't use calm reason; we can't use mocking laughter; really, you just want us to shut the hell up.

I can't imagine how many times Martin Luther King was told to shut the hell up, but I for one am glad he never listened.

Social change does not happen on its own. Telling the people who are trying to change things to be quiet is the definition of "defending the status quo". Are you really intending to defend the status quo? If not, get out there and start mocking! If you're in Southern California, god knows there's plenty of targets. :D

MCPlanck said...

Also, if we live in a society where logic and reason can only ever win a minority viewpoint, then we're already doomed. Democracy cannot exist in such an environment.

Hang on. You're already doomed. I don't live there anymore. :)

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