Sunday, July 17, 2011

Imaginary Friends - Part II: Agnostics


Agnostics claim that they simply do not know whether or not god(s) exists. It has not been proven, and it has not been disproven. Therefore, neutrality seems like the most rational option.

On the face of it.

But let's look a little deeper, shall we? Follow me into the abyss...

As usual, people apply different rules of logic and rationality to religion.

This is easily demonstrated by the use of such things as the FSM, Russell's Teapot, The Invisible Pink Unicorn, etc.
Somebody makes a claim that can neither be verified, nor disproven. Do you immediately adopt an agnostic position with regards to it? Do you immediately accept the possibility of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just because someone suggested it?

No. You keep your disbelief, your default position of not believing things without evidence to the contrary.

Do you believe there is such a thing as an invisible unicorn? No. Are you.. agnostic with respect to this unicorn? Likely not. If you are honest with yourself, you tend to simply dismiss the claim and move on with your life.

Would this change if millions of people believed in the invisible unicorn?

Hopefully not.

Are you agnostic with respect to the thousands of gods that are now part of mythology? The Greek gods? The Egyptian gods? The pagan gods? Hundreds of thousands of people once believed in all of those, too. Are you agnostic with respect to the myriad of Hindu gods? What about the Hindu 'prophet' to whom all of Jesus' alleged miracles (and more) are attributed? He has millions of followers. Are you agnostic with regard to this living man's divinity? There are an infinite number of gods within the blanket of religion that one must be 'agnostic' about if one is to be agnostic about the judeo-christian one.

Saying you are an agnostic in the religious sense alone just means that you don't want to make a commitment. You don't want to engage in the argument, you don't want to offend anyone, you just want to sit on the fence, and survey the battle below. It's nonsense, really. It is not the 'most rational' position, and you are simply opting out of the discussion by pretending that both sides hold equal merit.

There is, however, a circumstance in which one can be technically said to be agnostic about god, or the unicorn, or faeries, or what have you.

Most people will admit that there is no definite way of knowing anything. This could all be a dream, or a computer simulation, and what we think we know could all be completely false. Gravity could not exist, our friends could not exist, trees could not exist. We don't know for absolute certain that fairies don't exist. We don't know for absolute certain that aliens haven't visited, we don't know for absolute certain than gnomes don't party in our homes while we sleep. You get the point, right?

When questioned deeply, most people will say that there is nothing that they can be 100% sure of. But there are things that they can be 90-95% sure of, and that is good enough when it comes to living one's life and articulating one's beliefs.

So, if you're the kind of agnostic who likes to admit, in daily parlance, this fundamental uncertainty about the fabric of reality, I submit that you should clarify this position, and stipulate that you are a general-agnostic. That you take this uncertainty to represent your constant state of not-knowing, in order to make clear that your agnosticism extends to every possible circumstance, not just religion.

That way, I won't have to sneer at your eternal wussy-ness. You wuss.


  1. Sorry, I'd rather not join the fanatical ranks of the Atheists who BELIEVE with all of their hearts that they KNOW the state of the universe with absolute certainty.

    You see, I don't believe in organized religion.

  2. Um.. that's precisely what I didn't say. In fact, I said that nobody can know ANYTHING with 'absolute certainty'.

  3. Gasp! AGNOSTIC!!! *points*

    Seriously, sounds like you're doing some flip-flopping yourself there.

    A self-proclaimed atheist who isn't 100% sure that there is no god(s) is an agnostic as far as I'm concerned. And a true atheist is too much of a dogmatic zealot for my tastes, honestly. So which one are you then?

  4. It seems you're defining atheism as a "belief in no god(s)" as opposed to a "lack of belief in god(s)".

    An atheist who isn't 100% sure about *anything*, including the nature of reality, is a person with common sense.

    Did you even read the post?

  5. I consider myself agnostic however I suppose I could be termed spritual instead. I'm not religious in my day to day life and I don't pray to God. I do believe in a higher power of some sort, I just happen to have a huge distaste for organized religion. I know what feels right to me spiritually but I can't rule out all the other possibilities out there.

    I never applied it to anything other than religion myself but the idea of being generally agnostic made me laugh. That is a good way to describe me. Unless I know something for certain I always say "It is possible that's true, however I believe this." or "While I cannot rule that out, I feel this way."

    I get the feeling that if we had a conversation in real life you'd deem me a "wishy-washy wuss" but I pride myself on being open-minded. I don't believe I flip-flop my opinions in discussions, I can be stubborn as hell if I truly believe in something. I just cannot bring myself to blindly follow other peoples beliefs or opinions, nor completely rule out the possibility of something that so many others seem to think is real.

  6. I understand your point about other imaginary things which we do not choose to say we are agnostic about, generally only God are people agnostic about. I think however, there is some merit to a position that says "I generally don't believe there is a God but I can't know for sure and thus am not going to dogmatically disagree with the majority of people who have ever existed on this planet." I would be more inclined to take an agnostic position on unicorns if millions of people in the past and billions of people in the present did also. I don't think agnostics are wussy. Just practical.

  7. I would think a lot of Agnostics are Atheists who are too scared to admit to the truth. They might know deep down there is no chance of any supernatural being, but still hold on to hope that their life is all part of a big plan.

    This romantic view of life has been championed throughout history. It still continues today. I always hear the phrase "keep your faith" in movies and TV, as to infer there is something or someone out there looking out for you. No doubt this message is not lost on a lot of people.

    It is easy to be sentimental, but very hard for some people to acknowledge the truth that there are no gods and that there is no one looking out for you.

    I myself am susceptible to bouts of sentimentalism, but I have the sense to know where it is coming from. I think this is what separates Atheists and Agnostics.

    As for calling an Atheist fanatical, its a bit much. I have not once been accosted by an atheist on the street trying to convert me. I have however been approached by various religious people trying to convince me of their beliefs.

    As for the definition of Agnostic, surely it can more open to interpretation. Creationists have a multitude of different labels for their beliefs; young earth, old earth, intelligent design etc.

    Why not the same for Agnosticism?

  8. Meeka; I think if you believe in a higher power, but not religion, that makes you deist instead of agnostic. Deists are much more respectable than theists, btw. :P

    Meeka & Chia: The problem with lending credence to others' beliefs, EVEN IF they are in the majority, without a shred of evidence, is that this is not limited to religion. Millions of people in the past, AND in the present, in fact I would say the majority of the earth's population at present, thinks of women as inferior in some way. Obviously, just because millions of people truly believe this, we don't respect it one bit, because the masses tend to be ignorant.

    If you went back a few decades, you'd find millions of people who truly believed that black people were sub-human. If you had this attitude back then, you'd pretty much be an enabler of racism.

    Now, I'm not saying religion IS THE SAME AS racism or sexism, I'm just using these examples to illustrate that the logic is faulty.

    Can you ever imagine uttering the words "I don't think women are inferior.. but I don't know for sure, so I don't want to dogmatically disagree with millions of people who believe otherwise.."?

    That doesn't seem practical to me at all.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. You provide no argument for your claims, apart from "I had a personal revelation", which is no argument at all, because it leads me to doubt both your honesty, and your sanity, quite frankly.

    If you have no argument apart from 'personal revelation', you cannot expect anybody else to take your claims seriously.

  11. Interesting and thought-provoking article. :)

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Reading comprehension = zero. Once you understand the concept of making valid arguments, you may return. Until then, I am no longer going to post your comments, because they are a waste of my time. If you have an argument to make besides "Well, *I* had a personal revelation, and *I* like agnostics!", your comments will be psoted.

  14. The following is your (atheist) argument:
    If God existed we would have proof.
    We have no proof, therefore God does not exist.

    The problem with this argument is that it is the fallacy of the inverse. This was the same argument that was used to "prove" the earth revolved around the sun, or that the earth was flat.

    The following is the religious person's argument:
    If God exists then I would believe in God.
    Therefore I believe in God

    This is the fallacy of the unjustified assumption (the reason we can all say there is no proof God exists).

    I propose that agnostics are not people who ride the fence, just people who rely on logic to make a decision. Since there is no good logical argument for either side, the only option is to leave the possibility open that God(s) could exist but at the current time we have no way of knowing either way.

  15. The position of agnosticism is indeed perfectly logical, when applied to *every possible situation*. We cannot disprove that dragons exist/existed, so holding an agnostic position with regards to their existence is logical. Same with fairies and werewolves and vampires and any number of mythological creatures that have had tales told about them for millenia.

    If you are as agnostic about any of the above, as you are about god, then yes, that is perfectly logical, and I don't much have a problem with it, because what that position essentially is, is this; I can't possibly KNOW for sure that any of these things don't exist, lack of proof isn't necessarily lack of existence.

    BUT, I have a problem with agnosticism when one is ONLY agnostic about religion, and therefore implying that religion is somehow more valid than all the myths about dragons, and fairies, and Norse gods, etc.

    Personally, being an atheist, I CAN still say that there is no way for me to be 100% sure that god doesn't exist, just like there is no way for me to be 100% sure that my reality isn't all a computer simulation. All I can say is that I don't BELIEVE those things, because there is no proof of them. However, I don't consider this position agnosticism, I consider it atheism, because for all intents and purposes, I live my life as though god does not exist, and I DON'T have a belief in god(s).

  16. "It is not the 'most rational' position, and you are simply opting out of the discussion by *pretending that both sides hold equal merit*."

    I'm somewhat agnostic, but I def don't think both sides hold equal merit. Agnosticism is a term that covers diverse views. You can be an agnostic that believes in A "god" or "higher power", but admit to ignorance on the nature of that being, or "who" that being is. You can be an agnostic that simply isn't sure, where some things make you think there is a "god", and other things don't. To say that agnostics are being wussy because they don't simply pick a side is illogical because agnosticism is a side, but to the religious, they are atheists, and to atheists they are religious. It's like both are simply trying to coerce them into joining their side.

  17. What's your position on Ignosticism or Non-cognitivism? Some say that it's identical to Agnosticism, but it isn't, in my opinion.

    In simple terms:
    Theist: I know what God is, and that he exists.
    Atheist: I know what God is, and that he does not exit.
    Agnost: I know what God is, but I don't know if he exists.
    Ignost: I don't know what the heck you three are talking about.

    In your fence metaphore: agnosts are sitting on the fence, for an ignost there is no such thing as a fence because he doesn't know what a fence is.

    The ignost or non-cognitivist takes the position that any religious language is just as meaningfull as the gramatically correct statement "colorless green ideas sleep furiously".

    To come back to your example of dragons: do they exist? The simple word of "dragon", without context, is cognitively meaningless. Fortunately (and contrary to the "god" problem), this is quite easy to solve. Before you ask about dragons, you first have to agree what a dragon *is*. So it all depends on the definition. I'd say that lots of dinosaurs would qualify as dragons, and we're damn sure that they have existed. Birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, so one could say that dragons exist. If you on the other hand define them as the magical creatures in fairy tales, then we can be pretty sure that they don't exist. However, they do exist as a cultural meme.

    Let's expand this logic to the "god" thing and religion. Does "god" exist? I cannot answer with yes, no or maybe because the question is meaningless. However, lets go to definitions that are cognitively meaningfull.
    Is there a recurring cultural meme in human history that has been harnessed by individuals and groups to impose a set of moral guidelines? Absolutely, in this way a god exists.
    Is there a not yet fully understood synaptic interaction in our primate brains that chooses a path of least resistance when confronted with difficult mental concepts? Indubitably.
    Is there a teapot in orbit around the planet Mars? Why the hell should I care, it has no importance to my life.


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