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Atheism, agnosticism, god(s), and religion

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No doubt fueled in part by my newfound productivity, I’ve engaged in a lot of philosophical discussions over the past few weeks.  They’ve taken place over email, on Facebook, on Twitter (you can well imagine how much the 140-character limit fosters rich debate), and even in person (like a fucking caveman).  The discussions have largely centered around moral issues like veganism and abortion, which of course meant there were a lot of people who were incapable of being calm, rational, thoughtful, or mature.  It is people like that, I think, which led to the idea that one should never discuss religion or politics with strangers (or maybe even friends, for that matter).  This is truly unfortunate.

First, I think far too many people claim to hold opinions to which they’ve never given much thought.  Maybe they are just the beliefs with which they were raised.  Maybe they are beliefs which sounded appealing to them on the surface.  But it seems like many (perhaps most) people prefer not to engage in critical self-reflection.  They don’t want to figure out WHY they hold these beliefs.  They don’t want to make sure that their beliefs are not contradictory.  The bottom line seems to be that it is easier for them to not to think about these things, rather than run the risk of realizing that their beliefs are not absolute truths, but are personal beliefs.  Or, perhaps worse yet, realize that they may need to revise their beliefs.  Anyway, I think intelligent, rational, respectful discussions are very helpful in allowing us to not only learn about what someone else believes (and why they believe it), but to also help us explore and define our own beliefs.  Provided you go into a discussion intending to listen as well as speak, then both parties can benefit.  Anyway, that’s the first reason I find the absence of such discussions to be unfortunate.

Second, it’s just sad to me when someone feels their only chance at “winning” a debate lies in insulting or demonizing their opponent, resorting to repeating mindless slogans, or appealing to authority.  I mean, it’s one thing to decide that you don’t want to examine your own beliefs.  I think that’s a bad decision, but worse still is when someone not only refuses to think about their own beliefs critically, but then they insist on launching irrational attacks on the beliefs of others.

Personally I don’t think there is a point to having a discussion unless both parties are willing to do so civilly, rationally, and respectfully.  Contrary to what appears to be the popular view these days, it is entirely possible to hold a respectful discussion with someone with whom you strongly disagree.  You don’t even need to respect them personally, or respect their beliefs as being valid.  But you must conduct your discussion that way, or there’s really no point.  It brings to mind one of the interactions I had with someone during an abortion discussion.  This person made remarks like “You don’t care about killing babies” or “Shame on you for not believing in God.”  What possible motivation would lead to saying such things?  It seems pretty clear that they weren’t trying to persuade me to their point of view — if they wanted to persuade someone to do them a favor, it’s unlikely they would do it by mischaracterizing them, condescending to them, or browbeating them.  So I’m forced to assume that their goal was not to convince me to change my beliefs.  But if not that, then what?  Does it just make them feel like a better person than me?  A holier-than-thou type thing?  Or since this discussion was taking place in an online forum, perhaps their remarks were for the benefit of other people who already agreed with their position.  Preaching to the choir, if you will.  I actually asked them what they hoped to accomplish with remarks and tactics like that, but they dodged the question.  My point is, they were not at all interested in listening to my reasoning for my beliefs (which I presented calmly, rationally, and non-insultingly), and they equally did not seem interested in making a rational or respectful argument for their own beliefs.  Once this became clear, I told them I didn’t want to continue the discussion, since there seemed little benefit.

Now, I suspect some people may leap to their defense, saying that this person just feels so passionately and strongly about abortion that they cannot remain calm when discussing it.  I might accept this if we weren’t having a purely abstract discussion.  I mean, I’m not an abortion doctor, I’m not pregnant and about to have an abortion, I don’t work for Planned Parenthood, etc.  So just the mere fact that I politely disagree with them shouldn’t be enough to work them into a such a froth.  But even if that wasn’t the case, I think part of being an adult is the ability to control your emotions.  And finally, I feel extremely strongly about the issue of animal rights.  It is a hot button issue with me.  So I do understand the desire to lash out against those who hold different views.  It can be difficult for me to remain calm when talking to someone who is explaining to me why it is okay for them to eat a burger from McDonald’s, even knowing the torture and killing which happens behind the scenes to provide the burger.  But I ALSO know that what I want more than anything is a world where that torture and killing doesn’t happen.  So I have two choices.  Take the easy route and vent by lambasting that person, or force myself to remain calm and try to show this person why they may want to change their thinking.

Also, this brings to mind a quote I stumbled across a long time ago (back in high school, I think):

“Civilized people can talk about anything.”
– Clive Bell

By the way, I should mention that I don’t think that it is only conservatives or religious folks or whoever that are guilty of this sort of thing.  I see liberals and atheists and agnostics and such do the same thing.  For every religious person who tells me “There’s no point in trying to persuade you, because you obviously don’t value human life”, I’ve heard an atheist say “There’s no point in discussing this with those religious nuts — they aren’t capable of thinking intelligently about anything.”  I think a lot of this is just basic human nature.  It is easiest to assume that we are right, others are wrong, and furthermore the others are wrong because of some personal defect.

I do think there is something else which can turn people off to this type of discussion.  I’ve heard more than one person remark that such discussions have no point because nobody is ever going to change their minds.  And while they may mean that nobody is even willing to think about their own beliefs, I think there is more to it than just that.  In high school and college, I LOVED to start arguments with religious people.  At the time I was firmly an atheist, and I got it in my head that it was my job to persuade non-atheists that believing in god was illogical.  Moreover, I felt that it was just an issue of logic — if only they would listen to my logic, then they would have no choice but to agree with me.  Even though I probably wouldn’t have articulated it quite that way at the time, yes, I was an arrogant prick.

Anyway, for whatever reason (but likely because I had a lot of scientific- and math-minded friends, some of whom were also religious), a number of folks were willing to engage in such debates.  Some folks chose to meet me on my own terms, as it were — they would accept my premises and would try to argue against my lines of logic. Often this would end up with them having no real logical objection to my reasoning, but they wouldn’t actually change their mind.  That was pretty frustrating to me.  But the rest of the arguments took a somewhat different route.  We would eventually reach a point where the other person would say “I understand what you are saying, but I *know* that god exists.  It’s not something I can prove to you, it’s just something I know.  It comes down to faith.  If you don’t have this faith, then there’s no way to convince you it’s true.  And since I do *know* this, there’s no logic you can present to me which will sway me.”

I found that frustrating, but in a different way.  I mean, from a logical point of view, I understood what they were saying.  They were starting with an assumption that god existed.  It wasn’t up for consideration in their mind.  We simply had different starting assumptions.  And as anyone with math or logic training will know, your set of starting assumptions is crucial to determining what conclusions you will be able to draw.  So I got that, and to some extent, I respected them for realizing that their belief in god was an assumption, not something they had logically concluded or rationally decided.  Plus, it definitely saved us time arguing.  :)

Before I go on to mention why I found that frustrating (which, believe it or not, was actually the original thing I wanted to talk about in this post — hey, I just had to work up to it!), I do want to say that this was probably the biggest thing I learned from these discussions.  Not the assumption of god specifically, but just that a lot of the time, two people who disagree are doing so because they have different basic assumptions.  For example, it used to boggle my mind how a libertarian can say that the government should eliminate all sorts of laws and regulations, even when this would likely have the effect of people being hurt (either financially, medically, etc).  But what I came to realize is that we just had a different basic assumption.  For them, personal liberty is of paramount importance, even at the risk of some people being hurt.  The extra freedom is worth the extra risk.  For me, I think providing some kind of a safety net is more important than having maximum freedom.  This is just a difference in basic philosophies.  This realization helped me recognize that someone could hold very different opinions from me and this did not mean that they were not fully thought through — it’s not just a matter of introducing them to logic in order to persuade them.  I know this sounds obvious, but I think a lot of people don’t behave as though this is the case.  They think that if only someone would really think about an issue, then they’d change their minds.  And that’s just not true if they have different underlying assumptions.

This knowledge doesn’t make me any less interested in discussions and debates, mind you.  It just means that one of my first goals in discussions and debates is to figure out what my opponent’s premises are.  Well, first I want to make sure we define the terms of what we are discussing, since otherwise we can be arguing about two different things.  But THEN I want to work to figure out what their premises are.  Because provided someone is actually willing to examine their own views, then there are two paths to changing their mind about something — show them that their underlying assumptions logically lead to a different view (ie they’ve made a mistake in their logic), or try to convince them to change their fundamental assumptions (obviously no small thing).

I should also mention that I don’t think everyone walks around with a handy list in their head of their fundamental assumptions.  I actually think most people have no idea what their basic assumptions are.  For me personally, I have to reverse-engineer my basic assumptions from my higher level beliefs.  It was kind of something like this which led to me becoming vegetarian, and later vegan.  Even prior to being vegetarian, I would have said that I loved animals.  I would have been unwilling to kill an animal myself.  I would not have wanted to watch an animal being killed.  However, I ate meat — I just never gave it much thought.  I forget exactly how, but at some point I realized that choosing to eat meat involved, you know, animals dying.  So I had to figure out what exactly I believed.  Working backwards from my feelings, I realized that fundamentally I thought it was wrong for an animal to die because I liked the taste of a burger.  Further thought made me realize that if I was in some bizarre situation where I HAD to kill and eat an animal to survive, I would do it.  So I concluded that the important thing was that humans can CHOOSE whether or not they eat meat, and we don’t need it to survive.  This implied that I needed to be vegetarian in order to live consistent with my beliefs, and so I made that change.  The switch to veganism was along the same lines — I figured out another basic assumption that I had, and then determined what implications that had for how I should lead my life.  Anyway, my point is, it’s not only important to figure out what basic assumptions other people hold — you should also figure out your own.

Okay, FINALLY, let me tell you why I was frustrated (and still am frustrated, in truth) by the argument that god exists because someone simply “knows” it is true.  Or maybe frustrated isn’t even the right word.  It’s just hard for me to understand that line of thinking.  It’s not that it’s incomprehensible to me that someone can “know” something, even in the absence of concrete evidence.  I can see where someone would absolutely feel something is true, even if they have no proof.  And clearly there are MANY people around the world who do feel this way about various things.  But that is exactly my point and my trouble with that argument.  Let’s say you are a devout Christian and you “know” that God exists and the Bible is true.  Don’t you realize that there is a Jewish person out there who “knows” JUST AS STRONGLY as you do that their religion is right?  And a Muslim person who is equally certain of their beliefs?  Or, hell, even a fellow Christian but from a different sect?  Or an atheist?  Do you think all of those people are lying about their certainty?  You think that you alone (or you plus those who agree with you, I guess) are ACTUALLY certain about these things?  Everyone else SAYS they are certain, but they actually aren’t?  Because it seems to me that you would have to think one of two things:

1) All of these other people are basically lying about their certainty.  They SAY they know their religious beliefs are true, but they actually don’t know that at all.  Maybe they just believe it, but don’t really KNOW it.  Or maybe they don’t even believe it — they just say that they do.

2) All of these people ARE just as certain as you are, but you happen to know that you have a direct line to God whereas they’re just deluded.

To me, both of those reek of arrogance (funny, me accusing someone else of arrogance, I know).  And that is why I’ll never understand how someone can go from “knowing” something to concluding that it MUST be true.  I mean, psychiatry and neurology have shown us quite clearly that our thoughts, feelings, experiences, memory, etc can easily be affected and altered by chemicals (ingested or naturally produced by our body), our state of mind, our emotional state, peer pressure, etc.  The human mind and perception are incredible things, but it’s kind of like when someone starts hearing voices in their head — we generally think they are crazy, not that they know something the rest of us do not.

So what’s my point here?  I mean, one could take this to mean that humans should never draw any conclusions, hold any beliefs, etc, and instead be riddled with self-doubt because of the fallibility of our minds.  That’s not what I’m suggesting.  I’m simply saying that for things which we can verify empirically (ie science), then we should do that, so that we can arrive at a set of generally agreed-upon facts.  And for things we CANNOT verify empirically (ie religion), then we should realize that no matter how strongly we believe in something, there are plenty of people out there who believe something else.  So we should hesitate to assume that our belief is a universal truth.  Given that, I think that’s why it’s important we adopt laws which allow people do do what they want and believe what they want, just so long as it doesn’t hurt others.  How you define “others” is problematic, of course — I think it should include animals, pro-lifers think it should include fetuses, etc.  And while I have a lot to say on that particular topic, I think this is a good stopping point.  This post was supposed to concern debate and beliefs, and I think I’ve covered it pretty well.  A future post will talk about veganism, abortion, etc.  I know you can’t wait.

Oh, and for the record, I am no longer atheist.  I’m agnostic, largely because of that last discussion about certainty of the unprovable.  It seems to me unlikely that there is a god or gods.  It seems to be unlikely that there is an afterlife — it seems most likely that we just cease to exist upon death.  I would LIKE there to be an afterlife.  I don’t like the idea of ceasing to exist.  But the bottom line is I don’t KNOW any of these answers, so I am agnostic.  And of course, this has brought up one last point I want to make…

Actually two last points!

First, sometimes when I talk about the above stuff with someone who is religious, they will incredulously say something like “Don’t you want there to be an afterlife?” or “Doesn’t this make death even scarier to you?” or “So you’re saying your father ceased to exist when he died, and you’ll never see him again?” or such things.  Generally they aren’t saying these things rudely or as attacks, but they ARE seeming to suggest that it’s weird that I would “choose” to be an agnostic because of those questions/concerns.  First, I readily admit that yes, I want there to be an afterlife, precisely because the idea of dying and ceasing to exist is a scary one.  And yes, it made my father’s death (and Rasputin’s death) even sadder for me, because I thought it was very unlikely that I would ever see them again.  We’d had our time together, and that was it.  I couldn’t even convince myself that they had “gone to a better place”, although it did seem likely they were “no longer suffering”.  Anyway, yes, all of that is absolutely true.  Being agnostic doesn’t make me some fearless, heartless robot.  But so what?  Yes, that scares and saddens me.  Therefore what?  Therefore I should conclude that there is no way the big bad universe could actually be scary or sad, so I should believe that stuff couldn’t possibly be true?  I’ve yet to see any evidence that the universe alters how it works on the basis of my worries, fears, or sadness.  It reminds me of another quote I found in high school:

“A man said to the universe:
‘Sir, I exist!’
‘However,’ replied the universe,
‘The fact has not created in me
a sense of obligation.'”
– Stephen Crane

So that always seemed a weird argument to me — you should believe in god because the alternative is unsettling.  That sounds like a “head in the sand” argument to me.

Second, in a somewhat similar vein, I’ve had people say to me “But aren’t you worried you’re going to Hell?” (or more often “You’ll realize God exists when you’re burning in Hell”) or “You’re a logical person, so let’s be logical.  If you believe in God and you’re wrong, what’s the harm?  But if you don’t believe in God and you’re wrong, then you’ll end up in Hell.”  First, their concern for my eternal soul is very touching.  But I have several  responses to this type of comment.

First, just like I discussed in the previous paragraph, I’m not sure the universe is going to change how it works because of my fear.  So if I thought God and Hell were unlikely before, then my being scared of going to Hell isn’t going to change the likelihood of them existing.

But okay, fine, overlooking that, let’s tackle the idea that I should choose to believe in God just to hedge my bets.  Well, which God should I choose to endorse?  Seems like I’ve got quite a choice of religions from which to choose, and a lot of them seem to think that endorsing a different religion is just as bad as being agnostic or atheist.  So I’m not exactly vastly improving my odds by picking a religion, since just based on the number of religions, odds are I’ll pick the wrong one.

Fine, fine, let’s ignore that too.  Let’s just confine ourselves to Christianity, and hell, just a particular sect of Christianity.  Shouldn’t I believe in it just to possibly avoid Hell, if it turns out to exist?  It blows my mind that someone would make this argument.  Would God not see right through my deception?  Or would He be fine with me believing in him just to avoid possible hellfire?  Or, even the opposite, believing just because I think the idea of heaven sounds fantastic?  And really, what sort of a God needs to use fear or bribery to inspire me to believe in Him?  If the only reason to believe in God is because He’ll give you gifts if you do, and He’ll hurt you if you don’t, then, well, doesn’t that make God a bit of a spoiled child?  I mean, really, why the fuck would God care if I believe in Him or not?  Is He that insecure?

And finally, if God exists, isn’t He the one who equipped me with this fabulous brain of mine?  Am I doing something wrong by actually making use of it?  I can think of no better way to end this post than with a favorite quote of mine:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
– Galileo Galilei

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Author: mitcharf

vegan, curmudgeon, animal lover, feminist, agnostic, cat whisperer, bookworm, hermit, Red Sox fan, Cthulhu enthusiast, softball player, man-about-town

7 Comments

  1. avatar

    heh yeah I have seen part of the whole Twitter thing.. I do try to avoid conversations about religion with people – for the most part because I am very non-confrontational, but because I also find it to be extremely frustrating.

    I think it’s much more difficult to justify belief *in* something that is both non-provable (assuming we’re not talking about people who see Jesus in grilled cheese here..) and rather elaborate (since heaven and hell and all that jazz comes along for the ride with God) – rather than the atheist/agonistic view of (likely) nothing. I think maybe that’s part of the reason why many religious people immediately go on the defensive when their beliefs are questioned.

    Your description of your beliefs is exactly the same as mine (your religious beliefs, anyhow). Good job describing them better than I could! ;) You’ve been an extremely prolific poster today!

    • avatar

      I think you’re absolutely right about why people get defensive about religion. I suspect at some level they realize that there really isn’t a logical justification for their beliefs. The more intelligent ones (or ones who are willing to be honest with themselves, anyway) accept this, and are okay with the fact that their beliefs are unprovable. I still don’t understand how they explain their certainty that they have some insight into the real truth that people in other religions lack, though. :)

      And really, what else is there to do on a Saturday other than write a million blog posts? Wait, don’t answer that.

  2. avatar

    Nice deconstruction of Pascal’s Wager. It’s amazing how many people offer that up as a valid argument. One comment about atheism vs. agnosticism: they are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible to be both. They deal with two different questions. Atheism is not a position of certainty, it’s the lack of a positive belief. Do you believe in deity(-ies)? If you say yes, you are a theist, otherwise you are an atheist. Gnostic-Agnostic deals with what you claim to know (or what is knowable). You can be an agnostic theist (I don’t know it’s true, but I believe), or an agnostic atheist (I don’t know it’s true, and I also don’t believe). Likewise, you can be a gnostic theist or a gnostic atheist. Atheism is basically the position that until such time as there is sufficient evidence to justify belief, I do not believe it. Another analogy is guilty vs. not guilty in our legal system. If the defendant is found not guilty, that means the prosecution has not met their burden of proof. “Not guilty” is not the same as claiming certainty that the defendant is innocent.

    • avatar

      Yeah, I’m also surprised at how many people seem to think that I’m going to pull a fast one on God and believe just to cover my ass. :)

      I think people use atheism to mean both things. And certainly I am atheist in the sense of just having an absence of belief. But I do think there are many who do define it as positive disbelief (though not necessarily a position of certainty). I do agree that they aren’t mutually exclusive, depending on which way one defines atheism. Out of curiosity, if one goes with the idea of atheism just being the absence of belief, then what is the term for one who actively believes there are no gods?

  3. avatar

    Well obviously “atheist” still applies, because that’s a subset of people who lack a belief in a deity (a small subset I might add, because that would be a position requiring evidence and its own burden of proof). Some use the term “hard atheist” or “strong atheist”, neither of which I like much, because those terms and the opposite terms, soft and weak, have a connotation of a value judgment. I’ve also heard the term “anti-theist” used.

    • avatar

      Do you really think it’s a small subset? I feel like most people I know who self-identify as atheists seem to have the same amount of certainty about there being no deity as the typical self-identified believer has about there being a deity. In both cases, each will usually tell me “I believe there is (a/no) god.” If I press them about proof or certainty, most will acknowledge that they cannot prove it, and thus to some extent they cannot be *certain* of it, but this does not alter their belief.

      I’m not saying all atheists feel that way, or even most — that’s just been my experience.

      As you say, I’ve always felt that to proclaim that there definitively is no god requires a burden of proof similar to proclaiming that there is a god, which is why I eventually shied away from that position (no matter what term we use for it).

  4. avatar

    I would consider myself an atheist. I lack a belief in god.

    I’m also an a-unicornist, an a-mermaidist, and an a-leprechaunist. But no one’s ever asked me to present hard evidence that unicorns, mermaids, and leprechauns do not exist. :) It’s funny, though, because most people on earth are atheists about other people’s religions. I just happen to be atheistic about ALL religions.

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