Bertrand Russell on why the term “agnostic” is for show

Reader Dom sent me a Bertrand Russell quote from what appears to be a very short essay, “Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?” (1947)

As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of Homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

One problem here is that yes, you cannot give a logical demonstration that the Greek gods don’t exist. (That’s the “you can’t prove a negative” line.)  But you can give a practical demonstration that their existence is improbable, for if they interact with the world you should find some evidence of that interaction; and you find none.

One concludes from this piece that philosophers, at least in Russell’s time, respected logic more than evidence, and were more concerned with logical possibilities than with probabilities.

The answer, of course, is that if you have no belief in gods, you should call yourself an “atheist.”  The term “agnostic” is for wimps.

194 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I just answer to both and move on.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 26, 2013 at 12:48 am | Permalink

      + 1

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 27, 2013 at 12:57 am | Permalink

        + another. Good answer.

  2. JBlilie
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    ” philosophers … respected logic more than evidence, and were more concerned with logical possibilities than with probabilities”

    I think that’s it, in a nutshell.

    • wonderer
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      “Were”?

      • JBlilie
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        agreed: Change the tense.

  3. Mark Perew
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I still prefer Dawkins’ seven point scale over Russell’s three-state categorization. The Dawkins approach is much more nuanced about saying, “I don’t see any evidence for one, ergo I live as if there is not one.”

  4. peltonrandy
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    When you say that the term “agnostic” is for wimps, I know are doing so in keeping with your rules about civility here. But I must insist Jerry that you are being too kind.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Wimps or WIMPs? :)

      • Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        Ah, that’s a dark matter …

        /@

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          A particularly dark matter indeed!

          • JohnnieCanuck
            Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

            This is one of the weakest interactions I have ever seen on this website. Massively boring. Can’t wait to see who else will have leapt on this particular exchange.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

              I got nuthin’ but a big :) at the punniness!

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

              Well, maybe your somewhat singular perspective is brought on by the black holes of knowledge regarding the gravity of the matter.

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

                You don’t see Barry on this site very often. I think this is more his field. He’s a top man who can quickly get to the bottom of things. He can charm some people but I find him a bit strange. I’m not sure if he’s bipolar, but his mood can swing up then down. He used to muse about Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, but after the campaign to elect Ron, politics distracted him from his research. Then he started gambling, always playing double-you or quit, one game after another; it really went to his head.

                /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

                So quirky or is that quarky!

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

                I shall open a can of lager and toast to Barry. A vast and deep mind indeed, yet so fleeing and quantumfiable in appearance.

                To Barry!

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

                WIMPs? You mean Catholics?

            • Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

              I’m getting some negative vibes from you, a really dark kind of energy.

              b&

              • JohnnieCanuck
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

                It goes with my expansive waistline.

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                An expanding horizon undergoing accelerating growth?

                b&

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      :-) I think a few months back I engaged a Youtuber (bad move) who was flogging that old horse about the only defensible position being agnosticism. I politely asked that he look at the wiki entries on “strong” and “weak” atheism, and consider his stance in light of those definitions… and that staunchly “not knowing” was decidedly not in the “theist” camp, ergo agnosticism was really a subset of atheism… you either believe or you don’t.

      Boy did that little dinkums get pissed. “Don’t you go around trying to include ME into YOUR camp, you @#%$# flaff’n @#$#’n flogger fruahgf’naffle…”

      That’s when I knew I had crossed paths with a militant agnostic.

      • darrelle
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        Yes indeed. A subset of the “reasonable middle position, you people on either side are wrong, and I am so sick of you people on either side telling the other that they are wrong (irony alert), and by the way atheism is the same as religious belief,” position.

        I just experienced a heaping dose of that myself on another bl*, er, website, the other day. Though I admit I had a momentary pang of SIWOTI syndrome, I decided not to join the conversation.

        • Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          Ya I’ve run into that too at another joint of skeptics, but shruggies aboot religion which isn’t woo apparently and Jesus is all love and forgiveness, while of course the BuyBull isn’t taken literally.

          I asked if anyone would forgive the priest who caused your 3 year old to bury his bloody underwear in the furthest reaches of his closet in fear of hellfire if he talked about being spelunked by Father Nelson

          Kinda ended the thread

  5. JBlilie
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    My favorite Russell quote:

    The fundamental difference between the liberal and the illiberal outlook is that the former regards all questions as open to discussion and all opinions open to greater or less measure of doubt, while the latter holds in advance that certain opinions are absolutely unquestionable, and that no argument against them must be allowed to be heard.

    – Bertrand Russell, Freedom and the Colleges, 1940

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      That’s a good one.

      Everything is questionable, nothing is sacred.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted October 26, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      “Science is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.”

  6. Aelfric
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I am one of those pedants who still holds that “agnostic” and “atheist” are independently useful as epistemological and ontological signifiers, respectively. Thus one could be an “agnostic atheist” or an “agnostic Hindu.” I fully realize, however, that that train has sailed. So yes, I tend to say atheist is the preferable term in everyday speech.

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t abandon the usage entirely. When it’s useful to make the distinction, offer up the definitions and then use them within the context of that discussion.

      In that sense, I would first offer a caveat that this is not to be confused with the early Christian heresy, and then proceed with the following four examples:

      Gnostic theist: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.
      Agnostic theist: Believes there are one or more gods, but does not have certainty as to the matter.
      Agnostic atheist: Doesn’t find any claims of gods credible, but is unwilling to absolutely rule out the possibility.
      Gnostic atheist: Generally finds the whole notion of the divine incoherent and / or absolutely contradicted by trivially-obtainable observation.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Kurt Helf
        Posted October 26, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        I would argue Jerry fits into the ‘agnostic atheist’ camp following Matt Dillahunty’s point regarding knowledge being a subset of belief. While Jerry doesn’t believe any gods exist he doesn’t *know* it to be true and is willing, unlike PZ Myers, to change his belief should the right evidence present itself.

    • Somite
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      It is a question of how pedantic you want to be.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 26, 2013 at 12:51 am | Permalink

        Some of us have no choice in the matter.

  7. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I think Bertrand Russell’s view is correct. The claim, “God exists.” is not an empirical claim. There is no evidence for it and it can not be tested against any evidence. Nor is it a logical claim like “2 plus 2 equals 4.”

    It is a metaphysical claim and is beyond confirmation by empirical test. It is not probable or improbable. As Alfred Jules Ayer argued, along with the logical positivist school, it is a meaningless statement. Cf. _Language, Truth and Logic_ by Alfred Jules Ayer.

    Possibility and impossibility are in the realms of logic.

    Probability and improbability are in the realms of science.

    Metaphysics is nonsense!

    • darrelle
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      “The claim, “God exists.” is not an empirical claim.”

      I might be missing something here? An inside joke or something?

      Perhaps in a philosophical Sophisticated Theologian™ context that might be the case, by definition as it were. But, in reality nearly every believer’s concept of god has some empirical aspect to it. If the believer believes their god actually exists and can affect our reality, what sense is there in pretending that “God exists” is not an empirical claim?

      Should I brace myself for a schooling in how philosophically unsophisticated I am?

      • BillyJoe
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

        Which is why when asked “does god exist”, you should answer with a question “define god”. The only definable god that cannot be proven not to exist is the deistic god, and you are extremely unlikely to be asked that question by a deist.

        • Posted October 26, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

          The deistic god is just as trivially disprovable as any theistic god. The deistic god, after all, is still a creator god. So which super-deisitic god created the deistic god? It’s turtles all the way down, again, with a Turing-style contradiction at the bottom. After all, the deistic god can no more rule out the possibility that some hidden super-deistic god created him than he can solve the Halting Problem. And if the deistic god can’t even theoretically know for sure whether or not he’s really the Alpha and the Omega, of what possible sense does it make to claim that he’s responsible for anything?

          Cheers,

          b&

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      “The claim, “God exists.” is not an empirical claim.”

      I’m baffled too. It looks like an ordinary existence claim to me.

      Unless you attribute some extraordinary conditions to the magic agent (besides being magic). In which case you may want to have extraordinary evidence in order to make such a claim.

      But:

      - Inasmuch as it is a philosophical claim, it is uninteresting. As mentioned, it doesn’t apply to reality, saying nothing on probability.

      - Inasmuch as it is an empirical claim, which it mostly is used as, it is eminently testable.
      Generic magic action is excluded by now, at least informally as per the post. (Personally I think it is stronger than that. But that’s me.) Which is as far from the required (or not) extraordinary positive evidence that one could get.

    • Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Metaphysical claims *can* be tested, in exactly the same way that very general factual (not empirical, that’s where the confusion arises, partially) hypotheses can be. It doesn’t follow that they can ever be 100% confirmed, but FAIAP, they can be, at least at any given time.

      Testing occurs via their *consequences*, just like, say, Newton’s law of gravitation is.

  8. Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I love it when you beat me to the punch.

    All the gods have very specific properties which, of needs, must be in evidence if they are to exist in anything even vaguely resembling their claimed form. To conclusively and unquestionably disprove the existence of any god, one only need look for evidence where it must be found…and find nothing.

    That no god has ever even done so much as call 9-1-1 demonstrates that none of them have the means and / or moral conviction to do something about evil that even a young child with a cellphone does — let alone a mighty superhero. And that I may repeatedly blaspheme all gods as I have just done without fear of being smoted is equal evidence that the jealous gods don’t exist, either.

    Can one invent meaningless hypothetical entities whose existence cannot be disproven? Of course! Russell himself famously did so with his Teapot. But gods are not orbital teapots; they are forces more powerful than even Nature itself, and they have a vested interest at some level in humanity. And, just as we can know with certainty as absolute as is ever warranted that there is no Luminiferous Aether, we can be absolutely certain that there are no gods.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Mark Perew
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Certain to within several million standard deviations.

    • JBlilie
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      … smitten, I think … :)

      • Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        I can’t imagine being smitten by any of the Christian gods. That’s not necessarily the case with all deities….

        Cheers,

        b&

    • Dave
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Thing about the teapot argument is tat it worked well when he said it but doesn’t hold up now because if someone was determined enough they could probably show there was no Martian teapot. I like the Homeric gawds argument much better.

      • Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        I have faith in The Teapot

      • Filippo
        Posted October 26, 2013 at 2:40 am | Permalink

        Well, what if one, sitting in an obscure portion of the Milky Way galaxy, claims that there is such a teapot in the Andromeda or Sombrero or another of a minimum 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe?

        • thh1859
          Posted October 26, 2013 at 5:09 am | Permalink

          Off topic, sorry, but the number of galaxies interests me. In my lifetime the estimate of their number has increased from 1,000 to your 10exp10.

          George Gamow (or perhaps a physicist of similar standing) said that there are only three interesting numbers: 0, 1 and infinity – and 1 is not all that interesting. Maybe there are an infinite number of galaxies. The cosmological implications of this speculation would be interesting to follow through.

          • Posted October 26, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

            A lot of that has to do with the nature of the universe.

            There was a finite (but huge!) amount of “stuff” that was “created” as part of the Big Bang. Cosmological calculations plus Hubble observations is what gets us to the roughly quarter trillion to a trillion galaxies figures. Expect the James Webb telescope to further refine that number.

            But, of course, if any of the various multiverse theories is correct, there may well be an infinite number of Big Bang types of events, each of which has produced its own local volume of who-knows-how-many galaxies. Assuming, of course, that local conditions (including physical laws) in those universes is even anything similar enough to ours to produce something we would recognize as a galaxy….

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 26, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

              Also, we can’t even see the whole universe because of how fast light travels to us and the stupid thing is expanding. :)

              So, there is an unknown number of galaxies outside the observable universe I’d suspect.

            • Posted October 26, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

              A lesson in perspective…

              /@

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

                Great illustration. And that wasn’t even the Hubble extreme deep field image!

                b&

          • Posted October 28, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

            But he’s wrong: there’s a proof that all numbers are interesting!

  9. Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    It’s possible to be both agnostic and atheist.

    • Somite
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      It is just that the agnostic part is an unnecessary, pedantic, unparsimonious disclaimer but to each his own.

      • Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        I just assume that there is always a microscopically small possibility that I could be wrong.

        • Somite
          Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

          That’s true of any question or any claim.

          • Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

            Exactly. If I want to be consistent, I have no choice but to be at least somewhat agnostic.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

              But do you think it’s 50/50 regarding the existence of gods?

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

                Jesus, no. A Twiggy chance at best.

                HE seems very shy as of late

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

                He does appear to be a big fan of not appearing. Gods are tricky like that. :-)

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                You mean gods are good at not being seen?

                Come to think of it…Baihu not only is a god, he’s a master at not being seen. He can be sitting on his favorite chair in the middle of the living room and still, somehow, not be seen. You may be onto something….

                b&

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

                Thanks, I hadn’t seen that one.

                Funny yet oddly disturbing.

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                As is the case with so much Python….

                b&

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

                No. 0.00000001%, to be generous.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

                Then I’m right there with you.

              • Marella
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

                If “not being seen” is the defining characteristic of gods then I have a son who certainly qualifies. I know he lives in the house, and I see evidence of his passing, but he is rarely seen. He also fulfills the flowing beard qualification too, come to think of it.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

                Hehe… for some reason your post reminded me of this comic:

                ( http://zitscomics.com/comics/october-23-2013/ )

                Not that I’m a neatfreak though, far from it. :-)

        • darrelle
          Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          Whooosh!

        • Dave
          Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          The fence gets pretty crowded that way. :-)

          • Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            I’m not on the fence. It’s really uncomfortable up there, and crowded too, as you say. I am on the atheistic side, I just allow non-zero probabiliy that people from the other side can come up with a proof.

  10. Owen Recognizance
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    What about us ignostic apatheists?

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Do you even care? ;-)

      • Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        And how would he know if he did?

        b&

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Not all ignostics are apathetic…and, I suspect, your apathy diminishes rapidly when the theists start trying to shove Jesus into high school biology classes like a rusty barbed-wire wrapped Leica into…well, this is something of a family Web site, so perhaps I shouldn’t finish that analogy….

      b&

      • Occam
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        A rusty Leica would be an abomination of Nephitic proportions; a barbed-wire wrapped Leica, damnable to eternity. (Worth a fortune at WestLicht, if genuine.)

        • Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          …which is exactly why you don’t want to have it shoved up your…um…the kids haven’t gone to bed yet, have they? Well, let’s just say that you don’t want the rusty barbed-wire-wrapped Leica…there…any more than you want a Jesus in your biology.

          Cheers,

          b&

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        I would see Deepak Chopra as an ignostic – he always talks about this vague god notion.

        • Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          Nah. He’s just an ignorant idiotic.

          b&

      • Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        One can only be an “apatheist” if one is paying absolutely no attention.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        Are you talking about Leica, the camera?

        • Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          Yes.

          Don’t ask me why, but it’s somehow become the favorite whipping post for…shall we say…deeply suppository suggestions.

          Back in the day on USENET we generally used redwood two-by-fours for that purpose, but I’ll admit that there’s something somehow poetic about using a Leica instead.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            Oh good. I was getting the reference then. :) I suppose Canon would be a terrible camera to be lodged there as well esp if it was the common misspelling, Cannon! :) Yikes!

            • Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

              …and this would be the Canon cannon….

              b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

                That’s crazy! It’s a telescope!

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

                Funny you should mention that…I’m not aware of anybody doing serious astronomical work with the 1200 (though I’m absolutely positive that every single one ever made has been pointed at the Moon).

                However, if you have a look here:

                http://www.superwasp.org/

                you’ll see a total of eight Canon 200mm f/1.8 lenses mounted in a single array. More than a bit insane…but they’ve found over a hundred extra-solar planets already, and counting.

                The thing I find particularly amazing is that each lens is backed by a measly four megapickle sensor. I know those lenses are capable of far outresolving the sensors they’re using, and I can only imagine what they might be able to do with an upgrade….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

                Interesting project but crazy expensive when you can do the same with nice telescope lenses. Fun to try different things though.

              • Posted October 25, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

                I wouldn’t be too sure. A 12° viewing angle is auper-ultra-wide for astronomy, and f/1.8 is almost magic faery dust bright — the Keck, for example, is f/1.75. (And has a focal length of 17,500 mm!) And the optical quality of that Canon lens is legendary. There might not be anything comparable that you can buy off the shelf, and anything custom of comparable quality is likely to be significantly more expensive.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 26, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

                I guess I’m going by brute force experience of good optics of telescopes vs. good optics for cameras even at my consumer level. If I take a picture of the moon using my 8″ Schmidt Cassegrain and my 7D then take the same picture with my 300 mm prime lens L series f/4 I get much sharper results (incredible so) with my telescope. The scope glass is very good and it uses mirrors so I don’t know if that’s what makes the difference. It’s also inexpensive – the optical tube is around $2000 for its 8″ size while the lens I have is $1500. So, i figure that would scale up. But of course, one saves money because the telescope optical tube doesn’t have electronics in it like the lens for focusing.

                Having said that, using the Canon lenses is probably easier given the size…it would sure need a lot of precision.

                I think someone should pay me to take time off work and build an array of telescopes then those Canon lenses and see. :)

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

                Assuming the 8″ measurement of the telescope is its maximum aperture, that’s a physical opening of about 200mm. A 300mm f/4 lens has a physical aperture of 300 / 4 = 75 mm. To help put that in a bit more perspective and context, a 200mm f/1.8 lens has an aperture of 111 mm; a 400mm f/2.8 a 143mm aperture; and the 1200mm f/5.6 a 214mm aperture.

                In other words, you’d have to spend a hundred grand to get the largest production telephoto lens made to equal your telescope.

                A big part of that cost discrepancy, as you note, is that your telescope is using mirrors; it’s a reflector. Except for cheap (and typically nearly useless) camera lenses, they’re all refractors, and often using exotic materials (such as calcium fluorite). As I understand it, refractors are generally ideally preferred for astronomy but are rarely used because of cost and weight concerns. It might not be physically possible to build a ground-based instrument the size of the Keck as a refractor, no matter what level of technology you assume.

                If you’ve ever pointed your telescope at something on the ground during daylight hours — as I’m sure you have — you know how impractical such an instrument would be for general-purpose photography. But point it up at the sky at night, and you bring the Universe to your back yard….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 26, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

                Yes the SCT is a reflector – it bounces the light twice in the optical tube and then one more time up into the eyepiece. This causes some light loss but keeps the tube compact. SCT’s are good for astrophotography. Newtonian reflectors bounce the light into your eye only two times so they are longer but they require collimation. Then refractors are just too big to get the aperture you’re looking for. My 2000 mm focal length of my SCT is a good compromise.

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

                Sounds like an ideal backyard ‘scope. Big enough to actually see things, but not so heavy nor expensive that it’d stay under lock and key.

                One last bit of math…a lens with a 2 meter focal length and an 8″ optical aperture is f/10. Imagine how much deeper you’d be able to see with an f/1.8 lens (and try to not think about the cost or weight!).

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 26, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

                Yeah, mine is an f/10 so your exposures are probably going to be longer and visually that can restrict you. I bought it ages ago because I wanted a good all around scope. It doesn’t have GPS or anything so I need to polar align it the old fashion way. I recently upgraded the mount so it has a precise tracker but I haven’t had the chance to use it much and the mount weighs a ton.

                A nice observation scope is a Dobsonian reflector. It doesn’t track so you can’t do astrophotography very well with it if at all but you can get nice sized ones for cheap and the images are a nice wide angle with the right eyepiece. My scope is not at all wide angle so it’s a pain to find things in it easily by eye.

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a telescope a couple times…but I live smack dab in the middle of what’s probably the worst light dome in the Four Corners states. Which is a shame, because a half a day’s drive to the north gets me to probably the best skies in the lower 48 — the area on the north side of the San Francisco Peaks. (For those unfamiliar with the area, Flagstaff is on the south side of the San Francisco peaks, and the Grand Canyon is to the northeast of them.)

                I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of getting a decent ‘scope at some point, but it’d have to be something reasonably portable. Long before then, I’ll be experimenting with stacking multiple exposures taken with my 400 f/2.8 of things I’ll track by eye on a regular gimbal photographic mount (with the expectation of cropping, of course). The next step would probably be a barn door tracker — and that plus a good pair of binoculars may well be just the bee’s knees.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                A good set of binoculars is much better than a scope that won’t get used due to size & there are a lot of astronomical ones around. You’ll also get some nice wide angle exposures with the camera too.

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                You would positively swoon over the binoculars somebody had set up at the eclipse at the Grand Canyon. They were salvage from a WWII-era Japanese battleship, and the objectives had to have been at least five inches across. Mounted, of course, on a massive tripod. Positively glorious…and, sadly, probably even more impractical than anything that Meade or Celestron sell….

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                I actually considered buying a nice pair of fancy telescope binoculars kinda like these but it started getting stupidly expensive when I already have a telescope!

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, that’s the general idea, except these were even more huge.

                The binoculars I’d buy would have to be hand-holdable, though a standard 3/4 tripod mount would probably have to be a requirement as well.

                b&

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 27, 2013 at 1:18 am | Permalink

                I’m deeply impressed. Considering this started from a comment about ignostic apatheists, and went via a rather disreputable figurative use for a Leica, this most recent off-topic digression into techno-geek land must set some sort of record. D’you suppose Guinness Book of Record would recognise it? ;)

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 27, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

                It’s one of the great aspects of this site.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 27, 2013 at 1:25 am | Permalink

                Actually I just followed Ben’s link to the Canon 1200 lens. I’m deeply impressed. But I think what it needs is a spotterscope mounted on top of it.

              • Posted October 27, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

                Actually, the 1200 is the spotting scope…for this lens….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:16 am | Permalink

                Aww, now that’s ridiculous. That ain’t a lens, that’s a telescope. (Oh I see Diana already said that – about the 1200!)

          • Filippo
            Posted October 26, 2013 at 2:52 am | Permalink

            I suppose that there is an optimum supine pose and posture for the purpose of positing and superpositioning and supporting a supple and eventually superating and superattenuating suppository, after supper.

            • Posted October 26, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

              That would all depend on the supposable supply of suitable supplements, I think….

              b&

    • Marella
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      I think this describes the majority of Australians actually.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

        I resemble that remark.

  11. Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    /

  12. Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “Agnostic” is also for people who would rather maintain positive relationships with Christian friends instead of prompting needless stressful arguments that come with the strongly negative connotations of “atheist.” Call me a wimp, if you must. Labels don’t matter much to me anyway; my friends and family all know I’m not religious, and that’s what matters.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I was watching an episode of the series, Revolution (don’t hate on this, I like it for some reason). A character described himself as an “agnostic jew”. Ha ha. It’s like the network just couldn’t say “atheist” but maybe it’s progress of sort that the character wasn’t religious.

      • Dave
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        Actually, on Northern Exposure the shop keeper was openly atheist and she stated it openly. There’s a great line by Fleischman when she tells him she’s an atheist and he says, “Well, that takes a lot of faith.” Love it.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

          Yes & Dr Brennan is an atheist on Bones

          • Cliff Melick
            Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            And also Dr. House.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

              Oh and Britta on Community.

            • Dave
              Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

              And Dr Ellingham (Doc Martin).

              • Diane Langworthy
                Posted October 25, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

                And Dr. Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory:)

  13. Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I agree that “agnostic” is mostly for an academic audience. For the man in the street, I will sometimes say I am “non-religious”, as I think that will better convey my view. I don’t spend much time actually thinking about religion, except when debating creationists.

    • Rebecca Harbison
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      That’s usually when I say I’m a secular humanist, as, to me, it sums up ‘a lack of interest in theism per se* coupled with a strong interest in secularism in the public square and a strong interest in making human lives better’.

      I think many atheists are like that (regardless of what words one IDs with most), depending on their level of engagement. I’d suspect Jerry, for example, thinks more about religion than I do because he runs this website and has to deal with more creationists et al. than I do on a day to day basis.

      * Well, actually, I have a sociological interest in religion, but I don’t really spend all that much time thinking about its truth or lack thereof.

  14. William Bradnan
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Atheism allows no doubt. But there is doubt. Doubt is the coin of science. Dogmatism is not.

    • gbjames
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      That first sentence is simply nonsense, William.

      • JohnnieCanuck
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        One of the better strawman constructions I’ve seen in a while, though.

      • Don
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        Right. Doubt doesn’t really enter into it. An atheist, strictly speaking, is someone without a belief in gods.

      • William Bradnan
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        I simply don’t like the word “atheism”, because it implies 100% certainty. “Agnosticism”, on the other hand, means (to me) 99.99% certainty, but simply short of 100%. That’s just the way I use the words.

        • Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

          You might not have noticed, but that’s not how the words are used by most other people — or even how it’s defined in the dictionary. If you wish to be easily understood, you might wish to consider abandoning the Humpty Dumpty routine.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • BillyJoe
            Posted October 25, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

            Ha ha that was a good one!

          • William Bradnan
            Posted October 26, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

            Actually, the way I use the words is the way they are defined in the dictionary; according to M-W’s Unabridged, an agnostic is defined as “…one who maintains a continuing doubt about the existence or knowability of a god or any ultimates…” — the key word being “doubt”. On the other hand, atheism is defined as “a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods…”, the key word being “strong”, which implies a 100% devotion to ones position. Agnostics just aren’t as sure as atheists, in my experience.

            • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

              Did you not notice the “or” in the latter definition?

              /@

            • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

              As Ant has already informed you, even your own dictionary is using the inclusive “or.” Somebody who simply lacks belief in gods is an atheist. So is somebody who strongly disbelieves in the existence of even one god — but, you’ll note that somebody who strongly disbelieves in the existence of even god also lacks belief in all gods.

              Cheers,

              b&

          • William Bradnan
            Posted October 26, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

            By the way, what is a “Humpty Dumpty routine”? I don’t believe it’s in the dictionary. ;)

            • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

              ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

              Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

              /@

              • William Bradnan
                Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

                But my definition is not that idiosyncratic, at least according to M-W’s Unabridged.

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

                Yes, it is, when you deprecate the meaning before the “or”.

                /@

            • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

              & link

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                Actually, that’s kind of a weird website to have linked to…

                /@

            • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

              “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

              …that would be from Through the Looking-Glass by the incomparably brilliant Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • William Bradnan
                Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

                Very nice. Thanks!

              • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                We maim two peas.

                b&

        • gbjames
          Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Idiosyncratic word definitions don’t generally help communication.

          • William Bradnan
            Posted October 26, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

            See my comment above. I am using the words as defined in the M-W Unabridged Dictionary.

            • gbjames
              Posted October 27, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

              See the responses from Ben and Ant, above.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      I think atheism absolutely allows doubt if the doubter is accepting it provisionally. Gravity allows doubt – I accept it until it shows that it isn’t there. So does air – I accept that I’ll breath it until I don’t. The ability to doubt isn’t intrinsic in the noun but in the user of that noun.

    • steve oberski
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      And here I thought atheism was all about doubt.

      An atheist doubts the claims made about supernatural beings and is unwilling to accept the truth value of those claims without evidence.

      In my experience, it’s among the religious that we see a distinct lack of doubt, they being willing to accept the most ridiculous fairy tales at face value without a shred of supporting evidence and in the face of massive evidence to the contrary.

    • Rebecca Harbison
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      So how would you describe ‘lack of belief in a god’, William? Generally speaking, if I’m reasonably but not completely* certain that something does not exist as described, I’m not going to behave as if it does, and I think that’s its fair to say that I don’t believe in it.

      * There’s plenty of things that I acknowledge are not 100% certain, but approach 100%. I could find a lottery ticket on the ground that wins the Jackpot, but I’m not going to budget for that because it is almost 100% certain that that will not happen.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

        Hmmm…what’s your budget outlay for finding a lottery ticket on the ground?

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      …sigh. See “strong” vs. “weak” atheism. OR as noted above, “gnostic/agnostic” “theism/atheism”.

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      I have absolutely no doubt that I have no belief in any gods or other supernatural agencies whatsoever.

      /@

      • William Bradnan
        Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        I am not as confident as you that we are in possession of most of the truth about the cosmos. We don’t even know what dark matter is, much less dark energy. I doubt a God, but who knows what lies behind these mysteries? Wasn’t it Einstein who expressed a reverence for these mysteries?

        • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          Start here:

          http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/23/the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-are-completely-understood/

          And then add in the fact that the confirmation of the Higgs and recent cosmological discoveries have only pushed the domain of the unknown even farther away from human scales.

          You can be even more confident that there is no magic in the universe than you can be that the Sun will rise tomorrow. That completely and totally eliminates any hint of a theistic god. All that’s remaining at that point are the theological gods, and they’re nothing but hopeless jumbles of self-contained contradictions. An all-powerful god cannot resign (or commit suicide). A creator god cannot rule out the possibility that some even more powerful god created it; of what sense does it make to declare such an entity a creator of anything, let alone an ultimate one? And, thanks to the Halting Problem, we know that even an all-knowing god can’t magic its way out of that dilemma.

          Or, another way to put it: how confident are you that Santa isn’t real, and that there are no married bachelors? If your confidence in those two propositions is absolute, and if you feel justified in that confidence, there’s no reason not to extend it to all other mystical and contradictory beasties, gods included.

          Cheers,

          b&

        • Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

          Why do you think I think that we are in possession of most of the truth about the cosmos? I suggested no such thing.

          However much is unknown, I still know that I do not believe.

          /@

    • JBlilie
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      To me, atheism means: I see no reason to accept any proposed gods or anything supernatural.

      Show me a reason, I’m open to new evidence.

      Do you hold doubts about the non-existence of Zeus, Thor, Ammon Ra, Mithras, Ganesha, Chi, or the Tao?

      Again, I’m open to new evidence.

      I see only: People, books written by people, religions invented by (scared, ignorant (and sometimes mendaciously avaricious)) and memes invented by people. No gods. No fairies. No ghosts.

      • JBlilie
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        … invented by (…) people …

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Atheism neither “allows” or “disallows”, just as “not golfing, not a golfer” gives or withholds permissions about golf. It is only a description. It’s about an individual, belief is. If I see a Amazonian tribesman, and I say “He doesn’t golf”, or he claims no knowledge of golf, it has nothing to do with “Dogmatism” or any such animal.

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      Can you explain why atheism doesn’t allow doubt?

      Would you grant that theists can have doubts, and therefore that theism allows doubt? Why not atheism?

      • William Bradnan
        Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Any atheist I have ever met is disdainful of the possibility of belief. Though I am an agnostic and am doubtful, I’m not as thoroughly convinced as the atheist.

  15. Karl Withakay
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I usually tell people that atheist and agnostic are answers to different questions and that the one question isn’t really useful except as a only mildly interesting philosophical exercise.

    I believe we all live in a shared single objective reality in a materialistic, naturalistic, & macro-deterministic universe.

    That statement really should be sufficient to give you my basic understanding of the universe.

  16. Greg Esres
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    It was to this question that Russell brought up the “teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars.” agnosticism. It was in pondering this that I realized the wishy-washiness of the “agnostic” label and so stopped using it for myself.

  17. JBlilie
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I never use “agnostic.” I either dodge the question (where I must) or plainly state atheist.

  18. Curt Nelson
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes. I have argued with sticklers for “agnostic” that the pope cannot prove that god is real just as I cannot prove that he is not. So, properly, the pope should also call himself an agnostic. We’re all agnostic! Yay. (But we know nothing about each other’s beliefs about God.) Sometimes we must sacrifice understanding for propriety.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Dr Jerry C Cat: “The term “agnostic” is for wimps.”

    Purrfect! As was the whole post; duly bookmarked.

  20. Posted October 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I think B. Russell fails, in his use of “proof”. As I sat many years ago, bewildered, in a philosophy class, “Phenomenology”, there are many definitions within philosophy that take many years and conversations for philosophists to agree upon. “Philosophical proof” is no doubt one of them. As I have stated, what is established as “proof” is typically addressed in law and mathematics, within system, as the systems themselves are developed. “Proof” is simply misused, badly used, in the real world. And deities are, for believers, real in the real world. But the reality is that 100% nothing, nothing at all, can be proffered by theistic believers to establish their scientific existence. And, everything that exists has some sort of scientific backing/origin.

  21. Don
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Let me offer a great quote on this matter from the writing of the late Judith Hayes, “The Happy Heretic”:

    “One cannot be an agnostic. Agnostic means ‘not to know’ and almost by definition all humans are agnostic about God in that no one can be sure whether a God of some sort really exists. I know I haven’t a clue. But no thinking person can say that he does not know if he acknowledges a God. We all know if we believe in a God. In our heart of hearts, we either do believe or we do not believe. Either way, we know if we believe. There is no such thing as not knowing if we believe. This supposedly ‘neutral’ position about the existence of God, agnosticism, is no position at all. The sooner it is eliminated the better, for all of us freethinkers, atheists, unbelievers, nonbelievers, humanists, or whatever.”

    –Judith Hayes, from the essay, “A Freethought Easter In Orlando”

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. See my reply to #14.

      So, maybe that gives us the riposte to someone who insists that they’re an agnostic but, oh no, not an atheist: Do you not know if you believe in God or not?

      /@

  22. Doug Ryan
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Russell makes two claims in the passage:

    1. On the evidence, the probability that any gods exist is extremely low.

    2. It is logically possible that one or more gods exist.

    Claim 1 respects the empirical probabilities. Claim 2 respects the logical possibilities. Whether to call people who accept both claims ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’ is a verbal question.

    Here’s how I’d answer that verbal question. If your audience thinks 2 is more interesting than 1, then describe yourself as an agnostic. If your audience thinks 1 is more interesting than 2, then describe yourself as an atheist. If your audience thinks 1 and 2 are equally interesting, it doesn’t matter how you describe yourself.

    • Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Claim 2 is actually deeply problematic as well. I’ve yet to encounter a proposed god or definition of the term that didn’t necessarily entail an inescapable contradiction. Most trivially, all the omni-properties are inherently self-contradictory.

      When one understands that gods are best thought of as a certain class of literary characters, plot devices, really, basically all their problems instantly vanish. It’s only when you try to pretend that Superman really could be really real that you start to get into trouble.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Doug Ryan
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        Hi Ben,

        I agree with you that claim 2 is deeply problematic. I was wrong to write that claim 2 respects the logical possibilities. I should have said that it respects what seems to be a logical possibility prior to serious reflection.

        I suspect that the combination of 1 and 2 is quite popular among hard scientists. So the verbal issue arises as to what people who accept both claims should call themselves.

        Best,

        Doug

        • Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

          I’d be hesitant to put numbers on scientists who fit your description, but it’s certainly far from the null set.

          Most of them, I suspect, simply haven’t given the matter much thought. They’re familiar, either directly or indirectly, with Russell’s position. It seems reasonably plausible on the surface, so they run with it.

          There’s a significant number, though, who really should know better but who promote the position nonetheless. They’re generally described as, “accommodationists.”

          Cheers,

          b&

      • BillyJoe
        Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

        Shouldn’t that be…

        It’s only when you really try to pretend that, really, Superman gods really could be really real that you really start to get into real trouble.

    • Occam
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      When the drums begin to roll, when it comes to flying the flag under fire, by all means ‘atheist’. Thin red line of reason, and all that.

      But in a civilised and fair-minded discussion, I prefer the Rationalist label. I find it absurd to define my stance merely in relation to a figment of the human imagination, a noxious and pathological non-entity. Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse.

      Ian Stewart, paraphrasing John von Neumann, once wrote that the term ‘non-linear systems’, haughtily implying that linear phenomena were normative, was about as apt as a specialist of elephants conflating all other branches of biology under the sobriquet ‘non-pachydermology’.

      In general terms, ‘atheist’ is about as informative as ‘non-pachydermologist’. It assigns unwarranted importance to an inexistent, fictitious elephant.

      • Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        +1

        b&

      • Posted October 25, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        I’ll echo Ben’s approval.

        What you’ve written is largely why Sam Harris (and I) think the term should be unnecessary.

        It’s rather depressing that it is.

        • Posted October 25, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

          As so many of us point out, we’re not just a-Theos-ists, aka a-Zeus-ists. We’re not even just a-YHWH-ists or a-Brahma-ists. We’re also, like the overwhelming majority of adults, a-Santa-ists, a-Leprechaun-ists, and a-Boogieman-ists.

          And most of us also don’t collect stamps, play cricket, or barbecue human babies. (Well, most!)

          Defining us by what we are not would be impossibly tedious.

          What we are, as Occam observed, is rationalists. We have concluded that the wisest bets are made by according belief in proportion with a rational analysis of empirical observation.

          I do believe — or, at least, I hope — that a review of my contributions to WEIT would reveal significantly more use of the term, “rationalist,” than “atheist.”

          Cheers,

          b&

  23. Sines
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I have no problem with the use of agnostic in some cases.

    If a person is an agnostic atheist, but considers their uncertainty to be sufficiently important, they might be reasonably called an agnostic.

    A 3 on the Dawkins scale would be an atheist, but their uncertainty is pretty big. They might feel that they explain their position better by calling themselves an agnostic “Sure I don’t believe in god, but I’m not really saying he doesn’t exist either. I’m in the middle on this one, so saying I’m an atheist might give people the impression that I’ve determined his existence is unlikely, might be a bit misleading.”

    Essentially, when you are both an agnostic, and an atheist, and you only feel like going by one label, agnostic might be preferable if your uncertainty is ‘greater’ than your lack of belief.

    Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Agnostic is just the less stigmatized version of atheist, and also a term for people who seem to think that ‘atheist’ means ‘knows 100% for certain there is no god’.

    I was inclined to call that absolutist definition of atheist for idiots… but even Carl Sagan felt it was what the word means.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 27, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

      ‘Atheist’ has at least two distinct meanings.
      1. Does not personally believe in a god(s). (Says nothing about whether he thinks a god(s) could be proved not to exist).
      2. 100% certain (or practically sure) that no gods exist.

      The disparity between the two meanings seems to be fuelling a number of arguments in this thread.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        And an infinite number of similar semantic squabbles! Gawd, I’m tired of them. This particular one over the definition of atheism/agnosticism has been going on forever–what a waste of time.

  24. Posted October 25, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    One of my favorite quotes from Bertrand Russell is: “It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.”

    That pretty much sums up my opinion of the status of gods; I’ve never seen or heard any evidence that any of them exist. So I consider myself an atheist. I suppose if someone grabbed a god by the tail and plunked it down on my desk, I might consider changing my mind, so perhaps, technically, I’m an agnostic.

  25. Diane Langworthy
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Appreciate this post and comments. This QualiaSoup 10 min video is good and pertinent. It makes some of the same points as others have here, but with pictures.

    • Diane Langworthy
      Posted October 25, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      oops…thought I was just giving link. Guess I’m not sure how to just give link.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 26, 2013 at 1:00 am | Permalink

        Chop off the http:// before you post it. Word Press will add it back on, but it will then appear as the link you wanted to post, not the embed.

        Reason: WordPress arcanity.

        • Diane Langworthy
          Posted October 26, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

          Thank you, Diane G.!

  26. kelskye
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    I find agnostic a great word for when there’s genuine need for suspension of belief. For example, I’m agnostic about there being intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. There could be, the universe is a very big place after all, and we know that the universe permits for the existence of intelligent life, but in the absence of evidence of this life, we just cannot say. The idea that those aliens are here and probing people, however, isn’t something I’m agnostic about. It’s fairly evident that such accounts aren’t true.

    And that’s how I am with gods. It doesn’t make sense to talk about being agnostic in the sense of a suspension of belief – it’s fairly evident that the accounts of gods as being part of our world are false. There may be some conceptions of gods that do warrant genuine agnosticism, but they aren’t the interventionist accounts that form the overwhelming majority of accounts of gods that we are compelled to think about by their presence in our culture.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 26, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      Aliens and agnostism is an excellent mix. That would be awesome if there were ETIs out there or even just different lifeforms…Si based, etc. It is definitely in the realm of possibility.

  27. BillyJoe
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Some thoughts:

    Atheist has such negative connotations amongst the general population that the word is almost spat out.

    Non-theist sounds gentler but, somehow, never seems to have caught on. Non-theist…not a theist…almost self explanatory.

    Agnostic means your lack of knowledge makes you unable to come down on one side or another. A knowledgable non-theist cannot also be an agnostic.

    Once defined, all the gods theta people believe in are disprovable, except the deistic god who virtually no one believes and who is irrelevant.

  28. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Elsewhere Russell writes:

    “I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla.” (Letter to Mr. Major)

    and here he gives both a no and yes answer to are agnostics atheists. Technically no, but for all practical purposes yes. From “What is an agnostic?”

    “Are agnostics atheists?

    No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.”

    • Posted October 26, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      As Jerry notes, it’s only the philosophers who have trouble dismissing the Olympians. All an empiricist has to do to dismiss them is to climb Mount Olympus, something that’s been done repeatedly with no signs of the gods….

      Cheers,

      b&

  29. Kevin
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Antitheist is the most purposeful definition. An atheist does not necessarily imply that one actively tries to combat theistic religions. An agnostic is just putting logic above evidence…it is a step in the right direction.

    An antitheist could be a deist, in the Einstein sense, and that is not all that bad if we filled the ranks of humanity with people like that. Althouh I sort of doubt Einstein would be a deist if alive today.

    • Posted October 26, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      The problem with, “antitheist,” is that it implies that one is against theists. I would probably fit a dictionary definition of the term, but I would not adopt it for myself for that very reason.

      I would, however, embrace, “antitheismist.”

      But “rationalist” works just as well — better, even.

      Cheers,

      b&

  30. marksolock
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  31. Posted October 26, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on hitchens67 Atheism WOW!! Campaign.

  32. postrock
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Let’s say you ask me whether it is going to rain tomorrow.

    If I have not looked at the weather forecast, I am going to say “I don’t know” because I DON’T KNOW.

    Sneering at my honest claims for lack of knowledge suggests little regard for true statements.

    As an agnostic who rejects Christianity partly because Christians can’t prove their beliefs and claims, atheists can not win me by insisting I act similarly and calling me a coward for not doing so.

    Furthermore, demanding unprovable belief statements sure looks like dogmatic faith to me. Getting upset when Christians claim atheism is a religion based on faith seems hypocritical.

    I can think of all kinds of lies that would be very brave to say aloud.

    I don’t say them because speaking truthfully is a higher virtue than speaking bravely.

    • gbjames
      Posted October 26, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Say what? That is a very confused comment, especially given it is the first one from you, at least on this posting.

      How can you say that someone has sneered at honest claims you haven’t made? Perhaps you can make yourself more clear.

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted October 26, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Presumably you have read the original post, all the comments here and that thoughtful video clip by Qualia Soup at comment #25.

      It seems to me there is ample information available here alone to end your lack of knowledge.

      Ask yourself what it is about the term atheist that you find you must reject it. Would friends or family treat you differently?

      Tell us in what ways you live your life as if there were a god. Do you pray to it for things, ask it for forgiveness when you break its rules? Perhaps you never consider acting as if there is a Zeus or YHWH or anything keeping an eye on you.

      Practically speaking, then, do you live your daily life as a theist would, or an atheist?

      • Jarek
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        It’s not about “lack of knowledge”. It’s about logic and pretendig to be smarter than Bertrand Russell.

  33. Ro Kess
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Agnosticism (or gnosticism) is about knowing, atheism (or theism)is about believing. Agnostics are atheists, because they cannot answer “yes” to the question, “Do you believe in god?” It doesn’t matter if they answer, “I don’t know”, or “That can’t be known”, or anything else, other than “yes”. If the answer is not “yes”, they are not theists, hence they are atheists. Wimpy, spineless gumby atheists.

  34. Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

    ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

    me too ;)


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