Are we atheists or an agnostics?: A discussion by Matt Dillahunty

Here’s a nice 27-minute video by atheist (and former fundamentalist) Matt Dillahunty, discussing the meaning of the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”. Matt makes a number of points, nearly all of which I support, but then says one thing that I want to chew over a bit.  Here’s what I see as a summary of the talk:

  • There’s a difference between “soft” and “hard” atheism, with the former being “I don’t believe in gods” and the latter being “I believe there are no gods.” This distinction sounds reasonable to me.
  • A theist is someone who believes that a God exists, so an “a-theist” is someone who does not believe a god exists. That is, Matt sees an “atheist” as a “soft atheist.”
  • However, he doesn’t feel strongly about terminology. What’s important to him, and I fully agree, is that in debates or arguments each person understands what everyone means by the term. Often, Matt thinks, people squabble about the meaning of “atheist” as a way of avoiding the substantive issues: the weight of evidence for the existence of gods.
  • “Atheism” simply denotes the state of one’s belief in gods; it has nothing to do per se with secular humanism or social justice, which are separate movements. One might see a connection between all these movements, but the term “atheist” itself does not imply uniform positions on other issues, nor does it compel one to adopt positions on other issues.
  • One shouldn’t define atheist as someone who “lacks a belief in God.” As Matt argues, that implies that atheists are missing something—and is a pejorative connotation.
  • What about agnosticism, which Matt sees as some attempt to find a middle ground between “hard” and “soft” atheism? There’s a good discussion about why he sees this as a non-starter, because the idea behind agnosticism—that you ‘just don’t know’—is ambiguous. It could refer either to your refusal to answer the question, or to your dithering about what you really think about God’s existence. (If you don’t accept gods, you’re simply an atheist.) I, too, see the term “agnostic” as a weasel word, something that people use (sometimes admittedly) when they think the term “atheist” is too jarring or off-putting. (Matt sees it as a misguided attempt to claim intellectual superiority). We should just ditch the term. If you don’t accept gods, whether or not you aver that they don’t exist, you’re an a-theist: an atheist.

My one quibble with Matt’s discussion is his claim that atheism is superior because it abjures any burden of proof. Theists must adduce proof that their god exists; hard atheists, claiming that no gods exist, must also give evidence for their claim. I actually don’t like the word “proof”, as that’s a word scientists don’t use with respect to existence claims. We should simply talk about the degree and strength of the evidence, avoiding the usual theist demand that we must “prove” that God doesn’t exist.

Now is it often said that the burden of evidence lies solely on the theist, and without that the atheist can just reject claims about God.  I think it’s a bit more complex than that. If a theist adduces evidence for God—say the “First Cause Argument,” the “Fine Tuning Argument” or miracles, or any of the other stuff they use to support a deity—then those arguments have to be met. And they’re often met with empirical arguments, say with the rejection of causality that is part of modern physics, or the possibility of multiverses that could overturn fine-tuning. This all requires evidence of a sort, or at least arguments about evidence that are the normal part of science.

My quibble, then, involves more than equating atheism with simple “nonacceptance of gods.” It can even involve atheists adducing positive evidence: evidence that the world is not structured in the way a beneficent or omnipotent God would have constructed it. The existence of unexplained physical evils, like leukemia in children, the “poor design” of many animals and plants—all of this, too, is a sort of “burden of disproof” that lies on atheist shoulders. As Victor Stenger emphasized: “The absence of evidence is evidence for absence—if that evidence should be there.” And that applies to gods as much as it does to Bigfoot or Nessie. Note that Stenger equated “absence of evidence” with a kind of “evidence.”

This may be parsing Matt’s argument too finely, but I didn’t want to let the claim persist that atheists don’t have to adduce evidence—that ours is just a movement of simple rejection. It’s not: we proceed using rationality and empiricism, like good scientists evaluating existence claims.

195 Comments

  1. Somite
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    The problem is defining atheism in terms of belief.

    Theists are believers in spite of no evidence.

    Atheists know there is no evidence for gods.

    If we frame the question of gods in terms of evidence and conclusions instead of belief, we can examine it like any other empirical question. After all, things are true or not regardless of our belief in them.

    We should avoid the word belief altogether because its only purpose is to allow making claims without evidence. This is why it is so common among theologians and philosophers to define knowledge as “justified true belief”. When someone believes, we don’t know if it is because of evidence, revelation, or faith. In other words, the word belief is so unparsimonious as to be useless and there are always better words.

    • phil
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

      “Atheists know there is no evidence for gods.”

      I dispute that statement. Until a couple of centuries ago Europeans “knew” there was no evidence for black swans although the evidence existed on the other side of the world.

      While belief may be unparsimonious it is not useless, for the lack of parsimony is the objection of atheists. Theists often seem to think that their belief is sufficient justification for itself, since belief without good justification is all they have.

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        True in principle, and epistemic humility is all very well, but … 

        We now have a very broad scope for gathering evidence across the whole visible universe back to the Big Bang and we have found no evidence not consistent with there not being a god (in a broad, theistic sense of the term).

        Moreover, we have found evidence (Planck, LHC, and so on) that makes the likelihood of the existence of such a god vanishingly small (see Sean Carroll’s talk at Skepticon 5, for example).

        /@

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Except that not all atheists have reached that conclusion through rational consideration of evidence or lack thereof.

      /@

  2. Chris G
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I won’t get an opportunity to watch Matt’s video till this evening.
    But coincidentally I was asked by an openly Christian work colleague recently if I was atheist, and I replied: If you’re asking am I religious, no I’m not.
    We then had a constructive conversation about why I don’t find any of the arguments and ‘evidence’ for any god compelling i.e. the burden of proof sat with the other side, and I could focus on why I had a problem with their position without being challenged to ‘prove’ there are no gods.
    I agree the concept of ‘proof’ is a tricky one, but still useful in the same way that a court starts from a position of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, the ‘burden of proof’ being clearly on one side only,
    Chris G.

  3. Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    *Snort* There’s nothing “weasel” about Agnosticism; it’s purely honest. The truth is, we don’t *know* if there’s a “god” or not, or if there are a million “gods”. For that matter, we don’t *know* exactly what a “god” is supposed to be. There’s only weak and ambiguous evidence in any such direction, so the only honest answer is “We don’t *know*.” I can live with that, and I don’t see why you guys can’t.

    • Somite
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      We know there is no evidence for any god, or reasons to propose any.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        I would rather say we know there is no good evidence and certainly no convincing evidence for any god. After all, the bible has much evidence for god. The bible contains second hand testimony and reports of eye witnesses. This IS evidence, just not good evidence.

        • phil
          Posted October 13, 2016 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

          I think your assessment of the bible is pretty generous. AFAIK the broadly accepted academic view is that all the characters and stories at least up to, and possibly including, David and Solomon are fictional. Apart from that the bible still counts as, albeit unreliable, evidence.

          However we DON’T know there is no good evidence (maybe some exists on a moon of Jupiter), all we know is that we haven’t got any. Mind you I am not inclined to think that is likely to change, ever.

    • Chris G
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Sorry to repeat a challenge I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times, but with your line of thinking, we’d have to be ‘agnostic’ towards every claim we doubt: fairies at the bottom of the garden, Father Xmas, the Loch Nessie monster, Russell’s teapot orbiting in space etc.
      If I claim something to be true, I’m happy to own the burden of proof, and equally happy for you to be a-my-claim,
      Chris G.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Do you think Pascal’s Wager is worth taking seriously? Do you live your life as if there might be a god looking over your shoulder preparing to judge you?

      If not, then you’re a de facto atheist, regardless of any protestations of ignorance.

    • eric
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I agree with Chris G. Its reasonable to say that we know no intervening gods exist in the same way we know walking out of a five story building will cause us to fall. Could we be wrong? Philosophically, yes. Our knowledge in both cases is tentative, provisional, and subject to change should new evidence arise. But also in both cases, we can be highly confident of being correct based on a lifetime of consistent observations.

      As I said below, I have no problem with the term ‘agnostic’ because I think it communicates information about a person’s level of ideological commitment and caring. However, I don’t think agnosticism can be defended as superior to atheism using the ‘we don’t know for sure’ argument, because that requires we use a definition of knowledge we don’t use for any normal knowledge claim. If you can know your shirt is blue, then you can know there are no fairies in your garden, and you can know there is no god. And in reverse: if you claim we can’t know (i.e., be philosophically certain) whether God exists or not, then by the same token you can’t know what color your shirt is.

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        “off of” rather than “out of”? Unless there’s a trip hazard just outside the door.

        /@

    • Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      I suppose you’re agnostic about Santa, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster, then. For in reality, there is more evidence for those than for God.

      It’s very strange that we don’t KNOW for sure that there are all kinds of ridiculous things, but we don’t say we’re “agnostic” about them. We say we don’t accept their existence. It’s only God that summons up the word “agnostic.”

      • Chris G
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        The point that it’s only the issue of god that summons up the word ‘agnostic’ is an important one.
        Because ‘agnostic’ plays to an overly defensive position that religious folk take, one that the rest of us buy into, similar to the canard that ‘atheism is as much a leap of faith’.
        Some atheists prefer to call themselves agnostic because they think it’s less insulting and/or dismissive of the religious – I don’t think we need to tread so carefully.
        The new in New Atheism is about actively challenging the religious, whether they like it or not – we don’t need to pussyfoot around the issue, nor pander to believers,
        Chris G.

        • phil
          Posted October 13, 2016 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

          “[O]verly defensive”!!?!?!! Some religious types take an overtly offensive position such that atheists end up up totally and permanently dead. We still haven’t outlived the chilling effect of that abusive and immoral reaction in the liberal west, which is why (IMO) we tend to tiptoe around theistic sensibilities.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        There are actually a lot of folk who describe themselves as UFO agnostics, and at least one Bigfoot agnostic, Matt Crowley, who has been interviewed in Skeptical Inquirer.

        Closer to home, the Bible scholar Hector Avalos (a frequent guest on rationalist media) has described himself as “an agnostic about the existence of the historical Jesus” (and also an atheist re God).

        • jimroberts
          Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          Even historians who believe least in the existence of a historical Jesus as founder, or basis, of Christianity accept some possibility that such a person existed.The question for any historical claim is about the relative probabilities that one or other claims be correct. In this sense, historians are agnostic about everything, even more than scientists in other fields.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      I am a hardcore atheist; I reject any suggestion that there is a god. Many years ago I occasionally found myself veering towards agnosticism, on the grounds that the objective approach to less than perfect evidence is to accept that one simply cannot know for sure (and, to be pedantic, it is not possible to prove absolutely and conclusively that no god exists). I never found this rather feeble and nihilist standpoint satisfactory, superficially logical though it appears. Taken to extremes, it means that one can never accept anything. In life, of course, it is necessary to make many decisions, and the sensible approach is to base these on the best evidence available, even when that might be well short of conclusive. If an agnostic is someone who cannot decide anything on less than perfect information, then the classic agnostic is Buridan’s ass, and look what happened to it. More prosaically, consider a doctor who told a patient that either chemotherapy or radiotherapy might cure the cancer, but that since he was agnostic about which was better, he would perform neither. I would much rather be a pragmatic atheist than a dissembling agnostic.

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        +1

      • Vaal
        Posted October 14, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        Indeed.

        Many people who describe themselves as “Agnostic” mistake that honorable-sounding label for their own lack of skill in decision-making.

    • Bill
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      “There’s only weak and ambiguous evidence in any such direction”

      Is there now? Care to provide it for us?

    • Denise
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      Would you call yourself agnostic with respect to the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

        Barbarian!
        Such heresy will get you … well, actually, it’ll get you all the way to the Beer Volcano and Stripper Factory (*). for the compassion of the Spaghetti Monster (Sauce be Upon her Meaty Balls) towards the unbeliever is unlimited. You won’t even have to queue for an eternity. Not even a small eternity.
        (*) Other sensuous professions and genders are available, including Artex-coated ceilings needing to be stripped, if that is what boats your float.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      We don’t “know” anything, so we should all be agnostic about everything to be absolutely correct. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world? Everyone correct but no distinctions about anything.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        Bertrand Russell said that he described himself as an atheist when talking to ordinary people and an agnostic when talking to philosophers.

        Since the multiple universe *might* exist or we *might* be living in a simulation, or a simulation in a multi universe… I guess it’s agnostics all the way down formally, but (for many) atheism is the pragmatic way of not spinning around in ever increasing uncertainty.

    • phil
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      I think the real issue with agnosticism is its “misuse” (or people not understanding its original meaning).

      My understanding of “agnosticism” is that it is not simply about knowing (or not) if god(s) exist(s), but whether the existence of god(s) is actually knowable.

      In that sense it is possible IMO to be a theistic agnostic or an atheistic agnostic.

  4. sshort
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    “My quibble, then, involves…. evidence that the world is not structured in the way a beneficent or omnipotent God would have constructed it.”

    I know this is familiar to you, Professor. For the uninitiated, the estimable Sean Carroll limns naturalism vs. theism on the basis of observation succinctly and beautifully:

    “Those 7 Times Sean Carroll Nailed Everything”

    At 2:40:

    • sshort
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      !!!!!!!!!

      Beg pardon on the embed. Slipped past me. More coffee needed.

    • Paul
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      It would be worth including the term Ignostic in any discussion of atheist vs agnostic. Wikipedia has a useful page on Ignostic

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

        The Page.
        TBH, I don’t find this a useful distinction. When in a discussion about the existence (or not) of a “god” (or “gods”), most people on either side of the conversation have a pretty good idea of what is under discussion. While getting definitions straight is important, at this pretty fundamental level (“Is there a subject worth the effort of definition and discussion?”) getting deeply embroiled in definitional debates is a bit of a waste of effort. Debating the correct ordering of cart, horse, and rose-bush fertiliser shovel presupposes agreement on the existence of cart, horse and rose bushes. Otherwise, it’s bowls of petunias all the way down.

        • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

          Oh, dear. Not again.

          b&

          >

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted October 15, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            What noise does a very sub-orbital whale make?
            Ka-boom splosh ?

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted October 15, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

              Almost obligatory video – and which I’m sure was in DNA’s mind when he wrote that scene. I never made the connection until now which seems remarkably slack of me.

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted October 15, 2016 at 10:45 am | Permalink

                I’m trying to work out how many Oregon Whales there are to a Челубинск meteor?
                (I make it about 300 male whales to the meteor. But a female sperm whale would be about a milli-Chelyabinsk, as precisely as such thing really matter.)

    • Aaron Ferguson
      Posted October 14, 2016 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Hopefully I’ll be seeing Sean Carroll in person next week when he delivers the Gifford Lectures 2016 at Glasgow University. Last time I attended those was back in 1985 with Carl Sagan!

  5. eric
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    “Agnostic” can carry with it the implication of caring less about the outcome (than a non-agnostic). As in: “hey, both Die Hard and Aliens are playing on TV tonight, which one should we watch?” Answer: “I’m agnostic about it.”

    So IMO labeling oneself ‘agnostic’ communicates to others that you care less about the outcome or consequences than someone who labels themselves ‘atheist.’ Thus the term is useful, because it provides information about the degree of commitment, even if both self-labeled atheists and agnostics think the evidence for a God is not strong enough to justify belief. So I have no problem with it. And, ironically, any time you see a self-professed atheist get upset because someone else self-identifies as an agnostic, you’re seeing just how meaningful that communicated difference is. “But how can you…!!!” clearly means the person is not happy with the agnostic’s degree of ideological commitment. So it must be different from theirs, yes? And the label serves to show the difference.

    Its kind of like labeling yourself a fence-sitter. Do committed ideologues find fence-sitters annoying? Unclear? Shallow? Yes, yes, and maybe somewhat. Does that mean the label ‘fence-sitter’ is meaningless or useless? No.

    • Somite
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      The problem is agnosticism can only apply to falsifiable rational claims that have not been tested yet.

      The god claim is neither falsifiable or rational.

      • eric
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        I disagree; there are other uses of the term ‘agnostic’ as I pointed out. Merriam Webster agrees; the term describes people who are unwilling to commit to a cause, its not just a description of a belief-decision about a fact claim. Thus ‘agnostic’ can refer to someone who is unwilling to commit to either theist or atheist cause(s).

      • phil
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

        “The problem is agnosticism can only apply to falsifiable rational claims that have not been tested yet.”

        No, absolutely not. There is also the more philosophical (and arguably original) meaning of agnosticism that something is unknowable. So “The god claim is [not] falsifiable” could identify you as agnostic in that sense (assuming that you believe it is also not provable).

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        The key to New Atheism is the view that the claim should be treated as if it were rational and falsifiable.

        And, for certain values of “god”, broadly theistic ones, it turns out that it is.

        /@

        • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          …and the claims that are either or both irrational or unfalsifiable deserve to be dismissed on the spot.

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

  6. Zado
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    “What is an agnostic but an atheist without any balls?”

    –Stephen Colberrt

    • Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      That means that all female atheists are agnostics.

    • eric
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      “Atheist without any balls” also describes most house cats. Unless you want to call them solipsists.

  7. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    When exactly did the idea of caused cause come about? That is, they aren’t from the Bible are they?

    • Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      The “argument from motion” is in Aristotle. Of course, Aristotle points out that at least his version entails the (rest of the) universe is eternal. This bit was handwaved around by many theologians in both Christendom and otherwise.

  8. Patrick Flannery
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    The fact that atheists make positive arguments about theist evidence does not put us on the same footing as believers with regards to our position on the existence of God because we are addressing the status of the evidence, not God. Believers make a positive claim that God exists and therefore accept a burden of proof to show it to be true. An atheist simply takes the skeptical position that nothing is true until it is shown to be so, and is therefore able to reject the believers’ claim without further argument. When the believer presents their “evidence,” the atheist may very well make positive claims to show why it is not, in fact, evidence, and thereby accept a burden of proof to support that argument – *about the evidence.* But the atheist is still not accepting any burden of proof to show that God doesn’t exist. That responsibility rests entirely only with a claim-maker, and the atheist is not making any claim about God, only about the status of that particular bit of evidence. Having defended their argument that the evidence is invalid, the atheist remains in a position of simple rejection of the theist’s unsupported claim.

    Of course, this doesn’t apply if the atheist takes the strong position that God positively does not exist.

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      “An atheist simply takes the skeptical position that nothing is true until it is shown to be so…”

      Not all atheists do so, else there wouldn’t be so many atheists that are into #woo of other kinds.

      /@

  9. Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    this is how we get sucked into nonsense by the Godbots. they have no way to have knowledge and wanting it to be so is not valid. Biology does not disprove religions, anthropology does. a person is delusional or has a relationship with reality.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      We get suckered into nonsense by the believers. They assert that their ‘facts’ prove their god’s existence and we engage with those ‘facts’. But those assertions are really ‘values’.

      Typically people set out to justify their values (god is important to me) by retro-fitting ‘facts’ that confirm their views. Atheists are just as likely to retro-fit ‘facts’ to bolster their views (I do) but starting from ‘god probably doesn’t exist’ promotes enquiry and refining that enquiry rather than shutting it down.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      a person is delusional or has a relationship with reality.

      Being delusional or having an arms-length relationship with reality doesn’t make one necessarily a bad person. (I’m thinking of a friend who is intermittently delusional, and is currently at a more-than arms-length relationship with his phone. Which is worrying.)

      • Posted October 13, 2016 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

        good and bad is another circle jerk bit of zero sum nonsense, eh? people are interesting or tedious.

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I like Penn’s (of Penn & Teller) claim that atheist and agnostic answer different questions. One answers “Do you believe?” the other answers “do you know?”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_WKlttKRDw

    I also like the distinction between
    1 gnostic theist (sure there is god)
    2 agnostic theist (theisticly inclined agnostic)
    3 agnostic atheist (atheisticly inclined agnostic)
    4 gnostic atheist (sure there is no god)

    (reducing the Dawkins scale from 7 positions to 4)

    I also think the position of Which God? is relevant.

    I remain a Genesis-atheist and a deist/pantheist-agnostic.

    • Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Me too. About all religious personal gods superintending the universe, I am an atheist. About some sort of unknowable, cosmic deity, I am (shrug) an agnostic.

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        “About some sort of unknowable, cosmic deity, I am (shrug) an agnostic.”

        Well, of course you are!

        /@

      • nicky
        Posted October 14, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that is the point.
        One can be atheist and agnostic at the same time.
        Atheist in the sense that everything the different religions have on offer is, how shall we call it, not evidenced, baloney, bullshit?
        Agnostic in the sense that Shaun Carrol iĺustrates, we do not really know what *is*. What is matter, time, etc. what is beyond the event horizon, was there a before the big bang. We can only be agnostic there.

        Michael Shermer is the party-pooper here, with his contention (based on AC Clarcke’s third law) that we have no way to distinguish between a sufficiently advanced alien and God. It means there is no possible evidence that could prove the existence of a God. Conundrum.

    • Somite
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Except that belief is irrelevant.

      Also, agnosticism doesn’t refer to a degree of certainty. You just don’t know.

    • Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Belief vs knowledge is an important distinction. Many people, when asked if they are an atheist, answer “I’m an agnostic.” That’s non-responsive. The topic comes up at The Skeptical Zone periodically: http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/the-a-word/

      I admit to a personal desire to see more people accepting that “atheist” is the word that describes their religious views. It shouldn’t be an epithet.

    • phil
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      The problem I have with that is the imprecision in use of the term “agnostic”.

      I would describe myself as an agnosticly inclined atheist. Atheist in that I do not believe in god(s), but not that I hold that there is/are no god(s). I am agnostic in the sense that I am inclined to believe the existence of god(s) is unknowable.

      In a practical day-to-day sense I behave as if no god(s) exist.

  11. Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Both.

    /@

  12. Posted October 13, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Personally, I think there is fairly conclusive antievidence, so I am a strong atheist.

    (I think the tradition of making “knowledge” requiring knowledge of knowledge, with truth of degree 1 at both stages, etc. is silly, so this metaphysical claim above should be tempered with the weaker epistemological standards I am using.)

  13. markberonte
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a concise definition of all the terms. People tend to over complicate what is really pretty simple, and then they compound the problem by bringing their feelings into it. http://clearbluereason.org/649/what-is-an-atheist/

  14. Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Atheist is a-theist, meaning without g*d. That’s me. She is ever there — or not — and
    I am over here.

    In the same way, I am a-unicorn, a-hippogriff and so on.

    I’m looking forward to the time (tho I don’t expect to live that long) when it won’t be a question.

    • reasonshark
      Posted October 14, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      In the same way, I am a-unicorn, a-hippogriff and so on.

      Yes! It’s obvious how vacuous the position is once you swap out “a deity” for something most people would consider ridiculous, like “a unicorn”. Sure, it’s a philosophical nicety over whether absence of evidence is sufficient to say unicorns don’t exist, but people don’t squirm with impious discomfort when they say that unicorns are make-believe.

      And yet, unicorns would be scientific small-fry compared with deities. It’s easy to pin down what kind of evidence would demonstrate the existence of unicorns: photographic evidence, reports tracking the creature’s movements and whereabouts and appearance, a body, etc. Heck, give it strange (magical) powers, like teleporting at will, and those would still be empirically amenable.

      One reason why “agnosticism” is less challenging than “atheism” is because it suggests theism is still on the cards even when it has nothing in its favour whatsoever. Until the same courtesy is extended to every other ridiculous claim – and I’d be fascinated to meet such a soul who sincerely gives credit to an indefinite number of impossible things before breakfast – then it’s nothing but dishonest hypocrisy.

      I agree. “Agnostic”? Only to the same extent I’m agnostic about unicorns et al. To anyone less epistemologically pedantic, it’s atheism first and foremost.

      • nicky
        Posted October 15, 2016 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

        Unicorns do exist, we call them
        Indian Rhinoceros nowadays.

  15. Kevin
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Optimistically, I would claim that agnostics are trying to convey to others that they are open to evidence about the existence of a god or an afterlife.

    Realistically, agnosticism falls into the category of illogical belief system. If one does not believe in an afterlife or god, then one is an atheist, not an agnostic.

    Atheists can wish for there to be an afterlife, that does not mean they believe it. Agnostics need to learn this.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

      If one does not believe in an afterlife or god, then one is an atheist, not an agnostic.

      Inclusive OR or exclusive OR?
      As an SF fan, despite the need for Unobtanium to achieve it, long term human suspended animation does have an intellectual appeal, and is not proven impossible (pending the opening of Unobtanium mines on the solid surface of Jupiter). To me, the use of effective long-term suspended animation would, in effect, be an “afterlife”. But it would not require belief in the existence of a god.
      Similarly, if Sithrak happens to be your god of choice, then I bet you want to decouple belief in your god and belief in an afterlife too.
      I wonder what particularly caustic and irritating oil Sithrak uses on his spits?

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Which is strictly illegal as agnosticism entails that the question is not one that can be resolved by evidence.

      /@

  16. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I think the “quibble” that Prof. Coyne is referring to (more than simple nonacceptance) is important. The easiest way I can explain it is in what the Theists do all the time. They encroach in our space, our time and our freedom to live the way we wish to live. From the days that religion in this country required taxes to be collected to fill a specific religion’s bucket to the passing of laws defining marriage or who could get certain types of health care we have had to stand and fight against the intrusion of religion into our lives. Atheism must be more than – I don’t believe in g*d. It is the constant struggle against religion into the lives of every human being.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      It may be a quibble, but when your talking about arriving at clear distinctions, it’s a good idea to focus on being narrow and specific. Yes, atheists should want to struggle against religious interference and nearly always do to some extent. But, it logically conceivable to be an atheist and hold any number of seemingly contradictory political positions. If you don’t start by separating these out, you can soon end in a useless digression.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        Separate all that you wish but check on the politics of the next 10 atheists you meet and I doubt any will be republicans. I doubt any give a rats tail about closing down all the abortion clinics in the country or wish to see stone age education taught in the schools. There is a reason that a very high number of scientists are atheists. I think Professor Coyne has covered that a few times.

        I was not attempting to get into the weeds and get into details above. My only point was that atheists do and should have a number of common interests that should bring us together to appose the religious who are always knocking at the door. I leave the useless digressions to you.

        • GBJames
          Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

          I’ve run into Libertarians at FFRF conventions. They’re kind of like Republicans.

        • rickflick
          Posted October 13, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          No, I think we agree. I thought you might be pushing in a big tent, atheism +, direction. It seems you are not.

  17. GBJames
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    sub

  18. Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Why should we be afraid of the burden of proof?

    Demonstrating that there aren’t any gods is so trivial that Epicurus did it centuries before the Caesars. If a god is a powerful moral agent with the best interests of humanity at heart, said entity would do more to ameliorate suffering than us less-powerful moral human agents demonstrably do at every opportunity — and, yet, not once has any god ever done so much as drop a dime on a child-raping priest.

    If we examine gods from a literary and sociological perspective, we see that each and every god is both a miracle-worker of some sort and an unquestionable authority — and the two are inextricably intertwined. Miracles are, of necessity, an instance of the truly impossible; and, as such, must, of equal necessity, be confined to literature. If you as a priest derive your authority by speaking on behalf of Jesus, and if Jesus himself derives his authority by virtue of being able to walk on water…well, if walking on water were actually possible, some other schmuck would figure out how to walk on water and steal the flock away from the priest — but only until some other schmuck came up with a better trick. And what better trick than something that can’t be done outside of the pages of a book?

    So, even if you want to go to an extreme and propose that YHWH lovingly hand-crafted a computer which is running a “simulation” that is the Universe as we perceive it…that still wouldn’t make him a god, impressive as that would be, any more than it makes a pimply-faced teenager a god just because he plays Sim City. And it especially wouldn’t give either of them any moral authority, including the right to demand loving devotion, for reasons that should be equally obvious in both cases.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • phil
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      “Epicurus did it centuries before the Caesars.”

      More importantly, centuries before Jesus, but apparently he didn’t get the memo. Nor the note from Socrates and Plato.

      On a completely irrelevant note, after all Greece has given us I find it sad to contemplate its recent fate.

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Actually, the oldest mentions of Jesus in the historical record come as a Jewish demigod in parts of the Old Testament that’re a couple centuries older than Epicurus. But Christians would have us believe that Jesus was an human contemporary of the early Caesars, which is why I use them as a reference.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Nice philosophical argument, Ben!

      /@

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        Why stop there? It’s equally theological…

        …save, of course, for the fact that it’s entirely evidence-based. The claim is that there exists one or more powerful moral agents in the human sphere, and yet that claim is inconsistent with observations of trivially-remedial evil that remains unmitigated. The further claim is that the agents incoherently demonstrate their authority by doing the impossible, and yet the evidence of these deeds is designed to be un-verifiable. Last, I offered an alternate theory, that the gods are inventions of the priestly classes as a means of control — and offered much the same set of evidence to support the claim.

        If you think that’s more philosophical than scientific, then that same criteria applied consistently will force you to conclude that it’s even more theological than it is philosophical. After all, theology is as foundational to philosophy as philosophy is to science….

        b&

        >

        • Vaal
          Posted October 14, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          “After all, theology is as foundational to philosophy as philosophy is to science….”

          No it isn’t. If theology were foundational to philosophy, we couldn’t produce arguments against theology. (Without having assumed theology).

          But of course: we can.

          Ben, when did you become a theistic presuppositionalist?

          😉

          • Posted October 14, 2016 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

            No it isn’t. If theology were foundational to philosophy, we couldn’t produce arguments against theology. (Without having assumed theology). [emphasis added]

            My point exactly.

            Assume philosophy, and demonstrating that it’s foundational to science is as trivial as assuming theology and demonstrating that it’s foundational to philosophy.

            Science, in stark contrast, starts with nothing more than the goal of accurately accounting for observations. You don’t need any prior assumptions such as theology or philosophy; you just have to want to try to correctly model observed reality as best you can, and let the chips fall where they may.

            A very telling point: philosophers will be quick to explain that some “justification” of some sort is needed or implied by science. That’s no different from a theologian whining about the “meaning” of life.

            To quote many people: science works, bitches. If you really think you need justification or meaning, that should be ample — but science doesn’t care about meanings and justification; it simply works.

            And how do we know that it works? We observe that it does, of course.

            Philosophers again tend to get very agitated about that fact, objecting to philosophical superstitions such as “circularity” and the like. But, in so doing, all they’re demonstrating is that philosophy isn’t science and it isn’t grounded in observed reality…

            …which is exactly the point I keep trying to make.

            The real problem is that philosophers get just as angry at having this fact pointed out to them as theologians do…which is just evidence of the same cognitive dissonance the two superstitions share.

            Cheers,

            b&

            >

            • phil
              Posted October 14, 2016 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

              “That’s not opinion. That’s science and science is one cold-hearted bitch with a 14-inch strap-on” – Dexter

            • Vaal
              Posted October 15, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

              “Assume philosophy, and demonstrating that it’s foundational to science is as trivial as assuming theology and demonstrating that it’s foundational to philosophy. “

              But that’s a false equivalence. It isn’t trivial to demonstrate theology is foundational to philosophy. In fact, it can’t be done. Reasoning will show that reasoning about theology necessarily requires non-theological assumptions to begin with, which is doing philosophy.

              You don’t need any prior assumptions such as theology or philosophy;

              Sure you do: you assume logic and the valid structure of arguments (otherwise your reasoning toward conclusions would not make sense), you assume all sorts of things about yourself, your consciousness, that there is a reality to model, you’ve assumed various epistemic justifications (you seem to have assumed a sort of reliabilist approach), etc etc, and yes, if you use science to justify science you are allowing yourself a circularity that you would recognize as invalid anywhere else, hence special pleading.

              You can’t justify the comparison between Theological claims for knowledge and Scientific knowledge, for instance, by ASSUMING science. It will be justified on more basic epistemological concerns and strategies (e.g. parsimony and others).

              You can wave away this assumptions, but that’s no better than the Christian who has assumed the bible true to establish it’s true, or who claims to get his morality from the bible, and when we point out the Christian is actually assuming his own morality to judge God good, the Christian simply ignores this.

              But, we’ve been down this one before….

              • Posted October 17, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                It isn’t trivial to demonstrate theology is foundational to philosophy. In fact, it can’t be done.

                Your objections only make sense in the same sort of context in which a Christian apologist objects that a Muslim can’t possibly have any meaningful comment about Jesus.

                Because, you see, all philosophy is for the greater glory of the gods and uses the gifts of the gods (our intellect, the rationality of existence, etc.) to appreciate said glory. Without the gods, there is nothing, including no philosophy, so how could you possibly suggest you need philosophy to explain the gods into existence?

                Sure you do: you assume logic and the valid structure of arguments

                We recognize valid and invalid arguments based upon observations of arguments and which do and don’t work.

                As a trivial demonstration, consider how so much of modern non-Newtonian physics isn’t merely unintuitive, but violently contradicts foundational logical concepts from antiquity. Even the most essential stuff such as the identity principle and 1 + 1 = 2 goes out the window. And all sorts of modern logical systems don’t even have a binary true / false in them — a binary distinction you’re relying upon to make your claim.

                You assume all sorts of things about yourself

                One’s self is the single entity most available to observation.

                your consciousness

                As Joseph Goldstein likes to quote one of his favorite mentors, if you want to understand how your mind works, sit down and observe it. And, incidentally, if you care to do so, you will quickly discover some very obvious facts — such as, for example, that you don’t have “free will” in any sense of the term and, instead, are an inextricable part of a constant stimulus / response chain.

                Indeed, you don’t even have a “self” as you almost certainly think of it, but, instead, a part of your mental functioning that involuntarily crafts a running monologue. You remember that bit from Harry Potter where a quill pen is constantly writing commentary on everything going on around it, with no obvious mechanism supporting it? It’s like that, but with the pen frequently writing down comments about how the pen is writing stuff down.

                Sit down and pay attention to that inner monologue, and ask yourself where the monologue itself is coming from, where those thoughts arise from what exactly is forming those particular words in that particular order, and you might come to viscerally appreciate the fundamental non-dualistic reality behind the overwhelming dualistic illusion we’re all immersed in.

                that there is a reality to model

                That something exists is the most obvious conclusion of any observation; you’ve observed something. The nature of reality may be difficult (and ultimately impossible) to discern, but that there’s a “there” there is an inescapable fact of observation. Should you doubt this, go kick a rock and refute it thus.

                you’ve assumed various epistemic justifications

                There’ve been all sorts of epistemologies attempted, but the only one that’s consistently been observed to produce reliably useful results is science.

                You can’t justify the comparison between Theological claims for knowledge and Scientific knowledge, for instance, by ASSUMING science.

                There’s that “justify” superstition again. Only philosophy worries about justification. Did I mention how science works, bitches?

                You can wave away this assumptions, but that’s no better than the Christian who has assumed the bible true to establish it’s true

                In a sense, you’re correct. It should be obvious that the measurements you get depend to a great extent on what ruler you’re using to measure them against. And, if you’re measuring everything against the Bible, you’re going to come up with radically different measurements than if you measure things against the Eddas.

                In that context, the scientific approach can be understood as comparing diverse measurements and looking for where rulers converge and diverge. When we find rulers that tend to converge, we tend to be able to make predictions that turn out to be accurate. Sure, we know we’re not measuring any sort of ultimate anything, but we can be damned confident that we’re measuring something fundamental to us, and what more could we possibly ask for?

                So, ask yourself. You’re pretty hung up on philosophical “justification.” What makes you so sure that “justification” is a real phenomenon that actually exists? Do you have any evidence to support your claims of its significance? Because, from where I’m sitting, your philosophical “justification” really isn’t any different from the theological “meaning” that the gods give to our lives.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • rickflick
                Posted October 17, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

                Good read Ben. I liked the “bitches” part.

  19. Pikolo
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    From my personal experience, the practical definition of agnosticism revolves more about not caring about the possible existence of god, rather than not having enough evidence.
    Hence, for most people I know, that refer to themselves as agnostics, use it as a way of declaring “not interested” to discussions about the possibility of a deity.
    Which is the exact opposite to “not having enough evidence”, which inherently suggests a desire to obtain it.

    • eric
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      A term used to describe the “not caring” aspect without agnosticism’s “not knowing” aspect is Apatheist.

      I tend to view someone who self-identifies as ‘agnostic’ as saying a bit of both; they don’t care as much and they don’t feel they know with as much certainty. If they’re certain but just don’t care, that would probably be better labeled apatheism.

  20. Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    A theist is someone who believes that a God exists, so an “a-theist” is someone who does not believe a god exists. That is, Matt sees an “atheist” as a “soft atheist.”

    I see soft atheists and hard atheists as two subsets of atheists. A person who believes there are no gods still qualifies as a person who doesn’t believe a god exists, so, based solely upon your summary, I don’t think Matt necessarily sees an “atheist” as a “soft atheist.”

    But then there are my own loyal followers, the Atheists. Whenever you see someone identify as an Atheist with a capital “A”, it’s one of my people.

  21. Posted October 13, 2016 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    One shouldn’t define atheist as someone who “lacks a belief in God.” As Matt argues, that implies that atheists are missing something—and is a pejorative connotation.

    An healthy person lacks infestation. A clear sky lacks clouds. A poor person lacks money, and a wealthy one lacks significant debt. Good marriages lack affairs. Donald Trump lacks decency. Home-cooked food (usually) lacks artificial preservatives, and most grocery-store strawberries and tomatoes lack flavor.

    There’s nothing whatsoever about the concept of something lacking or missing that’s even remotely inherently pejorative.

    I lack gods the same way I lack imaginary friends. How is the fact that I lack imaginary friends pejorative? Is the fact that my bed is entirely devoid of a monster lurking beneath a sign of a deficiency?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      I’m more opposed to the phrase “belief in God” because it doesn’t get the point across as well as saying I “don’t believe that God exists.” To “not believe in God” can be misinterpreted as not believing that God is all he’s cracked up to be, like a politician who breaks his campaign promises, and there are people who feel that way — They believe God exists but hate him, usually because of their own misfortunes. I don’t want to be confused with those people.

      • Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        I would be highly disinclined to state that I don’t believe that God exists. I would first need to clarify which god, for starters. Even if the response is that this is one of the many confusingly eponymous gods whose name is, “God,” I’d again spend time diving in to determine if this is the Catholic god named, “God,” who’ll roast you for all eternity for having or assisting with an abortion; if this is the mainline Protestant “God” who’d rather you didn’t but will be lovingly understanding if you have no other choice; or the Jewish “God” who’ll roast you if you privilege the fetus over the mother.

        Instead, I’d much rather simply state that I don’t have any gods, with the notable exceptions of a certain cat and the Sun.

        For that matter, whether or not one believes in any gods is much less relevant than whether or not one actually has any gods. There’re all sorts of characters in fiction and life who don’t doubt the reality of various gods but don’t give a damn about them, treating them as no different from some random politician with no direct influence over their lives.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • Posted October 13, 2016 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

          “Which god?”

          Every theist believes in a (perhaps only slightly) different god.

    • eric
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Is the fact that my bed is entirely devoid of a monster lurking beneath a sign of a deficiency?

      Absolutely! All the best beds have monsters under them. Haven’t you ever read “I Need My Monster”? 🙂

    • rickflick
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Logically you’re right, but I think the pejorative connotation comes from the commonplace usage of lack as in association with wants and needs. In human psychological terms it is frequently taken that something should be there that’s missing. If you lack belief, then the theist could say, Oh, you’re saying you have not yet accepted Jesus as your savior.

      • eric
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Yep. Its entirely possible for identically constructed sentences to have different pejorative implications, because of connotation or how the subject is perceived. Contrast “Money is a social construct” to “Catholicism is a social construct.” Both are true, and both are constructed exactly the same way. But I doubt anyone would consider the first to be an insulting attack on the human use of bits of paper to represent value.

    • phil
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

      Bingo.

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Well, you can write those sentences and be understood, but I don’t think that “lack” would be the best word choice because it does carry the sense of “deficiency” – being without something desirable.

      So, it’d certainly be natural to write, “A poor person lacks money”, but writing, “a wealthy one is free of significant debt”.

      Or maybe that’s just a British English nuance.

      /@

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        Most people in Britain lack melanin. That would be a natural British nuance, no? Is it pejorative in any way? Would you instead write that most Brits are free of significant melanin?

        My point is that “lack” is neutral, even while that which is or isn’t lacking may well be quite charged.

        The word is closely associated with insufficiency — but, again, one must consider that which is insufficient. For example, most people have insufficient brutality to commit murder, even at the same time as murders have insufficient compassion to spare their victims. Neither example seems contrived or unusual to me…

        …but, I suppose, it could just be an American lack of British English nuance….

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • Posted October 14, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          I wasn’t making a claim either way about it being “perforation”; but I don’t think it is.

          /@

          • Posted October 14, 2016 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

            “Perforation” has to be the result of an automotive co-wrecking function that is lacking in sophistication…?

            b&

            >

            • Posted October 14, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

              😱 Wow. Autocorrect really mangled that.

              ”pejorative”, off course.

              /@

              • rickflick
                Posted October 14, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

                Who is that guy, Auto Correct, anyway? And why does he insist on messing with our comments?

  22. Stephen
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    When Huxley invented the word “agnostic” he intended it as an attack on believers who claimed to know things they couldn’t possibly know. After that he seems to have always used the word interchangeably with “atheist”.

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      No. No he didn’t. His agnosticism was neither the-ism or athe-ism. A later a-theist redefinition hijacked his position and called it a-theism.

      “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Thomas Huxley, 1884

      “In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.
      The introduction of this new interpretation of the word ‘atheism’ may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage. ‘Whyever’, it could be asked, ‘don’t you make it not the presumption of atheism but the presumption of agnosticism?’” ~ Antony Flew, 1984

  23. darrelle
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I don’t believe that any gods exist or are possible. I accept that I can not prove that no gods exist. Being that admitting that is precisely equivalent to admitting that I can’t prove that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, doing so seems insignificant to me.

    The only significant insight I get out of that is that there is a subtle, but significant, difference in meaning of the words prove and proof as used by believers and accommodationists in the context of religion compared to typical usage in other contexts. Just like the words faith and belief.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      An archaic meaning of ‘prove’ was ‘test’, as in ‘proving grounds’ or the ‘proof’ of alcoholic spirits.

      I expect True Believers use ‘proof’ flavoured by the more archaic meaning, so ‘proof of god’s existence’ reflects their testing of the concept in their lives rather than objective facts underpinning the concept.

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      I think we can say with confidence, given our current knowledge of celestial mechanics, that the chances of the Sun not rising tomorrow are vanishingly small.

      There are a number of contingencies to the contrary, but very, very few that wouldn’t be signalled in some way.

      /@

      • darrelle
        Posted October 17, 2016 at 6:56 am | Permalink

        Exactly.

  24. Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I reject this entire take, both of yours and of Matt Dillahunty. In my opinion, theism and atheism have a historical context and we should never treat them as an ahistorical idea floating freely in spacetime. Alas, most atheists (and theists) do this, or allow it to happen.

    Theism is not merely the belief in a God, but a specific idea that emerged more than two-thousand years ago, which ever since has spread with conquest, conversion and colonialization. Like all ideas in the history of ideas, it was subject to change over its course of its existence.

    The dispute is not some generic (lack of) belief in something, but is about whether one accepts that a supernatural entity “revealed” itself in the past in certain ways (e.g inspiring or dictating scriptures).

    By cutting it off from its historical genesis and development, we allowed the sort of free-floating kind of ideas where God could become a “Ground of Being”. But nobody sat there, isolated from culture and history and had this idea. It’s one of the countless offsprings in the history of theism. Intelligent Design for example, is also correctly linked to Creationism in much the same way. If these people want to be taken seriously, they have to place their ideas onto a completely new foundation, and that begins with showing why they think one creator is at work (and not, say, a gremium of twentythree).

    Let’s try the take in the opposite direction. Assume we are at a medieval court and a jester says “my dear king, one of your ancestors was a fish!” to great laughter in the audience. Of course, anything anybody says can be true. Even though this statement is completely true, we would have no reason to accept it, at the time, because the statement arose from a context that makes its truth claim unapparent. This is where the well-known phrase “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence” comes into play.

    Now what if archeologist find a hand-written note by Till Eulenspiegel himself, stating that “everyone has fish for ancestors”. We would still have no reason to snatch some honours from Charles Darwin and give them to this medieval jester, because there is nothing that elevates his statement from mere guesswork, or cracking a joke.

    For this reason, there are certainly no gods, and “soft atheism” is an untenable position. We also know this as much as evidence goes. The myths and fairytales have been shown wrong; their origins are known to be entirely man-made; and central claims such as souls entering or leaving the body have no way how they could even conceivable gel with reality. The whole thing is dead in the water. First movers and other elements of Sophisticated Theology™ apply a trick where they sneakily build on the history of their God idea, but then hide that as best as possible, and make it seem as if they were doing cosmological theory. Their God entity in their theories seems detached from everything, but in fact is code perfectly understood by believers to mean their particular deity, with all the baggage that comes with it (e.g. afterlives).

    Atheism, conceived in this way is a historical position in rejection of the claims made by theists. It cannot exist outside of this context. Now of course, Atheism is also a sort-of-movement, and it gave rise to the “Atheist” identity following the Out-Campaign. It did acquire all sorts of additional ideas. The identity is strongly linked to New Atheism, or practicaly synonymous with it. More recently, there has been a split between the New Atheist faction and the newer still nameless group that associates itself with the intersectional social justice movement. Now this “Atheism” is a fairly concrete set of views that go beyond “Dictionary Atheism”.

    I don’t consider myself an Atheist for such reasons.

    • Bill
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      “For this reason, there are certainly no gods, and “soft atheism” is an untenable position. We also know this as much as evidence goes. The myths and fairytales have been shown wrong; their origins are known to be entirely man-made; and central claims such as souls entering or leaving the body have no way how they could even conceivable gel with reality. The whole thing is dead in the water. First movers and other elements of Sophisticated Theology™ apply a trick where they sneakily build on the history of their God idea, but then hide that as best as possible, and make it seem as if they were doing cosmological theory. Their God entity in their theories seems detached from everything, but in fact is code perfectly understood by believers to mean their particular deity, with all the baggage that comes with it (e.g. afterlives).”

      Spot on.

    • keith cook +/-
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      I too agree with this position I will in a discussion say I’m atheist for want of expediency and flow… more’s the pity.
      But i find myself now wanting to call myself a poetic naturalist or naturalist, thanks to Sean Carroll simply, nature covers all my bases, from physics to Darwinism, neurosciences to the constructs of man.
      Bury this amazing fact and you have life in a reality bubble, real and useful enough as you have to operate at this level but it will never show what is the truth of reality.
      The discussion is valid, agnostic’s among other things are tinged with fear whether they recognize or not and atheists, the same IMO, as finding the universe does not give diddly squat for your existence is also a fearful place to be, being in a position with others is not so lonely and helps validate a personal position and i think adds a certain clarity and removal from an untenable position. Soft or hard. Very useful.
      I thank the Prof(E) and the commenters, for this post has taught me something about myself.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      The existence of a god in the past, currently, or in the future is a separate issue from the concept of such a god existing. So while I agree that the theistic/atheistic concept can be historically grounded it doesn’t touch the actual existence of such a god or the existence of a non-revealed god.

      Personally I call myself ‘god free’. Gods probably don’t exist and I live my life as if they don’t exist.

      • Posted October 13, 2016 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

        I consider such positions philosophical obscurantism. There can be all kinds of referents floating “out there” but in order to make them relevant in any way, our cognition and faculties must capture them.

        To seriously consider that Nessie, the Toothfairy, Yahweh or the Leprechaun and other creatures of atheist rhetoric exist, we have to first believe that the proposer “is onto something”. And of course the key question is why would we think that? If someone just had the idea the other day in the pub, we have no good reason to entertain the thought. That’s the jester from above again.

        The means by which a referent is captured by our minds make them a thing, or leave it as mere speculation, in which case it remains as a phantom. It may or may not exist. We have no way to distinguish which of the phantoms are real, and which ones are imaginary, hence we usually don’t give a hoot about them, and the distinction is moot. God’s actual name could be “Bob”. The Toothfairy and Nessie could be the same person, and he works in a bar in Milano. Who knows?

        • reasonshark
          Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

          Agreed. It’s depressing how often people fail to grasp the nature of coincidence and causal plausibility. If the jester had appeared in the New Testament, many Christians would be falling over themselves trying to prove that the Bible predicted evolutionary theory.

        • Posted October 14, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          “Fred”, according to Anthony Grayling. 😁

          /@

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”

      That is just demarcation. Dismissed =/= run around claiming it’s false. And, agnosticism is just a form of demarcation.

      Thomas Huxley was a scientist, above all else. He saw the scientific method in picking apples at the market. The agnosticism he defined was a belief in that scientific method, and it amounted to a form of demarcation. No objective testable evidence = a subjective unfalsifiable claim. Results: unscientific and inconclusive. No belief as to the truth, or falsehood, of the claim. It is not compatible with athe-ism, the belief gods do not exist, or the-ism, the belief gods do exist.

      Now, I’m agnostic about the existence of “gods” the same way I’m agnostic about the existence of “aliens”. I fully agree a Superman comic appears to be a work of fiction. I wouldn’t want “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” dictated as moral law. I wouldn’t like to see people threatened with eternity in the Phantom Zone in an effort to get them to believe in Superman and those moral laws. I wouldn’t like to see Superman’s deeds taught in school, as fact. I wouldn’t like to see Supermanists dictating who can and can’t get married, or have sex. Etc.

      That said, a Superman comic being fiction isn’t evidence “aliens” don’t exist. Whipping out thousands of tv/movie/book “aliens” and showing them all to be fiction, will still never address whether “aliens” exist, or not.

      Just not believing, either way, is a perfectly tenable position.

      No agnostics here…

      X is true because you cannot prove that X is false.
      X is false because you cannot prove that X is true.

      https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/56/Argument-from-Ignorance

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        But that’s point here, and I thought the jester makes it rather clear. He cannot possibly have knowledge about evolution, just like a Superman comic cannot possibly contain knowledge about aliens.

        Simply put, there are no “other ways of knowing” so that whatever someone dreams up is only by mere accident similar to something “real”. It’s like drawing a fictional character and later your new neighbour turns out to look exactly that way. They may seem similar, or strikingly identical, but they are — in fact — not identical at all. They have not the same referent. They don’t “point” to the same thing in reality. Your drawing will always (!) remain tethered to some content of your imagination, while your impression of the neighbour is tied to the referent that moved in next door.

        To put it differently, everything we know is both tethered to reality “out there”, but at the same time is also produced in some context (how scientists found out about it, and which means they used for their discovery). You always need both.

        Untethering it from the former results in postmodernism, untethering it from the latter results in faith. In one case you assume that circumstances of discovery “make” the fact, in the second case you believe something is true without good reason for believing it. If later, by some sheer unbelievable circumstance, your belief turns out to be true, you knew — in fact — nothing about it in advance. You merely produced a drawing of a person that happens to look like your new neighbour.

        So bottom line: If God revealed himself tomorrow, even then Christians knew nothing about it. They referenced some mytholgcal fairytale, while the “real” God is its own entity, that was previously undiscovered. Again, Christians and all the other religions would have to demonstrate how they “called it”. They cannot demonstrate that now, and thus would rely on the circumstances then to show how this entity is indeed “their” God.

        This is why I regard this whole “untethered” way of doing philosophy as obscurantist.

        • Posted October 14, 2016 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          But there are millions of people out there that just believe in some kind of unidentified, descriptionless, creator being, and we’ve been counting such a concept “god” for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.

          Bare bones “god”: some kind of intelligent being, not of this universe, that’s advanced enough to create universes

          (this bare bones definition works with the deistic “watchmaker”, it works with theoretical physics, and it works as the bare bones starting point for almost every religion/mythology with a creation story)

          Bare bones “alien”: some kind of intelligent being, not of this planet, that’s advanced enough to create a civilization

          (this bare bones definition is the concept behind imagining beings like us on some other planet, it’s the concept behind listening for and sending messages into space, and it’s the bare bones starting point for most sci-fi “aliens”)

          No matter how many sci-fi “aliens” you go on about, you are still not addressing whether “aliens” actually exist, or not. No matter how many mythological “gods” you go on about, you are still not addressing whether “gods” actually exist, or not.

          • Posted October 14, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

            The Huxley Agnostic wrote: No matter how many sci-fi “aliens” you go on about, you are still not addressing whether “aliens” actually exist, or not. No matter how many mythological “gods” you go on about, you are still not addressing whether “gods” actually exist, or not.

            As I wrote above, this is a moot point. If you draw a face onto paper, you can worry all you want whether this face also exists. It always references something entirely imaginary. It’s fiction. All and any of your gods, aliens and whatnot are fictions. Until someone has good, plausible reason that establishes another, non-fictious connection. I guess this take is not entirely intuitive.

            For something that is not fiction, consider this quotation:

            The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself. — Bertrand Russel

            In this case, a referent leaves a trace in someone’s mind. When the person now references the “stone” they point at that object.

            Now, the third case: As it turns out that your new neighbour looks like the face you drew a while ago. What happens now? Then your analogy making faculty kicks in, and merges the previously fictional drawing and ties it to the neighbours face, based on likeness. But this is a mental operation. They were separate things and are then merged into one concept. But at no point did you reference that face beforehand.

            When you want to impress your friends and boast about that you drew the face of your neighbour before you ever knew him, you are technically not telling the truth. You only drew a face like his, by happenstance.

            These steps seem unnecessary, perhaps, but they are the reason why atheism and theism should be seen as “historical atheism” and “historical theism” and not, as you do here, taken as isolated musings about what exists or not exists.

            • Posted October 14, 2016 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

              “As I wrote above, this is a moot point.”

              You say it’s a moot point, but then you go on to draw a picture and talk about fictional characters.

              If an “alien” landed on earth that was similar to a sci-fi “alien”, that’s just randomness, but the bare bones “alien” concept will have been proven true.

              “All and any of your gods, aliens and whatnot are fictions.”

              How the heck do you know the bare bones, non descriptive, concepts are fiction?

              X is true because you cannot prove that X is false.
              X is false because you cannot prove that X is true.

              https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/56/Argument-from-Ignorance

              How is the second one, not you?

              • Posted October 14, 2016 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

                If an “alien” landed on earth that was similar to a sci-fi “alien”, that’s just randomness, but the bare bones “alien” concept will have been proven true.

                But a hypothesis that turns out to be true is entirely fine, if you mean that. What is important here is however the alien landing, not the sci-fi flick that happened to picture similar creatures. All your knowledge will derive from the alien encounter, not from the film. Russell’s Stone, etc.

            • Posted October 15, 2016 at 1:37 am | Permalink

              That’s what I’ve been saying.

              Going on about whether sci-fi “aliens” exist, or not, says nothing about whether “aliens” (a non descriptive bare bones hypothetical) actually exist, or not.

              Going on about whether religious/mythical “gods” exist, or not, says nothing about whether “gods” (a non descriptive bare bones hypothetical) actually exist, or not.

              • Posted October 15, 2016 at 4:58 am | Permalink

                Maybe together with your name, you seem to prefer agnosticism, whereas I do not.

                Last ditch summary of my view: without knowledge about some thing, you could not have meant this something when it appears.

                If you imagine aliens of some kind, you made up this idea based on some insight you already have (maybe), and your concept will reference that insight. As you make contact with a real alien, your idea can transition and merge, but it’s not what you meant, since you could not have meant something you had no knowledge about. Your insight and the real alien can share the same category, or linked in some other way associatively (by analogy).

                You can of course easily imagine something and it can easily turn out to be true, but what turns out to be true is merely similar to what it eventually will be. It may share the same category (what you call “bare bones”), but does not reference not the same thing.

                This view is probably not very intuitive.

  25. Tom
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Weirdly, for some reason when I think of religious perceptions there is a tendency to use the word qualia.

  26. J. Quinton
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The constant defining and redefining of atheism or agnosticism will never end. This is because people are sloppy and inconsistent about their thinking and epistemology.

    Richard Dawkins was on the right track where, in The God Delusion, he outlined a scale of belief in god; IIRC something like 1 through 6, where 1 was absolute certainty that god exists and 6 was absolute certainty that god doesn’t exist (he placed himself at 5, again, IIRC).

    Something like that should be the first step. Though, that step has already been taken by bayesians. Where, instead of 1 through 6, you assign probabilities to belief. That actually gets to a more productive conversation instead of what will be the never ending “I lack belief in god, I don’t think god doesn’t exist!” sophistry.

    Really, those sorts of debates are in the same realm as angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin inanity.

    I’m 99% certain that god doesn’t exist. Does that make me an atheist? Agnostic? Theist? What about someone who is only 60% certain? These are much more helpful distinctions than strong/weak atheism vs agnosticism vs theism (is there strong and weak theism too?). Those labels are more about what sports team jersey you want to wear instead of accurately describing your state of belief to someone.

    • Somite
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      What is the reason for the last 1%? A sort of Pascal wager? Just in case?

      • reasonshark
        Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s just a way of pointing out that a specific claim doesn’t contradict itself, which by definition means it’s automatically disqualified and gets a straight 7. The omniscience-omnipotent-omnibenevolent deity as the creator of the current universe is a case in point, as the mere existence of suffering automatically disqualifies its possibility. Russell’s teapot is another example; since there’s always a way to put it beyond current investigation, it technically has more than a 0% chance of existing, even if only by default and even if Russell is making it up on the spot.

        As you can tell, it’s a pathetically low benchmark for a claim, since it includes a potentially infinite number of garbage claims past the first gate. After all, unicorns, telekinesis, and perpetual motion machines count as “could-be’s”, simply because no one can claim with absolute certainty that one won’t appear in the future. Epistemologically, it’s the equivalent of being an instant member of a club simply by not being dead.

        But there are plenty of believers who will grasp at this straw as though it were a clinching epistemological counterargument, rather than uninteresting pedantics. Unless they give the same credence to the infinite other ridiculous claims in that category – and I’d love to see one try that without contradicting themselves – then they are engaging in special pleading for a favourite idea. Or else they’ll move on to actually presenting evidence and making a case, in which case pass the popcorn.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted October 14, 2016 at 4:37 am | Permalink

      IIRC something like 1 through 6, where 1 was absolute certainty that god exists and 6 was absolute certainty that god doesn’t exist (he placed himself at 5, again, IIRC).

      1 through 7, with Dawkins as a 6 (or later a 6.9). An odd number works better, leaving a neutral position at 4.

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think everyone needs to figure out exactly what percent they are.

      Do you believe “gods exist”?
      Are you certain “gods exist”?
      Do you believe “gods do not exist”?
      Are you certain “gods do not exist”?

      YYNN: theo-gnostic
      YNNN: the-ist
      NNNN: agnostic
      NNYN: athe-ist
      NNYY: atheo-gnostic

      • phil
        Posted October 15, 2016 at 12:09 am | Permalink

        As you might gather from my other comments, I disagree.

        I am NNNN. I describe myself as atheist because I do not believe gods exist, but neither do I believe that no god exists. I tend towards agnosticism because I think it is unlikely (but I don’t know with certainty) that it is possible to know if god(s) exist.

        This is entirely consistent with the great majority of definitions of atheist and an agnostic that I’ve read in dictionaries.

        Dictionaries usually describe the most common current definitions and usages for words. There is bound to be some time lag between common usage and published definitions, but apart from that you seem to be consistently misusing the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”.

        The negation of the proposition “I believe god exists” is “I do not believe god exists”, it is not “I believe no god exists”. There are three positions described there, and none of them is agnosticism. Clearly a person who believes that no god exists also does not believe that god exists, so anyone who answered NNNN, NNYN or NNYY would be an atheist. Unfortunately your questions do not canvass the issue of agnosticism very precisely, and only those answering *Y** or ***Y could be described as being probably not agnostic.

        • Posted October 15, 2016 at 1:51 am | Permalink

          “I do not believe gods exist, but neither do I believe that no god exists”

          That’s either agnosticism:

          “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Thomas Huxley, 1884

          Or, negative (weak, soft) a-theism:

          “In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.
          The introduction of this new interpretation of the word ‘atheism’ may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage. ‘Whyever’, it could be asked, ‘don’t you make it not the presumption of atheism but the presumption of agnosticism?’” ~ Antony Flew, 1984

          Flew, the one who gave us negative and positive a-theism, clearly acknowledges common usage, and that the redefinition is a hijack of the agnostic position.

          Depending on the dictionary, what they use is common written usage. Noisy New A-theists doing a lot of writing, doesn’t change the fact that more non-theists choose “nothing” or “agnostic”, on surveys, than choose “atheist”. Then there are theists, who still count as people who use words, and don’t tend to use an a-theist definition.

          Forget questions, for any claim/proposition: X, you can believe X is true, believe X is false, or have no belief either way.

          Person A: belief X is true, no belief X is false
          Person B: no belief X is true, no belief X is false
          Person C: no belief X is true, belief X is false

          Pretending B and C are the same, because they share “no belief X is true” makes as much sense as pretending B and A are the same, because they share “no belief X is false” … which is no sense. It’s like calling asexuals “homosexuals”, just because they share “no sexual attraction to the opposite sex”.

          Two questions provides all the belief options:

          Do you believe “gods exist”?
          Do you believe “gods do not exist”?

          YN: the-ist
          NN: agnostic
          NY: athe-ist

          One question is a false dichotomy:

          Do you believe “gods exist”?

          Y: theist
          N: a-theist (this is agnostics and athe-ists tossed together)

          • phil
            Posted October 15, 2016 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

            “Noisy New A-theists doing a lot of writing, doesn’t change the fact that more non-theists choose “nothing” or “agnostic”, on surveys, than choose “atheist”.”

            Regardless of what New A-theists are writing, how non-theists choose to answer surveys does not determine the meaning of “agnostic” (although survey writers might have an impact). Furthermore, neither Huxley nor Flew are the final arbiters on what the word means.

            Unfortunately you seem hell bent on defining by fiat what atheist and agnostic mean. Your use of logic is interesting, but I think ultimately doomed because meanings are not always determined logically. In fact you seem to want it both ways, that the meaning of agnostic should be preferenced to how people describe themselves (in surveys, for example), but you apply logic as the final determinant. Please apply your logic to show how the common usages of “decimated” derive from the word’s root meaning.

            As for “Noisy New A-theists doing a lot of writing…”, well here is the definition from The Concise Oxford Dictionary (6th ed, 1982) printed decades before new atheists came along:

            agnostic – (Adherent) of the view that nothing is known, or likely to be known, of the existence of God or of anything beyond material phenomena.

            Compare that with

            dictionary.com
            An agnostic is one who believes it impossible to know anything about God or about the creation of the universe and refrains from commitment to any religious doctrine.

            en.oxforddictionaries.com
            A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

            oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com
            a person who believes that it is not possible to know whether God exists or not

            dictionary.cambridge.org
            someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, if a god exists

            And yes, if new atheist writings manage to establish in common usage that agnosticism is a belief that it is not possible to know if god exists, or indeed if it is a bitter tropical fruit in a plaid flannel jacket, then Huxley, Flew and you have lost, and that (whichever) is what it means. I do not have the resources to survey what common usage of words is, so I rely on dictionaries which DO survey common usage.

            And no, your two questions do not provide all the belief options.

          • phil
            Posted October 15, 2016 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

            In The Origin of the Word Agnostic (infidels.org/library/modern/reason/agnosticism/agnostic.html), Bill Young writes

            “Also, in [Hume with Helps to the Study of Berkeley], Huxley spoke of Hume in connection with Locke and Kant, “as the protagonist of that more modern way of thinking, which has been called ‘agnosticism,’ from its profession of an incapacity to discover the indispensable conditions of either positive or negative knowledge, in many propositions, respecting which, not only the vulgar, but philosophers of the more sanguine sort, revel in the luxury of unqualified assurance” (p.70-71).”

            and

            “The ways that he used the terms himself were quite different from most of the ways that these terms have come to be used.”

            A distinctive aspect of agnosticism is the possibility of having knowledge of god(s), etc, much less the certainty with which beliefs are held. I feel that is an important part of agnosticism many ignore.

            Huxley wrote “it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty” (philosophynow.org/issues/99/Huxleys_Agnosticism) so according Huxley’s ideas at least some theists could be judged agnostics if they have not produced evidence which logically justifies their certainty.

  27. Billy Bl.
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Everyone is an agnostic, some just don’t know it. I know I am also an atheist and an adeist, not to mention atypical and asymmetrical.

  28. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Nice discussion by Dillahunty.

    I agree with you concerning the problematic nature of the word “proof.” Even in the legal field, where it is a term of art, it is somewhat vexed (although my colleagues don’t seem often to acknowledge it). The term covers two concepts — sometimes it is used simply as a synonym for “evidence”; at others, it is used to connote something more-complex, as in the phrase “burden of proof.”

    “Burden of proof” itself can be further divided into two related, but distinct, concepts: “burden of production” and “burden of persuasion.” The former denotes a party’s obligation to come forward with at least some evidence in support of its contentions, or to risk losing by default; the latter, a party’s obligation to establish its claim by a designated quantum of evidence (variously “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “by clear and convincing evidence” or “by a preponderance,” in the legal context).

    I think these concepts are generally translatable to the topic under consideration here. It makes sense to approach the matter by deeming the believer to have the initial burden of producing some evidence in support of the claim god(s) exist. The believer should also bear the ultimate burden of persuasion, too, in establishing that claim. But where believers have initially offered some “evidence” to support their claim — be it the Fist-Cause argument or Fine-Tuning — it’s appropriate for the non-believer to proceed with a rebuttal of those arguments and to adduce affirmative evidence of their own.

    • Chris G
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Good points you make about the legal use of ‘proof’ Ken.
      I wonder if one key difference in comparison to talking about ‘proof’ for any particular god, is that in a legal situation, a decision has to be determined; once a case has progressed to being heard in front of a jury, a verdict will be reached, and innocent is the default until ‘proved’ otherwise. There’s no such thing as agnostic in a court of law.
      If a legal accusation were to be as ridiculous as a religious claim for the existence of a god, it wouldn’t get to court. And yet, somehow, religions still manage to demand a hearing – a very long, tedious, hearing that’s boring many of us to tears.
      If only we could reverse the focus, and drag them to court on the charge of serious fraud eh. Guilty! Take the accused to the cells!
      Chris G.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        If the case for god(s) were a claim in a civil lawsuit, it would be dismissed without requiring an answer from the defense, based on its failure to state a claim on which relief could plausibly be granted. It certainly wouldn’t survive a motion for summary judgment to make it to a jury.

        So, yeah, I agree with you, Chris.

      • phil
        Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:56 am | Permalink

        Although the legal circumstance is often expressed as “innocent until proven guilty” the truth is that the legal options of a court are “guilty” or “not guilty”, and not guilty is not the equivalent of innocent.

        Instead of taking them to court, maybe they should be sent to an atheist equivalent of the Inquisition. That would seem to have a measure of justice to it.

        Btw, Ian Plimer did take some religious group to court to disprove or otherwise the facts of their claims, but IIRC it was thrown out.

  29. YF
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    This issue is best considered from a Bayesian perspective, according to which we update our confidence in hypotheses in light of the evidence, both positive and negative, wherever it may lead.

    I’m an atheist because the sum total of the available evidence points more toward a natural than a supernatural universe.

    I’m an a-SantaClausist for the same reason.

  30. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    From a pragmatic perspective, the taxonomy seems fairly straightforward.

    1. There are people who embrace belief in God and allow it to inform their daily lives. I think we can all agree that these people are theists.

    2. There are people who live their lives as if the natural world is all there is and considerations of supernatural consequences are irrelevant. These people are functional atheists, however they choose to self-label.

    Group 2 breaks down roughly into two subsets: (a) those who give lip service to theism, without allowing it to affect their behavior much, and (b) those who honestly admit that belief in God plays no role in their lives. Most of us here, I expect, are in group 2b, and in my lexicon, that’s straight-up atheism.

    3. There may also be people who are genuinely in doubt as to how to live their lives, who think the possibility that they’re being watched and judged is worth taking seriously. If “agnostic” means “uncertain”, then this group has the best claim to that label.

  31. Ignominious Sheep
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I think this debate over terminology is a little silly. But it can also get needlessly condescending. Particularly when you start inferring the motives of vast swaths of humanity who can take all manner of views along a spectrum for a host of varying reasons.

    For instance, I call myself an agnostic. I lack of course a belief in any specific deity. Or even any vaguely construed personal deity. But I really have the broader question of spirituality as an open question mark for me. Just a “something more” that is out there that may have to do with consciousness and aesthetics in ways that align more with spiritual notions than entirely material ones. Whatever that is, we could call “God” from a pantheistic/panentheistic point of view. But is that real? I don’t know. I really don’t. So I call myself an agnostic. I don’t think there’s anything disengenuous about that.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 13, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      “broader question of spirituality”

      I view spirituality as another one of those weasel words, like soul, that can really get in the way. The word suggests that there is a realm “out there” in which spirits abide, but there really is no conceivable “place” and so no conceivable meaning to the term. No “there” there. Sean Carroll, sighted in this thread, has some Youtube talks which discuss this aspect from a physicist’s point of view. Check it out. I might save you a few decades of wandering in the forest.

      • Ignominious Sheep
        Posted October 15, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        rickflick, I think that we can discuss these topics without calling terms “weasel words.” Which implies some degree of intellectual dishonesty. I don’t think I’m guilty of that and I don’t think you’re in a position to assert so.

        Is spirituality a vague term? Sure. Far more vague than Yahweh or Zeus. But I did give it some context in my post. And I can provide more below.

        There is this idea that consciousness arises from purely naturalistic processes. No one really knows how this might work, some speculate that it could have something to do with quantum weirdness or something similar. But we don’t really know. And of course we also know precious little about aesthetic experiences. A little. Dipping into natural explanations. But still only very slight. What I’m proposing isn’t some life after death…a place “out there” where disembodied spirits “reside.” But rather that there may be something more in the fabric of reality. Not just quantum. Not just something similar. Something more felt, some other aspect of existence not just made up of wave functions and particles and energy. Something closer to emotion and beauty and thought than what physicists may talk about. Not a place “out there” but a hidden aspect to reality. Hinted at simply by our experiences. But no more than that. Just hinted at. And could easily be not real.

        There are many legitimate reasons to reject a “god of the gaps” argument. There are several aspects of reality that seem to always trend to natural explanations. We know life evolved from common ancestors. And that over time our ability to explain how has improved exponentially. It would be absurd then to say that, just because we don’t know how abiogenesis then arose, that “God did it.”

        But there has not been the same track record with consciousness. We of course know it’s biologically situated. But we don’t know how it can even exist. What it even is. And it’s so very core to who we are. To what life is. And there’s so much beauty that is wrapped up into and around it. It can easily all be purely material of course. Do to some “weirdness” in physics. But it also could be tapping into something else. Some “spiritual” aspect of reality if you will.

        • rickflick
          Posted October 15, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          Using the term “weasel words”, I did not intend to imply dishonesty. Those are words used by someone who is trying to say something which may not align with the evidence, but which may be an honest attempt to get at truth.

          “It can easily all be purely material of course. Do to some “weirdness” in physics. But it also could be tapping into something else. Some “spiritual” aspect of reality if you will.”

          Consciousness wouldn’t be some weirdness in Physics. It is a subjective phenomenon which, in all likelihood, will surrender to a naturalistic explanation.

          There could be a “something else”, but there is no evidence for it and our current understanding doesn’t leave room for such an idea. Again, see Sean Carroll’s description of the intellectual landscape.

          My position is that this idea of “spiritual” likely is a historical term. A fanciful notion that has run it’s course and is ripe for retirement. If you persist in using the term it will be up to you to provide *positive* evidence since, so far, none has been presented. You are pointing to a void in knowledge and stating: “therefore spirit”. If I proposed to you a realm of “poet-reality” which is responsible for Homer, Shakespeare, and E.E. Cummings, would you buy in or object on empirical grounds?

          • Posted October 15, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

            There could be a “something else”, but there is no evidence for it and our current understanding doesn’t leave room for such an idea. Again, see Sean Carroll’s description of the intellectual landscape.

            Seconded. See Sean’s talk at Skepticon 5, for example. Thanks to the LHC, we know extraordinarily well what can interact with the matter in our brains. Anything so far undiscovered can have no more than a negligible effect.

            /@

          • Ignominious Sheep
            Posted October 16, 2016 at 12:33 am | Permalink

            rickflick, I think we need to be precise about what is and isn’t being discussed here in this argument.

            I am arguing that agnosticism is an appropriate term for people such as myself. I am not arguing my conclusions on this thread. Just explaining what they are. They are certainly subject to scrutiny but that would be a tangent at this point from my central argument. That if one were to have these sorts of views, that agnostic is an appropriate term to describe them.

            As to the word “spiritual,” while I do not see a problem with it, if it really is such a sticking point for you I can replace it with something else. Take the Tibetan Buddhist view of reality. Take away the reincarnation and the nirvana equivalent of life after death, and just consider the type of additional dimension of reality that they consider to be all permeating, to facilitate all thought and all consciousness and all beauty, and something akin to that is the sort of aspect of reality I am driving at. Yes, this all descends into a morass of subjectivity. And I’m well familiar with the problems with that. But not meeting a scientific burden of proof in one’s existential guesses isn’t reason to then reject a self-descriptive term.

            Let’s face it. There’s really no good evidence for Yahweh. Or Allah. Or Vishnu. And so on. But we don’t then tell theists they can’t identify as theists because they lack this evidence. They identify as theists because they have theistic views. They believe in a God or gods. We also don’t call Tibetan Buddhists atheists because they lack a specific belief in a God. Because they do believe in a (insert whatever term you prefer to “spiritual” here) non-materialistic “higher” realm of existence.

            How we identify given our views, and the sufficiency of evidence for those views are two separate things.

            • rickflick
              Posted October 16, 2016 at 8:12 am | Permalink

              “additional dimension of reality”

              What exactly is that?

              I’m just saying, I think your views are inconsistent and incoherent.

              • Ignominious Sheep
                Posted October 16, 2016 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

                The sort that Tibettan Buddhists refer to. A dimension that taps into thought, emotion, and beauty. Also, please do me the courtesy of explaining any inconsistencies rather than assert by fiat. Also, I don’t think my being on the fence on the existence of such an aspect of reality would place me comfortably in the atheist camp. As opposed to agnostic. But feel free to argue otherwise.

              • Posted October 16, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

                rickflick and I have already pointed out that it is inconsistent with physics.

                There are only four dimensions at human energy scales, and only known matter and forces can have appreciable interactions with the stuff our brains are made of.

                This is not a fiat; this is the conclusion of over a century of physics up to the discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC. Any detailed explanation is beyond the scope of a comment in a website post (and would certainly violate the Roolz).

                We’ve already directed you towards Sean Carroll; watch his hour-long video from Skepticon 5. If you have more time, read his books. _The Big Picture_ would be especially illuminating.

                Thought, emotion and beauty must emerge from human biology and psychology in ways entirely consistent withe the Core Theory of physics. (See also Alex Rosenberg; “physics fixes everything”.)

                À Laplace, there is /no need of/ any “additional dimension of reality”.

                /@

              • rickflick
                Posted October 16, 2016 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

                What he said.

              • Ignominious Sheep
                Posted October 17, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry, I thought you meant internally inconsistent. Not inconsistent with science.

                Putting aside for the moment whether the views I’m on the fence with are consistent or inconsistent with physics or any other of the sciences, how I identify should have nothing to do with that. We know creationism is inconsistent with the overwhelming scientific data from the earth and life sciences. But no one then makes the step of trying to tell creationists that they’re incorrectly self-identifying due to the fact that their beliefs conflict with the evidence. Numerous religious claims are irreconcilable with scientific evidence. But we don’t then say that there are no such things as theists. They’re all misidentifying. They should all call themselves atheists.

                The argument “you shouldn’t be a theist.” Or “you shouldn’t be an agnostic.” Are separate arguments from “you shouldn’t call yourself a theist.” Or “you shouldn’t call yourself an agnostic.”

                I myself believe there should be no such thing as creationists. But I’m not so daft as to pretend to think they don’t exist. Which is the mistake I think you’re both making. For me to cease being an agnostic, I would have to change my mind about the plausibility of natural causes for conscious and aesthetic experiences. From what it is now at roughly 50/50 to 80/20 or 90/10 or 99.999/.001. Then I could call myself an atheist. Even should I, and I intend to, take a look at the naturalistic explanations you reference…and then change my mind. The most accurate thing you could say was that I came into the discussion as an agnostic and left as an atheist. But the point I was arguing would have still been just as apt at the end as it was at the beginning. That there are agnostics, and I (for whatever period of my life) am/was one.

              • Posted October 17, 2016 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                I think you’re shifting goal posts, Ig. Sheep. I don’t care very much how you self-identify. What I was contesting was your assertion that some other dimension of reality (whatever the exact phrase was) “could” exist.

                /@

              • Ignominious Sheep
                Posted October 17, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

                This is not a shifting of the goal post. My argument was and always has been challenging the claim in this post that agnosticism is a disengenous or inappropriate category along the spectrum of atheism and theism. If you were wanting to have a different argument, one I have repeatedly said is tangential to my point, then at least have the class to own up to it rather than accuse me of moving the goal posts.

              • Posted October 17, 2016 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

                Well, it was clear to me that we were arguing about the “additional dimension of reality” that rickflick called out on October 16, 2016 at 8:12 am.

                If that was tangential to your argument, I’m not at all clear what your argument was.

                /@

              • Ignominious Sheep
                Posted October 17, 2016 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

                Really? This is from earlier in the thread. What exactly wasn’t “clear” about this?

                “rickflick, I think we need to be precise about what is and isn’t being discussed here in this argument.

                I am arguing that agnosticism is an appropriate term for people such as myself. I am not arguing my conclusions on this thread. Just explaining what they are. They are certainly subject to scrutiny but that would be a tangent at this point from my central argument. That if one were to have these sorts of views, that agnostic is an appropriate term to describe them.”

                rickflick wanted to know what I meant by “spiritual” in my argument for why I call myself an agnostic, and why I feel like that’s an appropriate, and not at all disengenous, term to describe my views. However, since he found it to be a “weasel word.” So I explained what I meant by it. And even went so far as to say we can drop the term altogether of it made him feel more at ease.

                But then of course all anyone wants to do is then go off on a tangent. “What do you mean by spiritual?” *I provide an answer* “Well then why do you think it might exist, huh?!” *here’s why fellas, but let’s not go off on a tangent…* “You’re moving the goal posts! This argument has always been about the tangent I just introduced and forced you to explain!”

                The original post claimed that agnostic was a “weasel” term adopted by those too afraid or reluctant to call themselves atheists. I feel that for people like me, agnostic is a far more appropriate and sincere term than atheist or theist. Regardless of what I am ultimately convinced of in the end. I also feel that while terms can be messy (e.g., “atheist” can include “hard” atheists…who believe with near certitude that there is no God, and “soft” atheists who lack a belief in God), the solution is not to jettison them but to refine them. Hence you can have “hard” agnostics (no one can ever know whether or it there is a God) and “soft” agnostics (I personally don’t know whether or not there is a God). Where of course what I describe falls into the latter, and I would argue far more common, category.

                So the long and short is I find the author’s critique as to the disengenousness amd uselessness or inappropriateness of the term “agnostic” is ill founded. And plain incorrect. If you go back and re-read my first comment, it should be “clear” that was what I was arguing all along.

              • Posted October 18, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                The original post claimed that agnostic was a “weasel” term adopted by those too afraid or reluctant to call themselves atheists. I feel that for people like me, agnostic is a far more appropriate and sincere term than atheist or theist. Regardless of what I am ultimately convinced of in the end.

                You’ve just perfectly encapsulated the objections we have to dogmatic agnostics.

                Your last sentence indicates your reluctance to adopt a position you yourself indicate you’re heading towards because. In your first sentence, you object to our disdain for self-aggrandizing ignorance, yet you continue insist self-imposed ignorance is the superior position.

                For me, the worst part is that agnostics have a theological dedication to the principle that the gods have magical powers of concealment. We are told we must be agnostic about the possibility of universal magical beasties so wee they can hide from the most powerful microscopes, but no mention is made that similar agnosticism is appropriate as to whether or not the Sun rises in the East or if things fall up or down.

                And this all comes in spite of the overwhelming evidence known at least since Epicurus that there are no unidentified powerful moral agents active within the human sphere.

                I challenge you to name just one god that somebody actually worships whose existence is not overwhelmingly contradicted by trivially-observed evidence.

                See, that’s the real problem. Agnostics get so enamored with their own love for their own phantasmagorical gods that they never notice that nobody else actually believes in philosophical gods, and the gods that get worshipped aren’t the shy, timid creatures of philosophy. They’re lean and they’re mean and they’ve come to answer prayers or kick ass and they’re all out of prayers to answer. You don’t say, “Halle Berry, Fuller Grace, the Lard is on Aisle Three,” unless you really need help finding your keys in the sofa, or maybe for the wind to die down so you can nail that heathen infidel in the head with your next round. A real god even works through Trump if he’s desperate enough.

                So, here’s your assignment. Put together a list of all the gods people actually bow down to today. Do you think any of them are real? If so, you’re a theist of that particular flavor; if not, you’re an atheist.

                If you’re not sure, you better either be actively investigating whatever gods you don’t know about…or else you’re an idiot. If the god is real, you’re an idiot for not taking it and / or its existence seriously; if it’s not real, you’re an idiot for taking it seriously enough to remain open to its existence despite the painfully-obvious mountains of contradictory evidence.

                Or: theological agnosticism is a good position for those just getting started, but it’s not even remotely defensible for those who’ve been around the block a few times.

                And, no. This isn’t some sort of epistemological fundamentalism on your part. No agnostic ever whines that we can’t really know if things fall down or the Sun rises in the East; agnostics only ever whine that we can’t know about gods. It’s pure theology in defense of purely theological entities — and yet another perfect demonstration of how indistinguishable theology and philosophy actually are.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Ignominious Sheep
                Posted October 20, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                I have not indicated that I am headed towards atheism, but have expressed that is a possibility. I don’t believe that it is a likely possibility. But probably above the single digits percent. Acknowledging that and being willing to be open minded does not make me disengenous or cowardly. And certainly not “dogmatic.” The fact that you think so leaves me at a loss.

              • Posted October 20, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

                See, the thing is that the religious are absolutely correct about one thing.

                There literally is no more important question for humanity in general and individual humans in particular than whether or not any of the gods are real. If any god worshipped today is actually real, the consequences for failing to embrace that reality significantly overwhelm any other consideration you could even hypothetically propose.

                And that’s whether or not you would worship said god; imagine you’re a Christian but it turns out that Quetzalcoatl really is really real and Jesus is a faery tale. Wouldn’t that still radically change your priorities?

                In the other direction, too. If you’re a devoted Christian but Jesus, like all other gods, is a faery tale, you’re wasting so much of your life and your resources in devotion to a faery tale. Sure, maybe your church does some good stuff…but you could be much more effective in your charity if, instead of spending hours praying in church each week you were preparing meals in soup kitchens or building homes with Habitat for Humanity.

                And, yes. You’re being dogmatic in your insistence that the gods are inscrutable. You’re not equally insistent that Russell’s Teapot or the faeries at the foot of the garden are inscrutable; it’s only the gods, and, presumably, only a favored subset of gods, that are inscrutable, whose possible existence you take seriously.

                When you understand why you reject all the other supernatural beasties, you’ll understand why the rest of us reject yours, as well.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Ignominious Sheep
                Posted October 22, 2016 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                “You’re being dogmatic in your insistence that the gods are inscrutable.”

                I have not made this argument. Not in the slightest. I’m not sure who you think you’re engaging or whose arguments you seem to be intent on rebutting. But they’re not mine.

              • Posted October 23, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

                “You’re being dogmatic in your insistence that the gods are inscrutable.”

                I have not made this argument.

                Are you agnostic about Russell’s Teapot? Are you agnostic about Bigfoot? Are you agnostic about the herd of angry rhinos stampeding about you as you read these words? Are you agnostic about the direction in which the Sun rises or things fall?

                Even if you are in some obscure epistemological sense, do you make it a point to tell people about how you’re a gravity agnostic every time somebody drops something?

                No?

                When you understand why you reserve your vociferously dogmatic and evangelical agnosticism for the gods and the gods alone, when you understand why you’re not agnostic about Santa Claus, then you’ll understand why the rest of us aren’t agnostic about the gods.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

    • phil
      Posted October 14, 2016 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

      The debate over terminology is far from silly. You describe yourself as an agnostic, but what do you really mean? Are you using the term to describe some uncertainty in your beliefs, or are you using it as a dictionary would describe it, as the impossibility to know anything about the existence (and perhaps nature) of god? (I suspect the former)

      When people say “words don’t have meaning, they have usages” they are talking tripe. Words are used because of their utility and their utility depends completely on the shared understanding of their meaning. As the meanings words are broadened to cover more meanings their utility diminishes. If somebody says “X was decimated” do they mean X was annihilated, that X was resoundingly beaten in some contest, or that X was subjected to some form of capital punishment from an authority whereby one tenth of X were killed? If I’m lucky I might be able to tell from the context, but the problem is that because the word has been misused further explanation is required to explain what it use was meant to convey, thereby making its use pointless in the circumstances.

      In technical environments the meanings of technical terms (such as decimation) is usually well defined, and I think more frequently adhered to, I suspect because technical people are well attuned to the need for strict definition and adherence to it.

  32. loren russell
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Funny. When my wife and I have this conversation, I come out as a hard-line agnostic, she as an easy-going atheist.

    I easily dismiss the Abrahamic god, for the usual reasons, and so too any other god[s] I’ve seen proposed by theists. But a truly remote hands-off entity that cast a clockwork universe? Something like Spinoza’s god — no further management, no judgment. Certainly no special place for earth or for humans, or for intelligent beings in general. How could we tell, and why should we care, ultimately?

    • phil
      Posted October 14, 2016 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      “I come out as a hard-line agnostic…”

      … which I take to mean you believe that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God (judging by your use of “hard-line” and “How could we tell…?”), and possibly a deist.

      As for why we should care, well religion and religious belief are quite damaging to society, and its support is a result of belief. In Africa draconian anti-gay laws and the problem of persecution of supposed witches are nasty side effects of missionary efforts from the west that result in loss of life. Religious belief is the primary source of opposition to marriage equality. The Catholic church in particular seems to believe it should be immune from secular legal processes because of its religious beliefs. Any process that would make people criticaly examine their beliefs and the consequences of their beliefs is likely to be a plus for society IMO.

  33. Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    This very much reminds me of a novel of the German writer (and 1972 Nobel Price winner) Heinrich Böll, who has this nice little passage in his novel “The Clown”:

    “I don’t trust Catholics,” I said, “because they take advantage of you.”
    “And Protestants?” he asked with a laugh.
    “I loathe the way they fumble around with their consciences.”
    “And atheists?” He was still laughing.
    “They bore me because all they ever talk about is God.”

    • phil
      Posted October 14, 2016 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      This very much reminds me of the XKCD comic that ends with “The important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to all of them” (or something along those lines).

  34. Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    When the earth actually gets a well documented visitation from our personal super-being (the low achieving one), or they find a ‘soul’ particle in the Large Hadron Collider (thereby rewriting the Core Theory of modern Physics) then I may reconsider my current position of scepticism. But I doubt it.

  35. Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Although the meaning has been a little corrupted, I thought agnosticism was really a statement about whether it was POSSIBLE to know whether god exists. So you can be an agnostic theist or atheist. Or you can be a “hard theist” who thinks they can and do KNOW that God exists, or a “hard atheist” who thinks that they can (and do) know that god doesn’t.

    As some others have stated, the question for me is: which god? For some, I’m agnostic atheist. For others, I’m hard atheist.

  36. steve
    Posted October 13, 2016 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I think Matt would largely agree with you. He uses the court-room analogy often; a not-guilty verdict doesn’t imply that the juror believes the defendant is innocent. Of course, evidence could be provided which suggests that in fact the defendant probably innocent, but those are separate issues. One involves lack of evidence for a ‘guilty’ claim while the other involves positive evidence for an “innocent” claim. In a similar way, I think Matt would say that an atheist is someone who finds god not-guilty of existing, and that a positive case could be made to suggest that certain gods probably do not actually exist, but that those are separate issues.

    Curious if he responds to your post.

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Matt’s gumball analogy is spot on. But, his labelling is a fail.

      odd-ist: believes there’s an odd number of gumballs
      even-ist: believes there’s an even number of gumballs

      He argues that the proper position to take would that of no belief, either way, due to lack of evidence. There’d be no logic to calling this position a weak/soft/negative oddist or evenist, but that’s the logic used in calling no belief, either way, “atheist”.

      His courtroom analogy isn’t very good. In an effort to not convict the innocent, a courtroom is based on an argument from ignorance. The law states that the court must assume the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, so not guilty = innocent, and guilty = not innocent.

      Juries can become gridlocked, with no opinion given, either way. Courts in other countries include a “not proven” category, where the jury says they don’t necessarily believe the defendant is innocent but also doesn’t believe it has been shown they’re guilty.

      • steve
        Posted October 14, 2016 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        Hi Huxley,

        Yes, no analogy is perfect, but I think you’re being a little too nit-picky here.

        Re: gumball analogy breakdown:

        Yes, “Even-ist” and “odd-ist,” together, would be the equivalent to “theist” as you state. But so what? The point of the analogy is to show that without sufficient evidence for a claim (in the case of gumballs: that there is an even # of gumballs or [separately] that there is an odd # of gumballs; in the case of god: that there is a god or gods) you cannot be rationally justified in believing that claim. I think Matt is just trying to get someone thinking about the nature of claims and evidence.

        Re: courtroom analogy:

        Yes, not guilty = innocent, according to the law, as you say. Fine, point taken. But what could possibly be the rationale justification to believe that the accused did, in fact, not commit the crime unless a convincing case of innocence was made? Yes, legally, not guilty = innocence, but that’s just a presumption. The case for innocence may or may not have been made. Again, I think Matt is just trying to get people to think about the nature of claims and evidence.

        I don’t really see what the big deal is since the point of the both analogies is to get people thinking about claims/evidence, not to show that the two cases (gumballs and god claims) are equivalent in every respect. That’s why people normally begin an analogy by saying, “Now, no analogy is perfect…”

        • Posted October 14, 2016 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

          //Yes, “Even-ist” and “odd-ist,” together, would be the equivalent to “theist” as you state.//

          They’d be equivalent to two opposites that believe P and ~P. odd = not even, even = not odd

          //The point of the analogy is to show that without sufficient evidence for a claim (in the case of gumballs: that there is an even # of gumballs or [separately] that there is an odd # of gumballs; in the case of god: that there is a god or gods) you cannot be rationally justified in believing that claim.//

          Yes, and that’s exactly how Huxley defined agnosticism … no belief, due to lack of evidence. Not compatible with believing P or believing ~P.

          Huxley outright called it “immoral” to form beliefs about objective truth claims, without evidence.

          “That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions.”

          Regarding the discussion of atheism vs agnosticism, the athe-ism definition to describe the belief ~P, and calling the suspension of belief agnostic, makes more sense than calling both those position a-theism.

          Calling them both the same thing is a false dichotomy.

          • steve
            Posted October 14, 2016 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

            So, an agnostic is simply something who does not believe due to lack of evidence? What is an atheist then? I’m guessing you’d say someone who believes ~P, correct?

            • Posted October 14, 2016 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

              That’s the way the word was put together, and how most people still use it.

              Atheos + ist, some 100 years before the word theos + ist was put together. There was no word to attach an “a” prefix to.

              Which one of these, is not like the others?

              Polytheist = someone who believes in many gods
              Polytheist =/= many theists

              Pantheist = someone who believes everything is god
              Pantheist =/= everything is a theist

              Monotheist = someone who believes in a single god
              Monotheist =/= a single theist

              Zootheist = someone who believes an animal is godlike
              Zootheist =/= an animal theist

              amoralist = someone who adheres to the doctrine that there are no morals
              amoralist =/= not a moralist.

              abiogenist = someone who believes in abiogenesis
              abiogenist =/= not a biogenist

              atonalist = someone who creates atonal music
              atonalist =/= not a tonalist

              Athe-ist = someone who believes no gods exist
              A-theist = not a theist

              • phil
                Posted October 14, 2016 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

                Funny, usually when I check the meaning of atheist online it means someone who doesn’t believe a god exists, which is not the same as someone who believes no god exists. When I check the meaning of agnostic it means someone who believes “that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God” (oxforddictionaries.com).

                From The Concise Oxford Dictionary (6th ed, 1982) (made of paper and cardboard):

                agnostic – (Adherent) of the view that nothing is known, or likely to be known, of the existence of God or of anything beyond material phenomena.

                atheism – Disbelief in the existence of God or gods

                disbelieve – Refuse to believe

                Clearly, given those definitions, describing an atheist as somebody who does not believe a god(s) exist(s), as distinct from someboby who believes no god(s) exist, is entirely justified and valid. Furthermore, in that context agnosticism is something independent to atheism.

                Of course the meanings of words changes over time. In Huxley’s time a calculator was a person who performed calculations (unless I’m confusing it with computer). And beef bayonet, mutton dagger, and pork sword do not refer to and genuine bayonets, daggers, or swords.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted October 14, 2016 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

            Your argument seems to boil down to the claim that in the absence of evidence, we should consider both P and ~P to be equally likely, and decline to believe either.

            From a Bayesian perspective this seems nonsensical. We update our beliefs based on evidence, but it does not follow that all beliefs must have a prior probability of 50%. Any reasonable person will assign a prior of near zero to Russell’s teapot, for instance, and can therefore reasonably profess belief in its nonexistence, even in the absence of evidence one way or the other. There’s nothing immoral about this, nor is it virtuous to artificially assign priors of 50% to palpable absurdities.

            If you have legitimate reasons to assign a prior of near 50% to some particular proposition, fine; in that circumstance it’s reasonable to remain agnostic pending evidence. But to turn that around and claim that agnosticism should be the default position when assigning priors is putting the cart before the horse.

            • Posted October 14, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

              Not ruling something out as impossible just leaves it as a possibility of not zero. Not zero/not zero doesn’t equate to 50/50.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted October 14, 2016 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

                Are you saying that we should withhold belief whenever there is a nonzero probability (however tiny) of being wrong?

                Is it immoral, in your view, to believe that Russell’s teapot doesn’t exist?

                If so, then you seem to be denying the possibility of empirical knowledge, since ironclad certainty is unattainable.

              • Posted October 15, 2016 at 1:29 am | Permalink

                The ones worth asking are the ones you might be able to answer.

                How does demarcation leave you paralyzed? Tossing something aside, because there’s no evidence, either way, isn’t wasting time on it. That also doesn’t equate to considering it false, or wasting time trying to prove it false. Toss it aside, leave all the burden on them, and have them come back if they ever find some evidence.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted October 15, 2016 at 2:44 am | Permalink

                There’s an infinity of questions we might be able to answer (such as definitively ruling out the existence of Russell’s teapot) that clearly would not be worth spending the resources necessary to answer them. So answerability alone is not a sufficient criterion of worthiness.

            • Posted October 14, 2016 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

              I have zero clue on actual “probabilities”. Actual probabilities require experiments and testing, not just pulling random numbers out of your … nowhere.

              I see absolutely nothing wrong with simply not believing stuff. I don’t see the great desire to waste time believing things don’t exist. I don’t pass gardens and think there are no invisible fairies there. I don’t see rainbows and think there are no leprechauns there. If I hear a bump in the night, I waste no time thinking there’s no ghost.

              I’m waiting for something that’s actually empirical, before even beginning to make a judgement.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted October 14, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

                Actual scientists don’t always have the luxury of waiting for something empirical before making judgments. Sometimes they have to decide which empirical questions are worth asking. Experiment is driven by prior judgments of what’s likely to be true. Such judgments aren’t a waste of time; they’re a necessary form of triage that guides investigation.

                We make such judgments all the time in everyday life. We give more consideration to plausible possibilities than to implausible ones; if we didn’t, we’d be paralyzed with indecision, since the implausible ones vastly outnumber the plausible ones. This is a feature, not a bug, and I don’t see why we should waste our time pretending otherwise.

  37. Posted October 14, 2016 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Fascinating discussion impossible to resolve.
    Even we atheists/agnostics/secularists/humanists, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, do not agree on terminology and meaning. How are we to hold useful discussions with theists?

    With the exception (perhaps) of science and mathematics, language is not specific. My “blue” may not be your “blue”, but we agree on the concept of “blueness” in order to attempt to convey meaning and let the specifics slide. If you look in the OED for the history and definition(s) of any English word, you’ll find that word meanings change over time as cultural needs change. For example: “simple” once meant “stupid”. And words that derive from the same source can come to mean the opposite of each other like “ditch” and “dyke”. Also, “shirt” and “skirt”.

    And, we must also deal with not only denotations, but the connotations of words. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem called “The Windhover”. In it, he uses the word “buckle” to describe what happens when a bird hovering before the sun on a wind current, suddenly dives. “Buckle” can mean something that holds together (like a belt buckle) or something that breaks apart. There are about seventeen different meanings for this word in the OED and all are applicable in this poem. Pretty amazing use of language.

    • Posted October 14, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      “‘simple’ once meant ‘stupid’”

      It still does!

      And “dike” means “ditch” as well as “embankment”.

      /@

  38. Posted October 14, 2016 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    (commenting without watching the video because I’m at work)

    I find it more helpful to use atheist as a verb, not a noun. As in “I am atheist” I am without theist beliefs. Making atheist a noun tends to infer attributes which can get in the way of dialog.

    Agnosticism is a knowledge position, not a belief position and so is a completely different scale to (a)theism. One can be agnostic and also atheist or a theist.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted October 14, 2016 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      Sounds more like an adjective to me.

      • Posted October 14, 2016 at 6:11 am | Permalink

        ooops, you’re correct. I’m sure no one else noticed though. 🙂

  39. Jay
    Posted October 14, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I agree with most of what you said, exept with regards to agnostics. Why can’t a person say I don’t know? I recognize that we don’t know everything, and I can’t fault someone for being unable to answer a question without all the data. I’d rather they say I don’t know than lie and get shoehorned into a category they don’t fit.

    We have neither proven or disproven God. We also don’t really know what God is, so how can we conclusively say he does or doesn’t exist.

    God is like Schrödinger’s cat, exept invisible, and won’t stop things like genocide, but cares if I sex before marriage.

  40. Jeremy Tarone
    Posted November 23, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    The fine tuning argument is an assertion without evidence. We do not know if the universe is fine tuned, it’s up to theists to provide evidence for such if they use it as an argument.
    We only have universe, we have no evidence the universe could be any way other than it is.

    Both the first cause argument and the fine tuning argument rely on a priori errors, do they not? One assumes God is a first cause and God doesn’t need a first cause, the other assumes the universe is fine tuned.


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