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How not to convince people

I am an atheist – I don’t even seek any cover in the “foxhole” of agnosticism, or pull the “religion isn’t true but it keeps the plebs in line” sort of argument that I have sometimes come across. Full disclosure: I am a confirmed Anglican but fell away over the years, primarily because I could not engage with the idea of belief via faith. I know a lot of people who are religious, if not noisily so. I respect them and love many of them, and vice versa. It really is as simple as that.

Occasionally I come across the phenomenon of the “noisy atheist”, and am reminded what an unlovely creature that is. On my Facebook page, I follow a few groups such as one dedicated to Second World War allied pilots (I am an aviation history geek. Bite me.) Recently, a Canadian pilot, who flew Spitfires in the war, died at the tremendous age of 100. I wrote something along the lines of “Rest in Peace and blue skies to the brave gentleman.” All of a sudden, when I woke up the following day, I noticed that my comment and that of many other people had elicited comments from a person who wrote words to the effect of “religion is crap – grow up” or “your beliefs are a piece of shit”. The person has his own FB page on the subject of military history and makes a big point of his being an atheist. So it is probably not a Russian bot, although one never knows.

What to make of this other than the fact that some people are sociopaths, or just plain unpleasant and in need of some direct lessons in manners? Well, what it proves to me is that if you firmly hold to the idea that belief in a Supreme, omniscient god is nonsense, then it is absolutely fine to express that view, but not in a way that is so rude, or by injecting your views into the conversations of others, and ignoring context completely. Ironically for this digital yob, he has achieved the opposite effect in anyone whom he might have tried to convert, by associating unbelief with rudeness and crassness.

Atheism is the absence of belief, rather than a positive belief in X or Y. (To go further, atheism is the view that the idea of god is incoherent and therefore existence of gods cannot be true. A thing cannot be beyond nature and above it, as a god is, because nature is all of existence and to be outside it makes no sense. (That is my understanding of what atheism is, properly defined.)

There are, in my experience, a great variety of atheists, such as by their political beliefs and for some, belief in political or other ideologies fills a sort of philosophical hole. For other atheists, the lack of belief in a God creates no such “gap” – they have a coherent philosophy of life requiring no props of any kind. That is where I stand. Some atheists can be socialists/collectivists, others on the libertarian, classical liberal/Objectivist end of the spectrum, others traditional conservatives and so on. Some can be agreeable, philosophical and rounded as human beings. Some, alas, are just plain bloody awful. It seems to me that I have encountered the latter.

Anyway, I share these musings to reflect on etiquette and how social media has given opportunities to encounter humans at their best and their worst. On a positive end point, I have met a lot of good people via social media, in terms of actual friends whom I meet for real.

62 comments to How not to convince people

  • Lee Moore

    Atheism is the absence of belief

    I thought that was agnosticism.

    Isn’t atheism the solid belief in the non-existence of God/gods ?

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Lee, yes, I mis-wrote. I will amend. Another way to put it is the “view that the idea of god is incoherent and therefore existence of gods cannot be true”.

  • Penseivat

    “If God can cure evil, but chooses not to, he is not benevolent.
    If he chooses to cure evil, but is unable to do so, he is not omnipotent.
    If he can cure evil, and chooses to, then whence comes evil?
    If he can neither cure evil, not choose to do do, why call him God?”
    Epicurus 341BC – 270 BC

  • Snorri Godhi

    Atheism is the absence of belief, rather than a positive belief in X or Y.

    Wrong.
    I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s remark that, to a fellow intellectual, he would define himself an agnostic, but to common people he would define himself an atheist, because they would not understand the difference.

    The way i like to put it is: Darwin and Popper were agnostics; Dawkins and Dennett are atheists. That is evidence for the intellectual superiority of agnosticism.

    The qualification in brackets in the OP does not help: look up petitio principii.

  • Snorri Godhi

    There are, in my experience, a great variety of atheists, such as by their political beliefs and for some, belief in political or other ideologies fills a sort of philosophical hole.

    That is true, and in this sense atheism and agnosticism (and, i suppose, deism… as distinct from theism) are equivalent: neither of them provides an ethical framework. You have to find one elsewhere.

    For other atheists, the lack of belief in a God creates no such “gap” – they have a coherent philosophy of life requiring no props of any kind.

    I don’t understand the difference between this group of atheists and the first. Or are you making a distinction between ‘philosophy’ and ‘ideology’? If so, it is a very fine distinction.

    Some, alas, are just plain bloody awful. It seems to me that I have encountered the latter.

    Have you heard the story of Ayn Rand telling Rothbard that he should get a divorce because his wife was Christian, and then expelling Rothbard from Objectivism because he refused?

  • Snorri Godhi

    Penseivat: are you sure that quote truly comes from Epicurus? It seems strange to me that a Greek of that time would have the concept of an omnipotent, benevolent God.
    (And btw THAT is a God that i do not believe in, based on empirical evidence.)

    If he can neither cure evil, not choose to do do, why call him God?

    Because Greek gods were neither omnipotent nor always benevolent?

  • NickM

    I am a “principled agnostic”. It’s not sitting on the fence in a “foxhole”*. It is just that the existence of God(s) seems so ill-defined I cannot comment as to the truth value. This is what happens when you spend a lot of time with mathematical logic (or indeed find a stranger in the Alps**). I cannot assign a truth value to a question I cannot frame.

    JP, I think (this is being a tad presumptious of me) you are also expressing the immortal truth that wankerdom, alas, knows no bounds of faith or anything else. It takes many forms. Fortunately, so does goodness and nobility.

    *Is that, literally, a tenable position anyway 😉
    **I dunno why but that seems appropriate.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    If Free Will, a gift from God, causes Evil, should God deny us free will?
    The existence of an all-powerful God can be directly deduced from physics. Scientists note the fine-tuning of the Universe. and wonder if something set it up. Some scientists claim that we must live in a multiverse, or many-parallel-worlds cosmos, where all kinds of universes with different laws exist- so we happen to live in one ideal for life, but nobody planned it. However, this initial Chaos must be infinite to be true Chaos, and one Universe must arise that is a living Universe, because a true Chaos must allow all possibilities, and God arising from Chaos is a possibility.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    And one other point to consider- If we are immortal souls having an Earth experience, with multiple lives, then there is plenty of time for justice to work out, with God allowing us some painful lives as a lesson that lasts (molly-coddling kids would be the worst way to raise them). Plenty of individuals, like Joan Grant and Violet Firth and George Patton, claim to remember their past lives. A lesbian born in Burma around 1955 claims to have been a Japanese soldier killed in Burma at the end of WW2- and says that is why she is a lesbian now. And when I googled ‘Reincarnation of Princess Diana’, there was only one candidate, a boy in South Australia.

  • This blog sets an example of reasonably courteous discourse on religious as on other issues. The fact that it has Christian, agnostic and atheist authors and commenters may be related. There again, we share a preference for free speech, a small state, a degree of libertarianism – that might have something to do with it.

    (It may be my ignorance or inattention that makes me unsure whether we have any religiously-Jewish author(s). I have sometimes assumed/guessed religious Judaism in commenters but I do not recall it being mentioned – unsurprisingly, a commenter’s religious views being usually off-topic to whatever subject was being commented on.

    I’d very cautiously guess a rarity bordering on absence of other faiths’ adherents – but could be misremembering.)

    I will now go a bit off-topic (in my defence, so have others above 🙂 ), the better, later in this comment, to get back on topic again.

    the idea of god is incoherent

    It is normal for elaborated religious and irreligious moral ideas to present at least the appearance of ‘incoherence’. Richard Dawkins presents a claimed scientific basis for atheism at the end of ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ in so straightforward a form that it is easily shown to be self-contradictory. In ‘The God Delusion’, he much elaborates and also (wittingly or otherwise) obscures that argument, making it incoherent in more ways than one. (I recall writing some of my prolix comments demonstrating this way back.) Does that show that the idea of atheism is incoherent, or only that Dickie D’s idea of atheism is incoherent?

    Similarly, the argument of Epicurus (Penseviat, May 17, 2022 at 10:23 am) overlaps that applied to today’s governments by lefties (and not always only by them): the state could easily deal with [some issue] but refuses to act. I suggest our reasons for not agreeing with such people do not always and only concern the state’s lack of omniscience, benevolence and omnipotence (especially the last – the state usually has a lot more potency than we want). I suggest the question of moral hazard to the targets of its benevolence, the right of free souls to make their own mistakes, etc., etc., etc. runs pretty deep in libertarianism. Arguments that Epicurus’ argument was incoherent have not been lacking in the millennia since. (Plus, it led him to the rival philosophy of Epicureanism, against which the reproach could also be levelled.)

    I – and, I’m sure, everyone else here – could apply a similar reduction to many a ‘proof that God exists’ you might read in some pamphlet in a church porch. When the subject is a universal explanation of what is right (or that nothing is), what it all means (or doesn’t), then finding holes in other people’s arguments is typically easier than not finding you have to stop talking and go away and think about some issue a persistent questioner will sooner or later find in your own.

    And with that, I finally get back on topic. The knowledge that a difficult question may lie in wait can help restrain you from arguing dishonestly, arrogantly, crudely – arguing just for victory, not for truth. I keep quoting C.S.Lewis

    If you argue fairly, the very man who shouted you down may, ten years hence, prove to have been influenced by what you said.

    There is another possibility – one that Lewis was well qualified to point out. By arguing fairly, you may meet people who also argue fairly and patiently, so in ten years or less, you may prove to have been influenced by what they said. C.S.Lewis was an atheist for years, before – not uninfluenced by discussions with Tolkien and others – he converted to Christianity.

    For some, that idea of agreeing with someone else instead of persuading (making) them agree with you is a danger that using unfair arguments helps avert. In a recent post I quoted the paragraph below, putting the post-specific part of it in bold. For this post, it’s the bit at the end that I want to emphasise:

    The problem is: I was wrong. Or, to be a bit more accurate, I got things partly right. But then, for the rest, I basically just made it up. In my defence, I wasn’t alone. Everyone was (and is) making it up. That’s how the gender-studies field works. But it’s not much of a defence. I should have known better. If I were to retroactively psychoanalyze myself, I would say that, really, I did know better. And that’s why I was so angry and assertive about what I thought I knew. It was to hide the fact that, at a very basic level, I didn’t have proof for part of what I was saying. (Confessions of a Social Constructionist)

  • Snorri Godhi (May 17, 2022 at 10:49 am), IIUC we have very few original Epicurean texts – his philosophy mostly survives in the works of later redactors, including at least one supporter as late as the second century AD. I don’t offhand know the source from which Penseivat is quoting. It could be from a late Christianity-aware redaction of a differently-phrased original.

    That said, IIRC, Greek philosophers such as Plato (against whom Epicurus argued) did sometimes postulate an abstract divine idea of ultimate good and cause over and above the very fallible gods of their myths and/or that the gods might be very unlike their representation in those myths. So I hesitate to say it could not be a viable translation of an Epicurean saying of 270 BC.

    ADDED: a quick trip to the web tells me it is from Lactantius’ attack on Epicurean ethics. Lactantius was a third-fourth century Christian author, so his rendition of Epicurus’ idea naturally speaks of ‘God’.

  • Penseivat

    Snorri Godhi(10.49) and Niall Kilmartin (12.51),
    I am not an academic or versed in religion, but came across that quotation many years ago while serving in the British Army and thought it worth remembering.
    My childhood (Catholic Irish mother and English Protestant father) led me to complimentary views of organised religion, where neither church would conduct their marriage service, leading to a registry office wedding, and my siblings and I referred to as bastards. Military experiences in Northern Ireland did little to alter my views on religion and the existence of a God. Over the years, I learned to question and challenge and nothing I have heard or witnessed has done anything to change my views on God or organised religions.
    When I turn up my toes and I then discover I’ve been wrong all these years, perhaps the benevolence will out and I’ll be forgiven.

  • It could be worse. The obnoxious and assertive atheist could have been a Vegan.

    As for my religious beliefs, I’m pagan, or perhaps heathen. I’m a Spiderist. Perhaps you could think of me as a Gaian heretic? Everything is connected to everything else, in some way or another, in a universal web of relationships. (With the Internet, the Web metaphor is becoming more common.) And if everything is connected in a tremendous Web, what kind of God would design the world that way? A Spider — the Great Spider.

    http://washuu.net/GtSpider.htm

    It started as a story about the Book of Eucalyptus. I added a tract. It got caught up in fandom. And it began to spread. (Put “First Arachnid Church” into your search engine of choice. But note that Spiderism was fully active a decade before the Internet and its Web began.)

    It started to make so much sense that quite a few of us became believers. Spiderism is, like Buddhism or the way of the Tao, more a philosophy than a theology. It can happily exist surrounded by other religions. But it also can, by itself, be a good and true way of seeing the world.

  • Penseivat

    “Uncomplimentary”.
    Bloody autocorrect.

  • NickM

    Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray
    May 17, 2022 at 10:52 am

    The existence of an all-powerful God can be directly deduced from physics.

    That is utter bollocks. Your subsequent arguments are best bollocks. It makes profoundly sweeping assumptions about concepts such as infinity and chaos which are basically wrong in any scientific or mathematical sense I can think of. I take particular umbrage at your use of the term, “directly deduced”. Even “implied” would be too strong but “directly deduced” is taking the piss. “Compatible” I’d be OK with.

    Consider this. Yes, obviously, the fundamental constants permit life as we know it. This neither directly implies they were “tuned” or that there is a “multiverse”. We simply don’t know why the gravitational constant or the charge of an electron or whatever is as it is. What we do know is that we are here discussing such matters. How this came to pass is, so far, unknown (possibly unknowable), but it is the state of things. It is fact.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Snorri Godhi
    I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s remark that, to a fellow intellectual, he would define himself an agnostic, but to common people he would define himself an atheist, because they would not understand the difference.

    But this encapsulates the pedentary of the argument with regards to agnosticism verses atheism. There is a point at which holding out for an unlikely possibility is intellectually dishonest. To use an example (which I believe I am stealing from Russell), I have never been to Australia, a lot of people have, and tell me it is there, but I can’t exclude the possibility that they, along with all the maps and TV documentaries, are lying to me. Even if I had been there and seen it with my own eyes, I can’t exclude the possibility that my eyes were lying to me, so even then I am agnostic with respect to the existence of Australia.

    But that is just pedantic. To all practical purposes I believe in Australia, I would make plans assuming its existence, I would never even consider raising my doubts about Australia’s existence even with my most tin-foil-hat friends. So my position is I absolutely believe Australia exists, however, I am an open minded person who is more than willing to examine new evidence of its non existence should I be presented with it. Nonetheless, I have absolutely no rational reason to seek out such evidence.

    I’m not by any means saying one cannot be agnostic. If you truly are not sure and you can see the case both ways, then God bless you. But the pedantic argument “one can never be 100% sure” is simply not the way reasonable rational thought works. It is what I call “pedantic agnosticism”.

    In fact there is a certain dishonesty in the contextualization of this pedantic agnosticism. If I say “I can’t say for certain that God does not exist” one must surely say, to balance out the narrow cultural context of such a statement, “I can’t say for certain that Odin doesn’t exist, or that Huitzilopochtli doesn’t exist.” Because in most contexts in which one would declare one’s pedantic agnosticism to only allow the remote possibility of the Christian God is to suggest that that is more likely than the other, which generally is not the view of the pedantic agnostic. So I find pedantic agnosticism rather intellectually dishonest (though to be clear, I respect and enjoy debating with both true agnostics and true theists.)

  • Snorri Godhi

    Niall and Penseivat: Thank you for your replies.

    Like Ellen, i too have pagan sympathies — although Viking rather than Spiderist. I also enjoyed reading about the Greek myths as a child — in an expurgated version, of course, without the sex and with reduced violence (although Saturn did eat his children, right at the start).
    But i also appreciate Judeo-Christian ethics, especially after reading Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. The Christian inspiration is obvious.

    In as much as i have an affiliation, though, it is to Religious Skepticism: I believe that there might be an afterlife, and we might be punished in the afterlife for all certainties that we hold in this life.
    By writing “might be” twice, instead of “is” and “shall be”, Religious Skepticism becomes a coherent belief system.

  • bobby b

    Given how personally – and badly – many take the questioning of their gods, “pedantic agnosticism” is mostly atheism presented in a way that doesn’t trigger pointless argument and enmity.

  • Fraser Orr

    My view on this is fairly straightforward. I will describe myself as “an atheist, but not an evangelical atheist.” As the OP points out to think of “atheists” as a group is a mistake, they share only one viewpoint in common. They are no less diverse than “chocolate ice cream lovers”. So to assume that one atheist’s view somehow tells you anything at all about another’s, aside from on one question, is a mistake. Christians are a diverse group (as I imagine are other religions, though I am not as well versed in them), but they do have certain unifying principles and beliefs, much more so than atheists. To not believe something is a narrow thing, to believe something, and consequently, inevitably, to decorate that belief with much baggage, is quite another.

    So back to my “not an evangelical atheist”. My view is rather a bleak one, really. That the universe is what we see it to be, that there is no design and purpose beyond the one we impose on it. There is no law of physics imposing justice, karma or fairness, even though we puny humans might try to arrange things to make them a bit more just, karmic and fair. There is no promise of an afterlife, no reason to believe the wicked will be punished or the virtuous rewarded. Those you loved who died are gone forever, except in the memories you nurse in your mind. These are all really rather bleak views, in fact it is my belief that religion has been created over the millenia by the powerful to control people by disguising from them these ugly truths — soothing them that they aren’t true, and in exchange for your tithe we will make it all better. As the saying goes — never let a crisis go to waste.

    But I say this because I think the people who run Religion Inc at the top are generally horrible people. Religious people, though generally speaking, are not. Religion offers them a great deal of value. Community. A sense of purpose. A codified morality, leading to a sense of moral certainty. A hope for the future. Meaning among the meaningless. A promise that those we love are not gone forever. These are hugely valuable things, and atheism doesn’t offer much in trade for them.

    So much as I am sure this is the way the universe is, I’m not sure I want to subject anyone else to such a brutal reality. If you are happy in your religious view and it doesn’t impact you too much then I wish you well, and I see no kindness in dispelling your happy little delusion.

    The only thing then that “atheism” has to offer, or more broadly an unadulterated view of the universe has to offer, is its truth, its correspondence to the brutal laws of reality. And that is useful because it allows us to make predictions about the future, to create ideas, science, technology, even aesthetic and “spiritual” things that actually work. So as long as you keep your religion out of the laboratory and the science classroom (and in fact most other classrooms) I think it is almost cruel to evangelize the religious to atheism.

    However, religious zealotry is very dangerous. There are few things more dangerous than a zealot who is willing to do anything to advance his religious beliefs, because his God justifies his every action. God bless the Church of England, from whence never a zealot did come. 😀

    Of course it depends on the person. I’ll certainly debate people, but I don’t consider a conversion to atheism to be a victory. In fact, I find it rather sad and, given how fragile most people are, often quite dangerous.

  • NickM

    Fraser,
    I don’t entirely buy your Australia comparison. The (singular?) problem of “God” is defining Him/Her/It. There are umpteen different definitions which kinda fit the bill even though they differ in very significant “details”. Is God outside of time? Does God change His* mind? Those two are obviously closely linked. Is God’s abode a place (like Australia?) or something more abstract? And there are many more. I contend that without a very definitive concept of what God is does it make the move to debate His existence a reasonable thing to do. And our species has a long and continuing history of crusades, jihads, sectarian violence and witch-hunts to attest to there being nothing like a consensus (for what that would be worth) as to what exactly God is. Or ought to be or whatever…

    I don’t believe this is pedantry. I don’t believe it because at some level His existence is the really big question. Because, if He does exist, it explains most everything. Well, probably, depends on your conception of God, obviously.

    *”He” from now on for brevity.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    NickM, the American science writer Victor Stenger has demolished the fine tuning argument here, by the way: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fallacy-Fine-Tuning-Victor-J-Stenger/dp/1616144432

    Worth a read. Unfortunately, he is also very rude about climate change sceptics, which is proof that no-one is perfect.

    Niall, for me, the idea of an all-powerful god that we cannot see, smell, touch or hear and only understand by faith is incoherent, not to mention that god gets angry (but if he/it/whatever is all-powerful, why be emotional at all?), etc. etc. (I refer to the God of the Bible, but I pretty much bet the same problem applies to other monotheisms.) God creates nature, but is not of it, etc etc. Too much mental fuckery for me. The concept of a god is beyond any frame of reference that makes sense, so I take the view that as such, it is unbelievable and false. So I cannot sit in the agnostic middle position.

    You are right we have folk of most faiths and of none on this blog. I am not sure if we have any followers of the flying spaghetti monster, but maybe Perry knows.

  • Snorri Godhi

    There is much to discuss here, and i’d also like to qualify my earliest comments.
    Right now, however, i’d like to point out a corollary of NickM’s observation, that the concept of “God” is ill-defined.

    If “God” is ill-defined (except that, as i remarked above, it seems that God cannot be both omnipotent and benevolent), then we cannot know what God wants us to do.

    If we cannot know what God wants us to do, then there is no point in knowing whether God exists, except out of intellectual curiosity.

    Therefore, there is no point in discussing whether God exists.
    Indeed, the pedants are those who think it necessary to take a position on the existence of God.

    I call this thesis: Radical Agnosticism.

    –A historical note: Hume maintained that the sentence “God exists” is neither true nor false, but nonsensical. That’s because he believed that words have meaning only when they signify entities of which we have experience; and obviously we have no experience of God. (Nor can we possibly have experience of a God who is infinite in any way.)

    See here for cogent criticism of Hume’s thesis.

  • Penseivat

    Another quote from my military service:
    “If you tell people you talk to God, then you are praying, and they will respect you. If you tell people that God talked to you, then you’re a loony and they will want you locked up.”

  • Snorri Godhi

    So I cannot sit in the agnostic middle position.

    Johnathan: in the interest of keeping this discussion civil, i am not going to tell you what i really think of your views.

    Agnosticism is not in any way a “middle position”.
    Agnosticism is an epistemological position.
    It has nothing to do with delusional metaphysical positions such as theism or atheism.

    I have respect for theists motivated by Pascal’s wager (such as John von Neumann, possibly the most intelligent human of all times), as well as scientists who take atheism as a necessary working hypothesis.

    I have no respect for atheists inspired by Objectivism.

  • Snorri Godhi

    If you tell people that God talked to you, then you’re a loony and they will want you locked up.

    🙂

    On the other hand, if you tell people that you believe that God exists because He/She/They talked to you, people cannot prove you wrong.

    If you tell people that you believe God does does not exists, how are you going to justify it, except by the logical fallacies of the Objectivists, and the atheists in this thread?

  • NickM

    Snorri,
    Never thought of that! It’s an interesting point.

    JP,
    For me agnosticism is not a middle ground. I’m not a kinda theological Lib Dem. I just believe that if a question cannot be framed in a way that it is not answerable then it’s irrelevant. I think it is perhaps even more problematic than that. “Does God exist?” is a quite different question from “Does Allah exist?”, or the same about Yahweh… And that is just within the Abrahamic religions which have deeply shared roots (I heard recently that the most named individual in the Qu’ran is Isa (Jesus)). So… once you stray off those forking paths the question becomes truly labyrinthine. And that is the point about the difficulty being in defining the question. There are examples in mathematics and branches of physics (I’m looking at you QMech!*) of unanswerable questions but at least the question itself is definable. There is no general solution to quintic equations (that is a proven fact) but at least we know what a quintic is. I doubt they teach anything about them in schools but any reasonably bright kid who knows a bit of basic algebra should grasp the concept in a couple of minutes. God, who is taught from the cradle, has defied some of the greatest minds for millenia.

    *Maybe a better example is the three body problem – which is not what swingers think it is. It is though, a right royal pain in the arse…

  • Fraser Orr

    @NickM
    I don’t entirely buy your Australia comparison.

    Nick, I apologize I didn’t communicate more clearly. My argument (in the post you refer to) was not at all an argument for or against the existence of god[*], rather it was an argument about rationality. Effectively I was saying that if you think that the probability of an proposition being true is 99.999999%, then it is rather dishonest to say you are unsure, that you are, so to speak, agnostic on the outcome. Pedantically that is true, but practically it isn’t, and to claim to be agnostic in face of those odds (assuming that those are the odds you calculated) is not very honest.

    Of course if you calculate the odds at 50%, or 70% then that is an entirely different story — then you have every right to declare yourself agnostic. But in the cited case, with Respect to Russell, he evidently was more in the 99.99999% camp.

    Of course I also agree with BobbyB that agnosticism is an effective rhetorical device to keep peace at the dinner table.

    [*] Not due to equivocation, my position on this is clearly set out later, but to keep the argument clean.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    NickM, do you think the multiverse is real, or not? If it is real, then my argument is a logical deduction. If it is not real, then we live in the only Universe- and a God who is aware would resolve the Observer problem- is anything there if not seen by something?

  • Fraser Orr

    @Snorri Godhi
    If “God” is ill-defined (except that, as i remarked above, it seems that God cannot be both omnipotent and benevolent), then we cannot know what God wants us to do.

    Two points — historically, as far as I can see — the large majority of gods were neither omnipotent nor benevolent.

    Second, even if we cannot know what god wants us to do we can be sure there will be plenty of hucksters and charlatans who will claim they can. And the horrible alternative of the nihilism, confusion and amorality of the observable universe leaves people desperately hungry for answers and thus highly susceptible to such con artists.

    If we cannot know what God wants us to do, then there is no point in knowing whether God exists, except out of intellectual curiosity.

    That’s not true, because the universe does not revolve around us. If god exists and interferes with the universe then we certainly need to know that to understand how things in the universe work, and why they are the way they are. Perhaps god exists but doesn’t give a damn about you and me, in fact he is worshipped by the creatures of the planets of the Orion cluster. He answers their prayers, and sometimes we get the blowback from those prayers. If he designed the universe for the Orions then we will see it here too, and that, surely, is worth knowing about.

  • NickM

    OK, Fraser. Point taken but… It seems to me the “God Question” is a special case (sorry Australia!) because for a true believer it underpins everything. I mean I’ve heard Muslim co-workers say, before knocking-off for the day, that they’ll have a biryani for dinner if there is rice in the cupboard, inshallah. I think the postulated cause of everything is a question of a different colour*.

    On a personal note. I went to university to study biology. I changed to physics. This left me with an epic mathematical mountain to climb. I did that and it was not easy at all but it lit in me an interest in the history and philosophy of maths. I came to love maths as an adult which I think makes a difference. So where does maths come from? Why is it true? Is it God that made 2+2=4 or is it just an abstraction from the physical Universe or is maths just an elaborate game where the practioners (broadly) adopt the same rules? I came to a conclusion that maths just is. That there are ultimate truths that just are and are not the result of the diktat of a putative supreme being is quite a powerful thought.

    *Though to be fair if the guy really, really wanted a biryani then the rice question is clearly of more immediate concern.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Comments that i’d like to answer keep accumulating, and i had too little sleep last night, and i started on the beer. (It’s 20:36 over here.)

    So, unless i get less sleepy, which sometimes happens at this time of day, this will be my last comment today.
    It’s just a tentative classification of agnosticisms:

    Dumb agnosticism: we don’t know whether God exists.

    Dumber (Dawkinsian) agnosticism: we don’t know whether God exists, but we can estimate the probability that God does exist.
    (See also Fraser Orr above.)

    Epistemological agnosticism: we cannot possibly know whether God exists, and we cannot even estimate a probability.
    (NickM’s position can perhaps be described as a variant of this.)

    Humean agnosticism: the sentence “God exists” is neither true nor false, but nonsensical.

    Radical agnosticism: knowing whether God exists or not, is of no practical relevance.

    Arrogant agnosticism: it is silly to hold a definite position on whether God exists or not. (But it is not silly to hold one or the other position as a working hypothesis.)

    –For the record, i subscribe to:
    epistemological agnosticism (and by implication, dumb agnosticism);
    radical agnosticism;
    arrogant agnosticism.

    I reject Dawkinsian agnosticism, and Humean agnosticism.

  • I have always seen it thus: an atheist says there is no reason to believe god exists. An agnostic says the existence of god is unknowable, an unanswerable question.

    I describe myself as an atheist because I have seen no theory involving god that explains reality better than assorted theories not requiring a god.

    Oh, and btw Dawkins is an authoritarian cvnt.

  • Snorri Godhi

    an atheist says there is no reason to believe god exists. An agnostic says the existence of god is unknowable, an unanswerable question.

    What’s the difference??

    (I am getting a second wind!)

  • Johnathan: in the interest of keeping this discussion civil, i am not going to tell you what i really think of your views.

    I have encountered many self described agnostics who regard their position as a middle ground hedge & thus would tell you to go rotate. Usually the view is “I’m unwilling to definitively state god exists/does not exist, so I’m more comfortable with agnostic than atheist.”

    Personally I’m a “shoulder shrugging atheist” because I find the topic of only limited interest given the paucity of good explanatory theories involving god.

  • What’s the difference??

    One view is there is currently no known viable theory, the other is the nature of the question is intrinsically unknowable.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I have encountered many self described agnostics who regard their position as a middle ground hedge & thus would tell you to go rotate. Usually the view is “I’m unwilling to definitively state god exists/does not exist, so I’m more comfortable with agnostic than atheist.”

    I myself have never met such people: the only agnostics that i know of, are people such as TH Huxley, Darwin, Russell, Einstein (on at least one occasion), Neumann (before he returned to Catholicism on the grounds of Pascal’s wager), and Popper.

    On the rare occasions when friends told me what they believe, those who do not identify as either (mono-)theists or atheists told me that they don’t even know whether they are agnostic or not.

    One view is there is currently no known viable theory, the other is the nature of the question is intrinsically unknowable.

    That is the difference between dumb agnosticism and epistemological agnosticism, see above.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I mentioned TH Huxley, Darwin, Russell, Einstein (possibly), Neumann, and Popper as agnostics.

    In the interest of fairness, i should mention that Alan Turing was an atheist (at least, according to Wikipedia…).
    Turing was in the same class as any of the above.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Snorri, you have spared us from saying what you really think of my views. Such restraint. I’m overcome.

    😔

  • Given how personally – and badly – many take the questioning of their gods, “pedantic agnosticism” is mostly atheism presented in a way that doesn’t trigger pointless argument and enmity. (bobby b, May 17, 2022 at 3:24 pm)

    These days, ‘pedantic’ or ‘prudent’ agnosticism might be a degree of belief in Christianity (or Judaism) that also believes in the career-limiting consequences of woke HR finding out you hold it. (By – distant 🙂 – analogy, I suspect some in California voted for Trump in 2016 but afterwards preferred to have their workspace HR think they had abstained from voting for either candidate.)

    Christianity (and, IIUC, Judaism) has no formal equivalent of the Muslim doctrine of taqiyya (literally “prudence, fear”, meaning a precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution). However Christ’s forgiving nature has been a byword for two millennia, that of the modern woke not so much, and some may judge it prudent to avoid annoying today’s less forgiving faith.

    There is also agnosticism that is not ‘prudent’ or ‘pedantic’ (unless in a philosophical sense) but sincere AFAICT. For example, the Unitarian church originated as a Christian heresy but I think maybe you could defend calling it an agnostic faith.

    Also, in logic, agnosticism seems a proper, perhaps inevitable, way-station on any slow-enough journey to or from belief.

    Just my 0.02p FWIW.

  • I myself have never met such people

    Surprising as it is a pretty common view in my experience, but perhaps people are less willing to tell you what they actually think if you describe such views as dumb agnosticism

  • Neal

    Too many words. Not everything in what is called Space is in what is called Time.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Niall Kilmartin
    degree of belief in Christianity (or Judaism) that also believes in the career-limiting consequences of woke HR finding out you hold it.

    I think that is true. The wokeism of the left bears an awful lot of the markers of religious belief and religiosity (as does, FWIW, Trumpism), and that religion is beginning to take on the aspects of becoming the official state religion, with many of the ugly aspects on the religious zealotry of the Catholic Church during the reformation. Thankfully, no burning at the stake yet. Religion rarely allows any competition.

    Also, in logic, agnosticism seems a proper, perhaps inevitable, way-station on any slow-enough journey to or from belief.

    Just to be clear again, I am not at all opposed to this kind of agnosticism, I think it is an honest and reasonable position, even though I think it is incorrect. What I do think is dishonest is this view that since we cannot 100% disprove the existence of God we should have a kind of bougie view of it, maybe even a faux mathematical view of human reason this while a jot or tittle of uncertainty remains on a proposition one cannot accept that proposition. I am not at all ashamed to say “I believe in Australia”.

    (My kids taught me the word “bougie” and I have been desperately looking for an opportunity to use it. It isn’t a perfect fit here, but cut me some slack… I’m trying to get all urban and stuff.)

  • NickM

    Epistemological agnosticism: we cannot possibly know whether God exists, and we cannot even estimate a probability.
    (NickM’s position can perhaps be described as a variant of this.)

    I don’t like the concept of probability as applied to an absolute such as the creator of the entire Universe. This is one of my serious problems with Dawkinism*. It is not just that I can’t ascribe a possibility but that it makes no sense to me to think in such terms about such an ill-defined concept. If a question cannot be defined it cannot even be seriously asked let alone answered.

    *That is one of my problems with “The God Delusion”. That and the way it is shot through with the attitude that, “I’m an Oxford Professor so clearly I’m right because I’m much more clever than you plebs”.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Surprising as it is a pretty common view in my experience, but perhaps people are less willing to tell you what they actually think if you describe such views as dumb agnosticism

    🙂

    Today is the first day that i ever used the expression “dumb agnosticism”.

    And as i wrote (hinted) above, dumb agnosticism is a logical consequence of epistemological agnosticism, and therefore i myself subscribe to dumb agnosticism.

  • Ferox

    Pascal’s Wager is crap. Given the jealousy and pettiness of most of the long list of gods out there, you would be better off believing in no god at all than in the wrong god. Better to call it Pascal’s Horse Race.

    As far as cosmology goes, I don’t care what anyone believes, until their belief system extends into controlling this world. Believe in Jehovah, believe in Vishnu, whatever, we will all find out soon enough. But tell me that certain consenting adults can’t rub their parts together, or that certain combinations of syllables can’t be uttered for fear of offending the divine Poobah, or that religious holidays can’t be celebrated in the public space because it offends your militant anti-theism – then I tell you to f*ck off with your absurd sense of certainty in the face of the unknowable.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Snorri writes:

    “I don’t understand the difference between this group of atheists and the first. Or are you making a distinction between ‘philosophy’ and ‘ideology’? If so, it is a very fine distinction.”

    No, what I was getting at is that I have come across atheists who buy the charge that to be an atheist is to lack any kind of over-arching philosophy, and they seem to make a point of not having ANY sort of structured view of the world. It is as if they buy the charge that religious folk make that without belief in a supreme being and revealed morality, one must be amoral, and that anything goes.

    “Have you heard the story of Ayn Rand telling Rothbard that he should get a divorce because his wife was Christian, and then expelling Rothbard from Objectivism because he refused?”

    Yes, although to be fair Rothbard was a bit of a prankster himself, and not reliable. I suppose Rand could argue that if a person was in her circle, and claimed to buy into her views, then having a religious wife was odd. I also heard that the main reason he was removed from Rand’s circle was that he was accused of plagiarising a piece of work by Barbara Branden. I have no way of verifying this, not knowing the principals at the time – who are now all dead.

    “I have no respect for atheists inspired by Objectivism.”

    Why is that? Surely it would depend on whether the atheist was already an atheist, and was interested in Rand’s ideas, or whether a person claims to be inspired by her ideas and becomes an atheist without really thinking it through. For some people in my experience, they buy the whole Objectivist approach in an almost religious way, without nuance. Maybe that’s what you mean here.

  • If you tell people that you believe God does does not exists, how are you going to justify it, except by the logical fallacies of the Objectivists, and the atheists in this thread?

    You don’t have to justify it. It is up to those who believe in the existence of gods to justify their position, should justification be necessary. I simply have no belief, nor interest in the existence of supernatural beings of any sort – gods included – and I see no reason to justify that or to try to prove my non belief. I am, however, happy enough to tolerate those who do and to accept that they believe and if it gives them comfort, then so be it. I do not have a label for my lack of belief and do not need one.

    I have a militant atheist who comes onto my blog from time to time and he is usually shouting and screaming obscenities about how believers are murderers and oppressors of some sort. The last time he did it, he irritated me enough to start deleting comments.

  • JohnB

    Sometimes it seems to me that religion is the worst thing that has happened to trying to understand and partake of reality.
    All a Christian has to do, for instance, is allow God to work in his/her life, not to try and do all sorts of stuff to please/appease/placate/win-favour-with, God.

    However.
    As to whether it’s all rubbish.

    Again, it seems to me one is starting off on the wrong foot.
    One should just examine all the data that one has.

    The current conclusion that I have come to is that to assume that order, any sort of order, came spontaneously out of randomness, is not logical in terms of reality as we perceive it.

    Simply, the natural way (order) of things is towards randomness, not order.

    Put a drop of ink in a bottle of water and it disperses evenly. My blood pressure pills are made by dispersing a given amount of medicine in a given amount of chalk, or whatever is used, in the certain knowledge that with a bit of stirring it will disperse evenly.
    And thus my pill is the same medication milligrammes as the next guy.

    The natural order is to randomness.
    Order, polarity, electrons, protons, up, down, dark, light, life, could not have come about without there being some pre-existing order.

    The natural way of things is to randomness.

  • Snorri Godhi
    May 17, 2022 at 3:02 pm

    Like Ellen, i too have pagan sympathies — although Viking rather than Spiderist. I also enjoyed reading about the Greek myths as a child — in an expurgated version, of course, without the sex and with reduced violence (although Saturn did eat his children, right at the start).

    I can appreciate Thor, and maybe Freyja. I wouldn’t want to live next door to Odin or Loki. From the Egyptian pantheon I can appreciate Ma’at (Goddess of truth and balance), Thoth (God of learning) and Ptah (God of artisans). Among the Shinto kami, I most appreciate Inari, for the duality of his/her nature and for benevolence and protection. I’m not really that knowledgeable about other pantheons.

    That said, I find Spiderism the most useful in shaping my world.

  • the American science writer Victor Stenger has demolished the fine tuning argument … Unfortunately, he is also very rude about climate change sceptics (Johnathan Pearce, May 17, 2022 at 4:02 pm)

    That is arguing fairly – Johnathan references a counter-argument, but also inform us of its proposer’s own ‘religious’ beliefs and relative lack of civility to heretics. I will not of course know what, if anything, Stenger can do against Professor Penrose’ calculation (that an infinitely lazy creator, chucking a pin randomly at a manifold of all possible universes to create ours as the one hit, would need to be lucky to one part in ten to the power ten-to-the-power-123) until and unless I take time from my day job to study it – something I confess I am not that strongly motivated to do when I add Johnathan’s most welcome and honest qualifying information to my not-that-high-anyway guestimate of how likely some ‘Mr Stenger’ is to be right and Roger wrong in this particular area of expertise (though of course it is possible – or, at least, I do not know that it isn’t). We all bring our prejudices, not just religious ones, to this debate.

    But while a universe created with an entropy so low that it has only a probability of one part in ten to the power ten-to-the-power-123 is a universe so unlikely as to leave room for a very unlazy creator indeed, that room is uninformative regarding whether it does and/or what else. There are also – there always are! – some follow-on philosophical issues not easily resolved. A limit on that number would be like a boundary condition on the 4-dimensional space time that is our reality. Could such a condition be scientifically demonstrated, when either establishing its truth by the scientific method within spacetime or else unaidedly going beyond spacetime are neither obviously feasible? (As usual, these abstract analyses only get to the point of showing that a would-be proof, on one side or the other, is invalid.)

  • Fraser Orr

    @JohnB
    The natural way of things is to randomness.

    Where I live my kitchen is often a disordered mess, however, every once in a while it suddenly becomes much more organized and ordered. It is true that kitchens tend toward disorder, however, an injection of some energy and that disorder is dispelled.

    The universe is definitely becoming more disordered, but that doesn’t exclude the fact that in some isolated pockets (including my kitchen) it becomes more ordered. It costs more energy to order it than is stored in the new order, so even that is entropic, but the pocket is still more ordered.

    This happens all around us all the time. Salt crystals are much more organized than the salt molecules dispersed in sea water. Wood is much more organized and structured than the free carbon dioxide gas it is formed from. The muscles I am using to type this consume energy to behave in an ordered organized fashion. At a larger scale, various chemical reactions in the brains of many humans work together to build cities and civilizations.

    All of this is fairly well explained by the laws of science and nature, and there is no factor in there to account for the actions of an external intelligence. For example, in all scientific experiments the equation F = G.m₁.m₂/r² + g, where g is God’s influence on the force, g has always been found to be zero and so is conventionally omitted 😀

  • NickM

    Fraser,
    You beat me to the punch! Might I add a bit? OK, thermodynamics… The second law states that within any closed system entropy increases. OK. But that is the system overall. As you point out (and you really don’t want to see my kitchen – not now anyway – my wife has been baking!!!) that even when you reduce the entropy of your kitchen the closed system in question is of course kitchen + Fraser + … The “…” meaning all the other things involved such as the manufacture and transport of cleaning products etc. Now if it comes to the Universe we’ve probably got the ultimate closed system. Certainly if we don’t get Dr Who Timey-Whimmy or whatever and the Universe is understood as the sum total of everything then that is actually a tautology. BTW I’m using “closed” here in a strictly thermodynamic sense and this has nothing to do with “open” or “closed” Universes in the cosmological, general relativity sense.

    So yeah, it will overall become more disordered but of course pockets of order can be formed. A flame is highly disordered but that’s what makes a steam engine run. OK, here’s a better example… Inscribe a circle inside a unit square. Get a blind guy to throw darts at it. Count the darts that land within the circle and those that land within the square (ignore the ones that hit the dog). With some very simple arithmetic you can get an approximate value for pi. Also the more darts thrown the closer you get to pi. I have (sort of) done this with QBasic (yeah, I know) and the RND function (yeah, I know). It does work although the convergence is very slow. Still, it is order out of chaos and the more chaos (the more darts) the greater the order.

    Or consider this. Two body problem – easy, three body problem – unsolvable in closed form and a bitch to even approximate, n-body (N>3) – just let’s not go there. Now Avagadro’s number of bodies which wouldn’t fill a shot glass with water even though it is truly enormous and we’re into stat-mech and fluid mechanics and it’s all OK again. Kinda. I know there is no general solution to Navier-Stokes – yet.

  • Niall, for me, the idea of an all-powerful god that we cannot see, smell, touch or hear and only understand by faith is incoherent (Johnathan Pearce, May 17, 2022 at 4:02 pm)

    Just as Aquinas’ ‘proof’ of the existence of God gives the almighty’s chance of existing quite a leg-up in its premises, so any idea of God as ‘only able to be understood by faith’ and etc., is being started off with something of a handicap in that same race. 🙂 (Niall-pedant-Kilmartin could challenge ‘incoherent’ even in that context, but that has more to do with what I think ‘incoherent’ means.) Either argument, to risk ending somewhere else, would have to start somewhere else.

    I will now give an example to show what I mean – and risk that it may also tempt others (or me) into going a bit off-topic in any responses. I apologise for its length (the good news is: this may be my last comment in this thread).

    The idea of Christ’s resurrection is no more literally seeable, smellable, touchable or hearable to you and me today than the idea of Caesar falling at the base of Pompey’s statue after the conspirators stabbed him – a melodramatic touch that, in a play, might seem contrived, if we did not believe it happened in 44 BC. We, today, can consider both events historically. People back then could see, touch and hear whatever was there (and, one assumes, smell; the age was less antiseptic than ours).

    In science fiction, one can meet the idea (comically, as at the end of ‘The Technicolour Time Machine’, or fearfully, as in ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’ sequels) that Christ’s rising after three days death might be very well supported yet doubting that makes him worth listening to, but in real life, people who believe one but not the other strike me as very thin on the ground (though the attitude of doing so, and its converse, can both be met).

    If someone ‘just knows’ that death is the end, that no-one comes back, then they would ‘just know’ that all accounts of a witness who did so had to be false. On the other side of the question, some are as uninterested because they ‘just know’ Christ personally in ways they find more immediate than ancient history. Others again find it an event far better historically proved than a ton of ancient world events we take for granted – after considering it as they might Cortez fleeing Tenochtitlan, or any of the various other events in history that are astounding, sometimes to the point of incredibility, yet supported. And others again choose to demand that it meet a far higher standard to get their attention.

    As a baysian statistical analysis can depend on what underlying distribution we assume – FYI wikipedia begins the article on it:

    Bayesian statistics is a theory in the field of statistics based on the Bayesian interpretation of probability where probability expresses a degree of belief in an event. The degree of belief may be based on prior knowledge about the event, such as the results of previous experiments, or on personal beliefs about the event.

    – so you can see through the very ignorance-revealing attempts to criticise bible history of a Dawkins’ (and many another such) to reach historical first-century documents which obviously contain real contemporary-recorded incidents and from which the resurrection will not at all comfortably come away and yet still face the issue faced by (for example) a woman who saw a ghost. She did not believe in ghosts before she saw one – and she did not believe in ghosts afterwards. “It could have been a hallucination”, she said. And that was an event in her life – not a historical one where hallucinations can be less-embarrassingly attributed to other people, who are not around to protest. Seeing was not believing for her – not if it meant believing in ghosts.

    What you believe depends on what other hypotheses you consider (you choose to consider) even less likely – or not less likely.

    I’ve been on both sides of this question – in my sceptical youth and after I grew up into a man some would call less sceptical (I flatter myself I became more-intelligently sceptical). I present myself as believing rationally – but the analysis that led to my conclusion depends on choices, so all I’m actually claiming in this thread’s context is to have studied the question enough to know that reaching the opposite conclusion would also depend on choices.

  • From the Egyptian pantheon I can appreciate Ma’at (Goddess of truth and balance), Thoth (God of learning) and Ptah (God of artisans)

    What? No time for Tawaret?

  • The wokeism of the left bears an awful lot of the markers of religious belief and religiosity (as does, FWIW, Trumpism)

    Wokeism is defined by a collection of specific beliefs. I’m not sure what (if much of anything) distinguishes it from the New Left that emerged from the 1960s counterculture, except that the notion of gender as a social construct had yet to emerge. I suspect that “Trumpism” is a word like “globalism,” a vague term that can have at least six different meanings depending on who’s using it. His conservative and crossover voters are animated by the same issues that influenced their votes over the past 40 years. What changed was their faith in their respective leadership, the latter neglected by the elected Dems in favor of the activist class, the former sick and tired of their candidates pandering to the Democratic leadership and failing to function as an opposition party. The fanaticism among some Trump supporters is the mirror image of Trump Derangement Syndrome; in opposite ways, both represent a failure to see Trump as a mixed bag.

  • JohnB

    The natural way of things is to randomness.

    Looking at the way things happen rather than any formulae, or even a kitchen of events and items.

    It seems to me that existence is a continual erosion of difference, potential, polarity, whatever, into sameness.

    There is nothing in the natural world that establishes difference as an original point. All events and differences, such as say, a volcano or the 220 volts at the plug point, are the result of the resolution of difference to neutrality, sameness.

    Where did the original potential, difference, even just between the simplest of things, come from?

    The way of this world and, as far as I can see, the whole universe, is the erosion of difference to sameness.

    Natural progression is to overall sameness. Not difference.

    From where came difference?

  • NickM

    JohnB,
    You are stating quite ill-defined articles of something like faith. It is the mere metaphyhysics of that great philosopher Bolloxio.

  • JohnB

    Just observing what happens, NickM.

  • NickM

    No, you are not JohnB. You are taking examples of totally unrelated “ordered” phenomena and trying to ascribe them to a single organising cause – God. That is not counting birds in the back garden or having a weather station – it is a considerable leap of faith. It’s also veering towards “The God of the Gaps”…

    “We don’t understand x”

    “God did it!”

    “Ah, OK then cause God can do anything can’t He!”

  • Doug Jones

    When pressed, I say I’m a wistful agnostic. I can see the comfort, strength, and community that others derive from their faith, but I can’t bring myself to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

  • Steve Willson

    Zealots are always dangerous, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that zealotry is hardly a trait exclusive to the religious. Or, more accurately, that many supposedly “atheistic” beliefs are really nothing more than substitute religions, believed without thought or question. They fill the same spiritual void as more conventional faiths.

    I have seen Wokeism described as “Puritanisn without all the fun,” and I think that’s a good description.

  • JJM

    A good part of the commentary here reminds me of a George Orwell line:

    “He was an embittered atheist (the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him).”

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