Elsewhere on the web…Atheists and Agnostics to battle!
July 6, 2010 — 21:47

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Comments: 12

Non-philosophy-based writing on religious epistemology mostly confuses me and frequently frustrates me. This article on Slate.com definitely confused me. But it’s an opportunity to make a point. Consider this excerpt.

“Agnosticism doesn’t fear uncertainty. It doesn’t cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.”

Apart from the ad hominem and the fact that though quantum mechanics is pretty fundamental it’s still pretty far from the “very groundwork of being,” the thing that bugs me is this idea that religious believers have any particular interest in certainty. “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.”
I’ve been pretty forthcoming about my own undulating credences here (enough so that some folks have asked me to send them my Spreadsheet (yes, I keep one)). Religious publishers catalogs abound with books embracing the consistency of faith and some limited but real doubt. There might be some fundamentalist sombitches out there who espouse certainty, but their getting all the press gets old. I’ve blogged a good bit on my Catholic blog about a *species* of certainty faith includes, but it’s not the kind of certainty these kind of people are talking about.
Now Brian Leiter lauds a comment on that story which includes this:

“Atheism is NOT the certainty that there are no gods. It is NOT a conviction that science will one day answer all questions. Atheism is the refusal to believe in gods in the absence of evidence for their existence.


Some of my Christian Evidentialist colleagues at Rochester–there’s a small colony of us emanating from there now–were discussing this and it was noticed that we counted as atheists according to this! After all, we refuse to believe *anything* in the absence of evidence!
Another problem with this definition is that it makes metaphysically impossible irrational atheists who disbelieve in God in the *presence* of evidence. And I have evidence that such persons are possible (it involves the lemma that the actual is possible). ๐Ÿ™‚

Comments:
  • Carl Ehrett

    It seems clear enough that the commenter’s point is about the scope of the relevant negation. The commenter is suggesting that to be an atheist is to not believe that there are gods, rather than to believe that there are not gods. The commenter explains this unbelief with the assertion that there are no good evidential grounds for theistic belief. That’s maybe a charitable read of the comment (the commenter conflates her explanation with her definition); but not overly charitable, I think, given that it is after all just a reader comment made to a story on Slate.com.

    July 6, 2010 — 22:29
  • What she says is clear enough from context, yes, but I was mostly poking fun (thus the emoticon).
    Still, when someone is berating someone else quite harshly for lack of clarity, it’s a good practice to be perfectly clear oneself.

    July 6, 2010 — 22:56
  • David Slakter

    I’m not sure if the commenter you cite is engaging in this practice, but it’s something I’ve been wondering about: Is there a semantic difference between not believing that x and believing that not-x?
    If someone were to say to you “I don’t believe in unicorns,” it would be not problem to assume that this person would similarly assent to the proposition “I believe that unicorns do not exist.” A number of atheists are however of the opinion that “I do not believe in God” does not entail “I believe that God does not exist.” Is this a defensible position?

    July 6, 2010 — 23:23
  • In poking around the blogosphere occasionally, I’ve seen gigantic flamewars break out on the proper definition of ‘atheism.’ Here is how I use the terms:
    Theist: Believes God exists.
    Agnostic: Does not believe God exists, does not believe he doesn’t exist.
    Atheist: Believes God does not exist.
    But in ‘atheism’ forums etc. on the blogosphere, ‘atheism’ often embraces all non-believers (both atheists and agnostics), and what I call ‘atheism’ is relabelled ‘strong atheism.’ My suspicion is that this usage is more at odds with the ways the words are commonly used than my own usage, but quibbling over terms is unsightly, as long as you’re clear about what you mean.
    But it is important to note that all of my usages refer to *beliefs,* so complaining that atheists (or theists) dogmatically claim certainty or knowledge on questions of God’s existence is IMHO misguided.

    July 7, 2010 — 10:02
  • “Some of my Christian Evidentialist colleagues at Rochester–there’s a small colony of us emanating from there now–were discussing this and it was noticed that we counted as atheists according to this!”
    I am not sure that’s the only way to read “Atheism is the refusal to believe in gods in the absence of evidence for their existence.” One could be Russellian about the “the” in “the absence”:
    x is an atheist iff there is an absence of evidence for the existence of the gods and x does not believe in God.
    (I omitted the conjunct that the absence is unique. I don’t know if there can be more than one absence of Xs.)
    On this version, there are no atheists in worlds where there is evidence for the existence of gods.
    All that said, I think the Christian should have certainty, and given saving grace, does have it. And I think that is compatible with evidentialism rightly understood, but it may provide a theological constraint on how to understand evidence and certainty.

    July 7, 2010 — 13:17
  • David Houston

    ‘the thing that bugs me is this idea that religious believers have any particular interest in certainty. “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.”‘
    Just wanted to point out that the verse quoted (Mark 9:24) is not legitimizing doubt but rather pointing to the moral failure of the person to believe since it comes after Mark 6:6 which tells us that that Jesus was “shocked” by the unbelief of the people (which raises all sorts of interesting questions about the hypostatic union!). Furthermore, in Scripture you never see doubts concerning God’s revelation in a positive light. If pointing that out makes me a fundy then so be it… but who would have thought that a guy who lives in Canada and isn’t a member of the Southern Baptist Convention could ever qualify for such a thing? ๐Ÿ˜›

    July 7, 2010 — 15:49
  • Mike Almeida

    . . . it makes metaphysically impossible irrational atheists who disbelieve in God in the *presence* of evidence. And I have evidence that such persons are possible (it involves the lemma that the actual is possible.
    Certainly it’s possible that there are people who do not believe in God in the presence of evidence. But they’re not atheists, on this rather stipulative use of the word.
    Apart from the ad hominem and the fact that though quantum mechanics is pretty fundamental it’s still pretty far from the “very groundwork of being,” the thing that bugs me is this idea that religious believers have any particular interest in certainty
    I’m a little uneasy around people who are certain that God exists, so I like the point. But this observation raised an interesting question. Religious believers do, it seems, have a particular interest in certainty. It seems like, if given the opportunity to find out for certain whether God exists, religious believers would take that opportunity. But I can see someone denying that. It’s not just that, very oddly, learning that you’re wrong would be (or seem like) a loss of something (don’t ask me what exactly). But also that, learning that you’re right, might also be a loss of something (again don’t ask me what exactly). Maybe it would change for the worse your relationship to God or maybe it would show some epistemic presumption or something. For all that, I guess I don’t have the good manners not to take the opportunity; I’m sure I would, for what it’s worth.

    July 7, 2010 — 16:13
  • Hey Trent,
    Have you read any works by Giussani? He emphasizes a lot on evidence, especially the fact that faith is the certitude of an exceptional fact, exceptional as that which corresponds to the needs of the heart. To my mind, not only is this more of a personal and a more human approach to faith, but philosophically, it makes sense. We see something that strikes us and then we verify it every day. I’ll write more on email, but I recommend Giussani’s Is it Possible to Live This Way? and The Religious Sense, At the Origin of Christian Claim, and Why the Church?

    July 10, 2010 — 12:48
  • Well of course firmer (rational) belief is better, my point is just that Scripture acknowledges that not everyone is in an ideal position.
    It’s worth noting that the man himself doesn’t seem to be rebuked in any way. It seems to me that either the disciples are being rebuked or the teachers of the law who were arguing with the man.
    Here’s what I want: For every p such that I wonder whether p, I immediately have (rational) certainty concerning whether p. That’s about as good as it could get. I’m not saying certainty isn’t an eschatological telos, but results are infamously bad when people expect a premature eschaton. I’m working on it, but I’m a work in progress. I don’t expect any more from anyone else.

    July 10, 2010 — 16:42
  • Very sensible. Just what I’d expect from a UT grad!

    July 10, 2010 — 16:54
  • Apolonio, I haven’t, but I’ll keep my eye out. It sounds like it’s right in line with my “Evidentialism with a Human Face.”

    July 10, 2010 — 17:20
  • David: If the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible counts as Christian Scripture, I think you may be exaggerating.

    July 11, 2010 — 23:07