Atheism, Agnosticism, Definitions and Misunderstandings

Leprechaun with goldIt seems some things need repeating. RD Rauser at Christian Post recently demanded evidence for atheism. Despite a number of atheists taking time to explain that it doesn’t make any sense to provide evidence for something’s non-existence including some excellent analogies using leprechauns, it seems the believers on the site still didn’t get it. Disappointingly, neither did he try to provide evidence for the non-existence of leprechauns. That would’ve been good.

One thing they insisted on repeating was that atheists are making a positive claim about the non-existence of God (we’d say “gods”, actually). Apparently, unless we’re certain, we should all be calling ourselves agnostics. Not shy of telling atheists what it is they believe, paracletus commented,

“Atheism” (speaking slowing with only the slightest bit of condescension) means belief in the non-existence of God.
And, once again, if one has BELIEF in the non-existence of God, one has a belief. One does not have the NON-BELIEF in God, which is agnosticism; one has the BELIEF in the non-existence of God.
I honestly don’t care what you are, but the term means something.

Here’s how I understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Atheism and theism describe beliefs. Theists are people who believe in one or more gods. Atheists are people who do not believe in gods.

People in either of these groups can also be agnostic. By agnostic I mean “without knowledge”, uncertain.

Theists believe in a God, but some may not be completely certain about it. They are still theists. They believe, but they do not know. We might call them “agnostic theists”.

Likewise atheists can lack a belief in gods, yet be agnostically uncertain about that. They may have considered various forms of theism carefully and found them lacking (Explicit Atheism), or, as in the case of a new-born child, they may never have considered the possibility of gods (Implicit Atheism).

Varieties of atheismI think it’s still correct and normal to call all these people “atheists”. More specifically this is sometimes called “agnostic atheism”, “weak atheism” or “negative atheism”. Wikipedia.org provides a more thorough explanation. However, “atheist” is a shorter and simpler term which encompasses all these things. Most atheists are not philosophy geeks (despite what you might think from reading the Internet), so I can’t blame them for using the single word to describe their non-belief.

As PhillyChief pointed out, the vast majority of atheists are “weak atheists”, those who’d say, “I don’t believe in a god”. They don’t “claim knowledge of the non-existence of gods”.

I think the confusion arises when a weak atheist describes their belief by saying something like,

“There are no gods”.

At which point a theist jumps up and points at him with a retort along these lines,

“Ah-ha! You made a positive claim, provide evidence or you’re just as irrational as believers!”

Strictly speaking the theist is right. It is a positive claim. However, I think unless stated otherwise this is generally the weak atheist being lazy in their speech. The majority of atheists who say this kind of thing are not claiming 100% certainty, nor intending to make some positive truth claim.Gruffalo book

To be completely accurate, they should say,

“I do not believe there are any gods.”

But most people aren’t concerned with being completely accurate in their everyday speech, so we fall into bad habits. When I say,

“There’s no such thing as a gruffalo.”

I am expressing my fairly-confident belief, not a 100% certainty. But yes, to be completely accurate perhaps I should say,

“Based on my experience, I do not believe that gruffalos exist.”

With self-proclaimed “professional philosophers” such as paracletus around I guess I should be using the latter phrase in all cases. Presumably even if it spoils the rhyme. If I don’t then I could be asked to provide evidence for my claim about gruffalos.

Why all the fuss?

If you read the comments following RD Rauser’s post, you’ll see a great deal of effort on both sides of the debate (some 84 comments at the time of writing). When paracletus said, “I honestly don’t care what you are…” he was telling a bit of a fib. Yet, to the rest of the world the distinction is academic and I’m sure most people I know would exasperated by the amount of electronic ink being spilled over it. Why do theists care so much about the precise definition of an atheist?

I can only speculate. My guess is believers feel that agnostics can be more easily ignored; after all, they’re not sure. Meanwhile if all other atheists can be characterised as strong atheists, they bear an equal burden of proof as theists and arguably look equally irrational. Perhaps this is an unconscious “smear” tactic by believers who, on some level, know their beliefs are irrational and so insist that everyone else’s beliefs are likewise.

Atheists care about this issue in part because it is their own beliefs being discussed and their rationality questioned. I think it’s important that atheism is understood by all and not allowed to become the subject of unchallenged ridicule and demonisation. I applaud sites such as Ask The Atheists for their helping people to understand atheism better. I get the impression that RD Rauser and friends are more interested in derision than understanding.

Irrational Beliefs As Blind Spots

I’d like to make something clear. I don’t think that religious believers or superstitious people are stupid. Far from it. In fact, contrary to what believers may feel, most atheists don’t think that religious people are stupid. They just think that they’re wrong about one particular thing.

Part of the reason this blog exists is my curiosity with the fact that intelligent people sometimes believe weird things. Intelligence doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that a person will be free of irrational beliefs.

elvis-glassesI’ve debated with people who believe a variety of apparently irrational things, from palmistry to faith healing. By and large the people I disagree with are not stupid, they’re usually pretty intelligent. I’ve even worked with people whom I’d judge to be more technically proficient than myself, only to be shocked to discover that they’re creationists who believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. It’s rather a staggering revelation, as if they’d suggested that Elvis was still alive or that photographed orbs were really spirits.

It seems this kind of weird belief coupled with intelligence is not unusual. I’m sure there are many more examples, but two spring to mind. Isaac Newton, one of the brightest minds in the history of science, spent less than half his time on the physics for which we remember him, the remainder of his efforts being devoted to Biblical study and alchemy. In more recent times, Larry Wall, the inventor of the programming language Perl, is reputed to be highly religious.

[As an aside, Rules 1 & 2 describing how Perl development takes place have an uncanny religious undertone, in my opinion.]

All of which makes me wonder – are these people not as smart as they seem, or are they right in their weird beliefs?  Is it me who is lacking something between the ears?

In considering why even intelligent people believe weird things, Michael Shermer concludes,

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

plastic_brains

I suspect he’s right about that, but it raises further questions. Such as why smart people are taken in by “non-smart reasons” in the first place?

After Googling this subject it seems I may have missed the point. Intelligence is thought to be independent of rationality. Intelligent people can be irrational or not, likewise the less intelligent. For example, Kurt Kleiner examines Professor Keith Stanovich’s take on rationality and intelligence:

“[Stanovich] proposes a whole range of cognitive abilities and dispositions independent of intelligence that have at least as much to do with whether we think and behave rationally. In other words, you can be intelligent without being rational. And you can be a rational thinker without being especially intelligent.”

I’ve long thought that there are many functions of the brain which are outside of the traditional definition of intelligence. Physical co-ordination, the ability to understand and reproduce melodies and rhythms, social skills, observation skills, emotional control, personal motivation and probably many more. I don’t want to get into whether or not we should broaden the definition of intelligence to include these things. What I take from this is that rationality appears to be yet another aspect of the brain’s unrecognised work.

Pirate_eyepatch180I’m reminded of a guy I knew at school who was usually top of the class in all subjects. Certainly he was a gifted scientist and quite competent with languages. Anyone would’ve said the guy had a good brain. What was surprising was watching him try to play tennis. He could barely hit the ball – even when it was thrown slowly towards him. Apart from making the rest of us feel better about our mediocre academics, this shows how people with generally highly effective brains can have blind spots in their mental abilities. Similarly, other people might be tone-deaf , socially awkward or like me, slow with numbers. In the more obvious and severe cases these “blind spots” are diagnosed and given names such as Dyslexia or Asperger syndrome, but the gaps in people’s abilities are no less real for the lack of scientific names.

As you’ve probably guessed, I think that irrational beliefs such as religion, superstition or pseudoscience can be considered blind spots in a person’s thinking in the same way that having “two left feet” or never getting the joke can be. These things are independent of intelligence as it is usually defined.

I guess the next question is whether these blind spots are innate or something that can be developed or reduced. Some of us are probably innately more rational than others, automatically looking for all possible explanations. And perhaps certain irrational ideas are accepted at such a young age that they’re not given much critical thought. Nevertheless, critical thinking is something which can be improved with practice, so there’s still hope for those of us who don’t naturally think of all the alternatives.

I faired only slightly better than average on rationality tests recently, so it’s something I plan to work on.

Choosing the right belief for the wrong reasons?

Religious conversion stories often seem to be emotional affairs. I think many religious groups exploit this (whether deliberately or not), using stirring music, intense group attention and other techniques to provoke an emotional reaction. This probably helps to convert people, causing them to cry, faint or be otherwise emotionally overwhelmed with the feeling that something really special has happened.

There are sometimes also emotional reasons why people people de-convert as well as convert, although they are not generally cunningly choreographed*. Certainly many of us who end up as atheists also go on to read up on theology and the many atheistic arguments against religion – particularly those who are online reading and writing blogs. However, I think in many cases, the thing which triggers the journey into critical thinking is emotional, or at least, not a rational argument in itself.

When I was a Christian, the main argument that had always bothered me was the injustice of divine judgement – Someone makes the world and everything in it, then gets His knickers in a twist when some of it (specifically the human bit) doesn’t turn out as He wanted. I managed to mostly ignore this problem while attending church as a teenager, until I went on a youth group holiday. The sheer quantity of preaching I was subjected to during this time bored, puzzled and frustrated me. I didn’t get any satisfactory answers, but I could no longer ignore the problem, so I drifted out of the church group in frustration.

I don’t think my reasons were especially carefully considered or rational – I only discovered proper atheist arguments later – it was frustration and boredom that made me leave. I wonder if the first step believers make is often something which in itself isn’t a damning logical argument against theism? Perhaps some fellow believers being unfriendly or cruel? An obvious lie told by their religious leader? Wanting to lie in bed on Sunday mornings? A personal disagreement with another believer on a non-religious matter? A close friend who believes something different? Or, as in my case, resenting boring lectures.

There are some great arguments against theism, but these are not amongst them. If a fellow Christian you know well deliberately ignores you when you happen to pass in the street that doesn’t make the existence of a god any less likely – they might just be having a bad day. Even if a religious leader is dishonest, he could still put this down to man’s inherent sinfulness. Sure, church hypocrisy doesn’t look good, and it even features at number 5 on Kieran Bennett’s list of reasons why people de-convert. The Church ought to practice what they preach, but if they fail to do so, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are completely wrong about God.

While none of these reasons are very rational, I think they might give people the nudge they need to reconsider their beliefs, hopefully with a view to what is rational. There are some examples of this in the comments by former believers on Greta Christina’s post asking what changed people’s minds about religion. For example, kc said:

Slowly I became more frustrated by my own questions, and more angry about hypocrisy and intolerance in my own church. That led me away from Catholicism.

A slightly different example is when events in a person’s life force particular atheist arguments into the foreground. Heather replied:

It wasn’t an argument that persuaded me away from my faith, it was a series of emotional experiences. One of the primary benefits of religion espoused by believers and non-believers is comfort.[…] But I hit a time of extreme distress, and I prayed and turned searchingly to my faith and found… nothing. No comfort, no warm fuzzies. I felt my pain exactly as it would feel were there no caring deity there to help me with my suffering. That was the crack in the ice that led to me to look at the situation through the lens of reason.

In a guest-post on de-Conversion explaining why she de-converted, DeeVee writes:

Watching my religious mother and both aunts die of cancer, while begging Jesus/god to save them, and he did not.  Not only that but I also worked in the pediatric ward of a cancer hospital in Houston and watched entire churches praying for god to save babies from cancer, and he did not.

The “Problem of Evil” was always there and a lot of religious people have probably heard it or even pondered it themselves. But when things are going well such worries can be put to the back of a believer’s mind. When personal tragedy affects a person, the problem of evil becomes large and unavoidable.

It seems anything from a subtle change in attitude to fellow believers to a major emotional upheaval can create a crack of doubt into which critical thinking and reasoned arguments can be inserted. This seems more likely if the believer is already aware of these arguments.

Well reasoned arguments against the veracity of religious belief are great for making a point or explaining atheist beliefs. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the part that non-rational factors play in changing people’s beliefs – in either direction.

(* Given the examples above, to choreograph the kind of emotional reaction that might lead someone to reject their religious belief would be an extremely vicious act.)