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Saturday, September 09, 2006

The pith of the pithy few

"Naturally there are many forms of stupid religion, for there is nothing touched by humans that cannot be made stupid. But at least religion as such does not exclude the possibility and priority of Intelligence, and therefore, Truth."

Over at One Cosmos One Cosmos: Atheism and Other Attacks on Mind Bro. Bob is the pith of the pithy few, habitually straying off the beaten paths, yet never failing to discover gems and nuggets that all others have overlooked on those less travelled ways. He will open your eyes, your mind, make you shake your head, sometimes in disbelief, sometimes in disagreement, but that is how it should be.

7 comments:

Lifewish said...

But at least religion as such does not exclude the possibility and priority of Intelligence, and therefore, Truth.

I find that quote interesting. To me, atheism doesn't exclude the possibility of God; it just claims that there's currently no evidence for His existence and hence no good reason to believe. We're members of the Reality-Based Community - when the available data changes, so do our conclusions.

The author of that quote, however, is apparently perfectly happy to ignore and exclude the possibility that belief in a deity has nothing to do with Truth.

Who, then, is the closed-minded one?

Bro. Bartleby said...

"To me, atheism doesn't exclude the possibility of God; it just claims that there's currently no evidence for His existence and hence no good reason to believe."

I think this brings us back to the blue sky, I called the sky blue, you agreed that the word "blue" was fine with you, so in agreement we refer to the color of the sky as "blue" and it helps us to avoid recreating a word for the color of the sky each time we refer to it. So, you have just tweaked the common definition of atheism, which now requires us to explain what we are really speaking about. The dictionary (our touchstone) defines atheism as the belief that there is no God. You have redefined the word to mean something like "My glass is empty, but of course that doesn't rule out that it could be full at some time, that is, if and when I detect something in the glass, then in that case, I will agree, the glass is full." Wasn't it Plato that said, before our discussion can begin, we much first agree upon the meaning of the words that we use (or words to that effect). So, in summation, wouldn't the word "agnostic" be closer to what you mean?
Agnostic: one who believes it impossible to know if God exists.

Lifewish said...

The dictionary (our touchstone) defines atheism as the belief that there is no God.

I would challenge that dictionary definition. Amongst the people who self-define as atheists with whom I have communicated, the overwhelming majority hold to my definition.

That's because, for sociological reasons, modern atheists generally have an excellent grasp of logic and are aware that the position "X doesn't exist" is generally untenable, whether X be God, gremlins or the Easter Bunny. As such, they generally just indicate that they lack belief in God in the same way that Christians lack belief in the Easter Bunny - not because we know it doesn't exist, but because we have no reason to believe it does.

If you want a better set of definitions, the usual distinction is the "strong" atheists, who actively believe that God doesn't exist, versus the "weak" atheists, who hold the position described above. Mostly, weak atheists are as freaked out by strong atheists as everyone else is - I've met maybe two in my life, and both were very scary people.

So, in summation, wouldn't the word "agnostic" be closer to what you mean?
Agnostic: one who believes it impossible to know if God exists.


I believe it would be impossible to prove that God doesn't exist, but perfectly possible to prove that He does (if He were feeling co-operative). Hence it wouldn't really be accurate to say I was an agnostic, by your definition.

I'd note that, historically, the term "atheist" has often been used to mean "strong atheist", and the term "agnostic" has often been used to mean "weak atheist". However, in current parlance,my definitions are more accurate.

Bro. Bartleby said...

An agreed upon understanding of the definition of a particular word is what makes or breaks communication. In general conversation one normally abides by the dictionary meaning of words, otherwise communication quickly breaks down, but communication within special groups require lingo, or special definitions, that outsiders would more than likely misinterpret. So to with your use of the term atheism. All my usage of the term "atheism" have been standard dictionary definition.

Merriam-Webster
Etymology: Middle French athéisme, from athée atheist, from Greek atheos godless, from a- + theos god

a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity

Here is how the OED defines atheism:

atheism: disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.

And the same is true when I used the term "agnostic."

Here is the OED's definition of 'agnostic':

agnostic A. sb. One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

At this point I can only say my usage and arguments are based upon the dictionary definitions, and you should read them as so.

But I think I understand the desire to redefine "atheism" to more fit with how one's understanding of just what atheism means to self and those who share similar feelings, but I think it unfair to use any words "with special meanings" in a discussion if one does not state this at the beginning.

I suppose what puzzles me is that you seem to reject "agnostic" in favor of a "atheist", yet agnostic seem closer to what you say you believe. I can only suspect that some folks like the hard-edge sound of "atheist" while disliking the perceived wimpy "not taking a stand" sound of "agnostic."

Lifewish said...

I suppose what puzzles me is that you seem to reject "agnostic" in favor of a "atheist", yet agnostic seem closer to what you say you believe. I can only suspect that some folks like the hard-edge sound of "atheist" while disliking the perceived wimpy "not taking a stand" sound of "agnostic."

That's almost precisely it. The problem is that there are three distinct concepts here, with only two words to express them.

There's the "wimpy" stance of "I have no position on the existence or otherwise of God". There's the rationalist stance of "there's no good evidence for God, therefore I lack belief in His existence". There's the stance of "I actively believe that God, as defined by any major religion, does not exist". The former is clearly agnostic; the latter is clearly atheist. How do we categorise the middle group?

I'd say that, although "lack of belief" is not "belief of lack", they're closer to each other than either is to "lack of interest". Additionally, there are far more agnostics than strong atheists. Hence, if we need a term for weak atheists, it's better to co-opt the label traditionally assigned to the strong atheists than that of the agnostics. It's better to call us atheists.

I guess mostly what would bug me about calling myself an agnostic is that the term carries the strong impression that I haven't come to a conclusion on religion or that I just don't really care. Neither is remotely true - I've been discussing these issues over a matter of years, and my position on the matter is very carefully thought out and formulated. I accept there is a touch of pride there, that I've at least tried to get the whole story, but I think it's justified.

Plus, of course, it makes for far more interesting debates with street-corner preachers :)

The reason I feel that it's valid to use this definition in the context of the One Cosmos post is that the author there is quite clearly speaking of weak as well as strong atheism. In particular, he refers to Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, both of whom are, to the best of my knowledge, "weak" atheists. They are rationalists rather than merely having Faith in an unconventional stance (as the strong atheists do).

Bro. Bartleby said...

I do think you should invent a new term, for "weak" atheist and "strong" atheist muddle the mental image. I picture a strong atheist ripping the entire KJV Bible in half, all the while roaring with laughter, but I picture the weak atheist using a yellow highlighter highlighting Biblical passages that reference satan, demons, and angels.

Lifewish said...

I do think you should invent a new term, for "weak" atheist and "strong" atheist muddle the mental image. I picture a strong atheist ripping the entire KJV Bible in half, all the while roaring with laughter, but I picture the weak atheist using a yellow highlighter highlighting Biblical passages that reference satan, demons, and angels.

Hehe, nice image. Actually, it's more like the weak and strong anthropic principles - the weak version is a fairly common-sense default position, whereas the strong version requires a leap of faith in its own right.

I'm tempted to solve the name overlap by referring to strong atheists as "antitheists", although I expect they'd object horribly to being bumped like this. One other option is to use the phrase "member of the reality-based community" for weak atheism - weak atheists generally self-define as RBC members first, and their atheism arises from that. I worry about mentioning the RBC in discussion with theists because it automatically implies that they aren't members of the RBC, which kinda begs the question in any discussion involving God's existence.

Anyway, getting back to the original point:

But at least religion as such does not exclude the possibility and priority of Intelligence, and therefore, Truth.

Using the definition of atheism (weak atheism) inherent in the One Cosmos article, it seems that atheists are actually a lot more openminded than the guy who wrote this. We do accept the possibility that a deity got involved, we just don't think it's terribly likely based on the (complete lack of) evidence.

Bro. Bob, however, appears to reject the possibility that the "priority of Intelligence" is not in fact True, and he excludes it so completely that he doesn't seem even to have realised what he's saying.