The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where I Stand

A comment from Msnc on my last blog post (and my previous Rick Warren blog post) pointed out something that should have been obvious to me (so, a note of thanks to Msnc) – because of the generally polarized nature of any discussion regarding religion, people who hold a position that cannot be easily summed up in a word or a phrase tends to be disregarded, and that person is assumed to hold a position rather different (and often more inflammatory) than the position that they actually hold (and the position to which they are assigned is often one that, really, nobody holds).

So, I want to clarify my thoughts on religion and the existence of the divine.

I describe myself as an atheist. I do this knowingly and consciously, but not without the risk of being misunderstood. I do not claim to absolutely know that there is not god/God/gods/goddess/etc. What I do claim is that, based on my own personal observations and my understanding of how the world works, I can say that the god that I most often hear people describe – one who interferes routinely in human affairs, whose fingerprints are found on all aspects of the world, and who has a plan for each one of us personally – is extremely unlikely. Put another way – it’s a low-probability hypothesis.

A deistic deity, one who set the universe in motion and then let it run its course, is much more likely, but still a low probability hypothesis. There are many different hypotheses for how the universe began, and I know of no reason to think that a god setting it into motion is any more likely than any of the other hypotheses. In fact, it seems less likely than many of them.

But again, I am talking of probabilities – I do not claim to know the absolute truth, I am admitting that, like all of us, I can only go on the information available to me and determine what seems most likely. If new evidence comes to light, I will be forced to re-evaluate my positions. I become frustrated with people who refuse to re-evaluate in the face of evidence (such as evolution deniers or flat-Earthers) or who allow themselves to become suspicious of or hateful towards those who don't fall in their camp (thus my irritation with Rick Warren), and my frustration sometimes becomes invective (a fact that I am not proud of, but that I have to admit is true - though my level of vitriol has consistently been outdone by the host of media spokesmen from "the other side" - at least I'm not claiming that anyone deserves to be tortured for eternity) – but I do not ever believe (as folks seem often to claim I do) that I am inherently superior to these people. I do believe that I am being more honest (if for no other reason than that I speak in probabilities and not absolutes), but honesty is simply one trait, and any person is composed of many traits, both positive and negative.

I do hold that many ideologies (and religions are ideologies) hold codes of conduct, belief, and behavior that are harmful. That is not to say that the people are inherently inferior, but that their beliefs (which they hold for a wide variety of reasons ranging from the understandable to the absurd) may cause them to behave in ways that do not serve them, their communities, or the world at large. But I believe this based on evidence, and I am happy to discuss this with anyone who disagrees, provided that they are respectful of me as I will try to be towards them.

And this is where labels become a problem. Many folks will claim that because I do not claim to know whether or not the divine exists and am merely assigning probabilities, then I am an agnostic and not an atheist. In a technical sense, this is perhaps true, and int he past I have used this label for myself for that very reason. However, my experience with those who claim to be agnostic is that there is a general sense that the existence or non-existence of divinity are both equally probable – a notion that doesn’t hold water. And so I don’t use that label. I use the label atheist because most of the self-described atheists with whom I have crossed paths hold the same position as I do on this subject, and don’t claim absolute knowledge, but simply that the probability is weighted towards the non-existence of a god.

Do some of these folks hold themselves to be superior to believers? Yes, some do. But most of them don’t. The problem is that the loud-mouths are the most likely to be heard, and are also typically the most belligerent.

Do we think that we are closer to the truth of the universe than believers? Yes. But, believers believe that they are closer than us. The 50/50 agnostics think that they are closer than anyone else as well (or that they have a better idea of how likely it is to find the truth). So, if thinking that you are right is arrogant, then that is a label that can be applied equally across all of humanity (except for Joe, over in the corner there).

I would argue that thinking that you are right is only arrogant if you fail to meet two conditions: 1) you are aware of why you believe what you do and have a basic humility as a result, and 2) you fail to adjust your beliefs when evidence shows them to be false, or at least unlikely.

So, the believer who is aware that they are believing in a god based on faith and not evidence, and who is willing to accept new information is not arrogant. Neither is the atheist who sees the world in probabilities and is willing to adjust those probabilities as new information becomes available. The one-liner in the previous post refers specifically to those who fail to meet these two criteria, and then accuse others of arrogance.

So, that is where I am coming from. My thoughts on this matter have changed over the years, and no doubt will change in the future again (contrary to some claims, my mind has not decayed and I have not become set in my ways, as is known to those who have produced good counterarguments to beliefs I have held). What direction my beliefs will go I cannot say, as that will be dependent on evidence that I am not yet aware of.

1 comment:

vegatee said...

To me, agnosticism is about proof, whereas, atheism is about belief. Technically, all persons on the planet are agnostics (they can not prove the (non)existence of a supernatural being) be they atheists or theists. So, as far as I'm concerned, there are two kinds of agnostics possible: theist-agnostics (people who, like everyone else, can not prove the existence of a supernatural creator but believe it exists, or that it is likely it exists) and atheist-agnostics (people who also lack proof for their position, but do not believe a supernatural creator exists or is likely to exist). I'm an atheist-agnostic. I don't believe for a second that a supernatural creator exists, but I can't prove it, hence, the agnostic part.

The two types of agnostics lean toward their respective sides in various degrees. If I were to add a level to my classification, I'd have to say I'm a hard, or strong, atheist-agnostic because I have as high a level of certainty, as one can have without the benefit of actual proof, that there is no supernatural creator of the world/universe. I have no trouble accepting the notion that we might be some more advanced species' lab experiment, but supernatural? The eternal creator of all things?

Uhm. No.