Monday, January 2, 2012

A jaded look at agnosticism

When I first identified as an atheist, I took interest in arguments over the definition of atheism and agnosticism.  But over time, I have come to hate these arguments.

I freely admit that not all of my hate is for good reasons.  For example, I hate the sheer number of cliched arguments involved.  I hate analogies about baldness, collecting stamps, and fairies.  I hate distinctions between lack of belief and belief of lack.  I hate arguments over negation and certainty, even if they happen to be good arguments.  As for this diagram...

 I have seen so many variants on this diagram.  (Source)
...I think it needs two more dimensions.
 The horizontal line in the middle represents people who think that there is no way to tell whether the diagram is or is not BS.  ...with apologies to the creator of the original.

These are silly pet peeves of mine, but I think there are also some good reasons to dislike arguments over atheism/agnosticism.  I believe that the arguments are mostly made of relative opinions.  That is to say, identifying as agnostic or atheist mostly has to do with how you see yourself relative to others.  Are you constantly bothered by those atheists, or are you sick of those agnostics?  It's all about who you want to use as a foil to yourself.

And since the arguments are primarily about your personal experiences and impressions of the other side, it all ends in stereotyping.

Supposedly, agnostics are accomodationists and atheists are more confrontationalist, and this stereotype is the basis of much defense and criticism of agnosticism.  But the stereotype simply isn't reflected in my personal experience.  Many agnostics I know are aggressive critics of religion.  I suspect this may be most true in the atheist community, where the agnostics are usually outspoken contrarians.  I do not think my experience reflects any general characteristic of agnostics, but it makes me think the stereotypes are unfounded.

Often, these stereotypes are encoded in the definitions.  For example, agnostics sometimes define agnosticism as lacking certainty about God.  The implication being that atheists are 100% certain and dogmatic, or they're too stupid to realize that they're actually agnostics.  Atheists sometimes use a broad definition of atheism, with the intention of arguing that agnostics are either religion-apologists, or too stupid to realize that they're actually atheists.

There's supposedly a substantive issue underlying atheism/agnosticism arguments.  That is, is the existence of god discernible?  Agnostics say no (unless you're talking about the silly sky-daddy kind of god).  Atheists say yes (unless you're talking about the useless deist kind of god).  This supposedly substantive disagreement, when properly understood, boils down to what kind of definition of god you think is most relevant.  That is to say, the disagreement is not all that substantive.  I'm not convinced that the substantive gap between an atheist and an agnostic is any larger than the substantive gap between two agnostics.

And I can't say I really care about this hair-splitting.  Virtually every other issue which people argue over, they don't worry about degrees of certainty.  For instance, why don't people argue over whether they're certain about the success/failure of the free market?  It's just this issue, and you hold one position or another, or you don't argue either way.

I identify as atheist because I wish to take a position against religious beliefs.  I don't identify as agnostic because that is a game I refuse to play.  When I find that other people identify as agnostic, atheist, or agnostic atheist, I don't ask why, because I'm sick of hearing about it.


JC said...

So I was playing Freecell while watching a video that ended up talking about the Tower of Hanoi, prompting me to throw the two terms at Google and see what happens. Apparently, what happens is your blog, and one of the best posts on atheism/agnosticism I've seen in a long time.

I tend to identify as agnostic, but not passionately so. I just can't seem to get myself worked up about what I want to call the current set of [ever-changing] ideas I apply to the origin question. Right now, yes, I don't have confidence in the existence of a deity, and that's all I feel comfortable asserting. The word 'believe' makes me feel like I'm making some sort of commitment without any reason or evidence justifying it. We already have inferences, conclusions, suppositions, and guesstimates. Why add more dirt to mud?

So I feel better wearing a philosophy's label than a theology's, because they tend to more closely represent HOW I think, rather than WHAT my thoughts are. I'm a Hard Determinist, and use that as my window into the world around me because it [so far] seems to give me the least shaky conclusions. I don't discuss it too often, because an awful lot of people become sensitive when you start to question the nature of free will (I don't reject the possibility of free will, but nothing in recorded history seems to back up the existence of true, utterly spontaneous and random actions--and I won't even get started on the "yeah well 99% is fate but the other 1% is up to us!" bollocks). But I digress.

Setting aside complications that have arisen from determinism, it's managed to GREATLY simplify spirituality for me, at least to the extent that the atheism/agnosticism argument strikes me as misguided and missing the whole point. How ridiculous have we become that semantics have that much relevance in conversation? People ought to just make up some new words for clearly laid out ideas, abandon the old words, and shut up already.

...well, I suppose if they shut up, they wouldn't have the opportunity to use the new words...

miller said...

I've never seen this breakdown of how annoying the agnostic vs. atheism
debate is before, but I like how you worded it and mainly feel the same
way. I actually considered myself agnostic when I felt "unsure of if
there was a God or not" and then realized I was an atheist after taking a
Comparative Religions course my sophomore year of college. I thought
agnostic was the right thing to think of myself as when considering if
someone would ask me "Do you believe in God?", I'd probably say "Um...
maybe... I don't know" at the time. But other people seem to use
agnostic differently, and in the end I don't really mind, non-religious
people are non-religious people.