Monday, February 14, 2011

Atheism or Agnosticism? That is the question

Uh-oh, time to get deep and contentious!

Don't read this post if you're not ready to think about that sticky R-word, religion. If you're easily offended or firmly ensconced in a fundamentalism, this is not the post for you; go read something light, fluffy, and meaningless like this.

Still with me? Ok, you've been warned . . .

One of the comments in this post questioned my self-identification as a secular humanist/atheist. "As a trained historian," the commenter suggested, "you know better than to lock yourself into absolutes."

I appreciate opportunities like this to clarify my philosophical positions. One of the reasons I have this little blog -- besides the high levels of publicity, fame, and fortune I receive -- is so that I have a forum in which to work through historical and philosophical questions and, ideally, get constructive input and feedback from friends, family, and random trolls.

When I first read that comment, my thought was "oh, right, do I really mean to call myself an atheist, someone who definitively asserts the non-existence of supreme beings?" Maybe I meant to classify myself as an agnostic, someone who withholds a definitive pronouncement on the existence or non-existence of supreme beings? Was it my intention to be so assertive, or should I hew to a middle-ground?

I have thought about this question for weeks now, in response to that comment. In the broader narrative of my life, I've actually thought about this question since at least my mid-teens. Though I was baptized in the Siletz Church of Christ in the seventh grade, by the time I was a freshman in high school I no longer attended the church. In my junior year I began actively to ponder the Big Questions of life. For example, I always thought it was sad that, according to the Church of Christ, all Native Americans who died before the year 1492 were, by definition, going straight to hell because they had not been able to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

Also, according to the Church of Christ, Jews, Catholics, and all other Protestants were also going straight to hell. That's a lot of people to condemn outright.

Another idea that got my mind racing was reading the book The Secret Life of Plants. What struck me the most about this book at the time was the idea that plants weren't inert agglomerations of matter, but possessed some kind of life force. Maybe this life force was some kind of consciousness, but even if this was not the case, plants possessed energy and properties that were essential to us humans, and, in fact, life on this planet. Why else would we eat plants and use plants for medicines, poisons, and recreation?

Thoughts such as these got me wondering if there wasn't more to life than the Church of Christ was trying to sell me, wasn't more than my beloved friends and family in the Siletz area represented, wasn't more than I thought I already knew about the world? (From such small germs do spring bounteous forests of thought, some of the fruits of which are here in this post.)

It's essential to provide clear operational definitions for the terms we use when discussing such loaded and longstanding philosophical issues as the existence or non-existence of God.

I'll first specify what I mean by "atheism" and "agnosticism." The way I used these terms a few paragraphs above constitutes a general, lay, understanding of the terms: an atheist is "someone who definitively asserts the non-existence of supreme beings," and an "agnostic" is "someone who withholds a definitive pronouncement on the existence or non-existence of supreme beings." In this post, I'll be using these terms slightly differently.

Agnosticism means "an intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertainty of all claims to ultimate knowledge." Its root is in the Greek gnōstikós, meaning "pertaining to knowledge" (á, "not, without," + gnōst, "known").

Atheism means "disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings." Its root is in the Greek áthe, meaning "godless" (á, "not, without," + theos, "god").

I will use the word "God" as a general term that includes all monotheistic deities (i.e., Allah, Jehovah, etc.) as well all of the deities of the world's various pantheons (i.e., Shiva, Thor, Isis, Enki, etc. etc.). For ease of understanding, I will also refer to this notion of God using the male pronoun "he" rather than the more representative but awkward bi-gendered "s/he." You will find that I also approach this topic from a Christian perspective--particularly Protestantism--because my lived experience and educational background are much more centered in this tradition than any other.

There are two primary ways to conceive of God:
    1) in anthropomorphic terms as an actual being who resides in heaven (or Mt. Olympus, Valhalla, etc.). Christians express this idea through the Nicene Creed.
    2) as a useful term for something that cannot be expressed adequately in words; the term stands-in for "the great unknown" or "the great mysteries of life." Joseph Campbell characterized this usage as "the masks of God."

Using the above two broad definitions of God, am I an atheist or an agnostic?

In terms of God definition 1, I am an atheist. In terms of God definition 2, I am an agnostic. I do not believe that God exists as an actual being or beings, but I do believe that there continue to be mysteries, "unknown unknowns," and the like in our own psyches, on this planet, and in the universe.

In my interpretation, God definition 1 has through time been consistently reduced in applicability as human knowledge, science, and measuring methods have evolved. God definition 2 can still be a useful way for some people to understand the universe, because there are, as yet, so many mysteries to life -- and, in spite of physicists' long search for one mathematical equation to explain everything, with every new quantum or astronomical discovery, there seems to arise only more and deeper questions.

Christians who approach their religion using God definition 1 generally use circular logic that boils down to two key points. The first is that God wrote the bible, so they hold their beliefs because God said so in the Bible, and the Bible is the Word of God. The second is that they have faith in the Word of God because being a true Christian means having faith in the World of God, which God has provided in the Bible that he wrote. In my experience, the vast majority of arguments from Christians using God definition 1 can be reduced to these circular constructions, and such Christians are not generally amenable to stepping outside of this well-worn path, even for the sake of an intellectual exercise.

Many people who do not hold to the basic tenets of the above arguments fall into the category of defining God according to definition 2. For example, many self-professed Christians that I've known and heard about do not necessarily believe that God is an actual being, or that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, or that Christianity is the only true religion. Instead, they perceive of their religion as something that provides guidance, comfort, and community, just as Islam, Judaism, and other religions can.

Christopher Hitchens is an essayist and social commentator who expresses well some of the core elements of my own philosophy. Some of his opinions and interpretations I do not agree with (for starters, his approval of G.W. Bush's invasion of Iraq), and one of these days I will write a post that will enable me to go into more detail on some of this. However, when it comes to his stance on the world's organized religions, I share many of his core interpretations.

For example, I agree with Hitchens when he states that the burden of proof is upon those who assert the existence of God, not on those of us who do not.

Why do I hold such a thought? Well, for starters, how could an impartial observer evaluate among the claims of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and the ancient Vikings (for example) when each of these groups asserts that God(s) intervened in a certain situation, or created things in such a way, or commanded us to act in one way or another? From the position of someone trying to evaluate as objectively as possible such claims, it is impossible to come to any definitive determination, because empirical evidence for all of these claims is lacking. As one commenter on this article writes, this dynamic illustrates the "inherent unprovability of a hypothesis of an unprovable being."

The conclusion that the impartial observer would likely come to is that none of these claims from various religious perspectives are true in an empirical, physical, objective sense. In spite of the circular logic of one group or another that begins and ends with the group's "holy book(s)," for anyone not committed from the beginning to that particular religion's version of God definition 1, then all of these assertions seem equally nonsensical. Unless . . .

What if we evaluate these religious claims in terms of God definition 2? What if, rather than expressing physical and temporal realities, religious claims speak to deeper mysteries of psychology, history, astronomy, physics, etc.? In this case, perhaps there are truths to be gained in religious expressions and ideas, but these truths are not TRUTHS, or even Truths, but nuggets and snippets and glimpses of universal mysteries that perhaps may one day no longer be mysteries, or quite as mysterious, or they may be mysteries for as long as homo sapiens and our descendants yet live?

(This interpretation is not something I thought of on my own; I'm indebted to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, in particular.)

The distinctions above exemplify the essence of my self-identification as an atheist in terms of God definition 1, and an agnostic in terms of God definition 2.

I trust that the analysis above conveys how I -- as an historian -- approach the question of God's existence, but I'll provide a final note to further specify my perspective.

I adhere broadly to the tenets of Secular Humanism. This means that I do not take things simply on faith (this post goes into more detail), and that I have a "commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions." When I'm trying to interpret historical evidence and write narratives, I could not fathom coming to a place in my research where I would just throw up my hands and exclaim, "Well, I guess I just found an example of God's intervention, so I can stop this line of inquiry . . ." This seems to exact opposite of what a good historian should do.

On the contrary, whenever I get to a place where I find myself thinking in terms of some grand narrative that explains all things, I do one of two things.

One option is that I'm making a conscious choice to express things in a general way because to go into much detail will take me far afield from the focus of my narrative. For example, I may opt to explain in only two paragraphs the complexities of nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization throughout North America, because the purpose of my writing is to explain the situation in Oregon's Willamette Valley from the 1920s forward, and I want to do so in 70,000 words, not 700,000. I gotta draw the line somewhere, so I condense this part and provide in my footnotes references to the three or four essential books that go into great detail on this process.

The other option is that I've just discovered a facet of my own understanding that hasn't been sufficiently un-packed and examined. For example, if I find myself trying to characterize the most important motivations of key people involved in Willamette River water pollution abatement efforts in the mid-twentieth century, I could just say that they were all self-interested sportsmen who wanted to maintain stocks of salmon for recreational fishing, but how does that account for the involvement of the League of Women Voters, or members of the Chamber of Commerce, or good government advocates at the city and state level, or federal government officials engaged in regional resource planning, . . .? Put simply, it does not.

Regarding conceptions of God, on the other hand, if I go into my research not seeking to uncover some tattered shred of evidence that, looked at through fogged lenses with one eye closed, might be construed as evidence of God's actual existence, BUT, instead, think of "God" as an idea, a shorthand, a concept that changes throughout space and time according to cultural needs, then I'm getting much closer to the secular humanist goal of approaching the world from as objective a point as possible. (For more about how I define history, and the dynamic between subjectivity and objectivity, see this discussion that I wrote for the Sustainability History Project.)



  1. A comment on FB: "Hmmm. I don't understand your agnostic feelings about "God" number two. I haven't read Masks of God in awhile, but my memory of Campbell is that he identifies god(s) as archetypes within most (or all) cultural myths. That archetype does sta...nd in for an unknown force, of course, but what does it mean to be agnostic about it? Is it that you have no reason to believe or disbelieve that cultures use supernatural archetypes to express their recognition of the unknown? Is it that we are forever compelled to represent the unknown with a thing or being, that it is, in fact, IMPOSSIBLE to leave the void sitting there without giving it a name? Are you agnostic about the god-as-placeholder? how radical! And an unnecessary claim to make, I think, about a wholly constructed creation. I'm TOTALLY offended."

  2. My reply to the above: "Good Q. My intention was to indicate that I'm atheistic when it comes to conceptions of "God" as an actual being, and agnostic when it comes to conceptions of "God" as a stand-in for "the great mystery." I'm certain that the Christian God doesn't exist, but I don't pretend to be able to explain fully what's beyond the Masks of God. Does that make any sense?"

  3. A comment on FB: "yep. Our constructed religious beliefs and texts are impairing the view--what's out there? SOMEthing....maybe! Or not. Who knows? Interesting to think what we'd know about our universe by now if people hadn't been so busy building bullshit deities."

  4. My reply: "My interpretation is that deities actually served a very useful purpose in the past, and perhaps they might be useful these days as well (in some capacity), but people just get too hung up on the deity itself and neglect to consider that that it's what's _behind_ the mask that counts, not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."

  5. Nephew: I will respond when I've had a chance to consider all that you've written, but I would like to remind you that it isn't necessary to insult people for their beliefs so the first part of your message, to those who are labeled fundamentalists, was, in my opinion, unnecessarily rude, egotistical and unnecessary. But I still love you as much as ever. Aunti Grace

  6. I look forward to the discussion!

    When I used the term "fundamentalism," I meant precisely this: "a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming."

    I stand by my use of this term in this context as providing a caveat for those who may not want to read further; if once considers one's self a "fundamentalist," one likely won't enjoy reading this post. I intended no disparagement in that characterization, but I did want to provide a clear warning.

    The "meaningless" portion of that compound sentence pertained only to the link I provided at the end of the sentence: I intended this as cutesy way of saying, essentially, to people who consider themselves fundamentalists: "Ok, move along, nothing to see here . . ." and not as equating "fundamentalism" with "meaninglessness." I don't agree in any way with fundamentalism as defined above, but this disagreement doesn't necessarily mean I consider fundamentalism "meaningless."

    However, I do consider Hollywood celebrity gossip to be meaningless.

    Unfortunately, cutesy doesn't always translate effectively in the written word!

  7. This quote is well-put, in that it accurately presents an important line of questioning that I have had for years: "Why are we even discussing this? We are discussing this because evidence for the historicity of Jesus is so meager that it is hard to believe that the all-knowing God will not leave any convincing evidence for the benefit of the coming generations. If this is true then on the Jesus story depends the salvation of the world. Then how come we are deprived of any significant historical evidence? The Christians, of course, retort by saying that there is enough evidence out there which proves that the Gospel account of the life of Jesus Christ are accurate. The facts, unfortunately, are other wise. There is not a single eyewitness account. There is no archeological evidence. No corroborative evidence. All we have are a few fragments that even when put together reveal nothing."

  8. "the great 'verities' of the Christian creeds seemed to make sense only so long as you didn't trouble to think them out too far" (source.

  9. I could not fathom coming to a place in my research where I would just throw up my hands and exclaim, "Well, I guess I just found an example of God's intervention, so I can stop this line of inquiry . . ."

    Put aside historical research for a moment and consider if you've ever experienced divine intervention in your personal life. Can you honestly say that you've never had an experience that you could not explain and therefore could attribute it to some higher power? Maybe it was something that you wrote off as "good luck" or "coincidence"?

    I have a hard time defining myself according to your definitions above simply because I do not pretend to know or understand what higher powers exist. I was raised as a Lutheran, and still attend church. I recite the Nicene creed. I pray to God and ask for His help and guidance. But I don't necessarily believe that He is sitting in a place called Heaven watching over us all.

    I can say, however, that there have been moments in my life where I could not explain the outcome of events and decided that it was an outside force, higher being, or what have you, that steered the outcome. This, for me, is faith. My definition of faith? The belief in something that cannot be seen or explained. Whether it is God Himself or just a universal energy, I have faith that something is guiding me and that I am not skipping through this life willy-nilly of my own accord. Am I saying that my life has been premapped? That I am have a destiny I cannot change? I'm not sure. I think I have free will and can make choices at significant crossroads in my life, but who is to say that is not the Divine guiding me along my predetermined path? I'm just not sure. All I know is that I HAVE experienced times in my life where I said to myself "Wow, that was really amazing that it worked out that way. Thank you, God!"

  10. Heidi, how could I have missed your comment from a month ago?! I'm not sure at all, but thanks for the reminder today.

    You raise some good points . . .

    Can you honestly say that you've never had an experience that you could not explain and therefore could attribute it to some higher power?

    The key word, for me, in this question is the second could. I certainly have experienced things I could not explain, and I could have attempted to explain it by ascribing it to some higher power, but that wouldn't feel right to me, in my gut, and it wouldn't actually explain anything, from my point of view. I find it both more accurate on an intellectual and existential level and more comforting on a personal, emotional, level, to shrug my shoulders and say, "well, I just don't know! Someday maybe we will know, but not yet!"

    My definition of faith? The belief in something that cannot be seen or explained.

    Thanks for providing this clear definition of faith, from which we can base our discussion.

    Looking at the dictionary definition of faith, it's interesting to me that this word means both "belief that is not based on proof" and "complete confidence or trust in a person, remedy, etc." This latter aspect of the definition doesn't necessarily mean having complete confidence with or without the lack of proof. The way I define faith, however, requires some element of proof -- at least proof in the sense of "evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth."

    Therefore, based on my definition of "faith," I have faith in Jennifer's love for me based on her past and present words and actions; I have faith in my ability to find professional work that provides sufficient remuneration and spiritual fulfillment based on my previous ability to do so; I have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow based on its past performance and laws of physics; etc.

    I don't have faith, however, in the objective reality of other people's versions of anthropomorphic deities, based on the argument I laid out in this post. This is how I would consider myself an "atheist" in this sense.

    I have faith that something is guiding me and that I am not skipping through this life willy-nilly of my own accord.

    Thanks for sharing this. I have no such faith. For me, answers to the deep, existential question "what is the purpose of life?" are highly individual and absolutely contingent upon the specific place and time where one exists. For example, it would have been impossible for you to have been raised a Lutheran in Medieval Europe, and it would have been impossible for me to have gotten an advanced degree in history, considering my economic status, much earlier than the mid-Twentieth Century. Therefore, how we would perceive our "purpose" if we existed in another place or time would be different from how we do now.

    Also, speaking for myself, my "purpose" has changed over the course of my life. in the late 1980s I thought my purpose was to make a career out of the U.S. Navy, but this is definitely not my purpose these days!

    All I know is that I HAVE experienced times in my life where I said to myself "Wow, that was really amazing that it worked out that way. Thank you, God!"

    This is great! It doesn't convince me that your version of God objectively exists, nor that I need to believe in the objective reality of your or any other anthropomorphized deity, but I am happy for you!

  11. I disagree one hundred percent with your definition of faith. "Faith" implies that you're going out on a limb; that you are believing in something even though it may not be real, but you are going to stick your neck out for it because you believe in it on an unconscious level, and you WANT to believe that it's true. You may not be familiar with the Bible, but there is a passage that refers to having the faith of a mustard seed. If you know what a mustard seed looks like, it is TINY! That's all the faith it takes to move mountains - and I truly believe in that. Try to look past what you can see and what you have evidence of and see if there is even a mustard seed of belief left. If so, then you HAVE faith!!!

  12. "Faith" implies that you're going out on a limb; that you are believing in something even though it may not be real

    Based on this definition, then, I would have faith in such things as are listed in the Declaration of Independence: "all [people] are created equal" and all people have "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

    What may not be real in the above list, but that which I have faith in, are the ideas that all people are created equal, that there is such a thing as a "right," that these rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the only truly legitimate form of government derives its power from the willing consent of the people.

  13. Okay, I'll give you that. So what you're saying is you DO have faith, even if it's not related to the spiritual world! I knew you had it in ya!

  14. I knew you had it in ya!

    Uh-oh . . . does this mean we can't argue any more???