Atheism, Agnosticism and Reasonableness

In Thinking About The God Delusion, John Scalzi ruminates on Richard Dawkins’s new book, which I haven’t read yet, so can’t really comment on. However, I do know enough of Dawkins’s writings that something Scalzi said, mostly in passing, leapt out at me. He said this:

As far as things go, I suspect Dawkins and I are in the same boat regarding the existence of God, which is to say we’re agnostic about it, roughly to the same amount we’re agnostic regarding invisible pink unicorns.

Scalzi goes on to say that, despite this basic agreement between them, he doesn’t share Dawkins’s view of religion as inherently dangerous. So long as it doesn’t step on his toes, he’s cool with its existence. (Don’t trust my piddling little précis. Go read the whole thing. As usual for a topic such as this, most of the meat is in the discussion afterwards.)

I’m not interested just now in the ‘Religion: Good or Bad?’ question – though I will very clearly stand up in Dawkins’s corner. What does interest me here is the language Scalzi chose to describe both himself and Dawkins. Scalzi self-identifies as an agnostic. Dawkins self-identifies as an atheist. So how can Scalzi put the two of them in the same boat?

I suspect the answer to that might come from a bit of rhetoric similar to the following, which appears in Dawkins’s The Root of All Evil?, a two-part television piece made for British TV, which is practically unshowable in the self-congratulatingly free-speech-championing US. On the notion of the unprovability of the existence of God, Dawkins says:

Science can’t disprove the existence of God. But that does not mean that God exists. There are a million things we can’t disprove. The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, had an analogy. Imagine there’s a china teapot in orbit around the sun. You cannot disprove the existence of the teapot, because it’s too small to be spotted by our telescopes. Nobody but a lunatic would say, ‘Well, I’m prepared to believe in the teapot because I can’t disprove it.’

Maybe we have to be technically and strictly agnostic, but in practice we are all teapot atheists.

The construction of Dawkins’s last line here is characteristically precise. On a philosophical level we have to accept that the non-existence of the teapot can’t be proven. However, that doesn’t mean that we consider ourselves believers. We almost certainly don’t even consider ourselves to be agnostic on the matter, except in the context of a purely philosophical argument, or some sort of conscious playing of devil’s advocate. Ask someone, truly, honestly, whether they believe in the teapot, or the invisible pink unicorns, and they’ll say, ‘No’, and might add, ‘Of course not’, even though they would at the same time be quite happy to accept the logical impossibility of disproving their existence.

In the real world, what you won’t find with respect to Mars-orbiting teapots and invisible pink unicorns is the retreat into the philosophically safe haven of agnosticism. And yet it happens with the god-concept all the time. Scalzi places himself in the same boat as Dawkins, yet self-identifies as an agnostic, despite the fact that Dawkins wouldn’t ever seriously self-identify that way, except, as shown, to essentially use the term ‘agnostic’ as a way of describing that he isn’t one in anything other than a meaninglessly, bean-countingly empty way.

In some sense, to someone who believes that there isn’t a god, both ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ are accessible as ways of describing themselves. ‘Agnostic’ is accessible through purely logical grounds: such-and-such can’t be disproven, therefore I must entertain the possibility, however remote. ‘Atheist’ is accessible in a real-world, non-academic, practical way: I might be wrong, but I don’t believe that there’s a god.

Note the use of ‘but’, because it gives away the precedence. Dawkins says:

Maybe we have to be technically and strictly agnostic, but in practice we are all teapot atheists.

What he’s saying here is that, with the technical and logical qualifier that non-existence of pretty much anything can’t be proven, the defining part of how we look at the teapot is that we don’t believe in it. It follows linguistically that we’d call ourselves ‘atheists’ with regard to the teapot, ditching the agnostic bit as being an irrelevant footnote to the main argument.

Interestingly, one of Scalzi’s commenters, fishbane, uses a mirror image of the same construction:

I believe there is no god, but I have no way of proving that is so, so the best word for my belief state is agnostic.

This is a very curious and revealing line of reasoning. The first six words are more or less a dictionary definition of atheism, and yet the arcane philosophical quibbling which makes up the post-‘but’ remainder of the sentence is deemed to take precedence. Both ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ are accessible here, yet the technical hedging of bets that’s inherent in the espousal of the agnostic view is seen as trumping the basic, practical statement of belief.

I’ve seen the same (frankly) spurious and inconsistent argument elsewhere: I can’t disprove X, therefore I’m agnostic on the matter. The curiosity that Russell and Dawkins pick up on is that the X in question is almost always religious. The sudden familiarity with and love of logical rigour is picked up only when it proves to be weakly expedient. About the teapot and the unicorn there is no practical agnosticism.

I’m interested in why self-described agnosticism is regarded as more correct among people whose descriptions of themselves are often textbook examples of atheism. The answers, I suspect, are caught up in a web of social history: false equivalences between atheism and communism, for example, or the propaganda pushed by the right-wing that atheism is inherently amoral. There are also basic failures of either knowledge or logic, too, in which atheism is falsely portrayed as the belief that a god cannot exist, or the claim that one knows that a god doesn’t exist. These are straw men, of course. Like all straw men, it’s helpful to look behind the curtain to see why these straw men have been created. Sometimes it’s genuine ignorance, but often it’s more disingenuous.

I’m struck by the sense in which, when atheism and agnosticism are both accessible as descriptions, agnosticism has acquired a perceived golden glow of reasonableness, of moderation. Again there are societal and historical motivations for portraying atheism as an extremist position, rather than merely a relatively uncommon one. The effect is to see agnosticism as a matter of logical responsibility. If I cannot disprove the existence of God, the argument goes, not only do I call myself agnostic on the matter, but it’s incumbent upon me to do so. To do otherwise would be unethical and extreme. Of course, this argument is hogwash, since it’s a kind of logical exceptionalism applied with remarkable selectivity. The teapot and the unicorn don’t have good enough agents to get this sort of deal.

Moreover, the perceived ‘reasonableness’ isn’t at all in the direction of agnosticism. It’s in the direction of faith. It just so happens that agnosticism sits neatly between faith and absence of faith, a rose between two thorns. So if one rejects atheism as a description of oneself, no matter how apt it might be, agnosticism is the first refuge. Those who might laud agnosticism as the responsible, ethical position, given that the non-existence of a god cannot be disproven, and who might excoriate the extremism of the atheist position for the same reason, are somewhat less likely to see agnosticism as the responsible, ethical position for the theist who accepts that the existence of a god also cannot be proven. Churches are not full of believers who think it’s the responsible thing to call themselves agnostic because they cannot be certain.

[Update: More on the atheist/agnostic semantic quibbling at Pharyngula.]


  • Also, I imagine, it’s just easier (possibly even safer) to say you’re agnostic than atheistic. It gets you less argument and aggravation from others. I myself occasionally say it – also occasionally say Freethinker (that, to some, apparently sounds like a “real religion”) and sometimes apatheist – though even if I say that, depending on who I’m talking to, I may add “but you can call me an atheist, since I certainly don’t believe in *your* god.”

  • I picked this up from COG #50. For a long time I described myself as agnostic. My reasoning was a mixture of not knowing enough about the subject and seriously on a balance between metaphysical naturalism and supernaturalism. Comprehending my existence is awfully difficult even based on what we’ve learned about our past through science. I do now claim to be atheist, as I can’t quite grasp the concept that there is a god in charge of the world I observe everyday, it’s not something I believe is the case. Before, I was literally on the fence and am probably am still somewhat weak on my atheism.

    I will say though, agnosticism is an important facet for all people to hold with respect to there beliefs. While I don’t believe there is a god, atleast perceptively to human beings, God is much more probable than a teapot in orbit around the Sun. It’s amazing how far science has brought us from our ignorant past. Boy, what would you or I think in the absence of such important discoveries? People are bound to believe in the supernatural, it can be hard not to for some people. I don’t think being an agnostic is really the responsible position to hold, but being a bit humble about what we know is very important to getting along with each other.

    That is the problem with much of religion. They claim absolute knowledge, there is no humility in their faith at all. To some Christians their faith is more than a belief it is a fact of knowledge to them, the same to Orthodos Jews and Muslims, and potentially other religions. I think it’s fine to state we don’t believe in God, however there is for more apparent reason (no matter how misleading) to believe in God than in a solar orbiting teapot, so I think atheists and religious alike need to take this agnostic stance of humility on what we believe if we are to forge a sense of reason throughout our global society.

  • CalUWxBill:

    “While I don’t believe there is a god, at least perceptively to human beings, God is much more probable than a teapot in orbit around the Sun.”

    That’s interesting, because I would say just the opposite. What grounds do you have for claiming this?

    In fact, one thing which I find slightly unsatisfying about Russell’s teapot analogy is precisely that it isn’t *nearly* such a grand claim as the existence of a god. Since the purpose of the analogy is to argue for the silliness (or maybe the waste of time) of the agnostic position, I’m not sure it’s as strong as it might be – the invisible pink unicorns work much better, or the flying spaghetti monster. The thing about the teapot is that it supposes an unlikely scenario, but it’s not a scenario which requires any supernatural agent at all. The pedant in me wants to point out that every teapot on the surface of the earth is also in orbit around the sun, but it’s also possible to imagine a teapot having been accidentally ejected from the spacecraft of some highly-advanced (if rather genteel) civilisation, say. It’s not likely, but it’s far more likely than an omniscient, omnipotent creator-god. It doesn’t require nearly so much justification.

  • “I don’t think being an agnostic is really the responsible position to hold, but being a bit humble about what we know is very important to getting along with each other.”
    I would love to know exactly what being “humble” would involve. I suspect that it means anything but stating clearly what we know, and standing up for it. This is exactly why so many atheists would rather identify themselves as agnostics–it’s less likely to cause offense. Getting along always trumps honesty.

  • Paul,
    I’m just saying it’s quite natural to believe in the supernatural (what exactly is another matter). Considering there is no evidence for God but there is for teapots, I guess technically a free-floating orbiting teapot is more likely.
    I’ll look into my position further. I certainly support honesty, but my statements certainly do lend to some degree of conceding absolute knowledge, not by believing differently, but understanding why other’s can believe things that seem radically unlikely.

  • CalUWxBill:

    “I’m just saying it’s quite natural to believe in the supernatural (what exactly is another matter).”

    That might well be the case, but it’s not what you said before. You said that: “God is much more probable than a teapot in orbit around the Sun.” Those are wildly different claims. It being ‘natural’ (or not) for people to believe in something has pretty much no bearing on whether it’s true or not.

  • I called myself an agnostic early in my journey away from religion. My reasoning was simply scientific and based on an incorrect definition of what it is to be an atheist. Atheism seemed to be a scientifically invalid position because I couldn’t prove that there was no god.

    Since then I’ve come to understand that atheism is a simple lack of god belief and so I don’t avoid it any longer.

  • You’re taking what I said out of context. I was talking about the perception that human beings have not about a true weighing of the evidence. I was just stating that without the scientific knowledge that we are fortunate to have we would really have a hard time saying “there is no God”. Granted philosophers like Epicurus certainly were capable of making such a pronouncement a long time ago. But, I would say Ancient Greece was quite enlightened compared to most people up until recent times, therefore a more reasonable answer.

  • How would you disprove Descartes wrong? Descartes is famous for his proving the existance of the External world. (there have been some arguements wether this can or cannot be an argument for the existence of God) Descartes says that,
    1. God Exists (which is an innate idea)
    2. As All-Perfect, God is truthful, and cannot decieve.
    3. We have a natural belief the the external world exists.
    4. Therefore, since God cannot be a deciever, our natural belief in the external world must be true.
    Id like to continue this but School work calls. ill be back

  • Nathan, if you’re actually serious, and regard Descartes’s ‘proofs’ as anything other than historical curiosities, you might try learning a bit more about logical fallacies, in particular ‘begging the question’. What Descartes regarded as axiomatic is frankly ridiculous to a modern interpretation.

  • One could say an athiest has faith that there is no God! Its like the unicorn said to me at the tea party orbiting the sun, I don’t see what all the fuss is about! I’ve never met this Dawkins so how can I be sure he exists? Anyway you’ll have to continue this party without me. I truly don’t give a fuck and neither do my friends. If I could only prove I have friends… (sigh)
    This post doesn’t exist either.

  • My impression is that Russel’s analogy is deeply flawed from the start.
    He want to prove the following philosophical principle:
    if we have no evidence for something, it is hugely unlikely that it exists, or other formulated, we can know beyond reasonable doubt that it does not exist.
    He give then the example of this celestial teapot rotating right now around Mars: each sensible person would agree this example is completely absurd, even if we could not disprove its existence since it is too small to get detected. There exists no argument against the teapot, but everybody would agree it is completely silly to believe it could exist, and this the case because of the lack of evidence.
    However, I think most people would believe it does not exist not because of the lack of evidence ( which by itself would only justify agnosticism: I don’t know if there is a teapot or not) but because we have many overwhelming argument against its existence:
    teapot are typically designed by human mind, they could not appear through natural process, whether on the earth or outside the earth. Moreover, we have also solid evidences that no men was on the moon, and the arrival of alien from an other planet who turned out to have developed exactly the same technology at the surface of Mars just to let that is highly unlikely.
    So, if there was only no evidence about the CT of Russel, I would be only agnostic about its existence, I know with almost certainty it does not exist because of the existence of strong arguments against its existence.
    The same thing is true by the way of the flying spaghetti monster: I am quite certain it does not exist not because of the absence of evidence (we have never seen it) but because of tremendous arguments speaking for its utter impossibility: a monster is a living thing, and we know living thing need a very good organized brain to exist, or at least a system able to handle information and to direct the body.
    Of course, no such entity could be made up of spaghettis, it is physically impossible.
    However, I completely ignore what kind of animals could have evolved on remote planets far away from our earth, and if I am quite certain there is no unicorn on the earth (with its description, it is impossible that such species would not have been detected although we have found fossils of a lot horses), I am agnostic about the existence of unicorns everywhere in the universe, I have no evidence for it, but I see also no reason why such an entity could not have evolved on an other planet (there are no known limits to the cleverness of mutations and natural selection) , so I simply don’t know.
    So, my BASIC EPISTEMOLOGY could be summed up in the following manner:
    – I believe with almost certainty the existence of things for which I have many evidences (that the earth rotate around the sun, that the human species has more intellectual capacities than the other primates, that each species share a common ancestor and so on…)
    – I don’t know if something exists if there are neither positive nor negative evidences (a plastic teapot floating right now 50 km away from New York, the existence of an intelligent species somewhere in the space which look like bears, a parallel universe with fundamentally different laws of physics and so on and so forth)
    – I believe with almost certainty that something does not exist if I have not only no evidences, BUT ALSO if there exists strong arguments against its existence ( a stinking invisible cheese monster hiding his odor and situated just between the keyboard and the screen of my computer, that my supervisor is in fact a disguised alien planing to invade the earth etc…).
    In each case, my “a-monsterism” or “a-alienism” does not stem only from the absence of evidences, but also from the overwhelming arguments against them.
    So, I think that atheism can not been assumed as a default position, before affirming “I know there is no personal God”, atheists have to provide positive evidences, the mere absence of evidences only lead to agnosticism.
    Now, many insightful atheists accepts that, and have in fact provided strong arguments against the existence of a personal God, like the obvious imperfections in the nature, the facts that human minds completely depend on the brain and that parts of the personality is destroyed if parts of the brain are damaged, the religious confusion and so on and so forth.

  • Well, I think I’ll stay out of the general discussion here. Although, as you know, I disagree with you that religion is inherently dangerous, I completely agree with you about using the term atheist rather than agnostic. I do not believe in God, therefore I am an atheist. I think people choose the term “agnostic” mainly to avoid conflict and because of the cultural influences you note. I’m less bothered by that than you are, and I suppose I group atheists and agnostics together. If it makes it easier for someone to explain their areligious ethical system by using the term agnostic, that’s fine with me.

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