Tag Archives: theism

Definition of Agnosticism

So my recent verbal spar with the Socratic Gadfly moves on. It seems that due to the linkbacks I made to Austin Cline and Adrian Hayter, they were apparently curious enough to see what the post was about and ended up defending my position on Gadfly’s blog (appreciated).
This in turn triggered him to contact me via email and also write about it on his second blog.

During our email conversations, Gadfly did have a more amiable attitude (albeit a bit condescending occasionaly) and we managed to have some progress in finding out exactly what the gist of our disagreement is. In turns out that it is a simple definition issue on the word “Agnosticism” and I will attempt in this post to explain.

Now, I guess the secod post of his was written while tempers were still high and this is why the language is still a bit strong.  Since I have been unbanninated already, I think there’s no point in feeding the flames any more so I’ll keep a more respectful tone.

Gadfly maintains that Agnosticism cannot be logicaly combined with theism. Indeed, by looking at some of the analogies he made on email:

“Agnostic theism” is like “Democratic Republicanism” and “theistic agnosticism” is like “Republican Democratism.” (Allow the neologism for the noun parallel.)

It is obvious that for him an agnostic theist is an oxymoron.

As I mentioned in the previous post. The etymological meaning of the word is “Without Knowledge”. Agnosticism however does not define what you do not have any knowledge about but it is commonly understood that it is about deities. One could very well argue that he is agnostic about abiogenesis or the creation of the universe and that would be a perfectly acceptable phrase.

As pertaining to theism however, agnosticism can easily take one of two common definitions.

  • One can be agnostic about the existence of god(s). This classifies them as Agnostic Atheists. The defining quote would be “I don’t know if gods exist
  • One can be agnostic about the nature of god(s). This classifies them as Agnostic Theists and the defining quote would be “I don’t know what or which gods exist“.

The difference is small but significant. On both of these definitions, one could even apply various scales of knowledge. Thus an agnostic atheists can verge closer to atheism with “I don’t know if gods exist but there is no reason to believe that they do” and an agnostic theist can approach a religion “I believe the Christian god exists but I don’t know his exact nature (and thus follow no denomination)” – an Agnostic Christian (The group I think most liberal Christians really belong to).

Due to the open nature of the word “Agnostic”, many people default it to either of the two cases described above. In my personal experience, I’ve had far more people who thought of “Agnostic Theist” when hearing “Agnostic” – which is, incidentally, why I started calling myself simply Atheist in the end. This is also why in the article that triggered this approximately half the agnostics go either way.

And this is where I believe Gadfly is wrong. He defaults to “Agnostic Atheist” but he then takes it a step further and asserts that his take on it is the correct one (and gets annoyed that others use it differently).
This is what I have been trying to explain via email but we seem to have reached the “Agree to dissagree” point.

The thing is, at the end of the day, what matters is that we know what we are talking about. It does not matter a bit if we call someone as “Agnostic Atheist”, “Agnostic”, “Fideist” or even “Purple Banana” as long as we are understanding the same thing. It is a fact that just “Agnostic” can mean different things to different people. And by definition, these people are correct.

All we can do when uncertain is simply ask: “Theistic or Atheistic?”. It’s certainly no reason to get upset about.

I wonder who's the clueless American after all…

Ready for some Intarwebs drama? The irony is delicious!

So as I was reading the articles of the latest Carnival of the Godless, I happened upon a particular one from the Socratic Gadfly which was making fun of the U.S. Americans of a recent poll, that were claiming Atheism and prayer at the same time. Now that’s all well and good as I’m all for making fun of inanity like that. However there was one comment that I saw that I felt I should respond to:

Hey, idiots. If you believe something, you can’t agnostic about it!

I decided to leave a simple comment, that this was incorrect and one could very well be an agnostic and a theist; Namely a theistic agnostic. I innocently assumed that my comment would help the Gadfly realize that he did a mistake and perhaps avoid embarassing himself in the future by calling people idiots, when in fact they are not (not talking about the “praying atheists” here of course).

For those not very familiar with the word [1. and who can’t be bollocksed to read the article I linked from it], the word “Agnostic” is greek and literally means “without knowledge”. As a result, one can be agnostic about a great many things, including deities. Indeed, there are various ways someone can be agnostic about Theism. A Theistic Agnostic specifically is both a theist and an agnostic and the definition is that he does not have knowledge about the nature of god(s) but believes he/she/they exist. Hell, one can even be a Christian Agnostic! It does not matter that he falls under the subgroup of theism, as the Gadfly insisted, they also fall under the subgroup of agnostics. So yes, you can very well believe in something and still be agnostic.

Anyway, I was not prepared that the Gadgly would stick to his guns and attempt to argue the point and I was wholly unprepared when not only was I told that I do not understand the meaning of the word, not only was I told that I am trolling but I was even called a theist!
Now, one would assume that before someone makes such a claim against someone, they would at the least have attempted to have a cursory look at the other’s profile before making themselves look like an even bigger ignoramus than they already are.

But alas, for the Gadfly the fact that I was supporting this definition of agnosticism was enough of a proof to jump to the conclusion that I must be a thest. The fact that I even had the gall to argue my point was further “proof” that I must be a troll, which only shows that further than agnosticism, the Gadfly does not even know what a “Troll” is. It is a tasty irony that someone who is complaining about cluelessness would himself prove how (shamelessly) clueless he is.

The cherry on the top? It seems that the only thing smaller than his knowledge is his temper. And thus we get to enjoy the Socratic Gadfly having a hissy fit.

Look, here in Dallas, I had a college philosophy professor claim to be an atheist, then talk about praying in the same breath.

I didn’t put up with his bullshit, and I’m not putting up with yours either.

Second, you’re lying, to me and to yourself, when you claim you don’t want to argue about this. You do.

Third, if I clearly presented your metaphysical self-definition to 100 people on the street, 99 would call you a theist.

Your Wiki link? It’s agnostic THEISM, you troll. It supports ME, not you.

Finally, it’s my blog, and I get the last word. Capiche?

If you don’t understand that, understand this: I just banned your IP, as you’ve gone past the edge of being a theist troll.

Well, unfortunately for you Gadfly, you may be able to ban me from your blog (I must really start keeping track of this) but you cannot ban me from speaking or pointing out how wrong you are, or how foolish you look.So I see your “Capiche” and raise you a “Nyah Nyah”! 😛

This was, however, unfortunate in a way. Not because I was banned when I wasn’t even trying to be offensive but because the Gadfly is such a prolific poster that it’s certain various people open to irreligion might stumble upon him and be horribly misguided by his ignorance. That, and he is just another excuse that not all Atheists are very bright or tolerant, but of course the Objectivists already help with that anyway.

UPDATE: Just to let people seeing this know that I’m currently continuing this debate with Socratic Gadly via email where he seems much more amiable. Perhaps it’s the public thing. In any case the basic issue we have at the moment is a definition one.

Namely he believes that Agnosticism equals “Agnostic Atheism” while I assert that it’s more open than that (as per Austin’s comment)

On the decline of Theism and the effects of fear

I feel cold as razor blade
CC - photo credit: confusedvision

I just read this excellent article (hat tip: Pharyngula) about the last century’s trends in religiosy and, for a non-theist like me, it certainly perks up the ol’ optimism. Even though theists in the recent years have been claiming that theism is on the comeback while secularism and irreligiousness was just a passing fad, the cold hard data once again, forms the proverbial thorn in their soft underbelly of wishful thinking.

While this post is partly to advertise the article, I also wanted to comment on part of it that triggered a long standing wish of mine, which is to start talking about my own philosophy of life, but I’ll try to avoid getting into specific labels at this point.

In the article then, it is explained how religion’s drop in popularity is more closely related to socioeconomic reasons rather than being the result of proselytisation from the “New Atheists”. It is shown how most European countries see their religious population percentage drop with a positive correlation to socialism or socialistic policies. Indeed, some of the more socialistic Countries of Europe seem to have, for the first time, a majority or non-religious people.

I will not go into detail on this, as the article makes the case much better than I ever could, however it did raise a very interesting point. That US high religiosity has much to do with the lack of a social net for the population, and the easy way with which one can go bankrupt and never recover. Indeed this constant fear that the population lives with, is what drives so many people turn to religion or spiritualism for comfort. It is no wonder that the larger percentage of religious people resides in the poorer rural areas.

Of course this is a result of the rabid anti-socialism that is prevalent in the American society ever since the First Red Scare. Because of the huge negative emotions and reactions that being labeled “left” carries, socialist policies like universal health care, have failed to become reality which, among others, rightly earns U.S. their label as the aberrant example of a developed nation.

But what does this have to do with my own philosophy? Well, the correlation between non-theism and social safety reminded my of one of the building blocks for it, Epicurism.

As a philosophy, Epicurism was one of the first1 who explicitly espoused materialism and a form of deism as a method to reduce fear and personal suffering. Especially because this kind of materialism instructed a radical reduction of human needs to the bare necessities, it allowed people to reduce their anxiety and fear which further chipped away at their theism.

It strikes me as brilliant then2, that in the U.S., where the exact opposite of this materialism is promoted, (namely crass commercialism) the fear and anxiety increases and leads to even stronger theism. Indeed, theism itself quite often wraps itself around commercialism (or is it the other way around?) and takes away a sizable amount of money from the “flock” in exchange for blissful uncertainty. It’s like a drug who’s withdrawal symptom is fear.

I can’t help but wonder at the masterful mental construction this has created in the minds of U.S. Americans today.

  • Greed → Commercialism / Consumerism.
  • Consumerism → Fear. (“You have to buy more stuff, or the society will collapse“)
  • Commercialism → Fear. (Lack, or reduced, social security keeping people scared of sudden mishaps)
  • Fear → Greed. (“You have to have wealth or power to be happy“)
  • Fear ↔ Traditionalism / Conservatism. (“We must return to our old values to save our society“)
  • Fear ↔ Nationalism / Xenophobia. (“We must protect the homeland in order to survive and prosper“)
  • Fear ↔ Authoritarianism. (“We need to reduce freedom in order to prevent societal problems and terrorism“)
  • Fear ↔ Theism. (I don’t think I need to explain this.)

It’s a vicious cycle. It is no wonder that all these values and beliefs go together most of the time and generally, if someone has one, it is quite probable that he will have at least some of the others as well. All of them feed the fear, and fear feeds them all.

Does it surprise anyone that most Clergy have authority? Does it surprise anyone that most Clergy are conservative and most Conservatives crave authority? Does it surprise anyone that pure capitalists tend to be religious3.

Finally, does it surprise anyone that fascism embodies all of these together in a nice round package?

Fear is the common denominator, and any philosophy that is designed to reduce fear is bound to reduce the person’s attachment to these values. This is why so many atheists seem confident, progressive, liberal and socialistic. They all lack the necessary levels of fear to be anything else4.

What we need to do, is not attempt to convert people to atheism or non-theism. What we need to be doing is to change the society in ways that reduce fear. As that happens, slowly these values will start retreating due to lack of empowerment.

  1. if not the first. Not absolutely certain on this []
  2. In a bad way []
  3. Even Objectivists who exhibit the most pure form of Capitalism display a certain religiousness []
  4. I would also like to mention here that one can repel fear with anger as well, but only until his anger subsides. This is why atheism based on “anger at god” never lasts []