Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Agnosticism

Slate has a good article on agnosticism and the value of spiritual uncertainty today. It is worth checking out. I like that he stakes it out as a viable third option, and not just weak theism or atheism.

Your thoughts?


  1. I'm not an agnostic, but sometimes I view it as the most intellectually honest position there is...

  2. A while ago I watched a YouTube clip where the Rev. Christine Robinson (of iMinister) said that of UUs that our theology is agnostic. I liked that. I lean toward atheism, but in an agnostic kind of way. I like the "I could be wrong" stance.

  3. Heather - I'm in the same boat. I do not believe in a deity, but I am not adamant that I am right.

    DSD - I think it is an honest position. It should get more credit for being honest, rather than accused of being wishy-washy. "I don't know" is not always the same as "I don't care".

  4. I don't think the author of the Slate article on agnosticism has read any of the atheism books by Dennett or Dawkins.

    Dawkins has a long section on agnosticism in The God Delusion where he talks about theistic belief as a continuum between two extremes. One end of the continuum is the "strong theist" who is 100% certain that God exits. The other end of the continuum would be the "strong atheist" who is 100% certain that God does not exist.

    Dawkins writes that he doesn't consider himself to be in the 100% "strong atheist" category that the article presents as a strawman.

    He would place himself in the "de facto atheist" category when one views the probability of God's existence as very low but not zero. Or to borrow from Dawkins - "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

    This distinction between "100% certain atheism" and and the less certain working hypothesis "de facto atheism" may be too subtle and is apparently missed by many critics of the so-called "new atheist" movement.

    Personally, I'm comfortable with a de facto atheism stance. It does leave room open for future discoveries that lead to evidence supporting the existence of the divine.

    But I also acknowledge the proven track record of naturalism as a methodology and a philosophy. The trend has been for non-naturalistic explanations to be replaced by naturalistic explanations.

    Of course, this trend may hit a dead-end or even reverse course. But that hasn't happened yet.

  5. Thanks for straightening our Dawkins's position, Steve. I would still argue that many New Atheists behave and argue in such a way that they imply a 100% certain atheist stance, but the article may have been overstating in the case of Dawkins.

  6. Slightly off-topic:

    At a Presbyterian book discussion last night revolving around medicine and spirituality, someone mentioned that hospitals now directly employ chaplains and have "Spiritual Services Departments" (instead of relying on community clergy to visit the sick of their own denominations). One person mentioned a friend of his who is in such a position in a large, corporately owned (don't know if it's for-profit or non-profit) hospital. And that chaplain is expected to visit every patient soon after their admission to the hospital.

    I said that I couldn't help imagining the conversation that would ensue if she had to step into Richard Dawkins' hospital room...

  7. PS, SA:
    I'm sure I am not the first one to observe this, but every time I look at the lovely image on your page from the Mandelbrot set, I just think of Grover and Cookie Monster... :-)

  8. DSD - you are, in fact, the first person to point out the muppets in my Budhabrot. Now I'm afraid they are there for me forever.

    It is supposed to represent the meeting place of science and mysticism and to be a shout-out to Chaos Theory, from which I took my nom d'ecran. But I love muppets, so why not? Now it can be a reminder not to take things too seriously.

  9. DSD - regarding your Dawkins and hospital chaplain visit speculation, this may answer the question even though it's not Richard Dawkins in the hospital.

    Christopher Hitchens is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer of the esophagus. I'm wondering if the hospital chaplain will visit.

  10. Strange Attractor wrote:
    "I would still argue that many New Atheists behave and argue in such a way that they imply a 100% certain atheist stance ... "

    There is a difference between "reasonably certain" and "100% certain."

    When I fly on an airplane as a passenger, I'm "reasonably certain" that the plane will fly safely (although I'm less certain that my luggage will also arrive on time with me).

    But I'm not "100% certain" about the plane flying safely even though I am entrusting my life to the plane (that's why I have life insurance).

    Likewise, what I've gathered from reading various so-called "new atheist" writers is that they are not "100% certain" but only "reasonably certain" about their conclusions that are based provisionally on the available evidence at this time.