Questionable Motives

December 31, 2009

Year end thoughts: Why is agnosticism so dangerous?

It seems to me that there are two distinctions related but separate about religious belief that concerns those of us who take the default position of skeptical non belief: the first is looking but finding no good reasons to believe in god as a supposed entity involved in human life, and the second is looking and finding no good reasons to believe in specific religious claims that attempt to define this god or that god and describe its wishes for humanity (in their own ways). Too often I read criticisms that fail to make this distinction, as if by arguing specifically against a particular set of religious beliefs from its source authority (like criticizing the various interpretations of the Old Testament, for example) one can disprove the existence of  the god of, say, the Episcopalians. Granted, proving that god doesn’t exist would undermine any religious belief based on the existence of such a deity, but as every first year philosophy student learns (or should learn), setting out to prove a negative is not a good starting position to take; the burden of proof lies with the person advancing a claim, and religious belief sets are already full to the brim with unsubstantiated claims. Disproving the claims set out by different religious beliefs sets is an approach much like playing whack-a-mole: as soon as one religious belief set is revealed to be rationally incoherent, another interpretation of that set pops up to take its place and it’s a fool’s game that never ends. It is foolish, then, to take that mantle of responsibility off those who make a claim and shoulder the burden to prove the counter claim, that god doesn’t exist. Let’s leave that burden with the theists.

Arguments for the existence of god can be dealt with using the standard criticisms that so clearly reveal the inherent problems: First Cause challenged by infinite regress; an all-powerful always-present deity but one that conveniently has to hide from us; a loving creative critter that still designs carnivores and prey to ensure constant and sadistic suffering without any moral payback except to some unimaginable greater good; an omniscient spook that knows the future but pretends our free will to believe in the unbelievable is the determining factor that presents us with the juicy reward of eternal heaven for making the right choice and eternal hell for the wrong; Pascal’s wager that presents its case as why not believe and be ‘safe’ but fails to account for which of the thousands of previous gods that have been around since the dawn of time to be the right one; the ‘if one can imagine something like a god then such a god must be real’ argument; that god to be god must have certain characteristics we deem essential like being omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, loving, but deem specific characteristics like green hair and a unibrow to be too absurd to ponder; and so on.

Usually, when all is said and done and all the evidence for god lies in a discredited heap by means of our rational and reasonable skeptical shredder, the final retreat for the devout is to claim that faith requires only belief, that sum total of our reasoning is the wrong tool to investigate theological truth claims… as if there were any others we have.

Many who delve into the theological maelstrom grow weary and frustrated that the truth claims offered up as evidence or proofs of such a critter, for both god and the religious belief sets that are reliant on the existence of such a critter, are significantly lacking excellent reasons and solid, testable, repeatable, predictive, explanatory, and falsifiable evidence to back those reasons up. What’s a nice and tolerant person who wishes to offend no one – believer and non-believer alike – to do?  The answer at first blush seems to be to assume a middle position, one that seems safe enough from the harsh criticism from both ends of the belief spectrum, namely, agnosticism. The agnostic is usually a person who cannot accept the truth claims of any one particular religious belief set because of a lack of reasonable proofs and evidence nor accept the lack of evidence for god as definitive enough to settle for the default position of non-belief, which also happens to carry with it all kinds of negative endorsements like a lack of morality or the veneer of just another militant sect but with a different kind of faith. But is this position of agnosticism honest?

I think agnosticism is as much a significant problem for its lack of a conclusion and thus inaction in its name as any unjustified belief set that fuels action and behaviour in its name. Thought of another way, I criticize agnosticism because it is really nothing more than just a failure to draw a reasonable conclusion; it is, instead, an intellectual cop out, an avoidance technique, an enabling maneuver to allow the battle between unjustified beliefs and their adverse effects to continue to wreak unnecessary suffering and further entrench intolerance against human rights and human dignity in the name of piousness. More on that point later in the post.

In a slightly different approach about criticizing agnosticism, we simply do not claim agnosticism in any other arena of life even when we accept the possibility – even the likelihood – that our conclusions will change if we have better reasons to do so rather than maintaining a prior conclusion with poorer ones. Only in a theistic context do we retract our ability to come to reasonable and timely conclusions and, instead,  substitute this cognitive holding pattern, which to me is the equivalent of good people choosing to do nothing because they do not wish to make public the decision that a conclusion has been formed and accept the consequences to either support or reject unjustified beliefs; instead, agnostics choose not to come to a conclusion at all. This is a form of intellectual cowardice.

Why is the innocuous agnosticism a matter of criticism and concern? Isn’t it acceptable, even responsible, to take no position on a matter like theology that seems to have no definitive answers one way or the other? Isn’t it right and proper to honestly admit that because one does not know something with certainty, that one admits to take the non-judgmental position of I-don’t-know-and-you-don’t-either we call agnosticism?

Earlier this month I posted an article here about a recent non-binding UN resolution put forth by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) aimed to combat defamation of their religion, to excuse and allow states to curtail freedom of expression under the banner of enforcing a ‘respect’ for religious beliefs without appearing to act counter to the rights and freedoms established for individuals expressed in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Most states in the Western world, we should remember, are secular liberal democracies where rule of law based on constitutional representative government and evolving secular jurisprudence has been well established (arguable in parts but true in general). The rights and freedoms of their citizens come first from a founding document like a constitution based on enlightenment values, which is then expressed by one set of laws for all to respect, enforced equally and impartially by the state, and thus maintained and protected by the state for the benefit of all. The ideal being sought under such a system is that it is in every citizen’s best self-interest to maintain the state and its shared laws in order to maintain one’s own constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms.

This is the very system now under attack by a form of insidiousness called stealth jihadism. This soft approach is meant to slowly dismember the foundations of our secular democracies and replace them with the pillars of Islam (read more about this here). What cannot be accomplished by force is being sought and to an extent achieved by staffing certain offices of the United Nations like the third session of the Human Rights Council with those in favour of the OIC’s agenda, which is to extend and expand the influence of Islam by means of obtaining domestic support for the generic idea of protecting all religions from defamation in these powerful countries. The purpose of such resolutions as the defamation of religion ruling is not to enhance human rights, dignity, and equality, but subvert them for the benefit of promoting Islam alone.

The “defamation of religions” resolution is premised on an expansive right of citizens not to be insulted in their religious feelings, and a right to respect for religious beliefs, that have no grounding in international human rights law. International human rights law guarantees freedom of religious exercise, not freedom from insult; it guarantees nondiscrimination for individual believers, not shelter from criticism for belief systems. Existing legal instruments, such as Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), already protect religious believers against expression that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence. To go further would mean protecting the contents of religious belief systems. (Excerpt from Center for Inquiry’s presentation at the UN here.)

And here we get to the crux of the matter: freedom of religion can only be accomplished if the state keeps its nose out of the private beliefs of its citizens so that all are equally free to believe what they will. As soon as the state begins to favour one religion over another, one belief set above another, then to an equal measure the freedom of religious in that state is reduced. The temptation is that if a sizable number of citizens already favour one religious set of beliefs, and the state through its elected governments also favours that set by suggesting that if elected they will legislatively act on behalf of that support, then there is a political payoff in popularity if the state abuses its constitutional power of guaranteeing, enforcing, and supporting freedom of religion and moves that favourtism into law.

The more a religious belief set is criticized, the greater is the pressure on legislators by the religious voters to use the state rather than proof and evidence to protect the favoured belief set from legitimate rational criticism. The cost, of course, is a direct loss of religious freedom unfelt and unappreciated by those whose belief set is being supported by the national state. Any other avenue of support, like the protection from religious defamation resolution that internationally keeps criticism away from targeting the belief sets of the religious, is just as welcomed by those too biased and narrow-minded to understand that their actions and support for the national state to help protect and promote their religious beliefs attack one of the founding principles of the secular constitution that already protects exactly that right to religious freedom. But nowhere in the founding documents is the state to be used as a tool to protect or defend belief from criticism; that, the belief set must do by merit rather than coercion.

For those who have no religious biases but, rather, a firm conclusion of non-belief, the defamation resolution can be seen for what it is: a transparent means to shut down the freedom of expression that expresses criticism of any kind against religious beliefs in general and Islam in particular. Because muslim sharia law is religious law, the defamation resolution can be used to thwart any criticism of its inclusion as a part of civil law clothed to be a reasonable accommodation for this religious group, an oft repeated but confused mantra that such an inclusion is a sign of a secular democracy’s tolerance and willingness to respect cultural differences. And once sharia law is enacted, the supremacy of constitutional law for all its citizens is effectively hobbled. Sharia law itself is an expression at the very least of gender inequality enshrined in law. Secular nations run the very real risk of becoming quasi-theocracies one tolerant step at a time, all supported by other religious supporters who will lose piece by piece the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression by their own pious hands in the name of cultural tolerance and religious respect.

Agnostics choose not to choose. But this battle against religious intolerance, this struggle to maintain our constitutional enlightenment values, this fight to protect our secular freedoms and rights based on defending our constitutions from enemies foreign and domestic, requires the taking of sides not between different religious beliefs but between the secular state and the encroachment of religious law, of coming to conclusion based on the evidence currently available rather than some false sense of certainty. The only thing that is certain is that our secular values of various freedoms and rights are being undermined one effective step at a time at the international level all in the name of defending and protecting religion – and all the actions done in its name – without criticism… under the penalty of committing blasphemy. And this proposal is obscene. Concluding nothing, about whether or not religious truth claims have truth value, is at its heart a tacit approval by well-intentioned and tolerant people to allow the unquestionable erosion of the principles on which their freedoms and rights are based. It’s time for good people to stop waffling, stop tolerating the advancement of religion into the public domain,  stop coddling harmful religious sensibilities, and step up to the ideals set forth in our secular constitutions by our forefathers. We owe them a debt for the freedoms we enjoy, and it’s time for payback.

It’s high time agnostics stop being such dangerous enablers and get down from the fence. Now is the time to make a reasonable conclusion and join the growing ranks of those who demand more for their allegiance than obedience to some set of archaic and biased rules to honour some imaginary sky father.

18 Comments »

  1. Agnostics unite! :D

    I like your writing style but it is a wee bit long-winded. The sheer volume of words might turn off some readers I’ve learned.

    Comment by thebooreport — December 31, 2009 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  2. Wee bit? It’s very long winded – but I figure once a year it is allowable. Still, sometimes it takes many paragraphs to round out the complete explanations that inform the conclusion. Maybe that is what books are for, eh?

    Comment by tildeb — December 31, 2009 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  3. lol I was trying to be tactful :p

    Happy new year to you :)

    Comment by thebooreport — December 31, 2009 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  4. the burden of proof lies with the person advancing a claim, You say there isn’t a God so why aren’t you able to prove that? You are advancing that claim!

    Happy New Year!

    Comment by 4amzgkids — December 31, 2009 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

    • I write Granted, proving that god doesn’t exist would undermine any religious belief based on the existence of such a deity, but as every first year philosophy student learns (or should learn), setting out to prove a negative is not a good starting position to take; the burden of proof lies with the person advancing a claim, and religious belief sets are already full to the brim with unsubstantiated claims.

      I do not say that there is not a god; I say let the theist prove the claim that there is.

      And a very merry New Year to you, too.

      Comment by tildeb — December 31, 2009 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

  5. That’s clearly an excuse. If you don’t believe which you have clearly said elsewhere – you must prove it! I would love to see that done from you – along with proof that Darwin’s theory is fact – you must have the missing link! I’m excited to see what you have come up with- I’m blogging with a very famous person!

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 1, 2010 @ 5:56 pm | Reply

    • Well, I’m very famous in my own mind. Beyond that, I assume not.

      I do not believe in any supernatural claims because there is no good reason to believe them. That’s not an excuse: that’s the default position we all take when claims are presented to us. You, for example, don’t believe in Osiris because you do not have good reasons to do so. In neither case is non-belief an excuse; it’s a perfectly reasonable and fully justified default position.

      As for evolutionary theory, it offers us a framework of explanation that, so far, works really well to explain how life changes over time… just like the theory of gravity explains really well why when I jump off a cliff as so many of my theistic friends urge me to do, I fall every time in spite of my heartfelt prayers to Muk Muk for his divine intervention to the contrary. (I have learned to jump into water and prefer cliffs that are not very high. Although the wisdom of Muk Muk is beyond question, faith in his intervention only takes one so far. I’m choosy about my cliffs because I have evolved a deeper and personal appreciation for the application of physics. I’m sure Muk Muk approves.)

      You may not know this but I AM the missing link. Well, to be more accurate, I am A missing link rather than THE missing. Before you think this is too radical a claim, understand that you are, too… A link and not THE link. No one has dibs, so to speak, nor do any one our ancestors. Why you don’t understand this aspect of the theory is probably due to the source materials you use for your understanding… AiG, perhaps, or creationsism.org? They are birds of a feather.

      I urge you again to go on that marvelous journey of discovery and find out what evolutionary theory is really all about, what informs it, some of the controversies within modern biology, who is doing what research, and so on. Truly fascinating. It is an awe-inspiring education and will deepen and enrich your understanding of life in countless ways. And you can begin this adventure with authors far more famous than I… even more famous in my own mind than I am!

      Comment by tildeb — January 1, 2010 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

      • Your muk muk example is not a good one – God did give us common sense – there is nothing wrong with the theory of relativity – it has been proven to work! But evolution is not proven and we are not the missing link – you know that you said we evolved from fish on up…..there are steps missing in there – that’s what needs to be found and therefore, Believing in an Intelligent designer of all that is unexplainable makes much more sense then going with a flawed theory that has never been proven. Some of Darwin’s ideas do seem to be reasonable but when we get to certain points – that is no longer the case. We have been humans for thousands of years – when do we evolve? we are the same, look throughout history.

        Anything that has been created is left to an intelligent designer – someone far greater than we could ever fathom to be and we cannot understand it all so why say there isn’t one? I absolutely believe in life on other planets in other galaxies – we don’t even know how big this universe is – why should we be so arrogant to believe that we are the only life out there – that would be random madness!

        Comment by 4amzgkids — January 2, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

      • You write But evolution is not proven…, which shows how your approach in understanding it is skewed. The theory of evolution has successfully withstood all challengers so far, and so successful has been the theory supported by many other disciplines that for all intents and purposes it is safe to assume it to be fact. As for proof, there are multiple lines of inquiry that are mutually supportive for cross-referencing accuracy. Is the theory able to incorporate and still explain all the evidence? So far, yes. Does Intelligent Design/creationism offer a better explanation of the evidence that also has mutually supportive evidence from many other disciplines? So far, no. Its sum total for an alternative theory is the assumption goddidit. Its supporters run around and collect examples of complexity and say, “There! There is your evidence for a designer!” It’s very silly.

        I cannot go into a full explanation why the theory of evolution is so beautiful and elegant and yet so spectacularly successful as a predictive tool. There are many fine books that do the job real justice, such as Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True and Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. I mention those two (there are many) because I think they are very well written, easily understandable, up to date, and widely available. They do an outstanding job (in my opinion) of explaining what evolution is and how we identify it rather than other possibilities as the biological engine that drives how life changes over time. These books answer your questions far better than I can sum up in a few dozen paragraphs. I think no one will regret reading these wonderful accounts.

        As for your assertion that anything created must have some kind of designer, let’s turn to physics for a moment.

        The balance between positive energy of motion and negative potential energy of gravity is zero. That means the universe was not created in terms of any calculable energy added, which is what is presumed by theists on behalf of an interventionist god, but came into being naturally from nothing with zero energy. Doesn’t that blow your mind?

        “Hume can be excused (“I have never asserted so absurd a proposition as that anything might rise without cause.” 1754) for not knowing quantum physics in 1754, but D’Souza and Craig cannot today, more than a century since its discovery. They are wrong in their assertion that everything that begins must have a cause.” As examples, to accompany the above quotation by Victor Stenger, he offers us light-producing atomic transitions and nuclear decay that produces nuclear radiation.

        Contemporary physics is based not on causality but on determinism. This means in physics that the future and past states of energy are equally well determined because the information that informs today is preserved going forwards as well as backwards, allowing an opportunity through calculations to verify our various theories. But before we get into specific theories that may or may be true, let me make the following point:

        Although we have various and different scenarios across many disciplines that could explain a natural origin of our universe consistent with existing knowledge, what we actually have is a clear refutation that a supernatural cause is required to produce the universe.

        I find it strange that you can recognize the level of arrogance some people have about assuming that Earth is the only life-bearing planet in the universe, but fail to recognize an even greater level of arrogance needed for some people to assume that the head honcho who supposedly is the creator of it all remains particularly fixated on how one species – humans – uses its sex organs appropriately. Very strange indeed.

        Comment by tildeb — January 3, 2010 @ 12:12 am

  6. With all due respect, we do express reasonable agnosticism about things all the time. Take life on Mars as an example. The reasonable position toward Martian life is agnosticism. Likewise, some people (including me) think that there are aspects of the God question that deserve an agnostic response. It’s not a wishy-washy response to certain questions, but the proper Socratic response.

    —Santi

    Comment by santitafarella — January 2, 2010 @ 3:56 am | Reply

    • I don’t know how much respect my opinions are due, but I thank you for the thought and your thoughtful comment.

      Of course there are many areas of knowledge (and life) where we don’t have answers, so in this narrow sense we say ‘I don’t know’ quite legitimately. It’s actually one of my favourite and honest responses because it’s so true. There is much we don’t know. Let’s remember, though, we say that when we really don’t know, when we can’t honestly weigh a conclusion to be better informed this way than that. I doubt that is the honest case with your God question, but hey, I have been wrong before.

      So when I write we simply do not claim agnosticism in any other arena of life even when we accept the possibility – even the likelihood – that our conclusions will change if we have better reasons to do so rather than maintaining a prior conclusion with poorer ones I mean that we still have the courage (and often the obligation) to MAKE a conclusion when we have to.

      We may not know the right conclusion as a parent, for example, but we still draw conclusions as best we can and put those decisions into practice knowing full well that the decision we’ve reached, the conclusion we have had to draw, is the best we can do based upon the facts and considerations available at the time. What we don’t do is respect those – like parents, for example – who refuse to make ANY parenting decisions because none are unequivocally beyond doubt and we can not be absolutely certain in its correctness. We don’t celebrate the athlete who refuses to participate in the sport while determining only the right move that should be made once all the factors that may pertain are properly accounted for. We don’t admire leadership that endlessly waffles over which decision to make because the right one is not yet fully informed by all the facts and considerations that could affect its possible determination. For those who are willing to be responsible even when wrong, when necessary, we form our conclusions as best we can and then act.

      You may have very legitimate reasons to suspend your conclusions regarding aspects of the God question, but what I am saying is that that is very much a luxury afforded to you by the secular state. When that state’s ability to afford you that luxury is threatened by those who insist that they DO know for certain enough aspects of their God questions to suspend your freedom to say ‘I don’t know’, then it’s time to reach a necessary conclusion not about God but about your right to ponder the ‘right’ answer. Because those who admit to not knowing under the title of agnosticism are the equivalent of being Kafer, being an Infidel, being an Unbeliever, and treated accordingly by the Faithful, then I strongly suggest you shelve the Socratic method for the time being and defend that which allows you to pull it off the shelf later rather than the one that allows your head and mine to be removed during your considerations.

      Comment by tildeb — January 2, 2010 @ 5:16 am | Reply

  7. but fail to recognize an even greater level of arrogance needed for some people to assume that the head honcho who supposedly is the creator of it all remains particularly fixated on how one species – humans – uses its sex organs appropriately. Very strange indeed.

    What do you mean by this statement?

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 3, 2010 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  8. Oh, I just mean that it’s pretty evident that with a hundred billion stars observable in the night sky and each of those with a billion more we can’t see, that the possibility of life elsewhere is not so easily dismissed. To assume that one can dismiss the probability as zero, I think – like you – is pretty arrogant an assumption… even if happens to be true. But the point is we don’t honestly know.

    I think it is that same arrogance multiplied many times over to assume that a supernatural head honcho who supposedly created this vastness would be even remotely concerned about whether or not a female of our cosmically insignificant species exposed an ankle among others of her species with dissimilar genitalia, or a gender who had the effrontery to pray without a head covering, or those who expressed a desire to remain monogamous with another member of the 6.5 billion + of the same species for life who happened to share similar genitalia, is far more ludicrous, far more arrogant an assumption, than accepting that there may be life elsewhere.

    Comment by tildeb — January 3, 2010 @ 9:00 pm | Reply

  9. I am not following you here – sorry! I said it is arrogant to NOT BELIEVE there is life elsewhere.
    God does not make the rules for countries – they are man made laws – not sure what you are getting at here. You blame God for all that man has done. Most of these men are sick dictators – you seriously do not understand the difference between God and Man – that is sad.

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 4, 2010 @ 4:03 pm | Reply

    • I said it is arrogant to NOT BELIEVE there is life elsewhere. I know. I am agreeing with you.

      not sure what you are getting at here. I am getting at the point that it requires a vast amount of arrogance to believe that such a god would be concerned with issues like head coverings, exposing skin to sunlight, sexual contact between consenting adults of the same gender. These issues are made important by religious belief.

      Comment by tildeb — January 4, 2010 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

  10. Those things you mention are man made look into that!

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 4, 2010 @ 11:23 pm | Reply

    • Hey, I happen to agree they are man-made. I think all of our gods are.

      Comment by tildeb — January 5, 2010 @ 1:54 am | Reply

  11. Funny! The rules you have mentioned about coverings, etc..

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 7, 2010 @ 11:24 pm | Reply


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