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.