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Agnosticism, but not as we know it - Her Most Regal Majesty, the Queen of Snark
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Agnosticism, but not as we know it
In recent years, I have discovered that my vestigial sense of (spiritual) faith has atrophied to the point where I can no longer be said to believe in any deity. I have always felt uncomfortable with the terms agnostic and atheist, and have therefore tended, when necessary, to self-describe as humanist. Today I had a conversation in which I kind of straightened out some thoughts I have about religion, and I thought they might be worth sharing.

Many atheists get upset when you say that their position constitutes a religious belief. But I think it has to, because atheism is an act of faith. Let me try to explain. Faith is a firm conviction held without evidential support. The realm of the spiritual is essentially unknowable. Everyone's relationship with the universe or the spiritual is based upon personal assertions about something which is simply outside of the purview of human knowledge. There is no way to prove that the universe is or is not an act of divine will. A belief either way is therefore an act of faith.

The atheist counter to this is to state that the atheist, unlike the religious, is asserting the null hypothesis. If there is no evidence of the divine, then belief in the divine is irrational. The atheist, unlike the spiritual person, embraces rationality. Atheism is not asserting a state of affairs, but demanding proof before accepting the assertions of others. This argument is sometimes explained using Russell's Teapot.

The problem I have with this is that as someone with a background in mathematics and formal logic, I don't actually think that's what's going on at all. I think the null hypothesis is that humanity is incapable of drawing any conclusions at all about the higher order (or lack thereof) of the universe other than through the medium of faith. The teapot analogy fails us because a teapot has properties that are testable physically or scientifically. The existence of the divine is an unprovable statement within the system of reality in a manner analogous to Godel's first incompleteness theorem. It is unknowable, and therefore a statement that God does not exist is just as much a matter of faith as a statement that he does.

So I think by default this makes me an agnostic. Perhaps that's also a position of faith, but I'm not sure it's terribly important whether or not it is. The key thing is that I simply don't have any faith. While this position is more intellectually appealing to me than any other, I have little to nothing invested in it, and certainly no feeling of cosmic certainty that it's the right one.

But the thing that bothers me about agnosticism is that the word carries certain connotations, in particular the idea that an agnostic is still searching for a greater truth - that it's some kind of stop gap. Now I've just said I'm not particularly invested in my own brand of agnosticism. but willingness to change should not in any way be confused with desire to do so. The brutal truth is that I really don't give a flying fuck whether a higher consciousness exists or not, because it makes absolutely no difference to the way I live my life. I have been a catholic, an evangelical Christian and a neo-Pagan at various times, but throughout these phases, my moral code has remained fairly consistently focused on non-maleficence and doing unto others as you would be done by. All the rest is just window dressing as far as I'm concerned.

If God turned up on my doorstep tomorrow and told me I was going to hell unless I followed his rules, I like to think I would honestly say "fine, but that's on you, not on me". I am not a good person, even by my own standards, but since that's true of everyone else to ever live, I can't see how any reasonable deity could blame me for that. And I refuse to enable an unreasonable deity, even at the peril of my immortal soul.

Cavalier words, no doubt, and I suppose that they indicate that I strongly suspect that either no deity exists, or that if they do then they simply have no interest in me whatsoever. That then must be my article of faith, but my "faith" only influences my attitude to my understanding of the universe. I understand the divine to be unknowable, but I believe it to be irrelevant.
21 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2013 01:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I like this post: I think it's well thought through.

I'd probably call myself an agnostic, too, but for different reasons. I don't think faith is important, as neither do you I think, but I think spiritual practice is important, and I get a little frustrated with atheists who are definitely protestant christian atheists concentrating around the ideas of a (lack of) faith and (lack of) personal salvation, or whatever as evidence for their denial of belief. Also, their choice of zero-point never seems to be well justified (as it isn't in the active-act/passive-forebearance debates around assisted death, and the philosophical "train signalman" though experiments).

The existence or otherwise of gods seems largely incidental in religious practice for me (which gives me a hard time engaging with mainstream [or most other kinds of] christianity or other Abrahamic religions unless very mysticalised), neither does any kind of coherence, tradition, nor internal consistency of metaphysics. I do get frustrated with a lot of new-age nonsense, I think because I can't find a way that it matches what I feel.

Over the years I've taken an interest in Feri and even some of the late Victorian Golden Dawn influenced stuff [the latter is full of silliness and the whiff of patchouli, but most religion is]. Both of these I have found immensely powerful, but their communities almost universally unhinged (I believe "swivel-eyed loons" is the term de jour). I've taken an increasing interest in Buddhism over the years, and that kind of coexists with essentially Feri practice and some Golden Dawn and O.T.O. exercises. But I'm as likely to put atheist down in a form or discussion because it's often the option that most closely matches all that in treatment and consequence. Interestingly, Buddhism and Feri make very cantankerous bedfellows, but you know, we're people, full of flaws and tectonics, and I seem to sit on that plate boundary. I've never really been able to take Wicca all that seriously for myself (though I realise that folk do get a lot out of it) -- it's alarmingly heterosexual and 1950s-caravan-holiday for me.

I think the divine is knowable but in all essential aspects incommunicable. I don't know whether it assembles into some consensus reality or not. How could I?
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: May 21st, 2013 01:34 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you.

I'm not sure I entirely understand where you're coming from, and I think I'd need to read up on those traditions in order to get it (I know a little about the Golden Dawn, but it struck me mostly as mystical woo and I haven't looked into it in any serious way). What I would say thought is that I find mindfulness meditation to be an incredibly powerful tool, while I don't ascribe any religious significance to it whatsoever, I do wonder whether this would fall within your definition of spiritual practice. It does have its roots in Buddhism, but can be usefully practiced entirely detached from those roots.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 22nd, 2013 01:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Sorry, I was a bit garbled, wasn't I, and mixed in a lot of different ideas in a soup.

First, atheists in christian countries seem to define atheism in terms of a lack of certain beliefs or faith or conviction. This is far from the only way to formulate religiousness. A major other way is in terms of those who undertake a set of religious practises, without much regard to belief. I think the closest could be seen as a creative (or destructive) act with value per se and in rem.

Second, religion and atheism alike seem obsessed these days with casting religion as a kind of personal salvation: all the stories are in terms of a kind of drama that's being played out within different aspects of a personality within each person. If there is a true divinity (is there?) then it seems that this might lead to certain practise (or belief) even if it had no personal aspect at all (You might acknowledge the divinity of the sun, for example, without the belief that the sun is aware of you, or will shine more on you than your neighbour as a result, or that it is in battle with the moon, or that it has the characteristics of a person or animal or living thing). In fact, if you worship the divine because it will benefit you, you're not acting with whatever the religious equivalent of Jus ad bellum is, and you need to be very careful. Sometimes this plays out as if religion represents a kind of geriatric lifeboat, sometimes as a kind of self-torture or self-support, but the religious debate on all sides is all very my, myself, and I, which is bloody irritating.

Third, I find arguments about Occam's razor very hard to accept because I don't know how you establish, is this metaphysical world where all bets are off, at what level "empty" is. With a particular axiomatic notion of a devoid world, an atheist's ledger of entities could be full of all kinds of necessary explanations to describe what another peson would call "nothing".

Would Occam have preferred a donut with a hole in it, or one without? In terms of unnecessary multiplication of pastry, he'd have preferred the former; of description and specification he'd have preferred the latter. S.'s hell is very like the hole in a donut, as it has a lot of characteristics of absence as a hole does and it's not clear to me whether conjouring hell or diminishing it takes more work.

Feri has among the most beautiful creation myths I have encountered. Incredibly disturbing, too, but so is creation. It has a lot of powerful exercises (powerful in the sense that everyday Grounding and Centreing rituals are powerful, not in the sense of melting zinc with lasers shining from your eyes sense). The iron and pearl pentacles (essentially balancing exercises and meditations) which much of US-influenced neopaganism uses are originally from Feri, and it has seven watchtowers (rather than N, S, E, W) in a centred octohedral arrangement, which brings up interrelationships I've not seen elsewhere. In all, it's the most richly creative tradition I've encountered, by a long way, and is dripping with beauty. I don't think ritual is particularly important, particularly metaphysical ritual, but this seems to be the one for me right now. The GD stuff is mainly historical. Some of the earliest useful exercises I encountered were GD, so things like the Middle Pillar, etc, still have a special place despite the woo bringing me out in hives.

I've been increasingly attracted to Zen over the years, particularly for its lack of doctrine, and Koan meditations, for example, give you a really strong sense of the constructedness reality (mainly of duals and zeroes).

None of this really amounts to anything of consequence, though it's incredibly important to me.

-- d
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2013 01:20 am (UTC) (Link)
-- dps

(forgot to sign, sorry).
cleanskies From: cleanskies Date: May 21st, 2013 08:43 am (UTC) (Link)
I think that there's a lot of dissatisfaction with the "atheist" label generally -- I've been in a couple of focus groups and I wasn't the only person expression frustration at, for example, being defined negatively or by absence.

I have a quantity of colleagues for whom their faith is pretty all penetrating, and it the major tool they use for interacting with the world, defining their own morality, investigating society, etc. If you look at faith from that perspective, i.e. what do I use to set the rules, what do I measure goodness against, what defines fairness, rightness, fitness -- then I have a fairly obvious descriptor. I am a "scientific rationalist" -- I use science and reason to inform my interactions with society and the world. However, language and usage mean that there's a lot of judgement embedded in that term, and it's not at all polite to other people of other religions! I would opt for the far more -- well, utilitarian "utilitarian".

The focus groups, incidentally, are likely to lead to a "no religion" tick-box or similar.
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: May 21st, 2013 10:04 am (UTC) (Link)
This actually brings up a point which I'd been hovering around which never made it into the original post. For me the most frustrating aspect of faith is that it is seemingly often used as a substitute for logic. Personally, it's not good enough for someone to say to me "well, I don't understand it, but my deity says so, and I trust my deity". I'm sorry, but that deity needs a reason. If a behaviour can't be justified using rational argument, then it isn't strong enough to be imposed as a universal moral code. If the divine can't make logical sense, then again, I'm in a position where I have no interest in enabling an unreasonable deity. To say "well, it is beyond our limited understanding" is a cop out, because you could say that about anything, and there's then no reason for preferring that particular moral code over any other in the absence of evidence.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2013 12:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
If a behaviour can't be justified using rational argument, then it isn't strong enough to be imposed as a universal moral code

But no behaviour can be justified using rational argument, or alternatively every behaviour can be justified using rational argument: it depends on what you take as your premises.

That's why the Justification Problem exists in ethics, and why pure reason can't work as an ethical system (unless you take as your premise 'to act ethically is to act rationally in all situations', but there's no particular reason to take that as a premise.)

From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2013 07:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

That's why people searched for categorical imperative, but the one that was feels was distinctly suspect to me. As with Marx, the diagnosis is much more convincing than the medicine.

-- dps
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: May 22nd, 2013 07:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree up to a point. I don't believe in a categorical imperative. Ethics is not algebra, after all. The problem is that if we say all rationalisations fall back upon axioms, we are being trite. The fact that at some point you hit the axiomatic buffers doesn't mean that there is no point in justifying anything. I think that route logically leads to the conclusion that good and evil are meaningless concepts, and while it's an intellectually consistent viewpoint, it's not one I find particularly attractive. I am probably oversimplyfying your (plural) position, and if so I apologise for not having grasped it properly, but it feels like the argument you are making is analogous to saying "because we can't know everything, there's no point in knowing anything". Fundamentally, if religion can't explain to me why I'm not able to work on the Sabbath, for example, then it's unreasonable to expect me not to. I am not a small child, and I require reasons not to eat all the sweets. ("The last ten times you did it you were ill" would be sufficient, but I need some assurance more than a vague feeling that God isn't just saying that because he wants all the sweets for himself.)
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 23rd, 2013 09:34 am (UTC) (Link)
It doesn't lead so much to the conclusion that good and evil are meaningless concepts, I think, as to the conclusion that as good and evil depend on your premises then the vital question of ethics is to find the correct premises.

The problem is that you can't, by definition, prove that the premises are correct by using reason (if you could they wouldn't be premises, they'd be conclusions).

So anyway there are always reasons. Religions are all about reasons. Why can't you work on the Sabbath? Because you're a member of the people that God has marked out as special, and one of the ways we show that specialness, our distinctness from all the other peoples around, is by not working on the Sabbath. That's a reason, and it's a good reason if you accept the premises that being marked out by God as special, and doing things differently to the other peoples around in order to demonstrate that specialness, are good things. It's not a good reason if you don't accept those premises. And reason can't help you with whether to accept those premises or not. You have to decide whether they are true.

Similarly, 'The last ten times you did it you were ill' is a only a good (moral) reason if you accept the premise that being ill is bad. And there's no rational reason to accept that premise. Being ill is certainly unpleasant, but that's not a rational reason to avoid being ill, it's just a matter of preference.

When you get right down to it, all reason can tell you is how to best achieve a goal. That's your hidden assumption in the demand that there be 'a reason': you are asking, I think, for 'how does this help me achieve a goal?' You think that asking you to avoid working on the Sabbath is unreasonable because you can't see how it helps towards any goal that you consider worthwhile.

But that fundamentally depends on what goals you consider worthwhile. And you can't have a logical reason for picking one goal over another because, well, premises. So you have to decide what the true goal is (if indeed there is one). And that will depend on how you explain the existence of the world.

Is this making any sense? Basically, you seem to be asking for ethical positions to be justified on the basis of how useful they are for achieving some goal, when actually that's putting the cart before the horse: ethics is first about deciding what goal you ought to be pursuing, and then seeing what falls out of that. so you can't ask whether a given bit of ethical advice, like 'Don't work on the Sabbath', is 'reasonable' without first establishing the framework of ethical goals in which you're operating.

sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: May 23rd, 2013 11:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think you may have put your finger on the problem there. At the core of my moral position, there is a strong utlitarian streak. You're going to have a hard time convincing me something is more if it (broadly speaking) decreases happiness and increases pain. And I'm really not prepared to give up utilitarianism simply because I can't justify that axiom (lack of justification being inherent in axioms). Fundamentally any God who does not embrace utilitarianism in some form is, in my view, an evil God who can go take a flying leap. That may make ethical debate difficult for people who don't share that core belief, but I'm not sure I'm terribly interested in such debate, since it seems unlikely we would find much in the way of common ground. This is what I mean when I say that if someone can't tell me why something is good or bad, I'm not terribly interested in their opinion.

I generally subscribe to a positive existentialist view of morality, by which I mean I act as though there is no externally imposed higher morality, but this is the most awesome possible state of affairs. It means that we are able to work out for ourselves what good and bad means flexibly in response to the changing universe around us. I think that this is why I find spiritual axioms to be so problematic - I don't find the conservatism it promotes to be particularly utilitarian.

Now philosophically it might be possible to say that my world view is built on a foundation of sand, but that doesn't really change my need to have one. It's regrettable that there will be people I can't engage in constructive debate with due to lack of common ground, but I can't really see anything I can do to bridge that gap.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 24th, 2013 09:02 am (UTC) (Link)
That is exactly the point at issue, yes, I think.

philosophically it might be possible to say that my world view is built on a foundation of sand

More like your world view is no more (or less) 'reasonable' than that of the Sabbath-keeper. You both have perfectly consistent reasons, starting from your own premises. So you can't, I think, criticise the Sabbath-keeper for being 'unreasonable'. What you really mean is not that they have no reasons for keeping the Sabbath, but rather that their reasons derive from premises which you think are factually false.

And yes, it's a pity that people arguing from different premises can't really have much of a debate; but it's still useful to identify when that's the case, as otherwise lots of time can be wasted with people talking past each other as if they could have such a debate, only to find out that they were arguing from different premises all along.

(How does one test the truth of ethical premises? The best way I've found is to push them to their logical conclusions and see if you can derive something clearly wrong. To believe in the truth of utilitarianism, for example, I think you need to find some way of stopping your position logically leading to you becoming Peter Singer.)

From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2013 09:40 am (UTC) (Link)
A 'religious belief', as far as I am concerned, is defined as 'an ontological hypothesis about the essential nature of the universe'. So of course 'atheist' is one.

Interesting, though, that you write: 'If God turned up on my doorstep tomorrow and told me I was going to hell unless I followed his rules, I like to think I would honestly say "fine, but that's on you, not on me". '

That seems to rest on an implicit premise hidden in that 'told me'. Is this the 'told me' of a parent who tells a child, 'if you don't stop playing with your food, I'll take it away and you'll go to bed hungry?' or is it more like the 'told me' of a parent who tells a child, 'I'm not going to stop you eating all the sweets, but if you do, you'll be very sick and regret it later?'

In the second case, is the child's resultant stomach upset really 'on' the parent? The parent did, after all, do their best to warn the child.

(I understand this is hypothetical, but I thought it an interesting implied premise to make explicit.)

sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: May 21st, 2013 09:58 am (UTC) (Link)
I suppose I would be inclined to believe the former, whereas the followers of the deity might be inclined to believe the latter. If we look specifically at the Christian context to this thought experiment, I think the problem with the threat of hell is that it serves no logical purpose. The 'stomach ache' of hell is either an arbitrary punishment, or or else, as many Christians believe, oblivion. If the latter, I am totally cool with that but again it seems like kind of a dick move. As a means of enforcing "what's best for us" it's terrible - the consequences occur only after the acts themselves cease to matter, and are too remote to act as a plausible deterrent. Plus I take issue with the idea that there is one way to be which is best for us in the first place. Context is everything.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2013 11:52 am (UTC) (Link)
The 'stomach ache' of hell is either an arbitrary punishment, or or else, as many Christians believe, oblivion

Those are two options, certainly, but by no means the only two: there are many other theories as that what 'Hell' is. And not all see it as a 'threat', and indeed some would say that seeing it as a 'threat' (or a punishment) is actually dead wrong.

The child's stomach ache is neither arbitrary nor is it a punishment: it is a necessary consequence of over-indulgence and, indeed, is entailed by the way stomachs work.

Similarly, it has been theorised that 'Hell' is the necessary end state of a rational being which follows its own impulses and desires; and, furthermore, that this is entailed by the way rational beings work; that is, it would not have been possible for God to create rational beings, and protect them from the possibility of Hell (while still allowing them to have free will).

When the parent tells the child not to eat all the sweets, they are not 'enforcing what is best' for the child: they are merely informing the child of the necessary and inevitable consequences of their actions. To enforce what is best for the child they would have to actually take the sweets away; to follow the analogy, to enforce what is best for us God would (assuming that it is impossible to construct a rational being that can't take itself to Hell, or a stomach that won't ache) have had to construct a world in which actions had no consequences; but such a world would deny us free will. So Hell, then, is not a threat or an attempt to enforce what is best for us, but a warning.

Now, obviously this theory is incomplete: to be complete it would have to prove that the creation of rational beings with free will who could not end up in Hell is a logical impossibility (just as the task of creating a stomach which will both provide nutrition and be immune to abuse is, if not logically impossible, at least infeasible with current technology), which is a task I don't feel qualified to accept.

It is however, I submit, at least not logically inconsistent, and therefore deserves to be considered.

sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: May 21st, 2013 12:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think your argument is logically consistent, and I agree with your analysis of the stomach ache illustration. However, the reason I don't think it's a terribly realistic possibility is that your premise falls foul of Occam's razor. It's very difficult to see why such a hell would be necessary, when oblivion is one of the alternative options. Of course the simplest answer is not always the correct one, but I think then we get into the realms of unknowability again. It may be my limited imagination, but I simply can't see what such an "inevitable consequence" of rejecting the divine would be like, or what sort of metaphysics would require a universe to be set up in that way. It's obvious that free will requires the possibility of "disobedience", but the consequences of such are necessarily mere speculation.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2013 01:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's all speculation when it gets this far, though, isn't it?

Actually I think dealing with the 'oblivion' question is one of the easier aspects, because actually oblivion being 'one of the alternative options' seems very unlikely to me.

We're speculating, basically, on states of existence outside time, aren't we? That's what eternal states such as Heaven and Hell are about. So that presumes, ex hypothesi, that there is some part of us which exists outside time. Otherwise when the matter of our body degrades to the point it can no longer support the form, our existence simply ends and there is neither Heaven or Hell. And that's where you get oblivion.

So in order for the question of Hell to have any meaning we must assume a component to out existence that transcends time. Very well. However, now the question is: how can something which transcends time, end? What would that even mean?

Now, I can't prove that it is logically impossible for a thing which exists outside of time to end. But it seems more likely to me that a thing outside time cannot end, but will exist outside time for -- well, for ever, where 'ever' is here understood not as 'a very very very very very long time' but 'outside all time'.

Whihc swings back around the application of Occam's Razor. I'm not generally in favour ot applying Occam's Razor to metaphysics, because it's very hard in that domain to quantify 'simpler': you can often end up with both sides claiming theirs is the one supported by the Razor (ouch) depending on their opposed, and equally plausible, definitions of 'simple'.

However, in this case, I suppose it cuts the way I want because it seems to me to be logically more complicated to try to explain how we can have a component to our existence which transcends time (and therefore exists in eternity) but can somehow either end in oblivion or not, that it is to speculate that either we do not have such a component (and our existence ends when our body dies) or that the component must necessarily continue to exist in eternity.

Basically, it seems to me that the most plausible options are either: (a) none of us survive after death or (b) all of us exist (in some way) for all eternity. The third option (c) some of us exist for eternity in Heaven and some of us don't, seems much more complicated and much less plausible.

The metaphysics requiring a universe to be set up that way is the fairly simple, and I would say plausible, premise that if it is possible for something to end, it will (because it must exist in time); and therefore if it is to be possible for something not to end, then it must be necessary that it cannot end.

In other words, God could not have created being which could survive their temporal bodies, and also left himself the option to destroy some of them. It's either-or: either we are trapped in time, or we are trapped in eternity. I can't see a middle way.

simont From: simont Date: May 21st, 2013 09:55 am (UTC) (Link)
But I think it has to, because atheism is an act of faith. Let me try to explain. Faith is a firm conviction held without evidential support.

You are no doubt aware that there are several definitions of 'atheist', confusingly similar-yet-distinct. One commonly used definition considers an atheist to be somebody who has a firm conviction that there is no god, and anyone less certain than that falls under 'agnostic'; it is presumably this one which you're referring to above.

Another much wider definition, seen in academic literature, considers 'atheism' to merely mean 'absence of theism', and classifies anyone without a positive belief in a god as an atheist – so that 'agnostic' is a subclass of 'atheist' under this definition.

Personally I feel that both these definitions are lacking something (though I haven't always taken this view). My own position, and as I understand it that of quite a few other people, is not quite certainty: I agree that, in your words, 'the realm of the spiritual is essentially unknowable', but my day-to-day decisions have to be based on some implicit assumption about it (simply to justify, for example, continuing to go to work every day and not doing something totally different like becoming a monk), and the natural default assumption which does in fact seem very likely to me is that – unless and until proved otherwise – all religions were made up by humans. I don't deny that some kind of god might in principle turn out to exist; I just don't give it any extra Bayesian weight over any of the other things I could make up on the spot that might turn out to be true merely because a lot of humans shout about this particular one.

All of which causes me to behave indistinguishably from an atheist of the 'firm conviction' type except that I say a different set of things in theological debate; in all other circumstances the distinction between 'almost sure' and 'sure with a firm conviction constituting faith in itself' is of no moment. And my feeling is that the most useful way to define 'atheist' is somewhere in between the two extremes I describe above, so that it embraces not only the firm-conviction brigade but also the people like me who behave basically like them, but doesn't extend so far as to include people who think, for instance, that God and no God are roughly equally probable options.
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: May 21st, 2013 10:16 am (UTC) (Link)
In the linked wikipedia article on Russell's teapot, there's some suggestion that Russell himself may also have thought similarly. I think my difficulty is that I really don't want to be lumped in with Dawkins and his ilk - Dawkins in particular strikes me as arrogant, patronising, and guilty of exactly the same sort of fuzzy thinking he looks down upon the religious for.

Definitions are, of course, tricky, and I don't think I had previously come across the wider sense of atheist you mention here (my cosmic apathy means I've not really engaged in this debate to any great degree). There are, of course, terms like "skeptic", which in some sense I feel kinship to, but again, the very word carries (to me at least) a connotation of negativity as the the default state that I feel uncomfortable with. I don't assume that ghosts don't exist because no-one has produced convincing evidence, I start from the position that ghosts exist in the sense that people report experiencing them, and the balance of evidence suggests this is an artifact of human psychology rather than an independent phenomenon. But I have no horse in this race. I'm fine either way.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2013 01:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
all religions were made up by humans

Of course, so were all scientific theories. The question isn't whether they were made up by humans, but which best explains the observations of the world.

(The difference, in my experience, between the religious and those who are not (to avoid the 'a' word) tends to be between those who see things like morality and justice and meaning and consciousness as observable (if imperfectly) features of the world needing explained; and those who see such things as the equivalent of optical illusions, which are apparently there but not, in fact, real (and therefore an explanation for the universe does not need to explain them).

Some philosophers have devoted entire careers to explaining why consciousness, for example, is merely an illusion.

As a result the two talk past each other, with the non-religious saying, 'But my philosophy explains everything, and is simpler, where is your evidence for the existence of anything else?' and the religious replaying, 'But your philosophy doesn't explain X, Y and Z,' and the non-religious shaking their heads and saying, 'But yes it does, it explains how you think you see X, Y and Z but they are not really there,' and the religious saying, 'But you haven't proved they aren't really there, you've just come up with a mechanism by which they could appear to be there if they weren't, but they are,' and so on ad nauseum.

It is hardly surprising, I suppose, that they fail to agree on an explanation for the world, when they appear to be living in two completely different ones.

From: (Anonymous) Date: May 25th, 2013 12:45 am (UTC) (Link)
That's an interesting point. I don't think we have a good way, in a post-enlightenment world, of dealing with alternatives which people believe are sensible (in the "can be sensed" sense), present them selves as alternative hypothetical worlds, but are essentially incommensurable. I don't mean that to be a criticism of the approach nor an appeal for special pleading.

I think often the best thing to do in these situations is to keep quiet.

I get the impression that throughout much of America and maybe even Europe, we'd be goaded out of silence by belligerent religious types, whereas personally it's more often a belligerent atheist who insists on launching charges.

As faith is so occult, I think that if two pilgrims went to a shrine and felt blessed, -- describing it in common terms, -- along with an atheist who felt nothing, -- describing it quite differently, -- then there's no more reason to think that the pilgrims experience was more alike than to that of the atheist than there would be if it were two English people and a French person describing something blue/bleu.

(Another kind of religion is the belief that there are /more/ illusions than are commonly considered proper to hold).
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