Misuse of “agnostic”?

At times like this it’s frustrating that we weren’t able to salvage the entire body of articles from the old version of the site. I did at least two pieces solely on this distinction.

Question from Pritchard Hotpocket:
I see a common error perpetually appear on this site. You misuse the term “agnostic” a great deal. You seem to treat agnosticism as some sort of middle ground between atheism and theism. This is incorrect. Atheism and theism are metaphysical positions of whether you believe in any deity or lack a belief in all deities. Agnosticism and gnosticism are each an epistemological position on whether you think you “know” whether a deity exists or not. So you could be a gnostic theist and believe that you “know” that a god exists or an agnostic theist and believe you don’t know whether a god exists or not but you believe in one regardless. Likewise you can be an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist, sometimes described as “weak” and “strong” atheists. Do you disagree with me or have you simply never been notified of the distinctions?

Answer:
When was the last time we said something like that, if you don’t mind?

At times like this it’s frustrating that we weren’t able to salvage the entire body of articles from the old version of the site, because I did at least two pieces solely on this distinction.

I’ll argue with you on one point: I don’t think “agnostic” as a prefix for atheism or theism is equivalent to “weak”, or “gnostic” to “strong”. I’ll use atheism to explain: a gnostic atheist knows (or, more accurately, thinks he knows) that there are no gods, whereas a strong atheist merely believes this is true. You can be “strong” without being certain. A weak atheist is any atheist who isn’t a strong atheist, in other words someone who doesn’t positively believe in the absence of gods any more than in their presence. An agnostic atheist admits to not knowing one way or the other, but despite this could either be weak or strong by believing in absence or not. I for example am an agnostic weak atheist, though I generally just call myself an agnostic atheist because that captures most of the meaning. (And frankly, who likes to be called “weak”?)

We could also get into explicit and implicit atheism, the distinction between those who know they’re atheists and those who haven’t thought about it, but…well, I guess I just did.

SmartLX

Religious Wars

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a good reason for a religious war, since I think religion is a misguided premise on which to base any endeavour.

Question from John:
I was just wondering, but why are some good reasons for religious wars and what would it accomplish?

Answer:
I don’t think there’s such a thing as a good reason for a religious war, since I think religion is a misguided premise on which to base any endeavour. That’s not to say that everything done in the name of religion has been worthless; the right thing may be done for the wrong reason.

Religious wars, by definition, are waged for one principal reason, good or not: the welfare of the participants’ personal religions. In practical terms this can mean forcibly converting people of other faiths, killing them outright, reclaiming artifacts and/or locations of religious significance, or conceivably, bringing about the end of the world so that certain prophecies will be fulfilled and true believers will get their ultimate rewards.

Clear-cut examples of religious wars can be hard to come by, but they do exist.
_

  • A series of them ravaged Europe over two centuries, mainly as a result of the Protestant Reformation.
  • The Crusades were a long series of turf wars between Christians and Muslims over the two religions’ shared designation of the “Holy Land”.
  • The current Muslim Jihad waged by extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and so on is a struggle in the name of Allah, though no nation has yet been suicidal enough to commit itself officially. (Iran may sanction calls of “Death to America”, but it hasn’t actually declared war.)
  • Though the conflict between Jews and Muslims in Palestine and Israel may be about racial tensions and property disputes as much as religion, there are many around the world who actively hope and pray that it will escalate to the point where it fulfills an end-time prophecy in the Bible.
  • _
    There have of course been wars whose causes had little or nothing to do with religion, but that doesn’t let religion off the hook for the destruction that has indeed been done in its name.

    SmartLX

    Login Issues

    “User information wasn’t salvaged from the old site. Even we moderators had to re-register on the new one. Just start again using one of your addresses and you’ll be fine.”

    Question from Chris:
    Hi, I had not been on for awhile and the site has since changed.

    I cannot seem to log in, nor am I able to retrieve my password (or create a new one … whichever is offered) by putting in my email address. It says no such email registered, but I put in each of the addresses I have.

    Would I just not be in the system anymore since the change?

    Thanks for your help.

    Answer:
    User information wasn’t salvaged from the old site, sorry. Even we moderators had to re-register on the new one. Just start from scratch using any of your existing addresses and you’ll be fine.

    SmartLX

    “The Literal Word of God”

    Question:
    Evangelists and others often claim that “the Bible is the literal Word of God”. Putting aside whether it’s true or not, what does it actually mean?

    Answer:
    Google the quoted phrase to find lots of instances of the claim, and also lots of rejections of it. Both sides tend to confuse two possible meanings the phrase could have, so here they are nice and separate.

    “The Bible is the literal Word of God” could mean either or both of the following:
    1. The Bible is literally the Word of God. All those words on the pages really were composed by God.
    2. The Word of God in the Bible is literal. God’s words are intended to be interpreted literally.

    Some people are nice enough to spell out that they mean one or the other. Surveys of belief usually offer option 1 explicitly (again, Google the phrase in quotes), and some participants select it. Young-earth creationists defend option 2, arguing to the hilt that Creation took place in “six literal days”.

    Option 1 is difficult to either establish or debunk, because even the most zealous Bible-thumpers will say that God wrote through the minds and hands of human “authors”. Short of going back in time and doing brain scans, we’ll never be absolutely certain that their writings weren’t the products of their own brains.

    The most common way of supporting option 1 is to argue that the Bible makes prophecies, and statements about the universe, which history and science have since confirmed. I’ve addressed this sort of thing already.

    Option 2 is a theological matter, because you have to presume the existence of a god before you wonder what it meant by something it wrote. That said, it’s extremely difficult to defend a 100% literal reading of the Bible. There are passages which, unless taken metaphorically or figuratively, are for example false even in a Biblical context (Genesis 2:17) or deadly (Proverbs 3:3).

    Most Christians reject option 2 and take some or all of the Bible as metaphor. Many more also reject option 1 and allow that the Bible is simply a book written about God, and that any perceived issues with its contents don’t reflect badly on Him. Therefore the quoted claim in my title and the confusion it creates are irrelevant to most. However, for the minority that do shout it from the rooftops (clearly, I’m a metaphor man) and those who worry about their influence or are under it, it’s important to clarify this profound statement before accepting it, rejecting it or just discussing it.

    SmartLX

    “I don’t understand.”

    “Nice people and nasty people can be right or wrong about the same things.”

    Questions from Jaselynn:
    If you take the subject as a sign that I am a pushover, do not be fooled. It is true that I grew up in a “Christian” home…and it is also true that the home fell apart, but not because of God. Because of my father. My father molested my sister. Horrid, I know. But despite how much I tried, I could never hate him. I hate what he did, but not him. Would you have me hate my father? I don’t. I love him. I really don’t hate anybody.

    I used to be consumed by anger. You know nothing of anger unless you have felt what I have. It was like a fire burning in me at all times…just waiting for an excuse to explode. I could have killed someone once. Thank the Good Lord that I didn’t! I hated God. Everything I did was just a show. It wasn’t real. And then it changed…it was slowly…an evolution, of sorts( I mean no disrespect when I say that.)

    It started with a friend. Just one person. Someone reached out to me. Of all the people in the world Christians, Athiests, Catholics, Mormans, Hindus. And I know people of each of these religions or nonreligions as the case may be. And only one friend reached out. And she was a Christian. I know that some Christians are fake. I know that some of them are the most horrid people in the world…but that is because they don’t really Know God. But Emily was different. She actually cared. She lived it.

    What do you say about the Christians who do live differently? Do you believe they exist? I’ve met them. The real Christians give from thier heart, put others before themselves, give to the poor, and love no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT. Do you think that it is a different God? I just don’t understand how you can lump all Christians into one catigory. You get angry when we lump you laws, theorys, beliefs in one category, why do you do it to Christians.

    Answer:
    All we tend to say about Christians in general is that they are most likely wrong about one specific set of beliefs: those related to the truth claims of Christianity, like that a god exists and that Jesus rose from the dead. I guess that’s just one category, but it’s a very broad category.

    That doesn’t stop Christians from being kind, loving, forgiving, generous people. As you mention, neither does it guarantee that they will be thus, as some Christians simply aren’t. Nice people and nasty people can be right or wrong about the same things. So we call Christians out when they do bad or dishonest things, just as we would anyone, but we try not to generalise their character to encompass all Christians. Few generalisations apply to two billion people at once.

    Emily apparently did a great thing for you, helping you forgive your father and deal with your rage. Christianity is the tool she used to do it, though she might have used others. (For example, what would it say about human beings if the only good reason to forgive someone were because we’ve been ordered to by an authority?) The fact that it worked says little or nothing about the actual existence of the god by which her actions were inspired.

    Therefore I’m glad Emily was able to help you, and I think she’s a good person, but I still think she’s probably wrong about God nonetheless. There are good Christians just are there are good Hindus, good Muslims, good atheists and good agnostics. Simply having the wrong or right religion, if any, doesn’t say much about a person’s character.

    SmartLX

    Faithdrawal Symptoms

    “There are things outside of religion to fill the hole you feel, despite what religions say.”

    Question from Former Believa:
    I was formerly a hard core, truly devoted, sincere believer.

    Then “pop” … awareness, englightenment….and emptiness.

    When your whole life is grounded in the belief in a supreme being, and you remove the premise of god and eternity. It changes your perspective. That’s a huge gap you’ve got all of a sudden.

    It’s heartbreaking and depressing. I feel judged and misunderstood by practically all believers and “spiritual” people.

    Where do I go from here?

    Answer:
    Sometimes, when people stop believing in gods, certain assumptions related to their former belief stay in place. It sounds obvious but it’s important to specifically consider that if you were wrong about the existence of the god you once worshipped, you were also wrong if you thought that this god was the only possible source of love, happiness, logic, purpose, fulfillment or anything else, as long as these things exist in any sense. There are things outside of religion to fill the hole you feel, despite what religions say.

    You’ve realised that your life has no purpose which is predetermined by some absolute authority. If you’re explicitly looking for a new purpose in life, you could let it come to you in a similar way: externally, from non-absolute authorities (but at least ones you know exist) such as peer groups and organisations which could use you in their plans. Before you resign yourself to that, though, why not see whether you have your own goals to achieve? Is there perhaps something you wanted to do when you were younger, but put aside in favour of religious pursuits? Maybe you could pick it up again. If you don’t find a new purpose immediately, you can take heart from the fact that when you do find something real to which you want to devote your time, you’ll be free to do so.

    An eternity in Heaven can be comforting to look forward to, but it’s also a lot of pressure. One step out of line, according to the old dogma, and you swap it for an eternity of torment. You never really know what constitutes a step out of line, at that, so if you’ve made one you might not know to make up for it.

    That’s all behind you now. There is great relief in the realisation that you don’t have to please some overlord who doesn’t tell you what he wants and condemns you if you fail him. You can get on with the business of living this one life for all it’s worth.

    Believers in gods and other supernatural stuff often do judge and misunderstand non-believers, sometimes more than they do followers of different faiths. If you want that to stop, you need to talk to the believers you know. You might not bring them round to your position, but chances are you’ll be able to clear up some misconceptions about it. (There are many.) It’s difficult to get people to seriously consider the tenability of their own positions, but it’s much easier to help them see a certain amount of sense in other people’s positions, for example yours. Empathy is easier than self-analysis.

    I can’t tell you how to live your life and I wouldn’t presume to, but I’ve spoken to a lot of people while they go through this transitional phase you’re in. (It’s why many feel the need to Ask the Atheist.) I can tell you that it is just a phase, which I’ve decided to name faithdrawal. Those who don’t relapse into belief do eventually get more comfortable with its absence. I know I did.

    SmartLX

    A little lonely.

    Question :

    I was formerly a hard core, truly devoted, sincere believer.

    Then “pop” … awareness, englightenment….and emptiness.

    When your whole life is grounded in the belief in a supreme being, and you remove the premise of god and eternity.  It changes your perspective.  That’s a huge gap you’ve got all of a sudden.

    It’s heartbreaking and depressing.  I feel judged and misunderstood by practically all believers and “spiritual” people.

    Where do I go from here?

    Answer :

    What you’re feeling is understandable. When we live in a world that still believes in magic and hocus pocus, it’s hard not to feel estranged from the people around us.  That can leave us feeling a bit lonely. My suggestion would be to find other like minded believers out there. Find a local meetup of atheists and share a drink or a meal with them. This will help you feel a lot less lonely and give you the oppertunity to meet some like minded people. They will also help to show you that life can and will go on, and that it doesn’t have to be all that depressing. You’re in control of your life, not some mystical mumbo jumbo bullshit. That’s a lot of power to have.

    Think of it this way, if you were an eagle that spent it’s life believing it was a pig, when you discovered you could fly, would you stay in the pig pen or fly into the clouds ?

    Hope that helps.

    Bad Arguments Never Die

    There seems to be no argument in favour of gods and religion, or against areas of science deemed incompatible with these, which has been entirely discarded by people of faith for its poor merit and performance.

    Question I’ve been pondering:
    There seems to be no argument in favour of gods and religion, or against areas of science deemed incompatible with these, which has been entirely discarded by people of faith for its poor merit and performance.

    People are still proclaiming that the second law of thermodynamics prevents order and complexity from increasing at all without divine help, or that the continued existence of apes disproves the idea that we evolved from apes, or that we all ought to worship a particular god because the only alternative is that there are no gods.

    Do these people not see or understand the counter-arguments? Are they preaching on auto-pilot?

    Answer:
    Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    The hypotheses I’m about to put forward don’t only apply to religious people. Advocates of any position in any area (including my own positions) may have the same issues with their thinking. It’s just that working on the sites I do, I mostly see these in the context of religious and anti-atheist arguments.

    Here are three reasons which together, I think, can fully account for the persistence of invalid or unsound arguments.

    1. Ignorance
    It’s an unpleasant word, but it’s not necessarily an insult. Ignorance simply means there’s something a person doesn’t know. Some people really think, for example, that evolution causes entire populations of one species to change en masse into another, leaving no precursors and no diversity. Thus if there are humans, supposedly there can be no remaining apes.

    The reasons for ignorance can often be deduced when trying to inform people and reduce ignorance, because either they welcome new information or they don’t. They could be genuinely incapable of grasping the essential concepts in their current frame of mind and merely parroting the arguments, or they could be deliberately shielding themselves from dissent to preserve their own determination (e.g. standing “firmly in Christ”), or their mentors could be the ones doing the shielding (e.g. warning against “the devil’s words“).

    2. Overconfidence
    I came to this realisation only a few days ago. There are some people who presume that any argument in favour of their position, no matter how old, incomprehensible or well-refuted, must be perfectly sound and is therefore worth repeating and defending. They will not concede a single aspect of a single point to their opponents, so sure are they that every person who has ever argued alongside them was correct in every way. (It seems to follow often from the idea that gods don’t lead their own soldiers astray.) As opposed to not knowing or understanding enough to find the flaws in their arguments, they just never try.

    3. Sophistry
    This is broadly defined as using arguments which one knows are unsound, which is a dishonest practice at its core. One might know exactly why an argument doesn’t hold water, but if one’s objective is to convince as many people as possible then one can spread the argument far and wide regardless, aiming it at those who don’t yet know its flaws. It’s a way of exploiting the ignorance of one’s opponents or the public without attempting to inform or educate anybody. It’s a very self-serving approach, and I’m pretty sure it goes on all the time.

    Sadly, thanks to the above three phenomena, bad arguments can still serve misguided or unscrupulous people, so they never go away. It’s worth trying to determine which of the three is responsible in a given case, because it will inform your response or reaction.

    SmartLX

    Props to Jake

    Email from Stefanie:
    I have just watched one of your videos posted on YouTube. I really appreciate that you are bringing attention to the logically simple ways that atheists think. I feel like you stole the information right from my brain. I was raised in the Roman Catholic school system, and just started a teaching position in the public school system. I refused to even apply to the Catholic system as it would have been against my values. I just could not bear to have any of it passed on any further. I give you the utmost respect for the respectful explanation of your belief system (or, lack of).

    Witnessing like Way of the Master

    “Witness for yourself the persuasive power of passive belief, and understand why so many atheists want people to shed even this.”

    Questions:
    The witness asks the subject:
    1. Would you consider yourself a good person?
    2. Do you think you have kept the Ten Commandments?
    3. If God judges you by the 10 Commandments on the Day of Judgment, will you be innocent or guilty?
    4. Based on that, would you go to heaven or hell? Does that concern you?

    Analysis:
    As simple as it looks, this witnessing method often works wonders for Ray Comfort and those who learn from him, especially on subjects unfamiliar with this kind of thinking. The Way of the Master radio and TV shows have disseminated this method far and wide, such that especially if you live in the US you’re more likely to get this from an evangelist than any other approach.

    Let’s look at the intended delivery and effect in detail.

    1. Would you consider yourself a good person?
    If yes, sets up the subject for disappointment and shock when it’s later explained that this is unimportant because the subject has sinned. If no, reveals that the subject probably has poor self-esteem and will react well to a chance at redemption.

    2. Do you think you have kept the Ten Commandments?
    The witness must obtain a no. If the subject does not volunteer any sins, the witness often invokes Matthew 5:28 – “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Therefore if you’ve got working eyes and hormones, you’ve broken the seventh Commandment. In the unlikely event that the subject is entirely innocent, the witness invokes the inescapable blemish of Original Sin.

    3. If God judges you by the 10 Commandments on the Day of Judgment, will you be innocent or guilty?
    Since the answer to 2 was no, the answer to this must be guilty.

    4. Based on that, would you go to Heaven or Hell?
    Invariably, Hell.

    Does that concern you?
    The answer to this is unimportant. Up to this point, the exchange has been an intellectual exercise. The suddenly personal nature and immediacy of the final question triggers an emotional response. Any latent belief the subject may have bubbles to the surface and creates fear. After that, it’s just a matter of telling the subject that there’s only one way to Heaven: to accept Jesus Christ as personal lord and saviour. It becomes the way out of the fear, and is accepted on that emotional level it needs in order to stick.

    Obviously, the questions are rigged to produce the expected answers. You will also have noticed that the questions simply assume the existence of God, Jesus, the Ten Commandments (therefore Moses), sin, Heaven and Hell.

    Their purpose is not to convince the subject that God exists, but to capitalise on the fact that most people already believe, even if they do not act upon that belief or have not thought about it lately. It prompts a renewed commitment without inspiring new doubt. After this commitment, doubt is even less likely. It takes moderately religious or even barely religious people, and makes them want to be saved.

    The spanner in the works is the very thing the method seeks to avoid: doubt. The existence of God, sin and Hell and the basic truth of the Bible are critical premises. If the subject expresses doubt during the initial questions, a common response by the witness is to proceed hypothetically and then invoke Pascal’s Wager, e.g. “If I’m right, then you’re going to Hell unless you commit to Christ. Are you sure you want to take that chance?”

    If that doesn’t work (for example if the subject has one of these responses to the Wager), the method is finally derailed and the witness must use other apologetic to bring the subject up to the necessary level of belief.

    Without pre-existing fear of God and eternal damnation, the method has no emotional punch. If the witness is in a public place or is trying to “save” many people, he/she will probably decide at this point that the subject isn’t worth the effort, hand out a card or pamphlet and move on.

    A nice thing you can say about WOTM’s method is that it takes evangelical belief to its logical conclusion. If you believe deep down that this stuff is true, it shows you the thing you need to do. However, that is one huge if.

    It only works properly in an atmosphere where its premises are unchallenged, so that’s where to attack it if a friend or family member has been or is being swayed. Make use of doubt. Get people outside of the little box in which the questions force them to think.

    Painful as it might be, and whether you’re against WOTM or not, try watching witnessing clips from the WOTM television show on YouTube (or even GodTube, aka Tangle). Take note of the level of belief subjects begin with, and how much they’re willing to accept without argument before the “punch” line. Witness for yourself the persuasive power of passive belief, and understand why so many atheists want people to shed even this.

    SmartLX