Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Oh, ye sanctimonious agnostics!

There is no real shortage of religious people who turn up their noses at you with a holier-than-thou attitude.  Pretty much any of them are bound to take the position that all things good and fine and decent in the world is exclusively found through their beliefs, or at the very least, that the absolute pinnacle of goodness can only be found through the perfection intrinsic to blind obedience unto their purported divine edicts.  I don't think it should come as any surprise, then that there would be the "Grumpier" brands of adversaries such as myself considering the arrogantly high and mighty ultra-pompous windbags on the side of various religions...  to say nothing of the outright harm that religion brings to humanity.  That said, there are windbags among non-believers, too.  One that comes to mind after I conveniently overheard yet another religion conversation at yet another eatery, and it reminded me furthermore of some discussions of long-past.  Specifically, I'm speaking of the self-professed "pure" agnostics who argue that they take the most rational position.

To put it succinctly, you are 100% wrong.

The majority of self-professed "agnostics" really aren't even aware of the fact that agnosticism is mutually exclusive of theism or atheism, and does not preclude either one.  Because "agnostic" seems to imply neutrality, it sounds as if it is some sort of middle ground, but it really isn't.  It's a completely independent question.  This sort of confusion, though, I have comparatively little problem with because it's something that can be cleared up by educating someone.  My problem is those windbags who think that they somehow know better than all the atheists and anti-theists out there claiming that agnosticism is apparently the one true middle ground, and that it is the proper default position.

There's a certain group here who like to say that it is too strong to take a firmly oppositional position to theism, and then elect to sit on the fence.  I find a thinly veiled intellectual cowardice in this.  It's not a matter of making a decision to be neutral, but rather the inability to even intellectually approach anything.  More often than not, what so-called agnostics really want is to avoid confrontation by pretending not to be a firm adversary to theists.  In avoiding having to intellectually approach the question of beliefs, they avoid being seen as a threat and avoid getting embroiled in the cultural battle.  Furthermore, do not dare to tell me that it is more intellectually honest to be a "pure" agnostic than an atheist.  There is nothing intellectually honest about not taking any intellectual position on whether you believe or not.  The problem here is that it is nothing more than an artificially enforced sense of balance.  I refer to Okrent's Law that trying to seek balance creates imbalance, because sometimes, some things are actually true and some things are actually false.

The atheist takes the skeptical position towards theism because it is intellectually demonstrable that the likelihood of a God is extremely low.  The theist takes the position of belief because of faith and/or tradition and the inability to escape the binds of their ignorance.  The "de facto" agnostic is trying to avoid getting mixed up in any of it.  It's also because of this, that they often take the role of apologizing for religion.  Not so much because they see religion as the minority, but because religious people invariably play the hapless victim when cornered, compared to the "new" atheists who tend more often to bare their fangs when cornered (which, being the most distrusted of all minority groups, we always are), so they appear weaker.

Formally speaking, agnostic merely means without knowledge.  Meaning it is a question of knowing or knowability.  Theism is a matter of belief, which is intrinsically non-specific on the degree of certainty.  Knowledge itself can be classified as a subset of belief which stands with sufficient certainty that it is pretty well accepted to be absolutely true.  If one wants to cast theism or atheism as a matter of knowledge, rather than a matter of belief, then indeed, there would be extremely few theists or atheists in the world.  Nonetheless, it is possible to have knowledge on the matter of a god's existence, but one has to be relatively specific.  The problem is that "God" has been defined in so many various ways that specificity can easily be stripped from the picture leaving you with something so vague that it is no longer possible to express strong certainty of belief.

If you want to ask me whether I believe there is a god or not without saying what you mean by "god", then I can only say I do not believe on the basis that it is extraordinarily unlikely and the fact remains that there is strong indication, history, and track record of such beliefs to suggest that there is not one.  If you want to get specific such as asking whether or not I believe Yahweh as described exactly in the Bible exists, then I can say with firm knowledge that that particular god absolutely does not exist and never could have.  There is simply too much said about the supposed acts which are provably false (in that they can be shown never to have occurred), too much backstory which is unsupported and unsupportable, and there are too many logical contradictions and logical impossibilities within the definition of this deity which make this particular god even conceptually untenable.  It is impossible for me to be agnostic on this sort of a definition of god, even if I might ultimately have to be with an absurdly loose definition of god.  The Christian apologists out there, of course, would argue that it is absurd to take a literal interpretation of their scripture to define their god's nature, but do not strip their purported deity of certain properties which are still logically impossible.  Moreover, the more you try to loosen up the way you define your god's properties, the more you destroy the appearance of relevance to your religious foundations and expose that your churches are all built on pillars of sand.  Ultimately, you either have to be firm in allowing things which are logically self-defeating and somehow pretend it's okay, or you have to take a few steps back from the and convince yourself you're not merely holding an empty sack.

The sanctimonious agnostic is the person who doesn't bother to think about any of this and simply start from the position that we assume that the sack is not empty, but actually half-full.  "I don't know if it's empty or not" is not a good reason to start with the premise of partially filled.  These types of agnostics forget that there are ways to test that, but you're just too damn weak and pathetic to even try.  The thing is that one can say about an arbitrary deity who could possibly exist in some hyperspace outside of our universe, and yet could interact with it for at least enough to create or potentially modify our universe, then you have an idea which is not within our apprehension to justify.  If you cannot justify a belief, then the default position is not to believe;  more accurately, to be skeptical, which means you do not believe until such time as solid evidence comes forth.  This is the thing that people forget.  Belief IS binary.  Either you believe or you don't.  Deciding that you don't know for sure is not a middle ground, because you can just as easily believe without knowing as you can disbelieve without knowing for sure.  To simply stop addressing the question at the point of not being able to know with any real certainty is nothing more than to stop reasoning at that point...  so don't dare tell me that it is "more reasonable."  Bullcrap.  It involves no reasoning to simply stop at the knowability.  It takes more reasoning to evaluate the plausibility of a claim than to say that you can't attain absolute certainty.  The very nature of all scientific questions is such that you cannot get absolute certainty.  It is quite simply a non-position.  Not believing is the null hypothesis.

There is a yet more rare breed of sanctimonious agnostics who start with the position of the existence and non-existence of a god to be equiprobable.  This sort of agnostic, at least, is just flat out wrong at the very foundation of their position.  Just because you can state the possibilities in the form of a binary premise, doesn't mean the chances are equally likely.  That's just not how existence works.  By that sort of flawed thinking, I have a 50-50 chance of existing.  However, existence does not come down to the flip of a coin.  My existence, for instance, is contingent on an unbroken line of ancestry.  One in which it is only possible for me to exist provided that all of my ancestors managed to reproduce.  In the grand scheme of all living things which have ever existed on this planet, that leaves my chances of existing to be absurdly small, but given the fact that my parents can be shown to exist, that means that the probability of my existence is quite reasonably good.  But even aside from all that, whatever chances I might have had of being or not being born, the question of my existence can be shown through more direct evidence.  The very fact that I'm writing on this blog and that you're reading it shows that at least some mechanism exists by which there is either a real or virtual Grumpy Anti-theist updating the content here.  Other evidence can easily be shown through other writings, other people who can provide contemporaneous evidence of having met me or known me, family who can attest to my existence.

When showing that a god exists, you need to be prepared to provide independently verifiable evidence of a god and all of its godlike properties that you might claim that god to have that does not require any pre-existing faith in that god in order to accept.  This is not an extreme demand, because it is exactly what is required to support any disputed claim as a statement of fact.  No such evidence exists for any god.  Without that, you don't have the ability to assign a distinct nonzero probability to any existence claim.

Remember also, that there is a multitude of different gods which have been posited by various cultures, and when you try to make a binary statement that there either is a god or there isn't, you haven't even gotten to the point of stating which god there is.  More often than not, though, it is theists who use this position, because committing this sort of fallacy that existence is somehow analogous to the flip of a coin gives a framing that allows unsupported claims to stand toe-to-toe with claims that are actually true.  There's simply no room for it.  To paraphrase Dara O'Briain, it is equivalent to trying to "balance" the statements of a NASA scientist with the assertions of a hick who believes the sky is a carpet painted by "God."  If this sort of exercise in the false compromise fallacy sounds absurd to you, just remember that the god "hypothesis" has just as much going for it as the painted carpet.

Anyone who dares to tell me that's reasonable will be forced to get a thorough lesson in what reason actually is.