Atheist Pride in Understanding Religion

September 28, 2010

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released a study about who understands religion, saying that:

"Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge."

The LA Times reports on this new finding ,  

A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn't identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, according to the survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church's central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them. Atheists and agnostics -- those who believe there is no God or who aren't sure -- were more likely to answer the survey's questions correctly.

The New York Times comments on this study:

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman over at the Faith and Reason blog of USA Today isn't too impressed:

What do the answers say about the role God may/may not play in your life, the influence of religious doctrines and practices, or how your faith or lack of it shapes your moral life in the world? Even if we flunk Religion 101, do we know why this matters?

Maybe Grossman thinks she is helping believers with such comforting words. Let me reply with suggestions why knowledge about religion really matters.

First, intellectual laziness and outright ignorance has no excuse. If you don't understand what you supposedly believe in, you have no right to suppose that your beliefs are better than anyone else's. For religious people to even suggest, "So what, real belief doesn't depend on understanding what my religion says," then we are looking at an embarrassing collapse of standards. Unfortunately, this collapse of standards doesn't automatically mean a collapse of faith -- just the opposite. With too many religious leaders encouraging followers to just rely on sheer faith, we are only looking at a hardening of stubborn conviction.This is a trap, but there is a way out.

Atheists who have some comprehension of religion and how its ideological system works should rightfully be proud, as proud as atheists satisfied with knowing naturalism alone. And all atheists should be encouraged to put their knowledge to good use. Those atheists who want to publicly engage believers in civil discourse will admirably support the rational and naturalistic worldview, and probably open up more cracks of doubt in believers. There is no reason at all to just assume, as a few atheists do, that no intellectual engagement with religion is possible or worthwhile. As I repeatedly urge, atheists do have the superior worldview and our intellectual leadership from Richard Dawkins to Daniel Dennett and many more, too numerous to name, should be our role models. Recommending some familiarity with religious thinking is no treacherous betrayal, but wise counsel.

Atheists capable of guiding public discourse about religion, and capable of showing religious people a dignified and smart way to abandon religion's delusions, are heroic figures in these dangerous times. We must use every strategy possible to confront religion. From the sparks of slashing debate to the smiles of pointed blasphemy, atheists can do it with our wits.



#1 Skepticus on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 7:57am

Good timing, I just finished posting a comment on Ronald Lindsay’s blog “Commemorate Blasphemy Rights Day—Have a Bake Sale or Read the Bible” that would perhaps fit in nicely here - mine is comment #12. 

Before I even finished writing it I was starting to change my mind.

#2 Bruce Gorton (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 8:09am

I read your Huffington Post piece. I know you must be very proud of it.

Let me join the chorus in a hearty fuck you.

“Know-nothings”? As in the American nativist movement of the 1840s? As in the Louisville riot? And you damn well know you are going to get quoted on that article to slam the rest of us.

#3 hyrcan (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 8:58am

September 15…
“Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance.” ~John Shook

September 28…
“Atheist Pride in Understanding” ~John Shook


Count me in with Bruce’s sentiments.

#4 Robert Schneider on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 12:00pm

...and yet you still assert there are some who insist “that no intellectual engagement with religious is possible.”

Hey… there’s a link.  Perhaps Shook will be taking us to view one of these people’s blog, or quote their thoughts where they SAY that?

Nope… the link takes us to that crappy HuffPo piece by… John Shook!

And you won’t give the examples of what they specifically say that you believe is wrong.  Who are they.  What did they say?  Then we can have a discussion.

Compare that to this current situation, where many loud atheists are saying, “John Shook has said that atheists are a bunch of know nothings, and that comment will be used against us by the religious as justification for marginalizing atheists.”  See, a named name and a specific claim… Why can’t you admit the HuffPo piece was crap and retract it?  Try again, even… but defending it is sad.  Almost as sad as using a subsequent article to shill for it.

#5 Joshua Slocum on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 2:05pm

John, you really do need to address your critics. We are asking very reasonable questions about your contradictory writings recently. In the widely read Huffington Post, atheists (and, no, your defense that it’s just a subset you were referring to really doesn’t wash for reasons that have been pointed out to you) are “know-nothings” proud of their ignorance. In the much-less widely read CFI blogs, we can be proud of our knowledge of religion, and you assert we can dismiss God with nothing more than an eighth-grader’s level of rationality.

Now, we find Richard Dawkins himself openly questioning your honesty. He reports (link below) asking you about the HuffPo article at a reception last night, and that you claimed you did not rattle off your “atheist know-nothings” sentence right at the beginning. But, in fact, you *did*. It’s right there, for all to read:

And CFI - you owe us an explanation, too.

What’s going on, John?

#6 wbthacker on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 3:30pm

I’m one more reader trying to understand how John Shook can claim any intellectual integrity given these two sharply contradictory statements in the span of two weeks.

Look, I can easily believe that two weeks ago he just got carried away in his rhetoric… he was trying to engage religious moderates by establishing a (not-quite-genuine) common ground… he was trying to sell his book… his spell-checker corrected “know-everythings” into “know-nothings”.

But say SOMETHING.  Your readers have been complaining about your apparent betrayal - in the name of CFI, no less - for two weeks now, and you stonewall them?  John, you’re not the Catholic Church, you can’t make a scandal go away by ignoring it.  Level with us.

#7 Robert Schneider on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 3:58pm

CFI, might I (as a non-paying, non-voting outsider) recommend that you revise your policy about the use of CFI Titles when executive staff write, OR about the inclusion of explicit disclaimers when the person is NOT writing in service of CFI.

Short of one of these two, you would be doing a disservice to yourselves and the community.  Do you really want/need more of this type of fiasco?

#8 Joshua Slocum on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 6:58pm

John Shook, hallooooooo. . . .(echo, echo, echo). .

Is anyone there (there, there, echo, there). . .?

#9 Paul W. (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 7:33pm

People (including Richard Dawkins) have commented on the opening sentence of John’s HuffPo piece invoking the stereotype of atheists as know-nothings.

Notice that it wasn’t just the opening sentence. The rest of the first paragraph was an elaboration of the idea, apparently confirming that it was the topic sentence of the whole piece.

As if that wasn’t enough, the opening sentence of the next paragraph implicitly confirms the stereotype he’s playing to, by saying it’s (only) “a little unfair.”

Anybody who understands framing will tell you that’s exactly what you want to do if you want to play good cop and throw other atheists under the bus, for a hostile audience.

If it wasn’t intentional, it’s a stellar display of incompetence.

Imagine an NAACP honcho starting a speech to random mostly white people this way:

Black people are getting a reputation for being a bunch of good-for-nothings. They know nothing of ambition, and not much more about responsibility, and they seem proud of their shiftlessness.

That reputation is a little unfair […]

#10 Paul W. (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 7:51pm

Greta Christina’s Atheist Meme for The Day:

“You haven’t studied modern theology” is a terrible argument against atheism. Many atheists have studied modern theology… and found it very much wanting. It either dresses up the same old bad arguments in prettier language, or it defines God so abstractly it’s indistinguishable from atheism. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

John, if you think there’s any actually good modern theology, please be specific.  Please name two articles or books by sophisticated theologians who make arguments that need addressing, rather than just goofily unconvincing reworkings of long-debunked medieval arguments, or vaguery that amounts to letting atheists call something “God,” or just being an inconsistent mishmash of assertions.

I keep hearing about the sophisticated theology that people like Dawkins don’t address, and have read a dozen quite varied books of theology that people have recommended—-e.g., Swinburne at one extreme and Armstrong at another—-and for the life of me I can’t find the good stuff.

(BTW, I studied philosophy for years, and am a scientist as well.  I think I’m capable of reading and comprehending anything you recommend, if it’s not just incomprehensible.  So, please, name it.)

#11 Bo Gardiner (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 10:26pm

CFI can’t continue to ignore the damage it is doing to our movement.  As a supporter for many years, I indeed felt betrayed by the HuffPo piece.  I came to my humanism from Jesuit training and theology, and have for many years been impressed with the religious knowledge of outspoken nontheists.  I’ve no idea on what basis Mr. Shook formed his accusations and namecalling, but it was not evidence.  Such ivory-tower pronouncements demonstrate a profound lack of an appropriate sense of urgency for our work on behalf of humanity and the planet.  No movement can hope to succeed with its own leaders showing no sense of solidarity with its people.

What could have possessed the Education Director to go out of his way to publicly coin yet another new epithet—“no-nothing atheists”?!  Of course it felt like betrayal to read your words: “The ‘know-nothing’ wing of the so-called New Atheism really lives up to that label. Nonbelievers reveling in their ignorance are an embarrassing betrayal of the freethought legacy.”

CFI is piling on the damage with this embarrassing refusal to acknowledge the damage done, and the weakening of your position by today’s Pew survey.

If you don’t have the courage to do a public mea culpa, Mr. Shook, then you should be replaced with someone who will.

#12 articulett on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 10:52pm

So will Mr. Shook be scolding the Hispanics for being “ignorant know-nothings” since they scored the lowest?  (Or is it only okay to disparage atheists in such a manner?)

#13 Ottawaanon (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 5:49am

“then we are looking at an embarrassing collapse of standards.”

Indeed we are.

#14 John Shook on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 6:43am

Since some other popular bloggers won’t carefully read what I’ve been saying, instead enjoying tactics approaching slander, I’m happy to keep re-saying what I’ve always been saying.

(1) Atheists can intellectual explain and defend the superiority of the naturalistic and humanistic worldview.

(2) For those seculars who wish to intellectual engage religious people, familiarity with intellectual defenses of religion is essential, otherwise no debate occurs and no one learns anything on either side.

(3) Those few atheists who claim that NO intellectual engagement with religious people is possible, because religion turns off believers’ minds, are choosing a pessimistic and self-defeating tactic. Respectful dialogue with religious people can and frequently does work well, often better than only resorting to ranting and raging against believers.

(4) Humanism dictates a moral duty to treat people with dignity and respect rather than demonizing them as sub-human. Humanism recommends educated appeals to people’s hearts and minds, trying to persuasively lure people to replace religious fantasies and creeds.

We may conclude then that secular humanism has nothing to fear from treating religious people as people with minds too, and the tradition of secular humanism has always worked well by offering firm yet respectful intellectual engagement. Many leaders of the New Atheism are following admirably in this tradition, and their books are having a good effect, as we see.

Perhaps some wider perspective can help. The old divide within atheism was between two strategies:

A. Intellectually engage religious people with only less threatening arguments, so that people feel that they can have both science and religion if they want.

B. Intellectually engage religious people with every forceful manner of discourse, from blasphemous and satirical criticism to rigorous scholarly debate.

The new divide seems to be:

C. Intellectually engage religion.

D. Don’t intellectually engage religion, since believers are too dumb/deluded/foolish to have minds worth approaching.

Although few atheists prefer D so far, any trend towards more of D is towards the diminishment of secular humanism as an intellectual movement. Why should there be any surprise that a philosopher and professor who works for an educational organization prefers option C to D?

I never wrote anything that blamed New Atheism as a whole—almost all of it admirably represents option B, and that is where I am too. Don’t lump me in with critics of the New Atheism.

People who can’t read entire blogs carefully instead thought it would be more fun to slander me as an opponent of New Atheism, or against all of atheism. Calling for even greater intellectual effort, when atheists are already so good at at, has somehow become treachery and betrayal in certain quarters. When you think that you are in a culture war, beware of letting a war mentality control you.

Well, my educational career at CFI has been completely devoted to option B and you can’t expect me to abandon it now.

#15 Robert Schneider on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 7:07am

You ignore the legitimate critiques of your HuffPo piece.

You restructure some of the statements there to less offensive, equivocal offerings here… but have not done anything to retract the ridiculous piece at HuffPo.

Item 3, above, suffers from the continued construction of a strawman… can you name a prominent atheist who takes that position?  Remember, the phrasing of your original piece implied that some high-level, prominent atheists were guilty of the sin.  The strawman constructed at HuffPo was broad-brush derogatory and counter productive to the stated goals of CFI, to remove the stigma of being an atheist.  It does little good to note that you’ve come here to soften your tone by 50%.

P.S. It is not usually a good way to start an apology with, effectively, “since so many people misinterpreted me and can’t read carefully”...  Way to get introspective and consider that, perhaps, what you wrote was poorly worded and offensive; ineffectual at least, counter-productive and damaging at worst.

Oh wait, that’s right… you’re not apologizing or owning any of the responsibility for this kerfuffle.  I think I’ll go write a HuffPo piece: “Atheists are getting a reputation for being defensive and evasive…”

#16 articulett on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 7:23am

Wow—way to shift the blame for saying slanderous things about “some atheists” that you’d never say about those who were identified as the actual theological “know nothings”.

#17 Bruce Gorton on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 7:33am

1) Goes without saying

2) If the religious have a killer argument they are free to bring it forward themselves.

3) Who are these “Few atheists”? Oh, that’s right the ones you want to assure your potential theist readers exist, so they can write off the rest of us.

4) Really goes well with calling people “Know Nothings”. What was the KKK too contemporary?

We do treat religious people like they have minds. We expect to use those minds to bring us their best arguments, which we then judge on their merits.

As to theologians, you say it yourself:

Lately too much theology involves notions of God abstract enough to avoid all refutation, yet so vague that a distracted churchgoer isn’t sure what God is being talked about. But don’t worry, defenders of religion say, there’s no need to learn deep theology or debate God, thanks to dogmatic atheism’s bad example. Just stick with faith; after all, who can argue with faith?

And it doesn’t help that theologians who don’t take that approach tend to end up using the same stale arguments that have been squashed for well over a century.

If theologians are going to waste our time with that crap, I don’t see why we should buy their books and give them money. If their arguments make any sort of an impact I would expect at least some of the religious people who try to convert me to use them.

Now none of this is to say you shouldn’t go after theology. Heck there is a gap in that thar market, go for it. Some of us might have even bought the book before you decided to perpetuate an ugly stereotype.

But don’t deride the rest of us for being sick of wasting our time on the sort of apologetics that seems more about trying to twist out of the burden of proof, than actually presenting an argument.

#18 wbthacker on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 7:35am

I think, Professor Shook, that the people here DID read your article very carefully—perhaps more carefully than you have.  We’re not upset because you want to understand theology and intellectually engage moderate theists.  Go for it.  But can you please do it without saying that I’m ignorant, and proud of it?

#19 paul_w on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 7:36am

John, Larry Moran has issued a challenge.

I think you owe it to us to take him up on it, if only to explain what you meant in your unclear HuffPo piece.

#20 paul_w on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 7:45am

John, you are quibbling about possible readings of what you wrote.  That’s really not the issue.

What you wrote plays to a very negative stereotype, and you didn’t make it clear that you don’t agree with that stereotype.

If you say that atheists are getting a reputation as ignorant-and-proud know-nothings, and that that reputation is (only) “a little unfair,” the impression that most people will inevitably get is that you mean there’s a lot of ignorant and proud atheists, and that any such reputation is largely deserved.

It’s like saying that there are a lot of lazy black people.  In some sense, that’s a true and literally defensible claim—-there are a lot of lazy people, and that includes black people.

That doesn’t matter.  If you say that there are a lot of lazy black people, and DON’T say that black people aren’t especially lazy, people will assume that you mean that they are especially lazy.

Similarly, it’s inevitable that most people will interpret what you wrote as saying that atheists are especially inclined to be ignorant-and-proud know-nothings.

That’s especially true because you go on to describe the kinds of supposedly worthwhile things that too many atheists supposedly doen’t know, without pointing out that most religious people don’t know that stuff either.

You threw us under the bus, John.  Don’t deny it.  You can claim it wasn’t intentional, but either way you owe us a retraction and a big apology.

You can bet CFI will not get any more money or volunteer work from me until that happens.

#21 wbthacker on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 8:09am

On a constructive note, I think Professor Shook, in his listing of atheist strategies, fails to appreciate an option which seems quite viable.

E) Recognize that there are many potential atheists who are not currently “on our side.”  They are atheists afraid to “come out”, and theists who don’t really believe, but claim to be religious because it’s easier than being an agnostic.

These people might add their voices to ours, if they hear us saying something that inspires them.  When we feign respect for religiosity, we tell these people that they may as well stay where they are: that there’s nothing wrong with believing myths, if you’re nice about it.

I think that’s why the New Atheists, have done more to popularize atheism in a few years than happened in the entire century preceding them.  They boldly state that it’s NOT respectable to believe in something without good evidence, let alone to make important decisions based on myths you can’t prove. And this is logically self-evident.

This certainly angers the theists, who are used to being treated with respect they never deserved.  But it inspires atheists; it compels them to follow their rational mindset, instead of burying it.

So I don’t hope for New Atheism to convince theists treat us better.  I hope for it to make atheism a visible, powerful force so that theists HAVE to treat us better.

#22 Robert Schneider on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 8:44am

@#21wbthacker…  Thank you!  They don’t give us a “like” button or a rating system, so this reply is the best I can do.  Great post!!

#23 Screechy Monkey (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 11:58am

Some CFI contributors are getting a reputation for making vague accusations, saying contradictory things to different audiences, lying about what they’ve said, and then whining about it and insulting the reader’s intelligence when called to account.

Of course, I’m not going to specify who or what I’m referring to, because that might make it possible for someone to refute my charges.  It’s much easier to write sensational hyperbole directed against unspecified members of a group, especially when you’re trying to promote a book.

Therefore, anyone who takes offense at this comment or thinks I am referring to or “slandering” him (or her) is clearly an idiot who can’t read.

#24 Peter Beattie on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 4:38pm

What Screechy Monkey (#23) said!

Accusing (presumably, but who knows?) fellow public atheists of “demonizing [people] as sub-human”? Not specifying who you are talking about is underhand and lazy, while the actual accusation is fast approaching crazy.

#25 Paul W. (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 5:07pm

You know, too many black people demonize white people as subhuman.

It’s true, I swear.

And it’s important enough for me to tell you that in an opinion piece in a national publication.

I leave it up to you to decide whether that means that

(1) some Nation of Islam kooks somehwere say that sort of thing—-which you likely already know, and wouldn’t expect me to point it out, out of the blue, since you probably already agree that if any black people do that, it’s “too many” for your taste, or

(2) I’m saying it because I think it’s likely that your (proudly ignorant, know-nothing) black neighbhor thinks you’re subhuman, and I think it’s a useful thing for you to know, because you live next to him and it might have some interesting effects on your life.

Imagine the aforementioned NAACP honcho saying that sort of vague, frightening thing about “too many” black people in a Huffman Post piece.

Seriously, imagine that.

#26 nichole (Guest) on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 10:27am

“...ranting and raging against believers” “...demonizing them as sub-human”
= DBAD = strawman.

Repeating the myth and doing the cause nothing but harm: John Shook, everybody.

#27 Ophelia Benson on Thursday September 30, 2010 at 5:16pm

“Imagine the aforementioned NAACP honcho saying that sort of vague, frightening thing about “too many” black people in a Huffman Post piece.”

Funny you should mention it. Shirley Sherrod, anyone? Andrew Breitbart?

#28 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 9:23am

What I saw conflated results from agnostics and atheists.  I suspect it’s the agnostics who brought up the totals.

I had a couple of atheists in an argument who didn’t know that Darwin cited Malthus as his great inspiration.  Which I’d figured everyone in the world knew.  And both of them seem to have never heard of genetic drift or Kimura, etc.  And those atheists thought they were experts on evolutionary topics. 

I’ve never argued with an atheist who had more than a superficial knowledge of materialism. 

So there, I guess.

#29 Robert Schneider on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 9:43am

I have to say, your concluding argument is water tight.

I suspect you’re holding an erroneous definition of atheist… but that’s a guess.  The person who says, “I see no evidence of a creator, nor any reason to add that hypothesis to my worldview, but I will not commit the logical fallacy of claiming I can prove the negative of “God does NOT exist” ... is technically agnostic, but pragmatically an atheist.  My point is that atheists and agnostics overlap more than your definition allows, and for some reason you think the agnostic is in a nobler position??  Yes, these “strong” agnostics who are actually pragmatic atheists, do indeed raise the results.  So what.

Many times (and I hope I’m not tarring you with too broad a brush) people hold the definition “Atheists are people who KNOW God does not exist.”  This is false, a strawman setup by by religious folk who “KNOW”(aka assert without any proof or justification) that God exists. They find it necessary to imagine their opposite as the atheist who KNOWS god does NOT exist.”  Very few, if any of those exist, so building your argument on that strawman is a waste of time.

As for the rest of your post, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make… so there, redux.

#30 Robert Schneider on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 9:49am

Previous post (#29) directed at #28.

#31 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 1:53pm

My definition of “atheist” is anyone who tells me they are an atheist.  I figure they get to decide that for themselves, so it’s their definition, not mine.

So, the rest of your accusation is groundless.

#32 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Saturday October 02, 2010 at 1:55pm

And the post about the ignorance of said atheists is in reference to the gloating post about that Pew Research poll, which apparently conflate agnosticism and atheism in a way I’d never do, though I’ve seen a number of new atheists do as a matter of course.

#33 Robert Schneider on Sunday October 03, 2010 at 7:38am

To Anthony..#32:  This is what I was referring to in my #29, where I said I did not know what point your are attempting to make:  you use the word “conflate” as though there are two separate, meaningful data sets that should not be blended.

I argue that there is about 99% overlap between atheists and agnostics, and we don’t gain any new insights into this quiz by separating the data… nor is there a legitimate reason to separate them, hence no reason to argue (or worry about) “conflation” of data. 

You seem to argue there is a problem with conflation, and/or a legitimate reason to separatethe groups so that we will glean new insights from this poll.  So, from your perspective, what value will we get out of separating the data into “atheists” and “agnostics”?  Or, put another way, what harm is done to the conclusions by the asserted conflation?

#34 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Sunday October 03, 2010 at 9:15am

“I argue that there is about 99% overlap between atheists and agnostics”

There are people who believe in God who are philosophical agnostics.  Anyone who makes a distinction between what is believed and what is known could hold those two positions.  And considering the flack that agnostics have gotten from doctrinaire atheists in the past, I’d imagine quite a number of the more informed agnostics would be interested in making the distinction.

And I’d like to see the evidence you base your 99% figure on. But I’ve noticed that the “evidence only” folks aren’t really all that keen on evidence when it doesn’t suit their purposes.

Anyone who, looking at the methodology of that poll, or, indeed, almost all polling, and think that it tells them something about the general population is naive.

#35 Robert Schneider on Sunday October 03, 2010 at 2:50pm

This will be my last response, unless you actually address the question I asked you in #33.

What value, or additional insight, could be gained by separating the two data sets that you assert are conflated?  What meaningful subtlety are we missing?

Or are you simply complaining that “atheists” are getting too much credit for answering the questions correctly, and you think agnostics(particularly philosophical agnostics) who helped raise the numbers should get their due?

What percentage of the agnostic pool would you “guess” are philosophical… believing in a God but not Knowing one exists?  I’ll admit I have not often considered that subset in the discussion of atheism/agnosticism, but it seems it would be a small percentage.

And if truth be told, I might be what you’d call a doctrinaire agnostic… I don’t think anyone can or should say they unequivocally KNOW God does not exist, solely because it is logically impossible to prove the negative.  It is an overtatement of an otherwise fairly solid position. I don’t make any actions in my life based on the premise/belief that a God exists.  There is nothing that merits the assertion/positing of a “God,” no evidence for any of the Gods defined so far. 

So, my “99%” figure isn’t a statistic, but a reasonable estimate from my personal experience.  There are VERY few atheists in the world who actually take the untenable position, “There is no God (God does not exist) and I KNOW it (I can prove it).”  So, just as you are put off by atheists who belittle agnostics, I’m put off by religious and other types who insist that being an atheist means you unequivocally deny god’s existence.  Bollocks.  I live my life a-theistically, but do not assert that I can prove a negative… about any God, or leprechaun, or unicorn, or fairy ... the latter 3 of which I also live my life without reference to, and yet don’t have to call myself a special word for those positions.


#36 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Sunday October 03, 2010 at 3:08pm

What value will we get from separating the data into “atheists” and “agnostics”?

Oh, maybe a little thing called accuracy.  Though I’m really doubtful the study methodology can give you that.  And some people also put a value on honesty, quaint as that notion is in the fearless world of hard nosed materialism. 

Of course, since they don’t divide people into categories of how closely they practice their principles, whatever they assert about their religious convictions is self-reporting, for starters (Ray Hyman, are you listening) and so unreliable.  But, then, the social sciences are based in self-reporting, which lapse of scientific rigor they’ve allowed themselves from time immemorial, it being too hard to actually study what they claim to. Of course, those kinds of things can’t really be measured or even defined and so their actual presence can’t be accounted for. 

In short, the study is an exercise in futility unless the goal was to get into the headlines. Which is about all it accomplished.

#37 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Sunday October 03, 2010 at 3:13pm

And, Robert, I told you that I believe people who tell me they’re atheists.  I figure the details are theirs to share or to cherish in their hearts.  I don’t pry, not least of which because I figure unless they’re being obnoxious, it’s none of my business.

Sometimes this reminds me of the straight men who are always, always certain that gay men, such as myself, are interested in them.  Speaking for myself, I have never seen one of those who had anything to fret over.

I will bet you a million dollars that on most atheist blogs if you gave your contorted definition of atheism, claiming to believe in God when you did it, the large majority of them would violently reject it.

#38 Robert Schneider on Sunday October 03, 2010 at 5:16pm

Anthony,  Thanks for the answer in #36.  I’m not so certain there is any “accuracy” lost, if you cannot name the scale of accuracy against which you’re measuring.  But enough of that point.

As for #37, I’m not buying that one.  If someone tells you they are atheist and you don’t do anything to tease out what they think it means/implies, then all you have are YOUR assumptions about what it means… and we’re back to my initial comment to you.. I think you might hold some unwarranted assumptions about what “atheist” means.

Now you say my definition of atheism is “contorted”, but also say something about me believing in God while giving it??  I’m flummoxed.  What part of the following says or means I believe in God:

I don’t, in any facet of my life, include the “God hypothesis” as a legitimate reason or explanation for anything.  It is an irrelevant non-starter. 

My world view is a-theistic… i.e. without any inclusion of the idea of God as a cause, reason, justification or explanation.

I won’t utter the fallacy that “I know (or can prove) God does NOT exist” which is fallacious because of the claim to being able to “prove the negative,” not because it includes the word “God.”

I am an atheist in terms of this discussion with you, if and only if you accept my definition of the term.  I’m an AOMOT. “Atheist On My Own Terms.” If you don’t accept my definition, then we won’t use the word atheist in any discussion because I have to assume you are importing bad definitions and assumptions…Canards, red herrings and strawmen! Oh my! 

I’ll say, “Call me what you will, I’ve listed the premises from which we can engage and the label you want to use doesn’t matter. 
Nowhere in that “contorted” definition do I say I believe in God(s). 

Or, as I re-read, are you suggesting I post on a blog while pretending to be a believer, and say “Hey, here’s my understanding of what it means to be an atheist, is this correct?”... and you think I’d be shredded?  That might be a worthy experiment.   I’ll get back to you after attempting it.

#39 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday October 04, 2010 at 2:09am

Robert, as pleased as I am to see you’ve thought about what it means for you to be an atheist, I don’t see much sign of that in other atheists, up to and including some who embrace the faith of materialism without having any kind of idea of what the inescapable results of that ideology are.  Including some otherwise informed scientists and philosophers. The general pop manifestation of fashionable atheism doesn’t even seem that informed.

But I am a democrat as well as a Democrat, I figure people get to have as much out of their profession of faith as they decide, at any rate, I’m rather powerless to force more on them than they’ve thought through for themselves. 

All of which, if all factions of dogmatic, fundamentalist faith, theistic and atheistic practiced we could all be doing something far more useful just now.

#40 Bruce Gorton (Guest) on Monday October 04, 2010 at 3:20am

Robert, as pleased as I am to see you’ve thought about what it means for you to be an atheist, I don’t see much sign of that in other atheists, up to and including some who embrace the faith of materialism without having any kind of idea of what the inescapable results of that ideology are.  Including some otherwise informed scientists and philosophers. The general pop manifestation of fashionable atheism doesn’t even seem that informed.

The fact of the matter is most of us do know what we are rejecting, from the theology to the day to day practices that you are so interested in ignoring.

We see the apophatic bunk from the likes of Karen Armstrong, and most of us can quite easily tear Swinburne’s arguments to pieces easily.

We have read the Bible, and argued both liberal and literalist traditions in the past. We have looked into the evidence for a God and found it wanting, not through some desire to be trendy - we live in a worldwide society where atheists are among the more despised minorities - but through our examination of the evidence coming up empty.

We do not believe there is no God as a matter of faith but as a matter of there being no good evidence upon which to base such a belief.

From a strictly materialist viewpoint I would say the Swedes are doing fine. As are the bulk of the other more atheistic states.

Atheists tend to be better educated, earn more and commit less crimes. If we are going to talk about the consequences of a evidence-based materialist world-view they seem pretty damn good ones.

Even if the consequences were inescapably dire - as you would in your supremely arrogant and stupid post assert - that would bear no consequences for if there is or isn’t a God.

And guess what sparky? That is what is being reflected here. Religious agnostics would answer with their religion - mainly because for one thing it is a lesser stigma, and for another there is more to religious identity than philosophical debate. There is identifying yourself in with the values of the religious community you are in.

You are struggling to find excuses to continue to lambast atheists who the survey demonstrates do know a thing or two about world religion as ignorant. You are engaged in psychological dodging and you know it.

#41 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday October 04, 2010 at 3:51am

Well, Bruce, I talked about what atheists of my acquaintance asserted they ACCEPTED, what they reject not having been relevant to my point and nothing I’m interested in.  So, while your fuse got lit and it made some smoke, it is a dud.

Finding excuses to lambaste atheists.  No need, in these days of the new atheism they hand them out unsolicited. 

I’ve never argued with an atheist who could handle the simplest fact that materialism is a faith based ideology.  There is no scientific basis for it, as seen in the attempts to found morality and ethics out of physics and chemistry, they fluff and fill in even more than many theologians have.  And many of those have PhDs in subjects that you’d have thought would mean they’d know better.  Materialism is an especially closed and limited system, it can’t do what you can’t make the particles and physical forces do and one of those is display volition. To hold that what we see as choice is the result of higher levels of chemical reaction turns assertions of morality into the equivalent of those pink unicorns you folks are always going on about.  Not to mention all of the holdings of civic morality, up to and including one of the greatest and most important of them all, the separation of church and state.

#42 Bruce Gorton on Monday October 04, 2010 at 6:21am

I’ve never argued with an atheist who could handle the simplest fact that materialism is a faith based ideology.

What’s that smell? Makes me think of farming, what is it? Oh, that’s right, its bullshit.

Wikipedia (Good for definitions, not much else)

In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions.

Okay, so so far we have evidence for the material. The fact that I am typing this out on a keyboard gives me plenty of evidence that the keyboard I am typing on exists - the fact that I am sitting in a chair gives me evidence that it exists too.

We have plenty of evidence for the material - we have no evidence for the immaterial.

We also have evidence that consciousness is a result of the material. The brain gets damaged, so does the consciousness. Give people drugs and their personalities show definite changes. There is an entire branch of medicine based on this.

Do we have any evidence to the contrary? No. Instead we have you whinging about how it doesn’t sooth the collective ego.

We can perfectly well accept materialism on a scientific basis. Philosophically is a different matter.

To hold that what we see as choice is the result of higher levels of chemical reaction turns assertions of morality into the equivalent of those pink unicorns you folks are always going on about.

To put it bluntly so is the rest of thought. What’s your point?

#43 Bruce Gorton on Monday October 04, 2010 at 6:23am

Oh and Anthony - the existence of a “soul” wouldn’t change the mechanistic nature of thought, it would just add an extra element to it.

#44 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday October 04, 2010 at 6:29am

I was only talking about the impossibility of finding ethical or moral entities in the non-volitional and definite results of physical and chemical reactions. I mean, where do those exist?  Somewhere down in the eternally unverifiable Planck scale so much in the news now that one of the heroes of materialism has declared that to be the El Dorado of Everything?  And God ain’t there?  Declaring theoretical physics exempt from that inconveniently unavailable evidence and logic in the process?

I’m used to dishonest fundamentalists arguing what they’d rather I’d said than what I did but I’ve gotten some practice at not falling into that error.

#45 Robert Schneider on Monday October 04, 2010 at 7:07am

Quoting Anthony McCarthy:
> To hold that what we see as choice is the result of higher levels of chemical reaction turns assertions of morality into the equivalent of those pink unicorns you folks are always going on about.<
Anthony, all I know is that (from my perception) choice exists. Consciousness exists.  The struggle to source it will go on as a scientific enterprise. 

It is NEVER sufficient to say, “Hey, how do you explain consciousness? Or Choice? Huh?  Therefore God.” ... as you appear to be, repeatedly, doing.

#46 Bruce Gorton (Guest) on Monday October 04, 2010 at 7:24am

Anthony McCarthy

I was only talking about the impossibility of finding ethical or moral entities in the non-volitional and definite results of physical and chemical reactions.

That’s like saying we can’t get Excel to work because it is a bunch of ones and zeroes. That consciousness is a product of physical, natural processes doesn’t make it any less real.

And quite frankly it is possible to find moral and ethical entities in such reactions - us.

#47 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday October 04, 2010 at 7:44am

If you flatly declare that only the material universe exists and that anything that is not found in the material universe is a delusion then you certainly have the responsibility to identify where you find morality and ethics in that realm, which you have flatly declared to be the one and only reality.  Morality and ethics are certainly not unimportant distractions, they are a central issue in human experience.  It is the easiest thing in our history for people to talk themselves into doing what they want because morality that forbids them from doing it is a delusion or invalid.  And it is impossible to even begin to do that in materialism.

How do you hold that the chemical reactions that lead someone to be a Wahabi Muslim of the most extreme variety is wrong or the series of chemical reactions that makes someone a Southern Baptist of the most intolerant kind is somehow wrong?  Presumably it’s the outcome of the interaction of the particles and forces as those are ordained by the material universe.  Your closed system can’t contain a means of validly making that judgment, in fact, it renders your judgment no more valid than the religious fundamentalists. 

Those people are just as much “us” as you are.

#48 Robert Schneider on Monday October 04, 2010 at 8:04am

I’m having a hard time putting a name to the sophistry or fallacy of your first paragraph, but it is very close to a “God of the Gaps” argument.  “Morality and Ethics” are not “things” in a material world…they are ideas and concepts that evolve in a shared, negotiated space amongst all of us “material” beings.

Why our consciousness allows us to be aware of, and think about these things, I do not know.  But I do not fill my “don’t know” space with unsupported assertions like, “It must have come from somewhere, so therefore God.”

We make morality and ethics.  We can argue about them in a shared space, so what makes a Wahabi morality any more or less “moral” can be discussed and debated.  We coined the terms, and we will no doubt debate and evolve morality unto time immemorial, because it is a process not a “thing.” 
(And that reminds me of the lunatic a few years back who said that “Science” was at an end, because anything worth discovering was already known… he treated Science as a “thing” (a body of facts) rather than as a process/method for interrogating and confirming our shared reality.)

Your definition of materialism seems to set you up for the limited possibilities you see.

#49 Robert Schneider on Monday October 04, 2010 at 8:07am

I have to say, before we reach comment 50, we’re way off topic as to whether or not John Shook should retract his demeaning and detrimental statements made in the HuffPo piece.

I’d say he should.  It’s either that or resign your position at CFI, because you don’t support the 3 bullet points of the CFI’s mission statement if you stand by what you wrote on HuffPo.

#50 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday October 04, 2010 at 8:11am

I haven’t once made an argument in favor of believing in God here so maybe that’s the God in a gap you’re looking for in vain in what I say.  I have questioned your materialism in the gaps as an example of the questions that I have never, once found a new atheist is able to navigate. 

We make morality and ethics doesn’t get you any farther than the fact that we also make statements about God.  You can choose which one you call pink unicorns but that doesn’t change that your system doesn’t can’t account for their existence or why one idea is morally superior to another.  And, unlike unclosed systems, materialism makes an absolute claim about the one and only possible foundation for their existence.

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