Let’s Fight Over the Frame

I have received a lot of interesting critical replies on Facebook and in my comments section to my post from Wednesday saying that some atheists say they only “lack belief in gods” rather than believe or know there are none, out of an irrational fear of being like religious people by making belief statements about gods like they do. I argued for saying, “I know there is no God.” (By which I meant I fallibly know there is no personal and intervening god(s) of the kind religions promulgate.) While I won’t here address every good thing said or cite their specific words, thinking through what critics has helped me clarify my position.

The first thing to start off with is a clarification about the way I was using the coinage “religiphobia”. I have been accused of uncivilly poisoning the well and not treating those I disagree with fairly becuase I used that word. Let me be clear, by religiphobias I just mean “excessive fears of religion that lead some atheist to avoid good things because they resemble religious things in ways that are actually only superficial”. It’s tongue in cheek, it’s meant to mildly provoke people with something memorable so that they reflect. It is not a way of saying atheists are bigoted. I was thinking of an exaggerated analogy to phobias like arachnophobia or agoraphobia. Irrational fears. That’s the primary meaning of the word. It has nothing to do with bigotry. What I was just trying to say is sometimes atheists overcorrect in a way that seems motivated by excessive fear. But even there, I don’t think it literally crosses the line into real phobias and I didn’t have bigotry in mind at all. It’s just a catchy analogy.

In fact, as I think the first post should make clear, or the rest of the series will, this is a series about emboldening atheists to take stronger stands against theists by confronting them more directly, by organizing ourselves more effectively, by boldly reclaiming good aspects of the world theists have coopted and manipulated for themselves and unjustly claimed exclusive provenance over, etc. This is going to be a decidedly pro-atheist series of posts of friendly chiding, not meant to be insulting at all. And I think a read through of the post should dispel anxieties that I intended to poison the well or strawman anyone. The post acknowledges that fear is not always the only motive behind the arguments I criticized. The post acknowledges that while I strongly disagree with agnostic atheists that their position is “sophisticated” and “nuanced”. And commenters who adhered to the position expressed no objections that I saw to how I characterized the content of what they think. Only this word was a problem for someone. But I thought it worth addressing, since I don’t want to give the impression I’m okay with belittling those I disagree with.

Now, in substance seemingly a good many agnostic atheists admitted sharing my high degree of confidence (99.9999%) that personal gods don’t exist but still preferred to emphasize that they “don’t know” and just “lack belief” because of the linguistic and semantic expectations of believers. One person just made a good observation that since belief is a word that equivocates as meaning both “take on faith” and as “consider sufficiently probable to assume to be true for all practical purposes” using the word “believe” can be misleading so he tries to avoid the word for that reason. Thinking about this, he raises a good concern. If an atheists says they “believe” there are no gods, since generally in the context of god related things people assume belief=faith, they may by default assume that this is an atheist faith declaration. They may leap to wanting to simplify any belief declarations about gods as fitting this established category of faith belief out of intellectual laziness that thinks framing things as a facile symmetry (“see! both sides have faith!”) is a profound irony and way to satisfyingly resolve things. Also thinking about this made me realize that for some atheists, since belief=faith to them, saying they “lack belief” is their way of saying they “lack faith“. And I am all for people declaring proudly that they lack faith.

So, I seriously appreciate the goal of avoiding this linguistic confusion. But here’s my issue with it. We need to fight the conflation of the word “believe” in these matters with “faith” believing. We need to fight for that ground rather than concede it. We also need to fight for the word “knowledge”. Knowledge shouldn’t mean 100% certainty. Atheists are saying to me, “If I say ‘I know’, this will play into the script Christians expect whereby I’m an arrogant atheist who thinks I know with 100% certainty. I want to knock them off their script by saying, no I don’t know, but neither do you.” The problem with that is that it does not take the fight to them by challenging the framing that knowledge has to mean 100% certainty. That’s a crucial fight to have. I don’t mind my first move, saying I know there is no God, scandalizing the believer and making them say “how dare you be so presumptuous!” It’s my opening to correct the meaning of the word knowledge, refute the false accusation that I claim certainty, and start talking about how I proportion my beliefs to reasons and what all my reasons are for being so confident. I can say you know there is no Thor, right? And they do usually think they know that. By letting people go on thinking that there are only two categories “knowledge/absolute certainty” on the one hand and “belief/faith” on the other we let them also go on equivocating that all non-certain beliefs are formally just like faith beliefs. “See? We all have faith! You have faith too when you expect the sun to rise tomorrow or your spouse not to leave you or your car will be where you left it. You don’t have absolute certainty and yet you believe. So, there’s nothing wrong with me believing without absolute certainty that a 1st Century Palestine godman walked the earth and died for the atonement of my sins and I will live everlastingly with Him in Heaven.” 

We need to stop this equivocation where they get to lump all beliefs with a degree of uncertainty in with beliefs that are more than just “uncertain” but extraordinarily improbable and which have enormous weight of reasons against believing them. (For my full take down of conflating faith with good forms of belief read my post on why I define faith as inherently irrational and immoral.)

If we let them define knowledge as certainty and say, “no, no, of course I don’t know there’s no God! I only lack belief! I’m not arrogant!”, we accept the false framing that this is a profoundly difficult question where both sides have a point. Personal god theists don’t have a point. It’s really not a murky unponderable. That messaging, even from atheists, sends the message to a lot of confused ordinary low information assessors of the question that believing or not is just a coin flip. Everyone’s just shooting in the dark; it’s such a hard question. I can hear the TV broadcaster solemnly in my head now, “Philosophers have struggled for centuries with the question and still have no answers.” I reject that framing. I don’t play along with the idea that believing in personal interventionist gods is a serious possibility any more than I would think it’s seriously possible there are demons accounting for epileptic seizures or schizophrenic episodes or multiple personality disorders, or that witches are causing disease outbreaks, or that I can’t find my wallet in my apartment because a ghost must have taken it, etc.

That’s how silly interventionist gods are. They’re seriously no different. And we all get that in the case of Thor and Zeus and Bacchus, et al. We dismiss them out of hand. Yet another atheist commenter called me a fundamentalist for saying that there is no Yahweh, that Jesus was not a godman Christ and he doesn’t appear every minute in transubstantiated crackers around the world, that Allah never existed to inspire Mohammed, etc. God matters are just matters of belief, apparently, and to say anything stronger is to be like fundamentalists. Sorry, but that’s a prejudice due to cultural framing and social pressure that says we need to treat the personal gods of the major monotheisms as live options where we don’t treat greco-roman or norse or (in America) Hindu gods with a shred of plausibility. That whole frame needs to be called boldly into question. I think we lose by buying into it and affirming their view that this is a difficult question. It’s not.

Less than 17% of professional philosophers either lean towards affirming theism or affirm it outright. Nearly 70% lean toward or accept atheism. And the only category of philosophers who strongly are theistic are philosophers of religion, who in many cases are doing philosophy as part of their religiosity in the first place. But actual metaphysicians are as non-theistic as the average philosopher. These are the philosophers who deal with the categories of basic reality as rigorously as any one and who are more likely than most philosophers to believe in lots of speculative things, intangible things, empirically unsettlable things (like that numbers have reality as not just constructs of our minds or that all possible worlds in fact exist or that universals are real). Yet they’re overwhelmingly not inclined towards theism.

Yet news outlets will blithely ignore this and pander to the religious hegemony and say “Philosophers have debated for ages and still cannot agree…” When ~70-83% of professional philosophers, the people whose primary vocation is to rigorously investigate abstract issues like this, go against ~90% mainstream belief in God, they’re showing an astonishingly consistent ability to deviate from ideas they have been marinated in culturally as much as anyone their whole lives. There’s something to that.

Now, I should have been clearer about another point that I touched on but not extensively. Impersonal god concepts–God as a ground of all being metaphysical principle–are ones that have some interest philosophically to me. But the point I neglected to make is that theism is not about those. It’s about personal gods, i.e., the kinds that actually intervene in the world or, at least, have minds like ours. And as I did mention, the idea that God is both eternal and yet has a personal mind like ours is impossible as far as I can tell. Minds arise in a space-time context. Imagining them without a space-time context is incoherent. I am unclear whether a deistic “ground of all being” should be said to exist. It’s a difficult metaphysical question that I don’t see how I can answer clearly at this time.

Sometimes I find the language helpful and compelling, sometimes I don’t. It’s not what people mean when they say they are theists though. A bare metaphysical principle with no interactions with human lives is not what people are so invested in knowing is real or not. The average person does not care that much about metaphysics. No one is having sleepless nights over whether numbers are independently real or mental constructs unless they’re philosophers or mathematicians. Metaphysical principles don’t interest people. The only God that people really mean and are interested is one that is personalized in their minds in some way (even if they are also giving lip service that sounds nice and deistic). The real target is personal gods. When I say I know there is no God, I’m cutting to that chase and not letting them equivocate by leaping from the plausible chance that there’s some metaphysical principle “God” to the absurd beliefs about intervening deities and miracles and heaven and hell, etc. What theists constantly do is try to get us to admit that just because some bare metaphysical principle might exist we have to say “God” is a live option we can know isn’t there. Then on that equivocation, they act like the personal God they believe in is a live option you’d be arrogant to say isn’t there. No. I’m not biting. I’m insisting they reframe. I’m immediately drawing this distinction for them and stopping them from conflating two different things.

I am fighting for the frame. Here’s what knowledge is, here’s what belief is, here’s what faith is. Yes, I don’t know exactly about the metaphysical principle. But what you really are trying to argue for is the intervening personal gods and those are not supported just by the bare plausibility of the metaphysical principle. Not with the avalanche of evidence against personal gods that you reflexively acknowledge in the cases of Thor and Zeus, et al.

Finally, two other interesting arguments. One person said he can’t say there are no gods because they would exist in a supernatural realm and by definition he can’t go disprove them from this realm. So he can’t say that he knows there are no gods. I guess I tend to assume that all my knowledge statements are about the realm I live in. Just as I know there is no Aquaman in this realm. I know there is no Yahweh or supernatural Christ or Allah interacting here in this realm. These things are clearly best explained as the products of human imagination. If they happen to also exist in some other realm, wow, that’s quite a coincidence, but an irrelevant one seeing as how they leave no real evidence that they have anything to do with this realm or will do anything promised to the people in this realm.

A similar argument from the same person when I asked whether he knew there was no ghost in the room with him was that he only perceived no ghost but there are more things in existence than humans perceive so he couldn’t rule it out. My reply to that is that, yes, we don’t perceive everything. There could be imperceptible beings we know nothing about. But the odds that that set of beings would coincide with the ones humans have posited based on superstitious inferences is a serious long shot (enough to say, we know, as just made up by humans and with no verification, are fictions and not serious candidates for truth).

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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