Frank Viola Reawakens an Old Argument

Frank Viola left a comment on my response to his question about why some people do not follow Christ. He also mentioned some of his future plans:

I also plan on writing a post about atheism vs. agnosticism as I want to hear from those who have chosen one above the other and why.

We’ve had this discussion before, and Daniel Fincke has covered the philosophical territory as well as it’s likely to be covered.

Given my druthers, I’d call myself a “freethinker,” because it’s nice and broad and I like the historical continuity of it. But it’s not specific enough for most folks, which means that I just get followup questions.

At this point, I honestly identify myself with atheism as a social movement more than as part of my personal identity. The fact that I don’t believe in a deity is not a big part of my life. Unlike some other folks, I never had an emotional crisis tied to my deconversion. In my case it was just a gradual letting go. The fact that I no longer attend church is about as meaningful to me as the fact that I no longer listen to the same bands as I did in college.

Leaving the church had little impact, but I do keenly feel the fact that I’m now part of a minority. I’m a big fan of America’s liberal tradition, which I like to trace back to James Madison’s attempts to create a government that would protect the individual rights of the minority from the powers of the majority. Madison didn’t get his way at first, and the country has been gradually completing his mission for a couple of centuries now. I think that has always been the mission of the Freethought movement, and it’s a goal I’d like to think I’m helping to work toward.

I call myself an atheist and I accept the connotations of it: I don’t believe in the personal deities usually described as Gods by the majority of religious practitioners. We could now go on to split hairs and parse definitions, but I see no point. Perhaps there is a personal deity that is hiding, or perhaps there is something stranger and more alien that is powerful enough to be called a deity, but in either case it doesn’t fit the majority’s definition of a God.

I am aware that there are other understandings of God and faith, but they’ve just never worked for me, and I don’t think they’re part of our discussion with Viola. (That said, I should probably go back and read Dynamics of Faith again. I haven’t read it since college.)

Anyway, that’s my two cents. There’s more to Viola’s comment, but he’s planning to write more on his reasons for following Christ, so I’ll respond as they arrive.

  • Don Gwinn

    I just keep coming back to the simple fact that, in terms of denotation, an agnostic has to be an atheist by definition. If you state that you don’t know (or can’t know) whether gods exist, then you are stating that you don’t believe in them. Only an atheist who claims to have certain knowledge (not overwhelming evidence, but absolutely certainty) can be distinguished from the agnostics anyway. . . and I’ve never met one. They’re thin on the ground.
    I just call myself an atheist. If anyone says, “Aha! You’re really just an agnostic!” I reply, “Well, yes. That’s also true.”

    • The Vicar

      That’s it — the arguments which lead one to agnosticism really lead to atheism; it is intellectually dishonest to stop early.

    • Michael

      “Agnosticism,” at least in its original sense, just means a disbelief in the existence of revealed knowledge. You can believe in God for reasons other than divine revelation.

      But it does seem like most agnostics are just atheists who feel like continually pointing out that you can’t prove there isn’t a god.

    • FO

      You can say “it is not possible to know” (therefore you are agnostic) “and yet I CHOOSE to believe” (therefore you are theist): agnostic theist.
      Many of the nicest Christians fit this.

      • Don Gwinn

        Certainly one can say that. I, personally, can’t, and maybe I made the mistake of speaking of others when I could only speak for myself. I can’t *choose* to believe something I didn’t believe the moment before, and I wonder sometimes whether it’s this basic difference in the definition of “belief” that creates the most conflict between “believers” and “unbelievers.” There are so many apologetic arguments that turn on the idea that I should simply decide that evidence doesn’t matter, and that I will believe without (or even against) the evidence. I don’t see how it’s possible to do so.

        I mean, I can understand someone who has found no evidence of a god but chooses to pray anyway, or chooses to leave a decision to chance so it’s “in God’s hands” anyway . . . . but I don’t see how that’s belief. Many believers seem to think that not only is it possible to “choose to believe,” but that it’s so obvious that it’s strange every time I mention that I can’t do it.

  • vasaroti

    Viola should start with the innumerable postings on line labeled “why I am an atheist.” He’s already said that the evidence for God can be countered, so why does he bother?

  • Sajanas

    I think there isn’t a huge philosophical difference between the two, but rather a difference in how you want to appear to other people. I think if the term ‘atheist’ became less politically and culturally charged, you’ll see more people pick it up, since telling people you’re an atheist is often taken as an insult or a challenge.

    What I’d find more interesting, and might be more for a person of Viola’s Christian standing, is to look at where Christians draw the lines between Christianity, agnosticism, and atheism. I’m sure there are a lot of people who call themselves Christian that don’t think Jesus was the literal Son of God, and those people might be considered atheists by other Christians. I’m curious as to where people put that cut off line at, and how it varies depending on how religious you are, or how kind you are.

  • trj

    In my experience, the overwhelming majority of agnostics are functional atheists. Yes, they are correct when they say it’s impossible to know for certain whether God exist, but it’s not like they go to church or pray or anything like that, “just in case”. They are quite happy to completely ignore any aspect of religion, so apparently they don’t take the idea of a God who may send them to hell very seriously, even though they claim he may exist.

    Also, many (most?) agnostics, at least in the Western world, are agnostic towards the monoteistic biblical god, but atheists toward all other gods. None of them take the idea that Zeus or Vishnu may exist seriously, so clearly their agnositicism doesn’t apply generally. Which is worth pointing out whenever they come up with the smug attitude that they hold the only intellectually honest position since they concede to both sides. In practice they make value judgements, just like atheists.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I think it comes down to the Santa Claus question. When someone insists they are an agnostic rather than an atheist, because we can’t know with 100% certainty, I like to ask them if they believe in Santa Claus. Surely, for the sake of intellectual consistency, they should insist that they are agnostic about Santa Claus. After all, it’s so difficult to prove a negative, right? The best part is that for some reason this question really bothers them.

    • UrsaMinor

      You are an evil man, forcing people to examine their beliefs like that.

    • FO

      This!

    • Bart Mitchell

      I am SO stealing this.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Bertrand Russell addressed this long ago:

    Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?
    Here there comes a practical question which has often troubled me. Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.
    I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.
    On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.
    None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.
    Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

  • Ryan

    I’ve never seen value in this debate. When a large group of English speakers can’t decide on the proper use and meaning of a couple Greek words, the easy solution is to stop trying to speak Greek. Say “I don’t believe in God,” “I doubt God’s existence, “I think religions are fictions,” or whatever it is you mean. The purpose of language is to get the darned point across. If short Greek words aren’t up for the job, don’t try to use them.

    Just as point of etymological fact, neither word is used in its original sense today. Agnostic was coined by a biologist to describe the ignorance that precedes evidence-based knowledge. Everyone we call a scientist is an agnostic, even those who think the bible is good evidence that Jesus was the son of God.

    It’s relation to religion is superficial. Huxley chose to make reference to the ancient Gnostic Christians due to their total lack of skepticism. Mencius Moldbug uses the term Sith to describe rejecting truth as consensus of university professors. It’s a reference to star wars but fundamentally has nothing to do with lightsabers.

    Atheism was an insult meaning lack or piety or tendency to sinful or immoral behavior. It did not reference a lack of belief in certain gods per se, but rather actions which would be immoral by the god’s standards. A person who professes and truly does believe in God can be an atheist, assuming after Church they bang the preacher’s wife. My family’s brand of Calvinism would hold that everyone is an atheist in the original sense, in that sin is an unavoidable consequence of being human and the best one can hope for is to minimize the atheism in their life.

    • FO

      True.
      Unfortunately it is a label that we are, one way or the other, stuck with, and that is often times used to attack the.. uhm, “social movement”?.

  • Godlesspanther

    We state with certainty that unicorns, dragons, Bigfoot, Nessie, ESP, levitation, ghosts, etc. are imaginary. We do not consider omniscience to be required in order to make such a conclusion. Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence. Not conclusive proof, but a piece of evidence. One can prove a negative. There are no live elephants in shoeboxes. One does not need to be omniscient to make that claim. You need two pieces of information. The size of elephants and the size of shoeboxes.

    The only way to snake out of it is to change the rules for god and claim that such a creature does not have to follow the same rules that everything else does. I say that god has to play by the same rules, as there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

    There is no such thing as an anthropomorphic and interactive god. That is not an opinion, that is a fact.

    If one makes the definition of the god to be some vague and undefinable force — then, fine, logically I am forced to being agnostic about its existence. So is the one who advocates that such a thing is real.

  • Bart Mitchell

    In my youth, a teacher asked me if I believed in god. I said ‘no’, she then asked if I could prove that god didn’t exist, again I had to say no. She then said, there, your’e an agnostic! In hind sight, I can see how she was just trying to ‘keep the door open’ for Jesus. It never worked, but it kept me from adopting the atheist label for over 20 years. Today, atheism lacks much of the negative associations that it had. It’s far more socially acceptable to be an open atheist, so the label makes more sense.

    That aside, when I was being labeled by my teacher something really bothered me. These labels describe what I am not, not what I am. All other faith labels describe the state the person is in, where atheist and agnostic describe what the person isn’t. I prefer the label ‘atheist’ when I’m looking for an argument, or trying to get the person to talk about religion. When I think of myself, the term ‘atheist’ rarely comes to mind. I am a father, a musician, a small business owner, a husband, a brother, a hiker, etc. I will not dwell on what I am not, but embrace what I am.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    I like the term “atheist” because almost all the other ones are useable by Christians. They could embrace the idea of freethinker, agnostic, humanist, and so on, but not atheist.

    Julia Sweeney goes with “naturalist”–let the other guy put the a- prefix on.

  • http://philosophidian.blogspot.com Gary H.

    When I first joined Facebook in 2009, under “religion” I put “Atheist.” I friended a few members of my father’s (extremely southern baptist) family and some friends. A little time went by.

    One night, my mother received a call from my Aunt “Sarah.” Seems her daughter, who was on Facebook, had told her what she saw on my profile. She called my mother immediately, very upset, and informed my mother that something must be deeply wrong with me if I would put something “like THAT awful nonsense” on my Facebook, and that it must be my MOTHER’S fault, because she raised me “to be a free-thinker.”

    She demanded that I remove it from my Facebook, and my mother told her that all she could do was ask. (I’m well into my 40s; having my aunt demand that my mother make me do something is ludicrous.)

    She asked me if I would “just take it down to make Sarah happy.” I said, “Nope. It stays. If Sarah has a problem with it, tell her she can talk to ME.”

    Sarah has never brought it up, but she’s alluded to it a time or two. She wants to “sit down and have a long talk, just the two of us.” You can imagine just how much I’m looking forward to that.

    For people who say the words don’t matter, they don’t matter to US, perhaps, but they DO matter to other people.

    I had a friend one day who asked me–after I’d known her for going on 13 years–something about religion. We were in the car with other people headed to lunch from where we both worked. “I’m an atheist, actually, so I–”

    “OH, NO, YOU ARE NOT! The BEST you can claim is that you don’t KNOW, so you’re an AGNOSTIC!” She was literally shouting at me via the rear-view mirror.

    I let it go. She has since come to terms with it (her husband is an atheist).

    The words DO matter to a lot of people. I honestly don’t care. The people where I work thought I was a holy roller for a long time because I never cursed at work. I’m still chuckling over that one.

  • Paul

    I was raised a southern baptist and was baptized when I was in 7th grade. I had never questioned the teachings I received because my parents, grandparents and most of the other adults in my life were christians of one brand or another. I knew there were a few different rules between christian sects – baptists aren’t supposed to drink, catholics aren’t supposed to use birth control, primitive baptists play with poisonous snakes and my grandfather looked down on “holy rollers”, even though half of the family were assembly of god members. These all seemed trivial, around the edges, differences.
    The next year I started High School and the local public schools were horrible so my parents put me and my brother into a private school. It was the best school that was near where we lived and that they could afford. It was also an all boy catholic military prep school. This is where I was first really exposed to a different belief system. Not only did priests drink and didn’t get married (child molesting was hinted at later on) I’d be in church on sunday and the scripture that went with that holiday was read and the only possible interpretation given. I was familiar with these. But in school I was exposed to the catholic view of these familiar texts and their only possible interpretation was usually quite different from the baptist ones. I’d never thought of questioning them before but here clearly there was more than one way to interpret and if there were these two, maybe there were others and maybe I should read them and decide about them by myself. There was a group at my church that were reading and discussing the bible book by book. I didn’t want that, I wanted to find my own read on them.

    In college I began investigating other religions, looking for something that I found that I truly believed in. This was in the 70′s and my generation was exploring all kinds of religions and ultimately I felt that most all were saying basically that “we are the only ones with the answers. don’t listen to the others.

    Ultimately I found that none of them seemed to pass the reality test so I decided that I saw nothing that made me believe in either an active god or even some passive deity such as reflected in deism. I also found that no god was needed to explain anything about us, our planet, our universe, etc… Following Occam, I follow the simpler explanation and reject the hypothesis of god.

    Agnosticism implies that there needs to be an absolute proof of non existence, a logical impossibility. Atheism denotes a need to define myself by my lack of a belief which seems silly. I don’t like Avocados but I don’t define myself by that or by any of the billions of things I see as silly. I don’t know how to define myself, nor do I feel the need to do so.

    The need to label oneself seems like unnecessary pigeonholing. I am me. I have done many things, want to do many more – probably more than will fit on my bucket list. That’s ok, what do you do when you have done everything you want to have done? I’m here now and I know the only thing that will allow me to be in any way immortal is the impact we make on others who we touch along the way and the things we do – books we write, buildings we build, students we teach, things we discover. I hope the boat I am building now will long outlive me. It’s not special, but it is something I did.

    I have a name, why should I try to add any other definition to me?

    • Nzo

      >I have a name, why should I try to add any other definition to me?

      Clarity.

      You don’t have to have bumper stickers, swag, or shout it from the rooftops, but any other label can invite miscommunication, or answers a question not asked.

      -Freethinker? – Great, so that means… what? What happens when a sect of christians decide that’s what they want to call themselves? Maybe they already have.

      -Humanist? – Great, how many theists know what that means, and how many are you willing to explain it to?

      Don’t like labels?
      Great, explain every nuance of your life to everyone that wants to know the answer to a question about you.

      >Atheism denotes a need to define myself by my lack of a belief which seems silly.

      Yup

      > I don’t like Avocados but I don’t define myself by that or by any of the billions of things I see as silly.

      Avocados don’t vote, or try to suppress your rights in other ways. Avocados don’t excuse atrocities. Avocados aren’t adults believing in grandiose afterlife fantasies while driving large chunks of metal at high speeds.

      Sure, there are some people out there like you, that don’t want labels, but if every non-theist were like that, there’d be “christians” and “the other people” “immoral” “godless heathens” etc.

      I, for one, will take a succinct, and accurate label.

  • Kodie

    I really only define myself as an atheist in context to theists, like Nzo says – they do things I don’t want over a belief that’s imaginary. If there is no theists and no god, I don’t have to use the word to call myself anything. I don’t like froofy terms of “positivity” like freethinker, because that doesn’t exist in context with theists. I am not freely thinking of there’s no god. I am in fact determined by the fact there are theists who believe that there is, and what they do with that belief.

    To reiterate, to all the ignorant theists who suppose I am mad at god, or that because I don’t believe in god so what’s the problem? IT’S the PEOPLE. If you wouldn’t try to religionize government or schools or the secular rights of marriage, if you’d just put your money where your mouth is and “trust god” with all this instead of instigating policies that you believe he favors, I might not have such a thing to say against you. If he favors these things you favor (and none can agree, and all interpret within their conscience), let him reach out and touch all of us. If you don’t think he can do that, then your faith doesn’t seem very healthy either. You don’t get to force government to force me to believe what you believe or behave as if I do, and I don’t know why that’s how you try best to go about it. That’s why I call myself an atheist and not something else.

    I have also tried to see if secular humanist fits me. I guess it does but it’s hard. I believe I agree with the causes of humanism, but I find it hard to take that label for myself.

    As for agnosticism, I did never call myself an agnostic given a small chance there is a god. There is a zero chance of any gods so far described of being accurate, and that leaves some other type of god no person can think of – or if they think of it, they are creating a new religion, even if it’s academic in the sense that “maybe god is like this”. All religions seem to consist of “maybe god is like this” for the big questions believing in god seems to beg. If you believe there is a god, then of course you are going to try to define what he is based on your experience and maybe not entertain the idea that it’s all your own imagination grasping around for patterns and narratives, that there is no god and you’re just making it up. As far as I can tell, god is just the word for “I don’t know”, “self-centered believer”, and “imagined intention feels better than unintention”.

    I had a thought yesterday about god being the self – when I thought about it. How can you know someone else, even a spouse or a parent or a doctor really knows you doesn’t know you. As someone who is having trouble communicating and bonding with people that close to me, god feels like… feeling like someone who knows you as well as you know yourself because really no one does. I kind of rolled my eyes that I never thought about it like that. Do agnostics ever think like this? I haven’t seen agnostics do anything toward rejecting gods or arguing theists about anything. Not to say it never happened, but I don’t see it happening. I somewhat suspect agnostics of unduly granting equal weight to all arguments. There are some “holes” in some stories about Jesus, per se, but just like science gains clarity, so might those holes not be as damning to those arguments as likely to be filled by some new facts someday. All the “maybes” about what god is like remain on the table until we actually meet the guy and ask. Just because a person thinks something up and warps it into a rationalization against criticism of his deity doesn’t mean he’s incorrect, after all.

  • Nox

    I call myself an atheist as convenient shorthand, or to express solidarity with the atheist community, or because it is the best available banner to rally opposition to the religions I’m trying to oppose, more than because lacking belief in god is at all central to what I do believe.


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