Agnosticism:
The Door Must Always
be Left Open
A Pedersen

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "A Pedersen"
Date: August 31, 2003 9:46 AM
Subject: Yes, an honest atheist, but a dishonest neo-Agnostic

Do you, as an atheist think you have all the answers to everything?

Supposing, for a moment (for the sake of discussion) that atheism were as you describe, and supposing (again, for the discussion's sake) that my thinking was as sloppy and imprecise as the false examples you provide above, even this would not warrant the conclusion that I had "all the answers to everything"!

Ah, but your charges against me get much more brazenly dishonest than this! Allow me to unravel this all before our audience.

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Can you be absolutely, 100% certain that you won't receive evidence of God or experience God sometime in the future or after you have died?

Hold it! Wait a minute! Back up!!

Uh, excuse me. What is a "God"?

You err in thinking that I agree with you that the term God is a universal concept upon whose definition we all agree. Were this the case, were we talking about something as straightforward to detect and measure and contain (in our minds) as the Sun or the Moon, you might have a point, here. However, you are talking about something which must be defined each time you talk to me about it. Any honest, experienced, and intelligent skeptic would require no less when discussing something as ununiversal as this alleged thing that people call a "God."

Once an individual has defined for me what she or he means when using the letter sequence "G-o-d," then my task stands a good chance of becoming particular enough (that is, straightforward enough) allow me to answer, in all honest,y those questions you have accused me of doing to a universal.

Most versions of the Christian god-claim, for example, are specific enough to allow us to test them using scientific and historical method! The same goes for many of the other religions.

However, I cannot, as you so brazenly suggest, apply the same tests to the Southern Californian outgrowth of the Calvary Chapel variety of the Evangelical Christian god-claim that I would apply to the claims made within the recent emergance in Ethiopia of the Islamic tradition of Wahabism. Each requires a different set of criteria in order to assess the validity of its claims. Thus there cannot be any such thing as a universal test for the generic god-claim.

Knowing this, I refrain from making, without qualification, statements and claims such as "There is no 'God'" (as you here accuse me -- and all atheists -- of doing).

With that in mind, I will respond to your vicious and wholly unwarranted attacks.

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it's up to you to prove your bold claim

What bold claim? If I have said something such as you describe, you will need to provide either the magazine's issue and page numbers or the web site's URL containing my misstatements! In lieu of that, I'll patiently await an apology, because I have made no "bold claims" about the alleged existence of any gods. In fact, I can't even speak about the existence of what people think are gods, because nobody has ever given me a valid reason for thinking that any of the god-claims I've heard are worthy of my assent. Thus, while your mind is still thinking about existence of nonexistence (as if the claims are valid), my mind looks no further than the god-claims made by this or that group of religious people.

You see, your zeal to force "symmetrical agnosticism"to be true, rather than the "maybe" that it is, obligates you to misrepresent both atheism and theism as things they are not.

I grant to the original (Huxleyan) form of agnosticism the same degree of respect that I grant, for example, to the accepted method for denoting percentages in prose text.

However, I have nothing but disdain for what I call "neo-Agnosticism," an outlook that would ordinarily pass for what's sometimes called "symmetrical agnosticism" were it not for its having chugged a few too many pints of that contemptuously affected arrogance we keep hearing about. Neo-Agnosticism cannot exist in the minds of its adherents without their lying about the nature of both theism and atheism. This position is as convoluted and its apologetic as dishonest as, for example, an attempt to challenge someone to prove that a statement they made is this way or that -- when our hero (a bystander, at best), never made such an assumption!

Confusion is the enemy of clear thinking, and the only way for symmetrical agnosticism to fly is to introduce as much confusion into the discussion as possible.

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The atheist, meanwhile, is someone who lacks a god-belief. Period. That's the most you can say about any atheist without interviewing him or her on the subject of god-claims and such. Some go further, to be sure, but to know this you must ask the atheist in quesion.

To speak to an atheist about "God" is to jump the gun, then, because, as far as we can tell (without said interview), the atheist might still be scratching the old noggin and wondering what all this talk is supposed to mean: "God"? "Dog"? "Yellow Frog"!? The furthest you can rightly carry such an interrogation is to speak in terms of "claims." You cannot go further than that because our hero still has yet to come upon a valid reason for granting assent to the theists' and agnostics' claims about this "God" thing (or event, aspect, quality, quantity, exclamation, or whatever -- depending upon whether this word you keep using -- God -- is a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, an article, an interjection, or an unknown).

First your (the symmetrical agnostic's) atheistic audience must come to an understanding of what you mean when you use the term God. After this, we will need valid reasons for granting assent to this claim that you're making: the (often strongly stated) implication that the prospects for this "God" thing's existence and the prospects for its nonexistence are roughly equal. In terms that an atheist can better understand, you might say that the claims for and against this things existence are equally likely. This is symmetrical agnosticism. I consider such agnosticism quite silly because it deals only with the generic description of deity most commonly used by members of our vaguely Christian culture: the ceremonial deity of "In God We Trust."

Fortunately for me (and perhaps many others as well), this ideology of neo-Agnosticism is mostly popular among those who have not done much thinking on the subject. Rather, they most often have heard someone else claim it as their own viewpoint and then grabbed it for themselves. Why not? It seems so reasonable to the mind of someone who has spent so much time thinking that this one god up there is really real, who has subsequently struggled to the point of no longer thinking that to be necessarily the case.

And what's more, very few of these agnostics even pretend that they can duke it out with an atheistic lay philosopher. Thus, (thankfully) this dialogue happens but a few times per year.

Much more reasonable would have been a view which accepts the fact that all people are different and that some folks even (Gasp!) think and speak in a form of shorthand! Yes! Sometimes when an atheist dismissingly holds up her hand and says, "There is no God," what she has on her mind is the equivalent of the following:

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The majority in the country where I live, the Christians, claim that a "God" exists who offers this thing called "The Free Gift of Salvation" (whatever that means). All you need to do is believe that He exists and has a Son named Jesus Christ. However, I have thoroughly scrutinized this particular school of thought from both sides of the question, and I see no reason to think it has any validity whatsoever.

Now, I haven't investigated all the different god-claims that people have been telling one another for all these centuries. To do so wouldn't change anything, anyway, because we cannot speak of any "deep" reality. At best, we individuals can speak only of our experiences: our observations, our measurements, our thoughts, and our communications with others; after that, we can reach a form of consensus with other humans. This preculdes any serious use of the word is -- or the word reality, for that matter!

So when I say, "There is no God," I am using shorthand for what I have said above. And I am doing this because I'm aware that my audience (any friend, family member, or other close associate) knows me well enough to "fill in the blanks," as they say. I do not use, I have not used, and I will not use, however, use any but the most universally understood abbreviations when writing for the web site. Why? Because there are some who, even after I've explained it, still cannot (or will not) accept what I say on the terms that I have intended them.

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A much better approach would have been much simpler, to boot: read our FAQ section! Even a snippet if our FAQ centerpiece, the "Introduction," would have sufficed in your case. The misunderstanding about the nature and definition of atheism is very widespread, and is almost as destructive as it is prevalent. We have turned off many a reader in our overcoverage of this one point: you have no excuse whatsoever for charging in and demanding that we "prove [our] bold claim," because we've gone our of our way to show that any "bold claim" we may have made exists only in your imagination: I haven't even done this in the "shorthand" described above.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Eight years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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