Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Faux Agnosticism

It’s stultifying how many believers, and even agnostics, will cling to the idea that there still could be something to the God idea long after it is obvious that the traditional, mainstream notion of God founders on the rocks of its own incoherence. Lots of people will readily agree, when pressed, that the notion of an invisible, magical being with super powers who reads minds and grants wishes is silly. And they will concede that the people who originally propagated the idea knew far less about the world, were more superstitious, and less intellectually and scientifically advanced than we are. But they continue to maintain that the collapse of that old world notion isn’t sufficient to justify drawing the larger conclusion that there is no God. They continue to treat other variations on the God theme as viable, live alternatives that have a substantial, or at least non-negligible chance of being true.

This response to atheistic arguments is baffling because once the main leg of traditional theism has been pulled out, the atheist can’t see what grounds continue to sustain these alternative views. If the central idea of God doesn’t work, the default view should not be to keep considering close alternatives to it in the hope of finding one that works. Once the central pedestal of the edifice crumbles, there’s really nothing left to prop up the others.

Think of it this way. Suppose Smith finds a Sherlock Holmes book, reads it, and, not realizing that it is fiction, gets very excited about the idea that there really existed such an inspiring and clever crime solver in 19th century England. Then Jones tells Smith that Holmes is a fictional character made up by Arthur Conan Doyle. The reasonable thing for Smith to do is not to respond, “Well, maybe Doyle’s character is made up, but you just never know—there could be a real Sherlock Holmes that we don’t know about. I’m going to keep investigating until I find him.” Smith would be patently irrational to suspend judgment or to be agnostic about the real existence of Sherlock Holmes in this case. The same goes for Santa. Suppose that when your parents finally told you the truth: they bought the presents and put them out under the tree at Christmas, and they ate the cookies to make it look like Santa was there, you proclaimed that you were going to keep looking and keep holding out hope for another, real Santa. Since you never know what could be out there, and since there is so much we don’t know about the world, the reasonable thing to do would be to not jump to conclusions and to remain agnostic about Santa.

“Furthermore,” you say, “the fact that so many other people besides us have Santa stories suggests that they all can’t be wrong. There are people all over Europe and elsewhere who tell variations on the same Santa story. That suggests that there must be some core of truth to all of this.”

Ok, so my point should be clear. In ordinary circumstances, when we discover the real source of some idea like Santa, or Sherlock Holmes, or the Easter Bunny, the reasonable response is not agnosticism. Once we’ve discovered the origin of an idea and we have reasons to think that that was all that it ever was, then it’s not reasonable to go on indefinitely entertaining other slightly varied possibilities and treating them as live candidates for the truth. Once the main balloon has been deflated, the others go flat too.

The balloons have been popped a couple of ways. First, we've expended a countless amount of energy trying to find compelling evidence for God. And what we have found hasn't been compelling--it certainly hasn't been as compelling as you'd expect to find if there were a God and he wanted to be known. Furthermore, I submit that we have ample alternative explanations for the origin of the religious ideas in Christianity and the other most common religions. Two thousand years ago people weren’t equipped with the concepts, the methods, or the knowledge about the world to discriminate true from false concerning mysticism, magic, spiritual claims, messiahs, transcendent beings. Their culture, their language, their social traditions, and their lives would have been abundantly populated with mysterious, supernatural beings, forces, and events. They didn’t know where babies come from, what a disease was, that the Earth turns, or about probabilities (probability theory was only discovered a few hundred years ago). They would have been incapable of giving any putative religious events or claims the sort of careful, reasoned scrutiny that they require.

The list of plausible natural alternative explanations for the origins of human religions goes on. Now my point is, once we have come to understand those alternatives and once we have judged some or many of them to be probably true, then what is left to put wind in the sails of religious belief besides our longings? Maintaining agnosticism in this situation is disingenuous, or at least it is grossly out of synch with our epistemic standards in other non-religious situations like Santa and Sherlock Holmes. Either you need to be agnostic about Santa too, or you need to admit that mere possibility doesn’t elevate the God idea to the level of a viable, live hypothesis that ought to be considered seriously. Maintaining agnosticism about God when you would not do the same for so many other spiritual, mystical, or magical entities suggests that the agnostic isn’t really suspending judgment; he’s a closet believer who’s grasping at straws.

9 comments:

Bryan Goodrich said...

FYI, my secret plan to move you to the top of Google (so I can just enter in the phrase into the firefox URL browser which will sometimes return the first google search hit; I'm lazy!) is working. Before I mentioned you were the third major entry listed searching "proving the negative." You beat out Carrier's article on it at infidels.org! Today, you are the second listed. Wikipedia is listed first, btw.

Matt McCormick said...

That's cool. Thanks. What are you doing to make it happen? I have never done anything to optimize the blog for search engines. I have just kept plugging away and it has moved up steadily over the years. I'm also 4th or so under "atheism blog." A year ago I was 25th or so.

Now I'd like to figure out how to move up the google searches for "atheism." Suggestions?

MM

Reginald Selkirk said...

I suppose if we periodically use the phrase proving the negative, that will nudge up the ranking. Linking to it from other sites will help too.

There was a technique called "google bombing," but I think they cracked down on that.

Bryan Goodrich said...

Google indexes sites by search terms and how many hits you get. They are aware of what websites you click for what searches you do. Since I consistently use the same search, I increase the hit count for your site associated with it. This is why the most popular (most hits) websites are usually the first in a list.

R.C. said...

I believe atheism leads to skepticism. One cannot account for the reliability of memory and five senses. I think Alvin Plantinga sort of showed this in an article he wrote concerning naturalism, surely it is in his books.

Matt McCormick said...

Plantinga's objection is to metaphysical naturalism, not to atheism. Contrary to the conflation that many people commit here, atheism and naturalism are not the same thing. Second, our memories and five senses are notoriously unreliable.

See several of my previous posts for critiques of skepticism, R.C.

MM

R.C. said...

Thanks Matt.

Anonymous said...

"It’s stultifying how many believers, and even agnostics, will cling to the idea that there still could be something to the God idea long after it is obvious that the traditional, mainstream notion of God founders on the rocks of its own incoherence."

What does the traditional, mainstream notion of God have to do with the possibility of there are or having been creatures with attributes that might have been considered "gods" to primitive man? Keeping open to the possibility--admitting that you don't *know*, however unlikely you consider it--is part and parcel of being agnostic.

"Lots of people will readily agree, when pressed, that the notion of an invisible, magical being with super powers who reads minds and grants wishes is silly. And they will concede that the people who originally propagated the idea knew far less about the world, were more superstitious, and less intellectually and scientifically advanced than we are."

It sounds like the last generation to this generation and this generation to the next generation.

"But they continue to maintain that the collapse of that old world notion isn’t sufficient to justify drawing the larger conclusion that there is no God."

There are no atoms? Misconceptions of previous generations don't necessarily have to impair understanding of reality. It's like learning about history from your parents and grandparents... it's best taken with a grain of salt. The truth may be not at all what they (or you) might envision it to be.

"They continue to treat other variations on the God theme as viable, live alternatives that have a substantial, or at least non-negligible chance of being true."

How dare they! Obviously, atheists have achieved the pinnacle of wisdom and understanding when it comes to the nature and possibility of non-terrestrial lifeforms.

Bill Herd said...

"Maintaining agnosticism about God when you would not do the same for so many other spiritual, mystical, or magical entities suggests that the agnostic isn’t really suspending judgment; he’s a closet believer who’s grasping at straws."

I confess. Best to say I've been a closet "wish-to-still-believer" for a long time. Your article helped me see this. I've spent years reading philosophy and theology books trying to find a way back to the comforting place I was as a christian. But it didn't help. I have been too intellectually honest with myself. The problem is really psychological and must be addressed as such. Thanks for posting your article. Very helpful.