Monday, December 16, 2013

Agnostic vs Atheist

Recently, I found myself involved in a lengthy twitter debate on the meanings of a few words: agnostic, theist, atheist and gnostic. At issue is the following table:

TheistGnostic -- TheistAgnostic -- Theist
AtheistGnostic -- AtheistAgnostic -- Atheist
You can find the same basic table listed in numerous blogs online, but for reference here's one article that tackles the same basic content:
And here's yet another in swedish:
The table is laid out according to common assumptions about the meanings of these words. This same basic layout is found referenced in numerous places and is perhaps evidence of a misguided predilection toward order. Systems that inspire us to organize ideas in this way while we tackle the consequences and meaning behind it all appease some higher ideal, and yet I find myself immensely frustrated with the sophomoric attempt to sift these complicated words into simple boxes.

My position is that being an agnostic intrinsically implies being an atheist. The notion of an agnostic theist is nonsense. Gnostic atheism is likewise ridiculous, but for a different reason.

Part of what's at play is, I think, a basic misunderstanding on what these terms actually mean. That or the words truly have been co-opted in recent years and have taken on different meanings. If this is the case it is indeed problematic, because the former connotations carry a lot of weight in philosophy.

So what do these words Mean?

Gnosis: This is a greek noun and means, as expected, knowledge. This word gnosis, however, has a long history of meaning in scholasticism (and patristics) and philosophy alike. Gnosis is a kind of spiritual awareness of god's presence; a mystical insight into one's relationship with the spiritual reality. Words and meaning evolve and this is no where more true than with loaned words, however, in this case I think it remiss of us to ignore the relevance of that original meaning. It's this original meaning of the word from which its antonym is derived. Gnosis is the **reason/cause** for belief in god. Obviously, we're not going to be arguing for hard empirical evidence of god, which means that in any way we can

Theist: Theist is, I think, a far less complicated word. A theist believes in god[s].

Atheist: Like theist, atheist is simple. An atheist lacks belief in god[s]. Though the actions, convictions and rhetoric of many known atheists may be interpreted as manifest to the contrary, the word in fact means nothing more than the lack of this belief. This is in juxtaposition to a theist which as stated above believes in god[s].

Agnostic: For agnosticism it's important to understand the origin of the word and where it comes from. Agnositicism was coined by Thomas Huxley and in direct response to this same gnosis described above.
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain "gnosis"--had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion...
It's clear to me that his notion of agnostic isn't as simple as utter ignorance. It's a statement and response to the notion of gnosis. He's claiming to not have this spiritual awareness of god.

Where does this leave us?

There are really are only two salient positions in the table above that remain cogent: gnostic theist and agnostic atheist. The other two positions though seeminlgy reasonable are in fact incoherent. I will detail them here one by one:

Gnostic Theist: This one is clear. A gnostic theist claims to have spiritual knowledge or understanding of god[s] and, therefore, believes in god[s].

Gnostic Atheist: This one is, I think, absurd. Certainly, according to the definitions I laid out above it's illogical, but I maintain that it has other issues. Other sites (like the two I mentioned at the top) will maintain that gnosis is just simply knowledge, and, therefore, this simply is an expression of knowlege about the lack of gods. Atheist is a lack of belief, so what this really refers to is knowledge about ones lack of belief. This may say something about ones personal insight, but it's hardly a religious utterance. This is where the popular definition of the word atheist rears its head: denial of gods, and so we're left with definitive knowledge about the lack of gods. However, we know it's impossible to be certain of negative knowledge. My detractors will argue that it's theoretically possible to imagine a confused individual who believes that they have knowledge of the lack of god, but that's hardly a reason to keep it in the list. There are loads of bad-faith assumptions and confusions we could come up with, but that doesn't mean that they are sound and should be entered into a matrix to justify its own existence.

Agnostic Theist: The connotation here is that someone who lacks gnosis (which is the only reason to ever believe in god) nevertheless *believes* in god. At this point, I think it's incumbent upon me to discuss the word belief. This word is tricky. Belief in this religious sense is more than the belief associated with the word trust. Do I know the sun will rise tomorrow? No, but I trust that it will based on previous experience. I do, btw, have loads of experience and evidence to corroborate my trust. The same cannot be said of religious belief. Here I have only faith. Faith is a special sort of belief: belief that specifically does *NOT* rest on testable claims or material evidence. Furthermore, the origin of the word agnostic itself is a statement about the lack of conviction behind this belief. Huxley didn't coin this word, because he hadn't seen the empirical evidence supporting god, rather the term stands extant as a repudiation of gnosis. No theist believes, because of evidence. Theism is about belief/faith in spite of the lack of evidence. It's belief because of gnosis.

Agnostic Atheist: Finally. This combination, I think, makes sense but is redundant. An agnostic, lacking gnosis, cannot believe in god and therefore lacks the belief. It's simple.

There we have it. This matrix stands as a model based on common use of the words, but misses, I think, some important background behind what these words mean. Also, I am sure that some will argue that there are loads of atheists who claim to *know* that there are no gods, but I hardly see how this matters. This position is indefensible, and whether they believe (falsely) to have knowledge about the lack of gods or not that position is completely incomprehensible.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Punitive attack on Assad

I've just watched the following O'reilly video:

And i'm floored. He can't seriously equate war with a punitive action on Assad. The idea is nonsense and i'm convinced that O'Reilly knows this. So what on earth is the play here?

Is it really more important to paint a picture that presents Obama as "weak" than it is to propose a credible solution for Syria that fulfills the following criteria?

  1. Action in Syria's best interest
  2. Action in our best interest
  3. Action in the region's best interest
Now, i'm not defending Assad nor his use regimes use of chemical weapons, but surely a scenario which removes them from his arsenal prior to any further military action is a good idea, and it absolutely doesn't need to be the end of the conversation. If we want to remove Assad from power we can still move in that direction and do so with greater authority.

I find this to be a fantastic first step toward a liberated Syria and one that offers the possibility of finding peace through diplomacy. More and more is pointing to a joint diplomatic effort between Russia and the US. Now imagine that. The US threatens with war so that Lavrov can offer to take those nasty chemical weapons off of Assad's hands. Interesting indeed. Yes, the US is now so weak that it chooses to avoid costly wars and exposing it's service men to the threat of chemical weapons.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Jimmy the Greek from Lebanon...

Today I had a few minutes of time during my normal lunch period and decided to get a haircut. My hairdresser was a roughly 30 year old bearded individual who asked me quietly in broken swedish if it would be ok for us to speak english. And off we were talking about the world.

"Hi, I'm Jimmy. My father was too big a fan of Jimmy Carter and he named me Jimmy. Personally I am a big fan of George Bush."

Jimmy is from Lebanon but is of half greek heritage and recently left his homeland and has moved to Sweden to escape the terrors of running a hair salon just outside of Beirut. A christian, his native language is French and though he spoke a little arabic he claimed to not speak it as fluently. Now, i'm stunned to meet someone from this part of the world who claims to love George Bush, but I suppose I shouldn't be. I explained to him my own feelings (hate is a strong word, but I am not stretching if I say that I think George Bush was the worst president in my lifetime).

"George Bush makes war, because he says god told him to. He seems to me to be a righteous man" or something to that effect.

ehh WHAT?

I went on to explain that it's precisely this sort of piety that emboldens me to question religion. How can weigh in on your thoughts with  my silly reason when you're having a personal, and hidden conversation with God about what to do. This is precisely why I am not just an atheist, but a new atheist.

And why does he like George Bush? He's a christian of course. Not one of those pesky, arabic speaking muslims who are destroying his homeland. Now he's abandoned it and fled to Sweden where he can be surrounded by people who don't care about religion at all. Now he's safe to be a christian.

Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed having my hair cut by Jimmy and i'll be going back in about 6 weeks for my next cut...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

New Atheism: newer approaches and some questions...

For the past year or so I have been watching recorded debates with regular frequency. Most of this started when Christopher Hitchens died in Dec of 2011; the internet had informed me that I should care and so I googled and youtubed my way to google-university to learn a bit.

I watched video after video of Hitchens and must admit was enraptured: what an eloquent, poised and provocative speaker (Honestly, I still think Hitchens is amazing). My journey continued and I learned about the New Atheists and watched countless debates featuring the "Four Horsemen" and during that time started to listen more and more critically to what I was hearing and, alas, to appreciate more and more the argument their opponents were making. NOTE: I said appreciate not stand behind.

Today I find myself concerned. My self education has led me to people like David Bentley Hart. Hart has a mixed background, but part of that mixed background involves both patristics and the history of western philosophy. Yesterday, I listened to a criticism of his on Dawkins' The God Delusion and I must say it made sense to me. Specifically, he attacked Dawkins' use of the Aquinas' 5 ways. I am by no means an expert in philosophy but kept it as a major up until my least year in college, so I'm not wholly uninformed on the subject, and even I can remember that Aquinas' 5 ways were meant as a layman's guide on how to think about/recognize god and not a proof of theism per se. Then Hart moved on to discussing the "Four Horsemen" in general and their version of the history of the church and bible and I'm left thinking: why put yourself in this position. Listening to Dawkins debate evolution vs creationism is entirely different.

Now, make no mistake, I still think religion is nonsense. I also would very much like much of modern religion to go the way of other faiths and hobble off toward Mythology where it can mutate until we think it's quaint like we do with greek mythology today. But I worry about over stating positions and without sufficient evidence.... Stated more directly: if you want to make a strong argument pick those pieces you feel the strongest about. This is particularly true when your argument is a book.  And I want to make sure I've stated this. I'm not claiming I could have done better than Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris or Dennett. Moreover, I'm very much of the opinion that this group of, um, Atheist Knights are  very good at provocation which incites debate and I think that's valuable for critical thinking. Why weaken your overall position (or at least the perception of it) by introducing additional pieces that are easily picked apart by someone who is an expert in that field.

And we don't need to go there!!!

Honestly, I don't really see why we need ever go farther than: where's the empirical evidence in direct support of god? However, assuming you want to make a play that goes after the bible why go any further than what the sectarian experts themselves recognize: the bible as constructed today is based on a mixture of fragments and complete books but these same texts differ from one another... Are most of these discrepancies trivial? Yes, but not all of them are and anyway it doesn't matter. The text we have to go on is either the inerrant word of god or it isn't.

Should the atheism movement refocus its effort on evidence and shy away from debates on ethics, a priori morality and whether god is the author of evil?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pain-Capable Rape Victims bear full burden...

By now I'm sure most people have seen the news about the the house passage of the:   Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The driver behind this piece of legislation is the dubious claim that the fetus can already feel pain at 20 weeks. No one wants to hurt a baby, right?

I have several immediate thoughts on all of this and in no particular order:

  • I think that everyone who supports a bill like this should be willing to adopt and care for adopted children.
  • You want less abortions? How about better birth control. Let's encourage it and be realistic instead of pushing abstinence. Abstinence as a real option is as absurd as faith in creationism; it doesn't match the data we have.
  • Many republicans have told me before that I shouldn't assume that the goal is an outright ban on abortions. I beg to differ. It's listed as an official goal of the party (at least in some states) and actions like this indicate to me that this is indeed the ultimate goal.
  • The fact that the rape provision was added after the fact speaks volumes, imho. If the goal is to increase real reporting of rape (and of course that's not the goal) then this is a setup that makes the victim pay for that change entirely on their own.
It's that last one in this particular case that really irks me. This essentially coerces rape victims to come forward and handle all of the additional emotional baggage of that ordeal on their own and puts a time limit on it at 20 weeks.

I'm going to risk the slippery slope fallacy a bit and take this a bit farther. Republicans want to ban abortions outright.

The Official Republican Platform is quite informative. Republicans want to eliminate any state funding of abortion. Their platform also makes it indelibly clear that in their opinion abortions are not part of health care. This position is troubling given the lack of any kind of qualifying statements/exceoptions regarding the health of the mother. And as I stated above the health of the rape victim is clearly of accidental importance to the health of the fetus.

What is the official position of republicans on abortion to save the life of the mother or even to mitigate the risk of health issues in general? How about the risk of future pregnancies?

This bill still needs to make it through the senate ...