What Is PAM's Position
On Agnosticism?
John Polifronio

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "John Polifronio"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Monday, May 21, 2001 5:42 PM

Atheism was not an intellectually fulfilling position until Charles Darwin dispensed with the Argument from Design. Before then, the Argument from Design was so formidable that those who would otherwise have called themselves atheists (or agnostics) called themselves Deists or Unitarians. They rejected the notion of supernatural intervention, and tended to see Providence as a natural principle, though many spoke of Providence using anthropomorphic language and terminology. A few, such as Benjamin Franklin, thought the god of Deism could hear our prayers, but I think he was the exception rather than the rule. Darwin pushed the envelope of special Providence back to the creation and sustaining of the universe.

Later, Edwin Hubble showed that the Universe is expanding, and thus dispensed with the Entropy Argument, which stated that the Universe needs energy "from without" in order to sustain itself. Now we know that the Universe does not need any energy "from without" for order to form, because a constantly expanding universe allows for tiny pockets of order to form, even though the overall amount of entropy in the entire Universe is always increasing. Strike another blow to the notion of Special Providence or the need for supernatural creative forces to explain our existence. (See our Interview with Particle Physicist Victor Stenger.)

More recently, the Inflationary Big Bang model shows that no energy or order was needed for the Universe to even form: there is no evidence to show that any such order or energy was, indeed, incorporated in the formation of the Universe. (Again, see our Interview with Particle Physicist Victor Stenger.)

Even the very mystical experience of "becoming one with God" (or whatever) has now been given a very convincing physical, biological explanation; a god need not exist in order to explain these visions or experiences. (See our discussions of Dr. Andrew Newberg's Why God Won't Go Away, scattered throughout our Letters Index for May, 2001.) This, to me, was the last hold-out in this Universe: all that's left is whether or not anything rightly called "a god" existed "before" or "beyond" the Big Bang.

None of this means that such creative or sustaining forces do not exist, only that they do not need to have existed in order for us to be here. If there was (or is) a god (or gods), then He (or She or It or They) did not even need to sneeze in order for the universe, and all life in it, to form. A Creator was not needed to even get the Big Bang going. If there was (or is) a god (or gods), then the question of His (or Her or Its or Their) existence is academic at best, and has no practical or explanatory relevance.

Making the transition from theism to a-theism (the lack of theism, not necessarily the conscious rejection of theism), has always been difficult -- for cultures as well as for individuals. Some have proposed agnosticism to ease this transition, but we feel this is the unnecessary product of a false and slanderous definition of the term atheism. Enduring the brunt of antiatheist stigma and bigotry, we certainly understand why people would want to call themselves "agnostic" in order to soften the blow of this vicious and widespread bigotry. But we tend to feel that the term agnosticism serves only to muddy the water in this discussion, and we tend to prefer bringing clarity to the term atheism -- even if it means that certain people will misunderstand or even misrepresent our position.
 

We accept the "weak" definition for atheism wherein an atheist is anybody who lacks a god belief for whatever reason. This allows agnostics who don't know if gods exist to be called atheists, or specifically, atheistic agnostics, seeing atheistic agnosticism as a subset of atheism. If an agnostic thinks a god exists but knows no more about it than that (such as Bishop John Shelby Spong?) that agnostic is a theistic agnostic, and thus a theist. I played at length with the theism-atheism dichotomy assumed by the "weak" definition for atheism in my discussion with pantheist John Love-Jensen, who wanted to paint pantheism as a third alternative to the theism-atheism dichotomy.

But to insist that people cannot know whether or not gods exist goes much further than we care to take it. This position seems to assume that god-claims can be understood at all -- that god-claims even make sense. Many god-claims are pure nonsense, or they describe an "ineffable" god (if God cannot be described, then why bother telling me about it?). In these cases, we cannot but withhold our assent. Thus "weak" atheism covers all god-claims, be they understandable or nonsensical. "Weak" atheism also holds open the possibility that some day a god-claim might come along which does warrant our assent; in this case, we would become theists. The position of "weak" atheism does not pretend to know so much that she writes off the possibility of us finding either position to be true.

We prefer simply to state that we have yet to be given a valid reason for giving our assent to the various god-claims -- and leave it at that. This way, we don't even have to understand the various god-claims and can basically live our lives without bothering with it: until and unless we give our assent to one of the god-claims, we remain atheists; it doesn't matter what we do or do not think about any particular god-claim (unless, of course, we give one of those claims our assent).
 

Finally, we will always denounce the self-proclaimed agnostic who portrays agnosticism as a "middle ground" between a straw-man theism, which this agnostic portrays as always dogmatic, and a straw-man atheism, which this agnostic portrays as always asserting that no gods exist. Many theists (particularly the Roman Catholic Church) have defined atheism as the dogmatic assertion that no gods exist. They do this so that theistic faith appears, in comparison, to be a more reasonable alternative. The original Darwin-era agnostics exploited this unfair definition of atheism in the transition away from Deism (although they tended to be as vicious in their criticism of orthodox Christianity as any atheist has ever been).

Theism ranges from those who see theistic "Ultimate Reality" as "more real" than even the waking state, to the character in the Gospel story who cried out to Jesus, "I believe! God help me my unbelief!" Likewise, atheism ranges from those who see the theistic claims to be impossible, to those who have never even heard a god-claim (or who lack the cognitive abilities to understand the god-claim). With the "weak" definition, one either has a god belief (however vague) or lacks a god belief (however vaguely).

To misrepresent atheism (or theism) in this manner is no way to gain credibility with us. The only reason we bring this up is because a large fraction of those who have written to us, who call themselves agnostics, have pulled this stunt -- to the point of becoming very bitter at our attempts to explain to them the classic, traditional definition for atheism which we accept.
 

The bottom line is that the theist is making a claim: a god or gods exist. If I don't know (or don't care), or if I think the claim as it stands is impossible, or even if I have not encountered the claim, I still lack a belief in a god or gods (at least that specific god or gods for which this particular theist is making claims). Some people go much further than I do, and discuss whether or not this or that reality exists, but I prefer to keep the discussion focused on the fact that we are trying to determine whether or not a certain claim warrants my assent. I think we do well if we keep this discussion focused on the fact that we're dealing with claims, because we can all agree that claims are being made if we agree on nothing else.

The word atheist has, for centuries, been specifically equated with wickedness. Many think that we do well to use other terms to describe ourselves, such as agnostic or nontheist or even Unitarian or pantheist (both of which have atheistic varieties). The real issue is not the word, but the very lack of belief: it's our lack of belief which offends the more powerful theists, not the word we use to describe ourselves. So, the word does not matter except that the word atheist just happens to have this added stigma not "enjoyed" by the other words.

If someone pursues truth wherever it may lead, and if that pursuit leads one to become what is classically described by the term atheist, then we'd hope that one would not be afraid of a simple word -- particularly a word that has popularly been given a false definition by our ideological opponents (and even some who ought to be our ideological allies). If we allow our opponents to call us something that we are not or to usurp the word we use in describing ourselves, then we forfeit our right to self-definition, letting others tell us what we do or do not believe.
 

If being an agnostic means "I don't know" or "I cannot know," this is fine with me: I don't necessarily know either, having not encountered all the theistic arguments and being unwilling to think that I am infallible when it comes to the god question. If I am an agnostic in that I don't know everything, then I am also an atheist in that none of the god-claims have earned my assent.

If being an agnostic means "Nobody can know" or "This question can never be settled," then I must say I am definitely not an agnostic because I am unwilling to close this question from the possibility of ever being settled. If a god (or gods) exist, then He (or She or It or They) could conceivably reveal Himself (or Herself or Itself or Themselves) to us in an indisputable manner, and then the question would be settled!

If being an agnostic means "I'm not like theists, who assert that gods exist, or like atheists, who assert that no gods exist, but stand on a third ground which is neither theism nor atheism," then I will object to that definition because it is premised on a false definition for atheist, and is also (I think) somewhat unfair to the traditional theistic positions, most of which rest on faith and can only hope for the assurance that some agnostics attribute to theism.

But I prefer simply to say that none of the god-claims I've encountered either make sense or hold water. I don't need to know any more about the god claims than that none of them have received my assent. Without a god-belief, I remain an atheist -- with or without any further knowledge on the subject.

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

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Added: May 22, 2001

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "John Polifronio"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Tuesday, May 22, 2001 5:40 PM

I agree with you in that, in the classic sense of scientism, I will not write off the possibility that I might be wrong, that those making the god-claims could be right, that there might be gods that we cannot detect (or some of us cannot detect). But I call myself an atheist because this is the meaning of the word: "without theism."

Unless I come across a valid reason for believing the claims that gods exist, I really have no reason going around saying (or even thinking) that gods exist. If you call that being an agnostic, I don't mind you calling me an agnostic even though I am using the classic definition of atheist in describing myself, and not the slanderous definition popularized by the Roman Catholic Church which portrays atheists as those who assert that no gods exist.

But if your calling yourself an agnostic is based upon your thinking that an atheist is necessarily one who asserts that no gods exist (and if it is cloaked in language to that effect), then you are doing atheists a disservice by propagating a common and destructive myth about atheism.

My only objection to hard determinism at this point is that I think humankind's ability to make crude (scientific) predictions might thwart strict determinism. An incomplete dialogue with Wayland Dong covers this discussion.

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

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