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"Who should I swear by? thou believest no god: That granted, how canst thou believe an oath?"

“Who should I swear by? thou believest no god: That granted, how canst thou believe an oath?” – Titus Andronicus

It isn’t often that the villains of a narrative grow up to lead lives of their own. Such a thing seems beyond improbably; the mere suggestion flirts with magical realism. And yet, such a thing has happened, ironically enough in the growth of modern atheism.

For many centuries, atheists lived in churches and temples, so to speak, or rather, they lived in the stories told in such places. For those equating belief in a god with moral values, unbelievers have long provides a ready source of villainy, a bad counter-example to the moral of many a pious story. One really doesn’t find people proudly claiming the name of atheism until the modern era. It is only then that stories about atheists as an other come to compete with narratives told by those of us who claim the label for ourselves.

One can see readily enough that the existence of self-proclaimed atheists is perplexing to some believers. The resulting confrontations can be a rather telling moment, as some believers adjust and alter their messages to engage in real dialogue. Others seem only to find it deeply offensive that characters who should be under their control have shown up in person and refused the roles assigned to them. It isn’t really all that surprising then that a good portion of the popular dialogue over unbelief should focus on the meaning of ‘atheism’ and questions about just who gets to claim the term. It is also a question about whether ‘atheism’ will remain the province of characters known primarily in the third person, or will it now remain a label that lives in first person?

You might think that the matter has been settled in fact if not in principle, but one often finds folks trying to put the genii back in the bottle. One of the most common stratagems is a simple evidence press. “How can you be sure?” I’ve been asked that question directly a few times, and I find variations of it in a broad range of apologetics. In some of the more telling variations, atheists appear once again as the villains of a religious narrative, one in which we are presumed to be arrogant since only an omniscient being could possibly be sure that no gods exist. Those rejecting claims to omniscience may soon find themselves told they aren’t really ‘atheists’.

…they probably aren’t really Scottsmen either!

I often marvel at the double standard behind this approach; but of course it’s not just a double standard, it’s also a double bind. On the one hand people proclaiming all manner of faiths can stake out their stance on the existence or nature of God(s), and few would think to infer anything about their sense of certainty from this alone. We don’t typically assume someone has claimed omniscience simply by choosing which church they will attend on Sunday. On the other hand, that sense of certainty seems uniquely objectionable when it is projected into the mind of an atheist. Time and again, I hear (or read) believers claiming that they know with absolute certainty that God exists, and few would think they were bragging up their own abilities in so doing. Yet many of these same believers seem quite aghast at the possibility that anyone could be so certain as to the existence of God(s) as to take up the mantle of atheism. To be an atheist is, many would assume, to assert with absolutely certainty that which cannot be known at all.

Perhaps the believers are right. Perhaps there is something about the nature of the question that ties the no gods stance to some unique scale of uber-gnosticism. You can believe in Mormon-Jesus, Krishna, or even the Virgin Mary with or without certitude, but to say ‘no’ to the lot of them one must be omniscient.

Meh, ….I don’t think so.

This is somewhat of a sticking point, however, and those of us proclaiming our god-free lives must deal with the problem in one manner or another. Somewhere in the process of breathing life into the stale villain’s role of atheism, a non-believer must arrive at an answer to the question of what to do about all the possible gods, not merely the one that this or that believer is urging on you at this particular moment. If this sweeping negation of gods seems implausible, at least to the believers, then it seems a fitting enough cause to cancel the improbably narrative turn, …sufficient reason so to speak to return ‘atheism’ to the province of believers, to grant them once again the exclusive right to use that notion as they see fit.

The consolation prize is invariably ‘agnosticism’.

Old Berti!

Old Berti!

Take for example, an essay written by Clare Carlisle, a Lecturer at King’s College in London. This is part of a series on Bertrand Russell, focusing on his views on religion and spirituality in general. Russell is of course one the great figures of freethought, and many atheists (myself among them) would count him as a strong and positive influence. Carlisle insists that Russell was an agnostic who rejected atheism. She explains:

However, the same intellectual integrity that made Russell unable to accept religious beliefs also prevented him from embracing atheism. Rather like the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, Russell maintained a sceptical attitude to metaphysical questions. He explains this position very clearly in a 1953 essay on his agnosticism, where he states that, ‘it is impossible, or at least impossible at the present time, to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned.’ Theoretically, agnosticism is very different from atheism, for atheists and theists share the conviction that knowledge about such matters is attainable – and, indeed, that they have attained it while their opponents have failed to do so. However, from a practical point of view Russell admits that agnosticism can come very close to atheism, for many agnostics claim that the existence of God is so improbable that it is not worth serious consideration.

Carlisle goes on to recount some of Russell’s criticism of religion and ends this particular piece by telling us that there is something spiritual about Russell’s agnosticism, that it is in fact analogous to Christian proclamations that one should not pass judgement upon other people. She has an interesting take on the subject, and I do not see clear factual errors, but I do think their is something misleading about her narrative. Far from an admission, I think Russell’s claim that agnosticism is often in practice equivalent to atheism is rather precisely the direction he wanted to take his point to begin with.

A few years back, John Wilkins of the Science Blogs used this same essay from 1953 to suggest that many who now call themselves ‘atheist’ are simply mistaken, and I sense at least a trace of that implication in some of those now shopping Carlisle’s piece around. It wasn’t that long ago that giddy believers were reminding us at every turn about rumors of Anthony Flew‘s conversion to belief (which proved true-ish). Details matter, and they often matter more in the philosophical discussions than they do in popular discussion about the great icons of any philosophical position. So, we are left with a twofold question (this seems to be a morning of homologous reasoning); was Russell in any sense an atheist? And what is the best way to deal with the problem mentioned above, nameless the impossibility of knowing whether or not God exists.

Happily Russell himself outlined the beginnings of an answer to both questions in another essay, entitled Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic, published in 1947. Russell explains:

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 (sic) 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.

Significantly, the passage above addresses the issue in terms quite similar to those of the latter article. Here is the passage Carlisle referenced, as quoted in Wilkin’s own piece:

Are agnostics atheists? No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.

Perhaps the latter essay reflects Russell’s final take on the matter, but what seems most interesting about the two passages above is just how closely the mirror each other. The only difference is that in 1946, Russell was claiming to be an agnostic in one sense and an atheist in another. In 1953, he was distinguishing atheism from agnosticism on the basis of the claim that atheism necessarily believe they can know whether or not God exists.

The problem with this hard and fast distinction between atheism and agnosticism is illustrated in both passages. Russell is aware of that problem, and he is commenting on it directly in both essays. On the one hand, Russell’s earlier text shows us clearly what is lost in the narrower use of the term ‘atheism’, a sense of the active rejection, a sense of someone who has considered the prospect of God’s existence and in effect decided against it. This atheism doesn’t reside in epistemology, but it is worth noting just the same. Ironically, this atheism comes close to some of the more archaic uses of atheism as if it were a synonym for immorality, those informing the character of Aaron the Moor for example in Titus Andronicus. Labels such as this one are not merely descriptions of theoretical positions in technical discussion; they are also descriptions of the way one lives one’s life. Believers have been commenting on that larger question of godlessness for millennia, and I don’t believe unbelievers gain much by restricting our self-representation to the more theoretical questions about what can and cannot prove with absolute certainty

Which brings us to a second points…

Both passages above proceed immediately from a comparison of atheism and agnosticism to present a more subtle approach to the question of belief. Russell seems to be suggesting that the possibilities at hand are not sufficient to resolve the problem. One could perhaps recognize hints of Russell’s Teapot in both passages, but more to the point, in both of these essays Russell moves on to suggest that we need a more finely grained approach to the question of knowledge to deal with this question. He raises the prospect of degrees of certainty in the essay of 1946 whereas he speaks of probability in 1953, ending the quote above by telling us that for practical purposes an agnostic might as well be an atheist. In both cases, Russell suggests grounds for rejecting belief in God even as he concedes his inability to present a categorical solution to the question of his existence.

Russell’s position is little different from that of many atheists today; it is his use of vocabulary which seems different, and he is clearly uncomfortable with that vocabulary.

This is far and away from a rejection of atheism; it is at best a qualification as to what atheism means. Russell is effectively locating his atheism in the practical sphere of life, distinguishing it in some sense from a philosophical claim. Significantly, he appears to assume (as many do today) that philosophical atheism must take the form of a strong assertion backed by something greater than considerations of probability. But of course there is little reason to restrict use of the word ‘atheism’ to such narrow grounds, and still less precedent for that approach in the vocabulary used for other people’s beliefs and religious orientations.

I don’t particularly know if Carlisle or anyone else is hoping to inspire others to reject atheism through this argument as she believes Russell does, but she does seem intent on working a wedge into the difference between agnosticism and atheism. In point of practice, this denies to atheists a range of considerations quite available to believers, and it provides yet another spurious reason to restrict use of ‘atheism’ to an exceedingly narrow range of acceptable applications. Suffice to say that I do not find the argument convincing.