Agnosticism, Atheism, and Logic's Role in Spirituality
It’s been brought to my attention that “Atheism” and “Agnosticism” are used interchangeably in many English speaking countries. That isn’t how we use the terms here in America. To avoid confusion and prevent conflict, I’d like to clarify the terminology I use a bit. Here in the USA, people’s understanding of the terms “Theist”, “Atheist”, and “Agnostic” generally works like this:
Theism: "I’m certain of my belief God exists."
Atheism: "I’m certain of my belief God doesn't exist"
Agnosticism: "I’m not certain of any beliefs regarding God's existence."
Like I said, that’s a generalization to an extent, and I’m sure there’s some exceptions. I’ve never heard anyone use thee terms differently other than on the internet is my point.
Online, people often use a more specific spectrum that uses the terms “agnostic” and “gnostic” as modifiers that differentiate theists/atheists who claim to have knowledge from those who don’t. That results in a setup that looks something like this:
Gnostic Theist: "I believe God exists, and I’m absolutely certain of that belief!"
Agnostic Theist: “I believe God exists, but I’m not absolutely certain that’s the case.”
Agnostic Atheist: “I don’t believe God exists, but I’m not absolutely certain that’s the case.”
Gnostic Atheist: "I don’t believe God exists and I’m absolutely certain of that belief!"
I’m being really pedantic, but I have a dispute about the whole “knowledge versus belief” rationale that’s used in this setup. When a person claims they “know” something they’re saying they believe it with absolute certainty. It’s possible for someone to think they know something, then have that “knowledge” turn out to be false. It’s the norm for people to mistakenly separate knowledge and belief, and I don’t want people who do that to think I look down on them for it. I just wanted to point out that “knowledge claims” are belief claims in a technical sense because I’m nitpicky and shallow. Now that I’ve got my pettiness out of the way, I’d like to bring a point that’s actually significant to peoples attention…
That setup lacks a neutral position so nothing there accurately describes the beliefs of people like myself. Here’s the position I hold:
Neutral Agnostic: "I neither believe nor disbelieve in God's existence. Both positions are logical possibilities, and neither has evidence. Because of that, I abstain from choosing sides.”
I feel that statement most accurately reflects the beliefs of Thomas Henry Huxley, the biologist who coined the term “Agnostic”. Huxley made a name for himself tenaciously advocating Darwin’s theory of evolution in a number of public debates. Here’s a more precise quote from Huxley’s essay “Agnosticism and Christianity”:
(That’s definitely rad enough to deserve the site’s “quote font” treatment)
I’ve had a problem with semantic disputes distracting from the overall message I intend to send with this essay. I’m hoping this introduction can help with that some by clarifying muddied terminology.
One last time before I kick this off:
For the purposes of this essay, the “Neutral Agnostic”, "Agnostic Theist”, and “Agnostic Atheist” positions are all contained in “Agnosticism” and when I say “Atheism” I’m referring to gnostic atheism.
ALRIGHT, LET’S START THE SHOW:
Agnosticism, (Gnostic) Atheism, and Logic’s Role in Spirituality
I wanna start out by saying this isn't meant as a judgement of anyone's beliefs. Quite the opposite, I believe everyone's ideas are equally valid. This is merely a commentary on someone else who used his beliefs to belittle another person. Thank you.
One day, I was cruising the Facepage and I saw a testimonial posted from the Humans of New York page by a woman whose village had been attacked by an extremists as part of a genocide being carried out against her people.
It went like this:
“It was 2AM when they came to our village. They set all our houses on fire. There was no time to grab anything. Not even food. All we could do was run. For fifteen days we walked without any food. There were bodies all along the path. Only fear kept us going. We had no energy. People were sitting down to rest and never standing up again. We started eating leaves off the trees. I couldn’t breastfeed anymore. One of my children died on the sixth day. Another died a few days later. Nobody even talked about it. We were too weak. I could barely even cry. We just walked on in silence. When we arrived at the camps, the doctor told me my baby was not going to survive. But by the grace of Allah, she lived.”
(Again, full credit to Humans of New York)
Personally, I found her faith inspiring. It's very easy for people to blame God and ask what they did to deserve such a cruel fate after such a horrific thing happens to them. Turning to the spirit of the universe for the strength to go on is beautiful in my opinion.
An atheist then chimed in with something along the lines of:
"Why would you believe in Allah or any god? You're an idiot for thinking that after everything that happened. If such a thing was real, your children would be alive right now. Abandon your faith and trust in science!"
I find that sort of thing awful regardless of belief. I'm only glad the testimony I read came secondhand and that poor woman most likely didn't see that ignorance for herself. The Atheist’s comments just seem so egotistical to me. In my eyes, an Atheist doing that to a Muslim is exactly the same as a Christian trying to force their unprovable belief on an Atheist.
Don’t get me wrong followers of every religion do the exact same thing to atheists, and it’s just as repugnant when they do it. I’m not here to bash anyone or say anybody should change how they believe. I’m simply trying to point out that what that dude said is the exact same kind proselytizing that religious zealots are guilty of, and in reality it actually is religious zealotry since he’s attempting to convert people to his religious camp. I know atheism isn’t technically an organized religion, but it’s still a belief regarding God which makes it a spiritual belief. People probably won’t like me saying this, but I personally see both atheism and theism as illogical at their core. I try to avoid what I call “god-centric” thinking.
As far as spirituality goes, my thinking is people can believe what they want, and if they feel the need to they should share why they believe it. However, telling people that their beliefs are objectively wrong and that they're foolish for their believing them like that though is the highest level of ignorance. Everyone can come to their own conclusion. There isn't a correct answer when it comes to faith.
Yes, my subjective opinion is that atheism and theism are illogical, so I choose not to side with either in that debate. At the same time, I know both atheists and theists think the exact same thing about agnosticism so I don’t think any less of them for believing differently than I do. I just don’t hold the beliefs myself.
To be clear, I don't hate Atheism. It's a beautiful thing when people can show that love, charity, and tolerance can come from within, and that they don't need a mandate from heaven. Atheism can still be twisted to become a tool of intolerance, hate, and judgment, like all beliefs.
All ideologies, spiritual or otherwise, can be corrupted. I'll have another writing on that in the near future. Today I wanna talk about Atheism, Agnosticism, and the role of logic in the question of spirituality.
(Extremism Can Corrupt Anything has actually been out for a while now...)
One thing this guy gets wrong is thinking that Atheism is somehow a belief based on logic. Make no mistake, the assertion that there's no God is faith-based, just like any other religion.
Before you hop in the arguments about how atheism is lack of faith, by “faith-based” I mean that it’s a belief held without evidence. I’ll get to the reasons why later, but excluding the possibility that God exists requires evidence just like accepting the belief he does.
Keep in mind that when I say “God” I’m not talking about the Abrahamic god specifically. If I’m being honest, I don’t believe that particular conception of God exists either. There’s a lot I could say on the topic, and I’m actually ignostic in that I feel the term “God” is too poorly defined for anyone to answer the question “Do you believe in God?” unless the person asking specifies what they mean by God. When I say I’m agnostic and unsure what I believe in regard to God’s existence, I’m referring to what I feel is the most realistic concept of God.
(That’s discussed in my essay on Pantheism, which you can click here to read)
However, even if I think the Abrahamic God is intended to be allegorical, I think rejecting every concept of “a God” is illogical. I’m of the opinion that people who do that are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
I know, it sounds crazy... Stick with me here...
Let's start with the problems with this dude's claim that a God wouldn't have allowed the woman's children to die. That's actually an illogical jump to a conclusion, and the platform he was standing on in order to make that jump was built on baseless assertions and preconceived notions.
Trying to say what a God would or wouldn't do is impossible. Trying to wrap your mind around a being that's capable of creating this infinite universe is a waste of time. Something capable of doing that is so far beyond our very limited perspective that to say anything about it other than that it's possible it might exist is making broad assumptions.
I'll walk you through the entire process, step-by-step, so you see what I mean:
The logic starts at the assumption that a God is all-powerful, which may not necessarily be true. This is something asserted by the Abrahamic faiths, but conceptually a deity could’ve created the universe without having absolute power over it. Humans have made lotsa shit that we don’t have absolute power over control. I can’t make my car run without gasoline. Maybe the sort of tragedy this woman suffered is just an unfortunate part of existence that “God” is forced to include.
Then it assumes a God would even notice us, which is bold. We may well be microscopic bacteria God sees as an infection for all we know. Think of how incredibly massive the universe is. (Not too hard though. Trying to comprehend infinity gets painful) If a God made the infinite cosmos, it stands to reason that the God is somewhere close to that size in relative scale. That means we’re smaller in relation to it than bacteria is in relation to us, and even my microscopic bacteria analogy fails to show how likely it is that a God would be oblivious to our existence.
The next step is assuming that God views events and their repercussions the same way we do, and that something about God’s infinitely broader perspective doesn't give God an understanding we can't get from our limited vantage points. This kind of event could appear beneficial to us in a God’s eyes, even if it’s one of the most heartbreaking tragedies we could imagine. I obviously can’t tell you what would make something that horrendous seem like a positive thing from a God’s perspective. I still think it’s safe to assume that a God’s isn’t viewpoint isn’t clouded by a lack of knowledge like ours is and a God’s infinitely larger knowledge base changes the way the see things.
Finally, using all these baseless assertions, we've made a pile of BS out of the assumptions that God is omnipotent and able to intervene, sees us, cares about us, and views existence the way we do. This is the foundation that atheist used to make the assumption that a God would intervene on our behalf. That assumption is the springboard the Atheist commenter used when he jumped to the conclusion that the way that poor Rohingya woman lost her children was proof Allah doesn't exist.
All that assumptions I said formed the pile of BS in that last paragraph are actually unfounded, and ruling out the possibility that they’re false isn’t something the atheist did before deciding on what he believed. I don't see how he could’ve ruled these possibilities out even if he wanted to, since saying anything beyond “there’s a possibility God exists” is highly assertive speculation. Even making that claim surrounding the possibility a God exists is an assertion born from a total lack of evidence creating a situation with infinite possibilities.
Again, the commenter’s argument isn't logic. It is a knockoff imitator called “superficial reasoning”. This superficial reasoning appears the same as logic at a glance, but like all knockoffs, superficial reasoning breaks when you put it under pressure.
(Gnostic) Atheists trying to "convert" people use a lot of preconceived notions about "God" to reject the possibility that a God might exist. Theists use a lot of preconceived notions about God to make the claim that God Definitely exists. Both sides are treating subjective speculation as fact. I’m of the opinion that both sides of the argument have incorrect conceptions surrounding what “God” is. If you wanna know exactly what I believe, you can check out the pantheism essay I linked earlier. For now, lemme just say that “God” is a word we use to cram infinity into a box, and if one does exist it’s something that’s beyond human comprehension. It’d have to be to create this infinite existence that created us.
Absolute certainty in the belief that there's no God is a leap of faith that's making the same type of unprovable claim about pre-Big Bang events that religions make. It's funny because the "holier than thou" Atheists who view their beliefs as being based on critical thinking are completely oblivious to how perfectly identical they are to theist zealots when people look at them from the perspective of agnosticism. I’m not saying that statement is true of all atheists, and like I said I’m including agnostic atheists in the umbrella of “agnosticism”. *Some* (gnostic) atheists are completely indistinguishable from all the other people trying to spread their beliefs with just a little too much fervor.
The steadfast belief that there's no God isn't based on facts, evidence, or logic in any way. It depends on confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and baseless assertions just like an unshakeable faith in God does. This clown is just as guilty of acting on belief without definitive evidence (also called acting on faith) as any other religious zealot. What's ironic is that homeboy most likely uses complaints about brainwashed fanatics trying to force their beliefs on people as one of his major justifications for being so anti-religious, all while being a brainwashed fanatic that’s trying force his unfounded beliefs on people. He doesn’t understand that it’s no different when he does it, and the fact that he thinks he’s right is meaningless because theist think they’re right too.
I just wanna make it clear right now, I don't have a problem with Atheism. I have a problem with people insulting other people’s beliefs and with people who act like their beliefs are superior.
(To members of a certain Facebook group who saw what the old intro clearing up terminology looked like: I was drunk and pissed off and I wrote that section to vent my frustration. I knew it needed to be cleaned up and I didn’t intend for the essay to get shared in that state. Then a few days afterwards I got triggered by someone and shared the unfinished version out of spite with the intention of setting people off. I’m a dumbass, and I handle things really poorly when I’m angry. I mean it honestly when I say I think everyone’s beliefs are valid since nobody has any way of knowing)
I'm not claiming my beliefs are are superior, or insulting Atheism at all. If you interpret it that way, go back and re-read up until this point until you see this was all directed at one bad apple and the things he said.
I'm Agnostic, that means my spiritual belief is, "I dunno man, everyone has some good points and nobody has any evidence, so I don't really wanna pick sides here." It’s the spiritual equivalent of being Swiss.
The only statement someone can make about the existence of a god based on disciplined critical thinking is: "It’s impossible make a definitive claim one way or the other. The answer to that question is beyond man's miniscule understanding at this time, and probably always will be."
I've seen nothing that proves a God is impossible, nothing definitive at least. The questions of "How" and "Why" existence came into being still have a God as a possible answer. Until those possibilities are ruled out with solid evidence, I choose to keep my mind open to different possibilities.
Again, I’m not to hot on a literal interpretation of Abrahamic holy scripture like the Bible and the Quran. When I read those texts, I look at them like Aesop’s Fables or Mother Goose tales. I see them as fictional tales meant to teach moral lessons, and at most they contain an allegorical allusion to the one of the conceptions of God I believe plausible. I still don’t outright reject the assertion that God exists, and instead I file the issue under “Unknown: Insufficient evidence for a true/false response” in the mental file cabinet where I keep my beliefs.
(That file cabinet’s kept in the basement of my memory palace)
"But Dave, why? The burden of proof is on the people making the assertion, right?"
Because absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Until I’ve got evidence that forces me to rule a possibility out, I don’t believe I can rule the possibility out. I can't make statements that confirm or deny things just because I want them to be true. My justification for this is intellectual open-mindedness. Upwards of 95% of the universe is dark matter and dark energy. For all we know, heaven and hell are contained in that exactly as described by religious dogma, complete with a bearded dude on a throne and everything. Again, I don’t believe that to be the case. It’s still entirely possible.
For clarification, I believe that if there’s a God, it’s a pervasive spirit that flows through all existence similar to the Dao in Daoism. I suspect I see something like that acting on the world around me, and I think Abrahamic text is alluding to whatever it is I suspect I see. That “spirit” could be accounted for by dark matter or dark energy, and the lack of information on those things creates a situation with infinite possibilities. Even that suspicion is too weak for me to call it “belief”. I also wanna reiterate that the lack of information surrounding first cause of the big bang creates a similar situation with infinite possibilities. Even if an assertion sounds highly unlikely to me, I can’t completely dismiss it without reason to do so because the fact of the matter is I don’t know shit. Nobody knows shit.
The cumulative knowledge of the entire Homo Sapien species after 100,000 years of existence is less than 0.00000000000000000001% of all there is to know. I don’t know how much total “potential knowledge” there is for a fact, of course. I know our total cumulative knowledge is below that percentage I quoted though, because we don’t have a fucking clue.
If you went back in time 20 years ago and told 10 year old me one day I’d have a phone that didn’t need to be plugged into the wall which was also computer with more processing power than the desktop I played Starcraft from that would fit in my pocket, I probably woulda thought that sounded fuggin’ ridiculous. If you hopped back in time 5 years ago and told me Donald Trump would win the presidential election, and the fact that he held unwavering public support of neo-nazis would work in his favor, I woulda told you “you’re smoking crack.” The quantum property of superposition means a particle to exists in more than one location simultaneously. Hop back in time and ask Isaac Newton how likely that assertion is.
The truth can seem extremely unlikely to minds as ignorant as ours, and I’m aware of that. Because I’m aware of my own lack of knowledge and understanding, I don’t allow myself to close my mind to potentially accurate statements no matter how ludicrous they appear superficially. To do so would be the definition of superficial reasoning.
Now, Agnosticism may be the only view I see as logical, but it's also the only view that's not actually a belief. It's really the absence of belief. The spiritual fulfillment and moral guidance people gain from their faiths can't be provided by cold logic. I don’t honestly believe moral guidance needs to come from faith, but I don’t think I could deal with the existential suffering that comes with existence if I didn’t dedicate so much effort to my spiritual well-being.
I’m certain that statement doesn’t hold true for everybody, and again I’m not telling anyone what they should do. I’m not in a position to do that and I’ve got no right to judge anyone. I’m just saying as an individual, I need tools to help cope with the fear that comes from life’s known dangers, the uncertainty I feel when I think about the future or ponder the great unknown, and the aforementioned existential suffering of life in order to make it through the day. If you’re able to handle life without turning to spiritual answers for those tools, I’m jealous honestly. Personally, I can’t do it and I know that for a fact cause I’ve tried.
I turn to Buddhism and Daoism. I see them as "Agnostic religions". At their core, they don't make assertions about God or the afterlife. The only place either philosophy makes a shaky claim is Buddhism’s concept of rebirth, but the school of Buddhism I prescribe to has a far more realistic interpretation of that doctrine that makes the school of thought acceptables. Honestly I set reincarnation aside when I look at Buddhist scripture, because I know that Siddhartha was forced to include Samsara doctrine in his teachings due to the culture of ancient India.
Both doctrines function more like schools of philosophy than religion to me. Neither is an unshakeable faith that I hold without questioning them. I’ll admit the Dao seems to match with a pervasive “Soul of Universe” I believe I see working in the world around me, but I don’t commit to belief in that universal spirit. Both “religions” just provide guidelines for thinking, acting, and processing life that can help me better understand myself, the world, the people in it, and my life in general. They help me accept the fact that I'll never know every answer to all the existential "How?" and "Why?" questions I have, rather than answering the questions for me. The answers they give me help me cope with the pain that comes with life, and move forward in a way that helps the greater good instead of hurting it.
I use what I know about the basic tenets of Buddhism and Daoism for my spirituality, but I don't claim to be Buddhist or Daoist since I've only read about them. I've never actually practiced their religious traditions or been to a temple or anything. At first I taught myself about them by reading various books and asking people online. These days I consider the dude who co-wrote “Muh Boy the Buddha” my teacher in regard to Zen Buddhism. At the end of the day, I don’t consider myself a part of any religions. My beliefs are best described as pantheism, but that means a lot of things to a lot of people. Ultimately, I just a dude.
When it comes to the existence of "God", I have something close to a belief, but what I use as justification for it isn't strong enough for me to say I believe anything with any sort of certainty. Belief is too strong a word for how I feel about all this. What I have is more of a suspicion. I definitely have a lot of anecdotal evidence for why I suspect what I suspect. Problem is, it’s all subject to interpretation.
I still get how the events someone goes through in life act as their logical basis for an unshakeable faith. People who believe for that sort of anecdotal reason fail to understand that sort of experience doesn’t work as evidence for anyone but themselves. Anecdotes and vague feelings deep down in a person’s soul aren't concrete evidence. They don't prove anything.
My evidence for not believing would be just as anecdotal, and there wouldn’t be as much of it if I were considering anecdotal evidence valid. The main thing disbelief has going for it is the how infinitely massive the baseless assertion I’m being presented with is. My natural instinct when faced with a baseless assertion that size is to dismiss without evidence that says to do so, but I’ve ended up rejecting too many valid claims using that superficial reasoning to to allow the size of the assertion to alter my baseline disciplined thinking processes. I’ve learned that logic needs to be applied consistently to all situations, and I can’t let superficial aspects change my modus operandi.
That’s why I do like pH 7 and stay neutral. Everyone’s got a right to their beliefs, and I don’t think it really matters all that much at the end of the day.
I know I’ve said that a lot in this essay, but I feel like being redundant is necessary a lot of times because I often find people responding to these things with questions and criticisms that I feel the essay they’re responding to answers, and I don’t want anyone walking away feeling like I was proselytizing or judging them.
Unless you’re that asshole in the beginning who told that woman she was dumb because she turned to Allah to help cope with the unimaginable torment of losing her children to genocide. Your beliefs were hella judged.
If you agree with that dude I’m jealous of you, because that means you’ve never had to face that level of suffering. I know you think I’m not qualified to make that call, but that’s because you don’t know the soul-rending pain losing someone you love more than life itself causes. I’m not saying you’ve never lost someone you care about, but you’ve never lost someone you care about more than yourself the way a parent does their child. I know you don’t know what that pain is life, because you’d understand why she kinda had to tell herself they were at peace with Allah in order to cope or she’d off herself. Again, that’s only directed at people who agree with the Facepage rando who triggered this rant and feel his comment was justified. You’ve got a right to believe what you want, but you don’t have a right to be a dick about.
As long time, unashamed dickhead from the internet, I’m qualified to tell you that being a dick online means you should expect to be told what an asshole you are.
I’m rambling though. I can’t honestly answer “Yes or No” when I’m asked the God question because I believe in concrete evidence and facts above all else. If something can't be proven with those, I don't believe in it.
I can't believe a suspicion without evidence. I can’t dismiss a suspicion without evidence either. If God were a pop culture reference, he'd probably find my lack of belief without evidence disturbing. I still choose to stick to "Iunno muh dude, you decide that for yourself," as my answer to the question "Is there a God?"