Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, February 27, 2012

Group 1: Shermer - How to Think About God

I'm only going to pick out a tidbit from Shermer's excellent essay, as this one was a little lengthy (while still being very entertaining and readable.)

He says a very odd thing about atheism, and I'm not sure if I'm just reading it wrong, or if he was just unclear in what he was saying.

First, he says "atheism is 'disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.'" Fair enough. But then he goes on to say this (emphasis mine): "As a statement about the universe, agnosticism would seem to be the most rational position to take because, by the criteria of science and reason, God is an unknowable concept. As a statement about one's personal belief, however, I assume that there is no God and I live my life according, which makes me an atheist, although I prefer to call myself a skeptic. Why? Words matter and labels carry baggage. Most people equate "atheist" not only with someone who believes that there is no God (which is technically not a tenable position because one cannot prove that there is no God; that is, you can't prove a negative), but also associate it with communism, socialism, or extreme liberalism.

Is he saying that atheism is an invalid position on its own merits, or by virtue of the baggage that it carries with it in society? He admits to being an atheist, both here and elsewhere, so I'm a little confused why he muddies the waters here.

I personally read him as saying that it is untenable to say "I believe that there is no God." That just doesn't make sense, in light of his own definition and admission. Again, the continuum between statements of belief and statements of knowledge is slippery.


  1. My guess is his avoidance of the A-word is a political tactic--following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan. Surely a guy that smart could come up with a few arguments against a positive correlation between atheism and nationalism.

    I like what Sam Harris said about atheism being responsible for some of the greatest crimes against humanity:

    "People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions."

    Maybe Shermer has a lot of unconscious religious baggage left over (if I remember correctly) from Pepperdine.

    Now, when I see statements like that I always ask myself: I wonder if he would hold out making a decision on Zeus or the Spaghetti Monster.


  2. I think that's it, Dean: this is a guy who's burned himself with labels before and he's trying too hard not to repeat the error. Plus, he's trying to be an equal-opportunity Skeptic. Leave all bags at the door.

  3. I think that he's just attempting to remain true to his knowledge. The only pinned down bit of knowledge is that it is UNLIKELY for there to be a God. This is the only thing we can be "sure" of...and even then, it is indeed muddied.

    I try to do the same thing now--avoiding using the A-word :P. Not because I don't WANT to make a decision on the matter, but because I cannot for absolutely certain say whether or not God exists. To make things simpler, I now tack on "atheist" at the end of "agnostic" (Thanks to Meghan for her clarifying definitions lol), but I still try to avoid adjectives like this all together. I would rather explain what I believe and do not believe for myself subjectively, than try to determine whether or not I can definitively make a statement about the supernatural. For all I care, call me a whack-a-doodle, as long as you understand that I, personally, don't think there's a God.
    I feel like Shermer is just trying to do the same as me here. Yes, it is a social and political move to save our bums. I would rather someone be more willing to hear me out than immediately cast me into a group of people like Hitler and Pol Pot. While these correlations between atheism and atrocity are incorrect, they still exist. I'll fight them when I can, but I don't want to start off on the wrong foot because someone else's perception of a word is different than my own. It's much easier to tell someone how I feel and think than to just throw a label at them and expect them NOT to use their understanding of said label.

    -shrug- It shouldn't be that big of a deal, but it can be...

  4. I know that you've said it before in the class David that there is no difference between saying "I believe there is no God" and "I do not believe there is a God". But the semantic difference actually IS an important one to the meaning, or at least the meaning as most people take it.

    One seems very clearly to most ears a statement of more certainty and dogmatism than the other. Simply put, one is a positive statement about the way the universe IS, and the other is a statement about one's beliefs.

    1. So then, what would you see as the difference between saying "I believe there is no God" and "I know that there is no God"? Shouldn't the fact that the first statement begins with "I believe..." be a hint that it's a statement about one's belief?