Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Because, sometimes, it's fun to whine about irrelevancies:

Or, "Why I may react badly if you choose to identify as agnostic over atheist."

Don't worry, the labels you apply to yourself are your business, not mine, and I know this. However, I still retain the right to be bothered by the labels you choose.

For a long time I've been deeply bothered by the tendency of several of the people who I love and respect to call themselves agnostic when the question of religion comes up. When the issue first came to my mind, the only objections I considered were that:

  1. It's not answering the question. If I ask you what colour your hair is, "shoulder length," is not a valid response, likewise, "agnostic," is not a valid response to, "do you believe in god?" Gnosticism relates to knowledge; certainty. I am an agnostic, but I do not believe the term is relevant, it only serves to distinguish those who believe they can know with certainty that nothing that would be considered a god could possibly exist (see: the god-awful, heavily misused gold in china argument) from those who know that a claim of such a degree of knowledge is arrogant and ridiculous. Anyone who claims to be gnostic about the nonexistence of all possible gods, or of the existence of a particular god for whom there is no proof, can be safely discounted as a moron in my opinion.
    The question is, “do you believe in god?” If your answer is not yes, then the label for that stance is atheist. “I don’t know,” is a valid answer, but it still isn’t yes (and in this case, bears no relation to gnosticism.)

  2. It’s based on a misdefinition of atheism. Any word that applies to a specific opinion held by a large number of people who hold various other views must be defined in such a way that it applies only to the basic unifying position. In the case of conservatives, it would be inaccurate to include an opposition to abortion in the definition even though many conservatives are opposed to abortion because it is not true of the entire group. When defining liberals, it is inaccurate to include the support of abortion in the definition because there are liberals who are opposed.
    So to define atheism as the belief that there is no god, as even some atheists do, is to be inaccurate in the definition. The one unifying characteristic of all atheists in the world is the lack of a belief in a god. The difference between lack of belief and belief in no god is not a semantic difference, it is an important philosophical difference.

    The belief that there is no god is a positive claim which requires evidence to be taken seriously. In the case of many gods there is the argument that such a god is logically impossible, but this does not apply to all possible gods; the deistic god for instance, for all that it is useless does not defy logic.
    The lack of belief in gods, on the other hand, is simply the rejection of unsupported claims of god, it is the rejection of a positive claim for the existence of gods which has insufficient supporting evidence and so the only defence necessary is the statement that insufficient evidence has been given.
    Granted, many dictionaries use the positive claim definition, but many use the rejection definition and many more give both definitions. Of course, it is not important what the dictionary definitions are because words are defined by usage, not by fiat and the only definition that fits us all without exception, and is therefore most accurate, is the lack of belief in gods, which is perfectly compatible with agnosticism.
    (The positive belief that no gods exist is also compatible with agnosticism by the way, so it’s kind of a moot point anyway. Makes me feel rather foolish for not simply dismissing it out of hand.)

Of course, I am the kind of person who dwells on things and I’m aware that a simple question dodge and hiding behind definition is not worthy of the emotions that the label, “agnostic,” raises in me. It makes me feel angry, sad and even betrayed (please understand that the issue is not that I dislike being disagreed with, I don’t care if you disagree with me as long as you respect me, but when you agree but refuse to associate yourself with me, it hurts.) Which lead me to the first realisation about my feelings on the matter:

  1. It is, to me, a cowardly answer. The picture painted by theists of atheism is one of barbarism and cruelty; torture and genocides; near demonic immorality and nihilism. To call yourself is an atheist is to open yourself up to those accusations and be forced to defend yourself against them; to be compared, on an almost daily basis in some cases, with, and even, admittedly rarely, held accountable for the actions of the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin, to be constantly called upon to explain how you could possibly be moral without being told what morality is from something more powerful than ourselves.
    I can understand why people would choose to avoid that situation but... unless we stand up for ourselves and show that we are good, moral and caring people who just happen to care that our beliefs reflect reality, the theists will continue to paint us as barbarous heathens opposed to all goodness while they idly trample on the rights and freedoms of minorities, without opposition, in the name of their gods.

Even this doesn’t fully explain my reaction to choosing to identify as agnostic. It is not my place to demand that you advertise every opinion you hold. Nobody calls their self an afairyist, even though fairyism, the belief in fairies, is recognised as a belief. I do not feel the need to draw attention to my lack of belief in trolls or gnomes but:

  1. Nobody tries to pass laws that restrict my actions based on a belief in the existence of mermaids, but there are countless examples of laws based on the belief in the existence of some god or another. I hesitate to mention the sharia, as the exaggerations and fear-mongering of the ignorant have made the truth of the matter foggy, but the application of death penalties for the non-crimes of blasphemy, apostasy and homosexuality; and for the private transgression of adultery are quite believable as examples of religious laws. Less brutal, but no more based in reality, are western Christian attempts to punish people for the non-crime of being gay, such as the American “proposition 8” which opposes gay marriages under the guise of defending morality and heterosexual marriage – neither of which are under threat by allowing people who happen to love a person of their own gender to marry the one they love. In Europe, there has been a great deal of outrage over the attempts of theists to create blasphemy laws which would apply to the entire European Union. Fortunately the subsequent report (CDL-AD(2008)026) found that it was “neither necessary nor desirable to create an offence of religious insult (that is, insult to religious feelings) simpliciter, without the element of incitement to hatred as an essential component.” And that “the offence of blasphemy should be abolished (which is already the case in most European States) and should not be reintroduced.” However, without democratic, secular leadership, such laws could easily be passed, as is demonstrated by the theocracies of the world, both historical and contemporary.
    Theistic governments are, despite the moderating influence of tolerant, decent theists, cruel, intolerant and abusive, to other forms of theism as well as to homosexuals, racial groups, intellectuals, atheists, and various other minorities in particular and to all of their subjects in general.
    These attempts to undermine human freedoms and devalue human life by introducing non-crimes and thought-crimes are unacceptable and only by reinforcing secular, reason based morality and laws with an underlying respect for humanity and truly universal human rights can we definitively defend against such threats.
    Granted, it is possible to oppose those who would implement thought crimes without calling yourself an atheist. I’m just saying that the argument that you don’t call yourself an alokiist fails to take the issues at hand into account... and getting a little carried away with the political soap boxing...

Of course, not all of my reaction has a reasonable base to it. There’s also the feeling of betrayal which... I’m not sure I can justify. So, ad hoc rationalization time:

  1. As I said in point 3, to call yourself an atheist is to open yourself to abuse from the tongues, and sometimes the hands, of theists. I can’t say I mind that so much, I understand where they’re coming from – we’re threatening to their sensibilities, we don’t subscribe to their views on morality or reality and openly oppose them when they try to enforce their morality in law. It makes sense that they would demonize us.
    What bothers me is that the rejection of atheism reinforces the propaganda. Indeed, why would the agnostic refuse to accept the premise of atheism if it were not an immoral and evil one?
    Whether it is intentional or not, the refusal to accept the label, “atheist,” is an implicit agreement that, yes, there is something distasteful about disbelief, and by extension, something distasteful about unbelievers. As I’ve said, I can accept this from the theist, to whom there is no reason to believe I can be moral, but to take it from a fellow atheist, for that is what anyone who does not believe is whether they accept the term or not, from someone who lives a moral life without divine oversight... it hurts.
    Hmm. Maybe I’m just being touchy.

TL; DR? Yeah, I know, but this is for my own benefit more than anything else so who cares?