Facetime in the San Francisco Chronicle

| 120 Comments

Back in November I was interviewed and photographed by the San Francisco Chronicle for the “Facetime” section of their Sunday newsmagazine. A month or two went by without anything coming out, so I figured I’d been dropped as an uninteresting nerd or some such. Well, I figured wrong, the article is out and my soul is laid bare, including my two cents on religion if anyone’s interested, and the influence of my dear beloved grandmother, college roommates (but see below), and this very group of Panda’s Thumb bloggers on my somewhat strange life. The reporter, Sam Whiting, conducts the “Facetime” interview by asking rapid-fire questions for 20 minutes, and then they excerpt the juiciest bits, resulting in a short piece that really cuts to the chase. Mission accomplished, I’d say.

The only thing I’m going to regret is the bit about my college roommates at Valparaiso being “rich.” I wonder if a word got written down wrong from the interview recording, I don’t believe I said anything about them being rich. Conservatives, maybe, but even sitting here today I have no idea if any of them came from rich families. Several of my roommates were pastor’s kids, so I doubt it. Maybe I said something about how the ones who went and became engineers were almost certainly richer than me, which is quite probably true. Well, that will give us something to talk about at the Valpo reunion…

(HT: Thoughts in a Haystack)

120 Comments

Congratulations Nick. I’m not surprised that you’ve gotten the attention. Good luck with your grad applications.

On education

I went to Valparaiso University in Indiana. I was raised Lutheran and it’s a Lutheran school.

On believing

I’m agnostic now. An ultimate question like this might just not be answerable. It may be a leap of faith to take either position, either atheism or theism.

First, thanks for being willing to share your religious views openly. Not everyone is willing to do that.

Secondly, although I did read about you going to church “on holidays when I’m back with my family”, your comments do look like you’ve shifted all the way from Christianity (defined here as belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as your personal Lord and Savior) to Agnosticism.

If that’s true, it would be the same sort of huge shift that historically took place with Charles Darwin. So I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.

(1) Would the aforementioned “shift” be an accurate assessment of what has happened in your case? (2) If so, what role–what percentage–did your belief in evolution play in causing that shift to take place over the years? What other factors, if any, were involved in that shift? My motives in asking you these admittedly personal questions are simple. I happen to agree wih evolutionist author James Rachels (Created From Animals, 1990) and pro-evoluton Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, concerning the effects that evolution-belief can have on religious-belief. In Rachels words,

“An evolutionary perspective undermines religious belief by removing some of the grounds that previously supported it.”

So, I’m sincerely asking these two questions in light of that particular perspective.

Having said that, what would be your responses to the two questions? Whatever your responses be, thanks in advance.

FL

I have a feeling this will be our next “Holy Wars” thread.

An evolutionary perspective can only undermine religious belief if the religious belief is anti-knowledge, anti-science, or anti-reality.

Christianity, for example, is none of those. If someone tells you that they found that studying nature undermined their faith, you need to understand that it’s not the study of evolution itself that does it.

Instead, my experience with college students is that many of them are quite shocked that people they respected had misled them so badly as to what the facts are for evolution, cosmology, nuclear physics, and often, history. Their faith is shaken not by the facts of science they learn, but instead by the realization that earlier teachers had, with glee and elan, misled them. They regard this as a breach of ethics, and they then question whether they should continue associating with the people who have such ethical issues, and with the ideas that tend to mislead otherwise ethical people to unethical behavior.

One should note, for example, that Darwin never complained about his own understanding of the Bible, but instead he complained about theology that claims evil people get salvation by doing the right theological dance steps, while good people who live Christianity in all ways but ceremony avoid salvation. Darwin thought this unjust, and said so. If you think Darwin was wrong about that, tough. There are times when modern morality is superior to what the ancients thought.

FL, your question should be, “How does the study of evolution affect your sense of justice in the world, what we can know and what we can say about what we know, and how does that lead us to make ethical decisions?” You may want to consider the effects of DNA evidence on the administration of criminal justice, for example, and the effect on criminal justice were it accurate the evolution theory is wrong, and that consequently DNA evidence cannot be used in court. I suspect you’d discover a lot of anti-evolution people had not made such a consideration. Follow up: Ask them what they think about Deuteronomy 16:20 (usually listed as “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue”), and ask whether it shakes their faith to reject scientific means of delivering justice.

And stop trying to hijack the thread.

(Congrats on the profile, Nick – get one of those nicely printed, non-fading, framed copies, for your kids.)

““An evolutionary perspective undermines religious belief by removing some of the grounds that previously supported it.”

Only for the literalists.

“An evolutionary perspective undermines religious belief by removing some of the grounds that previously supported it.”

FWIW, I’m not sure what you mean by “an evolutionary perspective,” but the theory of evolution certainly didn’t undermine any of my religious beliefs. (The idiots and charlatans who did undermine some of them did it without any help from science, thankyouverymuch.)

“You may want to consider the effects of DNA evidence on the administration of criminal justice, for example, and the effect on criminal justice were it accurate the evolution theory is wrong, and that consequently DNA evidence cannot be used in court.”

The use of DNA for identification in legal proceedings doesn’t depend on evolution being true but on the accuracy of claims that DNA provides unique identification for individuals (as fingerprints do) and that those markers show up in their children and relatives. That human beings are descended from other human beings is entirely compatible with creationism of even the most literalist forms.

Now, if a court case turned on whether or not a chimp was somebody’s cousin, albeit very distantly removed, then the truth of evolution would matter. Perhaps that will be the creationists’ next try: to get a case to court where a court will decide that, as a matter of law, a chimp isn’t my cousin, so the creationists will claim that evolution has been ruled wrong by a court.

The use of DNA for identification in legal proceedings doesn’t depend on evolution being true

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it the prediction of evoltuion theory that some mechanism had to transmit hereditary traits through the generations that led to the discovery of DNA?

The problem of how traits were transmitted from parent to child was not just a problem for Darwin but for everyone at the time. Darwin’s contemporaries assumed that the traits of both parents mixed somehow. It was Mendel who sought the actual mechanism by fertilizing his pea pods, finding that some plants were carriers of recessive traits and that some traits bred true. Darwin made no specific “prediction” about this, but it was problematic for him because he had to no concrete alternative to Lamarkism to offer.

DNA use as evidence is predicated, for paternity, on the nested hierarchy idea of evolution – DNA will accurately reveal for the unique creature tested, half the DNA of each of its parents, allowing positive correlation to the correct set of parents.

That each person has unique DNA (except for idential twins)is a by-product – but still dependent on the nested hierarchy idea.

In contrast, IDists like to argue about “front-loading” of genes in species. Were that accurate, were we all front-loaded for later eventualities, for later adventures in reproduction, then DNA could not be so unique, and it might be difficult not only to tell children from parents accurately, but it would call into question the idea that everybody has unique DNA. The hypothesis calls into question whether DNA is unique from species to species.

The prediction that DNA provides a unique marker is dependent on evolution theory being accurate, and the fact that DNA is unique for each person is a reification of evolution and a refutation of one of the popular nodes of ID claims.

And stop trying to hijack the thread.

You may personally feel that way Ed, but I am satisfied that I’ve made clear the basis and motives for the particular questions I have asked of Nick Natzke. You are welcome to your opinions, no problem, but I am primarily interested in hearing Matzke’s answers to the specific questions that I asked.

FL

Nick, do they teach evolution at Valparaiso in the biology department? Is creationism in any form taught there, anywhere?

Thanks, Ed, for the clarification.

Kristine Wrote:

Darwin made no specific “prediction” about this, but it was problematic for him because he had to no concrete alternative to Lamarkism to offer.

I find it interesting that I attributed the prediction to “evolution theory” and Kristine, seemingly in response, attributed its absence to “Darwin.” The validity of each statement is independent, but one might infer that this sequence implies a confusion of the two.

The use of DNA for identification in legal proceedings doesn’t depend on evolution being true but on the accuracy of claims that DNA provides unique identification for individuals (as fingerprints do) and that those markers show up in their children and relatives.

True only on the gross, empirical level, false in that it’s part of a large set of interlocking facts that are made sense of through evolutionary theory. And that its empirical utility in legal proceedings is based on evolutionary theory.

Nick, do they teach evolution at Valparaiso in the biology department? Is creationism in any form taught there, anywhere?

No, the biology department is totally legit. Stories about the olden days where faculty got flack for teaching evolution were sometimes told by the older professors.

If you read Numbers’s The Creationists, there is an account of a physical geographer who was a longtime professor at Valpo (up into the 1960s) who was a YEC, and I believe I read something by O.P. Kretzmann, a famed president of mid-century, who also endorses YEC in a Bible commentary he wrote.

But this is ancient history in terms of the faculty. Currently, Valpo has a fair proportion of creationist students who come from conservative Lutheran backgrounds however. But I only knew one faculty member who was a young-earth creationist, he was in the humanities – teaching the Nietzsche class actually, and quite capably I should add. He mentioned it after class once when we had been discussing evolution in the discussion section, and I got the impression he had never thought seriously about the issue.

I for one agree with FL that acceptance of the Theory of Evolution eats away at religious faith and not just literalist views. It combined with astronomy and a healthy douse of reading lots of history to annihilate my own albeit-generally-thin-minus-one-short-period-early-in-college-of-fervency faith.

First, thanks for being willing to share your religious views openly. Not everyone is willing to do that.

I don’t make an issue of it usually, I believe everyone has to find their own path in this area.

Secondly, although I did read about you going to church “on holidays when I’m back with my family”, your comments do look like you’ve shifted all the way from Christianity (defined here as belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as your personal Lord and Savior) to Agnosticism.

The number of capitalized words in the prior sentence makes me wonder what you might be after here. I do not subscribe to any “Agnosticism” with a capital A. I simply personally don’t know the answer to questions like Does God Exist.

If that’s true, it would be the same sort of huge shift that historically took place with Charles Darwin. So I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.

Darwin’s shift was very gradual, moving from basically Biblical literalism to agnosticism – James Moore argues that a key event, moving Darwin from theism to Deism in the 1850s, was the long illness and death of Darwin’s daughter, not so much evolution

(1) Would the aforementioned “shift” be an accurate assessment of what has happened in your case?

I dunno – it was not like Darwin’s shift really.

(2) If so, what role—what percentage—did your belief in evolution play in causing that shift to take place over the years?

None really. Evolution was not an issue in my church or for my parents. Being exposed to creationism probably did awaken me to the idea that it is possible for large numbers of sincere people to be misled about something.

What other factors, if any, were involved in that shift?

For me, the key issue was learning about higher criticism of the Bible in college. One of the first things they have students do, at least in Christ College (the humanities honors college) is (a) read Genesis and (b) read the Gospels – not just any Bible, but an academic version that notes the textual variants etc.

What one discovers is stuff like (a) Genesis has two creation stories, not one, and in fact the Penteteuch is a pastiche of perhaps four different sources from different traditions that have been edited together, and (b) the Gospels are in fact not eyewitness accounts, they too are edited together from earlier written and/or oral traditions, and – I remember this being important to me – the resurrection accounts especially don’t match up, the later ones are much more elaborate and mythical than the earlier ones, etc. This all made me pretty skeptical, although this is not the same thing as saying it is false, and it’s not even clear to me that one has to believe in the resurrection as a literal matter to be Christian.

But nevertheless I pretty rapidly ended up skeptical. I went through a phase where I read a bunch of atheists but they were not particularly convincing either. Thus, agnostic.

My experience is not universal – indeed, the professors and most of the students who took these classes remained Christian. But if you want my personal mental evolution, there it is.

Note to fundamentalists: Let’s not have any tiresome attacks on V.U. or the faculty – believe me, they know more about than you and they’ve heard it all before. In fact, they get it every year around Thanksgiving when the freshman go back home for the first time and talk about what they’ve been learning at college…

The use of DNA for identification in legal proceedings doesn’t depend on evolution being true but on the accuracy of claims that DNA provides unique identification for individuals (as fingerprints do) and that those markers show up in their children and relatives.

You’re only thinking of a limited use of DNA profiles. Try this for a fun example of the practical use of evolutionary theory:

Primmer, C.R. , Koskinen, M.T., Piironen, J. (2000) The one that did not get away: individual assignment using microsatellite data detects a case of fishing competition fraud. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 267: 1699-1704.

(and it’s available for free!)

Bob

Bob,

Sorry, but nothing hinged on evolution itself in that paper (and the word doesn’t even figure except in the name of a journal in the references), or at least I couldn’t spot it. Perhaps you can say where in that paper the analysis depends on the common ancestry of, say, salmon and trout, or of humans and salmon, because common ancestry of even the entire Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) population, never mind that of subpopulations, isn’t a point on which evolutionists, cdesign proponentists or creationists diagree.

DNA use as evidence is predicated, for paternity, on the nested hierarchy idea of evolution — DNA will accurately reveal for the unique creature tested, half the DNA of each of its parents, allowing positive correlation to the correct set of parents.

According to the fundie account of the world, shouldn’t there only be 5 possible sets of genes, since only 8 people made it off the ark, and the three boys were already mixtures of Mom & Pop Noah?

Therefore, wouldn’t any DNA identification of, say, 8 random sites turn up only 40 possible combinations, for a 1 in 40 chance of misidentification?

Better than 3 blood types, to be sure, but hardly unique. Maybe DNA evidence should be stricken in cases where victims identified themselves as fundies, just out of principal.

According to the fundie account of the world, shouldn’t there only be 5 possible sets of genes, since only 8 people made it off the ark, and the three boys were already mixtures of Mom & Pop Noah?

And all human Y chromosomes come from Noah.

“And that its empirical utility in legal proceedings is based on evolutionary theory.”

In what way? You need to show how DNA identification wouldn’t work if evolution weren’t true.

It isn’t even necessary for DNA to be the means of biological inheritance for it to be useful in identifying someone. All you need is a reliable estimate of the likelihood of two people having the same markers at a particular set of loci, and that depends on empirical evidence of the amount of variability at those loci, not on evolutionary theory. For instance, evolution is true, but using the part of our DNA that codes for a simple but important protein wouldn’t be much use since it wouldn’t vary much among different people (or, indeed for many proteins, across the entire spectrum of life!).

Just to be clear, I’m as pro-evolution as they come. I just think that the claim that the use of DNA by courts for identification and for determining whether two people are related relies on evolutionary theory is incorrect and thus a bad argument. Heck, even the folk at AIG recognize that bad arguments for a point do no good.

But if you want my personal mental evolution, there it is.

And I appreciate your straightforward, sincere responses. I thank you for that, for real.

The number of capitalized words in the prior sentence makes me wonder what you might be after here. I do not subscribe to any “Agnosticism” with a capital A. I simply personally don’t know the answer to questions like Does God Exist.

No problem. No ulterior motives with the capitalization. With the exception of the term “agnosticism”, I usually capitalize each of the terms I capitalized in that sentence. After all, things like “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” are what I honestly believe. Occasionally I might capitalize the “a” in “agnosticism” or “atheism”, just to put a bit more emphasis on it, as I did this time. At any rate, you’ve explained what your particular agnosticism-belief is about, so that’s clear. My appreciation for your doing so.

For me, the key issue was learning about higher criticism of the Bible in college.

Yes, how I remember that higher-criticism business. I was exposed to similar scholarly skeptical-claims at the secular university I attended. Claims such as the alleged two-creation-stories of Genesis; the Documentary Hypothesis and its implications against the historical reliability of the Pentateuch; alleged discrepancies and alleged myth-making gigs in the Resurrection accounts and Gospels, right down the line.

(During one semester, I wound up quietly slipping a copy of Wilkins and Moreland’s book Jesus Under Fire to a young Christian student in a New Testament class who seemed particularly shook up about the skeptical-claims she was hearing. Just wanted her to know that that there was another PhD-scholarly side to that story, and that she did NOT have to stop trusting the Bible and the Four Gospels as historically reliable and accurate. She seemed grateful for that, and was visibly calmer during the rest of the semester.)

I appreciate what you said about your experience “not being universal”, but the situation is serious enough, and happens often enough AFAIK, to where local churches dare not ignore such things.

Note to fundamentalists: Let’s not have any tiresome attacks on V.U. or the faculty

Well, you’ll get no such attacks from me. A best friend I grew up with in church, stopped attending by the time he finished his sophomore year, because his Sunday School class got all flustered and upset with him by one simple collegiate skeptical-claim that he brought back home with him from Kansas University. His church, our church, had failed to show that they cared enough to do the research and deal with the skeptical-claim that was important to him, so he dropped out.

What I learned from that experience, is that the real question is NOT “what is XYZ University teaching our Christian freshmen and how can we pressure their faculty?”, but instead it’s “what is my church/Sunday School/CCIA/pastor/priest gonna do to provide some up-to-date, scholarly resources to actually answer those higher criticism questions and skeptical-claims when inquiring freshman come back for Thanksgiving break?”

So thats where things are at for me. For now though, I simply thank you once more, with sincerity, for your honest straightforward answers to he previous questions.

****************

(Side note for the poster Peter: I want to extend a similar thank-you for also sharing your own honest response and personal story likewise. I did not overlook it, I did read it and think it over; I’m taking your response as seriously as I am with Matzke’s. Thanks again.)

FL

Funny how mere capitalization allows one to guess an entire worldview…

FL Wrote:

(2) If so, what role—what percentage—did your belief in evolution play in causing that shift to take place over the years?

Just to give you a somewhat divergent data point, it was nearly a decade after my Christian belief system collapsed that I finally bought into the whole set of evolutionary concepts.

In other words, “belief in Evolution” does not necessarily lead to atheism. In my case, atheism led to acceptance of the principles modern Biology.

Others’ mileage may vary.

FL, I became a skeptic at 8 when I posed “where did Adam’s sons find wives?”

Would you consider this an instance of evolutionary theory interfering with faith? My befuddlement, after all, arises from my knowledge of how babies are made and natural incest taboos, both of which are parts of the TOE.

(I don’t actually want to know your answer to the question I posed as a wee one. I’ve since heard various explanations, confirming my skepticism about a literal reading.)

but the situation is serious enough, and happens often enough AFAIK, to where local churches dare not ignore such things.

FL IS on a mission. He is trying to find out exactly what disinformation needs to be sown in his church in order to dismiss the “alleged” evidence of mutliple genesis accounts and manipulation that is readily discernible in the KJV.

It certainly seems obvious from everything else he has ever written on PT, and including his last post, which is just dripping with obvious contempt for theological scholarship that disagrees with his viewpoint.

what short memories.

Sorry, but nothing hinged on evolution itself in that paper (and the word doesn’t even figure except in the name of a journal in the references), or at least I couldn’t spot it.

Estimates of the rate of population divergence depends rather a lot on knowledge of neutral evolution. The population assignment method depends upon knowing how populations will diverge (i.e. departures from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium). It’s difficult to see how this isn’t evolution.

Perhaps you can say where in that paper the analysis depends on the common ancestry of, say, salmon and trout, or of humans and salmon,…

Do you want a hand with that goalpost? It looks a bit heavy.

Bob

I find it interesting that I attributed the prediction to “evolution theory” and Kristine, seemingly in response, attributed its absence to “Darwin.” The validity of each statement is independent, but one might infer that this sequence implies a confusion of the two.

It is a bit odd that Kristine does not recognize Mendelian genetics as being part of “evolution theory”. OTOH, it simply isn’t true that it was “the prediction of evoltuion theory that some mechanism had to transmit hereditary traits through the generations that led to the discovery of DNA” – that is rarely how science works. Rather, DNA had long since been discovered (chromosomes were observed in 1842 and DNA was isolated in 1869), and had already had its chemical composition established, before it was hypothesized that it was a medium for transmitting traits. Of course, once that was realized, it became very important to discover its exact structure, but that is a very different matter – Watson, Crick, and Franklin most certainly didn’t discover DNA.

Katarina, Responding to your Comment #154401:

You had included a quote from Smith in a previous comment, to the effect that a child raised in complete ignorance of god was an atheist. This is implicit & weak atheism. Since we are discussing god(s) and their (non)existence, neither of us can claim to be that child.

Responding to your comment #154429:

You stated: In my original comment I did not distinguish between weak and strong. I should add that I did so consciously.

My response: In your original post, you distinguished between agnosticism and atheism. But, by the wiki article which you cited, agnosticism is indistinguishable from weak atheism. To quote the article: Weak, or negative, atheism is either the absence of the belief that gods exist (in which case anyone who is not a theist is a weak atheist), or of both the belief that gods exist and the belief that they do not exist (in which case anyone who is neither a theist nor a strong atheist is a weak atheist).[13][55] By separating agnosticism from atheism in your original post, you very strongly implied that you were referring to explicit & strong atheism as just ‘atheism’.

Since then, you have claimed the weak atheist stance; but I find it disturbing that by some semantic slight-of-hand agnosticism can be made to disappear, apparently ‘really’ being some flavor of atheism. I disagree, the claim to have no knowledge of the workings, drives, or values of supernatural IS different from the claim that there is no supernatural. If you object to calling the former agnosticism, then perhaps you can suggest a name for the latter.…

Anywho, none of this is really on topic. My apologies, Nick, and congrats on the favorable article!

Anton Mates Comment #154662

You wrote: Why? Some deities are more accessible to investigation than others. [Snip] Some deities impact the natural world, and you can decide whether or not they exist by observation of same. If a god is supposed to answer prayers, help the faithful and punish the wicked with any degree of regularity, or to have worked various miracles, then lack of miracles and answered prayers and so forth is evidence against that god’s existence.

My response: The trouble is, the supernatural is, by definition, not amenable to any sort of observation or investigation. Anything which happens in the natural world is.. um.. natural. If by some miracle you do get to study a genuine miracle (presuming, for the sake of argument that they really do occur), then you can STILL make no judgments about the supernatural. Did the Christian god do it? One of the Norse pantheon? Was it REALLY on of the Greek, Roman, Native American, Aborigines, Hindu entities, or was it some new Papua New Guinean upstart, just getting started in the godding business? An observer confined to the natural world can draw no conclusions about the supernatural agency(ies) which may or may not be involved… but you can bet your ass that you will observe cults, denominations, faiths, etc stumbling all over themselves trying to claim credit for their pet deity. Sadly, human nature seems to dictate that these mutually exclusive & contradictory claims will gain more adherents than reasonable skepticism.

For what it’s worth, as long as we’re arguing about the definitions of words like “agnostic” and “atheist,” here’s some definitions I’d like to offer:

“Nontheist:” one who either has no opinion about god(s) or has no place for any religious thought or action in his life. The baby mentioned earlier is “nontheistic;” so is an adult who doesn’t think or care about religious beliefs at all.

“Atheist:” one who consciously and explicitly believes that no gods exist and all theistic beliefs are wrong. (This is how I have always heard the word used. YMMV.)

“Agnostic:” one who has no firm belief or disbelief of his own in any god, but who may acknowledge (in word and/or deed) the possibility that they exist. Granted, the line between “agnostic” and “nontheist” is a bit vague; one might say that “nontheist” = “agnostic leaning toward atheist.” Or “nontheist” = “agnostic who just doesn’t care enough to think seriously about it at all.” Many agnostics think very seriously about theistic beliefs, whether or not they actually embrace them.

“Anti-theist” (hyphen optional): one who is hostile and/or disrespectful toward theistic beliefs. It’s probably safe to say that all anti-theists are atheists, but not all atheists are anti-theists.

I offer these definitions because I’m a little tired of people muddying the distinction between “agnostic” and “atheist.” Also, I believe (in my own biased way) that my definitions are a bit more descriptive, and more in line with conventional interpretations of the words, than all this stuff about strong, weak, positive, negative, hard and soft atheists. You’re starting to sound like Duelling Quarks.

If Nick doesn’t want this discussion on his thread, I will be happy to move.

Bee: Thanks for your offered definitions.

While I still haven’t settled into my place on the spectrum (though this discussion is helping me), I see that at least part of the problem is definitions, not just in this discussion but in general. Proponents and opponents of atheism each advance definitions that favor their own position.

It is telling that atheism was first defined by Catholic apologetics, who, as J.L. Brown included in his summary of the Wiki article, offered the pejorative, immoral definition. Since their self-imposed constraints categorized “moral” as only belonging to people with specific supernatural beliefs, anything outside of that was “immoral,” therefore atheism was equated with immorality.

This is obviously not in line with how atheists describe themselves. And among them, naturally there is much diversity in how they describe their views, as there is much diversity among all people in general. The support they provide for those views can be put into question, sure, but we haven’t brought up specific claims of “gnostic atheists,” who may use logic or probability to argue against the existance of a deity or deities in general.

So in my view the question is, do we define the views of others, or allow them to define themselves? The first choice would almost certainly misrepresent how poeple define themselves. The second choice would almost certainly include unjustified, illogical, or unsupported views. In my original description of different groups, I admit I probably captured only some people. However, my effort was centered around objective evidence, and made it possible to encompass only objectively defensible views, which admittedly is no guarantee that it did so.

My attempt was prompted by this blatant misrepresentation:

Atheists differ from this stance, and claim to have knowledge of the supernatural world - they claim that it does not exist.

…we haven’t brought up specific claims of “gnostic atheists,” who may use logic or probability to argue against the existance of a deity or deities in general.

This seems cumbersome to me, but there may be situations where it may be necessary to include, in a label, a reason why one takes the label.

(Note, however, that the phrase “gnostic atheists,” may cause confusion, as there is a distinct branch of Christian thought that calls itself “gnostic” (and which the established Church called heretical).)

So in my view the question is, do we define the views of others, or allow them to define themselves?

Wherever possible, we should try to reduce confusion by sticking to, or buiding from, the meanings that most people already associate with the words we use. We should not try to graft a completely new meaning onto a widely-used word; or, if we must do so, we will then have to go out of our way to explain our new definition and why we’re using it.

My attempt was prompted by this blatant misrepresentation: “Atheists differ from this stance, and claim to have knowledge of the supernatural world - they claim that it does not exist.”

Why is this a misrepresentation? Are you accomodating people who believe in the supernatural, but not in “gods?” If so, you’d be right (I used to be in that camp, sort of); but I’m not sure what you mean here.

J. L. Brown Wrote:

The trouble is, the supernatural is, by definition, not amenable to any sort of observation or investigation. Anything which happens in the natural world is.. um.. natural.

But many gods are natural, or have natural aspects. Sure, Western gods have tended to retreat more and more into the supernatural realm as science dominates the natural, but that wasn’t always the case.

Suppose that any time you happened to be pointing a telescope at a part of the sky where thunder occurred, you saw a bearded man hurling his hammer at humanoid giants, while riding an airborne goat-drawn chariot loaded with Hostess Twinkies. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that this was the entity the Norse knew as Thor? You might not have hashed out all the metaphysical stuff about whether he’s truly divine as opposed to a powerful mortal, and it might still be that he’s just a shapeshifting alien inspired by human beliefs, but you would have established at least that a guy exists who does a lot of the stuff Norse religion claims.

Again, suppose a giant cloud of fire appeared in Tel Aviv and started laying down Leviticus-style commands, smiting non-Jews and so forth. That wouldn’t tell you whether it was the true creator and maintainer of the universe or anything like that, but it would be a reasonable guess that this was the being the Hebrews worshipped. And it would also be a reasonable guess that you’d better convert to Judaism immediately and be very, very careful about eating kosher.

If by some miracle you do get to study a genuine miracle (presuming, for the sake of argument that they really do occur), then you can STILL make no judgments about the supernatural. Did the Christian god do it? One of the Norse pantheon? Was it REALLY on of the Greek, Roman, Native American, Aborigines, Hindu entities, or was it some new Papua New Guinean upstart, just getting started in the godding business?

Quite true, but the inverse is a different matter. If Jesus was born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead, you don’t know that it was the Christian god–it could be Loki having fun, or Jesus could just be a mutant or something. But if Jesus was not born of a virgin or resurrected from the dead, then you do know the Christian god (as defined in many sects) isn’t there, because those miracles are part of his defining characteristics. Doesn’t mean any of an infinite number of other conceivable gods couldn’t be there in his place, of course.

Likewise, there are certain conceivable gods whose existence is ruled out by the existence of evil, or the existence of suffering, or the existence of gravity for that matter.

Suppose that any time you happened to be pointing a telescope at a part of the sky where thunder occurred, you saw a bearded man hurling his hammer at humanoid giants, while riding an airborne goat-drawn chariot loaded with Hostess Twinkies. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that this was the entity the Norse knew as Thor?

No, because Thor doesn’t do Twinkes.

Raging Bee Wrote:

“Nontheist:” one who either has no opinion about god(s) or has no place for any religious thought or action in his life. The baby mentioned earlier is “nontheistic;” so is an adult who doesn’t think or care about religious beliefs at all.

I think that clashes with most people who call themselves nontheists–it’s usually used just to mean “not a theist.” Atheists, agnostics (such as Gould), deists, and many Buddhists (such as Lenny Flank) call themselves nontheists.

“Atheist:” one who consciously and explicitly believes that no gods exist and all theistic beliefs are wrong. (This is how I have always heard the word used. YMMV.)

It’s not how I’ve heard it used by atheists, which is rather the point. I have heard another atheist say they’ve met other atheists who explicitly believed no gods existed, but that’s about it. Or, to put it another way, under that definition about six atheists exist on the planet, which doesn’t make it a very useful term.

“Agnostic:” one who has no firm belief or disbelief of his own in any god, but who may acknowledge (in word and/or deed) the possibility that they exist.

Sure, and I think that acknowledgment is probably more common for modern agnostics, as those who don’t seriously entertain the possibility are increasingly likely to label themselves weak atheists instead.

Something more characteristic of agnostics, I would say, is the assertion that the existence of a god (given whatever definitions they find relevant) is inherently unknowable.

“Anti-theist” (hyphen optional): one who is hostile and/or disrespectful toward theistic beliefs. It’s probably safe to say that all anti-theists are atheists, but not all atheists are anti-theists.

I suppose if you could find a Satanist who actually believed in God and Satan, you’d have a theist anti-theist.

I offer these definitions because I’m a little tired of people muddying the distinction between “agnostic” and “atheist.”

No disrespect, but you don’t generally identify as either, do you? If agnostics and atheists are doing the muddying themselves, what’s the problem?

Wherever possible, we should try to reduce confusion by sticking to, or buiding from, the meanings that most people already associate with the words we use. We should not try to graft a completely new meaning onto a widely-used word; or, if we must do so, we will then have to go out of our way to explain our new definition and why we’re using it.

When you’re talking about a word that people use to label themselves, going out of your way to explain what it means is a good thing IMO. Especially a word that used to be primarily pejorative, like “atheist” or “queer.”

John Shelby Spong calls himself a Christian in spite of not believing in the virgin birth or resurrection, or any other miracles, or even in a personal God at all. Is this what I would think of if asked to define Christianity? Not particularly. Do I have a problem with Spong calling himself a Christian, or with having to acknowledge the possibility that any given self-labeled Christian might think as he does? Not at all. In fact, I’d much rather the “Christian” label ended up being dominated by guys like him, if it led to other Christians revising their positions toward his.

And that applies to religious moderates generally. It’s the fundamentalist who says that the moderate isn’t truly Christian/Jewish/Muslim/whatever, because they don’t conform to a particular checklist of beliefs. Why should we contribute to that exclusionary position? We want personal identity to float free of belief, so they can update the latter without fear of losing the former.

Raging Bee Wrote:

No, because Thor doesn’t do Twinkes.

Heretic!

“Atheists differ from this stance, and claim to have knowledge of the supernatural world - they claim that it does not exist.”

Why is this a misrepresentation?

I am short on time these days, what with the new semester starting at all, (so I appreciate Anton’s comments) but let me just address this question real quick.

Bee, you’re smart enough, and have been through enough holy wars with me, to know what I meant by that, right? Isn’t it obvious to you what a strawman (or rather, scarecrow) that is? As I explained, very few atheists actually claim to “have knowledge” (gnostic) about the supernatural. Instead, they say something like, since we can’t know about this reliably, we may as well abandon the whole concept. Religion cannot be acknowledged as an objective view of the world. If you’re interested in the individual psychology of people’s subjective beliefs, have fun with it, but don’t pretend there is “validity” there.

I wish I could stay on longer for this discussion; maybe I’ll get back to it in a few days.

Have fun!

I suppose if you could find a Satanist who actually believed in God and Satan, you’d have a theist anti-theist.

No, you’d have a worshipper of one “god” (powerful supernatural being) showing hostility to another. Perhaps I should have said “one who is hostile and/or disrespectful toward all theistic beliefs as such,” to differentiate anti-theists from theists who worship one god and believe in, but despise, another. (That’s not what the Satanists I’ve heard from believe, BTW, but that’s another matter.)

It’s not how I’ve heard [the term “atheist”] used by atheists, which is rather the point. I have heard another atheist say they’ve met other atheists who explicitly believed no gods existed, but that’s about it. Or, to put it another way, under that definition about six atheists exist on the planet, which doesn’t make it a very useful term.

If we are to accept the terms “weak atheist” as one who doesn’t explicitly believe that gods don’t exist, but quietly acts on that default assumption for lack of contrary evidence, and “strong atheist” as one who explicitly believes gods don’t exist (am I getting that right?), that’s fine. But how much practical difference is there between those two groups? How far wrong would I be in lumping those two groups together as “atheists?” If I’m wrong here, than what’s your definition of “atheist?”

I think that clashes with most people who call themselves nontheists—it’s usually used just to mean “not a theist.” Atheists, agnostics (such as Gould), deists, and many Buddhists (such as Lenny Flank) call themselves nontheists.

Good point. Do you have a set of definitions that can differentiate between the nontheists I described and the ones you mentioned? (I do think we should distinguish those groups – their “beliefs” or attitudes are significantly different.) As for deists, I would call them theists: AFAIK they do believe in a god, just one who doesn’t intervene a lot.

As I explained, very few atheists actually claim to “have knowledge” (gnostic) about the supernatural. Instead, they say something like, since we can’t know about this reliably, we may as well abandon the whole concept.

Okay, point taken.

OTOH, how much practical difference is there between those two groups? From what I see, they’re both acting on the same premise: for all practical purposes, there is no supernatural, period.

I suspect that no matter how the terms (atheist, agnostic, etc.) are defined, they’re going to blur into each other when applied to actual people.

Henry

Raging Bee Wrote:

Perhaps I should have said “one who is hostile and/or disrespectful toward all theistic beliefs as such,” to differentiate anti-theists from theists who worship one god and believe in, but despise, another. (That’s not what the Satanists I’ve heard from believe, BTW, but that’s another matter.)

Yeah, that’s why I said “If you could find one.” All the Satanists I’ve read stuff by are atheists or agnostics. But yes, it’s hard to imagine a theist who thinks theism is bad, except maybe a lapsed Catholic who can’t quite lapse all the way.…

If we are to accept the terms “weak atheist” as one who doesn’t explicitly believe that gods don’t exist, but quietly acts on that default assumption for lack of contrary evidence, and “strong atheist” as one who explicitly believes gods don’t exist (am I getting that right?), that’s fine. But how much practical difference is there between those two groups? How far wrong would I be in lumping those two groups together as “atheists?” If I’m wrong here, than what’s your definition of “atheist?”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But that default assumption, as expressed through their actions, isn’t unique to atheists; most agnostics and deists and even some theists act similarly. They don’t follow religious commandments just in case the relevant gods might be pleased; they don’t pray in times of trouble just in case they’re heard.

If I had to define “atheist,” I would say, “Someone who lacks belief in the supernatural.” While it’s certainly possible to believe in supernatural powers without an actual god, as Scientologists and some Buddhists and New-Agers do, I don’t think they usually self-label as atheists. But if someone wants to, I wouldn’t stop ‘em.

As I said on another thread, I think the atheist/agnostic distinction is not so much about belief as about one’s social setting. It certainly was in my case. In Berkeley I identified as an agnostic, because most of my peers’ god-conceptions were genuinely undecidable or at least unfalsifiable; deist gods, quantum-hidden gods, god-is-love gods, etc. In Columbus I identify as an atheist, because most of my believing peers have a much more definite, interventionist and therefore falsifiable god-conception. Plus, “atheist” is a sufficiently scary word in Ohio that I think I’m doing some good by coming out with it, whereas nobody gave a damn in Berkeley.

Do you have a set of definitions that can differentiate between the nontheists I described and the ones you mentioned? (I do think we should distinguish those groups — their “beliefs” or attitudes are significantly different.)

I’ve heard nontheists in your sense refer to themselves as “apatheists”–they just don’t care about the God question. Yes, it’s a made-up word and doesn’t sound very serious, but then that’s rather appropriate for someone who thinks the whole discussion is pointless.

As for deists, I would call them theists: AFAIK they do believe in a god, just one who doesn’t intervene a lot.

I don’t think it would be wrong for a deist to call themselves a theist, but AFAIK most historically haven’t (even if they did call themselves, for instance, Christian). However, I would bet that the deist/theist distinction has become much fuzzier in modern times, just because the average Western believer no longer takes all the Biblical stories of divine intervention as seriously. Moderate theism is moving towards deism on the whole.

Anton Mates: Your location-dependent variation in self-description reminded me of Bertrand Russell (see below). This excert is also relevant to all the self-proclaimed agnostics on this thread.

“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 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.”

Thank you, Middle Prof. Which book/article is this quote from?

Re “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”

Xena killed most of them; that was documented on TV. ;)

Henry

Russel via Middleprof:

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”.

If Bert would just say “none”, he wouldn’t have the pleasure of this musing.

I support the parallel of the a-fairyist. There’s lots of stories about fairies, too, but no particular reason to believe in them. We aren’t labelled for this worldview, why should we be labelled for being equally sane about Sky Daddy?

Katarina Wrote:

Thank you, Middle Prof. Which book/article is this quote from?

Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?

Never mind, I found the source:

Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas by Bertrand Russell (1947)

http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/russell8.htm

As a new unbeliever, I have a long reading list to catch up with. But what fun I’m having! Thanks to all of you who cared enough to attack my religious claims! (warm fuzzy feelings of gratitude)

Thanks Anton, your comment didn’t show up until I posted mine.

Raging Bee Wrote:

PG is calling harold “hostile?”

What a joke!

You’re the joke, moron. I said that few people who have ever posted to PT are as hostile as harold. Even if I were the most hostile person on the planet, that would have no bearing on the validity of my statement.

I support the parallel of the a-fairyist. There’s lots of stories about fairies, too, but no particular reason to believe in them.

Russell would never have called himself agnostic with respect to fairies, even when speaking to philosophers, so I think he was mistaken to say that he should have called himself an Agnostic. If the mere inability to offer a logical demonstration of a proposition were sufficient to be agnostic about it, then we would all be agnostic about a great many empirical matters. Was Russell also agnostic about whether Julius Caesar existed, or whether the moon was made of green cheese with a thin layer of dust over it? I can’t see how he would have an easier time providing a “logical demonstration” of those one way or the other than of the non-existence of the homeric gods. Yet he, and many others, apply a different standard when it comes to “God”, which I think is quite unwarranted. I agree with Dawkins that this is a matter of “bending over backwards” to accommodate believers and that T. H. Huxley, in justifying his coining of the word “agnostic”, was doing just that.

BTW, in regard to Matzke’s comment, published in the SF Chronicle, that

I’m agnostic now. An ultimate question like this might just not be answerable. It may be a leap of faith to take either position, either atheism or theism.

I wrote

I wonder if he considers the question of whether the Greek, Roman or Norse pantheon exists unanswerable, and if not, how he justifies his answer.

In response, harold hostilely and stupidly called that “profoundly unfair” and “a strawman”, irrelevantly suggesting that Ken Miller doesn’t find the question unanswerable, completely ignoring the point about justification (hardly a surprise, since harold shares Miller’s unjustified and unjustifiable views). Now, harold can take it up with Bertrand Russell.

Popper's ghost Wrote:

If the mere inability to offer a logical demonstration of a proposition were sufficient to be agnostic about it, then we would all be agnostic about a great many empirical matters. Was Russell also agnostic about whether Julius Caesar existed, or whether the moon was made of green cheese with a thin layer of dust over it?

Actually, yes, in a philosophical sense I think he probably was. He often expressed a hope that a unified science could (in principle, even if not by humans) be developed which made no claims about the external universe whatsoever–it would simply predict your perceptions based on your prior perceptions.

So if he was talking to a philosophical audience he might well say he was agnostic on Caesar’s existence. But for all practical purposes he wouldn’t worry about Caesar not existing, just as for all practical purposes he didn’t worry about either the Homeric or the Christian gods existing, so he wouldn’t claim agnosticism on any of those questions to a lay audience.

I said that few people who have ever posted to PT are as hostile as harold. Even if I were the most hostile person on the planet, that would have no bearing on the validity of my statement.

Actually, PG, it would have a bearing: it would make your statement laughably hypocritical as well as false.

Placed to bookmark!

God site. Thanks!

;)Nothing happens unless first a dream.

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This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on January 8, 2007 2:42 AM.

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