Some updates on God (and related matters)

imagesJohn Lennox – mathematician and Christian apologist – is in town again, and giving talks at UCT, Stellenbosch and in Johannesburg. I’ve twice had the pleasure (or at least, experience) of chatting to him at length regarding his views on whether there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, and there’s no question that he’s a very smart and sincere man.

But he’s also wrong.

I’ve written many posts over the years dealing with meta-ethics and morality, and have debated a few Christian apologists on these topics over the years. There’s little point in doing so with the hope of changing their minds (and vice versa), but these conversations can still be very valuable to an audience, in that listeners or readers could certainly benefit from hearing how much moral behaviour we find in non-human animals, or about the clear lack of correlation between religious belief and “good” moral choices.

If you’re in Johannesburg this Thursday night (September 18), you might be interested to attend a debate between Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser on exactly this topic. It takes place at 7pm in the Great Hall of Wits University, and I’m looking forward to hearing what Eusebius has to say on the topic.

Eusebius is unlikely to say much that I’ll want to disagree with on this topic, but I do want to use the debate as a segue to briefly return to a topic he and I do disagree on, namely the question of whether we should call ourselves atheists or agnostics.

I’ve written about this at length too, so I’ll just summarise the disagreement here. All knowledge – excepting technical points like Descartes’ cogito – does not entail certainty. We can be overwhelmingly convinced of the truth or falsity of any given proposition, and for the sake of communicative efficiency, we call those propositions “true” or “false”.

Furthermore, we’ll in all likelihood often right to call many of those propositions true or false. In other words, they correspond to the way the world actually is.

What does it mean to say that you’re an atheist, as opposed to an agnostic? Here’s the problem: it can mean at least three things. First, you could mean that you’re sure that there is no God – that “God exists” is a false proposition. Second, you could mean that you are sure that there are no gods at all, or in general – that all god claims are false. Or third, you could be saying that you regard it as overwhelmingly likely that one of the two formulations above are correct, without claiming certainty.

The third formulation is consistent with the way in which I treat all other propositions, and I see no reason to treat propositions relating to God(s) differently. I don’t claim certainty for any other propositions, and wouldn’t want to claim one here, even if the chances of God(s) existing are vanishingly small.

Does that, then, make me an agnostic, as opposed to an atheist? Eusebius says yes, it does, and that it’s a more epistemically responsible choice to call myself an agnostic. And here’s where he’s not so much wrong, but perhaps reaching a slightly hasty and unsubtle conclusion.

We don’t need a qualifier like agnostic (in the sense that it qualifies that you’re not certain) when we speak about propositions like grass being green, or smoking causing cancer. Everyone from one interpretive community – the philosophically inclined one – will fill in the epistemic doubt for themselves, and know that you’re not making an absolute claim.

However, everyone from a different interpretive community – those who regard truth claims as being absolute – will simply assume you’re using language in the conventional sense (and to be honest, how most of us use it, most of the time), and that you are making a claim of absolute certainty.

And this, in turn, opens up the possibility of using these words – just like we use most words – to signal a certain stance or attitude towards the proposition in question, cognisant of who the audience is. If Eusebius and I are talking, we could both say we are atheists, and neither of us will assume the other is claiming certainty. Likewise, we could both say we are agnostics, and neither of us will assume that the other is in doubt about the overwhelming likelihood that we are correct in saying God(s) don’t exist.

But when talking to other people, especially ones we don’t know, we can be fairly confident that the common understanding of “agnostic” is “we’re not sure” – in other words, it signals that it’s an open question to us as to whether God(s) exist or not. And while it’s an open question in a strictly logical sense, it’s not an open question in any practically relevant sense, just like it’s not an open question whether grass is green or not.

So, using the word “atheist” – in situations where we don’t have the time to explain all this – might well both capture our position more accurately (in the mind of the audience), as well as serve a useful political function in reinforcing the notion that the proposition in question (that God exists) is one that we consider overwhelmingly likely to be false.

Having said that, I’ve come to prefer “agnostic atheist”, in that it seems a “best of both worlds” response, as well as one that tends to open up an interesting conversation, thanks both to not appearing to be dogmatic, and because it tends to discourage a dogmatic response (except in the case of some atheists, who think it a cop-out).

Before moving on to a different topic, I’d encourage you to take a look at Eusebius’s column this week. I agree with most of it, but would again want to disagree on some elements of politics and strategy, especially with regard to his example of Richard Dawkins, who has progressed from being a useful lightning rod to becoming somewhat of a troll.

In relation to the column, all I’ll say here – before this becomes far too long – is that while it’s of course true that the concept of God shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves, that logical point can be used as an excuse to be quite the bully (I don’t think Eusebius and I disagree on this point, though).

Moving on:

You might remember Andrew Selley, the chairperson of the Christian advocacy group FOR-SA, for his valiant (sarcasm font) efforts to secure parents the right to beat their children, because that’s apparently what Jesus would have wanted. He has written a more recent post arguing that the OGOD case against 6 schools entails “The Court … being asked to order that Christianity be removed and banned from the schools.”

That’s simply untrue – the point of the lawsuit is equality of representation, and obeying existing regulations that require schools to be essentially secular. He goes on to argue that the schools are welcoming to other faiths, but as I’ve said in the past, paying lip-service to inclusivity does not amount to inclusivity in practice. If a school advertises themselves as having a Christian character, that immediately a) decreases the likelihood of other faiths (and nonbelievers) getting a welcoming reception, and b) increases the likelihood that the school will remain Christian, because those of other faiths (and nonbelievers) will be less likely to apply to that school.

Lastly, I’m pleased to see the launch of an “Open Mosque” in Cape Town, where women will be treated equally, and where homophobia will not be tolerated. It should be noted that Sataar Parker, spokesperson for Cape Town’s biggest mosque, Masjid Ul Quds in Athlone, says this is “nothing new”, with their mosque having been “open” in these senses for 25 years. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but if it is, we can simply celebrate their now being two such mosques available to Cape Town Muslims.


Being wrong (the value of agnosticism)

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

During a lecture last week, the topic of September 11, 2001 was brought up to make a point about conspiracy-theorists and how frequently they employ confirmation bias to support their views. In short, confirmation bias is the disposition to prefer evidence that supports your existing view, while tending to ignore disconfirming evidence.

A student asked me which argument it was that convinced me the conspiracy theories are false. I replied that the world isn’t that simple: there often isn’t one knockdown argument against a position – especially a position involving so many complexities and confounding details. Instead, I said, it’s a matter of the arguments for one position being weaker than the other, when considered in overview.

But sometimes the situation is of course more uncertain than this, and it seems impossible to choose sides on particular topic. Yet we often do so anyway, despite the fact that we sometimes can’t support the view we’ve chosen to claim. When last have you heard someone say something like “I don’t know enough about that issue to have a position on it”?

Too many of us seem to despise doubt or uncertainty, even if that’s the position best supported by the evidence we have. And with the norm being to have and express a view, the space for being uncertain closes off just that little bit more. I try, for example, to be uncertain about aspects of the climate change debate, but often fail to succeed in doing so.

While I don’t know enough about anthropogenic global warming to be convinced of any particular point of view, the emotive fervour of the discussion pushes one to choose sides (and I then choose the orthodox side, simply because that gamble has usually been the correct one on matters of science).

Of course, I could do the research – but we don’t have time to research everything that everyone else would like us to be experts on. We need to specialise, and until we do it’s perfectly reasonable to say “I don’t know” – in other words, to be agnostic on any given issue. Of course, for some issues this position might be irresponsible, in that agnosticism might be a moral failing of some sort.

For global warming this might well be the case, but seeing as many of us conserve energy already thanks to Eskom’s unreliability in supplying their product and the prices they charge for it, it’s quite easy to be relatively “green”. Many might be flying less in any case thanks to recession, or driving less as a result of petrol prices. The point, in short, is that no matter how hysterical any given person is on this issue, it’s largely not us individuals, but instead corporations and governments, who could do much about the problem (assuming that human activity is part of the problem).

But despite being agnostic on this issue, it’s still possible to believe that one side of the argument is superior to the other. Doubt does not remove this possibility, but simply means that you don’t feel justified in claiming certainty. Agnosticism is the absence of conviction, not necessarily the absence of an opinion (whether informed or not). So to say that I am agnostic on climate change does not preclude me from saying that I believe, for example, that Ivo Vegter is wrong in his columns dedicated to refute climate change orthodoxy.

If he and I were to have that debate, though, most of what I’d be able to do would be to listen and ask questions when something sounded implausible or needed clarification. Occasionally, I might be able to say “what about this data here”, and he’d no doubt respond with a barrage of counterclaims. To be convinced by the arguments, though, I’d have to study both them and their competition. Until then, it’s largely an entertaining debate rather than an opportunity for conversion to another point of view, because I have the impression (sorry, Ivo) that there is a sufficient number of scholars who are both experts in this field, and engage with it full-time, who disagree with Ivo to make it more likely the case that they are right and he is wrong.

But I don’t know, and I also don’t believe I (at this point) need to know. This doesn’t make mine a position of faith, but rather one that is admittedly premised on not having sufficient information, and also on being aware of that lack of information. As long as there is some information rather than none, though, it’s a position that while agnostic still allows for one to choose sides in a non-dogmatic fashion.

Our considered views are always contingent on the information we have access to, and we are often in a position to confess in advance that this information is inadequate for conviction to be reasonable. The example of climate change here is simply a foil for making the more general point that we have options besides that of dogmatic, uninformed zeal – especially in matters that are fraught with political or emotive tension – and the option of being an expert on the topic in question.

We can say that we’re not sure, but despite this, we think it’s likely that some position is wrong or right. Doing so reminds us that it’s possible to change that contingent opinion when new evidence comes to light, and it sends a signal to others that it’s worth trying to change your mind on any given issue. Sometimes we might even think it’s highly likely that some position is wrong or right, and this is when we should feel most motivated to defend it against opposing views.

I suspect, though, that if we were to do an honest stock-take of our various points of view we might find that for most of them, the firm conviction we present is largely a fabrication. We might also find that this fabrication is in the service of ego, especially when we think that someone else is undermining our beliefs.

To treat all beliefs as equally justified – or to forget that we mostly speak from a position of qualified agnosticism – is unlikely to be good for debate and for the possibility of discovering that we are wrong. And if we care about being right, or rather, care about believing things that are true rather than false, we shouldn’t forget that getting to the truth is often only possible through allowing ourselves to be uncertain – or even wrong.