Sound and Fury

Signifying nothing

In defense of agnosticism

with 2 comments

I just got back from a ‘debate’ on the subject ‘Belief in God is a dangerous delusion.’ Given the rather crap title, I suppose it is just as well that both participants touched only tangentially upon it. Both speakers seemed to have written their own topics. The proponent’s (Susan Blackmore) script was ‘trivialise religion and then summarise The Meme Machine in 20 minutes.’ The opponent of the motion (Alister McGrath) was following the following structure; ‘I used to be an atheist and now I’m not. Platitudes about not all religious folk being crazy fundamentalists…’

All that stark contrast of the debate structure, the obvious strong views of both speakers… I was disappointed, in a way, how polite and grey the talk was. Don’t get me wrong; both speakers are excellent and put forward good points well. But essentially they agreed on everything they could possibly have agreed upon. They sort of retreated into ‘well I’m an atheist and you’re a godbod, so that’s as far as we can go.’

The questions were interesting. Well, some of them were downright nutty. I won’t say much more on the subject, but let’s just say I’d like to have a way to vet people asking questions to remove those who are obviously a few raisins short of a fruitcake. Had I been up there in Susan’s shoes I would never have been that polite to so many people talking past the whole topic of the talk…

Bertrand Russell wrote a book called ‘Why I am not a Christian.’ (Aha, now we’re getting to the meat of theentry…) I haven’t read it, but I expect to agree with most of it. My issue is now to ponder writing something to the effect of ‘Why I am not an Atheist.’ The capital letter for ‘Atheist’ is deliberate and reflects my view that Atheism is close enough to a religion to deserve the arbitrary capitalisation that goes with that. Essentially I trace it back to Colin McGinn’s The Making of a Philosopher which I read when travelling around universities with my Dad before applying.

McGinn makes the point that atheism rests on the same kind of leap of faith as belief in God. McGrath in fact points out that Dawkins cannot jump from ‘There is no evidence for God’ to ‘There is evidence for No God’ (my arbitrary capitalisation…) This leap is of the same kind as that which brings people to a belief of a Beyond. So McGinn argues that agnosticism is the only rational position to take. (I think McGinn also concludes that veganism is the only morally defensible position on eating meat, but I haven’t swallowed that part…)

So that is sort of where I’m at. Neither side of the debate today convinced me. I can’t say I was expecting it to. I doubt anyone’s views were affected strongly by anything said at this debate. Perhaps a little more subtlety, a little polish to one’s arguments were gleaned. But everyone involved was preaching to the converted.

I’d like to write a bit more of a proper defense of agnosticism as a proper reasoned position to take but I can’t be bothered right now. What I need to do is read more of the Atheist gospels (gospel according to Dawkins, gospel according to Hitchens and so on) and take away a healthy criticism of religion. No need to do all that from scratch. Then I should look at some replies to that sort of stuff (McGrath etc) and see what works without God pulling the strings. Then I need to synthesise all this mutual criticism and distrust into a new robust genuine alternative of reasoned agnosticism. Then I shall be hailed as the Great One and people will look back on the beginning of the fence-sitting hegemony as the most important event of history ever. And the world will be a much better place because of Me.

In all seriousness though, I do think there is more to agnosticism than a kind of sitting on the fence, can’t be bothered to make up my mind, intellectual laziness sort of thing.


Written by Seamus

November 14, 2007 at 12:16 am

Posted in philosophy

2 Responses

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  1. I call myself “spiritual”, which is another cop-out. Interesting that the phrase “can’t be bothered” appears twice in your post, sort of in contradiction.

    I’m not judging; I’m there too. Positive Agnosticism is hard work. It’s more than “I just don’t know”. I’m in the latter years of life, and still don’t have it right.


    November 14, 2007 at 1:11 am

  2. I see what you mean about my two uses of ‘bothered’ being in contradiction. But the difference between having a belief and taking the time to express it properly are not the same thing.

    Few self-contradiction sidestepped.


    November 17, 2007 at 3:21 pm

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