Chapter 12: Will the Real Atheist Please Stand Up?
If you’ve stuck with my review of Randal’s book from my own atheist perspective thus far, I congratulate you. As we have come to realize, the book isn’t easy reading. It’s often confused, meanders enough to forge its own Grand Canyon, and the topic changes are often so abrupt that you cannot but feel a bit disoriented by the sudden, often jolting, changes in course. Thus far, reading this book has felt more like riding white water rapids than, well, having any kind of a grande conversation. But that’s just my two cents.
When Randal presses Sheridan on why he’s an atheist and not a believer, he puts the spotlight on Sheridan to have to defend his atheism–even as atheism makes no positive claim, per se.
Sheridan responds by saying, “I’m without belief. I don’t believe there is a God and I don’t believe there isn’t either. That’s what I mean by atheist. I’m without belief either way.”
Randal nit-picks this apart, stating:
“What you’re describing is actually agnosticism, the state of not knowing, or not having a firm belief, about whether God exists or not. That’s not atheism.”
Randal is only partly right, of course. Atheists can in fact be agnostic. They deal with different angles when grappling with the God concept. Atheism is, technically speaking, a theological stance involving belief, affirming that the theistic stance is wrong. Agnosticism concerns itself with knowing. If you can’t know either way, belief is not the default.
You are free to not know things all day long, but minus any reason to believe, not believing becomes the default.
Randal then fires an ad hominem, saying he thinks Sheridan is just using the term “atheism” as a shock tactic “without having the intellectual firepower to back it up.”
Ouch. Poor Sheridan.
Next, Randal and Sheridan quibble over the word ‘atheist’ some more, and then Randal accuses Sheridan of changing the meaning of the word atheist after Sheridan explains that an atheist means “Without belief in God.”
Well, yes, this is one of the ancillary meanings of atheism, lacking belief in God or gods. Within that regard, everyone is atheist with respect to the belief in one deity or another. But this is beside the point.
Randal goes on to debate whether or not animals are atheists. Really, I see no reason to cover this section, and not just because it’s a stupid question. Animals, as far as we know, do not have religion nor are capable of abstract philosophy. Whether or not their limited intelligence makes them atheistic by default doesn’t really matter, and it’s only a question human philosophers would ask, and it really has no bearing on the definition of atheism with respect to what humans believe. It’s introducing a non sequitur for no reason.
So skipping ahead, Randal states:
“You claim that lack of belief in God is sufficient to make one an atheist. That claim presumably depends on the general principle that if a person refuses to accept a proposition, then that person de facto accepts the negation of that proposition.”
Before Randal makes a mess of what atheists believe, I think it would be wise to point out that most atheists understand well enough that atheism is a rejection of theism, as such, it is the belief that the theistic position is wrong or inadequate. Keeping this in mind, we move on to Randal’s next comment.
“So then by parity of reasoning it would follow that lack of belief in the non-existence of God would be sufficient to make one a theist. And that would mean that an agnostic would simultaneously qualify as an atheist and a theist.”
Ever the pedantic, Randal whips out the Oxford Companion to Philosophy to quote to Sheridan what atheism and agnosticism entail. After having pummeled Sheridan with the Oxford Companion’s definition of the terms, Randal points out, “[I]f you have no belief about whether God exists or not, you’re an agnostic, not an atheist.”
Sigh. Once again it seems Randal has already forgotten the difference between the two branches of thought. An agnostic concerns herself with knowing whereas the atheist concern herself with belief.
Here I must quote my friend Bud Uzoras, an ex-Christian minister turned atheist, who now writes the highly informative blog Dead-Logic. Mr. Uzoras has written extensively on atheism and agnosticism and, I think, has stated it the best, informing us that
People have used the adjectives “strong” or “positive” to describe the atheism in which one holds a positive belief that there is no god, and “weak” or “negative” atheism to refer to simple lack of belief without the belief or conviction that a god does not exist. Moments like this one are when I like to dig up this old chart, dust it off and put it on display, because it continues to be relevant:
Here we see that “agnostic” and “atheist” are not different options in the same category, but different labels referring to different categories altogether. “Atheist” deals with the realm of ontology, or reality, whereas “agnostic” deals with epistemology, or what we know (or don’t know) about reality. Agnosticism says, “I have no knowledge about a god.” Atheism says, “my view of reality doesn’t include a god.” There might be – and often is – correlation between one’s agnosticism and one’s atheism; i.e., “I don’t know, therefore I don’t believe.” But calling oneself an agnostic doesn’t answer the question of whether one’s current view of reality contains any kind of god.
Likewise – and as an aside – agnosticism can be separated into two categories: “strong” agnosticism, in which one believes no one can have adequate knowledge of the divine, and “weak” agnosticism, in which a person simply speaks for oneself – “I don’t know” – without claiming that knowledge of god is impossible. One could say that weak agnostics are agnostic about strong agnosticism.
As you can clearly see, Randal has simply missed the side of the barn. Actually, he’s missed the entire continent, of the entire state, in which the barn resides, and that’s pretty much all we need to say about this embarassing example of simply not getting what atheists truly believe. (Which makes one wonder, why didn’t Randal just ask a real atheist what they believed instead of prettending to know?)
Moving on, Randal goads Sheridan into having to defend his position, by asserting:
“[M]y question is whether your agnosticism is simply a commentary on your personal ignorance concerning God’s existence or whether you are making the much more robuts and controversial claim that nobody can know whether God exists.”
It must have been a rhetorical question, seeing as how Randal forgot the question mark, but this grammatical quibble aside, Randal is merely establishing that there is weak and strong agnosticism. But really, as Bud’s graphic illustrated, there is a range. I don’t see why Randal is pressing Sheridan to settle with one absolute description, except, that’s what theists tend to do—think of things in terms of absolutes—absolute truth, absolute morality, absolute this and that. Really, atheism is more about probabilities. I’d defend it on this ground, which makes more sense than asking how one could pretend to be an atheist if they also claim to be an agnostic. As we have seen, the two are not mutually exclusive points of view. There is, after all, overlap.
And the probability, just to throw it out there, is that God (of classical theism) is virtually non-existent.
Sheridan holds his ground an keeps reiterating he doesn’t believe in gods of any kind. Trying to be funny, Randal dubs him “Sir Sheridan the Agnostic” and highlights the point that Sheridan has admitted to his ignorance. Which you know, is such a nice thing of Randal to do. We always love it when someone points out and makes fun of our ignorance.
Although it wouldn’t have been my choice, this is how Randal chooses to end the chapter, and to be honest, I felt extremely let down by this chapter. Other than arguing for a dictionary meaning of atheism and agnosticism, Randal doesn’t actually cover any new ground. Even the last line of dialog is “It seems like we’re going in circles here.”
Well, yes, of course it does. Because instead of investigating the real interesting aspects of non-belief, whether atheistic or agnostic in nature, Randal only seems to be interested in making a mockery of his imaginary friend Sheridan, and then, oddly enough, mistakes his own caricature for a real representation of atheists everywhere. Either Poe’s Law is working overtime or Randal is presumptuous enough to think he can get away with defining other people’s beliefs for them.
In my experience however, most atheists are far more intelligent than Shridan is depicted as being. Most atheists I know are much kindlier too. Even the “cultural atheists” I know are much more reflective, and this comes as no surprise since the majority were raised in scientific homes and have become scientists. Thinking objectively is second nature to them.
Maybe I just know a lot of stand up atheists, but this much is sure, they are nothing like the ignorant, bumbling, atheist that Randal depicts Sheridan to be. It makes one wonder, what is Randal’s true opinion on atheists, really?
In the next chapter, chapter 13, we learn “I Just Happen to Believe in One Less God Than You” gets under Randal’s skin. Naturally. Why wouldn’t it?
I’m sure Randal will inform us at length regarding his deep philosophical problems with this line of reasoning too, which we’ll be sure to discuss in the next chapter.