Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Bad Creationist Arguments: Redefining Atheism

Since my last post on the topic, I've been somewhat carefully watching the blog Adoro Ergo Sum to see if there is any notice or note of my response. There didn't seem to be as far as I could tell, and so I decided it'd be best to just let the ignorance slip by. I'm not fond of debating anyway, so what reason would I have to shoehorn my reply into the argument? Simply put, I decided to keep quiet and not announce my rebuttal.

But then recently, I noticed a newer post from the same blog entitled "Why it Doesn't Make Sense to Define Atheism as 'Lack of Belief.'" The author, Nathan Barontini, wrote this post in conjunction with prior objections to the aforementioned post regarding atheism being unjustified. Part of my rebuttal falls into what Nathan takes issue with, and so I decided to give his response a read. What Nathan finds problematic is how many atheists define atheism in recent times; as opposed to defining it as believing there is no God, these atheists (myself included) define it as simply not believing in God. Nathan claims this is a reduction that doesn't make any sense. Once again, I find his argument to be underwhelming, and so I will respond to them here. This time, I will also be notifying Nathan of my rebuttal so that he might respond either in the comment section or with an article of his own. Readers be aware, however, that I do not intend to extend this to a prolonged back-and-forth exchange between the two of us. I'm interested in hearing any potential response Nathan can offer, but I'm not honestly expecting much. After addressing the following arguments, I will be comfortable with how much time I've spent responding to any claims made on Adoro Ergo Sum. Without further ado, let's begin.

It's very easy to see, at least for me, that Nathan loses his way from the very beginning. He seeks to first define the common positions (or systems) of belief in terms of religion and faith. He defines them thusly:
"The most straightforward, and most common, differentiation between positions on the existence of God is based on the various different answers to a very simple and straightforward question, Does God exist?

Group 1 - Theism - God Exists

Group 2 - Atheism1 (theism’s contradictory) - God doesn’t exist

Group 3 - Agnosticism2 (the skeptics) - We can’t know whether God exists or not

Group 4 - Weak Agnosticism (the ignorant) - God may or may not exist.

Group 1 (theists) answer the question Does God exist by saying “yes.” Group 2 (atheists) answer the same question “no.” Groups 3 and 4 answer our question by saying “I don’t know,” but differ on whether or not they think anyone can possibly know the answer."
The way in which Nathan defines these categories, respective to the original question "Does God exist?" is fairly unproblematic; however the issue here lies in the framing itself, and that question. Nathan has decided to use a valid prompt, "Does God exist?" What he fails to do, however, is entertain the notion that there are equally valid prompts to which someone can respond by stating one of these positions. Let me give the example that is most readily understandable, and puts a hole in Nathan's premise:
Prompt: Do you believe in God?

Group 1, theists, answer "yes."
Group 2, atheists, answer "no."
Group 3, agnostics, answer "I don't know (do not believe or disbelieve), and I never will."
Group 4, weak agnostics, answer "I don't know (do not believe or disbelieve)."
As we see here, all groups have given the same answer, but they hold entirely different implications as they respond to a different prompt. Here, the atheist answers "no" to whether or not they believe in God. This is a claim of personal belief, whereas the question Nathan uses is a claim of truth. Depending on how you frame the question, you still get the same response; however, the way in which the groups reply holds different weight. I, being an atheist, would respond to this question with a solid "no," placing me as an atheist, and yet I haven't gotten to the bigger question of "does God exist?" We will address that momentarily. Before we do this, however, I want to take a moment to respond to the paragraph that follows in Nathan's post.
"This last group is the weakest as it makes no real claim about anything outside their own heads. They say nothing about objective reality preferring to only comment on their own knowledge (or lack thereof). The proper agnostic at least affirms the unknowability of whether or not God exists, and thus can still be argued with. The “weak agnostic” however will not even go so far. This makes this last group not only the weakest, but also, by far, the least important."
This is such a bleak-minded view of the viewpoints in question, I don't know where to begin. Just because someone has not taken a position on an issue yet does not, by any means, imply that they are of any less importance and don't have anything to contribute. While it may be "weak," it's still valuable, and I will illustrate why in a moment.
"Someone from one of the first three groups can seek to enlighten them, but no one can argue with them as they have nothing to bring to the argument except ignorance. Imagine, if you will a group of mathematicians. The first man says the square of the hypotenuse equals that of the two sides. A second man denies this, claiming the math is simply wrong. A third man claims we can have no rule that will always work for all triangles.  These three men can have a conversation and even eventually work toward a solution to the disagreement. Now imagine a fourth man enters the scene who simply says “I dunno”. Is there any meaningful part in the conversation he can play other than being taught by one or all of the other men?"
Yes. The fourth man can take an objective point of view (insofar as he is without bias towards one particular position) and can, if he is informed on the subject, argue the merits and weaknesses of any side in the debate. What Nathan fails to see here is that just because someone says "I don't know" does not mean that is the last comment they make. I'll use some examples my coauthor, Nick, will like. A good lawyer, regardless of how he feels about a case, can argue the defense or the prosecution convincingly in most cases. This includes the potential scenario where the lawyer, having reviewed the case, is unable to make a determination for himself whether or not he personally agrees with the defense or the prosecution. Does this make him any less valuable to the debate? Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

Though, the courtroom has a structure conducive to that sort of thing, so let's use a more open example. This time, I'll invoke my coauthor as the example. Nick declares himself an "independent" in terms of politics, meaning he does not caucus with any particular political party. He examines positions via evidence and rationality. Does this mean that he's totally useless to the political process, because he hasn't picked a side? Of course not, because it's far more nuanced than that. He can take positions on individual policies, for example. Likewise, the "weak agnostic" is capable of taking positions on the merits of particular arguments involved in the debate of God's existence. To be so dismissive of this group is, in my opinion, heinous.
"In the same way we have three different positions that can have an active role in answering “the God question” while those claiming ignorance on the issue are best left to study the arguments and move into one of the other three camps."
So to summarize on this segment, Nathan's conclusion (above) is erroneous. People who claim ignorance on the final question can still offer nuanced talking points and arguments to narrow down the best of the other three herds. They don't need to take a position to contribute. They can moderate, they can reason, and they can find middle ground in the midst of heated argument. I'd encourage Nathan to leave his comfort zone and attempt a discussion with someone who has not made a decision on whether or not God exists, but is still informed enough to talk about the subject. The only thing absent is the ability to argue against them, since they have no position you can argue against -- you must entirely judge their reasoning based on the merits of the particulars. Difficult? Maybe. Fun and informative? Absolutely.

Continuing on with the primary point of this response, Nathan resumes his contention with atheists, framing such with the following diatribe:
"Apparently some atheists want to redefine these terms. To broaden out the atheist camp (perhaps in a desperate attempt to gain more numbers?) they seek to include most agnostics as atheists."
Nathan frames the argument in two ways: (1) he seeks to establish the definition he provided earlier as the definition of atheism, and any definition which deviates from this camp is a "redefinition;" and, (2) he tries to identify the motive of this "redefinition" in a rather vitriolic way. One can see why he might need a "weak agnostic" at this point, as his words are becoming increasingly toxic.

The problem with this premise, however, is that the definition of "atheism" meaning "without God" or simply "not believing in God" is not at all a recent phenomenon, and is an accepted definition by many accounts. From the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998): "In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in God, whereas an atheist disbelieves in God."

But earlier than this has existed a schism between definitions of atheism, ranging from defining it as an assertion or merely the absence of one. If Nathan took the time even to read the Wikipedia page, he'd immediately see that many people use the same type of distinction he uses for agnostics: weak and strong atheism, implicit and explicit. The point of this isn't to say my definition is correct and Nathan's is wrong -- no, I'm simply stating that there are many valid definitions of atheism which Nathan readily overlooks, due to his consistently being comfortable only with his perspective on the issues at hand. I'm challenging his premise that atheism's definition has to be, or has ever had to be the one he uses; and furthermore, I'm challenging the notion that this matters at all. It's simply framing the issue in a biased manner.

Continuing, Nathan believes that these "new" atheists want to define the terms as follows:
Group 1 - Gnostic Theism - God exists

Group 2 - Agnostic Theism - God may or may not exist, but I have a belief in God

Group 3 - Gnostic Atheism - God doesn’t exist

Group 4 - Agnostic Atheism - God may or may not exist, but I lack a belief in God
Nathan finds issue with this, firstly, because it leaves out the group "weak agnostics" and "[gives] them a weight they simply don't warrant." What Nathan fails to mention is that this is based on the premise that one needs four groups in this debate, with no overlaps. It's, again, a very bleak-minded view of the issue. Here is how I would divvy up the positions:
Group 1 - Gnostic Theists - God exists.
Group 2 - Weak Agnostic Theists - I don't know if God exists, but I take the position that he does.
Group 3 - Strong Agnostic Theists - I don't know if God exists, and I'll never know, but I take the position that he does.
Group 4 - Gnostic Atheists - God doesn't exist.
Group 5 - Weak Agnostic Atheists (Me) - I don't know if God exists, but I take the position that he doesn't.
Group 6 - Strong Agnostic Atheists - I don't know if God exists, and I'll never know, but I take the position that he doesn't.
Group 7 - Weak Agnostics - I don't know if God exists, and I don't take a position.
Group 8 - Strong Agnostics - I don't know if God exists, and I'll never know, and I don't take a position.
And this is only the beginning, as I could get into the divisions if we included universalism as a position as well (the belief that religion, or belief in God, is a human universal), since one can be a universalist but also take a position on whether or not they personally belief in God or not, or whether or not we'll ever know. The issue is far more nuanced than Nathan likes to make it, and he seems to think that all atheists think the way he does. By definition, we don't.

So to answer Nathan's next question, "Where are the people who claim not only that we don’t happen to know whether God exists, but that we can’t know," the answer is: right here. Just because he left them out of the equation doesn't mean we do. I certainly don't. There is no reason to believe that religious belief has to consist of exclusionary, non-overlapping categories as Nathan likes to illustrate. There's quite a continuum.
"If we pose our simple, straightforward question, does God exist, to these four new groups we get a simple “yes” from group one and “no” from group 3, while getting no answer at all from the remaining two groups. Group 2 answers, “I dunno, but I have a belief in God.” Group 3, “I dunno, but I lack belief.” Why anyone feels it necessary to add on an answer to an entirely unasked question about they belief/ lack of belief in God is quite beyond me."
Now that we have gone over the issues, we can now see why Nathan's confusion is of his own doing. The reason the answer is to an unasked question, as he puts it, is because he only asked one question. The reason he finds confusion with the answers is because, as we have reviewed, he only lets in four groups. The only problem is within Nathan's own mind, not with any epistemological issue that "new" atheists have.
"It is interesting to note that, supposedly, most atheists (or “most intelligent/ educated atheists”) are in group 4, that is they are really agnostics who happen to (mis)identify as atheists rather than being atheists in the full and proper sense of the term as most people use it."
Let's, for a moment, accept Nathan's argument: by definition, I am now an agnostic, because I fell into group 4. I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic. Now, ask me this question: "Do you believe there is a God?" My answer? No. I don't believe there's a God. I disbelieve in God. I have now fallen back into atheism. But I'm an agnostic, because if you asked me another question: "Do you know for sure that there is/isn't a God," I'd also answer "no."

But more importantly than the nuance that Nathan ignores is this: who gives a flying fuck? Language, by definition, is not set in stone. If we were seeking to redefine the terms that already exist (which we aren't), then it's not a fallacy for us to not follow the original etymology; in fact, to assert otherwise is a fallacy. Language evolves. Terms become more encompassing, and nuanced. When it happens, get used to it.

So to answer the last question in this series of argument, where Nathan wonders if anyone but agnostic atheists use this system, the answer is that it doesn't matter. Groups/categories are useful tools by which we seek to assimilate information from the outside world into our own manner of understanding. We can choose what groups we assign people to, including what groups we assign ourselves to. So long as they are logically valid (which, as I have displayed here, the nuanced system in question is valid), they can be used, and can be consistent with reality. These groups are socially/culturally constructed, not concrete definitions based on some unchanging element of the universe.

Now we will get into the smaller, latter portions of Nathan's article, just for a bit of fun, since his arguments only get worse from here. To begin:

1: What's the motive?

Nathan has now changed his story to display that an agnostic, when asked "do you believe in God," would answer "no." Most agnostics I've encountered hear this question, sigh, fumble on their words a bit, and then answer "I don't know, I'm an agnostic." They need to clarify. It depends on the system, however, what category they fall into.

In any case, Nathan wonders what the motive is to all of this imagined controversy. The answer, he claims, isn't clarity. Of course not, it's accuracy. Nathan, however, believes that the motive is to shift the burden of proof onto theists because atheists know they can't provide evidence or reason for their worldview. Well, that would be valid if the atheists defined themselves as "believing there is no God," but that's largely not the case. That would require justification, but simply disbelieving does not require said justification. If these atheists really do take this position, "I don't believe in God, but I'm not saying there is no God," then the burden of proof is most certainly on the theist. This isn't even an argument. This is Nathan's attempt to force atheists to take a position, consistent with his issue with weak agnostics. He doesn't like that they make no assertions. It's hard to argue with someone like that. He likes simplicity and clarity, not nuance and accuracy. Life isn't like that though, Nathan. If a person says, "I'm an atheist, I don't believe in God," and you say, "I'm a theist, I do believe in God," then you're the only one making an assertion. The burden of proof is therefore on you.

2: Is theism just a lack of belief too?

Nathan nearly makes a joke of himself here by stating that one could argue that theism, being "the non-belief in an uncaused universe," is simply a lack of belief too, and the burden of proof is therefore shifted back to atheists. This is absolutely hilarious, because the only thing needed to refute this is 1st grade grammar. The statement is a double negative. Let's say "belief in an uncaused universe" is "aunivertarianism" (bear with me here). To reject that claim by having "non-belief in an uncaused universe," then, would be a-aunivertarianism, or just univertarianism. It cancels out.

So why is this invalid, but atheism isn't? Because atheism (a) isn't a double negative; and, (b) is still rejecting an assertion. This isn't difficult to understand.

3: More absurdity.

Nathan gets even more ridiculous by claiming that defining atheism as "lack of belief in God" would then bring in dogs, cats, trees, etc. into the group of "atheism." This is utterly moronic. Okay, let's again accept Nathan's premise: "lack of belief in God" should be properly defined as "agnosticism." Now then, now that we've got the definitions right, let's call dogs, cats and trees by their proper title: agnostics! Dogs are agnostics, cats are agnostics, and trees are agnostics!

Yeah it's stupid isn't it?

The reason, clearly, is that all these things lack consciousness. You can't take a position or have an absence of a position if you lack the ability to take/not take a position.

To summarize, here Nathan has tried extending his aggressive rejection of atheism and the lack of taking a position to such extremes that he has made his argument so nonsensical that it can't even be identified as a proper argument anymore. It's an incoherent diatribe against atheists for not conforming to Nathan's understanding of the world. It's absurd.

Nathan, if you're going to challenge atheists, don't do it by forcing conformity upon them. The very fact that we're atheists, a minority and socially taboo group, means it's not going to work. Confusing the issue doesn't make your position any more legitimate, because the fallacies therein are still plain to see.

Thank you all very much for reading.

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