Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Why I Will Always Be Agnostic

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 15, 2010

I came to the conclusion a little while ago that even if I adopt a particular belief, I will technically have to call myself an agnostic. The reason is that “agnostic” is about knowledge, what we can know. This is different to belief. Agnostic means “I don’t know”

We tend to place belief as an on/off black/white yes/no question. I think there can be shades and nuances, in terms of my own experience. Some time ago I came up with the Agnostic Scale. (We can argue about whether it should be called the “belief scale” or the “knowledge scale” 1) It looks like this:

Both zero and ten are not possible for us. We cannot “know” there is no God. Equally, we cannot— in this life at least— “know” there is a God. So let’s add to the diagram:

The best we can do is be at position one— “I strongly believe there is no God”, or position nine— “I strongly believe there is a God”. I strongly believe Morocco exists, even though I’ve never been there 2. Also note that position nine doesn’t specify what kind of God, a Deist could also be at position nine.

All believers are un-knowers. Having a concept of belief rather than knowledge allows me to move up and down the scale, as my beliefs change over time. At times in the past I’ve been at position nine. A few years ago I moved to about a three, which would be something like “It’s not very likely there is a God”, or perhaps “I have strong doubts about whether God exists.”

Pascal made me think about the distinction of belief versus knowledge. My other example is Bertrand Russell, who called himself an atheist but if his audience were more savvy would call himself an agnostic, as he couldn’t say he “knew” God didn’t exist.

My point is that even If I decide there is a Being behind the universe, it will always be a belief, not knowledge, however strongly I may feel about it.

Right now I’d put myself at about a 7, something like “I think it’s likely God might exist”. I may move back towards the zero, or up towards the 10. But no matter what, I’ll always be an agnostic.

Respond

How would you label other points on the scale?
Where would you put yourself on the scale?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

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[1] In conversation Phrenic Philosophy pointed out that Richard Dawkins published a similar scale in his book The God Delusion. I’d forgotten that, but my scale was conceived independently, so sucks to you, Dawkins 😉

[2] Philosophy alert: Language enthusiasts can amuse yourselves trying to finesse what the statement “Morocco exists” means. The study of how we know something is called epistemology. The classic definition of knowledge is “justified, true belief”. To be extra snarky: Do you “know” YOU exist?

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80 Responses to “Why I Will Always Be Agnostic”

  1. Iain said

    Hooray, looking forward to this one. 🙂

  2. Iain said

    Actually, to stupidly preempt this discussion without knowing what you’re going to say at all (lol), P.Z. Myers recently wrote a relevant (although totally different and I’m sure more hostile) take on this sort of topic here.

    • Oh, stupid is always welcome 🙂

      Perhaps I could write another post titled “Why I Will Never Be An Atheist” – people like PZ Myers is one of the reasons. I get pissed off by belligerent, angry christians, and I get pissed off by atheists who are exactly the same, as far as I’m concerned.

      As my Dad always said, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

      • Iain said

        Yes, since PZ is a strong atheist he is in the same boat with respect to agnosticism that theists are.

        • Yup. There are atheists who sneer at agnostics for not having the balls to deny the possibility of God.

          I’ll just say two words to that: Bertrand Russell.

          Now shut the @#* up, vitriolic atheists, you make the world a worse place.

          🙂

      • Iain said

        I find it ironic that a common criticism that I hear of theism is along the lines of, “they want comfort, certainty, the answers to everything.”

        If you think about it, in order to affirm a positive form of atheism to the point where you reject the reasonableness of agnosticism means you are doing exactly the same thing: wanting certainties instead of being secure enough to sit with unknowns.

        p.s. I think time is flowing in reverse. We’re filling up the comment section before the post has arrived haha

  3. […] Why I Will Always Be Agnostic […]

  4. Iain said

    I may sound like a bit of a party pooper, but I think *as is* I’m not totally happy with your scale. I’ll explain.

    This is an agnostic scale, so presumably it is about a gradient of epistemic certainty.

    Position one and position ten are entirely understandable with respect to epistemology, as they both take clear positions on the possibility or impossibility of having religious knowledge.

    However, when you jump to saying “believe” on 2 and 9, I think you’re sliding into the affirmation of actual propositions that you TAKE to be true or not (rather than whether you can know). So I think that an atheist, for example, could very happily feel that position two was an atheistic affirmation and said nothing about their epistemology (or agnosticism).

    I wonder if there is any way to tweak the middle positions to make them about the reasonableness of the epistemic “knowability” of religious claims rather than about propositions which we actively hold to be true (or false).**

    I hope I’m making sense. 🙂

    ** e.g. Two might be, “I strongly think that religious claims are unprovable/untestable” whereas Nine might be “I strongly think that private religious experiences or miracles provide reliable evidence of the transcendent”. This can create the highly interesting scenario where a skeptical yet faithful believer might affirm Two whereas an atheist affirms Nine (only hasn’t had any such experiences yet). As is, I don’t think that’s possible here.

    • Great! Not liking my scale at all is also useful, and might help me create a better one.

      But for tonight, I’m too sleepy to engage, so will read and digest tomorrow 🙂

    • Hmm… I think I can see where you’re coming from. I guess I could still use the scale as a descriptor of “my personal feelings”. But it would be nice to have it consistent/accurate.

      Having a “jump” from belief to knowledge at either end of the scale. Hmm… if knowledge IS “justified true BELIEF”, then perhaps knowledge can still go on the ends of the scale?

  5. Iain said

    Sorry I meant ONE and nine, not two and nine.

  6. Lydia said

    I would say that I waver between 4 and 6. I hope that there is something out there, but there’s a _big_ difference between hoping and believing something to be true. I just don’t know!

  7. Paul said

    I would say I strongly believe there is no God and as such vote 2, because I just find an notion of an intelligent supreme being building and controlling the entire universe to be extremely implausible. But as for the afterlife, that is a different issue altogether and I would vote 6. I find reincarnation argued through the weak anthropic principle to be the most plausible, but I can never be absolutely sure.

    • That’s a really interesting perspective Paul, and I guess it shows how simple things like my scale actually don’t do beliefs justice. At best it’s a guide?

      Thanks 🙂

  8. JB said

    Revisiting your blog after a few weeks away. Life has been a bit mad. But a good mad. 🙂

    I relate to and appreciate your sliding scale here, Jon.

    On some days I feel like a 3 but then when I think of “coincidences” in my life that are too impossible to happen under “natural” circumstances I end up at 8 or 9. But most days, I’m probably a 5, mixing my intellect with my spirit and heart can make for dicey business.

    However I do make a pretty awesome Judeo-Chritian agnostic with Buddhist leanings, if truth be told.

    • I am often too much in doubt to appreciate “coincidences”.

      I didn’t realise you were “pretty” Jonathan. I guess a pretty believer is always nice to look at 😛

  9. “Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.” (Zhuangzi)

  10. shanoxilt said

    Perhaps I could write another post titled “Why I Will Never Be An Atheist” – people like PZ Myers is one of the reasons. I get pissed off by belligerent, angry christians, and I get pissed off by atheists who are exactly the same, as far as I’m concerned.

    But that is just as illogical a position. Other people have nothing to do with the truth of a given statement.

  11. Paul said

    There is not much difference to believing or disbelieving in God from a 98% certainty to a 99% certainty but a huge difference between believing or disbelieving in God from a 99% certainty to a 100% certainty

  12. SugarPop said

    Interesting idea – the difference between knowledge (as certainty) and belief. Certainty (and knowledge) to me are binary, whereas belief is definitely a sliding scale.

    🙂

    • Iain said

      Agreed with the Popster!

      I think that they are two independent scales. That is why atheism/theism and agnosticism/gnosticism are different classes of thinking, after all.

      This is my try at four relevant claims made by both scales,

      Knowledge: Everybody at least implicitly knows / I know / I don’t know / Nobody can know.

      vs.

      Belief: Everybody at least implicitly believes / I have faith / I don’t have faith / Nobody really believes.

      I guess the scales could be stretched to allow differing positions of certainty of belief or level of knowledge.

      • Putting knowledge and belief on two different scales. I guess that’s what you alluded to in your first comment saying you found my scale unsatisfactory.

        Hmmm.

        If nothing else, this may clear my thinking, which is always good 🙂

      • SugarPop said

        Thanks Iain – and I like the variation on my handle 😀

  13. […] Why I Will Always Be Agnostic. The only thing more intriguing than talking about (dis)belief is translating the variety of our beliefs into a scale. […]

  14. 'Seph said

    Hey bro! I remember you from TheOoze!

    I like this particular post.
    Where would I put myself on this scale?
    …you need to read The Zen of Contemplating God (and maybe even Harmonious-Dichotomies).

    In The Zen of Contemplating God I speak of a Theism-Atheism dichotomy. A particular Western-World view; it’s really a paradigm of a-question-of-theism, and everything’s put into that perspective.

    Theism (of any sort) ultimately is a statement of belief, in which the burden of proof or definition is upon the Theist.

    Atheism is also a statement of belief and the onus of proof or definition lies upon the Atheist.

    From a certain perspective both of these positions’ commonality are that they’re “systems of belief” (not facts) and they both have an obligation of proof, or to define themselves (ie There is a God. There is not a God).

    This is a dichotomous scale with Theism and Atheism being either polar end, and the central “gray area” being degrees of Agnosticism. (These are the scales you’ve used and pointed out).

    I’m wondering if some who claim to be agnostic do so only because there would appear to be no other options available within this paradigm; feeling somewhat lost. To claim to be agnostic is near synonymous with being a sort of seeker, yet I know many who have ‘found’ their position after years of ‘seeking’ and have no other position to refer to themselves but Agnosticism.

    Agnosticism is either a position of indecision, or one of having given up or having decided the answer is unknowable. They are still posing the very same question: Does God exist? These positions are fundamentally based upon proof, or lack thereof. (You make this distinction as belief vs. knowledge).. All these positions presume the goal (intentional or not) to be proof or definition.

    The “Black” polar position of Atheism, the “White” polar position of Theism, the “Gray” positions of Agnosticism (in all its forms) all fall into a particular and singular world view. A Paradigm of Proof.

    To the Theist, to the Atheist, and to the Agnostic, it is all a question of theism. Does God exist?
    They all share the same question; they just differ as to what the correct answer is.
    I’m not suggesting yet another method of discovering the correct answer (if one even exists), but to cease asking the question altogether; to change the question itself. (The venerable tradition of Apophatic theology – still falls within the perspective. We’re still trying to prove or define God. We’re just doing it by what He/She/It isn’t).

    A completely different perspective is a Post-Theistic one. There is no “statement of belief”. There is also no focus on nor onus of proof or definition. No belief has been stated therefore no proof need be forwarded. This particular ‘position’ isn’t one of proof. The focus is elsewhere.

    So what good does thinking about God’s theistic and atheistic nature have? To simply abandon this line of questioning and wondering returns us to a position to this selfsame Paradigm of Proof. It returns us to Agnosticism. (Don’t know. Can’t know. Don’t care).

    The Japanese have a concept called Mu.
    Mu; unask the question. It isn’t that we need to choose or find the correct answer, but rather, we need to find the correct question. I think the problem we’re facing here is that we’re asking the wrong questions (or allowing the wrong questions to be asked).

    (concludes with… see The Zen of Contemplating God)

    ‘Seph Sayers

    • Iain said

      I like your style Seph. A very interesting contribution, here. I’ll make sure to check out your blog. 🙂

    • Hey, it’s nice to see someone noticed me on the Oooze. Perhaps I should go back there?

      You’ve shared a lot of good stuff here, Seph, and I shall check out your blog.

      Any ideas yet on what question we *should* be asking? 🙂

      • 'Seph said

        Yes, but I’ll have to give it only as an example:

        My favourite story is the fundamentalist Creationist, die-hard Darwinian Evolutionist and Jesus sitting in a coffee shop.

        The Creationist and Evolutionist are violently arguing. Jesus is just sitting there, apparently quasi-listening, staring out the window sipping his hot coffee.

        At some point the Creationist and Evolutionist turn to Jesus and ask, “Well? Whose right? Which one of us has the truth?!!”

        To which he answers, while pointing just outside the coffee shop’s window, “Which one of you are going to buy the poor vagrant coffee and lunch?”

      • 'Seph said

        Continuing with this idea of a “Paradigm of Proof”. The Theism-Atheism Dichotomy is a trap or illusion we need to be free of.

        The existence of Morocco makes for a very good point.
        This has to do with Trust, Theories, and (what I like to call) Anti-theories.

        A Theory (Hypothesis) can only ever be proven wrong. It can never be proven right. We believe a theory, we trust a viable theory because no evidence to disprove it has been presented. Just like there is no evidence to support the non-existence of Morocco.

        An Anti-theory can only ever be proven right. It can never be proven wrong, because we believe in the Anti-theory on the assumption that the supporting evidence has yet to be discovered.

        I believe in the Tooth Fairy. Yes, years ago I discovered that it was my parents who took the tooth and put the money in its place, but that didn’t disprove the Tooth Fairy. That only provided evidence of where the tooth disappeared to and where the money came from. That didn’t confirm or deny the Tooth Fairy’s existence. The evidence that proves the Tooth Fairy’s existence will come shortly.

        Just like the Super Particle Accelerator built in Argentine in order to see if microscopic black holes could be created, or even exist. (The experiment failed to produce a microscopic black hole, btw). It would have been conclusive only if it succeeded. It’s failure doesn’t disprove their existence. (Hypothetically, the existence of microscopic black holes could always potentially exist).

        Belief in the existence of Morocco is a Theory. (Based on a reasonable trust).
        Belief in Cthulhu’s Sunken City of Ryleh is an Anti-theory. (Based on a reasonable doubt).

        That’s also the beautifully convenient nature of Conspiracy Theories. They’re Anti-theories for the most part. (On a side note, an Anti-theory could still possibly be right. It’s just poor methodology).

        By very strict definitions, most Belief-Systems are Anti-theories. By hard-core Secular-Atheism definitions all religions; all beliefs of any sort are Anti-theories. (But the hard-core Atheist needs to tread carefully when painting with this broad brush. If you’ve read Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ much of his theory of evolution was based upon evidence not yet discovered. The Theory of Evolution is/was an Anti-theory. Just like Super-string Theory, just like M-Theory).

        Let’s not get sidetracked here.

        In terms of Agnosticism we really aren’t talking about Belief and/or Knowing. What we’re talking about is reasonable Trust and reasonable Doubt.
        An important factor to keep in mind is that a healthy faith includes – nay, even necessitates – a faithful doubt. Otherwise it’s little more than a doubtful faith.

        What the real problem is between Theism and Atheism, Trust and Doubt, is that we need to not only develop the ability to distinguish the difference between Belief and Fact, but also to embrace a faithful doubt.

        I’ll give an example. I personally believe in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. I believe fish walked on land, dinosaurs changed into birds, and man evolved from monkeys. This is my belief, but not necessarily fact.

        I am fully aware that Darwin’s “Origin of Species” does not successfully answer the question of the origin of life.

        I am aware that micro-evolution has scientifically been proven, but that macro-evolution has not.

        I am aware that Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection has a near impossible time accounting for Irreducibly Complex Systems.

        Darwin’s Evolution is an incomplete (and far from perfect) system. There are holes in it yet to be filled (and that belief in itself is an Anti-theory). I also believe Intelligent Design is not any sort of viable theory but it’s good at pointing out – and potentially filling in – the holes of Darwinian Evolution).

        That is embracing a ”faithful doubt” – allowing doubt to exist and be okay with it.

        I also see great value in differentiating between Belief and Fact.

        Belief is to be seen as belief, not as fact. When we see our beliefs as facts, then we are deluding ourselves. When we see our beliefs as beliefs, then we are not. Seeing things in their true light is the most important thing. Deluding ourselves is the cause of much suffering. I try to see beliefs as beliefs. I try not to worry about whether these beliefs are true or not, or try to prove that which I know cannot be proved. The moment we attempt to transform what I believe into fact is the moment human suffering begins.

        I realize I’ve had to ‘travel around the world'</i. to get to my point, but ultimately this is why I'd prefer to hold a position clearly off this Agnostic Scale.

      • Iain said

        I have a few thoughts, and problems, with this comment.

        Seph said:

        An Anti-theory can only ever be proven right. It can never be proven wrong, because we believe in the Anti-theory on the assumption that the supporting evidence has yet to be discovered.

        It sounds like an Anti-Theory can’t be based on a good hypothesis. From my understanding of your description, it sounds like Anti-Theories are those things which, by the problem of inference, can only be disproved by doing something impossible like “proving a negative”. If I held an Anti-Theory that said we were all highly complex robots who were invented by inter-dimensional aliens designed to mimic biological life, I could simply claim that biology has yet to find the evidence to prove my theory. It doesn’t seem like a scientifically useful concept to entertain.

        Perhaps Anti-Theories could simply be called, “not a real (scientific) Theory at all”?

        If you’ve read Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ much of his theory of evolution was based upon evidence not yet discovered. The Theory of Evolution is/was an Anti-theory. Just like Super-string Theory, just like M-Theory).

        That evolution occurs is not in doubt. What was presented by Darwin was only the mechanism of evolution. Some gaps were missing in his knowledge, for example the specific (DNA based) mechanism for heredity, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore.

        I agree that M-Theory is pure speculation.

        What the real problem is between Theism and Atheism, Trust and Doubt, is that we need to not only develop the ability to distinguish the difference between Belief and Fact, but also to embrace a faithful doubt.

        Isn’t that what all honest, agnostic theists do?

        I’ll give an example. I personally believe in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. … This is my belief, but not necessarily fact.

        I think that what we can say is that due to the confluence of evidence from so many scientific disciplines, it is fair to say in LAY terms that evolution is a “fact” even if this is not strictly true using the scientific definition of the word.

        I am aware that micro-evolution has scientifically been proven, but that macro-evolution has not.

        Macro- versus micro-evolution is not a scientifically useful division. All creates change, slowly, gradually, in tiny ways over the years. Macro/micro is a false dichotomy given to change noticed at two different levels of resolution.

        I am aware that Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection has a near impossible time accounting for Irreducibly Complex Systems.

        I’m not aware of a single example of Irreducible Complexity that has withstood examination by the greater scientific community.

        Darwin’s Evolution is an incomplete (and far from perfect) system. There are holes in it yet to be filled (and that belief in itself is an Anti-theory). I also believe Intelligent

        Design is not any sort of viable theory but it’s good at pointing out – and potentially filling in – the holes of Darwinian Evolution).

        Is this different to using the God of the Gaps concept?

        Belief is to be seen as belief, not as fact. When we see our beliefs as facts, then we are deluding ourselves. When we see our beliefs as beliefs, then we are not. Seeing things in their true light is the most important thing. Deluding ourselves is the cause of much suffering. I try to see beliefs as beliefs. I try not to worry about whether these beliefs are true or not, or try to prove that which I know cannot be proved. The moment we attempt to transform what I believe into fact is the moment human suffering begins.

        What is the value of a belief if it is not true? Beliefs lead to actions, after all. If one believes something false then, surely, this only creates either arbitrary or detrimental behaviours. If knowledge is justified and true belief, then I see that there is great value in knowledge compared to misheld beliefs.

        • 'Seph said

          Perhaps Anti-Theories could simply be called, “not a real (scientific) Theory at all”?

          Absolutely. Problem is, many people think this way. (At least many people that I’ve encountered). I have found a great many fundamentalists do.

          I’m not aware of a single example of Irreducible Complexity that has withstood examination by the greater scientific community.

          Really? (I don’t mean that in an argumentive way). Could you give me an example (or point me in a direction)?

          What is the value of a belief if it is not true?

          I meant, more specifically, towards beliefs that cannot be proven. (i.e. God)
          My bad. I didn’t specify.

      • Iain said

        Hi Seph,

        Sure I’ll try to help with some references.

        If you want to wade through Kitzmiller v Dover, you can find the entire transcript here. It should be worthwhile at least reading Behe’s testimony and his cross-examination etc. The website provides them all in hyperlinked sections for easy access.

        The Judge on the Kitzmiller trial concluded in his summary statement, “We therefore find that Professor Behe’s claim for irreducible complexity has been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the scientific community at large.” (from here)

        Ken Miller is a catholic and a scientist. Ken contributed to the refutation of Behe’s position in the original trial and he happens also to have fairly good cred even among atheists. I think Ken is a shining example of religion and science honestly coming together in one individual.

        Wikipedia provides some clear examples of how the scientific community has responded to, and disproved, Behe’s claims about Irreducible Complexity. You can read about it here. The frustrating part is, many of these things have been disproved for years and yet the idea still bounces around lay society continuing the lifespan of this fallacy long after it has been discredited amongst the relevant scientific professionals.

        If you want to see some discussion of how Behe’s claims that the bacterial flagellum or the origin of the immune system etc are irreducibly complex have been demonstrated to be wrong for years, you might enjoy reading about it here, here, or here.

  15. UnReal from Agnostic forums says:

    That’s a very interesting scale, and this is how I would fill it in:

    0) I know there is no god.

    1) I strongly believe there is no god.

    2) I believe there is no god.

    3) I’m uncertain, but I believe there probably is no god.

    4) I’m uncertain, but I think the chances are greater that there is no god.

    5) I’m uncertain of god’s existence.

    6) I’m uncertain, but I think the chances are greater that there is a god.

    7) I’m uncertain, but I believe there probably is a god.

    8 ) I believe there is a god.

    9) I strongly believe there is a god.

    10) I know there is a god.

    • Iain said

      I quite like that scale, and yes I agree with your earlier comment, Jonathan, that “know” probably is a relevant end point of the belief scale.

      I’m less certain about the 2/3 and 7/8 transition though. What does it take to jump from uncertainty about the transcendent to certain-enough-to-believe? Hmm.

  16. I’m a 1

  17. No God=atheist or agnostic?

    • I’m not sure what your question is Romy. I’m sure you know that atheists believe there is no god, whereas agnostics aren’t certain.

    • Iain said

      Depending on the definitions you are using, no belief in god can be both atheist and agnostic.

      These are the particular meaning I like using:

      Weak atheism – doesn’t affirm a belief in any god.
      Strong atheism – positively affirms there is no god(s).

      Weak agnosticism – doesn’t know about whether god(s) exist.
      Strong agnosticism – thinks that nobody can know whether god(s) exist.

      So an agnostic can also be a weak atheist but not a strong one.

      This website also provides a useful discussion.

  18. Sorry for being cryptic. I know the definitions but what number am I if I believe in God but not religion?

    • Iain said

      You’d be a non-institutionalised believer. So you’re a 2 with independent social inclinations.

    • Well if you believe in God you wouldn’t be atheist.
      Agnostic talks about not knowing if God exists or not, so I guess you could be up around 8-9 if you strongly believe in a G-d.

      It says nothing about what KIND of G-d you believe in. That’s beyond this scale which isn’t about any particular religion.

      I guess if you want to label yourself you could be a Deist, which means you believe a great Mind exists, but that none of the religions have it right.

    • SugarPop said

      Interesting – to me any belief in God is entirely separate to any subscription to religion. So an 8 to me means strong belief in God. Period. No other labels necessary.

      • Iain said

        That was my thinking, too. Presumably an individual can believe that a god or god(s) are behind their religious experiences and that a god or god(s) created the universe (e.g. cosmological argument for god) without adhering to any particular religion.

        If religions are seen as ritualised ways of connecting to god(s) as well as systems that claim to provide more details about the exact nature of god(s), then one could have a god-belief without caring what any given religion has to say on the subject.

        • SugarPop said

          Yus! Why I choose to *label* myself as syncretist – although that term doesn’t actully fully or accurately *represent* me, it’s the nearest thing to it that I have found so far… 🙂

        • 'Seph said

          Since when would belief in God (any sort of God(s)) and belief/activity with Religion have anything to do with one another?

          I’d consider myself a non-institutionalized pluralist.

      • Iain said

        ‘Seph said:

        Since when would belief in God (any sort of God(s)) and belief/activity with Religion have anything to do with one another?

        That was my exact point. I agree. However, many people who exclusivistically hold to their religion feel that their religion provides the only valid path to finding their deity. I know many people who hold such a belief.

        I’d consider myself a non-institutionalized pluralist.

        What do you mean by that, specifically?

        • 'Seph said

          I’d consider myself a non-institutionalized pluralist

          What do you mean by that, specifically?

          Well, I think the non-institutionalized part doesn’t need explaining, does it?

          As far as the pluralist part goes…
          The way I see it everybody follows some sort of belief-system (Even atheism is a sort of ‘religion’ of sorts).
          There are three camps (and yes I’m simplifying):

          1) Exclusivists (“My truth/belief/faith is 100% right and everybody else’s ‘claim’ to truth is just subjective and – basically – wrong. Here, I’ll show you the truth”. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis, where Thesis (the exclusivist’s truth) can only ever possibly be watered down).

          2) Incluvisists (“My truth/belief/faith is 100% right, but some others’ have aspects of the truth – parts of it.”)

          3) Pluralism – and yes I know there can be several definitions (“No faith/religion has the whole truth. All are in error. Maybe some have aspects, or reflections of a higher truth”. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis, where Synthesis is another step closer to the truth)

        • SugarPop said

          hmmmm….. What do you think the difference might be, ‘Seph and Iain, between

          3) Pluralism – and yes I know there can be several definitions (“No faith/religion has the whole truth. All are in error. Maybe some have aspects, or reflections of a higher truth”. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis, where Synthesis is another step closer to the truth)

          vs this definition of syn·cre·tism (sngkr-tzm, sn-)

          n.
          1. Reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief, as in philosophy or religion, especially when success is partial or the result is heterogeneous.

          To me they are saying the same thing, but you might think differently?

          Looking forward to your thoughts… 🙂

        • Iain said

          Hey there, SugarPop.

          My understanding of syncretism and pluralism was that they are related but not identical (now, this is only my understanding and so take it with a grain of salt).

          I thought they were something like:

          pluralism – all religions are valid in some way, and all lead to god.
          syncretism – the blending, within a given culture, of pre-existing folk religion with the ideas of a newcomer religion that has spread or dominated as of more recently.

          So a pluralist might believe that ANY faith is just a path up the great mountain that leads to god, and different faiths are just different paths.
          A syncretist, by my definition, might merge aspects of their cultural religion (e.g. african tribal religion) with a more recent one such as christianity.

        • 'Seph said

          I’ve never come across this term before. (Well, I have, just not applied in this context).

          There is definitely a distinction between a Pluralist and a Syncretist.
          Let’s go back to the analogy of paths up the mountain.
          I suppose a Pluralist believes (or maybe allows; tolerates?) that there are a multiplicity of paths up the mountain. But this is more of a belief rather than a practice. (What actual path does the Pluralist follow to the mountain top?)

          I should think the Syncretist is more practical. The Syncretist ‘jumps’ paths. Whatever works. Although I don’t think it’s a necessity, I would think the Syncretist wouldn’t have (or actually practice) a particular tradition.

          Maybe we should preempt these (now 4) positions by asking the question, what is the purpose of religion?

          We are asking the question which path(s) (or possibly many or all) lead to the top of the mountain? Which path(s) (or do all paths?) lead to God?

          Must that be the goal?

          Personally, I think Religion is a double-edged sword. I think the purpose of Religion is solace and compassion (Solace on an individual level, and compassion on a corporate level). I believe that is the goal.
          However, the darker side of Religion is religiosity and addiction to the system.

          Is finding the right path to God necessary for an individual’s solace and compassion to others?

        • 'Seph said

          I suppose by Sugarpop’s definition
          definition of syn·cre·tism (sngkr-tzm, sn-)

          n.
          1. Reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief, as in philosophy or religion, especially when success is partial or the result is heterogeneous

          I am one.

          About a year ago I wrote this self-identifying description of myself:

          I can carry Taoist values, as reflected through certain martial arts – dichotomies often existing in harmony, not at the expense of one another.

          I can learn the tranquility of the Buddhist, to let go of issues that cause stress, as there is a time and place for passivity.

          I can value, revere, and worship the divine directly through Nature, paralleling paganism.

          I am free to hold Christian and monotheistic metaphoric truths to further understand the incomprehensible and hope to love others better, without the trappings of literalism, tribalism and legalism.

          I can appreciate and accept Catholicism’s veneration of the Virgin Mary as a manifestation of the much needed yet unaddressed divine-feminine.

          I can see the symbolic power and beauty of Orthodox icons and not suffer from idolatry.

          Because of the Gnostics, I hope to be free of the addictive nature of historicity and religiosity.

          I need not abandon the open-eyed skepticism of the Humanist, Atheist, or Agnostic on watchful guard for liars, “words of knowledge”, cheats, spiritual frauds, “prophetic gifts”, and charlatans.

          ~

          I am Woven; a living tapestry of identities, languages, cultures, and faiths.
          A piece of burlap; Strong and tightly bound, yet unbound in my liberty.
          I am not a subject of the lowest common denominator. I am a gestalt. The unweaving of one part is the undoing of the whole.

          What the Religionist must call purification – the purging of alien practices and ways – is to become unwoven. A single thread is easier to capture than a richly woven tapestry.

          The lost, the forgotten, the abused, the broken, the abandoned, the common, and the mundane; we are woven.

          …yeah. Sounds pretty much like a Syncretist to me…. !!!

        • 'Seph said

          After reading Wikipedia’s definition of it (especially the “Syncretism is the attempt to reconcile contrary beliefs…” part) makes me think of A Pluralistic Sophia I wrote last year.

        • Iain said

          Yes, Seph, your self-description fits syncretism perfectly. It’s good that you can know what you believe so thoroughly. Of course, in the context that I originally learned about syncretism (i.e. in a seminary) it was seen as a bad thing but, obviously, that isn’t my own opinion.

  19. Anne said

    I especially like Seph’s and SugarPop’s discussion of pluralism and synthesis, etc. (oddly, I was writing about synthesis of observations as a way of knowing before I found this post tonight). I like the scale in that it provokes conversation and I appreciated someone saying that they change at different times.

    I don’t think the scale would be used by those who have decided that there is some part of what’s beyond our five sensory knowing that we also can “know” even if we don’t know what that “God” or “otherworld” is. Some people have decided that they “know” rather than believe. And yes, I understand that isn’t a scientifically valid position to take…

    Sometimes I wonder if much of this argument about believing and knowing comes down to personality: intuitive vs. sensing, to put it in Meyer-Briggs language. I don’t mean that it isn’t important or that there isn’t more (much more!) to it from a spiritual perspective, but I think that how we perceive and how we build evidence plays a big role in how we build our beliefs and “knowledge.”

    Even though I believe it’s healthy to challenge one’s beliefs, there are things I don’t have the ability to prove but I’d put into a “knowing” category. It would be interesting to hear if there’s been a study to find out where atheists, for instance, fit on the sensing vs intuitive scale (another scale!).

    • Anne, what you’ve said about personality types is something I’ve thought about too.

      I’m also wondering about the process of changing beliefs, eg how come, with the same set of ‘evidence’ some people change beliefs and some people don’t?

      Both great topics for another post 🙂

      • 'Seph said

        I can’t but wonder if we all project a certain amount of our wants, hope, desires, and needs into our beliefs, our belief-systems, and our g0d(s).

        • Anne said

          Seph, I agree and think that’s one of the bases for religion… but there is also a strong gut-level “yes/no” that I sometimes experience, and because I’ve been consciously challenging belief systems since I was 11, I trust (but still challenge) that.

      • Anne said

        “how come, with the same set of ‘evidence’ some people change beliefs and some people don’t?” Jon, I wonder if that fits into the pluralism category… each of us perceives an issue or evidence from a different viewpoint.

        • 'Seph said

          It is this particular point that interests me. I’ve long since accepted that most people project their wants, hope, desires, and needs into our beliefs, our belief-systems, and gods.

          However, can we apply this kind of rationale to the authors of ‘holy texts’?
          Are what we read divinely inspired truths, or projections of the authors’ perceptions and/or experiences?

          I realize most exlusivists and fundamentalists cannot entertain this possibility (simply because it throws into question their whole belief-struture; the entire house-of-cards), but this does not – imho – negate the possibility of God’s (g0d’s) existence.

  20. Anne said

    Seph,
    I think it’s interesting to think about “divine guidance” vs. human bias. For me it’s one of the most frustrating parts of talking with a Bible literalist (or a literalist for any holy text). Even the fact that people are arguing that they know what a certain verse means to me is amazing since for one thing they’re so far removed from the original, and because there are so many other possible dimensions of what that verse might have originally referred to.

    • 'Seph said

      It has been my experience that biblical literalists are near impossible to converse with.
      Ultimately, even those who claim to be strict biblical literalists are not. We (and even literalistis) pick and choose what we take as literal and what we take as symbolic/metaphoric.

      There is an interesting Gnostic text that addresses this dichotomy of “divine guidance” vs. human bias. It’s interesting because if has Jesus (not the Gnostic Jesus, but the Jesus of the bible) confirming this via biblical references.

      I’ll see it I can dig it up.

      • I don’t like the term “biblical literalist” even though it’s what we’re stuck with, for those exact reasons Seph. The “literalists” I knew (and was) were much more nuanced than that – they accept many literary genres (eg poetry would not be interpreted the same as history), and accept that interpretation is needed and inevitable.

        I would shudder to deal with a true literalist. Not sure if I’ve ever met one.

        • Iain said

          THIS is what happen when you decide to “live biblically” for a year 😀

        • Iain said

          IMO the hallmark of a true “biblical literalist” (and by that I mean not so much a person who actually takes the bible literally, but considers themselves a literally in the best and most godly sense) is that they do interpretation and hermeneutics, applying their own meaning to the text, all the while pretending that they aren’t.

          I’ve had many conversations with literalists who condemn others for being non-biblical and for adding to the text while refusing to see how they do the same. It’s a self-image, not a genuine practice. NOBODY lives the bible text literally.

        • What is interesting about AJ Jacobs final point is that he ended up realizing that its impossible to keep the law.

        • Iain said

          Or, at least, impossible to keep the law without coming across as a crazy person. (or doing some illegal things, like stoning adulterers)
          I think the key problem with being a real, actual, biblical literalist in your behaviour is that it doesn’t take into account the cultural divide between modern day culture and the ancient history of one particular people from the middle east. The bible is set and written in the context and culture of a very particular people group in a very particular time. It isn’t a pure list of ethical statements that are universal and timeless. In fact, I think some things are just simply unethical. If people have chosen to emphasise different verses over the years, “picking and choosing” some parts over others, then they cannot have done so on the basis of the bible itself which actually proves that humans must have a morality that transcends the bible itself. I believe people can be (and are!) moral without religion, and those who CLAIM to be literalists (without actually being a literal … literalist) actually demonstrate that point.

  21. 'Seph said

    Jonathan Brink said

    What is interesting about AJ Jacobs final point is that he ended up realizing that its impossible to keep the law.

    You should give David Rudel’s The Gospel You’ve Never Heard a read. It all about this very point.
    I’ve written a review of it at Review of The Gospel You’ve Never Heard by David Rudel (Just scroll down ’til you find my name; Seph.

  22. […] without the balls to man up and be an atheist” Many agnostics are at the atheist end of the scale. I tend to float up and down the scale a little. That means sometimes I take seriously the idea […]

  23. […] searching. There are even Christian agnostics, though I don’t count myself among their number. I’ve written that all believers are […]

  24. Arz Sra said

    When one talks of God. There is definitely something in the mind that one talks of. Lets call that ‘something’ in mind ‘something’. something is a concept or an idea. If one can see , its mind working on itself. A theist accepts that this something does exist i.e not just in the mind but as an objective reality. One is able to see it or not is another thing….. An atheist denies the existence of ‘something’ – a concept in mind. So, all the talk that is going on around is between whether if a concept refers to some Reality or is it merely a concept.

    One is accepting the concept, the other is denying it. And each mind has a different concept. Each has a different god. It cannot possibly be the same.

    When people argue over whether god exists or not, each has something in mind existence of which is being argued. The debaters do not even realize that they are arguing over different things. One is saying ” Bull has horns” .. The other is denying ” NO no! the elephant does not have horns”. Such a picture would emerge if you look beneath the words. The same word does not refer to the same underlying conscious experience.

    Both theists and atheists are caught in the figments of mind. One is accepting it and the other is denying it. God , if there is, has nothing to do with your concept of god. Neither the word ‘god’ is god . Nor the concept god is god. Both are the machinations of mind – whether you accept the machination or you deny. Both ways you are caught in a false issue. If there is god , he is irrespective of your notions. If he isn’t, he isn’t despite the best explanations.

    The whole issue is like a coin. One is clinging to one side, the other to other. The whole issue revolves around which side to choose ( be it based on anything – figment or evidence).

    Cut-pasting from a previous reply of mine –

    “t does not make difference if you believe in god or not. If you believe, you are believing your concept of god, not god itself. Have you already assumed you know god?………. And If you do not believe in god , Again you are denying a concept itself. What is it that you are denying? What is it in your mind which you are denying the existence of?…………

    Theist and atheist are just conceptual frameworks identification with which only leads one to misery. Its just Another way of mind to create divisions. Mind thrives on divisions. Its rejects one and seeks the other. ”

    “As an intellectual statement ( as it is in the case) , this is mere solution devised by the mind to get out of the turmoil that it itself created by first posing a problem ( division of ‘what is’ ) – that one has to choose between theist and atheist . Posing a problem and then running after a solution is the mind game. Intellectual understandings cannot get one out. The are fine as temporary consolations. Catching this mechanism of mind to first pose a problem and then solution all out of thin air is the key. Catching does not mean you try resisting it or accepting it. It is something that comes on its own.

    All one can do is , either choose first ( theist) , second ( atheist) or thirdly, totally negate this division ( like I did). All the three options create a division. While in the first two options the division is clearly evident. The third option , at once, seems unified. That is only because we do see the hidden polarity ( opposite side). The third case is of denial on the basis of unworthiness of being either of the two ( theist or atheist) . The division created in the third case is Unworthy ( which is evident) and Worthy. worthy-unworthy is another dual thought upon which the negation of previous dual thought ( theist-atheist) is based. This is the GAME. Duality, in the very process of ‘creating unity’ or ‘destroying duality’ , creates more of it. It enters through the back door. Dual ( thoughts) are replaced by Dual. And we think we have something ‘excellent’ at hand. It is just replacement going on. Things taking place of things. When nothing takes the place, duality diminishes. Until then, lets enjoy the GAME.”

    Sorry for this LONG reply.

    Thanks for the post.

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