The Reconquista Initiative
The Motives for Lack-of-Belief Atheism
Over the course of a number of previous essays, it has been pointed out that it is reasonable to believe that one of the primary motivators that leads certain unbelievers to embrace the concept of lack-of-belief atheism is that it gives a veneer to legitimacy to unbelievers who are essentially atheistic-naturalists (philosophical-naturalists) to nevertheless claim that they have no burden of proof for their position, and so such unbelievers embrace lack-of-belief atheism as a means of avoiding the burden of proof for their positive views. Indeed, such unbelievers, even though they really do not lack-a-belief in the literal sense and actually possess numerous positive burden-bearing beliefs about the God question, nevertheless want to exploit the burden-avoiding property of agnosticism and so they are motivated to disingenuously claim that their positive unbelief is nothing more than a mere lack-of-belief. And again, to see that this is the case, the words of atheist Luke Muehlhauser, the author of the website ‘commonsenseatheism.com’, can be noted. In his 23rd of February 2009 article titled “Atheism and the Burden of Proof”, which was accessed on the 8th of August 2016, Muehlhauser stated the following:
[QUOTE] But most intellectually-inclined atheists I know do not merely “lack” a belief in God – as, say, my dog lacks a belief in God. Atheists like to avoid the burden of proof during debates, so they say they merely “lack” a belief in God. But this is not what their writings usually suggest. No, most intellectual atheists positively believe that God does not exist. In fact, most of them will say – at least to other atheists – that it’s “obvious” there is no God, or that they “know” – as well as we can “know” anything – that God does not exist. Thus, if the atheist wants to defend what he really believes, then he, too, has a burden of proof. He should give reasons for why he thinks that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=597%5D
And so, in light of Muehlhauser’s quote, and in light of other evidence that has been presented in this series, it can indeed be reasonably believed that many atheistic-naturalists conceal their true burden-bearing beliefs behind the claim that they merely “lack-a-belief” in God. Thus, such unbelievers are bullshitters—in the philosophical sense—given that their primary goal is not to describe the true state of their unbelieving point-of-view, but rather their goal is to simply say anything which augments the rhetorical strength of their position, which avoiding the burden of proof does do.
But while avoiding the burden of proof serves as a strong motive for atheistic-naturalists to embrace lack-of-belief atheism, this group is only one sub-set of the individuals who embrace this negative position. Indeed, for while atheistic-naturalists have positive beliefs concerning the non-existence of God, and are motived to embrace lack-of-belief atheism as a means of skirting the burden of proof, there are also unbelievers who are essentially straight agnostics about the issue of God’s existence—meaning that they neither positively believe nor disbelieve in God’s existence—who nevertheless also embrace the ‘lack-of-belief atheist’ label rather than calling themselves agnostics. Indeed, such individuals now often identity themselves as merely ‘atheists’ rather than as agnostics who are uncertain or unsure about whether or not God exists. And while avoiding the burden of proof is a clear and strong motive for atheistic-naturalists to disingenuously claim that they merely lack a belief in God, the question remains as to whether there is also a strong motive which could be driving agnostics to call themselves ‘atheists’? In essence, is there a reason why a person, in today’s day and age, might prefer to use the term ‘atheist’ rather than ‘agnostic’, even if, intellectually, such a person is more in line with the latter position than the former one? Indeed there is, but to understand this motive, a few quotes need to be considered.
First, consider relatively popular atheist Jason Rosenhouse and his ‘Evolution Blog’, which is located in the main ‘Science Blogs’ forum. In a post titled “Agnosticism Is For Wimps”, which was written on the 23rd of January 2013 and accessed on the 26th of January 2017, Rosenhouse writes the following:
[QUOTE] Remember that scene in A Fish Called Wanda, where Kevin Kline, talking to a British woman who has cornered him in rhetorical combat, says, with maximal sarcasm, “Oh, you British are soooooo superior.”
That’s pretty much how I feel when I read essays written by agnostics. By all means make whatever arguments it amuses you to make for not taking a stand on the God question. But please stop acting like you’re soooooo superior. You’re not the sensible middle ground between two extremes, and you’re not the clear-thinking pluralist calmly sifting the evidence. You’re just a wimp.
The title of this post is meant tongue in cheek, but only slightly. I really don’t think agnosticism has much going for it as a philosophical position, and in practice it often functions as a way for pedants to act superior. Of course, in most cases agnostics are functionally indistinguishable from atheists, and so I feel I have a lot in common with them. The fact remains, though, that at the level of abstract argument I think even theism has more going for it than agnosticism. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2013/01/23/agnosticism-is-for-wimps/%5D
So Rosenhouse thinks, at least somewhat, that agnosticism is for wimps; in fact, he even thinks theism has more going for it than agnosticism does, which is shocking given that Rosenhouse does not think that theism has much going for it. And yet note that Rosenhouse is not alone in thinking that agnosticism is for wimps.
Next, consider atheist and professor of biochemistry Larry Moran, who, on his blog ‘Sandwalk’, in a 14th of November 2006 post which was titled “Agnostics Are Wimps”, and which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017, wrote the following:
[QUOTE] Jason Rosenhouse over at EVOLUTION BLOG has challenged John Wilkins’ position on agnosticism in Wilkins on Dawkins.
They are both discussing an issue raised by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. In his section on “The Poverty of Agnosticism” (pp. 46-54), Dawkins describes agnostics as fence-sitters, and this was not meant as a compliment.
John, with all due respect, if you walk like an atheist and talk like an atheist then, to all intents and purposes, you’re a practicing atheist, whether you want to admit it or not.
We spent a whole Sunday together and I know you didn’t go to church. You are not a theist. The word that describes that non-believer lifestyle is “atheist,” not “agnostic.” Please join Jason Rosenhouse, Richard Dawkins, and me, and come all the way out of the closet. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://sandwalk.blogspot.co.uk/2006/11/agnostics-are-whimps.html%5D
Now, notice two critical things with Moran’s statement. First, he too thinks agnosticism is for wimps, as both the title of his post states and as he implies by suggesting that agnostics are just closeted atheists who are too afraid to fully out themselves. Second, Moran interprets that Richard Dawkins’s comment about agnostics being fence-sitters is also meant to be taken negatively, as if there is something cowardly or weak with such fence-sitting.
And also consider popular atheist and evolutionist Jerry Coyne. On his blog ‘Why Evolution is True’, in a 25th of October 2013 post titled “Bertrand Russell on why the term ‘agnostic’ is for show”—which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017—Coyne writes:
[QUOTE] …yes, you cannot give a logical demonstration that the Greek gods don’t exist. (That’s the “you can’t prove a negative” line.) But you can give a practical demonstration that their existence is improbable, for if they interact with the world you should find some evidence of that interaction; and you find none.
…if you have no belief in gods, you should call yourself an “atheist.” The term “agnostic” is for wimps. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/bertrand-russell-on-why-the-term-agnostic-is-for-show/%5D
So, what do all these quotes show? Well, they show that some prominent and popular unbelievers view agnosticism as a position for wimps and cowards. And could this fact serve as a motive for people to avoid being branded as an agnostic? Absolutely, for given that most people naturally wish to avoid being labeled as a weakling or a coward, then evading such a fate would be a strong motivator for many people, thereby driving them to drop the ‘agnostic’ label in favor of the ‘atheist’ one.
But also note that while the three quotes above come from modern professors and academics, the attitude that agnosticism is for wimps is not restricted to those in the ivory tower. For example, in a 30th of July 2010 blog post titled “Why is agnosticism cowardly atheism?”—which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017—an internet personality named ‘tildeb’ (whom I have interacted with before), writes the following on his blog ‘Questionable Motives’:
[QUOTE] Ron Rosenbaum tells us in this Slate article why his infantile Templeton-funded “radical skepticism” kind of agnosticism is so new and improved. It is neither. It is an intellectual embarrassment.
New Agnosticism (versus New Atheism, of course) as a practical matter is nothing more and nothing less than cowardly atheism but with a healthy dose of accomodationism [sic] built right in. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://questionablemotives.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/why-is-agnosticism-cowardly-atheism/%5D
And in the comments to that blog post, tildeb further argues that the type of agnosticism that Dawkins describes as fence-sitting is indeed intellectual cowardice.
But again, tildeb is still not alone. Consider, for example, that a British TV comedian named Steve Coogan says that he is an atheist because agnosticism is for cowards (see a 26th of October 2013 article in ‘The Guardian’ titled “Steve Coogan: knowing me? No way”, which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017 (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/oct/26/steve-coogan-philomena-interview)). And magician Penn Jillette, in the 2012 paperback edition of his Simon-and-Schuster published book God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, in the Section titled “Agnostics: No One Can Know for Sure but I Believe They’re Full of Shit”, calls agnosticism a view for “fucking puss[ies]” and states that most agnostics are “…really just cowardly and manipulative atheists”.
Furthermore, even agnostics themselves point out that they are often viewed as intellectual cowards. For instance, in a 19th of December 2003 interview with PBS, which was published in written form in an article titled “Interview: Studs Terkel” on the PBS website—which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017—agnostic Studs Terkel made the following comment: “You happen to be talking to an agnostic. You know what an agnostic is? A cowardly atheist. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics /2003/12/19/december-19-2003-interview-studs-terkel/11022/)
So the point here is that the idea that agnosticism is a cowardly position is one which is wide-spread and has permeated numerous different levels of society. And what this, in turn, means, is that the concept of ‘a cowardly agnostic’ is not merely being advanced by those individuals in ivory towers but is also pushed by the common-man. In fact, it is even interesting to note that as of 9:11 am on the 25th of January 2017, the four Google search-box autocompletes for the phrase “Agnostics are…” were the following: 1) “agnostics are atheist”; 2) “agnostics are atheist without balls”; 3) “agnostics are cowards”; and 4) “agnostics are stupid”. And this search was done on a computer account that had never searched for the phrase “Agnostics are…” before, nor was the computer logged-in to a Google account, which means that the autocompletions mentioned above were based, at least in large part, on what other people have searched for in the past, thereby providing some further evidence that the idea that agnostics are cowards is not an obscure belief.
And lest it be thought that calling an agnostic a ‘cowardly atheist’ is a recent phenomenon, it should be noted that even back when the term ‘agnostic’ was first coined, certain atheists were accusing agnostics of being weak and cowardly. For example, in atheist-turned-deist Antony Flew’s 26th of July 1999 Encyclopedia Britannica article on “Agnosticism”, which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017, Flew notes that atheist Frederick Engels, of communist infamy, wrote that T.H. Huxley, the father of the term ‘agnosticism’, was just a “shame-faced atheist.” Indeed, Flew writes the following:
[QUOTE] Agnosticism in its primary reference is commonly contrasted with atheism thus: “The Atheist asserts that there is no God, whereas the Agnostic maintains only that he does not know.” This distinction, however, is in two respects misleading: first, Huxley himself certainly rejected as outright false—rather than as not known to be true or false—many widely popular views about God, his providence, and man’s posthumous destiny; and second, if this were the crucial distinction, agnosticism would for almost all practical purposes be the same as atheism. It was indeed on this misunderstanding that Huxley and his associates were attacked both by enthusiastic Christian polemicists and by Friedrich Engels, the co-worker of Karl Marx, as “shame-faced atheists,” a description that is perfectly applicable to many of those who nowadays adopt the more comfortable label. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://www.britannica.com/topic/agnosticism%5D
Now the late Antony Flew had his own definition of agnosticism, and it is Flew’s very definition that has caused a great deal of the conflation that occurs today between agnosticism and atheism, but regardless of this point, Flew’s above statement is interesting for two reasons. First is the obvious point that Flew shows us that the idea that agnostics are considered less-than-brave atheists is one which has existed for generations. But second, note that even Flew states that the description of agnostics as “shame-faced atheists” is a description that is applicable to many people today who adopt the more comfortable and easy label of agnosticism. So even Flew, who was still an atheist at the time that he wrote this article—and who was arguably the most intellectual atheist of the past century—tacitly implies that many modern agnostics are merely cowardly atheists.
Thus, what all these quotes show is that the idea that agnosticism is just a cowardly form of atheism is a well-known belief across a wide spectrum of the unbelieving community. And yet since, as stated earlier, it is reasonable to believe that few people would wish to be known as shame-faced-in-the-closet cowards, then the fact that this is precisely how many people view agnostics would thus be a powerful motive for a person not to label himself an agnostic. Indeed, faced with the prospective of labeling oneself an agnostic and being seen by many people as a wimp or of calling oneself an atheist and being seen as brave and bold, it is quite reasonable to hold that many unbelievers, being human beings subject to the same psychological pressures and drives as the rest of humanity, would choose the latter option rather than the former one. And yet, this very fact thus provides us with a reasonable motive for why more agnostic-oriented unbelievers would choose to label themselves as atheists rather than agnostics. But at the same time, since the very same unbelievers who want to be known as atheists rather than agnostics also realize that they want the burden-avoiding argumentative benefits that agnosticism provides, then this also creates a powerful incentive to create a form of atheism, namely lack-of-belief atheism, which is agnostic-like in its content but atheist-like in terms of rhetoric.
And so, the long and short of it is this: when it comes to negative lack-of-belief atheism, there are two motives which it is reasonable to believe drive the embrace of negative-atheism. First, for the unbeliever who is more of an atheistic-naturalist, the motive for embracing so-called lack-of-belief atheism is the desire to avoid having to bear any burden of proof for his unbelief as well as the desire to appear legitimate when doing so. Second, for the unbeliever who is more of an agnostic, the motive for embracing lack-of-belief atheism is the desire not to be labeled a ‘coward’ by other members of the unbelieving community, while still nevertheless maintaining an agnostic-like position. And so, from both ends of the unbelieving spectrum, it is possible to see that there is indeed a strong psychological incentive to embrace a position which is rhetorically ‘atheist’ but essentially ‘agnostic’, and this is precisely what we see with so-called lack-of-belief atheism. And this is, at least in part, why both outright atheists and actual agnostics embrace the label of ‘lack-of-belief atheism’ even though neither of them really lack a belief about the God-question in any literal or relevant sense.
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Anno Domini 2017 01 29
Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam