Appropriate agnosticism: navigating around the tempest in Russell’s teapot

The fact that I’m slightly wary of the prospect of ‘outing’ myself as an agnostic in this article shows that there is an issue here that I ought to address. I think most of those who know me reasonably well would imagine that I would prefer to be categorised as an atheist… but the confusion that I may create by suggesting that I’m agnostic rather than an atheist can hopefully be turned into a learning opportunity with regards to Middle Way philosophy.

TL;DR version One can be agnostic about more than the existence or non-existence of God, and one should not confuse agnosticism with wishy-washy indecisiveness, fence-sitting, uncertainty or appeasement of people who hold proudly to absolute beliefs that inevitably lead to psychological repression and sociological harm. There are everyday situations in which agnosticism is the more ethical position as it steers the agnostic away from metaphysical dilemmas and towards provisional beliefs that have the possibility of being integrated, reducing the amount of unhelpful repression required of the believer.

In a letter of 1958, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.” [1]

This teapot analogy was first mentioned in an unpublished article of 1952 titled Is There a God?, in which he wanted to make clear that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. However, in the quote above Russell is using the teapot analogy to explain why he considers himself to effectively be an atheist rather than a theological agnostic, and this is the way that I have seen the teapot analogy called upon most often, for example by ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins.

An instance of Dawkins’ use of the teapot analogy is worth quoting at length because I want to argue here that this kind of argument misses the point:

A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But “agnostic” on its own might suggest that he thought God’s existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God’s existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy’s. … Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.” [2]

If I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of Russell’s teapot then I would be expressing a weak agnostic position. I would essentially be saying that I was suspending my belief in the existence or non-existence of the teapot as it was not currently possible for me to know one way or the other, to any degree: I would be awaiting suitably persuasive evidence from experience, that in principle could arrive later… but I might be in for a very long wait.

Claiming this kind of agnosticism is unnecessary because the beliefs involved can be held provisionally, and also incrementally (that is, to a degree of certainty). If pressed to express an opinion, I would say that I believed in the existence of Russell’s teapot, but to only a very small extent – or, alternatively, that I believed in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot to a very great extent. That’s the incremental side. The extent of my beliefs could be altered by new evidence to arrive through my experience: perhaps altered very greatly if my astronaut friend returned home from a trip to space, bearing Russell’s teapot as a souvenir of her journey… although even then I would suspect that she was playing a philosophical prank. That is the provisional side – the ability to modify the belief in response to new evidence.

Russell’s teapot exists and Russell’s teapot does not exist are not a pair of opposing absolute claims because the truth or falsity of these claims depends on evidence that we could, in principle, experience. That said, I can find the idea of the existence of Russell’s teapot meaningful, even if I believe it to be very unlikely – in the same way that I can find the fictional characters depicted in films and books to be meaningful, even though the chances of them existing may be very slim.

However, to bring the discussion back to theology, if I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of God then I would be expressing a strong agnostic position about an absolute belief. As a finite and fallible human being my embodied limitations prevent me from accessing evidence about a perfect metaphysical being, so I cannot hold a weak agnostic position about this pair of opposed beliefs: if my astronaut friend returned from space claiming in all seriousness that she had ‘met God’ out there I could concede that she’d had a meaningful religious experience, but it wouldn’t constitute evidence of the existence of God.

The belief in the existence or non-existence of God is absolute because there is no scope for incrementality – it either is, or it isn’t, and my belief in it is not open to evidence that arrives through my experience as an embodied human being. Furthermore, there is no way that such a belief can be held provisionally – I could only flip between the two absolute poles. These opposing beliefs cannot be successfully integrated, so the only Middle Way route is to navigate a course of agnosticism between the two poles.

Going beyond theological agnosticism
The way that I’ve talked about the God/no-God situation so far is perhaps almost as trivial as the teapot/no-teapot situation. In my everyday life, I am not faced with a metaphysical dilemma between the existence or non-existence of a perfect God-like being, except in the occasional quiet moment of speculation. I certainly do not have to face Inquisitors who want to verify my adherence to their theological dogmas; I don’t even have to attend church on Sunday mornings out of social obligation. What I am faced with are very specific truth-claims and value-judgements made by adherents of various religions and denominations within those religions, and also by those who reject religion and favour other, more secular approaches.

Unlike the general musing on the God/no-God question, these more specific religious beliefs have specific ethical implications in my diet, my sex life, my profession, my health and treatment of my ill-health and so on. Must I take an agnostic position about these positive and negative beliefs, even if it seems like a proliferation of absurd teapot-like trivialities? The straightforward answer is yes. However, this usually seems to be unacceptable to people who have little understanding of the Middle Way: it seems absurd that I should be agnostic about the belief that, for example, I should not cook meat and dairy produce in the same meal.

As a non-Jewish person living in a non-Jewish culture, couldn’t I just say no, I don’t believe that meat and dairy must be kept separate because the laws of Kashrut in the Torah say they should? The determining factor is whether the belief in question is absolute: if the very formulation of the belief means that it cannot be held provisionally and that it cannot be incrementalised, then the middle way is to remain agnostic about it. In the kashrut case mentioned above, the Torah says that I must separate meat and dairy and that’s the end of it. I am either to believe it or not: I cannot believe it to some extent because the belief is based on an appeal to the absolute authority of the Torah.

In short, if ever an issue reduces down to being ‘a self-evident belief’ (or, as is often said, a matter of ‘faith alone’) then it is something that the Middle Way requires us to be agnostic about. An obvious example is the claim that a book, such as the Book of Mormon, is the truth from God as revealed to Joseph Smith via the angel Moroni. As implausible as it seems to me, the truth of this claim (or its counterclaim) relies on belief alone, and as such, I should remain agnostic about it. Dogmatically stating that the Book of Mormon is not God’s revealed truth is as unhelpful as dogmatically stating that it is – and by ‘unhelpful’ I mean not conducive to integration. The Salvation Army’s eleven articles of faith that I affirmed as a teenager are a textbook example of a set of beliefs that are a matter of ‘faith alone’.

Pragmatically speaking, it is very easy for me to avoid getting involved in disputes about the validity of the metaphysical claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as I don’t live in Utah. Similarly, I’ve not been involved with the Salvation Army for 20 years, so my agnosticism about their articles of faith is somewhat of a moot point. It wouldn’t be so easy if, for example, I was a full-time physics teacher in a Catholic school in the UK. That’s a lot closer to my own lived experience (I trained in such a school for three months in 2004) – and I can imagine that if I worked in such an establishment now I’d be fighting hard to resist sceptical slippage – but that’s a topic for another time!

Does agnosticism annoy some noisy atheists?
So, to return to the Richard Dawkins kind of objection to agnosticism, the following quote [3] exemplifies what he finds unacceptable:

Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.” [3]

Dawkins’ objection is to a kind of relativism that bestows equal value on belief in God and disbelief in God. I hope I’ve been clear enough in what I’ve written above that the agnosticism that is part of the Middle Way is not of this ilk. One cannot integrate belief in the existence of God and belief in the non-existence of God due to their opposed absolute statuses, and thus it is not an area that is worth shouting ourselves hoarse about.

Richard Dawkins and other new atheists, such as Sam Harris, are very vocal about the harm that they consider to result from religious belief, but they may have slightly missed the point that the harm (or lack of integration) comes from the absolute beliefs that are considered part of most traditional religions, and not from the religions in general. In short: religion is not the problem, absolute beliefs are the problem. Other, non-religious, ideologies often make the same error of remaining beholden to absolute beliefs – which may have the advantage of allowing groups to survive due to the sociological ‘binding’ effect of absolute beliefs – but a dogmatic Marxist is going to have the same problem integrating their beliefs as a dogmatic Roman Catholic.

Concluding remarks
In the current climate of highly-polarised opinions in broadcast and social media, it would be beneficial if we could be clear about the most helpful applications of agnosticism, and why it is not a position that needs to trouble us with regards to provisional beliefs such as belief in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot. It would also help if we could focus on the problem (absolute beliefs) and not so much on the contexts with which those absolute beliefs are most often associated – in this way we could avoid unhelpful dismissal and dehumanisation of people that we would do better to engage with. The final thing is that there is a way to positively benefit from remaining agnostic on absolute beliefs (such as metaphysical beliefs), and as it is far from easy there are small but growing organisations like the Middle Way Society who want to promote the kind of practices that aid rather than inhibit integration.


Afterword
I would like to add a few remarks here about how I came to write the above article. The first thing is that I was looking again at the idea of agnosticism and the Middle Way in preparation for a discussion group meeting about the fifth of the Introductory series of videos. Although I’d come across the idea of agnosticism before in Middle Way Philosophy, I don’t think I’d understood the bigger picture. Returning to it has certainly helped.

The second thing is that I was motivated to clarify my thoughts and feelings about it by the idea that if I “came out” as a theological agnostic to my friends then most of them would probably be surprised that I hadn’t chosen to claim the position of ‘atheist’, or even ‘atheist agnostic’, rather than simply ‘agnostic’. For those who don’t know me so well, I’m a physics teacher by profession and a theoretical physicist by training; I haven’t been a practicing Christian for over 20 years now, I rarely talk about God or other supernatural entities, I don’t express opinions that would make others think that my ethical outlook is motivated by a belief in a perfect creator God, and so on. For those who are reading this in the USA: very roughly speaking, the default position in the UK is that of atheism, with maybe a nod to the Christian cultural heritage of this country… some recent surveys suggest that more than 50% of the population consider themselves to be ‘of no religion’.  This is more than a discussion about definition of terms and epistemology (how do we know what we know) – I believe that it matters that I would categorise myself as a strong agnostic, not because I want to ‘leave the door open’ for supernatural theologies, but because it leads to the broader and more helpful Middle Way stance on absolute beliefs generally.

The third thing is that when I started to type up my thoughts, I didn’t have a very good grasp of exactly what it was that I was trying to argue for (or against!). I went down the rabbit-hole of reading comments on YouTube videos about agnosticism, but not so far that I couldn’t get out easily before getting trapped in the toxic sludge. This really helped to clarify what I was up against, as were some clips from an episode of South Park in which Kenny and his siblings are sent to live with militant agnostic foster parents.

The usual difficulty arises when attempting to write on a topic like this: make it too short and you’ll be misunderstood, but trying to make yourself understood leads to more words than most are willing to read in the era of tweets and terse Facebook comments typed hurridly whilst doing something else. That said, thanks for reading this to the very end!


References

  1. Bertrand Russell (1958) Letter to Mr Major. In Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).
  2. Richard Dawkins, ‘A Challenge To Atheists: Come Out of the Closet,’ Free Inquiry, Summer 2002.
  3. Richard Dawkins, ‘Snake Oil and Holy Water’ FORBES ASAP, October 4, 1999

Further reading

Picture credits

About Jim Champion

As a student Jim specialised in theoretical physics, up to PhD level, and then trained as a secondary school teacher in Birmingham. In 2004 he returned to Hampshire to teach physics. He first encountered the Middle Way Society in 2015, and has been practicing The Middle Way ever since.

21 thoughts on “Appropriate agnosticism: navigating around the tempest in Russell’s teapot

  1. Hi Jim,

    Your experiences of these terms closely echo my own.

    I have always found the word ‘agnostic’ to be problematic, largely because of the misunderstandings that are outlined above. However, I have recently become more comfortable with it. I still tend to describe myself as atheist in the first instance because I still worry that if I say agnostic it might be assumed that I am ‘sitting on the fence’ or giving equal weight to the existence or non-existence of God. With ‘atheist’ I think it is clear that I do not have an active belief in a God. If I have the luxury of a more detailed conversation then I will start to use the word agnostic, and explain my reasons for doing so.

    Humanist UK (previously British Humanist Association) says that the word agnostic is ‘often used less precisely to describe doubt and indecision’, which seems useful. It also describes an atheist as someone who ‘chooses to live on the assumption, that gods do not exist’, which probably describes my stance quite well; I don’t/ can’t know that gods do not exist (which makes me an agnostic), but I do live my life on the assumption that they don’t – I’m not going to be attempting to please Odin or Jehova any time soon. Both terms can be used in a variety of ways and both can cause some understanding, but I am increasingly happy to use both depending on the circumstance.

    1. Hi Rich, thanks for the comments.

      The terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ seem to be used in many ways and to mean very different things to different people. In that sense, it is rather like the term ‘secular’ as found in the term ‘secular Buddhism’… a bit of a minefield, and possibly counter-productive.

      What you’re describing above sounds a bit like what some call ‘agnostic atheism’ where the agnostic part applies to knowledge (it is not possible to know) and the atheism part applies to a belief that there is no God (or perhaps Gods if you’re broadening it out). So in that sense, an atheist agnostic believes a negative absolute (There Is No God) but does not know (maybe because evidence is not yet available – the weak stance, or because it is fundamentally unknowable – the strong stance).

      The thing I get from Middle Way philosophy is that even-handed scepticism leads you to a position of not believing either the positive (God exists) or the negative (God does not exist), and as such you remain agnostic about the issue because there’s no scope for integrating these two opposed absolute beliefs.

      There seem to be two ways that the term atheist is used which are subtly but importantly different:

      1. There’s the way that implies ‘I believe that God does not exist’. This seems to be the preferred definition used by those who do believe that God exists, perhaps to identify those who are not within their group.
      2. There’s the way that implies ‘I have no belief that God exists (and thus go about my life as if God does not exist)’. This seems to be the preferred definition for most of the people (non-Christians) that I know.

      Like you said, if I was to be agnostic about the existence/non-existence of all gods and then lived my life in a fence-sitting way I’d spend all my time following all the different revealed moral codes in an attempt not to get on the wrong side of these gods “just in case”.

      One of the least helpful things I’ve seen is a scale (attributed to Richard Dawkins) which has ‘100% atheist’ at one end, ‘100% theist’ at the other, and ‘agnostic’ mid-way between the two. This treats belief in the existence/non-existence of God (let’s restrict ourselves to a generic Christian God for now) as a probabilistic scale. I consider this unhelpful for two reasons.

      • One is to do with the so-called Pascal’s wager: it is not the probability of it being true that matters, but the consequences. It may be that the rewards for ‘believing in God’ are so great that even if I have the slightest feeling that he might exist then I’d be inclined to live as much as possible as if God did exist. This gets very silly too, see various discussions of Pascal’s wager and the Atheist’s Wager.
      • The other is to do with the probabilistic treatment of an opposing pair of absolute beliefs – for example, how do you live your life if you 27% believe in God/73% believe in no God?

      The scale also makes the usual new atheist oversimplifying assumption that behaviour follows from belief: for example, that some people attend a Christian church because they believe in a Christian God. I don’t deny that ideas can be powerful (Sam Harris’s favourite point) – even murderously so – but there is more to religious behaviour (and religious experience) than a simple logical consequence of believing certain ideas.

      In looking up things about this I’ve come across a term I’ve not heard before: Ignosticism, which says that ‘every theological position assumes too much about God’, including atheism (defined as the belief that God does not exist). From a quick look at it, it appears to have some connections with the apophatic tradition (that you can only say what God is not, rather than what is) which is discussed at some length in Mark Vernon’s book ‘How to be an agnostic’.

      Further reading

      1. So, having read some of the Ethical Skeptic’s blog, is ignosticism the name for appropriate agnosticism? Here’s an extract…

        Ignosticism presents attractiveness for me as a philosopher, former arch skeptic and former studious religious youth, in that it allows the unknown to persist and does not force abject conclusions to the pro or con upon science, self or others. I spent almost two decades in the ‘atheist/believer’ camps, and eventually began to see the philosophical folly of both as part of my formulation of thoughts around ethical skepticism. Ignosticism’s central argument is intrinsically a discipline, and not a tenet – it does not possess something to be forced upon others. Much like the Tao is a difficult faith to force on others, because of its ethic of self discipline of thought (and the fact that once you force the philosophy, you are no longer acting in the Tao anyway†). The essence of ignosticism is an ethic of personal choice to disarming the consideration of absurd contentions – Their conversion to the ethical discipline of silence. Neutrally rejecting forced-religious presumptions and definitions. It is a refusal to claim that one knows the penultimate question to ask in the first place. Ignosticism is ethically skeptical.
        Indeed, in many ways ignosticism is like good science and skepticism. It is honest, lacking boast, neutral, observing, data collecting, making no claim nor possessing an eagerness to do so without sound basis. It demands that the right questions be asked first, and that no presumption to personal inerrant knowledge underpin one’s search. And in absence of good data and an appropriate question, ignosticism refuses to force a conclusion.

        From https://theethicalskeptic.com/2015/02/15/ignosticism/

  2. After a certain point I find that these kinds of discussions seem to turn conceptual clarification into an end in itself rather than just a means of letting go of absolutes, and lose touch with the positive nature of the archetypal experience people may have of God. I find the ‘existence of God’ simply a total irrelevance, rather like the ‘non-existence of God’, so I don’t agree that accepting either of them has any particular practical implications, apart from the acceptance of a group that uses such affirmations or negations as a binding shortcut. The nature of the experience of God – as a glimpse into our integrated potential – should be so awe-inspiring that, without group pressures to the contrary, I think we should be able to readily appreciate the ways in which ontological talk is an inadequate reduction. Many Christians are impatient with theology for that reason, and I can’t say I blame them!

  3. Hi Robert,

    I agree that these discussions can, and often do, go the way you suggest, but where I think we differ is how we view the practical implications.

    I would argue that most agnostics are not of the ‘sitting on the fence’ kind because, as Jim suggests, that would require them to give equal weight not just to the existence/ non-existence of God, but to all religious creeds, which would not be possible. Instead, I would suggest, almost all people who define themselves as agnostic are, what Jim describes as, agnostic-atheists. The practical implications are many. An atheist does not pray five times a day to Allah or attend mass with beliefs of transubstantiation and nor does an agnostic. Both groups live, on a day to day basis, as if there is no God.

    I think that this is important because the language can suggest that there are significant differences, where there could be none.

    My basic point here is that both groups live life as if there is no God (or Gods). Your assertion that “I find the ‘existence of God’ simply a total irrelevance, rather like the ‘non-existence of God’” is a case in point. The consequence of this point of view is that you live your life, in a practical way (as in day to day living), in the same way as a new atheist.

    Of course there are many differences, that manifest in a wide variety of ways. Whereas a hard line new-atheist might reject all features of religion, I am confident that you would not. You might be able to find useful meaning in attending a Catholic Mass, without belief in transubstantiation. A new-atheist would not (probably). However, the new-atheist is not representative of all atheists.

    In the Humanist UK welcome material (they are offering free membership for students, so I’ve joined) they say that:

    ‘Atheism does not necessarily imply adherence to any value system and some religious people are atheists’.

    I think this is important to keep in mind. Not all Catholics believe in God (it’s taken me along time to understand how this could be so and this society has been key in enabling this understanding) and not all atheists reject religion and all that it stands for.

    While you may find questions about the existence of God irrelevant, there are many people for who it is not and I would like this society to be welcoming to the recent ‘believer’ who has found themselves questioning their faith and the former new-atheist who now questions the rigid assumptions they have been making. In time such a person may come to feel how you do, but it will take time and they will likely want/ need to explore the issues surrounding those we are discussing here. To be told that there concerns are irrelevant might be off putting and counterproductive.

    I am a good example. My views were close to those of the new-atheists when I joined this society and I would not have used the word agnostic in a positive way. Now I feel that I have embraced it and have a greater understanding of it. I am more tolerant of people who define themselves as religious, which feels very positive. It would feel like a retrograde step for me to now make assumptions about people who define themselves as atheist. I might assume that a Christian is inspired by Christ and that an atheist does not believe in God, but beyond this I hope I can keep further judgements on hold, until I have further information about the individual in question.

    In relation to the experience of God, if one is able to experience God in such a way then that is great, but most people don’t. Many people, because of past experience may never be able to have such an experience of something called God, they might call it something else. We must be sensitive to the differing cultures that someone may come from and to the experiences they may have had in the past. Questions of atheism, agnosticism and fundamentalist religious belief are not really concerned with the idea of God as an embodied experience, but with a deity and the manner in which we are supposed to behave due to the wishes of said deity. While we live in a world where to become an agnostic (let alone atheist) is punishable by death then we should not be dismissive of the practical nature of such debates.

    Rich.

    1. Rich, with regards to this part that you wrote to Robert…

      While you may find questions about the existence of God irrelevant, there are many people for who it is not and I would like this society to be welcoming to the recent ‘believer’ who has found themselves questioning their faith and the former new-atheist who now questions the rigid assumptions they have been making. In time such a person may come to feel how you do, but it will take time and they will likely want/ need to explore the issues surrounding those we are discussing here. To be told that there concerns are irrelevant might be off putting and counterproductive.

      I find myself agreeing with Robert that the central thing here is the Middle Way, and also maybe you’re interpreting what Robert means by irrelevant in a different manner to that which was intended. I know, it is hard to tell in this medium.

      To think about the kind of journey I’ve made through my life (with regards to the existence/non-existence of God) I’m borrowing from that Ethical Skeptic website that I’ve mentioned elsewhere…

      Me as a newborn: I do not believe in the existence or non-existence of God. I am ignorant of my lack of belief one way or the other. I am unaware of my ignorance, as I’m just a newborn human being – I literally have ‘beginners mind’, although that might not be a useful concept until I have some self-awareness. To use a made-up term, I am ‘virginostic’ about the God/no-God issue.

      Me as a small child: I do not believe in the existence or non-existence of God. Trusted adults present the idea of God to me in such a way that makes me think that one must either believe in God or in no-God, but that it is expected of me that I will believe in God. I have acquired a very limited concept of what God might be, which provides access to belief in God or belief in no-God once my cognitive development has progressed far enough. However, this concept of God makes him a kind of eternal, invisible, all-seeing adult – it is not a very sophisticated or nuanced concept of God. I still believe that Father Christmas delivers presents to me at Christmas time, and at this age my putative belief is God seems to be in the same class as this.

      Me as an older child: I believe in the existence of God, as it has been presented to me (i.e. a positive absolute belief). I am a theist. There are few challenges to my theism, from within or without. It is reinforced by the approval I get from family and church-friends for expressing theistic views. I no longer believe that Father Christmas delivers presents to me at Christmas, but I understand that the pretence is a device adults use to bring joy to small children. Discovering the ‘truth’ about Father Christmas makes me feel more grown up, but I do not see belief in God in the same class any more – after all, my aged grandparents still say that they believe in God. I am not really aware that more nuanced views of God exist, or that God may mean very different things to different people.

      Me as a younger teenager: I believe in the existence of God, and my concept of what God is has now also been informed by my own religious experience that I interpret using the God-framework that I was taught about. My theism is self-reinforcing, but increasingly subject to challenges from within and without. I have much better developed theory of mind, and understand that some others believe that God does not exist. I am beginning to appreciate that when adults say that they believe in God, then they may mean this in slightly different ways, according to the individual. I am aware of theological divergences between some of the different denominations and religions, but I feel an attachment to my own church’s creed – I am suspicious of other creeds (e.g. Catholicism). I have an identity (however awkward) as a theist, and I feel I must defend this from explicit challenges, for exmaple from my peers who are also considering what it means to believe in God, or not, and what their own developing identity is.

      Me as an older teenager: I believe in the non-existence of God. (Negative absolute belief). To do this I still need to believe that it is possible to know enough about the concept of God to be able to believe that there is no God. The challenges to my theism were strong enough to cause me to flip from a positive belief in God to the opposite. I am an ‘ex-theist’. It is easy for me to be a casual atheist once I have stopped the practice of attending church and have removed myself from a social circle that includes God-believing Christians.

      Me as an adult: I do not believe in either the existence or the non-existence of God. Challenges to my (ex-theistic) atheism were strong enough to break out of the self-reinforcing cycle, but not so strong to flip me back to theism. I have a more nuanced view of belief than I used to. It seems more reasonable to assert that the existence or not of God (as I conceive him) cannot be known. I live in a broadly secular culture where it is relatively easy to ignore the claims of theism, and there is no requirement to prove my commitment to an atheistic position – it is enough to not openly engage with theism. I have an ‘agnostic’ stance, where my lack of belief is based on knowledge of the concept of God/no-God (i.e. I know what I am agnostic about). There is a risk of “sceptical slippage”, where my insistence that it is not possible to know that God exists becomes a belief in the non-existence of God.

      Me as a future adult(?): I can opt for ontological silence, in the style of the Buddha (maybe), by affirming that the concept of God has no falsifiable definition, and so I cannot enter into any further discussion on the matter. In some ways this is a move back towards the ‘virginostic’ stance of my infancy (the “beginner’s mind”), but I cannot return completely to that stance because I am no longer ignorant about my lack of belief. I have an ‘ignostic’ stance: it is a lack of belief based on refusal to recognise the possibility of knowledge about God/no-God. This stance is not easy, and is likely to be misunderstood by others.

      So, that took a lot longer than I expected to put together. Interested to know Robert what you think about the difference between the final two phases – is the ‘future self’ ignosticism the agnosticism you write about with respect to Middle Way Philosophy? Looking back at what I’ve written, it is hard to see what the difference is between the ‘affirming that the concept of God has no falsifiable definition’ taken from the Ethical Skeptic’s version of ignosticism and the assertion that ‘the existence or not of God (as I conceive him) cannot be known’ in the bit about agnosticism. Is it the difference between ‘I cannot know if God exists or not’ and ‘I cannot know what it is to be unable to know if God exists or not, because God is not well-defined’?

      It is also hard not to present this telling of ‘my story’ as a journey involving progress onwards and upwards, describing how I have been lifted out of delusion to a more enlightened position. Looking at it in this way makes it seems rather patronising towards those who are believers in the existence or non-existence of God. Am I presenting myself as superior to them, saying that they are wrong while I am right? Or am I being super-smug by putting myself in a position of ‘refusing to play the game’ so that I can deflect accusations that I’m acting in an unwarranted superior fashion?

      1. Hi Jim,

        I agree that I might have misunderstood the context in which Robert used the word ‘irrelevant’. The important thing is the Middle Way and Roberts insistence on even-handedness with positive or negative metaphysical beliefs is important.

        However the thing that always seems to cause concern is my belief that most people who define themselves as atheist don’t hold absolute negative beliefs. I think it would be a shame for someone who is visiting the site to make the same misunderstanding as me and thinking that we find their ruminations about the existence of God irrelevant, leave & not return.

        This is why I think some level of discourse regarding definition can be useful.

        My view that, in most practical situations, a hard-line atheist is indistinguishable from an agnostic remains the same, in that the choices they make are made with the absence of God. A Jehovas Witness might refuse life saving blood products because of the belief that it would displease God. Someone who is atheist or agnostic about this particular version of God will probably accept the life-saving blood products without question, whether they actively reject the beliefs of the Jehovas Witness or just agnostically decline to take a stance has little to no practical effect.

        From what you have posted, I like the term ignostic as it does clear up some of the ambiguity and confusion. However, at this time, it might have same issue as hard-agnostic in that during a general conversation, without detailed explanation, people might not understand what it means.

        Rich.

  4. Hi Rich,
    I think we’re somewhat talking at cross-purposes! It would be good to clear this up, but may not be easy.

    You say that most agnostics are agnostic-atheists because they live “as though there is no God”. For examples of the practical difference that it makes to be an ‘atheist’ in this sense you give absences of religious behaviour such as not going to mass or not praying to Allah. Then, further down, you say that it also doesn’t stop people valuing religion. You position seems contradictory because on the one hand you are saying that atheism has practical implications because it makes you non-religious, and on the other that it doesn’t because it doesn’t stop you being religious! As a result, I’m not clear about what you’re saying.

    I also find the way that you are using the term ‘atheist’ confusing. If an atheist is someone who denies the existence of God, then by definition an atheist is not an agnostic. If it has practical effects to deny the existence of God, as you assert, then these practical effects can hardly extend to agnostics, because they don’t deny the existence of God! If by ‘atheism’ here you actually mean some sort of secular cultural norm, then that is another issue, but secular culture is not the same as atheism.

    I think the irrelevance of the existence of God, except to group binding, is a major reason for being agnostic about God, but this has nothing necessarily to do with who the society welcomes or does not welcome. I do accept that people go through a process in working towards the Middle Way, that may begin with oscillation (even the Buddha did that, after all). I certainly hope that we could have productive discussions with people who are still hanging onto theistic, or atheistic, belief, but questioning their basis. However, the identity of the society depends on the centrality of the Middle Way and the value of even-handedness. That’s a radical and challenging position to take, but as far as I can see we’re the only ones taking it. That position depends on metaphysical views being perceived as basically irrelevant: if they weren’t irrelevant we could join the throng and base our thinking on them! It would all be a lot easier. But in the end, the reason why we might offer something helpful to a questing catholic or atheist is precisely because we’re prepared to recognise the irrelevance of metaphysics and offer an alternative, however skillfully we may communicate it so as to avoid being off-putting.

    I do agree with some of the points in your last two paragraphs, though: that we should not assume that people who identify with certain metaphysical labels are entirely defined by those labels – yes! Also that God is just a label that could be substituted with all sorts of other labels. The archetype does not require the use of the term ‘God’ at all.

    However, I think God (or whatever you want to call it) as an embodied experience may be much more common than you are taking into account. The research done by David Hay suggests widespread religious experience in the population, then there are also the problems of definition and the fact that ‘religious experience’ can be understood incrementally. I suspect most people have had some sense of meaning coming together, of wider vistas and potentialities, of the stimulated temporal lobe or a more right hemisphere dominated experience than usual. I think the problem is often that people pursue abstract debates about an abstract ‘God’ without even touching base with such experiences, not that they haven’t had them.

  5. Just another further thought, Rich. Another crucial aspect of this is being really clear about sceptical slippage, I think – i.e. that denying any claim is not to be conflated with simply failing to affirm it. I’m not entirely convinced that you’re not still doing this in some sense! There’s a video about sceptical slippage on this site. http://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/middle-way-philosophy-introductory-videos/mwp-video-5-agnosticism/mwp-video-5c-sceptical-slippage/

    1. Hi Robert and Rich, really glad that this discussion is going on, even if this format is not the most conducive to clear communication! I did find the video about sceptical slippage useful when I watched it last week.

      Robert I’d be interested to know what you think of the idea of ignosticism as described here: https://theethicalskeptic.com/?s=ignostic It is a long page, and not at all easy on the eye(!), but it might be worth reading to see if you think that the agnosticism you’re promoting as a crucial part of Middle Way Philosophy is essentially the same as the ignosticism described by the anonymous ‘Ethical Skeptic’. It’s not just about different perspectives in framing terminology, this blog page about ignosticism presents it as cultivating a kind of ‘beginners mind’ when it comes to the whole issue of the existence/non-existence of God. It sounds a lot like the agnosticism talked about by Stephen Batchelor in his Zen retreat talks, dwelling in the hwadu question of “What is this?” without striving after answers.

      1. Hi Jim,
        Regarding ignosticism. I’m finding this source (‘The Ethical Skeptic’) rather confusing and contradictory – the kind of blogger who seems to be on intellectual speed, overwhelmed with ideas about everything. I don’t think this guy meditates! It seems to be highly original, but I’m not convinced that it has much grounding in experience, let alone practice. The claims to intellectual humility are also belied by apparently rather narrow and obsessive attacks on other people’s views as ‘bullshit’ elsewhere on the site. So, I’m not sure that I can draw any clear conclusions about whether ‘ignosticism’ is compatible with the kind of ‘agnosticism’ I prefer myself. In its immediate definition, maybe yes, but the context also provides a lot of the meaning of it, and I find a lot of the context too narrow. There doesn’t seem to be any appreciation of psychology, meditation or archetypal approaches, but just a highly abstract discussion of philosophical terms in relation to the theory of science.

      2. Hi – yes, I’m inclined to agree with you on this one. I read several of the ‘key’ articles (the ones suggested to read first) and it is not presenting a particularly well-balanced worldview. The text is poorly edited and the pages uncomfortable to read, which I use as a heuristic to take extreme care trusting it in any way. The whole thing seems a lot less important to me as I’ve spent the day doing other things. I think the best thing I can take from this source is to watch out for skepticism being used badly (perhaps it is equivalent to sceptical slippage) – and some people behave as if simply identifying themselves as a ‘skeptic’ gives them the moral high ground, and they then go on to promote their ideologies etc. and reinforce their unexamined prejudices whilst batting away criticism with a stroke of ‘I’m a skeptic’.

      3. Hey Jim and Robert,

        Thanks for taking a look at my blogsite and for the kind commentary on ignosticism. I will take much of what you both said into consideration as I craft it each of its posts into the future. I put about 30 hours into most each of my posts – so they are not a casual read, nor are they meant to be. Finding the right panel density format for what I am trying to convey, has been a challenge. Alas, this is what WordPress offers.

        However, that being said, my blog is not meant to look and feel like every other single blog out there (of WordPress’ 317 themes, 316 of them are meant for short whimsical point-pieces, devoid of detail or depth, single center column panel about 11 key words wide, white background, picture of kitten or muffin and comments section). Such is not the destiny of my blog – nor should it be. The theme of my blog is to challenge false certainty – the claim/teaching to scientific certainty about our realm – and being conveniently ‘skeptical’ of everything else. That abject certainty is what I infrequently call ‘bullshit’; and not the existential nature of the claims themselves. One must grasp the difference in order to understand ethical skepticism, run a research lab, argue law, etc. As well, one can hold the inner discipline to be balanced and humble (and one has to be in order to lead people in the modern world) and yet at the same time, fiercely stand their ground when biased conjecture is taught as truth and people are harmed through fake science. If you have been assuming otherwise – I would examine that notion in your life.

        If you have read my “About” page, you will see that my positions, while original, are not short on world experience and application by any stretch. I would contend that this is a claim without any possible basis from knowledge, first. Moreover, it is also flatly wrong. Spend one month with me on travel, doing strategies, managing overseas projects and developing technologies, investigating global mysteries, observing mankind and every religion in its home setting – you will be exhausted, and your life will be forever changed.

        And yes, I have had a great deal of multi-discipline exposure and have many many ideas about how to improve this world in which we find ourselves. The whole point is, that in order to compile a world view – one should experience a significant portion of the world first. Men lie and deceive as part of their core nature. Ethical skepticism is about the personal journey out of that morass – this it is not an easy journey, nor an easy read. Again, nor should it be. The site is not meant for popularity, rather only meeting certain hearts/minds who have come to a specific inflection point in their lives. A point of internal examination, contemplation and accountability at which most people’s short life journeys never arrive.

        TES
        🙂

    2. Thanks Robert. I think I’ve watched this, but I don’t know. I will be sure to have another look.

      I don’t think I’m falling into this trap, I just think that most atheists are actually latter, rather than the former (which the dictionary would have them be).

  6. Hi Robert,

    I may not have been clear in my examples of religious behaviour. In the first example my point was not that an atheist or agnostic will have an absence of religious behaviour, rather, any motivation to do so will differ from a ‘believer’. An atheist or agnostic may well go to mass, but not because they believe to do so would be favourable in the eyes of a deity. I would argue that both an atheist and agnostic would be indistinguishable in this sense. The same would be true of someone who maintains the ritual of praying to Allah, but is either atheist or agnostic. There may be many reasons that they do this, one of them being that it gives them meaningful experiences. The God experience if you like. In this instance the terms Atheist or Agnostic are inconsequential to the experience. Both groups are praying for reasons other than it is favourable in the eyes of a deity.

    However, the practical effect of this is, in most cases and in societies where such choices are permitted, that the atheist and agnostic’s behaviour will differ from that of someone with religious belief. Most agnostics or atheists probably don’t attend Mass, but if they do it won’t be because they feel compelled to do so out of subservience to God. Similarly an atheist or an agnostic may or may not value religion. This will vary from person to person and will not be dependent on whether they define themselves as atheist or agnostic.

    I think that the term atheist is confusing, but so is agnostic and so it Christian. Technically, it might mean a denial of the existence of God (although definitions can be conflicting) but I stand by my belief that most people who say ‘I am atheist’ don’t deny the existence of God in an absolute way, and they could probably be better defined as agnostic. But this is just a semantic technicality. I don’t see much benefit in defining atheism so rigidly if the reality is that most self-defined atheists are not what the technical definition says they should be. I think it’s better to accept the flexible way that the word is used in popular culture and allow individuals to explain what they mean when they define themselves as such. Nevertheless, in general, the practical implication of being either an agnostic and an atheist is to live as if there is no deity that we have to appease. It is not that we all start attending confession on a regular basis. This will be the same for Richard Dawkins as it is for you, despite the significant differences in what you think.

    I agree with you that the issue whether God exists or not should be a practical irrelevance, but unless everybody else feels the way I do then the issue of Gods existence will continue to have practical effects on my life.

    Because you began your paragraph (in the post I was responding to) referring to ‘discussions’ about atheism and agnosticism, I had thought that you were indicating that all discussions on the subject were irrelevant. I see I may have been wrong, but I think a more detailed discussion was important. In replying to you, I am also conscious of new arrivals to the site, who is technically an agnostic, but calls themselves an atheist. They may make the same assumptions as me. The terms do cause confusion and that is why I have started to make attempts to be open to peoples usage, so as not to get bogged down in what the technical definition is.

    Likewise, I have softened to the usage of God when it is referred to as an embodied experience, but only for people who are comfortable using it that way and find it helpful. I remain sensitive to the fact that it will be problematic for many people, for just as many reasons, and think that other words wight be better for general usage, although admittedly I don’t know which. I do think that such experiences are common, and that they have been identified in many different ways through history and between cultures, but I don’t think that such experiences are relevant to discussions about atheism and agnosticism; the God they are concerned with is not an embodied experience, but the belief in a disembodied deity.

    1. Hi Rich,
      The discussion is proliferating and becoming difficult to keep track of! But this is in response to your Oct 24th, 11.12pm, which makes more sense to me than the previous one!

      You say that atheist and agnostic are practically similar in that “An atheist or agnostic may well go to mass, but not because they believe to do so would be favourable in the eyes of a deity.” In this they are also similar to anyone else who is not a theistic Catholic – e.g. a Buddhist, a Hindu etc. What they have in common is the absence of a positive belief in God’s revelation. I think, though, that’s it’s also worth thinking further about what form “subservience to God” or its absence is actually likely to take in experience. People know about God’s alleged instructions from the group who press those instructions on them, e.g. by telling them to read scripture and interpreting it a certain way, and by reinforcing that interpretation in ritual. Atheist and agnostic both lack subservience to the theistic group and its power. However, they differ in that the atheist may also be subservient to the power of an atheist group. Andrew Brown goes one about this in relation to the cult Richard Dawkins has gathered around him.

      I agree with you that all the terms are potentially confusing. However, terms also have different functions in different contexts. The terms might be used differently, or at least glossed differently, in different contexts for different audiences, but in order to maintain a core consistency whilst doing that we also need an agreed use of these terms. When you say “I think it’s better to accept the flexible way that the word is used in popular culture and allow individuals to explain what they mean when they define themselves as such.” then I do agree, but that sounds like a preliminary discussion in a context where someone is identifying as an atheist and working out what that means for them, rather than one like this in which we are discussing a larger and more consistent philosophy as well as (sometimes) the best ways of communicating that philosophy. Stipulation can help prevent confusion: e.g. “Atheist in the sense of…”.

      The word ‘irrelevant’ as I used it needs to be interpreted at this more consistent level. It’s certainly not intended as a put-down to anyone who wants to, or indeed needs to, discuss the issues around the existence of God, and I can appreciate that it may be experientially ‘relevant’ for people to clarify the issue. But there is also a point, as I indicated above, where such discussions seem to turn into an end in themselves, and the only way forward to me then seems to be to challenge the assumptions on which such a fruitless discussion is conducted. That often includes, I find, the need to challenge atheistic appropriations of agnosticism that institutionalise sceptical slippage. But we may also have different views about when the point of fruitlessness is reached in particular cases!

      1. Agreed.

        My use of the term atheist, to describe my own position, is entirely contextual. I only use it if time and circumstance does not allow for deeper discussion.

  7. Rich, to add a bit more to the mix… above you said:

    I would like this society to be welcoming to the recent ‘believer’ who has found themselves questioning their faith and the former new-atheist who now questions the rigid assumptions they have been making. In time such a person may come to feel how you do, but it will take time and they will likely want/ need to explore the issues surrounding those we are discussing here.

    Maybe it is worth exploring what we might be expecting of people in these situations you describe in the quote above, in terms of their beliefs and behaviours, and how what we’re suggesting might come across to them. I’ll refer to them as the church-going Christian and the casual atheist (‘casual’ because their position doesn’t require them to deliberately engage in a practice like attending church on Sundays).

    There is an asymmetry here between the two situations. In considering taking up the Middle Way the casual atheist is not being challenged to start changing their behaviour in any significant way. They are being encouraged to lose the rigidity of their (casual) dogmatism about the non-existence of God, and instead to adopt an agnostic view towards the existence/non-existence of God. The casual atheist is likely to be wary of the term ‘agnosticism’, worrying that any loosening of their atheist stance will mean that they are being expected to be prepared to engage in ‘woo’. That’s the way in which I see self-identifying casual atheists as being put off by seeing the term agnosticism as one of the key principles of the Middle Way. Unfortunately it does require some unpacking, but it is something that needs to be unpacked! Perhaps we could be more explicit about it when the situation arises.

    Anyway, over to what I think is the trickier case, that of a conventional church-going Christian who is considering taking up the Middle Way. In their situation, their behaviour (which may be habitual, meaningful, etc.) is being challenged by the Middle Way call to theological agnosticism. They may affirm a Christian creed every Sunday (explicitly or implicitly as part of the practices in their church services) and the dissonance produced by continuing to join in with this affirmation of beliefs whilst internally adopting an agnostic suspension of belief is going to be very uncomfortable. If they’ve been following a very conventional creed-based approach to God then it is going to take time for them to develop a meaning-based approach to God, and such an approach may not be well-supported by the culture of their church anyway.

    The church-going conventional Christian with inclinations towards the Middle Way seems to have a lot more to lose than the casual atheist with inclinations towards the Middle Way. I think Robert discusses the difficulty for the believing Christian to drop the belief and instead go for the faith approach in the final parts of his book on the Christian Middle Way. Perhaps the unpacking of agnosticism for the church-going Christian could be helped by framing the agnosticism as being not just a theological agnosticism, but a general agnosticism about all dualistic pairs of absolute belief. In a sense, God is not being singled out here (which is often the way it appears when ‘new atheists’ try to dissuade believers-in-God from their views). There is no church of atheism (as such) so the absolute belief of the casual atheist is not being explicitly supported by a creed and the group-binding ritual behaviour that affirms such a creed.

    To add something to one of my earlier musings, that is relevant here. We are, in a fashion, saying that both the casual atheist (with perhaps underlying nihilism) and the creed-believing Christian are ‘wrong’. But of course we’re doing it in a more subtle way than a right/wrong split. I think we’re saying that taking the Middle Way on belief in God/no-God involves agnosticism, and that this agnosticism is the more ethical approach because it leads to more provisional/incremental beliefs that are capable of being integrated. And integration is the thing. Creed-believing Christianity and God-denying nihilistic atheism are two dead ends with regards to integration, because these absolute beliefs are incapable of being integrated. The subtlety here is that maybe the creed-believing Christian is easier able to recognise the absolute nature of their belief, whereas the casual atheist may feel their position is far from the God-denying nihilistic atheism.

  8. Hi Jim,

    I wouldn’t disagree with any of what you have put here.

    I agree that some atheists are more likely to fail in recognising the metaphysical nature of their beliefs, but I am aware that once they do then moving to a more middle way position would be easy. This is why I am so sensitive to how the society might appear, on the surface, to such people.

    We are welcoming to all of the groups discussed, but sometimes there is a risk that this only becomes apparent after detailed discussion, which might be too late.

    In the past I have felt that Robert has sometimes given a harder time to atheists, with the language he has used, than to believing Christians and has not got his even-handedness quite right. However, one of the things that impressed me with his upcoming Christian Middle Way book is that he does get this balance right. The book is explicitly welcoming to both groups and invites them to challenge their assumptions in a way that is sympathetic and understanding.

    Rich.

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