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Unwitting Atheists and Other Agnostic Creatures
2008.10.01 (Wed) 15:58
Bill Maher appeared on The Daily Show Tuesday night to promote his new movie, Religulous, and discuss the ideas presented therein with Jon Stewart. The movie is Maher's sarcastic stab at the silliness of religion and religious beliefs — obviously, we're all for that kind of approach.
Bill Maher's an interesting guy. He's witty, he's got some smarts, and he has an understanding of the bullshit inherent in most human activities, particularly those where one human tries to convince another human of something for which the first human has no evidentiary basis whatsoever (as in the two biggies: politics and religion). We actually really enjoy Maher's stand-up, for the most part, and we enjoy a lot of what we get the chance to see on Real Time (except that his choice of liberal panelists often leaves quite a lot to be desired). He has a few too many irrational beliefs — gris gris, as we adopted the term from Penn & Teller — for our tastes (such as his "you are what you eat" version of germ theory), but not so many that they stop us from enjoying the rest of what he has to say. He did make the very disappointing mistake — one we didn't expect from him, actually — of hopping in front of the Daily Show desk and largely just spewing out his pre-written (and oft-performed) jokes and talking points, but at least they were jokes and points we were interested in hearing.
But one aspect of his appearance really rubbed us the wrong way. Maher was invited to stay for a second segment, and when they returned from the commercial break, Stewart questioned him about his lack of belief. Maher insisted that he was not going to just come out and say that he doesn't believe in God. He said:
I'm not an atheist, because I find atheism to be a mirror of the certainty of religion, and I don't like certainty of the next world because we don't get none. And I say we don't know.
In short, Bill Maher is claiming to be an agnostic. And he makes this claim because he thinks that atheism is as misguided in its claims of "certainty" as theism. And that, in short, is bullshit.
Bill got it backwards. We'll forego a lengthy explanation of how "atheism" is not a catch-all term for those who understand and implement the scientific method, healthy skepticism, critical thinking, and reasoned logic to the big empirical questions in the world around us. We'll grant Maher his terms, and we'll generally argue our points using them (albeit with the occasional irony quotes). And in Maher's terms, "atheists" have a certainty born of confidence; religionists are the mirror — a fun house mirror that distorts the certainty of Maher-defined atheists by removing several key elements that make it what it is.
See, we've been trying to think through how this works. We understand the scientific method, which helps us arrive at the specific knowledge we hold. But how is it that we "atheists" are all just so darn certain of our conclusions? What we've come up with is a simple flow chart, and it follows thusly:
Observation leads to curiosity. We see things in the world around us, and we begin to wonder about them. Some of us are more observant than others; some are indoctrinated to refrain from careful scrutiny, and their observational powers are stunted as a result. That's a shame — keeping careful watch of the world around you is one of the greatest pleasures in life.
Curiosity leads to imagination. Our curiosity inspires us to think about possible explanations for what we've seen. Human beings have great powers of imagination. What's even better is, you don't need to be — as the woos seem so certain — Galileo, or Newton, or Einstein. You can imagine anything you like. It's fine if it's utterly outlandish...the key is what you later do with the things you imagine.
Imagination leads to conception. We conceive of a specific idea, a concept that explains what we initially observed. The best scientists and other skeptics are good at drawing on rock solid theories and critical thought in order to refine this concept so that it fits in with our current body of knowledge...or, at least, only contradicts what we know in a way that will explain things even better.
Conception leads to skepticism. A true scientist, a skeptic, what Maher would term an "atheist," immediately takes their own concept to task. They question it, and try poking holes in it. Mercilessly. They try tackling it to the ground, beating the shit out of it, chopping off its limbs, bleeding it out. We do this because we know that, if that concept can still get up, run down the field, and score a goal, then it's a pretty fucking good concept.
Skepticism leads to examination. Having questioned our concepts, we can investigate them thoroughly. If you present a concept as unquestionable — above examination, beyond all permissible scrutiny — then you've already failed in your journey along this path.
Examination leads to understanding. Our examination involves the use of the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis, conclusion, and — vitally important — the replicability and reliable consistency of our results by other, independent parties. Because of this, we can start to understand how our concept works — how it explains the aspect of the universe that we've observed. This isn't just stating that we understand something (i.e., "God did it" or "The purple crystal resonates at the frequency of human DNA"); this is truly understanding something to the best of our human abilities...which get better and better, every generation.
Understanding leads to confidence. A true understanding of any phenomenon, event, or effect, and the subsequent useful results that we derive from this understanding, make us realize how well this process is working, and give us reason to believe in our conclusions and the process itself.
Confidence leads to certainty. And, of course, this is what Bill Maher is missing.
When you have millions of observations leading to the same consistent understanding of the universe — millions of paths that follow this same route from start to finish, and all seem to dovetail so wonderfully — that understanding provides a lot of confidence. That confidence equates to a lot of certainty. Is it the absolute certainty of mathematics? Of course not...such certainty doesn't exist outside of mathematics. But it's an incredible amount of justified certainty, because it's backed by all of that confidence...which is backed by true understanding...which is backed by real examination, brought about by skeptical questioning of our concepts.
The problem here is, of course, that when people fail to use skepticism (as those espousing religious "truths" have a tendency to do), they are stuck at the stage of conception. Which means they have an idea that wasn't questioned, wasn't examined, wasn't understood, will not engender real confidence, and therefore can't result in any fucking certainty, period. Therefore, any "certainty" they claim has not been validated, and is entirely fabricated. Which is, of course, religion and woo thinking in a nutshell.
There's a peculiar class of folks, though, who thoroughly get this, but...for some reason...don't want to really embrace it. These folks call themselves "agnostics." We, however, call them atheists who seem to think there's something wrong with confidence.
It's an odd thing, how our civilization — and particularly religion — has tried to pound into our heads that confidence equates to hubris, certainty equates to arrogance, and we should even doubt those ideas we came to through a very successful application of doubt itself. That's overdoing the skepticism, guys — that's not what the point of skepticism is. (If we have to hear one more ridiculous woo suggest that we "doubt our doubt," we'll remove all doubt from his skull, the hard way.)
Agnostics: don't be scared. Or shy. Or whatever it is that stops you one step short of declaring your atheism. Confidence is not hubris when it's backed by the evidence. Ignore the societal programming that tells you that no human could possibly know anything with absolute certainty. Atheism doesn't require absolute certainty. We're not claiming to know everything; but it's okay to claim that we're pretty fucking certain of shit we've pretty fucking darn well figured out, as a species. Likewise, you may — with a lot of fucking certainty — dismiss the things that people have never been able to confirm even once throughout thousands of years of trying.
See, let's get real: atheism isn't a belief that there isn't a god. It is a lack of belief that there is a god. (This is, of course, why we disagree that "atheist" is the correct catch-all label, here. Face it: there are plenty of people who don't have a god-belief who are still irrational dumbfucks. We've encountered a number of them since the inception of our site.)
It's really not hard to understand this. We just wish that Bill Maher and the rest of the self-labeled "agnostics" would realize it. Guys: you are atheists. An atheist doesn't have a belief in god(s). You don't have a belief in god(s). The fact that you're just saying "I don't believe because I don't know," while we're saying "We don't believe because there's no fucking evidence for it" is kind of strange...because the reason you don't know is because there is no fucking evidence for it.
Agnostics are atheists who are, for some reason, avoiding stating it outright. Is it fear? A desire to "keep the peace"? The taboo nature of discussing religion in terms of certainty? We're not entirely sure.
What we are sure of is that there aren't any gods. And that "certainty"? It's the same as the "certainty" we have that psychics are bullshit. That is: it's certainty. The best you can get outside of a mathematical context. It's certainty that our observations and conclusions, after going through the lengthy process described above, are accurate, as far as anything that's come up so far suggests. If anything — anything — came along to suggest differently, we'd exhibit less certainty, and we'd investigate the new data to see if we should reexamine our previous data. But after thousands of years of incredible consistency, that confidence we've got in our world view probably looks a fuck of a lot like certainty...
...so we suppose, really, that's what it is. Certainty.
Bill Maher points out on the Daily Show (and, of course, a hundred times before, because it's not like he came up with anything new for this appearance) that when you're presented with the utterly insane shit that religions expect you to buy at face value, the only correct response is a smile, a shrug, and "Well, I guess anything's possible."
That's right, Bill. Anything's "possible." But you certainly grant that some things are far more likely than others. Like the internal combustion engine functioning correctly is more likely than a galactic overlord trapping depressed aliens in our brains via volcanoes and nuclear explosions. Or things you throw up in the air falling back down is more likely than a man nailed to a tree two thousand years ago being a super magical member of a threesome that inexplicably counts as one guy. Or a self-proclaimed psychic actually using clever tricks and techniques to gather information is more likely than that same psychic getting the information through some undetectable, unsupported, unproven paranormal or supernatural abilities. We'd even hazard a guess that you'd agree, Bill, that the likelihood of each former scenario is monumentally greater than each latter scenario. That you'd lay money on it; maybe even more than money, if you could get 100% assurance of controls against cheating.
And that, Bill, is certainty. You have it too, buddy. You just don't realize it yet.
Or, well, we're pretty certain, anyway. But what do we know? After all, anything's possible.
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