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« If You Can't Stand the Heat... The RantsAmazing »

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.
[our emphasis]

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.

— • —
[  Filed under: % Bullshit  % Greatest Hits  % Media & Censorship  % Religion  ]

Comments (18)

Ryan, 2008.10.01 (Wed) 18:42 [Link] »

I love you guys.

That sums it up pretty well for me - I'm certain there's no such thing as ghosts, psychic powers, gods, vampires, werewolves et. al because I've been given no reason to question that certainty.

stavros, 2008.10.01 (Wed) 19:14 [Link] »

Whoa! Ryan, you went too far there mate! Vampires *do* exist, and it is very easy to check it out (evidence, video and everything!): "Are Vampires Real"

Maybe you ought to reconsider your certainty on those other things on your list then? :-)

Bronze Dog, 2008.10.01 (Wed) 21:12 [Link] »

Hey, Ryan. Been a while.
Yeah, I'm in a love-hate thing with Maher, currently leaning towards mild hate: He's got some good comments on the silliness of religion, but I've seen him say some jaw-droppingly stupid and dangerous things about medicine.

Darthcynic, 2008.10.03 (Fri) 06:25 [Link] »

I found his statement more of an evasion for the public which is odd given his general drubbing of the religiously afflicted. I've seen some who prefer to walk the nicely neutral line of agnosticism so as to not offend the sensibilities of the superstitious by being one of those unbelieving apostates.

dikkii, 2008.10.05 (Sun) 09:59 [Link] »

I get this a lot of the time from people. It's normally assumed by most that I'm an atheist, because I disbelieve.

However, the other side of the coin is that when I originally self-identified as agnostic, the broad consensus on the term "atheism" was that it meant a belief in no deities. That is, what appears to be regarded now as hard atheism, or what I like to call, capital-A Atheism.

I can accept that consensus on the term "atheists" has changed, but fuck. Now the term "atheists" appears to encompass the hardened and dogmatic capital-A Atheists as well as agnostics, ignostics, antitheists, apatheists, babies, buddhists, confucianists, as well as some deists and animists.

I like the term "agnostic". It has this nice image of someone who, if provided with overwhelming evidence, will believe that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden or whatever. Just identifying as agnostic has the advantage of neutralising any accusation of closed-mindedness (fuck I hate that epithet) in its tracks.

Richard Dawkins once attacked agnostics as being obsessive fence-sitters. But in the same text, Dawkins refused point blank (Chapter 4, The God Delusion) to consider the possibility that agnostics know what an extraordinary claim is compared to the null hypothesis. And I don't think that this was a careless omission, either.

I guess that this means I'm an atheist. But where agnostic seems to now be a subset of the atheist set, doesn't this make the term "agnostic" more meaningful?

Tom S. Fox, 2008.10.06 (Mon) 05:42 [Link] »

I like to think of agnostics as people who are just too fucking scared of being wrong and consequently avoid taking up a position.

Jason Spicer, 2008.10.06 (Mon) 21:12 [Link] »

And we're back to the "what do we call ourselves" debate. I tried "Bright" on for size. I don't like it, though. Not because it casts the opposition as "Dims", which seems more or less appropriate, but because it doesn't really convey anything about having a naturalist worldview. It would be nice to have a word like "verifiabilist", but that seems extremely awkward. "Missourian"? Not in reference to the current red-state tendencies, but to the original Show Me State attitude. That's all I ask of the woos--show me. Provide independent verifiability. Or keep those voices you're hearing between yourself and your medication prescriber.

Having said that, I despair that we will find the perfect word, given that we've been trying for decades without success. So I've pretty well embraced "atheist". Especially since I actually lean more toward being an antitheist. Maybe I should spell it "a...theist".

But I do tend to think of agnostics as those who wish to avoid a confrontation or otherwise don't want to commit to the obvious inductive endpoint. It's sort of like saying you could be convinced either way on evolution. I say, bet with the preponderance of evidence. Or utter lack thereof, in the case of deities.

dikkii, 2008.10.06 (Mon) 23:51 [Link] »

Well Jason, I've always hated "Brights". Not because of "Dims" but because the more that you think about "Brights", it just sounds totally gay in the primary/elementary school meaning of the word.

I like "verifiablist". It's good. So's "Missourian"

But don't we already have a good word? Repeat after me, people:


The Two Percent Company, 2008.10.07 (Tue) 12:00 [Link] »

Words, words, words. We know a hawk from a handsaw, and honestly, we don't really mind if you call a hawk a handsaw, as long as you don't try to cut wood with it (for your sake and the hawk's).

Here's the thing, from our perspective: it's not about the words, particularly. We apologize if there's a perception that our Rant focused on the labels themselves (we've run into that misperception before), but that really wasn't the crux of our writing.

What it comes down to, for us, is that it's not a question of semantics or redefinitions. As we said in our Rant, we were arguing using Maher's "terms," because there's very little else to go on, otherwise. We've also mentioned on several previous occasions that we don't agree that anyone can look at "atheism" (whomever you might apply it to) and think of a "group" — we just don't see it that way. We're honestly pretty staunchly opposed to groups, because we've seen how much trouble they tend to cause — if "you and you and you" are in Group A, that means that "he and she and they" are not in Group A, and that's where a lot of trouble seems to start. Any "group" human beings form is, by definition, a subgroup — since we're already grouped together by virtue of our species and common human experience — and therefore seems to be the macrocosmic equivalent of grade school cliquishness.

Also, the idea of being part of a group with individuals you have never met or spoken to in your entire life seems outrageously stupid, to us. Why claim membership in a group when you can't personally vouch for the behavior, words, or actions of some or all of the other members? Why put yourself in that position? Religionists are, apparently, content to do so; we're not. It's this kind of willingness to overlook such an obvious flaw in mass group mentality that leads to rampant No True Scotsman claims.

You see, we genuinely don't see atheism as a group. Christianity (pick a sect, any sect — it really doesn't make a difference to us) is a worldview; Christianity (again, any sect) is also a group to which people belong. They don't just espouse theism, but rather a specific storyline, with resulting by-laws and expectations of all members of the group. Atheism, on the other hand, is certainly a worldview (or at least an element of one)...but where's the group? Other than our shared lack of something, what exactly do all atheists have in common? It's the "non-stamp collector" hypothesis all over again. We once said that this is like forming a club for people who just happen (by coincidence rather than choice) to have never seen a Tom Green movie — what's the larger bond, and therefore the point, of forming such a group? (Tom Green haters, on the other hand, would be a different story.) As we pointed out in the Rant, there are some atheists who are utter asshats — we feel no real "bond" with them. Note that this is not remotely a No True Scotsman fallacy — we agree that they are atheists, because they lack a god-belief, but we just don't see how that "groups" them with us, given the rest of our worldview compared to theirs.

What it comes down to here, semantics and terms aside, is that if you lack a god-belief and call it "agnosticism," and we lack a god-belief and call it "atheism," then our disparate terms apparently mean precisely the same thing — so we're all on the same page. We ourselves have pointed out that, if someone could provide enough solid and validated evidence for anything, we're prepared to embrace it in our worldview; this seems to be exactly what dikkii is saying with the garden fairies example. (Our ass gnomes are a little miffed that you didn't go with them, dikkii.)

In a way, this is why we're not fans of the word "agnostic," which means, literally, that you "don't know." Why call yourself "one who does not know" when, frankly, you clearly do, provided you have enough evidence? We find ourselves in agreement with Tom S. Fox and Jason Spicer, here. We do know what's going on, and we think that many self-labeled agnostics do too, as far as our current data allow us to — the fact that new data might spur us all to revise what we know doesn't mean that we don't know these things in the first place. (Unless you agree with Bushco that any given individuals "flip-flopped," as opposed to reanalyzing their conclusions based on newly available data.) You can go as far as we go, which is to say, yes, there's an objective universe to explore, and we're confident in our knowledge of it — or you can go all the way to the other end, and say that maybe we're in The Matrix anyway, so there's no definitive knowledge because it could all be pulled out from under us at any minute (there was a discussion on this subject going on over at Skeptico's recently). We feel that the usual agnostic is "kinda sorta" somewhere in the middle, and we don't see the point: if we're all Matrixized anyway, then all we'll ever plausibly know is what's in this universe, so the outside literally doesn't even matter if we can never know, explore, or even interact with or be influenced by it!

We have a feeling you agree with us and Tom and Jason on this, dikkii, even if you label yourself an agnostic. So from a highly accurate perspective, it would be more fitting to group us all with you rather than idiots like Francois Tremblay (who certainly seems to be an atheist). Therefore, the actual words matter very little. We're really, truly not fans of "Bright" or any of the other labels people have been batting around for a while now (though Missourian is ironically amusing, considering some of the people we've met in that particular state) — but largely because "atheism" isn't something we are, in the same way that you wouldn't call a butcher a "slicer of Boar's Head turkey." There's a lot more involved in butchery than just slicing Boar's Head turkey, specifically, and there's a hell of a lot more involved in us than just a lack of god-belief, or even our staunch skepticism.

But put the words aside, for a moment. As we've suggested in this comment, the inspiration for our Rant was not the words themselves, but Maher's take on the people using them. He declared that those who label themselves "atheist" have an absolute certainty, that those who label themselves "believers" have an absolute certainty, and that those (like him) who label themselves "agnostic" have a kind of transcendant and benign lack of certainty and open-mindedness. We called bullshit, and explained our argument in detail. We stand by that argument — a self-labeled "agnostic" who has looked at the evidence and therefore lacks a god-belief, but remains open to new evidence, bears a startling resemblance to us self-labeled "atheists" who have looked at the evidence and therefore lack a god-belief, but remain open to new evidence. The labels are peripheral, if they even matter at all.

Essentially: whether you call it soda, pop, or coke (lowercase c?), it's still a sweet, non-alcoholic, carbonated beverage...and we all drink it exactly the same way. Maher's the one who pretended that Coke has some inherent characteristic — beyond the superficial ones like color and flavor — that makes it a different beast from Pepsi. We might prefer some of those superficial differences to others — just like hair color, gender, manners, hobbies, taste in films and books — but at heart, the Coke Atheists are coming from the same bubbly, godless place as the Pepsi Agnostics. So drink up — either one puts a happy, cavity-ridden smile on your face.

dikkii, 2008.10.07 (Tue) 20:29 [Link] »

My apologies to your ass gnomes for alienating them - please assure them that when their evidence appears, I'll be believing in them as well.

As we've suggested in this comment, the inspiration for our Rant was not the words themselves, but Maher's take on the people using them.

You're quite correct. The way I see it, though, Maher is just someone who sees atheism in terms of the original definition and, to give him (probably too much of) the benefit of doubt, probably doesn't actually know too many self-identifying atheists.

Why call yourself "one who does not know" when, frankly, you clearly do, provided you have enough evidence?

Good question. I actually consider the knowing/not knowing thing to be, largely, an incidental concept although I'm certainly not agnostic when it comes down to knowing which part is the extraordinary claim. I've just always liked the term: There's no reason why you can't say "I don't know but I know which position I prefer."

I've never seen it written anywhere that agnostics mustn't ever occupy a position.

My problem with the term atheist is not with any groupings of people that it creates, as you might think. It's more the actual definition itself - it's quite broad, now. It includes a lot of rather disparate people (and groups), and while that makes a lot of people feel included, it loses a lot of specific meaning in the process.

Incidentally, I'm rather pleased that you'd side with me over Francois Tramblay. Man, is that guy a dick or what?

Jason Spicer, 2008.10.08 (Wed) 21:33 [Link] »

It's possibly a product of my fevered imagination, but I seem to recall a large tube snaked up the ass of each human "battery" in The Matrix. Now, I know what the probable function of such a thing would be, but it would also certainly provide easy access for ass gnomes. Just sayin'.

I think there is more than one kind of agnostic. (Probably way more.) There are those who just haven't made up their minds yet (and may never). And there are those who insist that it's not possible to know either way. I see that as an overemphasis of the tentativity of any hypothesis.

Scientific tentativity can be carried too far. Evolution is real. The Copernican model is real. You can quibble over decimal places, but really, holding out the possibility that evolution by natural selection might someday be overturned by something else is so unlikely that it can be safely discounted. I don't have much truck with the standard Xian view of scientific revolutions routinely rendering old facts unfactual. With the exception of the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, scientific revolutions are more about radically refining our model of the universe, not turning it on its head. Einstein in no way "disproved" Newton. The very concept is laughable.

Along those lines, god's jury is in. He's out. There's not much point continuing to look for evidence of god's existence when our best efforts have turned up nada for thousands of years. Same as for astrology or any of the other wooshit we talk about here. So in that sense, I think "atheist" fits: I've heard all the arguments and seen all the data, and there's no there there. Why waffle about it? Why give the opposition any wiggle room?

And while I've never been much of a joiner, and I tend to agree with the non-stamp-collector analogy, and I definitely agree that not all atheists are on the same page, I certainly feel more of a bond with atheists generally than with theists. Though I suppose that could be just a function of the normal human tendency to see a larger pattern than really exists. But the fact that I gravitated to this site and keep coming back says something about my affinities.

Ford, 2008.10.10 (Fri) 02:39 [Link] »

I know this topic is sort of arguing against Maher's fence-sitting, but looking at the larger of two evils, has anyone noticed that there's a significant number of theaters not playing religulous?

Akusai, 2008.10.10 (Fri) 19:16 [Link] »

You're telling me. I could have walked to any of three theaters playing Expelled, but I'm going to have to drive a damn hour to see Religulous. That's Indiana for you. Stupid Bible Belt.

dikkii, 2008.10.12 (Sun) 09:59 [Link] »

Akusai, you think that's bad. Because it's a documentary, only arthouse cinemas will be showing it over here (Australia).

Documentaries never get shown by the big multiplexes here, whether they're Expelled, Religulous or Michael Moore's next one. Even if it's a blockbuster.

If you live outside the five biggest cities here, chances are you'll never see it.

Ryan, 2008.10.13 (Mon) 13:28 [Link] »

Dikii -

Does that mean you didn't get to see Borat? That movie is all about how stupid us Americanos are...and I laughed every minute of it.

PoolGuy, 2008.10.14 (Tue) 17:40 [Link] »

I agree with Bronze Dog on the love/hate thing. It is kind of interesting how Maher can hold such rational views on religion (leaving out for the moment his atheist/agnostic misunderstanding) and, at the same time, be completely irrational with his anti-vax views.

In any event, he and Larry Charles (the director of Religulous) were on Charlie Rose last night. I didn't see the Daily Show, but I assume he said pretty much the same thing, including the "atheism is a matter of faith" nugget. What was interesting to me was the (perceived by me) attitude of Charlie Rose of "well, I'll let you talk about this because I'm a nice guy, but you're silly if you don't believe in God". He seemed almost condescending, in a passive way.

I'm in Orange County, CA (The OC, FSM help us all), and I have three art house theaters with 17 screens within 10 miles of my house, so I never have any problem catching movies in limited release. It's one of the perks of sharing the county with millions of other people. But Religulous is actually playing in a number of first-run mainstream megaplexes around here. I don't know if it's a function of Maher living out here, or what, but there you go.

Oh, yes, I saw the movie this weekend. Say what you will, Maher is a funny guy. The movie has some laugh-out-loud moments in it. Very much worth seeing.

dikkii, 2008.10.16 (Thu) 10:04 [Link] »

Loved Borat actually, Ryan. Looking forward to seeing what Bruno does to America in the next one.

Incidentally, when are Labeled coming to Australia?

Akusai, 2008.10.16 (Thu) 18:47 [Link] »

I once asked when Labeled were coming a few states over and got a snarky comment. Prepare thyself, Dikki, for patented rockstar sarcasm.

We love ya, Ryan.

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