Beautiful Sentences Can't Save Lesley Hazleton's Agnostic from Its Moral and Logical Flaws


Very nicely argued.
I thought the question was "Do you believe in a god?" and not "Can you prove there's no god?"

I don't believe in the Christian God or any other gods. Am I 100% certain that they don't exist? No, I'm not.

I'm an atheist, not a robot.
"Likewise, people can offer a definitive 'no' to the question of god's existence and still be capable of experiencing awe and mystery—in literature, in physics, or even in the ordinary joy of just looking around at stuff."
Thanks, Rich.

How can I be dogmatic about something I give zero thought to? She's making the mistake that religious people make, that atheists take the absence of God on "faith." Well, no.... as a scientist, I take absolutely nothing on faith. I need evidence to prove the existence of something, not evidence to prove the non-existence of something. Without that evidence, I'm not going to entertain the notion that there might be a God, because what would be the point?
And, BTW we all are born with the same sense of wonder and "spirituality." It's a part of your brain architecture. I'm offended that she thinks I should waste such enjoyable brain activity on a rather simplistic concept that other people made-up. I'd rather use it to contemplate the Higg's Field...or those 16 extra dimensions...or schizophrenia...or the end of the universe...or how life began...or...
Hazleton asserts her thesis in various permutations, but the basic logic is this: "God" is beyond human comprehension, therefore it's silly to wonder if "God" exists or not. How can you conceive of something you can't conceive?

This is basically the same argument I formulated for myself at age 14, without knowing anything about any of this. I called myself an "apathist" because God exists or doesn't, and my believing or not believing in him is not going to make a difference either way, so why worry about it?
@3 I'd argue that atheists and scientists take a lot of things on faith in daily life, like the existence of a self, the meaningfulness of a human life (hopefully), lots of things about consciousness, and so on.
Thank you, Rich -- I confess to a certain delight in being accused of moral flaws, even if it’s unclear what they might be. The same for logical flaws, since, like @2, the last thing I want is to be a computer.

But I’m somewhat at a loss to understand why you consider Hitchens so gifted. True, he‘s become the patron saint of the so-called new atheism, but given that he happily shilled for the invasion of Iraq, and boasted of palling around with all of President Bush Jr’s men, his beatification seems -- irony intended -- as suspect as that of Mother Teresa.

To the point of your piece, it would surely make more sense to accuse me of lack of substance if you had engaged with the substance in the first place. An “agnostic version of god”? Huh? I point out early on that does-he-or-doesn’t-he (exist) is an absurd argument. And -- I totally agree with you on this -- an extremely tiresome one. I posit mathematical infinity as the secular parallel in that it’s not inconceivable, since we do conceive of it, but it remains nonetheless by definition ungraspable, since it can’t be said to “exist.” (It’s also wonderfully heady, which is why I think DFW’s book on infinity, “Everything and More,” is the best thing he ever wrote.)

What most intrigued me about your piece, however, is the last line. It’s good to see that you’ve read Milton, but really – you’re comparing me to Satan?

Isn’t that kind of... religious?
You DO realize that the inscrutability of "god" is an ancient mystic idea with strong traditions in every major religion, right? Meister Eckhart? Spinoza? Sufi mysticism? This is also the basis for the Buddhist interpretation of "god" (which I would paraphrase as "whether or not he exists is irrelevant"). It's a key theological theory, and it actually has profound implications for theology in general.

I find it a bit odd that you would call it "wishy-washy" and "not very well-thought out", considering that it's an older idea than modern atheism, which basically boils down to, well, nothing at all. Or, rather, it boils down to that noxious sludge that results from heating up a coca-cola. There's nothing wrong with recognizing the inherent limits of human knowledge and perception while still being amazed by the wonders of the world. Atheism is far less defensible than agnosticism; atheism presupposes a level of understanding of the world that is quite absurd when considered in the light of the scientific worldview it espouses. "We do not know what we do not know" is a very valid logical argument that should be used often by any informed skeptic--it's also an inherent and inextricable truth that should be remembered by and kept close to the heart of anyone who uses the Western rational scientific model as their operating worldview.

I'll leave you with a line from "The Life of Milarepa", one of the most important texts in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (and, thus, in the so-called "Mahayana" sects of Buddhism):
"The purpose of religion is to discover for oneself the unknown secret of the truth."

If you want to call that wishy-washy and ill-thought out, then, well, I'm not sure spiritualism is for you.
@7: How does "I don't believe in God" presuppose an "absurd" understanding of the world?

Is it only people who do believe in God who see the world clearly? Or only those who don't know whether they believe in God?
@8 Or perhaps anyone who claims that they can see the world clearly -- whether theist or atheist -- is majorly deluded...
goddamn it, this is another case of linguistic misuse. Agnostics aren't just atheists with weaker claims. They're making an epistemic claim--you can't know about deityx, as opposed to the ontological claim of a-theism--deityx doesn't exist. Setting up this garbage binary leaves Deists, agnostic theists and gnostics totally in the cold.
Technically, I'm afraid she's right. Atheism is just another form of faith-based reasoning.

You can reasonably say that you don't believe in any of the gods conceived by man to date, but it's irrational to say you don't believe in notions of god that have yet to be conceived.
I will join the chorus here; Atheists do not believe in god. There is no faith of any kind in atheism. It isn't just a different type of cuisine, its not eating at all.

Attempts to describe atheism using religious or scientific terminology and ideas just make for meaningless metaphor.
@11 complete and total bullcrap. You can do better than this.
@13: There is no faith of any kind in atheism

The nonexistence of any sort of god-like phenomenon within or beyond human imagination has not and can not be scientifically or logically proven. If your belief isn't based on faith, than what is it based on? Arrogance? Too much indica?

complete and total bullcrap

Lol. You're like a Newtonian physicist scoffing at the idea that gravity can cause curvatures in space.
I basically agree with you, but the term "godlike phenomena" is pretty fuzzy and could include highly advanced alien civilizations. By the way, since we're taking about him - what is (or isn't if you're an unbeliever) god anyway?
(That was for @14)
@11: I didn't say I don't believe in things that have yet to be conceived. I said I don't believe in gods, meaning the gods put forth by various believers.

This is not a statement about the nature of reality or what is possible. It is a statement about my own mind. I don't believe.
@Jude Fawley: what is (or isn't if you're an unbeliever) god anyway?

Off the top of my head, I'd define "god" as the product of any theory that seeks to ascribe intention or purpose to the universe. I have yet to hear a theory of god that I find plausible. The one's favored by the organized religions are, of course, pretty fucking stupid.

could include highly advanced alien civilizations

Yes, for example the notion we're essentially a petri dish in the science lab of some super-universal life form.

Emotionally, I find myself drifting towards atheism when I'm around religious people but towards agnosticism when I'm around devout atheists.
I think of gods as cousins of the supernatural world the same way Dawkins said to that religious guy, "We're the cousins of neandrathals." And JJ Abrams calling 10 Cloverfield a cousin of Cloverfield. It's still too easy to be confused about all of it. But people still insist gods aren't just part of early man's vivid imagination or drug hallucination. For me too, it is about what's on the plate or clothes on an emperor. If you need faith in order to be clothed or have food, you're up a crap creek without a shovel.
@5, I don't believe any of the things you listed on faith or "faith" of any kind.
So you don't believe in them or you believe in then but based on something other than faith?
@21, Hi Jude. Or should I say, "hey, Jude"? :-)

let's see... 1) There is plenty of evidence that I exist, and that you exist, and it's cumulative and concurrent and consistent... but the evidence is not absolutely definitive, so yes I doubt it often. We could just as likely be AI's in a computer program.

2) my life is ONLY as meaningful and purposeful as I make it.
3) "lots of things about consciousness" I wish you had specified what you mean here. I ascribe to Daniel Dennett's theories of consciousness. (His book, "Consciousness Explained" is an excellent introduction). Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, cobbled together from the parts of a chaotic halographic "brain" (which could be biological or otherwise) that is comprised of millions of simultaneous interacting units (or more) and trillions of simultaneous calculations (or more). From something sufficiently complex, and structured a certain way, consciousness emerges.
(This isn't necessarily directed at Jude, who seems to be asking questions in good faith). BTW, things I don't understand don't automatically get the "faith" button. They get the "try harder to understand" button. In other words, "I don't know" does not equate to "faith."
@Sandiai: Daniel Dennett's theories of consciousness. (His book, "Consciousness Explained"...

Wow, that takes me back. My grad school training was focused on science, but philosophy of the mind, and consciousness in particular, was a minor obsession of mine.

I don't have any issues with Dennett's views, although I do think the book fell short of its title.
At the risk of falling into an epistemological rabbit hole...I don't see how one can preclude a limit to knowledge without losing credibility. Science is necessarily an agnostic enterprise, and even the most rigorous empirical ground is still an exercise in hedging one's bets.

Though her interests may diverge, Hazelton can count among her allies a good portion of feminist epistemology (and by way of that, their Continental predecessors). She stands in good company.

@6 Thank you for that, Lesley, and for the thoughtful reading you gave last night at Town Hall. And please forgive me this late reply! I only saw your post this morning, as I've been trying to catch up on work after a small vacation.

In reverse, I confess I was a little worried about the Corinthian/Miltonic satanic line, too! I don't mean to compare you to the dark lord, but rather the idea that there could be a god--which I guess you would call the spiritual parallel to infinity? (I'm having trouble following that line of thinking. Why would you describe infinity as a "secular parallel"--true, it's secular, but parallel to what? To a source of spiritual experiences that you and others describe? To an ungraspable 'it?' that somehow remains? Remaining and yet being ungraspable doesn't seem like such an accomplishment for an abstraction--you don't have to go as far as infinity to find the ungraspable, right? -1 does the trick. Or imaginary numbers. Any abstraction would define the ungraspable, right?) Anyway, all I meant to say is that some mysteries are shitty, and that the agnostic--in admitting all mysteries and on their own terms, no matter their affiliation with organized religions--is too happy to allow shitty mysteries to profligate, which is where--and you know I'm winking here, the same way you're winking when you consider the relationship between your title and subtitle--Satan can come in. Moreover, to stand stunned at mystery--to stop at awe--is a sad position I don't like being in. (I think of Thomas Hardy's poem "A Shadow on a Grave," but without the romantic set-up.) I like actively engaging with mysteries, and if I find one to be not as interesting and in fact harmful (in that, unlike infinity, these religious mysteries are so intwined with abhorrent traditional practices, rituals, and ideologies) then I think it's a good idea to stand against the unhelpful or limited ones.

As for my affection for Hitchens--it's all in the language. You may have hated his tone, but I loved his sentences. And though his neo-con hawkishness disturbed me, and though he seemed to pave the way or tap into the annoying and petulant tone that one of the audience members hurled at you last night, and though I hated his sexism, I can't fully dismiss his literary gifts, his wit, and his argumentative imagination, even if some of his evidence was imaginary.
Welcome back, Rich (@26), and thanks for replying so gracefully. Sorry to have missed you last night. Am off to the airport right now, but think (insofar as I can think at all this morning) that maybe we should make a rain/sun date for a walk in the mountains, whether literal or figurative. I suspect we might arrive at much the same place -- or, per Eliot, where we began... -- L.
(Re that word "spiritual": as you know, I'm wary of it. Wary as all hell. And re the Miltonic satanic line: I really was tickled by it! Still am.)