God, arrogance, and belief

From: Max More (max@maxmore.com)
Date: Sat Jan 22 2000 - 11:00:20 MST

Sorry I don't have more time to post on these threads. I feel that I
should, especially since I teach a class in Philosophy of Religion. So,
just a few points made briefly (well, more briefly than I'd like):

Though I always prefer to describe my views in positive rather than
negative terms, if asked (about the traditional God) "are you an
atheist", then my direct answer would be "yes". I think it is a mistake to
say that you should be an agnostic because you cannot prove that there is
no God. There are many things I cannot prove do not exist. My example in
class: there is an invisible, intangible alien elf who lives on top of the
Empire State Building who uses a mysterious mind control technology to
increase conflicts among people to weaken us ready for an alien invasion.
Do I believe this being exists? No. I am an a-elfist, just as I am an atheist.

Atheism = a-theism = lack of belief in a God. Lacking belief does not
automatically imply you can *prove* there is no such thing. While I find it
almost impossible to make sense of the Christian idea of God given the
state of the world, I cannot prove that our universe was not created by
some higher power, perhaps even something much like the Christian/Muslim
God. I just see no positive reason to believe this, many strong reasons to
doubt it, and so lack belief.

An agnostic is someone who does not know or thinks they *cannot* know
whether there is a God. To be an agnostic, at least in the second, stronger
sense, you need to have a standard of knowledge. Perhaps a supernatural,
unobservable being may not be the kind of thing of which you can have
knowledge. If so, by your standards of knowledge, you would be an agnostic.
You might then also be an atheist--having no knowledge of something, you
might very reasonably take the default position that you therefore do not
believe. (This is *not* equivalent to denying all possibility of the being
existing.) Or, you might say "I do not know if a God exists, but I choose
to believe anyway". I think most people do this, though not in such a
conscious form. One example of a conscious, cold-blooded agnostic theism is
Pascal's in his infamous Pascal's Wager.

So, logically, you can be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. Theism
is about belief, while "gnosis" refers to knowledge.

If you were to ask me about the typical notion of God (a supernatural being
who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good [the last being
tricky--good by what standard...], I would say that I am an atheist and
would *not* be an agnostic. According to my standards of knowledge, I feel
comfortable in saying that I *know* there is no such being. (My standards
of knowledge do not require that I can *prove absolutely* that something
does not exist for me to know that it doesn't.) However, if by "God",
someone simply means a creator and designer not bound by the laws of
physics, I would be an atheist but also agnostic. I would lack belief
because I see no evidence for this (I don't buy Moravec's idea that it's
highly likely that we are a simulation), but such a view doesn't conflict
with my observations such that I would claim to know that there is no
God/gods. Perhaps we *are* a simulation or creation of a being or beings in
a "dimension" outside ours.

I have to confess: Sometimes it's just plain fun to hack away at someone's
religious views. Though I grew out of that long ago, I can see some
possible situations where I might still do it. However, I would not fool
myself into thinking of this as an effective means of persuasion. And I
would only do this to someone who I found thoroughly obnoxious.

On the whole, I echo QueenMuse's views that showing understanding and
sympathy (sincerely) works better. I cannot genuinely sympathize with
*some* people's approach to religion (or some aspects of some people's
approach)--such as when it's deliberate ignorance and an excuse for hatred
and bigotry. But I really can sympathize with someone who is trying to make
sense of life, especially when they simply lack the knowledge or reasoning
abilities to know better. My many experiences teaching Philosophy of
Religion have shown me two things:

(1) Most students lack the scientific education to evaluate issues such as
evolution vs. creation, or soul vs. physicalist views of the mind, and they
have never learned logic or reasoning skills.

(2) Approaching people's beliefs with sympathy, understanding, and respect
combined with rigorous challenging questions, has a far better chance of
altering their views than arrogance, attack, and cold argumentation. It
still amazes me that most of my students, even after three or four months,
do not figure out my religious views. I present the arguments as
objectively as possible and spur them to think for themselves. If they do
this, they usually find that no rationally defensible argument can be found
for belief in the traditional notion of God. (I conclude with a class on
faith, which makes it harder for them to take refuge in that!) Aside from
this being the professional way to teach this class, I am certain that my
approach, either immediately or over time, gets students to rethink their
views more than a combative approach would. (I have plenty of experience of
the latter from my earlier years as an atheist.) I'm sure it helps that, in
addition to rationally examining central theistic beliefs, I also present
some positive alternatives to making sense of life (humanism and

Okay, this was longer than I intended!



Max More, Ph.D.
President, Extropy Institute. www.extropy.org
CEO, MoreLogic Solutions. www.maxmore.com
max@maxmore.com or more@extropy.org

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Jul 27 2000 - 14:02:31 MDT