An Exchange over “The Sin of Labeling Children”
(The following is a critique of Richard Dawkins that I wrote on The Messenger Insight Blog. The interesting part is the subsequent conversation I had with a “non-theist”, William. Ryan Smith and another person participate along the way. I have exchanged some emails with William and hope to meet with him face to face.)
As strange as it may seem, I follow some prominent atheists on Twitter. I do it because I believe that the “New Atheist” movement is presently, and will continue be too influential to ignore. I have written earlier that the aggressiveness of this “New Atheism” creates a potential head-on collision for Christians, and all thinking people who might become Christians.
The video I have linked is worth watching for several reasons. First, it is strangely entertaining and familiar. Maybe because it looks like a Mr. Rogers show. I don’t know if that was intentional or not. Second, it shows something very important about the methodology of converting people to atheism, and make no mistake, “New Atheism” is seeking to convert people. This video of Richard Dawkins, (36,820 followers on Twitter) who is one of the most prominent faces of “New Atheism”, shows that they understand that shaping worldviews ideally begins at an early age. The Bible states this often in passages like Deuteronomy 6:1-6 and Psalms 78:1-8. Third, notice that while he does not want anyone applying a religious label to a child, he somehow manages to keep from saying that it is additionally wrong to label a child an atheist. Surely atheist parents teach their children the tenets of atheism, and I am convinced Mr. Dawkins would be very much for that. It seems to me that there is minimally a thoughtless or inadvertent double standard, and more than likely an intentional one. Finally, his whole premise seems to be that parents can somehow be devoted to a worldview and not transmit that worldview to their children. This seems completely irrational to me. Whether for good or bad, we do pass on what we really value to our children.
Richard Dawkins is a very intelligent and idealistic man and I have no doubt that he is trying to accomplish much more than protecting children from labels. He and other atheists want to convert “religious” children to atheistic children. Christians would do well to be aware of this.
I pray that God would inspire us to be more intentional with our children in getting them the whole gospel and protecting them from unbiblical worldviews. I also pray that Professor Dawkins would repent toward God and believe in Jesus, because I can’t begin to imagine the wrath stored up for a man who would obstruct children from coming to Jesus.
Here is the subsequent exchange of comments.
Freethinker wrote on February 11, 2010:
We freethinkers generally want our children to learn to think for themselves. We don’t tell them *WHAT* to believe, but we try to teach them *HOW* to think, to separate the wheat of rationality from the chaff of fallacy and myth. We do this in part by exposing them to various worldviews (including the Baptist churches) and trusting them to work out for themselves which one is rooted in reality. My Baptist parents never did this for me, to their discredit.
William wrote on February 11, 2010:
Atheism is the default position therefore labeling a child who lacks the intellectual capacity to hold a belief in a god is correct because, by definition, he/she is an atheist. “Indoctrinating” a child into atheism is no more to the point than “indoctrinating” a child in non-astrology.
Brent wrote on February 11, 2010:
I appreciate that both of you are willing to share your thoughts about some of the ideas I posted based on the video.
I would especially disagree with William’s comment. It seems that atheism is just as much a choice as adhering to any belief system. Frankly it seems rather presumptuous to assume that atheism is the “default position.” Since no child comes into the world thinking there is a god or isn’t one. Though it is interesting that every culture in every part of the world at one time came up with the idea that there is a god or gods. I’ve never heard of a completely atheistic culture. The idea of god or gods had to begin somewhere and it seems that historically, humans are prone to thinking there are deities as opposed no god or gods at all. So it might be argued that to believe in gods or a god is the default position.
Just because a person is not aware of something does not make them an adherent or an advocate of something else by default. It just means they don’t know. Atheism is a worldview just as Christianity is a world view because they are both belief systems that hold to certain ideas that people either accept as true or false. The truth is that people tend to gravitate to the belief system that they are taught from an early age, and that is exactly what Dawkins is condemning about religion as wrong.
We can respectfully disagree about what the truth is, but it is absurd to presume that atheism is the “default position” of any child. Thanks for dialoguing with me.
William wrote on February 13, 2010:
Atheism IS the default position, my friend.
Theism is the belief in a god or gods. Add the suffix ‘a’ to the root word and you’ve added ‘without’. So (a) theism means (without) belief in a god or gods. An infant doesn’t believe in a god or gods, so they are atheists.
Also, I like that you bring up how many cultures have created gods as demonstrates that the gods are created.. What makes Yahweh any different from Zeus? I’d be glad to debate you on the matter.
Brent wrote on February 13, 2010:
I’m not debating whether a child is born without a belief in God. I am disagreeing with your definition of atheism, “without god” as it relates the Dawkins video. We are born without believing in the belief that there is no god, which is how atheism seems to be normally defined. I was simply using the word atheism to mean “Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.” or “The doctrine that there is no God or gods.” So while a child may in fact be born “without god”, they are also born without the belief that there is no god. There is a very real difference in the two ways we are defining atheist. I was and still am referring to an atheist as someone who holds to a belief system that there is no god. So a child may be born “without god”, but I reject your definition of atheist as an oversimplification, given that the words “atheist” and “atheism” are most commonly used to refer to someone who believes there is no god. The original video and blog after all were in fact about labeling children in such a way so as to not give them a chance to determine what they believe. My guess is that we both believe that a child ought to be told the truth, though we may differ on what the truth is. “Believe” seems to be the operative word and what a child believes seems to be the point of contention. I therefore reject that child is born an atheist, because until they begin to believe, they are neither a theist or an atheist. They may well be without God, but not of their own volition. We may just have to agree to disagree, yet again.
Unfortunately, you are right, most cultures have created many gods. That does not mean there is no god. Just as there may be an original and factual account of an event that has many alternative endings, so it is more than probable that the case could be with The one and only God. All other gods are simply a perversion or embellishment of the real one. My point was simply that all cultures seem to come to the conclusion or belief that there are gods or a god. That is a fact. By and large, people tend to gravitate toward belief in deities as opposed to unbelief – though I acknowledge that atheism or free thinking, etc. has made noticeable strides in the last twenty in years in Western Europe and the U.S. One could argue on the evidence of the past and present that theism is the default belief. Not the belief of “no god or gods.”
To answer your last question, there are lots of differences between Zeus and the God of the Bible.
I would understand you not answering this but, “Did you grow up in a theistic belief system?” And if so, how long have you believed that there is no god?
“I’m not debating whether a child is born without a belief in God. I am disagreeing with your definition of atheism, “without god” as it relates the Dawkins video.” — Brent
William wrote on February 14, 2010:
Nowhere in the aforementioned video is the philosophy of “without god” posited to warrant any disagreement of such relation thereby you are merely attacking the caricature of Mr. Dawkins’ position that you’ve crayoned in your independant mind.
“We are born without believing in the belief that there is no god, which is how atheism seems to be normally defined. I was simply using the word atheism to mean “Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.” or “The doctrine that there is no God or gods.” — Brent
So, you are simply redefining important terms to support your narrative instead of arguing against the position as explained by Dawkins in The God Delusion. Or, in other words, you are building a straw man.
“So while a child may in fact be born “without god”, they are also born without the belief that there is no god. There is a very real difference in the two ways we are defining atheist.” — Brent
You are alone in melding implicit and strong atheism together as Mr. Dawkins makes the distinction clear in his book when he explains that children are born without the ability to reject theism, but lack a belief in a deity.
“I was and still am referring to an atheist as someone who holds to a belief system that there is no god. So a child may be born “without god”, but I reject your definition of atheist as an oversimplification, given that the words “atheist” and “atheism” are most commonly used to refer to someone who believes there is no god.” — Brent
That atheism is most commonly defined as such by the pious of the most common religion, I don’t see how you feel justified in fairly arguing against atheism.
I will reiterate: theism is a belief in the existence of a god or gods whereas atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods. Can these terms be expanded upon? Sure. I am an agnostic atheist. In fact, there are some who hold the position you are generalizing. Those who profess a belief in god (or strong atheism) usually do not assert that no sort of god exists; instead, they generally confine their assertions so as to cover varieties of god as described by followers of the countless religions. So while it may be impossible to prove conclusively that no god exists, it may be possible to prove that Yahweh does not exist.
“The original video and blog after all were in fact about labeling children in such a way so as to not give them a chance to determine what they believe. My guess is that we both believe that a child ought to be told the truth, though we may differ on what the truth is. “Believe” seems to be the operative word and what a child believes seems to be the point of contention. I therefore reject that child is born an atheist, because until they begin to believe, they are neither a theist or an atheist. They may well be without God, but not of their own volition. We may just have to agree to disagree, yet again.” — Brent
I’ve already exposed the faults in your definition and I’ll leave you to your devices to explain this. According to you, a child cannot be an atheist, but can it be a non-Christian (one who doesn’t believe in Christ)?
“Unfortunately, you are right, most cultures have created many gods. That does not mean there is no god.” — Brent
I posit this fact as evidence that humans create gods. What makes yours any different than the thousands of gods created by mankind?
“Just as there may be an original and factual account of an event that has many alternative endings, so it is more than probable that the case could be with The one and only God. All other gods are simply a perversion or embellishment of the real one. My point was simply that all cultures seem to come to the conclusion or belief that there are gods or a god. That is a fact. By and large, people tend to gravitate toward belief in deities as opposed to unbelief – though I acknowledge that atheism or free thinking, etc. has made noticeable strides in the last twenty in years in Western Europe and the U.S. One could argue on the evidence of the past and present that theism is the default belief. Not the belief of “no god or gods.” — Brent
One could argue as such, and be immediately obliterated. Have you ever heard of the god of the gaps?
“To answer your last question, there are lots of differences between Zeus and the God of the Bible.” — Brent
Likewise, there are a lot of differences between atheism and what you’re attempting to generalize atheism as. But I digress, Zeus was born in a cave to hide him from his father Cronus and was accompanies by goat, eagle, pigeons, dogs, sows and a swarm of bees. Zeus was said by the Cretans to have died and resurrected within days. Does this sound familiar?
“In Him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.” — Acts 17.28
“I would understand you not answering this but, ‘Did you grow up in a theistic belief system?’ And if so, how long have you believed that there is no god?” — Brent
Yes, I was raised in a theistic belief system. I even attended a private Christian university to further study theology. It was actually there, from reading the bible in its entirety and with an open mind, that I came to reject Christianity. In order to clarify my position, I do not hold a belief that there is no god. As you’ve demonstrated, people can redefine things in any way possible and god could mean anything. If one worships the sun as his god, then I am no longer an atheist because I believe in the sun’s existence (although I may reject the attributes afforded to the sun). To a point, if atheism is rejecting the belief in gods, then you are an atheist in respect to every theistic belief besides Christianity. I just go one god further and for the same reason you reject all of the other gods, I reject yours.
I generally assume that things without evidence do not exist. To an extent, even theists (minus some Christians who intrpret the bible literally) follow this rule most of the time as most don’t believe in unicorns, satyrs, dragons, and/or giants even though they can’t conclusively prove that no unicorns, satyrs, dragons, and/or giants exist anywhere. To claim that a Christian is defined as one who believes in the existence of unicorns, satyrs, dragons, and/or giants because it is in the Christian doctrine is to the same point as you defining an atheist as one who believes that no god exists. Let’s keep this dialogue fair and free from misdirections.
John Syverson wrote on February 14, 2010:
Believing there is no God of believing we are born without the belief in God or the non belief in God is not the issue. I believe that we are born with the desire to know God and it becomes our choice if we believe or dont believe. God created us with that. If we choose to believe there is no God we are deniying what we know in our hearts, if we truly didnt believe God exsited we would simply choose to live our own lives our way not choose to create a religion believing the belief theat there is no God. He is real you know that, quit fighting what you know in your heart to be true.
William wrote on February 14, 2010:
“Believing there is no God [sic] of believing we are born without the belief in God or the non belief in God is not the issue. I believe that we are born with the desire to know God and it becomes our choice if we believe or dont [sic] believe. God created us with that.” — Jon Syverson
Facts influence beliefs, not the other way around. If you want to entertain in this discussion, disregard your beliefs and stick with the facts.
“If we choose to believe there is no God we are deniying what we know in our hearts” — Jon Syverson
Firstly, I don’t hold the belief that there is no god. That’s a straw man argument. We covered that.
Secondly, if I did believe such, it would not be by choice. Facts influence beliefs. Remember? We covered that also.
Thirdly, your heart doesn’t know anything. Your heart pumps blood. Curiously, Yahweh knows no better than you which is why both of you use such phrases (in addition to sunrise, sunset, bless you, gut feeling, etc). So much for an omniscient deity.
“if we truly didnt [sic] believe God exsited [sic] we would simply choose to live our own lives our way not choose to create a religion believing the belief theat [sic] there is no God.” — Jon Syverson
Atheism is not a religion just like a) bald is not a hair color; b) not collecting stamps is a hobby; c) not smoking is a habit.
“He is real you know that, quit fighting what you know in your heart to be true.” — Jon Syverson
Santa Claus is real and you know it. Quit fighting what you know in your muscular organ that is responsible for pumping blood throughout the blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions.
Seriously, Yahweh does not exist. Get over it. If you want to debate me on the matter, write me at JesusLiedForYou@yahoo.com and we can establish a time to debate.
Brent wrote on February 15, 2010:
William I am learning a lot and truly enjoying the dialogue. I hope that you will see that I am sincere, shown by the corrections I have made due to your critiques. We are clearly just going to have to agree to disagree on a number of things.
I will concede to you that my “generalizing” the term atheist or atheism was not helpful for the sake of this conversation on two accounts. 1) The first being that unless I concede to use your definition, then we won’t get anywhere. 2) Since my original point or aim in posting the video was to raise Christian “consciousness” about the aggressiveness of “New Atheism” to convert people to atheism and especially children, I acknowledge that I should be more aware of the way Mr. Dawkins is using the word atheist in fairness to him. My intent was not to generalize or make a caricature. I was simply using the more general definition that dictionaries use, which as you have pointed out, is a problem. What I want to do is interact with your definition and still prove the point of the original blog which I have just stated.
Having made those concessions and qualifications, Mr. Dawkins method by which he identifies himself as an atheist is as follows, “Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
His next “milestone” concerning probability of God’s existence and the subsequent belief is: “Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’ The latter Dawkins calls a category 7 and the former a category 6 on a spectrum of probability and the belief that accompanies ones conclusion about the probability based on facts or lack thereof. Dawkins says, “I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7. Dawkins is as he describes it, “A Temporary Agnostic in Practice,” meaning he believes one day we will scientifically be able to prove there is no “God”, “but we lack the evidence to reach it.” (a conclusion). So being the credible and honest man that he is, though he wants to go the whole way and say there is no “God”, scientifically he in fact can’t. Though he would argue that the probability is very high that there is in fact no “God.”
I know you know all of this but I wanted to be clear about how Dawkins categorizes various beliefs in “God” and various beliefs that there is no “God” so that I might avoid being accused of generalizing and creating a caricature. Dawkins’ categories are on p. 73 of “The God Delusion”. If I did miss a clearer definition in the book, please let me know. But in my reading, that is what I found as it relates to what we are speaking about.
So I will adhere to your original definition for the sake of argument, though I am uncertain as to whether it is actually consistent with Dawkins view or definition of atheism. What I mean is that when a person reads “God Delusion”, Dawkins himself uses the word “believe” with an obvious frequency to refer to his worldview that there is no “God”. I therefore assert that lack of belief in “God” or gods is a belief that no “God” exists. One might say that atheism is not a religion, I’m fine with that, but it is a belief system. I digress.
Here is your definition: “I will reiterate: theism is a belief in the existence of a god or gods whereas atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods.”
So let us suppose that this is also Mr. Dawkins definition, which I assert it is not and again, I will be glad to be corrected on this too. Using your definition, the mistake that I made in the original blog was saying that Mr. Dawkins and “New Atheists” want to covert children to atheism. Again, using your definition, they can’t be converted because they already are atheists (without “God” or without belief in God). Dawkins himself says in his book that children should be taught not what to think but taught how to think, because Dawkins truly believes that a child who is given all the options of understanding scientific fact will eventually come to his way of thinking that there probably is no “God”. So a child that is not “indoctrinated” or “labeled” will come to believe what Dawkins believes; that there is no “God”.
This coupled with the fact that in the preface to “God Delusion” Dawkins says, “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”What presumptuous optimism! Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely the work of Satan. But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there; people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take’, or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether. At the very least, I hope that nobody who reads this book will be able to say, ‘I didn’t know I could.’”
This is my point and the reason for which I wrote the original blog – Dawkins wants to convert people to atheism – the belief that there probably is no “God” until we find out scientifically that there is no “God”. This is further evidenced by the fact that on his website he has a “Convert’s Corner” where people can post testimonies about being freed from Religion or the belief in a supernatural God – most notably seen in the three monotheistic religions originating from Abraham.
So Dawkins wants to raise social consciousness about the horrible deed of labeling children (which he talks about extensively in chapter 9) so that they won’t be indoctrinated so that they will eventually have a belief that no “God” exists or to say it your way, “a belief without god.” If the intent of the book is to free people from the bondage of religion so that they might believe in science, then contextually chapter nine has to be read in light of this fact. He wants children not to be indoctrinated so that they will eventually believe in his belief. And he has logical reasons for that because he knows that if children aren’t “indoctrinated” they won’t grow up to be parents that will indoctrinate. Dawkins says, “And this of course, is especially important when we reflect that children become the parents of the next generation, in a position to pass on whatever indoctrination may have moulded them.”
What I find potentially frightening when I read Dawkins bemoaning the lack of influence atheists have in public life, especially politics, is that if he could heard “the cats”, (atheists) it certainly seems likely that he, as an influential atheist, would push for laws that prohibit the cruelty of indoctrination; That parents can’t teach their children what they believe. That is conjecture, but seems logical based on everything he says in “God Delusion.” And based on what I have watched Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins say. They believe that a belief in something that does not exist is delusional and therefore the people that believe are delusional and therefore potentially dangerous. I see their point. As you have pointed out, I am without belief in all the gods but one, the Lord God, creator of the heavens and the earth, who sent His Son in Flesh, that we might be reconciled to God through the death of His Son on the cross, who rose again on the third day. Lee Strobel comments, “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best attested event of the ancient world.” That is very strong language considering Strobel’s credentials. Strobel was educated at Yale Law School, worked as a legal editor for the Chicago Tribune and was an atheist until 1981.
I would agree with Mr. Dawkins that it is dangerous to label children, but my concern is for a number of reasons I won’t get it into. But let us not pretend that Dawkins goal is anything less than seeing people give up belief that there is a “God”. His intent is to convert or to say it in another way using your definition; he wants children to remain without a belief in “God” until they can decide there is no “God.”
“Let’s keep this dialogue fair and free from misdirection.” I have tried to do that by appealing to Mr. Dawkins as the source of the initial blog to show that we can hold to your definition that atheism means, “without god” or a lack of belief in gods, but still fairly say that Mr. Dawkins believes there is probably no “God” and wants others to believe the same thing, and he rightly realizes that children who believe in nothing and are taught to believe in nothing are more likely to believe in his position. Christians ought to be aware of this and the implications. That’s all.
Ryan Smith wrote on February 15, 2010:
William, I thank you for engaging such a dialogue, particularly in such an open forum in which you must feel the minority. I commend your courage and your ability to articulate an argument without (in large part) resorting to mere accusations and elementary name calling. I also appreciate your articulation of the positions of agnostic atheism and strong atheism. This was enlightening to me and I’m sure it will prove so to many readers.
I’m having a bit of trouble, however, with the lineation of your argument. I am understanding you to say that atheism is, as you have defined it, “a lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods.” I also understand Brent’s argument that a lack of belief in something is in and of itself a belief system. The point, I believe, is well taken that you do not wish to count out that which you cannot prove, but do not want to ascribe certainty to something else you cannot prove, or even feel you can disprove.
You earlier made the parallel between Yahweh and Santa Claus. I agree with you that Santa Claus does not exist. I hold a belief system that does not encompass a mysterious man or being who leaves presents in the households of the world at Christmastime. I am a strong a-Clausist. I am such because I do not believe Santa exists, nor do I believe any such other being exists. In my mind, I will not even leave the door open. In large part, this is because no matter how many times you tried the experiment, if you leave a chimney to itself, no fat man is dropping from a sleigh and leaving an xbox. It’s not even a statistical anomaly.
This is how I am confused in regard to your definition of atheist (particularly your belief in agnostic atheism). To use your own characterization, asserting you are an agnostic atheist is like asserting you don’t believe in “Santa Claus” but do allow room for some mystical, magical person who leaves presents for the world on Christmas morning. It may be out there, but you don’t want to give him a name. While this sort of logic may appease the mind temporally, its assertion is as ludicrous as the belief itself. In other words, you are not claiming to have a “lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods,” you simply do not believe the identities held to by Christianity, Islam, or any other religion are the right one.
While neither you, Brent, nor I would hold to agnostic Clausism (or magical benevolent being-ism), I find difficulty in discerning how you can argue for agnostic atheism. If you desire to frame this dialogue from fact, let us frame it from fact. For the same reasons you and I reject Santa Claus (or any other form of him – mainly being that presents don’t just magically appear and satellite imagery can show us there is no factory at the North Pole), you can not firmly reject God or a god. We are not standing in front of a pile of presents attempting to discern how they got there. Otherwise I would be open to agnostic Clausism. However, we must consider why there is a world around us, why humanity seems to be bent towards an understanding of a deity, why ethics & morals exist in principle between human beings, why we would applaud the strong who seek to aid the poor and dying, why unexplainable phenomena exist seemingly in line with a somewhat spiritual reality (to whatever degree one would wish to acknowledge them), why we find sunsets beautiful (I love the beautiful sunset on the Oklahoma Atheism website, by the way), and why billions of people throughout history have claimed to experience, interact with, and even be changed by a deity. When it comes to God, a god, or gods, we do have a pile of presents – both material and metaphysical. That is undeniable. We can from this, however, have the discussion of theism, agnostic atheism, or strong atheism. In other words, we can take sides as to how it all got here, is sustains, and how/why it exists.
It seems a more adequate definition of an agnostic atheist would be a theist who doesn’t have a label. To reject the assertion that something does not exist is to leave the door open to the idea that it might. You don’t leave the door open for things you don’t believe are really there. When my wife and I built our home, we didn’t leave a chimney “just in case.” I’m not saying you or others in the agnostic atheism camp are Christian, Hindu, or anything else. You are agnostic. An agnostic by definition is not a-theist. It’s just nebulous on the “theos” part. I’m simply saying you don’t have or want a label for whatever may be out there that you can not confirm or deny exists. Again, I would generalize this as Unspecific Theism. Belief that there is something out there, but that we should not seek to define it and much less argue over it. If this were not the case, you would be a “strong atheist” completely closing the door.
In a way, your position is one in which you admit something may be out there, but you can’t define it. Just as a child may see something drop, but not understand the concept of gravity or physics, it would be an error to label him one who entertains a “lack of belief in the existence of gravity or physics.” In this way, he is simply one without a label. He/she is an Unspecific Physicist.
To be fair, I’m sure you would say “yes, but physics is scientifically factual and deity is not.” I would ask, then, for what reasons or “facts” are you an agnostic atheist as opposed to being a strong atheist. What facts are influencing your belief that the door cannot be shut completely?
Also, you have claimed “atheism is the default position” without qualifying your statement at all. Just as your assertion that “facts influence beliefs.” How then do you argue that God cannot be factually proven and then engage a discussion with one who believes completely in a deity. If there are no facts, where did Brent’s belief come from (and others like him)? That is merely an aside, and just food for thought. I would be interested in hearing your explanations on the questions above. If nothing else, for my own education. Thank you for engaging in this discussion.
William wrote on February 15, 2010:
This is not going to be in my normal format as I’m at a loss of time, but I’m sincerely appreciative of your response and I want to get answer you quickly. My appreciation for your recognition of the term “atheist”, although, in hindsight and in regards to your blog, I see where you are applying “Dawkin’s atheism” and not atheism as it is broadly understood. So, in that sense, I’ll concede that he wishes for children to be “Dawkin atheists”, but not by teaching atheistic philosophy, rather by nuturing the skeptical nature a “Dawkins atheist” would possess. I would be offended by dubbing my child an atheist if only because I believe people should be called by what they believe, not by what they don’t. I would call you a Christian, not a non-Muslim. Likewise, I would call you a theist, not a non-atheist. Even though I believe atheism to be the default position, I don’t attribute any religious characteristics to my children because they lack the intellectual capacity to be given a chance to believe. So, while technically they are atheists, I divorce the term from them because technically, so is a rock or a tree. I intend on explaining what I DO believe later.
That said, I wholly disagree with my interpretation of your belief that Dawkins might wish to advocate the labelling of children as atheists in the strong atheistic sense. If that is what you were advancing, then I couldn’t disagree more as I’ve seen nothing to suggest that he would condone such behavior. In such a case, as is the case with arguments for God, absense of evidence is not evidence of absense. In the same way that we cannot dismiss God just because there is (in my opinion) insufficient evidence, we cannot assume that he would condone labelling children as atheists just because he didn’t include it in his speech.
Please, if I’ve missed any of your points, revisit them in your response. I really want to clarify and answer every point you’ve made, I’m just in a hurry. That said, I better understand your position now that we’ve defined things. Thanks, best wishes.
Thanks for joining in. I’m going to try to afford you an equal amount of time. Again, if I miss anything, please ask me to revisit it.
The root word of ‘gnostic’ is ‘gnosis’, or in English, ‘knowledge’. Knowledge and belief are two different things (although Sam Harris has recently discovered that the brain really cannot distinguish between the two so I might be adopting my terminology if appropriate).
I likened Santa Claus to Yahweh because Santa Claus is a person where Yahweh is a deity. In other words, I actively DISBELIEVE in the person of Santa Claus as I actively DISBELIEVE in Yahweh. However, I hold out the possibility for some form of god because there may, in fact, be a god. It is up to how someone defines god. I call myself an agnostic atheist because I possess no belief in any gods, but I admit that there could be a god and I just don’t know. I admit that I do not know everything and I haven’t checked everywhere in the Universe to look for god. However, the more someone begins describing god, the more I can either accept or reject. If someone were to tell me Zeus lives on a mountain, I can climb said mountain and actually say that I disbelieve in Zeus. To date, I have not developed glasses to help me see things that are invisible so I consider that that which is invisible is indistinguishable by something that doesn’t exist. I have not closed the door in believing because doing so would be ignorant. There may be a god and I’m conceding to that point! What I would like to address is that, to date, I have not been convinced by the evidence submitted for people’s gods and, although I haven’t been preached to by every religion faith, I find no reason to even consider their gods to exist since I know that humans have a capacity to create gods. It doesn’t mean I reject or actively disbelieve in their gods as I am more like the said children who have never heard or learned of the god. Through and through, I am an atheist as I do not possess a belief in a god. I am an agnostic because I do not know either way – whether there is no god or there is. That said, I would like to clarify again!
I have never been to Australia, but I would be ready to assert that I know of its existence because there is, in my mind sufficient evidence of its existence and absolutely none to argue against its existence. That said, to someone who has “seen” god, who am I to disagree. Our eyes don’t actually see, instead they send light to our brains to decode the information. Our brains see images and we all know that brains are fallible. To anyone who has ever seen, heard, or touched God, all I ask if for them to be skeptical and consider the fallible nature of their vision. There is no belief that is so sacred that it cannot be questioned. But still, my concern is NOT with that individual unless he/she wishes to do harm. My chief complaint is with the indoctination of any individual of any belief that cannot be tested, observed, and/or repeated.
I must disagree that a lack of belief is a belief, in itself, because it is not. I do have beliefs, but they’re independent of my lack of belief in any gods. That is to say, though I believe that Yahweh doesn’t exist, I lack a belief in other gods. The two are not synonymous. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it or perhaps you meant something different.
Anyways, I will respond faithfully in anything I missed and I’m so appreciate to engage in a civil dialogue concerning our opposing and contesting views. If we as a society could do this, we could accomplish so much more!
Best wishes and (in respect to your beliefs) God bless!
Brent wrote on February 16, 2010:
William, though we may disagree very much on a lot of very important things, I do appreciate the civility of this interaction. As you have stated, I think there is something to be learned here about how to dialogue and disagree. Humility and willingness to concede, when appropriate, are essential for the fair exchange of ideas.
A qualification though. I’m not saying that just because we can exchange ideas means that I feel any better about your ideas. I would expect the same from you. You may believe that my belief in God, and namely Jesus, is unfounded or “delusional”, as Dawkins would characterize it – and I’m OK with that, but I would hope you would give me credit for being consistent in the sense that what I believe about God and the Bible and Jesus compels me to be concerned for your soul and all other souls. Maybe you have seen the video, but Penn Jillette rightly rebukes Christians as a person who is an atheist, saying it is hateful not to “proselytize” if you think someone is going to hell. I know you may disagree and wish that people would come to a conclusion some other way, but I can’t divorce what I believe from my practice. That is why it is no consolation to me that someone is a strong or implicit atheist or without belief in “God”. Without “God” is bad no matter how we define words. But again, as someone who has some understanding of theology, I know you understand this – though that is a dangerous assumption on my part, but I am giving you the benefit of the doubt.
So I want to respect your wish to be able to correctly understand the various nuances of how atheists describe themselves, but you see I hope, that whether someone is a “Dawkins Atheist” or some other kind, it gives me no comfort. But again, I understand that I need to understand terminology and definitions to be fair to particular arguments.
Having said that, I see your point on Dawkins and the labeling of children atheist and the lack of clear evidence that he advocates that. He after all can’t condemn someone labeling a child one thing, a child who can’t think for themselves until some uncertain point in time, and then label a child an atheist. It would be completely inconsistent. So even if he wanted to do it he couldn’t do it and still advance his argument in a fair way. So we might well throw that point out, from the blog I mean. But as we have both agreed, his clear and undeniable intent is to cultivate skepticism to bring people to his belief system or some thing like it – some belief that excludes a supernatural “God”. So I am fine with the outcome of having established that. To beat a dead horse – his intent, whatever his methodology, is the point.
I find it interesting (and I ask your opinion because I know you have read more of him than I) that he wants to be a 7 (strong atheist) but is a 6 (because his science won’t let him). He can’t, based on scientific evidence, exclude the existence of God.So I hear him saying I am a 6, but isn’t he really saying I am a 7 – and forgive me for saying this if it offends – because I disapprove of the “God” I don’t believe in? It seems like to me his belief and his science are at odds. Again, I am asking for you to speculate, but do you see my point? And may I have your opinion?
Also, one other question. I see what you are saying about the “the most pious” and most abundant group dictating definitions – as in the general strong atheist that is prevalent in so many dictionaries. But irregardless of who makes the definitions, don’t we have some obligation to the fairness of all, to interact with those definitions as Dawkins spoke about in his book when referring to “God” as a supernatural deity because that is how it has traditionally been used? And when did this implicit or soft atheist definition evolve?
Respectfully – Brent
Ryan Smith wrote on February 17, 2010:
I want to thank you for your thorough comments and expounding on your ideas. They have proved helpful to me and I agree with you and Brent that this form of discussion is beneficial. I must also agree with Brent that as Christians, I hope you will respect us when we say we are praying for this discussion as well as the parties involved.
Your reply to my questions about agnostic atheism (or Unspecified Theism as I called it, even to the slightest of margins) was helpful. As you said, you were running short on time, but I thank you for taking the time you did have to offer to the discussion. There is a question I do have stemming from your thoughts regarding the “open door” and how things unseen can be believed.
If I am understanding your definition of agnostic atheism, you explained yourself in stating, “I call myself an agnostic atheist because I possess no belief in any gods, but I admit that there could be a god and I just don’t know. I admit that I do not know everything and I haven’t checked everywhere in the Universe to look for god.” Recognizing one’s own limitations is important in any quest for truth and I admire your openness. Forgive me if I err in any consolidation of your argument, but from there you stated that you cannot close the door on believing because of this limitation. From your view, “There may be a god and I’m conceding that point” but the evidence has proved inconclusive in your mind to this point. You would also ask someone who claims to have “seen” God, to consider how physical and mental capacities can be compromised, but would not necessarily disagree with their assertion because it can not be disproved by your mind. Hopefully I have framed your position fairly. If not, please correct me.
While my experience and beliefs would lead me to disagree with you, I cannot disagree with the process of your logic. There is, however, one point I would like clarification on. You stated, “My concern is NOT with that individual unless he/she wishes to do harm. My chief complaint is with the indoctrination of any individual of any belief that cannot be tested, observed, and/or repeated.” You also framed your belief-system (or unbelief system) with an analogy about Australia. “I have never been to Australia, but I would be ready to assert that I know of its existence because there is, in my mind sufficient evidence of its existence and absolutely none to argue against its existence.” This idea constitutes a belief not based on experience, but on evidence. This could also be said about the existence of Alexander the Great, the existence of Jesus, the validity of math, or the concept of other minds. For instance, when my wife goes to work and walks out the door, I believe there is an actual “work” she is going to. I believe her life continues to exist, experience, and relate outside of what I observe. While I cannot prove scientifically that her mind exists and she processes thoughts inwardly the same way I do and goes to actual places that exist while I am not experiencing them, I can not scientifically prove it. I believe, but cannot prove, that the world exists outside of my mind or experience as if the whole of life is but a dream I have yet to wake from.
I’ve also never been to Australia. I go off of images, hearsay, and Crocodile Dundee movies. But I believe it is a fact. I believe math is consistent and the concept of infinity, while impossible to prove, is real. My assumption is you would not take issue with these ideas either. My question then falls to your chief complaint of the “indoctrination of any individual of any belief that cannot be tested, observed, and/or repeated.” As you said, you have not tested, observed, or repeated the existence of Australia. Would you then not teach your children of its existence? Would an agnostic atheist cover up parts of the map they have not physically been to when teaching geography to their children? Would you disagree with the indoctrination of a child in the belief that Plato or Socrates existed or stop their math education at the point where the concepts became more theoretical than physically provable? Would you simply teach them how to observe amounts or touch objects in order to hope they one day understand theorems, metaphysics, math and physical reality? I can’t test, observe, or repeat the Revolutionary War, but I live in such a way that I believe its work is completed and I walk in the freedom it provided. I would certainly take no issue with it being taught to my children.
To my understanding, the issue Dawkins presents is that we should teach children to think, not tell them what to think. But this logic seems inconsistent to any extent other than in relation to deity. I haven’t seen “The Plato Delusion” or “Beware Unprovable Math: A Guide for Children to Think If You Want to Think This Way” pop up on Amazon.com. Forgive me if I seem crass. However, it seems inconsistent. We accept things on “faith” every day. We even teach them to our children. To not close the door on something is to hold even the slightest margin of faith towards something’s existence, even if this “faith” is an acknowledgment that you don’t know everything. That is faith, even if it is unspecified. Again, I would ask what evidence exists that disallows agnostic atheists from becoming strong atheists. I would also ask why agnostic atheists really take issue with teaching children about God if not for indoctrination into atheism (framed more closely in your discussion with Brent). Why will you say definitively “There is no Santa Claus” but not, “There is no God” and believe accordingly? Neither can be proved scientifically, yet on faith we readily assert one, while agnostic atheism will not close the door on the other. Again, I apologize if my questions simply stem from my own ignorance. I welcome your thoughts again, if nothing else, for my own education. Thank you.
William Wrote on February 25, 2010:
Again guys, I’m sorry. There has been family emergencies and I wanted to address this as I really am enjoying the conversation.
Brent, every day I’d meet these guys on the street corner, dressed in blue shirts, holding black bibles and preaching to me. They’d physically prevent me from getting by and bombard me with oh-so-subtle opening gambits like, “What makes you happy?” (to which I once scathingly replied “Satan” and walked off) and “Have you heard the word of the Lord Jesus Christ?” It annoyed me so much. Who were these guys to harass me in the street, telling me what to believe? How dare they! I don’t push my “atheistic” viewpoints onto them!
And so I treated them with the utmost contempt I thought they deserved, meeting their over-the-top holier-than-thou blessings with razor wit and sarcastic scorn. That was until my dear girlfriend had the pleasure of witnessing one of my daily mocking sessions. After I had given them their RDA of vitriol (they must have been pretty masochistic to beg for this day after day), my girlfriend asked me why I sneered at them so. I gave my excuses: “How dare they push onto me their beliefs! How snobbish, how presumptuous, how arrogant, etc!”
She said unto me, “Imagine if you discovered the most amazing truth. Imagine if you discovered how to make people live forever! Imagine if you knew in your heart the meaning of life, the universe and everything! Wouldn’t you just want to tell everybody?”
I told her that if I had discovered these things, I would take them through the academic process, my hypotheses would require evidence, peer review, expert scrutiny, they would have to fit with existing theories and predictions and so on… I certainly wouldn’t be telling people on the street on their way home from work!
There was no reply to this. But she was right. Most Christians aren’t trying to be arrogant, or trying to force me into a cult, or deigning to set me on the path of salvation to make themselves feel better. They do actually, truly, uncontrollably and with all their heart believe that if I listened to them, I would be blessed with infinite love and happiness. And what could be better than that?
In other words, I understand why you are staying true to your convictions and it is appreciated.
I don’t think Dawkins’ views on God are at odds. While nothing, save from mathematics can be absolutely disproven, there are some things which we believe impossible to exist and, if the technology were available, could be disproven. Dawkins’ is pretty close to, if not is, a strong atheist. I don’t hold his views and I’m not a big fan of his. I prefer to just develop my thoughts although two years ago I read both Sam Harris’ and Richard Dawkins’ book. Though they were both great reads, it seemed rather useless as it served to only reaffirm my position and challenged nothing.
Lastly, when I think about the evolution of the word “atheist” I think of how many divisions there are in Christianity. There are over 30,000 different sects of Christianity and it is because, although they all believe Jesus to be the Messiah, not all believe in the same thing. Similarly, all atheists share one thing in common: they do not believe in a god or gods. Some atheists simply do not possess a believe whereas some believe no god exists and others merely lack the intellectual capacity to understand such a proposition. One Christian might believe in unicorns, satyrs, and dragons but another doesn’t. It would be unfair of me to say to a Christian, “You’re a Christian, therefore you believe in unicorns” because he might not. Similarly, it would be unfair to say to an atheist, “You’re an atheist, therefore you believe that no god exists” because he might not.
For me, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I believe Australia exists just as I believe Abraham Lincoln exists even though I’ve never seen the two. If you told me, however, that Australia is a magical land that consists of candy cane trees and Abraham Lincoln could fly, I would be extremely skeptical and would demand evidence to warrant a belief.
I WILL write back whenever things calm down. Hopefully soon. Let me know if you guys are open to meeting or talking in person. I’m a NICE guy, I promise. Such might be easier than what I’ve been going through recently.
Brent wrote on February 26, 2010:
I can only speak for myself, but I would be willing to meet sometime to listen, learn and ask questions. I hope your family emergencies get resolved. Thanks for taking the time to respond. We had been wondering about you. I hope you are well.
Ryan Smith Wrote on February 26, 2010:
Thanks so much for getting back. Sorry to hear about your family emergencies. Like Brent, I’d be happy to meet sometime for some good conversation. I’m sure you will find us to be nice guys as well . Have a great one!