The final entry in my series “Why they don’t believe” comes from Tristan Vick, blogger at Advocatus Atheist. At approximately 3000 words, Tristan’s contribution is certainly the longest submission, and unfortunately it may be too long for some readers to read in its entirety. That would be unfortunate as Tristan’s defense of what he calls “ignosticism” is engaging and thought-provoking. So hopefully you can carve out some time in your day to read his explanation and defense of his position and then we can get together for some discussion of it.
In this case I’ve opted to post Tristan’s contribution without comment. Instead, I would invite readers to share their own comments with Tristan. Then I will offer my own comments in a follow-up post.
And now, without further ado, Advocatus Atheist…
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Ignosticism and Why I No Longer Believe in God
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tristan Vick. I am an author and an essayist. I have published numerous books of fiction and non-fiction. Most recently I published an anthology collecting the blasphemy cases of George William Foote and C.B. Reynolds as defended by the Great Agnostic himself, Robert G. Ingersoll. Needless to say, I have a keen interest in the Golden Age of Freethought. My blog The Advocatus Atheist receives on average 2,000 page views each week. I consider myself fairly average, but what you may be surprised to learn is that roughly five years ago I was a Bible-thumping, high on Jesus, Evangelical Christian.
I suppose I am the black sheep of my family. You see, I was born into a highly religious family. In fact, they still are extremely religious church going, talk about God at the dinner table, folk. I was too, for approximately three decades. After my 30th birthday however, I had a change of mind. Actually, for the full year prior to blowing out the candles on a delicious red-velvet cake, I had been seriously questioning my long-held religious beliefs. It began a summer earlier when I read the first atheistic work of literature I had ever come across, the God Delusion by world renowned biologist Rickard Dawkins. But don’t think that Dawkins convinced me of atheism. Far from it. In fact, back then, I firmly held to my beliefs. The truth is, Dawkins makes a far better scientist than he does a philosopher. But he raised a lot of good questions. Questions I had never stopped to consider before. Questions, which as a religious believer, I often took for granted.
Of course there are other reasons too. Reasons which better account for the transition I made from being good sheep and a follower of Christ to being the black sheep and a card caring member of atheism. Now I don’t want to bore you with a detailed account of every single event that compelled me to re-evaluate my core beliefs, but if you really want to read the detailed account you can just head over to my blog.
Still, people seemed baffled that I would change my mind so completely. My mother was especially worried. She wrote many letters asking me what it was that made me turn my back on God. The thing is, however, there was never just one thing, or one event, that compelled me to change my mind. There were many. Some of them major faith-shakers, if you will. Others were more subtle. But after several years of considering both sides of the argument, I began to feel that atheism made more sense than God-belief.
What follows is a summation of what I feel is one of the sturdiest arguments against God I have ever run across. Mind you, there are others as well, but this is one of the arguments which can be toted in favor of atheism. That is, believe it or not, it is a positive claim for the reasonableness of a lack of belief in God.
Part 1: A Positive Argument for Atheism: Ignosticism
As a gentleman philosopher (i.e., one who studies philosophy informally simply for the love of philosophy), I have gradually learned to defend my beliefs. Subsequently, I feel atheism can be more rigorously defended than most religious beliefs.
This isn’t a conclusion I simply came to overnight. Rather, it took years of serious thought, investigation, and diligent study. (Which is why, if you are concerned about seeking the answers to your deepest question, like I am, then you’ll probably agree that we all need to be engaged in a philosophy of one kind or another). Ultimately, I found that there are many strong reasons *not to believe in God, but instead of listing them all, I’ll simply give you what I feel is the strongest argument against the existence of God.
If I were to be stopped on the street today and asked whether or not I believed in God, my reply would simply be, “What do you mean?”
Contrary to what you might think, I am not trying to be a smart-ass. I literally feel that the term “God” is without meaning. This makes me an ignostic (sometimes called an igtheist). I have written about Ignosticism in detail on my blog, but in summation it boils down to the fact that there are too many competing God-definitions. The term was coined by a Jewish rabbi named Sherwin Wine, who described Ignosticism as “the theological position that every other theological position assumes too much about the concept of God.”
Indeed, most theological descriptions of God are either incompatible or are outright incoherent. As such, where there is a sea of competing definitions for “God” the term proves to be quite meaningless outside of the religion it originated in (there are anthropological/cultural/geographical reasons for this—consider the boundary problem as proposed by Jared Diamond, for example).
Ignosticism holds two interrelated views about God. They are as follows:
1. A coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed.
2. If the definition provided is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God is meaningless.
Part 2: Proving God Meaningless
Let’s consider an example of how ignosticism might be applied. Judaism, Chrsitianity, and Islam are known as the three great religions stemming from Abrahamic faith. As such, they all claim to believe in the same God, the God of Abraham. But their definitions of this God vary drastically. Christians positively say that God begot a Son, Jesus Christ, whereas Islam affirms that God does not beget Sons—no way, no how. Right off the bat we must grow suspicious of the discrepancies in God’s character (after all, this is supposed to be the *exact same deity we are talking about).
So if it’s the same God, then why are the definitions all in conflict? When I describe an apple, and a Chinese person describes the *exact same apple, it is safe to assume, our descriptions of that apple will match up exactly, even if we call it by different names.
The ignostic says that the term “God” as supplied above is incoherent, because God cannot both be a father and not be a father simultaneously. It would be like an apple being sweet but, simultaneously, not sweet. It’s simply incoherent as it is a logical contradiction. If the term is incoherent, then it would be meaningless to talk about God.
I know what you’re thinking. One of the claimants could either be lying or simply mistaken. You’re thinking that I jumped to a conclusion about the meaningless of a term, when in fact, perhaps one description is right and the other is wrong. Well, not exactly. I’ll explain how I test for such possibilities when I describe *referential justification in a little bit. But the thing the ignostic looks for is whether or not the descriptions for the *same thing line up. If they are fully compatible when juxtaposed, then we know we are defining the same thing. For example, although every culture has its own word for ‘apple’ if we were to ask anyone to describe what an apple looks like, how it feels, and its taste, well, everyone’s description of an apple would be nearly identical. If we make it about a specific apple, then our descriptions will be that much more precise, and our definition of what we’re describing should come out identical. It’s when the descriptions are discrepant, contradictory, or wildly irregular that we have a problem.
The question arises, if God is real, why aren’t our definitions in sync and why are there so many inconsistencies in almost every description?
As you may have guessed, these sorts of discrepancies and contradictions are easy to identify and continue on ad nauseam to the point where the descriptions of God being provided become not only incompatible but outright incoherent. And just think, we have only considered but a few of the discrepancies regarding the definitions of the monotheistic God of the Abraham! If we paused to consider other gods, of other faiths, then the mess becomes even worse.
Part 3: Referential Justification
Something that exists in reality in which a description can be derived is called a referent. Conversely, we also have concepts. Concepts are things that are based on ideas, and need not necessarily relate back to something which exists in reality. One way to identify whether or not we are dealing with an actual referent or just a concept is to look at how the subject is defined. If it’s defined using other ideas, then it’s probably a concept. If it’s defined by describing its details as observer or measured, then it’s likely something tangible.
This is where my own theory of referential justification comes into play. In order to prove beyond a reason of a doubt that God is something real, and not just an impossible conceptualization, we have to justify our definition by verifying that our description is about something extant. Referential justification looks for the referent in reality by juxtaposing the descriptions of said referent and seeing whether or not the descriptions match up. If one of the definitions was false, either by being a lie or simply an error in judgment, we will discover as much when we attempt to verify the referent thereby justifying the descriptions provided.
As I mentioned above, we all know what apples feel and taste like regardless of what we call them. This is because we know apples exist in reality, and if there was any doubt as to the properties of an apple, all we would have to do is go fetch and apple and take turns examining it. If someone was lying or mistaken, we would detect the discrepancy immediately, having the referent in hand. Needless to say, our final descriptions should match exactly.
Green. Sour. Juicy. Apple. Red. Sweet. Crunchy. Apple.
Part 4: Word Games and the Danger of Bad Descriptions
One of the problems which ignosticism attempts to avoid is all the semantic pitfalls which inevitably arise from the pool of competing definitions.
When all the descriptions are different, one of the things which happens is that the believer will frequently attempt to rationalize away the perceived discrepancies and thereby force their otherwise incompatible terms match up. But this is a mistake, because it is an exercise in shifting or changing definitions.
A good example of this is the amusing cartoon of a character emphatically stating he “has a magic baseball.” When the skeptical cartoon character asks him to prove it, the first replies, “You can’t not prove that I don’t have a magic baseball!”
In effect, all the character has done is shift the burden of proof. In order to do this, his description of having a magic baseball has inexplicably changed. It has shifted from simply having a magic baseball to having a magic baseball that nobody else can detect. Naturally, this new description has safeguarded his precious magic baseball from further scrutiny by those who would like to tests its properties in order to definitively prove that it was, indeed, a magic baseball.
The danger here, I think, should be obvious. If we’re allowed to change our definitions according to the situation, then we are changing the properties of what we are attempting to describe. In all likelihood, this means that we’re not dealing with anything in reality, but rather, are strictly engaged in the process of generating a wide-ranging variety of concepts—all of them designed to fit our preconceptions.
It seems to me many theologians do the same when they speak of God being a transcendent being who is immutable, omnipresent, and exists beyond space and time. When asked to prove it, they simply say that we skeptics cannot prove it otherwise. Although they have sufficiently safeguarded their description of God from empirical falsification, they have also inadvertently made their description of God meaningless by destroying any possible way to verify a referent for what they are attempting to describe. Theological noncognitivism, the second part of ignosticism if you’ll remember, holds that any description which cannot be falsified is rendered meaningless.
Accordingly, if the ignostic asks the theologian to define God, and they state God exists beyond space and time, is everywhere, is immutable, transcendent, etc., then the ignostic would simply say, “Excuse me, but your definition of God is meaningless to me.” The theologian’s presumption that God exists beyond space and time, is transcendent, and the like, are not things we could test, and so to claim them as truths about reality would simply be to state that one’s conjecture is (somehow) the ipso facto truth. If this is what you profess to believe, then I’m sorry, but you’re dealing in fancies where I am mainly concerned about facts.
Part 5: Addressing Some Possible Objections to Ignosticism/Referential Justification
Upon sharing what ignosticism entails, I often run into are those who assume that their definition of God is true based on nothing more than ascendancy or ubiquity, whereas—for no justifiable reason I can think of—all other competing beliefs are somehow counterfeit. When I ask them how they know this, they usually appeal to the authority of their church, their faith, or their prejudice, e.g. all other religions are wrong because their holy book says so, or because their religious leader warned them about false prophets, etc. These people cannot be taken seriously, because they have effectively stated they refuse to test their claims against other competing claims. How do they know their claim is in fact true?
What if, and this is the exact consideration they refuse to address, they might be mistaken? What if Brahma is the true Supreme Being and all Christians are wrong? If they never held their idea of God up against any other competing ideas, well, they would never know that they were wrong. As such, claiming they are right (insofar as their understanding of God goes) without first testing to make sure requires us to ignore their claims because their method in how they have come to these conclusions about supposed truths is demonstrably flawed.
Another objection I often hear is the four blind men and the elephant analogy. The analogy basically is this: the first blind, feeling the elephant’s tusk, concludes it is a spear. The second blind mind, taking a hold of the tail, concludes it is a snake. A third blind man, holding the elephant’s massive leg believes it to be a tree stump. A fourth man, feeling only the elephant’s thick trunk believes it to be a hose. Now, many posit this as a metaphor for how other religions might all grasp God differently, but even though their definitions clash, ultimately they are all on the right track. They all are experiencing different aspects of God, but it is still God in some capacity or another.
There are other variations of this example, but all are more or less similar. I shall warn you right now that the logic does not hold, since in reality we know elephants to exist, as we have referents for them, and where there is a referent there is always a common denominator of recognition, and so proper verification is most certainly possible. Eventually, given enough information based on the empirical evidence, the blind men would construct the same description of an elephant. However, if there wasn’t any such creature, then their wildest conjectures would supply meaning not to any accurate description of anything tangible, but rather, merely add conjecture to a theoretical construct.
When it comes to God, I realize, there are many people who say they have experienced God, that they have had real perceptible encounters, and that they can measure God in terms of the frequency of these shared experiences. The problem with this is, not everyone experiences God in the same way. What’s more, if God were in any way real, we’d have a referent and all of our definitions of God would match up exactly. They do not.
Where does atheism enter into the equation, you wonder? Well, it’s like this. If all our definitions of God do in fact prove to be incoherent, then it’s simply meaningless to talk about God—because it would be the same as talking about nothing. What this implies is that we never had access to any real referent which could yield the information required to form an accurate description of what God is, how he functions, and what his properties are. Knowing this we can conclude one of two things. Either there is no God, or if by some small chance there is, he is impossible to detect (since we would forever be in want of identifying the correct description of him)—in which case—he might as well not exist in the first place.
Even though it’s hard to do ignosticism justice in a mere seven pages, I think you can see why it would be a strong argument against God and a positive argument in support of atheism. If you’d like to learn more about ignosticism and other reasons why I can no longer, in good conscience, believe in God, by all means feel free to contact me and ask. I’d be more than happy to address your questions and concerns.