Agnosticism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Mainstream agnosticism about God is often held as the most “rationalist” position because, at the end of the day, it seems that intellectual honesty requires us to admit that we don’t know whether there is a God or not. On the contrary, the opposing positions are considered dogmatic: theism and atheism demand that God either exists or not on dubious grounds or on no ground at all.

In this letter I will try to show that rationalism doesn’t support the mainstream conception of agnosticism any more than it does with theism or atheism. Indeed, mainstream theism and atheism stand much better rational scrutiny than their agnostic counterpart. The conclusion I hope to reach is that, contrarily to theism and atheism, agnosticism needs sophistication to be upheld: its mainstream version is vulnerable to an inescapable trilemma.

Agnostics about God are people who suspend their judgment about the existence of God: they do not know whether God exists. In its mainstream version, agnosticism is made compatible with scientific progress and is usually contrasted with religious theism and atheism because it blocks the antiscientific demand of making statements about something beyond the reach of our sensorial-intellectual-rational means. This compatibility (and limitation) with respect to science is what I think motivates many agnostics to believe in the rationalism of their position.

Now, how do agnostics understand their worldview more generally? In my opinion, they must hold one of the following three positions: they either do not care, they live as if God existed, or they live as if God didn’t exist. I don’t see any further position for them to hold, unless they start defending much more sophisticated versions of agnosticism. Unfortunately, these three possibilities get transformed into an inescapable trilemma, jeopardizing their rationalist ambitions.

Let’s start with the first horn of the trilemma: agnosticism as “I don’t care”. The problem with this position is that the existence of God seems to be a very different question than the existence of unicorns, fairies or goblins. No one cares if these latter exist or not, but God is different: its existence gives norms for the whole universe and human life, its nonexistence makes it the case that human beings are “left on their own”. Hence, the first horn either becomes a stubborn “non-position” in the sense of refusing to engage with the topic, or it gets reduced to one of the latter horns.

We move now to the second horn: agnosticism “as if God existed”.  This means that agnostics shall find ways to live with the norms and according to the existence of God. For instance, try to decipher the scientific universe, morality and providence as if there were a unified, supernatural intelligence determining everything. They do not necessarily need to “go to church” (to a mosque, synagogue or temple), but they shall engage in interpreting reality as if there were a universal designer. However, even if this doesn’t make them necessarily “religious”, their actual position is indistinguishable from the one of a theist: indeed, acting “as if God existed” means nothing but believing in God’s existence.

The agnostic has still a third move, leading to the third horn of the trilemma: agnosticism “as if God didn’t exist”. In this case, the agnostic thinks that, even if she doesn’t know whether God literally exists or not, she is going to try to construct her normative system and her understanding of the universe independently of anything supernatural. But this position is indistinguishable from atheism! Atheists do not need to believe that there is no God: they just live without God. Atheism would be justified even if God truly existed but had no influence on reality or there were no way to decipher his message. From a perspective limited by an earthly existence, an unreachable God and a nonexistent God are pretty much the same.

To sum up: the trilemma shows that mainstream agnosticism becomes a stubborn “non-position”, or gets reduced to either theism or atheism. This of course doesn’t mean that more sophisticated versions of agnosticism couldn’t avoid the trilemma.

Agnosticism could reinforce its relativist component and try to give credit to both theism and atheism depending on different social-cultural-moral-theoretical contexts. Or it could stress its openness and tolerance for different understandings of the world. However, a relativization of agnosticism would hardly avoid strong tensions with science and structural contradictions, and must give up rationalist demands.

Another way to defend agnosticism would be to strengthen its skeptical component and accept a “soft atheistic position” without the rationalist faith in the human capability to live a good life without God. This time, however, agnosticism would risk to fall into unsustainable normative nihilism – giving up any form of normativity, even scientific.

Sometimes, it is hard to draw the line between atheism and agnosticism, and it might often sound as if the distinction is just one of interchangeable words. Still, what I wanted to show, is that mainstream agnostics shouldn’t be as laid-back as they often are: theism and atheism weren’t born in a day, and the shaking of shoulders won’t pose serious threats to their rationalist defense.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Rational-Nazi

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sometimes I have the impression that it is easy to misunderstand the nature of what I call “principles”. Some friends have expressed the worry that the moral, rational and scientific principles I talk about might be too dogmatic. Months ago, after earning the infamous title of “rational-Nazi”, I realized that clarification was needed. Foremost, I was in the need of a little rehab from my “psychological rationalism”, which I have hopefully reduced to livable standards by now.

But the worry remains: how can we understand those principles, which I take to be so important to navigate the insecure waters of our relativistic era, where it seems that climate change can be legitimately held as a “Chinese hoax”, where liberal societies are confronted with the paradox of non-ironic Nazi talks at universities, and where science is held either religiously as a Bible or an opinion among that of the local priest, of tabloid journalists or of your neighbor Joe, who never misses a chance to warn you about the next alien invasion?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to explore extensively the implications of my intuitions, so let me just sketch the broad meaning of my “principles”. In few words, principles are parameters framing debates concerning morality, science and topics whose discussion generally requires rationality. Those parameters are constructed through continuous dialogue but, once established, they constrain further discussions in a normative way. In other words, they are always negotiable at a certain level of discussion, that of discussing the best method or the best framework to talk about a certain phenomenon. However, once they have been established, they stop being negotiable in further discussions, and deviance from them is fallacious. The conditions of agreement are given by mutual understanding, mutual recognition of rationality, mutual recognition of sincere intents and probably something else I have not yet figured out.

To put it simple: principles are an outcome of constant dialogue and, in turn, they constrain further dialogues. This does not mean that everyone can question principles at any time. For instance, principles of science are outcomes of dialogues within the scientific community, and can’t take into account, say, inconsistent monologues of bizarre White House’s tenants.

My idea of principles remains very sketchy, but I hope that, at least in this context, it will save me from the direct accusation of dogmatism, given the importance I concede to its dialogical component.

And here we come to today’s topic: Are there cases in which the possibility of dialogue is undermined by the very nature of the topic of the dialogue? Or are there topics which can’t be talked about for their very content? It might sound dogmatic (actually authoritarian), but I think the answer is yes.

Take for instance the following questions: “Are women less intelligent than men?”; “Is homosexuality based on a moral perversion?”; “Are Muslims worthy of respect?”; “Do white people constitute a superior race?”. Consider the first question concerning women. In a dialogue involving a woman, it seems that her ability to discuss at the same level as men is put at stake. Therefore, the validity of the dialogue itself is put at stake. Even if the answer were “no, there is no a priori difference in intelligence”, the dialogue would be based on the suspension of the recognition of the woman’s capacity to argue for a position or another (at least, not at a man’s level).

The same can be said with respect to the questions that follow. If a lesbian were to argue about the possibility of homosexuality being a perverted moral choice, her ability to judge might be deemed as unreliable for a “conflict of interests”. That is, it seems that she would have an interest in defending a position rather than another and her appeal to the evidence of her subjective experience would be unreliable. Even if she were taken as reliable-no-matter-what, given the possibility of a positive answer to the not-yet-settled question, there would still be a chance that she is morally perverted, hence that she is not as reliable as her non-homosexual interlocutors. I think it is clear why the questions about Muslims and white people present the same flaws, for similar reasons.

Should we establish taboos to go side by side with principles then? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we should focus on what level of discussion to adopt. There are certain questions, which require dialogues about the validity of the questions themselves. I think I have shown that some of those questions don’t stand scrutiny. We see how absurd they are and how absurd it would be to engage in debates concerning them.

I don’t know if this way of thinking can be still considered a sort of “rational-Nazism” (term that I abhor). But, if so, I would still by far prefer rational-Nazis to talk at universities, rather than actual Nazis.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Fundamentalism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The topic of this letter is fundamentalism in dogmatic religions. Everywhere you can read of people attacking religion as the source of fundamentalism, whereas others try to defend religion detaching it from its extremist deviations, as if the two were different phenomena. I call the defenders of the former view absolute secularists, and those defending the latter absolute liberals. I won’t consider the third position defending a particular religion while attacking another, because it is self-undermining.

My aim is to argue against both views, and propose a rationalist alternative.

I start with absolute secularism. To think that fundamentalism can be tracked in the Scriptures or in the predicaments of clergymen is to think of religion as something way more static than what it actually is. We have read of Christianity, Islam and Judaism accepting slavery, corruption and massacres of innocents, even if nowadays most of our religious friends are very open minded, and share the same difficulties and hopes of the rest of the population when faced with social changes. Why? Because Scriptures are subject to interpretations, so that they can adapt to the transformation of culture.

But does this mean that Scriptures are like empty shells we can fill with whatever content we like? I don’t think so, and the reason is that religion and, say, moral principles against slavery, belong to different domains. Religion can give meaning to our lives with its books and practices, and be the light against the distress of existence. Science and rationality are of no help here, because their domain is theoretical and experimental, and they can’t work as a “social glue” the way religion does, nor do they give shelter in front of the paradox of existence.

On the other hand, moral principles are principles which apply only and insofar as reason, experience and moral intuitions tell us what is the case – no “word of God” has authority over here. Being good is a matter of morals, not of observance of religion. The proof is given by saying that you can be good without being religious or morally bad and still religious, with respect to thus and such scriptural interpretation. On the contrary, you can’t be at the same time good and immoral, or bad and moral.

Religion is not intrinsically conjoined with anything bad or good. It becomes fundamentalism when people mistake it for having authority over morals, science and reason. And the same mistake is made by thinking that its “good predicaments” are good in virtue of their being religious, whereas in fact, if they are good at all, they are good only and insofar as they are moral. Absolute secularists forget that fundamentalism comes from a confusion among domains and doesn’t belong to religion itself, which is dynamic and can adapt both to good as to bad intents, thanks to interpretation.

On the other side, absolute liberals argue that fundamentalism has nothing to do with religion and is some sort of parallel phenomenon, for which religion is simply a distraction or a label. I don’t buy this position either. If I am right in arguing for the rationalist separation of domains, we shall see what sorts of domain they are.

The domain of reason obeys only to reason, but the one of religion doesn’t obey to “religion”. It obeys to the contextual interpretations one gives to the Scriptures. This allows religion to be a powerful medium to guide society and individuals instrumentally, as to follow a certain interpretation one gives to the Scriptures. And its power relies in its “meaning-giving” role and its “social-glue” role.  Therefore, it is not a distraction from other intents. It is rather the necessary means for fundamentalism to gain supporters, reunite them and lead them to action.

Absolute secularists think religion is the cause of fundamentalism, when it is the means instead. Absolute liberals attribute improperly to religion the possibility of neutral isolation only reason has.

My conclusion is that both positions are false, and that we shall consider religion as different in nature from rationality, morality, etc. and much more malleable, also because it addresses a different realm of life. It is a constituent of our society that we can accept insofar as it stays within its domain. Furthermore, we should blame religious fundamentalists not for their being religious, but for their being extremists, keeping however in mind that, without religion, we wouldn’t even talk about them.

Forever Yours,

‘Miasha