This is a video I missed back in 2011, Penn Point : Agnostics Suck! from Penn Jillette, who can best be found as @pennjillette on Twitter. Skip forward to the 3 min mark to get to the meat of the matter. Bottom line: we’re all agnostic and because of that we all should be atheist. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, but there are some points in this video I should respond to from my primarily agnostic position. Honesty with agnosticism should have us admit to de facto atheism in the “lack of belief” sense. I accept that. However, there are atheists that use an anti-theist meaning of the label and there are agnostics that don’t embrace their atheism. Continue reading after you watch the video…
Dogmatic Fundamentalist Anti-Theists
Penn says agnostics are annoying if they say atheists are as dogmatic as fundamentalist Christians. I agree that blanket statement isn’t valid and probably most atheists don’t take a hardcore anti-theist standpoint. It isn’t useful to attack people in the same non-theist camp as yourself and this also applies to atheists criticizing agnostics. In the end, there’s a very good reason for all non-theists to embrace the “agnostic atheist” label regardless of which one you personally identify with as a shorthand label. There’s a real problem with both atheists and agnostics that don’t admit to being both in answer to two different questions as Penn has eloquently discussed in this video.
If there were only agnostics and atheists in the world then this would be a minor issue of semantics. However, there are more theists than anything else, so look at it through their eyes. Atheists that don’t embrace agnosticism regarding knowledge are being fundamentalist when I’ve encountered some that take that hardcore position. They tell the theists that we should not only disbelieve, but we can also prove their beliefs are false by applying knowledge standards to their beliefs. Anti-theists say they know religions are false and pick apart the supposed facts of religions. Theists aren’t arguing about their knowledge when they respond with their faith as the reason to believe. Most theists I’ve known admit they don’t really know, so they must rely on faith alone. Anti-theists claiming they know religions are false and we know how and why we have our existence aren’t speaking the same language as theists if they don’t clarify their atheism with agnosticism to identify our limits of knowledge.
Agnostics that don’t embrace atheism as the byproduct of our lack of knowledge are telling theists that knowledge doesn’t tell us what to believe or disbelieve, so their faith without knowledge could be valid. Even if we might believe something in the future (what’s before the Big Bang?), we should reject theistic beliefs today because none of the religions rise to the standards of knowledge. Being primarily agnostic is to put knowledge before beliefs. Saying we don’t really know goes hand in hand with disbelieving religious claims because they aren’t knowledge.
Agnosticism Isn’t Interesting
Penn claims that saying we’re agnostic isn’t interesting because it applies to everyone. Being agnostic answers the epistemological question while being atheist answers the theological question. For me, that’s the beauty of talking about agnosticism. Atheism is harder to discuss and share as my viewpoint because it doesn’t apply to everyone. Theists in my family see it as rejecting faith and don’t understand why anyone would decide to reject the majority position. They see the atheist saying “I don’t believe you” as a rebellious and contrary position. Religious people I’ve talked to see it more as a personal criticism of them when I say I don’t believe in gods and they just hear “I don’t believe YOU.”
When I start discussing agnosticism and can reach a common understanding that we don’t really know then it’s easier to talk about how faith in theistic claims doesn’t really answer the hard questions of existence. Since the reason I don’t believe is because we don’t really know (and may never know) our first origin then the better starting position for me is always agnosticism when I contemplate our existence. I build my viewpoints and discussions about reality from there. When I talk to theists who want to talk about their faith and beliefs, I always start with “we don’t know” in order to change the focus from their personal beliefs to our collective human knowledge. It’s useless to argue faith and beliefs because disbelief isn’t a meaningful counterpoint:
Belief: “I believe Penn has a quarter stuck behind his ear because I’ve seen him pull one out before.”
Disbelief: “I don’t believe you so let’s argue about your belief and if you’ve actually seen it happen or not in the past.”
Knowledge: “Let’s have Penn show us some physical evidence for if there’s a quarter behind his ear or not. If Penn’s not available then it’s a meaningless argument so let’s just talk about something more tangible.”
Who needs labels? All non-theists should just embrace all of the available labels. Yes, I’m agnostic, atheist, freethinker, humanist, secular, heathen, bright, etc. etc. etc. I’m anything that means I don’t believe in ancient mythologies any more or less than I believe in King Arthur. King Arthur is cool and there are nuggets of wisdom in it as a work of fiction. In the end, we must see these writings and beliefs for what they really are as the written word of humans instead of trying to live our very human lives as if some of these fictions are 100% real.