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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Changing Your Mind: Alan Alda Converts from Atheism to Agnosticism

 
Alan Alda has changed his mind. He used to be an atheist but now he prefers to call himself an agnostic [ So far, I've changed my mind twice about God].
But, slowly I realized that in the popular mind the word atheist was coming to mean something more: a statement that there couldn't be a God. God was, in this formulation, not possible, and this was something that could be proved. But I had been changed by eleven years of interviewing six or seven hundred scientists around the world on the television program Scientific American Frontiers. And that change was reflected in how I would now identify myself.

The most striking thing about the scientists I met was their complete dedication to evidence. It reminded me of the wonderfully plainspoken words of Richard Feynman who felt it was better not to know than to know something that was wrong. The problem for me was that just as I couldn't find any evidence that there was a god, I couldn't find any that there wasn't a god. I would have to call myself an agnostic. At first, this seemed a little wimpy, but after a while I began to hope it might be an example of Feynman's heroic willingness to accept, even glory in, uncertainty.
I think he's dead wrong about the meaning of the word atheism. I think it means that you have not accepted theism and therefore you are "without a belief in God." I see the word atheism as similar to words like "a-toothfairyism" or "a-SantaClausism." You don't believe in Santa Claus so you are an "a-SantaClausist." It does not mean you are committed to the concept that there could not possibly be a Santa Claus.

It would be silly to label yourself an agnostic with respect to belief in Santa Claus. Nobody, especially Christians, goes around announcing that they are agnostic about the existence of the Greek Gods. You don't believe in them, full stop.

There is a version of agnosticism that's perfectly acceptable. John Wilkins, among others, promotes this definition of agnosticism. True agnostics claim that it is impossible to prove one way or the other whether God exists, just as it's impossible to prove one way or the other whether the tooth fairly exists. All rational people are agnostics in this sense. Some of them are also atheists. Alan Alda appears to be both an atheist and an agnostic, just like Richard Dawkins. Alan Alda is a wimp for letting non-atheists redefine atheism and then abandoning his position because of that incorrect definition.

It's not an either/or situation, in my opinion (Wilkins disagrees). You can, and should, be both an atheist and an agnostic.


[Photo Credit: M*A*S*H]

22 comments :

  1. Sometimes I think that agnostics are thinking "god or anything remotely like god" when they declare they are agnostics,i.e., they do not wish to be eliminative, or guilty of over-generalization. Atheists seem to be thinking more along the lines "this god x, this god y, this god z" (say the gods of Xity, Islam etc.), and since they don't believe in any of these proferred articles- especially the one they may have grown up with- they declare themselves without god-belief. It's a highly semantical question.

    Also, the technical distinctions between the two positions are one thing. The choice of how you wish to identify yourself is another. I believe Bertrand Russell said that to the man in the street he would be an atheist, but to his fellow philosophers he would be an agnostic, so that his answer might vary in the interest of honest communication.

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  2. When I took philosophy in Grade 12, I recall learning that there are two different types of atheism, termed positive and negative. If I recall correctly, a positive atheist would say "God absolutely does not exist" while a negative atheist would say "I do not believe in God."

    As for agnosticism, the widely-used definition is "We can't know whether God exists or not." More strictly, agnosticism is the belief that one cannot know anything about something of non-material nature.

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  3. 1] The Christian God could certainly let his presence be unequivocally (i.e. mouldy cheese sandwiches or individuals hearing voices won't cut it) known to the whole of humanity whenever he wanted to (although a deist god couldn't). So I'd say the burden of proof lies with god; the ball is in his court, so to speak.

    2] I presume Alda is agnostic about the existence of all gods, not just the Christian one.

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    1. Ian... what, exactly, do you think Jesus was all about? What you are really saying, is "if God was real, it would appeal to MY demand for proof..." Kind of like ants demanding we PROVE we exist to them....

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  4. I agree with Richard's way of putting it...I'm an agnostic in principle, but an atheist in practice. And yes, it's exactly the same thing as with Santa, tooth fairies, and unicorns. I do agree, however, that the majority of the population seem to have the understanding that atheism equates with believing gods don't exist. For me, it's not a belief about the non-existence of gods, it's a lack of believe in their existence.

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  5. I disagree with Larry, and side more with Wilkins. I don't think is quite the same as Santa Claus, tooth fairism, etc. That's a bit of a strawman. I would not be surprised if most of those who are practically atheist but technically agnostic (myself included) are simply hedging their bets. At this point, there certainly doesn't appear to be a God of any kind, but no one knows what the ultimate nature of reality is. Who knows what other contexts the universe might be perceived in, in 1k years, or 10k years.

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  6. anonymous said:
    "I don't think is quite the same as Santa Claus, tooth fairism, etc. That's a bit of a strawman...At this point, there certainly doesn't appear to be a God of any kind, but no one knows what the ultimate nature of reality is. Who knows what other contexts the universe might be perceived in, in 1k years, or 10k years."

    So does that mean you've given up on all hope of the existence of Santa and/or tooth fairies? Even if we eventually determine that some sort of supernatural being(s) exists, who's to say that it will be anything worthy of being called "god"?

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  7. So does that mean you've given up on all hope of the existence of Santa and/or tooth fairies?

    Yes. We're talking about two different things here: 1) proof and 2) belief. I can't prove that Santa and Tooth fairies and God don't exist, but I can still disbelieve in Santa and Tooth fairies 100%, while disbelieving in "God" 99.99%. That makes me an "unbeliever" but still technically agnostic about "God".

    Even if we eventually determine that some sort of supernatural being(s) exists, who's to say that it will be anything worthy of being called "god"?

    That would another personal "belief".

    My main point is that I think Larry is being a bit disingenuous in equating tooth fairy agnosticism with agnosticism about God. I doubt they are the same thing in most people's minds. One is about proof, and the other is about belief.

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  8. I guess where anonymous and I differ is on the point of proof. I don't think you can ever prove 100% that Santa and tooth fairies don't exist. They could always be hiding somewhere that we haven't checked yet. I don't understand why people come to either the 99.9% or the 100% conclusion, despite the fact that the inability to "prove" the non-existence of two things may be exactly the same. I might go so far as to say that definite belief in the non-existence of something you cannot prove is actually a form of faith. Everyone has that right, of course, but that doesn't mean I believe it to be rational.

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  9. Going back to Huxley, I think what he was getting at was a priori reasons. Agnosticism sees no a priori reason one way or the other, hence is content to go with the evidence.

    I would think an a priori reason would be (a)an iron-clad proof, (b)belief in religious inerrancy or infallibility, (c) prior commitment to some philosophy such as positivism or Marxism, Freudianism etc.

    Huxley once said he saw no a priori reason why the soul might not exist, but I believe he also touted epiphenomenalism.

    It seems that in the Metaphysical society to which he belonged he was confronted by all sorts of people who thought they had it all figured out, and he wanted to find a name for someone who did not adopt an a priori stance. I think that Alda is basically coming from the same place as Huxley.

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  10. Atheists are evolving their definition of "atheism" due to outside preassure.

    Having realized that their prior position ("God doesn't exist") was not philosophically defenseable, now they back down to just "I don't believe in any gods" nonsense. This is, or course, a copout.

    Historically speaking, atheism is the dogmatic afirmation of the non-existence of God. It is not mearly the "suspesion of belief", as I think Larry wants us to believe.

    For the atheist the statement "God exists" is a false statement, not an unprooven statement.

    Secondly, equating belief in God with belief in Santa Claus prooves my point. No one goes around saying that they are agnostic rearding the existence of Santa. No. We positively afirm "Santa Claus doesn't exist as a real historical figure". This is exacly what atheists do with God. They afirm the non-existence of God.

    The "suspension of belief" nonsense is a copout.

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  11. Larry says:
    I think he's dead wrong about the meaning of the word atheism. I think it means that you have not accepted theism and therefore you are "without a belief in God."

    No, that is not what atheism means.

    I see the word atheism as similar to words like "a-toothfairyism" or "a-SantaClausism." You don't believe in Santa Claus so you are an "a-SantaClausist." It does not mean you are committed to the concept that there could not possibly be a Santa Claus.


    Actually, I don't think anyone is an agnostic regarding the tooth faury or Santa. Everyone upon reaching a certain age affirms that the tooth fairy and Santa are not real historical persons. It is not mearly a "suspension of belief", but an affirmation of their non-existence. We can affirm this for many reasons, but that is besides the point.

    It would be silly to label yourself an agnostic with respect to belief in Santa Claus.
    I agree.

    Nobody, especially Christians, goes around announcing that they are agnostic about the existence of the Greek Gods.

    You are right. We just say that they don't exist as real gods, just like atheists say that the Judeo-Christian God YHWH doesn't exist.

    You don't believe in them, full stop.
    Not full stop. Why don't you believe in them? Because they are mean, good, too harsh, too soft? Or becauuse they don't exist as real gods?

    There is a version of agnosticism that's perfectly acceptable. John Wilkins, among others, promotes this definition of agnosticism. True agnostics claim that it is impossible to prove one way or the other whether God exists, just as it's impossible to prove one way or the other whether the tooth fairly exists.

    The belief in the impossibility in proving God's existence is something that steems from the lack of knowledge in what exacly you are looking for. If you don't know what you are looking for, then you'll never going to find it. Actually, when it comes to God, someone said something very interesting once: atheists don't find God for the same reason a thief doesn't find the police. It's not in their interess.

    Saying that it's impossible to prove the existence of God is a question begging statement. It's more like a stipulation rather than something you conclude after careful analysis.

    All rational people are agnostics in this sense.
    Depends on your definition of "rational".

    Alan Alda is a wimp for letting non-atheists redefine atheism and then abandoning his position because of that incorrect definition.

    Actually, Alan Alda is being logical by seeing that his prior religious belief was not something he got from the evidence, and, in fact, it's something that, in my opinion, is counter-evidence.

    It's not an either/or situation, in my opinion (Wilkins disagrees). You can, and should, be both an atheist and an agnostic.

    Only if you jungle around with the defifinion of those terms.

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  12. Ian B Gibson said


    1] The Christian God could certainly let his presence be unequivocally (i.e. mouldy cheese sandwiches or individuals hearing voices won't cut it) known to the whole of humanity whenever he wanted to (although a deist god couldn't).


    You assume He hasn't already. Perhaps He has, but the evidence put forth doesn't fit your "requirements".

    So I'd say the burden of proof lies with god; the ball is in his court, so to speak.

    The ball is on your court to show how the ball is on His court.

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  13. You assume He hasn't already. Perhaps He has, but the evidence put forth doesn't fit your "requirements".

    If he's God and omnipotent, he should be able to "fit my requirements." Then again, he might be so incredibly omnipotent, that he doesn't even have to exist to make his case.

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  14. The ball is on your court to show how the ball is on His court.

    Hardly, since I can simply go on laughing at religious numbskulls like you. And so I will.

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  15. Anonymous said

    You assume He hasn't already. Perhaps He has, but the evidence put forth doesn't fit your "requirements".

    If he's God and omnipotent, he should be able to "fit my requirements."


    That doesn't follow logically. The fact that the evidence put forth for the obvious existence of God doesn't satisfy you doesn't make one conclude that God is not Omnipotent.

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  16. That doesn't follow logically.

    Sure it does. If he's omnipotent, omniscient, etc. then he would know exactly what it would take to convince me. If he cared (and more importantly, if he existed) he would do just that. Baron Munchausen tales about arks and talking snakes are only good for misleading stupid sheep - and profiting by it.

    You know, Christianity is actually based on extreme selfishness. How many Christians would there be if their religion didn't promise them immortality and eternal bliss? Maybe three? And what is the most selfish thing you could possibly wish for? A billion dollars? Seventy two virgins? No, immortality trumps everything. Religion shamelessly plays upon the naturally-selected for desire that all animals have to continue their existence.

    When you Christians are doing good deeds in the name of your God, you're not doing it out selflessness or unconditional love, but because you hope to eventually be rewarded with immortality. When an atheist does good deeds, it's a much more genuine and laudable thing.

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  17. "That doesn't follow logically."

    Sure it does. If he's omnipotent, omniscient, etc. then he would know exactly what it would take to convince me.


    But He knows what would take in order to convince you. The problem is that you don't want to accept what He has given to you, and what He has shown you. Ultimately, you choose to believe or to reject. God has given you the freedom to make that decision. So if you reject, and die in unbelief, you have no one else to blame but yourself.- I think this is the point of Romans 1.


    If he cared (and more importantly, if he existed) he would do just that.


    He has given you enough evidence. The problem is that you don't accept the evidence God has given you. You have "other requirements".



    You know, Christianity is actually based on extreme selfishness.


    Ah..now we begin to see why you "don't see the evidence".

    How many Christians would there be if their religion didn't promise them immortality and eternal bliss?
    What is your assumption?!


    Maybe three? And what is the most selfish thing you could possibly wish for? A billion dollars? Seventy two virgins? No, immortality trumps everything.


    It's selfish to want to live forever?

    Religion shamelessly plays upon the naturally-selected for desire that all animals have to continue their existence.
    Why do humans have the desire to live forever?

    When you Christians are doing good deeds in the name of your God, you're not doing it out selflessness or unconditional love, but because you hope to eventually be rewarded with immortality.
    Nothing could be further from the truth. Our immortality is not due to our "good deeds", since in the Sight of God, human "good deeds" are like refuse. How immortality is something that has been guaranteed by the Lord Jesus on the cross.
    When an atheist does good deeds, it's a much more genuine and laudable thing.

    The problem, of course, is that the atheist has no "measuring stick" as a way to determine what is good and what is bad. In the atheist worldview, "good" and "bad" are relative terms.

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  18. Ultimately, you choose to believe or to reject. God has given you the freedom to make that decision

    The Flying Spaghetti monster has given you the freedom to choose or reject him, and you choose to reject him in spite of all the available evidence. You will die in disbelief and have no one else to blame but yourself.

    It's selfish to want to live forever?

    Yes. Duh.

    Religion shamelessly plays upon the naturally-selected for desire that all animals have to continue their existence.
    Why do humans have the desire to live forever?


    Moron. It is truly waste of time to engage an idiot like you. The sentence above your question answers it. All animals have the desire to continue their existence. Natural selection favored those who had that quality, and it was passed on. It doesn't take a genius to understand that.

    Our immortality is not due to our "good deeds", since in the Sight of God, human "good deeds" are like refuse.

    That's besides the point. The reason *you* do good deeds is that you hope for a reward. An very selfish thing, actually.

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  19. The guy who ticked off Alan AldaSunday, January 13, 2008 8:37:00 PM

    Hi,

    I'm the person who wrote the original Wikipedia entry concerning Alan Alda being an unbeliever, a term he seems to prefer to atheist, although they're synonymous (the entry's been changed now by someone else to reflect his new views). The funny thing is, he saw this as an accusation on my part, but ironically I'm on his side, being an atheist myself. It takes guts to take his (and my) position in the US. So, Mr. Alda, on the off chance of you reading this, I did not mean to accuse you, I salute you.

    I have to say, however, upon reading Mr. Alda's Edge.org article, I was especially disappointed by his writing "This gets us back to that most pressing of human questions: why do people worry so much about other people's holding beliefs other than their own?"
    Isn't that obvious? Strongly and dogmatically held beliefs with no basis in reality can drive people to the most horrendous and/or stupefyingly inane acts. This is what worries sane and rational people who look at the world today.
    I also dislike the semantic terminology juggling regarding the words agnosticism/atheism/nonbelief. My take on this is basically as follows. I am an atheist when it comes to all world religions and the supernatural entities that are worshipped in them. Saying you're agnostic regarding these entities is lending validity to them, as if there is some 50/50 chance they might be real, and that's just not intellectually honest (think of holding the same view regarding fairies or trolls, it's just not a tenable position and would be completely inconsistent).

    The only thing one can be truly agnostic about, what is truly unknown, is how the universe, and whatever lies beyond it, came to be (if that's even the right question to ask). But it would be a logical fallacy, the so-called argument from ignorance, to default to whatever supernatural entity is in vogue at the time as an explanation for this unknown. For all we know, there was no beginning, or the beginning got set off by some inanimate, unintelligent thing, or two things or three, or the universe started itself, etc.

    In a sense I get where Mr. Alda is coming from: atheism only negatively defines a person in relation to other people's beliefs. It does not say anything about the person's views and values. I tell people I'm first and foremost a rationalist and a humanist, and I encourage other people to think critically. Atheism is certainly a term that has shock value to it, but there are plenty of people outthere who are in desperate need of some shock therapy.

    Peace and love to everyone from the atheist who called Alan Alda an atheist!
    And if you can, check out the following podcasts: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, Humanist Network News and Point of Inquiry!

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  20. My daughter died, my love continues. God is love. I am now certain.

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  21. Hi all atheists and agnostics. I was one of you and as Alan Alda converted, but have even gone even further than Mr. Alda to the position that all is created. The science bears it out. I appreciate the Atheist and Agnostic for sharing their beliefs, at least we know what you, as I used to, believe in. It is however a dead end belief system, no facts to substantiate evolution, no higher authority to account to. I don't think societies like Atheists so much for it is such a cruel belief system, survival of the fittest, billions of years of weak ones being killed off. I think Atheism will continue to evolve as a belief system because it is so cruel in it's essence. Not to mention there is no evidence to refute that all we see was created.
    If created, certainly a creator exists.
    Respectfully

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