Monday, 17 October 2011

Why I call myself an agnostic, not an atheist

This cartoon from The Far Left Side, illustrates why I don't choose to define myself by things I don't believe in. Not to mention the fact that it's theists who are making an arguable series of claims about the existence and the detailed nature of an invisible but all-powerful being, claims that they tell us are really, really important and which we should all be listening to. It seems perfectly reasonable to put the onus is on theists to support their assertions, not on the rest of us to prove them wrong.

I first saw this cartoon reblogged on Galileo Unchained, posted by a writer who has taken a contrary view and chosen the label 'atheist', for the reasons given here. I still think that the terms 'agnostic' is more precise, neatly summing up a state of being comfortable with not having all a neat set of dogmatic answers to banish all doubt and uncertainty, but it's a fine distinction and I'm happy for fellow non-believers to choose the label they're most comfortable with.

Differences in terminology aside, there's some good stuff on Galileo Unchained. This is from a clear and concise post on religious education:

We all have inside us what could be called a “Nonsense Detector”—that common sense that helps us believe as many true things and reject as many false things as possible. For example, present most American adults with a case for Islam or Hinduism or Sikhism, and they will be extraordinarily unconvinced.

As adults, we’re far better at sifting truth from nonsense than we were as children. And that’s why Christians must be indoctrinated as children, before their Nonsense Detectors are mature. This is the idea behind the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.”

Read the rest here.  I was particularly struck by the force of this argument as someone who's come late to parenthood. I'm old enough to have forgotten a lot about what it's like to be a child, so having a small person around the house is a constant revelation. One thing I've rediscovered is that when children develop the first traces of guilt, they sometimes tell small fibs, rather than admit to having done something 'naughty'. I don't have a problem with this, but the inexpert nature of these first fibs gives an interesting window into the mind of a small child.

For example, I've questioned the offspring about the unexpected appearance of a small pile of soil in an inappropriate place and have been solemnly assured that a bird had flown over and dropped the soil. Similarly, when a small pool of liquid appeared where it shouldn't have been, I was told a story about a very small cloud and what must have counted as the most localised shower in recorded meteorology.

All of this has driven home the point that children can reach a point where they can form a picture of what other people are thinking, make up stories to suit a given audience and be quite articulate, but still lack the life experience to distinguish a plausible narrative from an utterly fantastic one.  A fact for which which Sunday schools and madrassas must be truly thankful.