Originally Posted: April 29, 2016
This is a quick summary of two past meetings which didn’t end up getting their own posts.
At a meeting during the fall semester of 2015, we went through as many theistic arguments as we could find, and voted on which ones were the most compelling (not necessarily correct) to us. Different people presented their favorite arguments, and then everyone gave the argument a score from 1 to 5, 5 being the “most compelling.” Here are the results:
- Moral Argument: 10
If there’s no god, how can anything be said to be right or wrong? We intuitively know that certain things are wrong – we have an innate sense of fairness and justice. Heinous crimes like rape and murder have to be more wrong than, “we humans decided that these things are bad for society and so we’ve made them illegal.” These “cosmic moral facts” must have a source: the gods.
- Cosmological Argument: 19
Why is there something rather than nothing? Every phenomenon we see must have a cause, and you can’t keep tracing back causes forever and ever (that’s called an “infinite regress”). At some point, something must have been caused by a First Cause, an Unmoved Mover, which was not itself caused by anything. That first cause would be the gods, and the cosmos itself is the first miracle.
- Teleological Argument: 17
Whether you look at an organism, an ecological system, or the universe itself, lots of different parts are working together in complex ways – ways so complex that if even one thing were changed, the system could fall apart. The different parts of the system appear to have a telology – a final purpose, an ultimate destination, a goal or aim. What gave the parts their purpose? The gods. Another form of this argument is the Fine-Tuning Argument: there are very specifically defined universal constants, like the speed of light and the gravitational constant. If any of those constants were changed just a little, the universe couldn’t exist. What set those values? The gods.
- Ontological Argument: 12
This argument aims to define the gods into existence. For every thing we can observe, we can also imagine a more perfect version. God is therefore that which there can be nothing greater.
- Aesthetic Argument: 13
The term “aethetic” refers to a bunch of arguments that deal with things that we perceive or feel in our psyches. We know that some things are beautiful; we know what love is; we know what it means to feel awe. The ability to sense these things is built into us. Why do we have these senses? It can’t be the result of just evolution – it must be that the gods created us with these senses.
We didn’t talk about spiritual experience at this meeting, but that’s an important topic that deserves its own meeting.
In the middle of spring semester, we had a pair of meetings regarding the terms “atheist” and “agnostic.” We also talked about the terms “freethought” and “humanism.” There are irreligious people who don’t really care which term they use, but there are also people who do care quite a lot. For example, astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson is very emphatically an agnostic, and if you call him an atheist, he will correct you. In contrast, David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, says that every irreligious person should be calling themselves an atheist, and people who use the words agnostic or humanist are simply afraid to use the correct word.
Another reason that irreligious people might be pretty serious about these words is that other people will treat you very differently depending on what word you use. Around fellow secular people, one might not care which word is used, but around religious family members or strangers, picking the right word is really important. Certain people are going to treat someone they view as an “atheist” in a different way from how they’d treat an “agnostic.”The words come with different connotations, and each person has their own way of thinking about the words. This makes communication difficult.
We didn’t come to any solid conclusions at the end of our discussion, but we did hit upon some good ideas. There are two questions that can tell you a lot more about a person’s outlook than just “atheist or agnostic.” They are:
- How much evidence is there (that God exists) – some evidence, a lot of evidence, or no evidence at all?
- Based on the evidence, what conclusion can reasonably be drawn?
In general, most would say that the difference between atheists and agnostics is in the answer to Question 2; atheists say there is “certainly no god” and agnostics say “there is no way to know whether there is or is not a god.” In reality, there aren’t many people who really say “I’m absolutely certain there’s no god” (even Richard Dawkins doesn’t say that), and there is a wide variety of outlooks between people covered by “atheist or agnostic”:
- “There are some compelling arguments for gods, but nothing which definitively proves anything.”
- “I personally don’t see any evidence for gods, so I’m not a believer. However, other people have different experiences, and if their experiences suggest that gods exist, then it’s reasonable for them to go with that.”
- “There is, in principle, no evidence for gods, and there never will be. So, it’s not reasonable to believe they exist.”
- “There’s no solid proof of god, but believing in god is a good idea. Belief requires a leap of faith.”
In general, we’ve collectively found that if you want people to treat you kindly, agnostic is the word to use, even if people are only treating you kindly based on the possibility of you returning to religion. “Irreligious” is another good, generally agreeable word.