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Agnostic Testimony 28
Some Occasionally Slightly Half-Baked Thoughts On Agnosticism, God's Beard, Culture, Creationism, Scientism, and the Importance of Making Time to Learn the Banjo.

by: Michael Heath

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I think I have always been an apathetic agnostic.  I have always been distrustful of anyone who presents an idea as absolute truth.  No statement concerning an absolute truth should be trusted with the possible exception of this one.  For a while I got mixed up in those philosophical cul-de-sacs concerning us not being able to know anything.  I then realised that most of it is bollocks and utterly worthless  Yes okay, I can't prove it is a table, can we talk about something important now?  In my adolescence I also toyed with theism until I realised I couldn't get past the notion that God just seemed a bit silly.

I have however for many years described myself as an atheist.  It's simple.  I have no idea what or who God is, so it is impossible for me to have belief in it/Him/Her. Any consideration of evidence is irrelevant as it's impossible to say what it is that evidence is supposed to show or not show.  A lack of belief equals atheism right? Well sort of though technically this is more a description of agnosticism.  I knew this but also knew that people wouldn't have a clue what I meant most of the time.  I was aware that agnosticism is viewed as some kind of half way house between faith and lack of faith.  This is a ridiculous position, you can't have a bit of a belief in God  I accept the existence of God s Beard but I'm not sure about the rest of Him

Not so long ago however I had one of those moments when two or more thoughts that had been knocking around in my head for a while connected.  The first thought was around my reluctance to use the word agnostic.  The second was a point once made by John Ralston Saul about the fundamental similarities between all ideologies.  I haven't got the book in front of me now but from memory the point was about  Left  and  Right  having the same basic way of looking at the world and merely disagreeing on what the end result should be.  Despite this, the terms left and right  signify two ends of a continuum between which every other position fits.  I'll call this the Formula of the Continuum. The third thought was a quote from Raymond Williams   Welsh cultural theorist and often referred to as the grandfather of Cultural Studies.  I won't repeat it here because it's not particularly elegant or easy to read, but the key point was that it is often the way we think about things, and not what we think about, which is most important.  These ways of thinking already have either the seeds of life in them or the seeds of a general death.  The conclusions reached by people using the same basic way of thinking may look dissimilar, often dramatically so, but the conclusions are both dependent on the same seeds.

Politically I have always thought of myself as a  moderate  but this is another term that has suffered the same fate as  agnostic.  It's seen as a half-way/compromise/flaky position.  Only it's not.  It is distinct and in opposition to non-moderate positions.   The truly radical opposition to  radicalism  is moderation.  It s messier but more realistic and achievable. It offers some kind of promise of success because it isn't tying itself down to strict ideological goals and dogma.  To quote from Raymond Williams, "To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing."

The debates about God follow a similar Formula of the Continuum.  At one end is pure atheism and at the other is religious fundamentalism.  By doing this everything in between these two extremes is seen as a bit wishy-washy, in a  grey area  etc.  As an aside, whenever I see the phrase,  it's not black and white, there are some grey areas  I immediately think,  but if it's not black and white then why buy into the whole symbolism of this idea by using grey as the alternative?   Agnosticism is not  greywishy-washy , or  a compromise.  It is in opposition to both.

But what separates Agnosticism from Theism and straight-forward Atheism?  The answer I think is apathy or disinterest.  Both theists and atheists care deeply about, and have an investment in the question of God's existence.  This is the question or  way of thinking  that underpins both.  The conclusions are very different but, as with the ideological battle between left and right, it is merely a difference of opinion over who wins in the end. 

So what prompted these thoughts coming together? About a year ago I met a Young Earth Creationist.  I'd never met one before.  I liked her.  She was a decent sensible person so why would she subscribe to such a ridiculous set of beliefs?  Not wanting to spoil our friendship with endless and largely pointless debates I started visiting various creationist and evolutionist web sites and facebook pages to try to get an answer to this question.  I learnt quite a lot about  creationists  but what surprised me was I also learnt a lot about  evolutionists .  The term  evolutionist  seems to encapsulate for creationists a position which I personally think would be better described as Scientism. But they call it  evolutionism  so I will too.  Many of the people labelled by creationists as  evolutionists  aren't adherents to scientism at all of course.  The key here however is that the Evolution vs Creation debate is a cultural debate so what words signify is of utmost importance.  What I observed was that after a while the term  evolutionist  and what it signifies becomes reality.  I was particularly struck by the symbiotic relationship between Creationists and Evolutionists.  This is most obvious with Creationists.  They are clearly primarily a movement of opposition and are defined by their efforts to discredit  evolutionism . The same however could be said of evolutionists. 

I think I probably need to clarify something here as I haven t always been able to communicate my position properly and ended up being mistaken for some kind of Christian apologist.  Young Earth Creationism is bollocks.  Creation science and Intelligent design is potentially very dangerous pseudo science.  The YEC position is always circular - the evidence for God s existence is creation and the evidence for creation is God's existence.   What I am talking about above is a cultural debate.  It is a debate that has largely been defined by creationists as a YEC/Atheism dichotomy.  YECs are actually rather fond of atheists.  I m sure YECs realise the biggest challenge to their position actually comes from other Christians and Agnostics.  What they want to do, and often succeed in doing, is turn the debate about Creationism/Evolution into a debate about God.  Christians aren't interested, or are reluctant to engage in this debate because they already believe in God and Agnostics often just aren't interested.  Atheists on the other hand are only too happy to oblige as it is a question they care about deeply as well.

I have witnessed several newcomers to the debate, myself included, become sucked in to this cultural construction and promptly adopt a polar position. We are all influenced by the pervading culture of any given social environment after all. I found myself becoming an  evolutionist .  I was losing my apathy/disinterest.  Does this mean I should just bow out of the debate?  No I don't think it does.  It is more a case of being clear that the question of God is an irrelevance.  The important points of this debate are the potential consequences, particularly for education, of YEC becoming accepted as a scientifically valid position.  My goal in participating in these debates should therefore be to challenge the Theism vs Atheism basis of the debate.  It's much harder than it sounds. 

There is an expectation that you should be some kind of an expert.  Do I really want to familiarise myself with the ins and outs of Christian Apologetics?  Do I really want to sift through the evidence and implications of the Lenski experiment?  Do I have the time? Both are fascinating in their own way - one because of the philosophical gymnastics involved, and the other because it is a truly elegant bit of science, but why should it actually matter to me? I am neither a scientist nor a Christian. If I had the time to read all this stuff I would much prefer to use it improving my banjo playing. 

This is not to say that being a reasonably informed lay person is not a good thing.  It is good to be informed enough to be able to distinguish between science and pseudo-science for example.  It's good to be able to recognise when the debate is being reduced to an irrelevant question. It's good to recognise when we are being asked to fall for the idea that an answer is self evident. It's good to recognise when  evidence  might be speculation.  All this is so I can understand enough to participate at the level of a conscious citizen in a political and cultural debate.  Conscious citizenship IS the qualification for participation in such debates.

Ultimately there are only three things a conscious citizen needs to know in the creation vs evolution debate.

  1. Creation science is about finding evidence for something already held to be true. It therefore isn't science.  There really is no need to go any further.
  2. The question of God is irrelevant.  God is unknowable so what's the point in considering the so called evidence.  What is it evidence for exactly?
  3. The evidence for biological evolution is not a matter of personal opinion.  It exists and you can go and read all about it if you want to.  This doesn't mean everything that is called science is good science or that the science provides answers to political, ethical and cultural questions. 

It strikes me that Agnosticism is therefore crucial in this debate as it is the best position for allowing the participation of conscious citizens.  I think the same kind of principles apply to many of the buzz debates of our time;

  1. Recognise when a position is utter bollocks/based on a conspiracy theory/pseudo science etc.
  2. Recognise when the debate is being defined by an irrelevant question (clue - it's normally about God).
  3. Recognise when decisions around a possible future are being defined as technologically/scientifically inevitable.

So there you go. I have found a label I can wear proudly and then get on with the crucial task of improving my banjo playing.