06 January 2014

The "In re" Letters, No. 1 in a Series

NOTE: This has been edited somewhat since the original date of publication to take care of some typos and other things that I saw.  --SJR

Good evening,

During the week of New Year's, I took my blog out of mothball status in order to publish what might have been one of the longest posts I have ever done, regarding atheism, which is available at this link: 4 January 2014.  A gentleman by the name of Matthew Darks gave what I would say was equally voluminous critique, which in turn appears here within his own blog. 

Now Matthew Darks is a prolific writer in his own right, but this is not the only connection between us.  People who have viewed my conversion account--which I probably need to go back and update--will know that when I was baptized, there was a father there who proceeded to baptize his daughter, as she turned eight years old at the time.  The same individual was the one who baptized me also.  Now Alan Rhoads is the father, Crystal is the daughter, and Matthew Darks would eventually become Alan's son-in-law via Crystal.  In fact, I met Matthew at the wedding reception, albeit briefly.  Is the connection a close one?  Probably not on account of geography, for Matthew and Crystal live a number of miles away to the north of my location; however, neither can he be properly classified as a stranger.   

I give this as a preface only to point out that Matthew is not a random critic, but someone with close family connections with a close friend.  Now this is not to suggest that his views have become personal; nevertheless, they hit close to home.  They serve as a reminder that when views are published over the Internet, they not only have global reach, there are local ramifications also.

I am also reminded of the proverb "The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine."  Such is the case with me.  My wheels turn slower than a number of people's, but I'd like to think I strive to process things thoroughly and deliberately.  So with Matthew's indulgence, I would like to process his response in installments.  In tonight's post, I had originally intended to focus on two objectives, but in the interest of space and time, I will narrow it to one.  Specifically, I want to revisit the definition of atheism, because it was called into question at the outset. 

Now in the original blog, I gave what I thought was a reasonably solid definition for atheism, added one for agnosticism, then stated my view that the terms appeared mutually exclusive.  I will go ahead and reproduce what I had--
  • Atheists are those who firmly adopt a belief system in which God does not exist, and where there is not even the possibility of such existence.
  • Agnostics are those who question the existence of God.
I cited to the dictionary on one, and discussed the other via atheists.org.  Incidentally, I failed to provide a definition for "theist," but to be consistent with what I stated originally, I likely would have said that theists were those people who adopt a belief system in which God exists. 

Matthew provided different definitions for both of the above terms.  In doing so, he describes both beliefs--atheism and agnosticism--as part of a two-by-two rubric (gnostic versus agnostic, theist versus atheist) that can be subdivided into four quadrants.  If I may be permitted to use my own words, they were:
  • Gnostic Theist: 100% certain there is at least one supreme being, including but not limited to God, Allah, etc., as used in the major world religions.  I would seem to fall into this quadrant, if only because I will not classify myself as an agnostic.  I may speak more of this at a later time.  
  • Gnostic Atheist: 100% certain there are no supreme beings.  It was my perception that the organization I cited to originally, atheists.org, seems to follow this pattern.
  • Agnostic Theist: Believes in supreme being(s), as defined above, but does not claim to be 100% certain of this.
  • Agnostic Atheist: Lacks belief in supreme being(s), but does not claim to be 100% certain of this. 
I don't know for certain the original source for this model, but from my initial research it appears to have been introduced by Peter Breitbart in this article from 2009.  But unless I have misunderstood Matthew--and this is certainly possible--there is a subtle but very significant difference.  In Matthew's model, there's the notion that one must be 100% certain of something before one can belong to the category.  The analysis becomes somewhat binary, in that if you're not this, you're that.  What reinforces this perception is his view that there cannot really be a Gnostic Theist or Gnostic Atheist, save that people in each group are likely "...mistaken or untruthful."  In fact, Matthew forwarded to me a video, which I will go ahead and link here; it appears consistent with this understanding.  However, Breitbart stands for the proposition that there is a continuum in thought and belief, and he does not include the 100% qualifier. 

So in the end, I'm left with three fairly different sets of definitions for atheist and agnostic--bearing in mind that at least one of these came straight from a dictionary--which only goes to show that reasonable people can disagree, even on the basic points of a topic.  So to say, as Matthew does, that the definition I provided was "...the most blatant exaggeration of the atheistic stance I have ever seen," seems to be a touch on the dramatic, if I'm being honest.  That it varies from Breitbart, I have no doubt.  But given my own sources, and especially given what the organization founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair was saying, I can't say that my inferences were unreasonable.

Still, for tonight at least, I started with my personal view, and I will end it with a personal view.  With perhaps some surprise, I will agree with Breitbart that certainty about God or His existence runs along a continuum.  But this would also be consistent with my own faith's teaching that spiritual knowledge is one of gradual building or construction.  The idea is that a person is not expected to know everything at once, but as is often quoted in scripture, it is "line upon line," and "precept upon precept" (Isaiah 28:10).  I submit this extends to knowledge into the nature and characteristics of God Himself.  

Where I would depart from Breitbart, however, is that there are actually four quadrants.  I would, in fact, be inclined to flatten the analysis into a single, continuous spectrum, as follows--


--where (1) represents atheist (or, if you prefer, Gnostic Atheist), and (4) represents theist (or Gnostic Theist).  At that point, (2) and (3) each represent a form of agnosticism; however, the differences are only one of degree.  For as Breitbart himself pointed out, there are agnostics who lean towards the view that there is no God, and there are agnostics who lean towards the view that there is.  Then there are still others who fall towards (3), but would question the specific form that God takes.  To me, these things only go to different points along the same spectrum.  

From the foregoing, I conclude that when I originally spoke of atheism, I was speaking mainly towards (1) on the above spectrum.  However, it could well encroach (2), depending on the specifics.  I would also respectfully submit that where someone has the active goal of having people "...set aside religious belief and superstition..." (as per atheists.org, on their main page), that seems to take the classification more towards (1).  Why?  Because if someone is so settled on the non-existence of God as to characterize those of faith as mistaken, deluded or even dishonest, this clearly indicates that even if there is not pure or 100% Gnosticism, the level of certainty regarding non-existence surely has to be very high indeed. 

One other thing in closing.  I cannot speak to whether Matthew was intending to engage in a debate or an exchange of views.  I submit there is a difference.  To me, a debate is a zero-sum game in which the intent is for one side to prevail over the other, in some way.  In an exchange of views, we can disagree about all manner of things, perhaps even strongly, but the intent is more towards comparing notes.  The reality is that both of our posts will probably carry some elements of each, but my desire is towards the exchange of views.

Now, part of the reason I say this comes from statements such as the following (and these are only representative examples)--
  • "[Regarding] '...answers to prayers are repeatable under the right conditions.' This is a strong statement that has ZERO backing."
  • "Why is Webster OK to define agnostic but not faith? I must point out that the majority of the world doesn’t go to Alma [in the Book of Mormon] for their definitions."
I think I alluded to this in the original post, but perhaps I will be plainer.  With all due respect, I will not set aside my religious beliefs, or if I may be bold, even those things I would speak of as true during a testimony meeting--in order for me to more precisely share my thoughts.  I don't expect Matthew to give citations from the Bible or the Book of Mormon in an effort to explain how the mind can be fooled as to anything, and in my case, if I make statements that explain a religious belief--especially my own--there is no reason why I can't cite to the appropriate sources as well, or for that matter, my own experiences.  Moreover, the one of the reasons why I made painstaking distinctions between the objective, subjective and the spiritual was to point out--even at the very outset--that I really had no intention of confining my discussion to the objective alone.

So that's as much as time will permit.  Soon, I will address another topic.  Tomorrow will be unlikely, as I have meetings.  --SJR

P.S.  "In re" is another way of saying "...in the matter of."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Mr. R, thank you for your response and there are a few things I must apologize, disagree, and then agree with some of the things you have written here. I would like for this to be considered an exchange of views and I will apologize now for my dramatic statement "the most blatant exaggeration..." blah blah blah; I'm sorry, sometimes my writings come out in the 'heat of the moment' and I try to go back and edit them before posting but I missed that one. I will be more proactive in exchanging views and not preaching (if you'll excuse the wording).

I am no prolific writer. Thank you for the compliment but long winded would have been a better description.
Atheist.org actually has a definition of atheism that you say your view/meaning was based on but I don't see how you got your definition from theirs (copied here: Atheism may be defined as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a life-style and ethical outlook verifiable by experience and scientific method, independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds.)

I'm sure you did much more research on that image than I did. It has been in my archive of images that have been useful in explaining my position. I love the linear example of atheist to theist and agnostic to gnostic. The fact that they are on the same spectrum doesn't disqualify the fact that each number's stance is in fact different from each other one's.
There are people who claim to be 1s but there are very, VERY, few (likely zero) 2s and especially 3 and 4s that believe them, but I know of at least one 4 in my personal life. I know an individual who claims to have knowledge (physical, not just spiritual) of 'heavenly beings'. Unlike 1s I and many others agree that 4s are possible, but only on an individual level. I have no problem accepting that that person believes what they have seen as evidence, but that does not mean I have to accept that as evidence for myself.

Your original definition was definitely directed at the 1s of the world but I aimed to inform you that 1s are rarer than you would imagine.

I believe you have taken the aims of Atheist.org the wrong way, your inferences may not be unreasonable but they were wrong, perhaps simply because you took it to the extreme (number 1). They ask people to "set aside religious belief and superstition" to make humanity the basis of our actions and not pleasing a deity. Also, with the litany of religions and gods out there, the best stance is disbelief in all of them until evidence surfaces in support of one over another.

I have no problem with you citing the Bible and BoM but I hope you understand that those quotes hold as much power over the 2s of the world as quoting Tolkien or Rowling. That said I know you hold the Bible and BoM in high regards so I would quote relevant parts to you for your own contemplation.

My comment about Webster v. Alma was simply an academic one. If you are going to use a source as information on one topic it should be used as the source for that same level of information for all topics. Though, if you look at the comments below the Webster's definition of atheist you can see that it is not the best one available from the community.

I know what In re means. My title was basically a joke because yours began 'in the matter of' so mine was 'in the matter of' your 'in the matter of'.