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August 2, 2006

"Atheism is a Religion"

While being interviewed by Bill Moyers recently, the novelist Margaret Atwood announced (thanks Esther) that she is an agnostic rather than an atheist because "atheism...is a religion." Here is her explanation:

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven.
BILL MOYERS: There is no God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: You can't prove that.
BILL MOYERS: So you become-- what' a strict agnostic?


MARGARET ATWOOD: A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce, as knowledge, anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words if you're going to call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to, or if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge.

And more:

MARGARET ATWOOD: ...Even, for instance, a physicist, will say: Okay, instead of "Let there be light", there was the Big Bang, which must have been actually quite brilliant visually. And then you say to them, "But what about before that? What happened before that?" And they will say, "Well there was a singularity." And you will say..., "What is a singularity?" And they will say, "We don't know." So at some point in the story, there's going to be "We don't know."

I believe there are answers to her argument, which is primarily epistemological, in analytic philosophy and in the ancient Greek philosophy of Carneades and his argument about "plausibility": If not knowing about the Tooth Fairy and the origins of the Big Bang are judged the same thing, I fear we won't get too far. But my favorite answer would be that of all the things one might put before the Big Bang some omnipotent, omnibenevolent creature would be not only the least plausible but the most confounding.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 2, 2006 9:29 AM


Interesting. Her conception of what constitutes 'knowledge' is, surprisingly, extremely narrow; I wouldn't have thought that from someone who, for example, has taken such controversial feminist stands as she has in her fiction...

Posted by: JM at August 2, 2006 10:23 AM

Symatics, we have been down that road. Every living thing lives on the assumption that perception is reality. If we call that belief, we can also call it religion. Whatever.
One would then have to be agnostic about there being planets somewhere made of blue cheese. So what. I believe there aren't, that is my religion!

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 2, 2006 10:50 AM

I was hoping for better from Atwood, but her ignorance about atheism turned me right off. I've never seen any evidence for the existence of god or any reason to believe; therefore I don't. If someone can prove his/her existence scientifically, then I'll believe. A far cry from either religion or an absolute stand.

Posted by: Catana at August 3, 2006 12:48 PM

Agnostics don't know, atheists don't believe.

I am an agnostic atheist.

Posted by: beepbeepitsme at August 4, 2006 9:16 AM

The usual misconceptions about atheism. Someone needs to read up on weak atheism and strong atheism.

Atheists in general DO NOT BELIEVE. Only strong-atheists BELIEVE there is no God. And whether that belief qualifies as religious in yet another question, whose answer is not an obvious "yes". Not all beliefs are religious, after all.

The way I see it: Atheists DO NOT BELIEVE in God. Agnostics, on the other hand, consider the existence God as a valid possibility. Atheists reject religion as a valid possibility the same way they would reject Russell's Teapot and the idea that our reality is really a Matrix-like virtual reality. Fiction is still fiction even if it cannot be proven to be untrue, and as such technically has a "possibility" of being true. Fiction is fiction untill proven otherwise, and the truthness of obvious fiction should not be considered a valid possibility.

Posted by: kristian z at August 6, 2006 8:33 PM

"Atheism is a religion." Gawd, I'm sick of the trite old shibboleth. Whenever someone says "atheism is just another religion", I want to slap them and say, "that's like saying health is just another disease."

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at August 9, 2006 3:08 AM

Had an interesting encounter on an airplane a few days ago, sitting next to a very nice woman, a WSJ-reading piano teacher who lives in Milwaukee, quite well read, who asked me a lot of questions about the university, students' attitudes toward all kinds of things etc. when she found out what I did. Really pleasant interaction; even said she hoped her daughter would have someone like me as a teacher someday... until the subject turned to (you guessed it) religion and I admitted that not only was I not a Christian (though I had been raised to be Lutheran, as she was), I didn't even believe in god. She got very nervous and politely said that while she couldn't agree with what I'd been saying (about anything, I assumed at that point) she hoped that I would 'be well.' It was as if I'd told her I had just landed from Venus. Don't think she'd consider my atheism as 'another kind of religion'. She seemed genuinely disturbed, almost scared. Never had that experience before, though participating on this blog has probably made me hyperaware of people's reactions to this subject.

Note to KristianZ: "Fiction is fiction until proven otherwise, and the truthness of obvious fiction should not be considered a valid possibility." say what? everything is fiction at some level, isn't it, because of the nature of language?

Posted by: JM at August 9, 2006 11:29 AM

"Everything is fiction", why yes it is, he thought to himself. So how is he going to come to some unified, non-binary, non-polar truthiness about everything using words?

Well, that's another story. (Filled with sound and fury).

"The nature of language", is that anything like the structure of English? :)

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 9, 2006 1:39 PM


Posted by: JM at August 9, 2006 4:28 PM

Better had Atwood said that atheism is a dogma. Her agnosticism is closer to Pyrrhonian skepticism, which would suspend judgment whether G-d exists and so avoid the self-refutation of a dogmatic skepticism (if the skeptic claims that "nothing can be known," you can ask whether he knows that.)
You could also call atheism a theology -- the most minimal of theologies.

Posted by: Dabodius at August 9, 2006 11:36 PM

Well, not grammatically speaking, Dabodius... if 'theology' is the study of 'theos,' i.e. the term for god in greek, and 'a/theistic' is the negation of that. I'll grant you that there is probably a more elegant way of suggesting that one doesn't believe in god that doesn't include use/negation of the term. But in a discourse such as that of the west, always already saturated with religious signification, that isn't as easy as it might sound... the assumption is that one 'believes.' Hence, I gather, the reason that Mitch has titled his book a history of 'disbelief' rather than a history of atheism...? (and it's less dogmatic, too ;)

Posted by: JM at August 10, 2006 1:12 PM

Most atheists define "atheist" a lot differently than Atwood does.

Posted by: Adam at August 11, 2006 1:42 AM

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