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Responding to Article - Atheists Aren't Dogmatic

eSkepticThe latest issue of Skeptic magazine had an article with a few things I disagree with. Skeptic recently shared the article in their eSkeptic section, so you can read it even if you aren't a member of the Skeptics Society. Here's the link:

The Three Shades of Atheism: How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God

The authors conducted a survey to try to help categorize atheist beliefs and the percentage of atheists with those beliefs. They came up with 4 categories to characterize atheist responses. Unfortunately, I think their categories are flawed.

Gnostic-Atheism: Any explicit or implied characterization of the participant's position as certain or definite.

Agnostic-Atheism: Any effort made to distinguish between a "belief" and "knowledge" position; or participants who indicate that they are open to evidence: they describe their belief as malleable and open to changing based on new information, evidence, or "proof."

Ambivalent-Atheism: Any use of the phrase "I don't know" or "I am not sure," or similar characterizations of belief, without further explanation.

Other: Any statement that does not fit the criteria of the other categories.

The problem is, their definitions for 'gnostic-atheism' and 'agnostic-atheism' aren't mutually exclusive. You can be certain of something based on all the evidence you've seen so far, but still open to changing your mind if new evidence comes to light. I discussed this in detail in my essay, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge, so for this entry, let's just look at a few other knowledge claims as examples.

  • I am certain the Earth revolves around the Sun. However, if somebody showed me convincing evidence to the contrary (and it would take a hell of a lot of evidence at this point), I could be convinced to change my mind.
  • I am certain that the American Revolution took place in the late 1700s. However, with sufficient evidence, I could be convinced to believe that all of our history books were wrong.
  • I am certain garden fairies don't exist. However, I could be swayed by convincing evidence.

As long as we're using language in the normal way, 'certain' just means very, very high confidence. And there are lots of things were reasonably certain about, but could be convinced to change our minds on given sufficient contrary evidence.

The conclusion was especially galling:

Gnostic-theists would be individuals who equate their beliefs with facts, dogmatically insisting that they have positive knowledge of God's existence. Agnostic-theists would be individuals who accept the distinction between belief and knowledge, thereby demonstrating a degree of skepticism about their own position, and would indicate that their belief is based on faith, intuition, or an interpretation of natural phenomena. A 5-level, bipolar scale relating theistic and atheistic beliefs would be:
  1. Gnostic-Atheism
  2. Agnostic-Atheism
  3. Nonbelief
  4. Agnostic-Theism
  5. Gnostic-Theism

The scale represents maximum darkness at both ends, the domains of dogmatic thinking. Maintaining a skeptical attitude toward one's own beliefs can be a challenge but, as the achievements of science have shown, it is a better route to enlightenment.

Were any of my previous examples 'dogmatic'? Is it dogmatic to be certain the Earth orbits the Sun? Is it dogmatic to be certain that fairies don't exist? Is it dogmatic to be certain that leprechauns aren't real? Is it dogmatic to be certain magic unicorns are just fantasy? Why, out of all the mythical and imagined possibilities dreamt up by humans, do gods get treated differently, and why does saying you're reasonably certain that gods don't exist get you labeled 'dogmatic'?

Image Source: Skeptics Society eSkeptic


Related Reading:
Answer to the Question - How sure are you that your atheism is correct?

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