Bill Moyers interviewed Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood on their concerns is the threat to freedom of speech and conscience from religious extremism.
BILL MOYERS: A strict agnostic?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Strict agnostic.
BILL MOYERS: Not an atheist?
MARGARET ATWOOD: No, atheism-
BILL MOYERS: What’s the difference?
MARGARET ATWOOD: -- is a religion.
BILL MOYERS: Atheism is a religion?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: You mean it’s dogmatic?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Absolutely dogmatic.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
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.
It’s not uncommon for theists to imagine that atheism is dogmatic and even a religion. This can be understandable on the part of theists because they have a religion they are defending, so if someone is criticizing that religion it might make sense to imagine that they are doing so on the basis of their own religion. That, after all, is typically the way things work when Christians criticize Islam, for example.
This sort of error is less understandable when it comes to an agnostic, however, because we should expect someone who has consciously accepted such a label to have investigated and reflected upon the issues. A theist, like a devout Christian, may have grown up in a religious context and never taken the time to investigate background questions about the nature of theism, the nature of atheism, the nature of agnosticism, etc. Atheists and agnostics usually have, however.
Based upon the last portion of the above quote, it really looks like Margaret Atwood has taken some time to think about these matters — but I don’t think that she has thought very carefully about them or done very good research on them. First, if she had looked at what atheists actually say, she’d have found that atheism is no more a religion than theism is — and in fact cannot be, even if we assumed the most common misdefinitions of atheism. It’s true that some atheists can be very dogmatic, but no more so than Margaret Atwood is being here. Should we conclude from her words that agnosticism is inherently and necessarily dogmatic?
Finally, her justification for her “strict agnostic” position is seriously flawed. She’s wrong that something isn’t “knowledge” unless you can run a repeatable experiment on it. What she is describing is a standard for scientific knowledge, not knowledge in the general sense. In general, something can qualify as “knowledge” when it’s a “justified, true belief.” Obviously a repeatable experiment is a great way to justify a belief, but it’s not the only way. There are cases where we can’t perform an experiment to test something, but you are still justified in believing it and it’s still true. Therefore, it counts as knowledge.
Next, she’s wrong to assert categorically that we “can’t run an experiment on whether God exists or not.” The ability to test the claim “god exists” depends entirely upon how we define “god” — under some definitions an experiment may be possible; under others, it won’t be. In the cases where no test is possible, it’s unlikely that the claim being made is meaningful and, therefore, an agnostic position on such a god probably isn’t justified. Why be “agnostic” about an alleged god that isn’t described or defined very well or very coherently?
Why does Margaret Atwood make so many obviously incorrect claims — claims which can easily be refuted with just a few minutes reflection or research? It should be noted that Atwood isn’t the first or only person to say such things and, in particular, to say such things in an attempt to justify agnosticism as a superior and more rational position than either theism or atheism. That’s why I call this the “Arrogance of Agnosticism.” It’s an arrogant attempt by someone to pretend that they are much better, much more sensible, and much more rational than just about everyone else in the world because they have managed to hit upon the one defensible position on the question of gods’ existence.
Unfortunately, this is only achieved by seriously misrepresenting just about every issue and concept involved.
Understanding Atheism & Atheists:
- Atheism 101
- What is Atheism?
- Defining Atheism
- Is Atheism a Religion?
- Who Are Atheists?
- Why Don't Atheists Believe in God?
- Questions About Atheism
- Atheism Myths
Agnosticism & Agnostics: