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Austin Cline

What Was She Thinking? Margaret Atwood Doesn't Understand Atheism

By August 9, 2006

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Margaret Atwood is a fairly well-known author in freethinking circles because of her book The Handmaid's Tale, a story about a dystopic future when extreme religious fascism has taken control of America. Margaret Atwood also suffers from a serious problem known as Arrogance of Agnosticism: by misdefining atheism and agnosticism, she pretends that she is superior to everyone else.

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:

 

Agnosticism & Agnostics:

Comments
August 9, 2006 at 5:38 pm
(1) DuckPhup says:

Someone needs to inform MARGARET ATWOOD that atheism is a religion in the same sense that NOT collecting stamps is a hobby.

August 11, 2006 at 2:51 pm
(2) GreenAtheist says:

Yes, Austin, you GO, girl!
Atwood is a ‘strict agnostic’ in that she knows not of what she speaks – specifically about atheism. Of course, in most other circles, that’s referred to as ‘ignorant’.

August 11, 2006 at 4:26 pm
(3) Todd says:

What is the experiment that can prove/disprove the existence of god(s)? Or at least what is the proof given for either, exactly?

Is it arrogant or dogmatic to point out that 2+2=4?

August 11, 2006 at 4:33 pm
(4) atheism says:

What is the experiment that can prove/disprove the existence of god(s)?

That depends upon how “god” is defined, naturally. Absent any definition, no experiment is possible because we have no sensible claim to evaluate.

Is it arrogant or dogmatic to point out that 2+2=4?

No, but that’s not analogous to what Atwood is doing. Atwood is misdefining both atheism and agnosticism, then declaring that neither atheism nor theism are reasonable positions even before any definition of “god” is considered. She simply assumes from the outset that “god” cannot be proven or disproven, but that begs the question — a logical fallacy.

August 12, 2006 at 10:24 am
(5) Art Hatkin says:

As a “true” Atheist, allow me to define the term: Literally, it means “without God” and it does NOT say “There is no God.” The true Atheists simply opts to function on his own and really doesn’t give a damn if there is a God or not, Either way, he, she, or it is utterly irrelevant. The universe, life (or all existence, if you will) follows the natural laws of science that resulted from the initial creation, or “Big Bang” if you will. Any fool who cannot or will not accept this is in denial and is a superstitious ass. Read history!!! Where is God???!!! He/she/it is an invention, a placebo or palliative to make us feel better, and man has ALWAYS palliated that which he cannot cure or deal with effectively.

August 18, 2006 at 10:35 pm
(6) tuffy says:

true atheist…i like what you said except for the “initial creation, or ‘big bang’” stuff. think about it…how can something arise from nothing. the answer is that the universe is eternal.

May 26, 2007 at 4:46 pm
(7) Rick Campbell says:

I am a religious atheist. I believe, without proof, that there is no god.

For the others self-identifying as atheists, could someone tell me how their definition of ‘atheist’ differ from `agnostic’? Agnostics don’t know and don’t care. These atheists here say they don’t know and don’t care. So I ask: What differentiates *you* from an agnositc. I know that for me, it is the belief that there is no god.

People here are basically saying I need a new label for my belief, so I put it to them: What label would be more accurate than `atheist’ for those of us who believe, acknowledging lack of proof, that there is no god?

In truth, I’ve wandered back and forth between atheism and agnosticism over the years, but I find it sad that there are atheists who feel so strongly that they are Atheists and not Agnostics, but can’t differentiate the two. I can, and I’m morally and philosophically OK with accepting that some of what I believe can’t be proven.

May 26, 2007 at 7:12 pm
(8) Austin Cline says:

I am a religious atheist. I believe, without proof, that there is no god.

Believing something without proof is not a religion. If you are a “religious atheist,” you must be an atheist who is an adherent of some religion – Buddhism, Ethical Culture, Religious Humanism, Realians, etc. What is your religion, then?

For the others self-identifying as atheists, could someone tell me how their definition of ‘atheist’ differ from `agnostic’?

Atheism is the absence of belief in any gods; theism is the believing in the existence of some sort of god. Agnosticism is an entirely different issue as it deals with knowledge: agnostics cannot claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not. Some agnostics are also atheists; some are also theists. Belief and knowledge are related, but separate issues.

Agnostics don’t know and don’t care.

Agnosticism means not knowing; it doesn’t mean that one doesn’t care.

These atheists here say they don’t know and don’t care. So I ask: What differentiates *you* from an agnositc.

Some atheists are also agnostics.

I know that for me, it is the belief that there is no god.

In truth, I’ve wandered back and forth between atheism and agnosticism over the years

There is not “wandering back and forth between atheism and agnosticism” because they are not mutually exclusive options.

July 23, 2007 at 12:35 pm
(9) FrumiousBandersnark says:

#7: you are invoking a classic strawman argument that has nothing to do with atheism per se. Atheism is not a belief in no god. Atheism is not a belief at all. It is a rejection of beliefs in gods because of the utter lack of supporting fact or evidence to support the assertion that those gods must be pre-supposed to exist.

You’re a troll, aren’t you? A loathesome, drooling, Christian troll.

July 23, 2007 at 7:08 pm
(10) morgan-lynn griggs lamberth says:

These trolls would have others believe that we naturalists rely on faith and proceed from prejudice.They thus project their own inadequacy onto us.

July 24, 2007 at 8:59 am
(11) addicted says:

Just wanted to chip in and thank Austin for his posts (and comments). He has helped me learn in a couple of weeks a lot more about myself than the last 19 years of religious instruction.

The comment distinguishing Agnosticism and Atheism is fantastic, as it was a difference that I did not understand prior to reading this. Makes sense that these words are talking about different domains.

Incidentally, this sort of argument reminds me of the South Park episode that made fun of atheists, positing the claim that atheists would also fight with each other, the way the religious do. Personally, I agree that atheists would disagree with each other, but in my book thats a good thing. I dont think they would ever take up arms, because it is stupid to risk your life for a non-belief!

What is everyone’s opinion on the idea that if everyone is atheist, they would continue warring based on their ‘brand’ of atheism?

May 6, 2009 at 2:23 am
(12) Karleigh says:

@Tuffy:
You’re probably a troll, but I’m going to answer your statement anyway. I say ‘statement’ because although it was framed in the guise of a question, you were essentially ‘begging the question’ because you are assuming the truth of your premise (ie that the universe is eternal).

No scientist has or ever will make the claim that the universe came from nothing(ex nihilo). I suggest you google ‘law of conservation of mass-energy’ which will tell you that the ‘ingredients’(for lack of a more accurate term) for the forming of the earth had always existed in space(Stephen Hawking has posited that it existed in an oscillating vacuum, I believe – please correct me if necessary). Since matter and energy have been proved not to be either ‘destroyable’ or ‘creatable’ it reasonably follows that the universe did not come from nothing; necessary changes in conditions in which the aforementioned mass and energy existed changed in such a way as to result in the Big Bang.

This is my understanding of the issue as I have read it in David Mills’ book Atheist Universe… if I have misrepresented something or erred in some other way, please correct me. Thanks!

December 9, 2009 at 4:38 pm
(13) Just Janet says:

I am surprised how annoyed self described atheists are…It is this sort of reactionary attitude that has drawn myself from labelling myself one. It is kind of dogmatic.

December 9, 2009 at 4:48 pm
(14) Austin Cline says:

I am surprised how annoyed self described atheists are…

So, you don’t think atheists have any good reasons for being annoyed?

It is this sort of reactionary attitude that has drawn myself from labelling myself one.

Sorry, but since when has being annoyed been “reactionary”?

It is kind of dogmatic.

What is “dogmatic” about being annoyed, even if that annoyance isn’t at all justified?

December 22, 2009 at 2:22 pm
(15) Marilyn LaCourt says:

If we are going to have a meaningful conversation we ought to agree on a definition of a few terms.
Gnostic = knowing, Agnostic = not knowing
Since nobody KNOWS that god exists, everyone is agnostic.
If they say they know, they are either lying or delusional.

Belief – For some belief is based on faith, accepting as true, without evidence.

Belief – For others is based on trust, accepting as true based on evidence and probabilities.

Example: I trust the cars will stop at a red light based on probabilities. Faith has nothing to do with it.

We all have what I call beliefs in – values, honesty, peace, love etc. you get the picture.

Unless we differentiate between trust and faith as the basis to believe something is true we cannot hold a meaningful conversation on the subject.

December 22, 2009 at 3:01 pm
(16) Austin Cline says:

Since nobody KNOWS that god exists, everyone is agnostic

And how do you know that?

If they say they know, they are either lying or delusional.

Or you’re mistaken.

Belief – For some belief is based on faith, accepting as true, without evidence.

Belief – For others is based on trust, accepting as true based on evidence and probabilities.

Example: I trust the cars will stop at a red light based on probabilities. Faith has nothing to do with it.

A problem with defining one type of belief with “trust” is that “truth” and “faith” can by synonyms. So when you say “My belief is based on trust, not faith,” you sound confused.

December 22, 2009 at 4:52 pm
(17) John Thomson says:

Austin I seem to remember you using the same argument As Ms McCourt.Agnosticism is a statement about knowledge.How can we know about any god(s) while still alive?We can’t.Thus we are all agnostic.We are all either theist or atheist.We can be agnostic and theist.We can also be agnostic and atheist.But nobody “knows”.

Thank you for your courage and insight.I’ve learned a great deal from you.

Happy Holidays to you and yours.

December 22, 2009 at 5:27 pm
(18) Austin Cline says:

Austin I seem to remember you using the same argument As Ms McCourt.

Where?

Agnosticism is a statement about knowledge. How can we know about any god(s) while still alive?

The definitions of many gods allow for knowledge of their existence if, in fact, they exist. If Apollo existed, for example, it should be possible for Apollo to make himself known.

We can’t.

That’s a pretty strong claim. How do you know that knowledge isn’t possible?

You’re basically making the same claim as McCourt and I asked her how she knows this, so I find it curious that you would repeat the assertion without providing the answer to the obvious question.

But nobody “knows”.

Either you know this to be true or you don’t.

If you do know it, then it’s a fact that can be verified. So, what sort of verification can you offer for this empirical claim?

If you don’t know it, then perhaps you shouldn’t be asserting it so strongly as true.

December 22, 2009 at 7:35 pm
(19) John Hanks says:

Prejudice is usually annoying. Atheists need to cultivate their sense of humor.

December 22, 2009 at 7:39 pm
(20) John Hanks says:

Once someone becomes an atheist, they usually just move on to something else.

December 23, 2009 at 12:01 am
(21) Tom Edgar says:

John ..If one has moved on to being an atheist, to my mind the final stage of enlightenment. May I, seriously, ask.
Intellectually, to where do we move ?

December 23, 2009 at 12:14 am
(22) Tom Edgar says:

I am heartily sick of the claims that atheists cannot prove that Gods do not exist.

Any scientific theorist looks for evidence that negates a theory, if none is found, the theory stands until it is disproved by the discovery of negating verifiable evidence.

On this basis alone the atheist can prove that Gods do not exist by the lack of evidence for their existence.
So far nobody has produced evidence upholding the existence of a God so until it happens I’ll stay atheistic.

August 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm
(23) Barbara Boyes says:

Love and Fear are two powerful emotions/spirits that cannot be measured either but, yet, they possess the ability/will to move “mountains” for good or for evil and in so doing create and motivate and inspire likewise in the spirit they are conceived whether of good or of evil, of God or the Devil. Come on people and realize that historical events and abstract thought are two of the most important reasoning tools we have in any experiment for Truth. Stop measuring in thrifty little spoonfuls and realize the incredible motivating power of the Human Spirit when it is aligned with God Goodness the Holy Spirit and all that together and overflowing and stop being so ungrateful and wretched in your ignorance based on lack of experience and insight. God is real ! It is the blinded ignorance of foolish children who say there is no God!I wish that you were either hot (a firm believer) or cold (an atheist) but to waffle to and fro and be lukewarm I will spew out of my mouth. Who said that first? Come on and study your history before you run your mouth on an empty mind devoid of spirit for man cannot live on bread alone otherwise God would have created man no different than the animals to eat and sleep and fight and mate etc. without thought and in an endless cycle of mere physical existence. Where are our great philosophers/thinkers of old… those who understood and espoused the truth.? Is mankind regressing to another shallow level of Dark existence no different than before Sodom and Gomorrah and the Great Flood and Disasters. Why are so many blind leading the blind into yet another catastrophe of their own making ignoring the Laws of God and Nature ( Mother Nature also created by the Almighty Forevermore) for only a fool in his heart can say with any certainty there is no God and the

August 7, 2011 at 8:56 am
(24) Austin Cline says:

for only a fool in his heart can say with any certainty there is no God

Yet you can offer no reason to think that some “God” does exist. So dismissing the idea is quite reasonable.

October 25, 2011 at 11:11 pm
(25) JJ says:

Knowledge is not something that can be worked in a JTB system. Knowledge is undefinable. Epistemology is still a philosophical issue that is discussed. Anyways, Atheism is just an anti-religious statement in my opinion. It’s also arrogant. How can you possibly claim to know anything or disprove something that grandiose? We’re mere humans with 5 senses. Don’t pretend you know something. Just be humble and live your live. Atheism is starting to be a cultural fad and it’s taking the form of a hostile and hateful stance among kids. I’m 19 and tons of my friends just attack Christian beliefs. It’s ridiculously pathetic.

October 26, 2011 at 5:15 am
(26) Austin Cline says:

Knowledge is not something that can be worked in a JTB system. Knowledge is undefinable.

And do you claim to know this?

Epistemology is still a philosophical issue that is discussed.

So? That doesn’t mean knowledge can’t be defined.

Anyways, Atheism is just an anti-religious statement in my opinion.

Well, your opinion on this is worthless because atheism has nothing to do with religion. You can be irreligious or even anti-religious and a theist; you can be religious and an atheist.

It’s also arrogant. How can you possibly claim to know anything or disprove something that grandiose?

Atheism also doesn’t depend on any knowledge claims or disproof claims. Your opinion on atheism is necessarily worthless when you clearly have no idea what it is.

We’re mere humans with 5 senses. Don’t pretend you know something.

You mean, like you pretend to know what atheism is?

Just be humble and live your live.

You mean, like you’re doing right now?

Atheism is starting to be a cultural fad and it’s taking the form of a hostile and hateful stance among kids.

It only appears that way to people who don’t actually know what they are talking about, but do know that they want to see religion exempted from the same standards of criticism that every other ideology is subjected to.

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