Who was Adam?

It would be easy to take the entire book of Genesis literally.  Assume six literal days.  Assume Adam was a single person.  Assume it all happened in a straight foreward manner.

It would be equally easy to dismiss it all as nonsense.  We know that man evolved.  We know that some elements of the chronology are out of order.  We know that the age that literalists have given us for the Earth doesn’t match up with what we know from other disciplines.

Of course, there is a third option.  Though the first two options are easy, they don’t satisfy.   I believe firmly and completely that the biblical account is divienly inspired.  I believe that God works through the evolutionary process. 

I wanted to explore this, this morning.  I wanted to offer some things that maybe God is trying to share with us through the book of Genesis. 

There are some interesting paralells in the chronology between the scientific and biblical accounts.  Both have the Earth start off a lifeless husk.   First come the waters and oceans.  Animal life begins in the oceans.  Land pops up.  Animals make it to the land.   The first human arrives pretty late on the scene.

(I want to be open about the fact that I have omitted some discrepancies.  I believe that the scientific and biblical accounts are remarkably consistent.  God didn’t want to write a science book when he wrote the bible, though.  They aren’t perfect.)

With the coming of Adam, things get particularly interesting,  Those who don’t see God as having a hand in the writing of the bible have to explain away a remarkable number of coincidences.  One of these is this: Clearly, the ancient Hebrews couldn’t have known much about our evolutionary ancestors.  And yet virtually every major differentiation between us and the ealier hominids is covered in Genesis: the development of language, nudity taboos, the development of monogamy, the use of tools for tilling the land, different social gender expectations.

On the other hand, people like myself who are skeptical about the literal-ness of all this owe an explanation: What does original sin mean?  What do the trees stand for?  What does the serpent represent?

These are huge questions.  I don’t know that I have them fully answered.  But we can’t just sweep them aside.  If we think that Jesus redeemed us from the Fall at the Garden of Eden, we can’t really understand His redemption if we don’t understand what that fall really was.

The best I can do with answering these questions is more vague than I’d like.  But for whatever it’s worth, here it is:

God used the evolutionary process with the inent of creating humankind.  He had incredibly special plans for us that included a much closer communion to Him than we currently enjoy.

This communion, like any communion, was a relationship.  The garden might have been a place.  But it was more importantly a way of existing in harmony with God. 

I’ll side with the traditionalists on the idea that the serpent represents Satan.  The understanding that Satan wanted to strike out at God by hurting him, that humanity itself was the closest thing to a weakness of God’s makes sense to me.  Satan couldn’t get at God directly.   So he went after God’s kids.

A relationship isn’t a relationship if both people can’t opt out.  A paradise is a prison if there’s not a door.  By definition, God could not have forced us into the sort of existence he wanted for us.  He had to give us a back door, a way out, or he would have had a prison, not perfection for us.

Satan and human weakness conspired.  We walked out the door that God had to leave open. 

And so God begins a string of statements about how the world is going to be.  He prophecies the coming of Jesus; Satan will try to strike at Jesus heel and Jesus will succesfully stomp on the serpent’s head.  

The other thing I think about, as I think about Genesis, is that in at least one way, Adam is one person.  Adam is me.

I have been offered amazing riches.  I have turned these down for foolish reasons.  I have disobeyed God and followed the serpent.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

18 thoughts on “Who was Adam?”

  1. I don’t really see the coincidences you do. In a lot of ways, the order of things is just obvious: big things first, details later is a natural order for things, and the way that most creation myths work, making the genesis story a lot less compelling. Likewise, the events of early man seem premised on human the basics of human society at the time, not a known replaying of anthropological development.

    And while you admit to discrepancies, I don’t think that’s good enough if you want to claim that things are consistent. Fruit bearing plants, which are very recent developments, appear even before the stars and the sun, for goodness sakes. Birds appear before land animals. And so on.

    I think the spiritual reading of events works a lot better when it doesn’t have to account for any particular expectation of a literal history.


  2. Bad-
    Thanks for stopping by. I wouldn’t suggest that the consistency of order in Genesis with that posed by the scientific account is anywhere near enough to convince somebody who is committed to opposing it. I’d categorize more as interesting, perhaps helpful for fence sitters on the issue.
    However, I think the only reason that the things Adam does such as “invent” language are only obvious to us because we’re operating from an evolutionary world view. Even if an Ancient Hebrew could have recognized the importance of language, clothing, morality, and tools, they would not have had any reason to place these items in the story as they did not view humans as having evolved from animals.

    Yes, the spiritual reading events would be easier if we didn’t try to connect it with literal history. However, I believe that both the scientific and the spiritual disciplines have access to certain truths. Given that they are both laying claim to truths about the same reality, I think it’s wise to figure out how they connect up.

    And thanks, Mrs. Nicklebee, for chiming in.


  3. Plants don’t feed on “light,” they feed on sunlight, and the sun most certainly appeared before plants or even the planet earth, since the Earth is part of the sun’s accretive disk. And in any case, it’s a moot point, because fruit bearing plants appeared after land animals: they are one of the most recent of the major groups mentioned, not amongst the oldest.

    I still don’t agree that it’s “interesting,” and I find it a little odd that you’d say that it’s not enough to convince someone… but then add “who is committed to opposing it” which implies that it is convincing on some level, but that nasty people don’t want to admit it.

    Even if an Ancient Hebrew could have recognized the importance of language, clothing, morality, and tools, they would not have had any reason to place these items in the story

    Why not? As I noted, pretty much every body of creation myths from every culture has stories about the origins of all these things. It has nothing to do with evolving from animals, but rather just with recognizing them as important.


  4. Actually, numerous plants can feed on many types of light. I think that Mrs. Nicklebee was suggesting that God made light early on (Gen 1:3-5) and that this light nourished the fruit trees.
    Personally, I’m not terribly invested in this aspect of the debate. I think that God gave us an account with several sequences happening in the order described as a bit of a sign post that his account and the scientific one might work together. Whether or not God actually did things in this order isn’t terribly important. (Some object that this makes God a liar. I’d suggest that this simply means humans don’t understand the context of His statements)
    To the best of my knowledge, the Genesis account is unique in several important ways. The fact that you start with man in his natural state but that Genesis describes this proto-man discovering things as important as language, nudity taboos, tools, and morality would be tough to paralell.
    My experience has been that when many people claim that scriptural issues pop up elsewhere, often times they are being quite selective: a 50 page myth might mention a quite different sort-of reseruction as a very minor point. People take this minor point and run with it, blowing it out of proportion.
    (I don’t have any experience with you Bad: This isn’t a personal attack. It’s a statement of what I’ve seen before. And yes, I know that Christians often don’t do a very good job of fair argumentation.)

    As for the point around who a given argument counts as evidence for. We are quite selective, all the time, in how much weight we give arguments. I don’t know of anybody (including myself) who is as critical with arguments that support their position as they are with arguments which assault their position.

    I browsed the article on Antony Flew on your blog (interesting reading, I hope to get back to it.) My question for you, is if the shoe was on the other foot, if some noted Christian Writer had suddenly embraced atheism, would you accept the same arguments you put on that page?
    I’m not really criticizing here… I think it’s just a fact of life that we have sliding scales of expectations around what we count as viable evidence.


  5. Actually, numerous plants can feed on many types of light.

    Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean any old light will do, or that there is some magical uberlight that feeds plants. Plants imbibe a particular spectrum of light. And many of them require day night cycles to thrive, as well as an ecosystem built around day/night cycles. In any case, plants on earth did not exist before the sun, and fruit trees did not exist prior to animals.

    I still don’t see how you can argue that the order is significant, but then say it’s not important. Either you think there is some significance to it or not. In my opinion, the sheer number of things dramatically out of order alongside the fact that many other creation myths have bits and piece of the “right” order (when so few things, in toto, are included, and many of them having a pretty obvious natural ordering that happens to match history) makes this pretty meaningless as a signpost to supposed supernatural insight into natural history.

    The fact that you start with man in his natural state but that Genesis describes this proto-man discovering things as important as language, nudity taboos, tools, and morality would be tough to paralell.

    I quite disagree. In fact, this particular story is actually cobbled together from earlier ones. Key features of the story, from the name Adam to the rib, to gods resting (in this case, six generations of gods creating, the last and seventh ruling), to paradise, are all found in earlier creation myths as well as creation myths of other cultures. And again, it’s not really a particularly big leap to see natural animalistic man as somehow more original and primal than civilized man.

    I browsed the article on Antony Flew on your blog (interesting reading, I hope to get back to it.) My question for you, is if the shoe was on the other foot, if some noted Christian Writer had suddenly embraced atheism, would you accept the same arguments you put on that page?

    If the conduct had been as egregious and dishonest, of course! Note that Flew’s conversion actually happened a long time ago, with little fanfare other than to object to the specific arguments he said convinced him (which, as I noted, Flew actually seemed to have agreed were flawed, but then forgotten that he’d done so!).

    Personally, I don’t see what any one person chooses to believe as evidence for or against anything, other than giving insight into that person (which is always worthwhile). I’m not trying to rack up points, and many of my friends are believers, many are deists, and many non-believers. I don’t feel any particular need to push any of them one way or another, or celebrate or bemoan when they do themselves. What matters are how good the arguments for this or that belief really are.

    The issue with Flew is that he’s being held up as a special authority on the matter of whether or not there is a God. In the face of that, the fact that he apparently cannot remember or follow arguments is a pretty darn important problem with citing him as a special authority. And of course, empirical minded folks aren’t particularly happy with the idea of just tossing around authorities to begin with, instead of looking at the actual arguments and evidence.

    As for the point around who a given argument counts as evidence for. We are quite selective, all the time, in how much weight we give arguments. I don’t know of anybody (including myself) who is as critical with arguments that support their position as they are with arguments which assault their position.

    Certainly: and this is why having a wide diversity of views is a very good thing for human knowledge: everyone keeps each other honest. However, bias cannot be an excuse for calling insufficient evidence evidence. A sound argument is ultimately sound or not on its own merits, and to call something evidence implicitly means that it is convincing period, not convincing to only certain people. That’s pretty much what one is committing to when they claim to have convincing or significant evidence of something.


  6. If one begins with the premise that God created everything, we would, I think, assume that he would know the right kind of light or adjust the plants accordingly.

    Bad, I respect your right to subscribe to schools of thought which state that Genesis is a patchwork result of other myths. I am aware that there are well-educated people with well-respected arguments that are to this effect.
    There was a time in which I subscribed to them along with you.
    At this time, I ended up with the good fortune to study under some folks closely connected to the Jesus seminar and “liberal” schools of biblical studies.
    I found them to be bright, well-intentioned, and captivating. They truly believed what they were saying.
    The problem is that there are other folks who are equally bright and captivating. They are equally convinced of their conclusions. (In the case I have the most personal connections to, it was around issues like the dates that the Gospels were written and which Gospels ought to count as cannonical for Christianity. The broad strokes of the debates, though, have important parallels)

    The thing I have found from both sides is that actual direct evidence they have for their positions isn’t really all that persuasive for somebody who begins outside of their world view. Both groups can find things sufficiently convincing to confirm already held beliefs. I had an old philosophy teacher who said, “For every P.H.D. there is an equal and opposite P.H.D.”
    It is not convincing to me to say that some of these professors are slaves to their world views. I’d suggest that they all are. Secularism has just as many untested assumptions and prejudices as Christianity.
    I would be interested in debating specific evidence around the myths that you claim Genesis cobbles together information from.
    In my view, there is a claim that explains the information we see equally well: this claim is that the nature of reality is built into us. The truth resonates. We hold onto accounts which paralell Genesis because there is a voice inside of us that recognizes these.


  7. If one begins with the premise that God created everything, we would, I think, assume that he would know the right kind of light or adjust the plants accordingly.

    Well, yes. But the problem is not that this premise is weak, but that it’s too powerful. It could explain literally anything. And thus, when it is used in a situation like this, it drains all the possible surprise or interest out of the explanation. When a hypothetical cause can explain any set of facts or overcome any potential contradiction, because it can twist and bend and suggest almost anything at all, then this fatally undermines the idea that it has any specific predictive power.

    I still have to disagree with your appraisal of convincing arguments. It is certainly possible for ones preconceptions to color their views, and indeed very common. But by and large, things seem to shake out in the long run, and not every view turns out to be equally valid or well supported by evidence. We cannot simply throw up our hands and declare that the truth is ultimately elusive: we have no choice but to tough it out and keep arguing, and recognize that some sides just aren’t going to pan out. It is very possible that while some believe that their arguments are equal to anyone elses, that they’re wrong. We can’t just declare that this or that side has it right, but neither can we give up on making progress towards the truth by keeping everyones noses to the grindstone of evidence and reason.

    I’m not sure what you (or anyone) means by secularism. Secularism, at least in the US as far as I can tell, is a strategy for a tolerant and free society, not a particular ideology in and of itself. Christians are secularists, non-believers, Muslims, etc.


  8. Let me give a try to the secularism issue. I’ll explore the other questions you pose later.
    The way I use the term, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, is to refer to a consellation of beliefs, more or less a world view, with the common denominator that they are ramifications of denying the importance of the supernatural.
    At least 2 flavors of materialism, are I think, implied by secularism. Flavor #1, let’s call metaphysical realims. Metaphyiscal realism is the belief that words like mind, spirit, soul, are reducible to matter. Flavor #2 let’s call moral materialism: the idea that stuff is the highest good, we should aim at being consumers, etc.
    A belief I’ve sometimes seen called scientism is implied by secularism, I think. Scientism, as I use the term, is the belief that scientifically derived knowledge is the only worthwhile way of knowing anything.
    Humanism is also running around in here, somewhere, and also sociological explanations (as opposed to supernatural) explanations for religions.


  9. I think then we’re seeing a very confusing divide in the way that non-beleivers view secularism and some believers such as yourself view it (not all because, as I said, some of the pioneers and leaders of what I meant by secularism are religious). There also may be differences over how non-believers view non-belief and believers view it.

    I think it’s generally misleading and confusing to see non-belief as a philosophy or ideology or really anything much implied at all. Non-believers are not a real group of people: they are simply those who aren’t this thing over here (believers). That’s why I think we tend to view secularism as simply the idea that political society is best when it has a framework that is neutral on the question of religion: free inquiry, with a rich anything goes civil society. This is very different from demanding that society be hostile to it: in fact, by most accounts, religion tends to flourish in greater diversity and health in secular societies. We see things this way because we have no reason to think that non-believers should or would agree on anything, any more than non-baseball players would agree on what sport they like to play.

    So that said, I also think non-believers tend to come at what you call secularism from a very different angle than you are painting it. I don’t think we all do, or need to, hold the position that everything is reducible to matter in the sort of ontological sense you mean it. Rather, we see matter, we can understand matter, and we don’t see convincing reasons to believe in otherworldly non-matter thingies. If there are such convincing reasons, we’ve yet to appreciate them. That’s a very different thing than simply insisting, period, right from the start, that only matter matters. It’s a burden of proof thing. That’s not to say that some non-believers don’t run around asserting materialism in the sense you mean it, but I think on closer examination you’ll find that this is actually surprisingly few and far between, while the skeptical angle is more prevalent and more fundamental.

    The second part you mention is, I think, more a pernicious stereotype than a view that anyone other than a few Ayn Randians and captains of industry seriously hold. The non-believer I recently blogged about died in Iraq, doing something that he thought was right, for a cause and a duty larger than himself that he felt he couldn’t turn away from. I find that hard to reconcile with the idea that all he valued, or thought one should value, is having more stuff, or that this is a view characteristic of seculaists and non-believers.

    If anything, I think you are just mashing up two very different meanings of the word “materialistic” into one, and not very appropriately. Materialist philosophers are, in my experience, pretty non-materialistic, if you know what I mean. Even the reviled moralist Peter Singer is basically an advocate for precisely the opposite, as is Peter Unger.

    Scientism is also, I think, generally a bit of a straw man. Even the loudest and harshes advocates for science have a far more sophisticated take on why science is in practice the only really useful way of knowing that you are knowing anything: it’s again not a metaphysical assertion but a pragmatic one, which I think is very different kettle of fish entirely, which far far fewer assumptions than it is made out to be.


  10. I would say that the groupings “believer” and “secularist” carry with them about the same ammount of baggage, danger, and usefulness. I’m not denying that there are times and places that either label oversimplifies. But I will add that both have uses.

    The thing I would tend to dispute is the claims often made by secularists that the position is somehow epistimically priviliged. I would argue that many of that the existentialists are right. There is an inherent absurdity in theism; but there is also an inherent absurdity in atheistm. Furthermore, the stakes are so important there is also an absurdity in withholding commitment to either of those positions. (Agnosticism)
    Because the world view of a non-believer is determined more or less by the culture at large and not a specific book of scripture, there tends to be a move to deny that the world view is chosen and should be subjected to scrutiny on the part of non-believers. The fact that a world view is more-or-less determined by a popularity contest shouldn’t exempt nonbelievers in 2008 anymore than it should have exempted Christianity through the Middle Ages.
    I wont deny that the two senses of “materialistic” have more of a linguistic commanality than anything else. I agree that many people on this issue and scientism don’t knowingly and intentionally hold these beliefs; they hold them inconistently, often with out being aware of them until backed in a corner. (Where’s Socrates when we need him?) That said, there are a good number of quite loud mouthed members of the scientific community who are quite vocally fairly clear on that matters: Stephen Hawking, for example, praises logical positivism openly and Richard Dawkins often hovers pretty close too.
    Finally, I’m can’t see that the pragmatic/metaphysical distinction on scientism really matters much. Either the scientific method is one among various ways of knowing things in practice or it’s not; whether this is built into the very nature of things or not doesn’t look to me like it’s particularly important.


  11. I don’t see how you can possibly talk about the “stakes” unless you’ve basically already begged the question and assumed a Christian worldview, blinding you to the incalculable number of equally possible metaphysical alternatives. On top of that, there is simply the issue that deciding what one is _justified_ in believing to be true is a very different question than weighing the odds on what to believe in based on some other beliefs about possible threats or bribes for aligning yourself in some philosophical camp.

    Since I understand atheism to mean “non-belief” and not itself any sort of philosophical position, I also don’t see how it can be considered absurd. Again, you would first have to assume that your beliefs are so overwhelmingly important to consider and care about before you could reach that conclusion: begging the question.

    I’m not sure why you think non-believers do not scrutinize the popular world-views of the day: in fact, I would say that they are far more likely to be the sorts of people that do so. And biblical beliefs are just as cultural as anything else really: the beliefs of Christians today, even those that fancy themselves fundamentalists or literalists, would seem quite foreign to the concerns and ideas of Christians in other eras, including early Christianity. Which Christian views have won out over time have also been due to both general popularity and bucking the trend. So again, I don’t see a whole lot of substantive difference for a positive or negative comparison here.

    And I don’t think either Hawkings or Dawkins are logical positivists in the classic sense, if there ever was a classic sense. Both have described their commitment to empiricism as a pragmatic and practical matter, not as a metaphysical be-all, end-all, even if they have borrowed some ideas from the positivists. And this matters very much if you are accusing empiricists of trying to push assumptions that we aren’t. Science operates, works, and succeeds just fine as a pragmatic device, and people seem to accept it as a legitimate way of knowing based on that. I think what skeptics want from claimed “alternatives” is some reason to think that they can live up to that standard and show that they are ways of knowing (i.e. they reliably show us something consistent with some objective reality), as opposed to simply ways of believing this or that.


  12. The stakes I refer to weren’t specifically around heaven and hell. I don’t think I’m question begging.
    I think that the way we live our lives will be radically different, though, based on whether or not there is a God. My point is that agnosticism is as absurd as atheism or theism: it seems to me that it gathers many of the negatives related to both theism and atheism. To live in such a way as to walk a middle ground between the way one would live if their were a god or if there weren’t a God is likely to gather the benefits of neither.

    I assume when you say “non-belief” you mean “non-belief in some sort of higher power” I imagine that by any reasonable decision an atheist would believe in all sorts of things. It seems to me that we start with a question: Is there a higher power? Theists answers yes. (Many others would also answer yes, such as panthesits, panenethiests, polytheists, etc.) An atheist answers “No.” I’m interested in hearing how this doesn’t count as a philosophical position. I’ll buy the idea that it isn’t one specific position but in fact a set of related positions… But the same holds true for theists. There are as many reasons to believe in God as not to believe in God.

    Many Christians have been very wrong on a number of issues for a number of centuries. If a Christian is in fact a follower of Christ, to whatever extent he ignores tradition and follows Jesus as best he can, he is rejecting culture and changeable viewpoints.

    I believe that Hawking self-identifies at least his philosophy of science as being logical positivist in “Universe in a Nutshell.” Fairly close to the end of that book.
    My ultimate issue with claims that the scientific method is the only valid way of knowing anything about the universe is that many of the most important things that we know are not derived through the scientific method at all.
    We can’t experimentally prove our love for our children.
    We can’t objectively replicate our reaction to art.
    We can’t logically justify self-sacrifice and altruism (unless that altruism somehow boosts our direct descendents chances of survival. And I’d argue that it’s not really altruistic to do so, anyway.)

    These three examples are some of the most fundamental reasons for living, and three prime aspects of what makes humanity special. The fact that science can not explain these implies to me that scientific knowledge is an immensly powerful but ultimately limited tool for learning a certain category of facts about the universe.


  13. Again, talking about “gathering benefits” is the only truly absurd view I can think of out of any of the three. At least the other three are honest: atheists (many of whom ARE agnostics) simply don’t see a legitimate reason to believe, theists claim that they do. Both could be reasonable. The sort of Pascal’s wager version you are talking about is absurd for at least two reasons: it illegitimately limits the metaphysical threats/bribes to only two possibilities, making its entire calculation pointless, and it’s intellectually vacuous in any case, basing truth on whatever one thinks will get them the nicest pat on the head.

    A person doesn’t need a reason to not believe in something: they need reasons TO believe something. No one runs around straining as hard as they can to not believe in invisible purple clovers, because no one has any reason to believe in them in the first place. I’m not a fan of the “higher power” appellation myself, because demagogues like Bill O’Reilly commonly twist that language to imply that non-believers are self-centered or don’t have any ideals or values higher than themselves (when, in fact, most do, just like everyone else).

    The confusion over atheists is common because of the way in which two very different definitions of atheism get conflated. If someone gets asked if they believe in God, they say, honestly, no they don’t. On that basis they get labeled an atheist. But then someone demands that this person prove that there is no god, or prove their “position.” At this point, it seems like the challenger has narrowed the definition of “atheist” from non-believer to someone that actively claims that they know no gods exist. These are two very different definitions: the latter IS a philosophical position with its own burden of proof, but it is actually relatively uncommon compared to the former type.

    As for your claims that there are things we don’t know via science, I’d agree that science is inherently limited (a strength, really, because its limits put bounds on just making stuff up) but I’d also say that your actual examples are all are fairly weak, and not really counter-examples at all. All three are things that fall under the heading of subjective judgment and values: i.e. they are not truths, but experiences (the experiences are true, and we can even scientifically observe that they truly occur and even how they occur to us), and speaking about them being proven true or false doesn’t really make any sense.

    That is to say, these are not claims to objective facts in the same way that “the sun is made of cheese” is, and as such aren’t really knowledge in the same way. And insofar as they do impact the rest of the world, or are based in our biology, they are perfectly amenable to scientific inquiry. While science cannot prove that we should love our children, since that is not really a true/false question of fact, it can show how and why we do, as well as exploring what it means to love them and how we show it. It can study reactions to art. And it most certainly can shed light on altruism and self-sacrifice. Again, the concept of “logically justifying self-sacrifice and altruism” doesn’t really make any sense: logic requires premises to argue from. Whether those things are logical or not depends entirely on your premises (i.e. in this case, your values). I can logically prove all sorts of moral truths: but only if you first share with me the same values to begin with (and, luckily, most humans do share enough of those values to have sensible moral debates).

    Why we have those values in the first place might be a better question for your purposes, but this question, again, is certainly within the realm of scientific inquiry.

    In fact, some of the most fascinating insights into our moral thinking have come lately from fMRI studies that have shown that we make moral decisions along different criteria based on the setup of the situation (i.e. when asked if we would throw a switch that would kill one person to save five, most people choose to throw it, and the fMRI scan shows that the rational areas of the brain were the primarily mechanisms used to decide. But when the example is changed to actually having to push someone to their deaths to save five, most people are unwilling, despite it being morally the same situation. And the fMRI shows why: primarily the emotional centers of the brain are being used for judging this situation)

    So again, my position is not so much “nothing other than science is worthwhile” but that I’ve yet to see anything else deliver reliable results or insight on factual questions. Science most certainly has limits, and there are many things it simply isn’t relevant to or capable of testing either now or even in theory. But it’s limits are not any sort of win for any other alternative method: such alternatives need to establish themselves on their own merits. And it’s not clear that any have done so.


  14. I think most people use the term “agnostic” to the position that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether or not there is a God. I think that most people use the word “atheist” to refer to the active belief that their is no God.
    It seems to me you are using the term “atheist” to refer to both of these definitions. I’m curious if you have a third definition for agnostic.
    It seems to me both are taking a philosophical position though it seems like you’re debating this: I believe I have sufficient evidence to believe in God. Some agnostics would claim that I do not. With these agnostics I’d happily engage in a debate that would be mostly epistemic; probably focused on how much evidence is necessary to justify a belief. As for an agnostic who is open to the idea that others might have had enough experiences to justify belief, this conversation would go quite differently. I think this would be a much more reasonable position.

    Around ways of knowing: Suppose a person lives an existence where they are still only trusting the scientific method as a reliable way of knowing. Such a person has no reason to believe that their spouse loves them, nor do they have a reason to believe that they love their spouse. They have no reason to engage in art, to view it, or to value it. If a bomb landed on the ground of a school yard, they would have no reason to think that they should throw themselves on it.
    I don’t hold the position that atheists or agnostics are on the average less moral than the average theist. But I do think that there moral behavior lacks consistency. You mention the expectation for premises. Either these premises are rooted in reality or they aren’t. Without a God to root these premises in, I fail to see a foundation for these premises…

    As for Pascel’s wager, I’m curious where you think I introduced that argument. I wasn’t thinking of Pascel at all, I don’t think. Pascel himself introduced this argument as something only relevant to someone on the cusp of belief; it’s a straw-that-broke the camel’s back kind of deal, not something meant to convince a skeptic.


  15. Depends on who you ask though: most atheists use the more inclusive definition (note that “god does not exist” atheists (known in philosophy as “strong” atheists) are a subset of “weak” atheists). Theists tend to be inconsistent as I noted. They’ll call us atheists based on answering “no” to “do you believe in God” but then turn around and demand we justify the “God does not exist” position. Certainly many will claim that atheism is and only is the “God does not exist” position, but that’s because it’s far easier to deal with than the larger realm of non-believing skepticism (and often is a big straw man). Most of the well known atheists today, despite their rep, are all “weak” atheists, though everyone seems to have a slightly different variation on things.

    Myself, I don’t much care about the words people use in the end (the point of definitions is clarity: how things are defined can never win an argument), and argue the point generally only because of the high degree of confusion that comes from mismatched usages. I’d be far happier if everyone just stuck to “theist” and “non-theist”: much clearer that way.

    However you define things, however, agnostic is not on the same scale as theist/atheist. Theism and atheism both concern the affirmation or lack of affirmation of a claim. Agnosticism, however, is a measure of whether one thinks something can be known. Thus it is possible to be any combination of theist/atheist and agnostic/gnostic (though that last word is confusing because it has other connotations in Jewish and Christian theology). Some agnostic theists agree that God cannot be known, but believe on faith. Some atheist agnostics say that they don’t have any knowledge about God, and therefore cannot affirm belief. Some atheists claim to know that there is no God. And most theists would claim to both know and believe.

    Either these premises are rooted in reality or they aren’t. Without a God to root these premises in, I fail to see a foundation for these premises…

    I’ve actually written and thought a great deal about this, an in my opinion, the final claim there cannot be justified. Either one has a particular value or they don’t, but neither the existence nor the non-existence of God helps at all in showing that those values are themselves “correct.” No theist I’ve ever seen has been able to explain how the existence or commands of God could make, for instance, rape moral or immoral (and indeed one of the failings of the Bible as a moral guide is its murky confusion on precisely this issue). Either you care about other human beings or you don’t. If you don’t, what possible argument could be advanced to convince you that it is correct to do so, that you must morally? Threats and bribes and commands can certainly force someone into doing so, but these are not actual reasons, not “roots” as you call them. And the commands of God are only moral insofar as they can be judged to be so in the first place (arguing that they are de facto moral is a non-starter which robs the word of its meaning).

    My conclusion is that theists and atheists are all in the very same boat in terms of the “roots” of morality. We all of us have moral values, and most of these seem based on things like empathy and a sense of social equity. But God or no God, we cannot objectively justify why we must have those values: theologians, in fact, require exactly the same sorts of big assumptions to found morality on their God’s commands as any other moral philosopher does to found moral commands on things like the categorical imperative, or utilitarian/rights frameworks.

    Theists endlessly flout their supposed advantage when it comes to “justifying” morality, but in my experience at least, this is purely a bluff: and when it is called, the exact same philosophical problems you find everywhere in moral philosophy crop up (of course, these problems are really not that relevant to daily life, in which everyone already at least says that they accept the basic values/premises).

    I noted the “sort of” Pascal formulation off of your mention based on your statements to this effect: “To live in such a way as to walk a middle ground between the way one would live if their were a god or if there weren’t a God is likely to gather the benefits of neither.” For one thing, what if there is a God that likes and respects agnostic skeptics the most for their intellectual honesty? Then skeptics reap benefits. What if there is a God who has created the major religions to test people, and see if they will refuse immoral orders even knowing the prices they might pay or the pleasures they might forgo? Then the strong atheists win out. It all depends on the limits of one’s imagination, whatever scenarios you can make up, and the end result is an argument that is not convincing or compelling to anyone: and should not be so even to believers or near believers.


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