The Continuum of Confusion

Howdy, Y’all,

Opinion surveys often make a statement and ask us to respond on a continuum, or scale, from strongly disagree on one extreme to strongly agree on the other, with neither agree nor disagree at the center.

Consider this statement: There is a God.

Believers would mark agree, atheists would check disagree, and agnostics would tick one of the I don’t know choices. We would all be responding to the same question based upon our opinion of the statement. Nothing more, but predicable.

How we define ourselves (believer, agnostic, or atheist) is one thing. How we define others needs to be understood in terms of how they see themselves. But people are complex. Beliefs and religions vary widely. Despite our best efforts to find common ground, we hold different meanings for many of the same words, especially the three in parenthesis above. As we strive for clarity, the water gets muddy.

One of the areas of confusion is seeing everyone on the same continuum. It is difficult for believers, especially Christians, to accept that atheists really, sincerely, deeply, and profoundly, do not believe in any god, much less theirs. Not believing is inconceivable to so many.

It’s difficult for me to accept that people believe the following.

At some point when there was allegedly nothing, God decided, I’m going to create a material universe with stars, galaxies, and planets. On one of them I’ll create animals and humans. Then I’ll drown most of the nasty bastards and start over with some incestuous drunkard. Yet, many do. I don’t know why or how. Even when I believed, I did not believe that.

We do not all belong on the believers’ continuum. Only they go there.

The following continuum is mistaken. In my opinion, it creates confusion and mental blocks.

Believer<………………………> Agnostic <………………………..>Atheist

Nope. This is biased in the same way the word atheist itself is biased. The focus is believing (theology, theism, or religion). The obvious confusion is that agnostics are halfway believers. Another is that atheists are somehow distant believers, albeit weak ones. Believers and atheists should have their own scales, like this:

Strong Believer<……………………………………………….>Weak Believer

Strong Atheist<………………………………………………….>Weak Atheist

Agnostics could probably be scaled according to degree of uncertainty, but why bother? They are merely saying that they don’t know if there is God, or that such a thing is unknowable. None of us “know” if there is a god, yet despite no evidence, many bet their life there is one. There is no continuum there. We don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t know anything that is unknowable.

Atheism is not the other side of the believer coin, even though it seems so. It is an incredibly simple conclusion drawn, often after years of effort. No proselytizing, no religion, no scripture to read or learn (as such, but many of us have read it all), and often no personal help to guide us.

There are other views and things can get complicated. For example, this one. Each group has their own bubble. Where they overlap, we creatively use both words. Funny, eh?

As difficult as it may be to comprehend, not everyone believes, not everyone knows, and not everyone cares. I would flip gnostic and agnostic on the knowledge scale above because gnostic relates to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge as in knowing. Whereas, agnostic is more, I’ve not the faintest idea, nor shall I ever.

Skeptically yours,

Bill

 

I Don’t Know

If my grandson were to ask me if I believe in God, what answer should I give? My choices would be: yes, no, maybe, or I plead the Fifth (I refuse to answer on the grounds that if I tell you, it might be life-changing for both of us). He has not asked, and I have not asked him what he thinks. If he would simply ask me if there is a god, I could say I don’t know.

If my father had ever asked me if I believed in God, I would have said yes. Today, that would be a lie, but it would still be my answer. One does not have deep metaphysical discussions with an Archie Bunker type, especially an angry one. I try to choose my battles carefully. I would probably tell my mother the truth, well…maybe, but I don’t know if I would. More on her another time.

I cannot recall the last time anyone asked me if I believed in God. Most people seem to assume I do, and I did used to act as though I did. I only recall one time when someone asked me if I was atheist. It took me two days to answer. While I knew what I was, I felt the need to ponder my response. I had to decide if I wanted to admit it to anyone (especially to me). Prior to that, I had only implied it to one workmate, but I disguised my comments as dismissals of religion. The elephant in the room (belief in a god) wasn’t questioned. I think he assumed I did not believe because of what he said about his father, a long time Mormon convert who never saw the light, vis-à-vis my statements.

When atheists lie about it, it’s euphemistically referred to as being in the closet. It is not telling the truth, so it’s lying. Millions of people all around the world do it every day for good reasons. Most of those reasons are more defensive than deceptive, but often are not without regret and guilt.

This is not about truth and lies. It’s about role playing for your own good and the good of others. I think it’s better to be out of the closet because the cognitive dissonance (guilt) associated with trying to live a dishonest life is troubling and wearing. It feels better, but there is almost always some price to pay for that kind of honesty.

In a scene from the movie The Big Sick (a good, dramatic but light romantic comedy from 2017) where the main male character, Kumail, (finally) confronts his Pakistani parent’s religion, culture, and traditions; his father, a Muslim, asks him “Do you not believe in Allah?” To which Kumail answers, I don’t know what I believe. I have not prayed in years. I don’t know what I believe. I find that answer courageous, and I see his father’s response as controlled and reasonable. (I could not find a clip of the scene.)

Movie character or not (it’s based upon a true-life story), my thought was, not prayed in years and confused beliefs, He’s atheist. Just because he will not say it, that doesn’t mean it’s not the case, right?

Saying I don’t know has to do with knowledge. Agnosticism does also. It’s simply saying I don’t know or I’m uncertain. In a way, it’s pleading the 5th without saying what one believes. Either you believe something, or you don’t. Who knows? Nobody!

It’s also why I don’t know should be an acceptable answer. I like to say there are no gods, but I would not say I know there are no gods. Yet, the latter is what many people think I said. It is simply what I think or believe to be the case, based on the lack of evidence. Few would ask why I doubt any god’s existence. But they would challenge me to prove the negative.

There are times when I am asked questions, and I pause before I answer, often for so long that the questioner begins to lose patience with me. I always want to be sure I can give my best answer. Well, not exactly always.

Sometimes, if I have been sipping some of nature’s finer spirits, I will answer any question immediately, with confidence and authority. One could correctly say I am full of shit, but it’s alcohol. Sober, I am more likely to say I don’t know.

One other answer I like to use either sober (or perhaps while wondering what kind of THC that was) is: I don’t care. That is truly my favorite, although I find ways to dress it up at times.

Bill