Counter-Apologetic to:"You're not an atheist! You're agnostic because you're not certain."

Many Theists make this argument at some point, but it was Carl Sagan who said it with the most clarity:

“An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.”

--Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan was an amazing man and will always be my personal hero, but was certainly not omniscient. This single paragraph is a dazzling example of how a person could not be more right about the “relegation” of God, but could not be more wrong about certainty.

I personally find it puzzling that the average individual goes about his daily life perfectly content with practical certainty, and then suddenly insists on absolute certainty once he catches a whiff of philosophy or metaphysics. I am practically or reasonably certain that my car is still parked on the street where I left it. And if anyone asks where my car is, that is exactly what I will tell them. Many things are possible—it could have been towed, or stolen, or hit by a meteorite. Even if I were to look out the window and point to my car, that person might ask me if I can prove that I’m not in a dream, or in the Matrix? Or perhaps they would venture into solipsism, but I’d probably kick them out of my house at that point.

I am practically certain that Sylvia Browne is a fraud. She could possess psychic powers that just go on the fritz from time to time, but I’ve seen her give so much completely false information over the years that as far as I’m concerned, the case is closed.

I have the same level of certainty that Theism is false, for the same “relegation” reason that Carl Sagan was obviously aware of. Gods supposedly existed in trees until we cut them down, in mountains until we climbed them, in pharaohs and kings until they were deposed, in the sky until we invented hot air balloons. Even up until Sputnik launched, no small number of people were convinced that it would slam up against God’s crystalline spheres (or something like that) and shatter, because God of course wouldn’t allow it to punch through Heaven.

Now, in 2013, God is relegated to the “outside of space and time,” in what can only be called the Phantom Zone. If humanity ever does manage to explore this fictional realm sometime in the theoretical future, it would be a simple matter for William Lane Craig’s grandson (Billy the Third?) to invent an Uber-Phantom Zone, and put his cherished idea safely out of reach again.

I don’t bother with absolute certainty. It’s a red herring, it’s useless and most likely impossible. I’m interested in practical certainty, and have no interest in believing any idea that survives by virtue of being ill-defined rather than true.

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Tags: Carl, Sagan, agnosticism, apologetic, arguments, atheism, certainty, epistemology, religion


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Comment by Kara Ward on January 11, 2014 at 5:21pm

@levini: I think you're missing the point here. Carl Sagan, like many other people, said that atheism (or theism) required absolute certainty. I'm saying that absolute certainty is both ridiculous and impossible in any human endeavor. We need only practical certainty, and we most certainly do have that. 

It has nothing to do with the quote being "valid" as anything other than the statement of a popular opinion that Sagan happened to share. I really don't know where you got that idea.

Comment by Michael Penn on January 3, 2014 at 6:19am

OK, I'm putting my foot in my mouth here. My claim is that Casper the Friendly Ghost does not exist, but how could this be true? Once upon a time thre were many cartoons of him and even comic books. As I recall, they even made some movies. This is PROOF of Casper. How could he not be real? Besides, he was my buddy when I was a child!

Then along came the Imposter Paul, making his famous New Testament speach about "putting away childish things" when you become an adult. Christians have been believing the same old crap ever since! They don't get it.

Comment by Joan Denoo on January 2, 2014 at 11:32pm

To expect to have certainty either way is ludicrous after all these centuries of shifting beliefs and loyalties. If there is a god, perhaps it could exist as an energy that is unseen, such as electricity and electro-magnetism exists unseen and unknown, until it was learned how to harness the energy and make it work for human-kind. The probability of a the existence of a god/energy is so improbably as to be dismissed out of hand. People's claims of miracles just don't deserve even a cursory look because of the foolishness that transpires with the gullible dreamers wanting magic to solve their problems. No! I don't need certainty to know there is no god. 

Comment by Loren Miller on January 2, 2014 at 9:19pm

Gene, what I do as it comes to situations like this is frankly rather pro forma, or at least I think it is: I state that those who assert that there is a god are the ones making a positive statement.  That being the case, they need to supply evidence supporting said positive statement.  If we deny their assertion, it is on the basis that they have no such evidence, that there is, in the language of the courtroom, "reasonable doubt" (and indeed, far more than reasonable) that their position has merit.  It falls on THEM to prove their point, to demonstrate the merit of their position.  And as we all well know, they have no such evidence, no such data, no such support for their position.

They never have.  They never will.

Comment by leveni on January 2, 2014 at 6:52pm

"An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence."-Carl Sagan

Just because Carl Sagan made this statement, doesn't mean there is any validity to the statement.

To counter this statement I'd use Dawkins' pink elephant example.

I can state that the world is full of invisible pink elephants, but if they never do anything, can never be detected, never interact with us, then the world might as well not be full of invisible pink elephants.-The God Delusion

For me, God either exists or he doesn't exist. There is no in between. I choose believe God doesn't exist. But I'd never want to force this personal believe onto others.

Comment by Gene Griffis on January 1, 2014 at 4:34pm

These are all interesting statements and I do agree with most of them and never really ever disagreed with them. Kara's blog is a confirmation of the fact that she is indeed an Atheist not agnostic. Agnostic do not believe one way or the other. The dictionary defines Atheism as someone who does not believe in god and clearly she does not.

The point that she is making and that I agree with is that while we can supply ample evidence that there is no proof god exist. And indeed we can provide ample evidence that would suggest that god does not exist. In the end we can not prove that god does not exist; primarily because the concept of god is outside of the realm of reality and of scientific observation. We in the end do what we do, when someone says god; We say prove it. When someone says god made it rain we say; No he didn't, it was these factors all of which are natural and definable and that is what produced the phenomenon. When someone says that they don't believe in god but perhaps god does exist, they are indeed Atheist.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on January 1, 2014 at 3:40pm

Joan has not missed the point with Russell's Teapot, no we don't have the technology as yet that could easily identify something as small as a teapot, orbiting the Sun. We have trouble detecting reasonable sized asteroids so a small teapot would be almost invisible.

When Russell made his statement, there was no hope of us detecting such a teapot, so timing is relevant.

The teapot analogy brings another point to the table, as to what would be the use or point of having a teapot in space, well such an item would be entirely useless, it would have no Purpose.  As would a God have absolutely no Purpose.  Especially one that resembles a male human with even more useless and purposeless genitalia.

The writers of scripture were not great visionaries, they could not see the absolute naivety and stupidity of their own concepts.

The originators of the Bible were thus completely delusional lunatics.

Comment by Joan Denoo on January 1, 2014 at 3:17pm

If we talk about god is if it were an energy, then it could be compared to electricity and magnetism. We can not see any of them, however, there is evidence of electricity and magnetism, but I have not seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt with my skin, or felt with my heart, any energy that might be called god/energy. People tell me of their experience of god/energy, and even as they make that claim, I can not perceive, by any of my senses, receiving such stimulus. 

I do have a yearning, a hope, a desire for god/energy to step in and change something, or stop something, or start something. No storm has been stopped, that I can see, nor any storm damage stopped, nor any recovery started after the devastation of a storm. I can see survivors picking themselves up, brushing off the mud, cleaning the cuts and bruises of the flesh and cleaning up the rubble left by a storm, but there is no evidence that god/energy is the source of these actions. 

Homo sapiens have an innate desire for order, for understanding, for a sense of control over outcomes; the source of the energy to make these things happen comes from within individual minds. 

How many time has a person experiences being out of control in a lifetime, and want to give up? I know I have had that feeling, but I get over it, just as countless others pick themselves up from their powerless feelings and get to work at bringing about change. 

I refute any claim of god/energy. If someone else claims it for themselves it is none of my business. If they impose their delusions on me, I refute them with a clear conscience. If/when I experience god/energy, I will let you know; don't hold your breath. 

I claim the power of buying a condemned building sitting on a piece of ground that had gone to weeds and volunteer trees, and clearing the land for production of food, and reclaiming the house to a useful state with beauty and utility. I stand tall and proud knowing change happens when I get off my duff and think and act in ways that restore beauty and utility. Jeez! that feels good. 

Comment by Loren Miller on January 1, 2014 at 9:34am

Gene, what Joan was referring to was more than likely Russell's Teapot, which would have been valid back in an age when radar and interplanetary space probe missions weren't an everyday occurrence (most of Bertrand Russell's time).

From my POV as an engineer, I think one of the big issues with science vs. religion is that of practical certainty vs. absolute certainty.  For instance, I treat Ohm's Law as a practical certainty in that there is a fixed and demonstrable relationship between voltage, current and resistance in any electrical circuit - V = IR.  In the process of verifying that, issues of measurement accuracy and uncertainty certainly come up, but within the limits prescribed by those and other uncertainties, Ohm's Law is one such practical certainty.

Conversely, religion wants to deal in absolutes, such as the existence of god, that he created the whole nine yards, his supposedly perfect morals as spelled out in the bible, et cetera.  That the proponents of this position can prove none of it daunts them not in the least, as they take it all as GIVEN and necessary ... mostly I suspect because it's the easy way to go.  They point to their bible as proof, and when asked for proof of the bible, they circularly point RIGHT BACK TO IT.

I've thrown this quote out probably a dozen times on here, but what the heck:

If you've got the truth, you can demonstrate it. Talking doesn't prove it. Show people.
-- Robert A. Heinlein

Comment by jay H on January 1, 2014 at 9:31am

These two words get tossed around quite a bit, but I think they really have two different flavors. It is an oversimplification to say that an agnostic isn't sure and an atheist is (though those cases can exist)

Atheist is believing there is no god. We can believe things that we don't know for absolute certain are true. I believe my car will start

Agnostic carries two different connotations that I have seen:

1) It is impossible to absolutely know but it sure doesn't look good. Many people who are atheists are also this flavor of agnostic. The orbiting teacup would fall into this category.

2) Less often definition: There is no demonstrable difference whether god exists or not, it has no effect on me (sort of like Jefferson's god). Atheists may fall into this flavor as well.

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