“That which can be asserted without evidence. can be dismissed without evidence.” Christopher Hitchens

Agnosticism and Atheism: Five Misconceptions, Five Quotes By Okla Elliott

Agnos­ti­cism and Athe­ism: Five Mis­con­cep­tions, Five Quotes By Okla Elliott
6 votes, 5.00 avg. rat­ing (97% score)




[The fol­low­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tions of pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tions do not by any means exhaust the num­ber of spu­ri­ous claims made on the sub­ject, but I hope they will help dis­pel some of the most ram­pant inac­cu­ra­cies afoot in the cul­ture. I also hope the quotes and the video will be shared widely via social media. The more we can spread these sorts of intel­li­gent and care­ful thoughts, the bet­ter peo­ple can under­stand the grow­ing phe­nom­e­non of agnosticism/atheism in this and other coun­tries. It is not my goal to con­vince any­one of any­thing here, but rather to make sure we all have the facts straight so that we can all choose for our­selves what we want to believe.]

1.  The most com­mon mis­truth lev­eled at athe­ists is that they are com­pletely cer­tain that sci­ence is right and believe sci­ence explains every­thing in human life. While there may be a few of these peo­ple run­ning around, none of the major spokes­men for athe­ism over the past century—Bertrand Rus­sell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Hux­ley, Christo­pher Hitchens, Sam Har­ris, etc—maintain this view. In fact, Sartre pointed out that the gap between the bio­log­i­cal facts of the body and what he called “the lived body” (where our con­scious­ness and expe­ri­ences take place) is so huge that sci­ence could never reach the core of our phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence. Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, another well-known athe­ist of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, was famously anti-technology and claimed that “sci­ence does not think.” Hux­ley was crit­i­cal and prais­ing of science/technology in equal mea­sure. And Har­ris has said that just because we might know the chem­i­cal make-up of choco­late, this does not decrease or increase our plea­sure in eat­ing it. So, none of the major spokes­men for athe­ism have actu­ally argued that sci­ence has all the facts and that it can explain every aspect of our lives, and no athe­ist I know per­son­ally holds this posi­tion. Sci­ence is one of many tools we have in our lives, and it is cer­tainly one of the most use­ful ones, but like all tools, it is fal­li­ble as well as use­ful. And the use­ful­ness of sci­ence has lim­its, like the use­ful­ness of any tool. Fur­ther­more, it is impos­si­ble to main­tain that sci­ence is infal­li­ble, since we hear every day that some old the­ory has been debunked or some new tech­nol­ogy has super­seded an older one. It is there­fore merely a straw-man the reli­gious side of this debate has con­structed to mis­rep­re­sent the actual views of atheism.

2.  Another com­mon mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of athe­ists is that they are cer­tain there is no god and have a kind of arro­gance in this cer­tainty. Again, this is not the posi­tion of any of the major spokes­men for athe­ism. Sartre said you can never defin­i­tively prove god does not exist, as have Rus­sell, Hux­ley, Har­ris, Dawkins, etc. Their posi­tion is that they have been offered insuf­fi­cient evi­dence for any par­tic­u­lar god’s exis­tence (be it Vishnu, which 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple claim exists, or Yah­weh, which 2.2 bil­lion peo­ple claim exists, or Odin, which only twenty thou­sand or so claim exists). In effect, nearly all athe­ists are actu­ally agnos­tics in that they admit there is the pos­si­bil­ity of a god or many gods exist­ing. They have merely decided to ten­ta­tively believe that there are no gods until suf­fi­cient evi­dence is offered to change that posi­tion. This is why the terms agnos­tic and athe­ist are nearly syn­ony­mous. Athe­ists might think it con­sid­er­ably more prob­a­ble, though not cer­tain, that no gods exist, whereas agnos­tics would per­haps say it’s a 50/50 chance that some sort of god(s) exist. Athe­ists are there­fore merely fur­ther along the spec­trum of incredulity than agnos­tics, but both admit the pos­si­bil­ity of god(s) exist­ing. [Side note: There are com­pet­ing def­i­n­i­tions of these terms, of course, and they are famously dif­fi­cult to define. We could, for exam­ple, draw dis­tinc­tions between those who are epis­te­mo­log­i­cally agnos­tic ver­sus those who are meta­phys­i­cally agnos­tic, but my point here is not to quib­ble over def­i­n­i­tions, but rather to show that athe­ists are by no means com­mit­ted to some sort of absolute cer­tainty about the nonex­is­tence of god(s) or the effi­cacy of sci­ence or what-have-you.]It is, in fact, quite often those with faith who say that they have cer­tain knowl­edge of their deities’ exis­tence. They even often claim that no amount of evi­dence could ever sway them from this cer­tainty. This is pre­cisely the oppo­site of the atheist’s posi­tion. If evi­dence for gods exist­ing were offered, athe­ists would hap­pily accept it and alter their belief. So, here again, the reli­gious side of this debate has mis­rep­re­sented the athe­ists and agnos­tics of the world, and it is in fact guilty of its own accusation.

3.  It is often claimed that athe­ists can­not be moral. This claim seems very odd to me for sev­eral rea­sons. First off, Bertrand Rus­sell and Jean-Paul Sartre founded the Inter­na­tional War Crimes Tri­bunal, and both protested the Viet­nam War long before it became pop­u­lar to do so. Rus­sell agi­tated for equal rights for women, and he went to jail as a con­sci­en­tious objec­tor dur­ing WWI. He like­wise lost posi­tions at uni­ver­si­ties for tak­ing prin­ci­pled anti-war and pro-civil lib­er­ties stances. Sec­ondly, the claim that I can­not be moral because I do not believe in some god (or group of gods) offends me per­son­ally. I have never mur­dered any­one, never tor­tured any­one, never set any build­ings on fire, don’t cheat on my sig­nif­i­cant other, et cetera; and I refuse to own a car out of envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, refuse (mostly) to eat meat out of eth­i­cal con­cerns, and have agi­tated for the equal rights of LGBT cit­i­zens every­where, among other such activ­i­ties. In short, I do not think my athe­ism has led me to be any less moral; if any­thing, it has helped me to be more moral. Which brings me to my third point: There is no evi­dence at all that believ­ing in a par­tic­u­lar god makes one moral. If any­thing, the never-ending cases of child molesta­tion by Catholic priests, the reli­gious zealotry that leads to sui­cide bomb­ings, the mur­der of abor­tion clinic doc­tors, and the oppres­sion of women by Chris­t­ian, Hindu, Jew­ish, and Mus­lim reli­gious insti­tu­tions should cause peo­ple to won­der if reli­gion isn’t more likely to cause one to be immoral. In fact, if you believe there is some higher power that has the right to con­demn oth­ers to death and you believe you have direct con­tact with that higher power, you might be will­ing to kill other humans in that higher power’s name. But if you hap­pen to believe, as athe­ists do, that humans are what mat­ter, not some deity or set of deities, then you are more likely to view human well-being as the high­est moral value and more likely to con­sider your high­est moral oblig­a­tion to be to other humans, not to some prob­a­bly nonex­is­tent higher power.

4.  A corol­lary point to #3 is that some peo­ple claim agnos­ti­cism and athe­ism will destroy the fab­ric of soci­ety. This is the eas­i­est to refute by far. We need sim­ply look at two dif­fer­ent coun­tries on entirely dif­fer­ent continents—Japan and Sweden—to see how this accu­sa­tion has no basis in real­ity. These coun­tries have some of the high­est rates of out­right athe­ism, gen­eral agnos­ti­cism, and non-affiliatedness on the globe, yet both are pros­per­ing soci­eties with low crime rates, good economies rel­a­tive to other nations, longer life spans than most other nations, and high edu­ca­tional marks. I am not say­ing that athe­ism is to thank for these things. I am merely say­ing that their high rates of athe­ism have not destroyed the fab­ric of their soci­eties. In fact, it seems that there is a cor­re­la­tion between higher rates of vio­lence and higher rates of reli­gios­ity planet-wide, so if any­thing is caus­ing prob­lems, it is reli­gion, not crit­i­cal dis­course and care­ful evidence-based beliefs.

5.  Nearly every debate between an athe­ist and a faith-based believer ends up with the faith-based believer claim­ing that a god or gods must exist because human rea­son can­not fathom the total­ity of the uni­verse. The athe­ist, much like in exam­ple #1, is accused of think­ing rea­son can do this and there­fore misses the mys­tery of exis­tence. First off, none of the major athe­ist thinkers believes that human rea­son in infal­li­ble. Of course human rea­son can­not fathom the uni­verse, but that is not suf­fi­cient cause to believe some gods exist who can. Once again, it is the faith-based believer who, in order to not have to deal with the huge and unend­ing mys­tery of exis­tence, insists on cre­at­ing var­i­ous gods to explain all that mys­tery away. Athe­ists are will­ing to live in the uncer­tainty and mys­tery of the world we live in. We are the ones will­ing to admit our lim­its with­out hav­ing to fab­ri­cate deities to patch over the holes in our all-too-fallible human rea­son and capac­ity for knowl­edge. And I don’t want to speak for any­one else here, but I myself am filled with exis­ten­tial awe at the uni­verse and all its mys­ter­ies and am over­joyed at the frac­tion of it I’ve been able to expe­ri­ence and par­tially under­stand. I would never want all this mys­tery and unknow­ing taken away by some deity. This is part of what makes being human so expan­sively inter­est­ing, to my mind anyway.


The demand for cer­tainty is one which is nat­ural to man, but is nev­er­the­less an intel­lec­tual vice. So long as men are not trained to with­hold judg­ment in the absence of evi­dence, they will be led astray by cock­sure prophets, and it is likely that their lead­ers will be either igno­rant fanat­ics or dis­hon­est char­la­tans. To endure uncer­tainty is dif­fi­cult, but so are most of the other virtues.” —Bertrand Rus­sell

It is man’s intel­li­gence that makes him so often behave more stu­pidly than the beasts […] Man is impelled to invent the­o­ries to account for what hap­pens in the world. Unfor­tu­nately, he is not quite intel­li­gent enough, in most cases, to find cor­rect expla­na­tions. So that when he acts on his the­o­ries, he behaves very often like a lunatic. Thus, no ani­mal is clever enough, when there is a drought, to imag­ine that the rain is being with­held by evil spir­its, or as pun­ish­ment for its trans­gres­sions. There­fore you never see ani­mals going through the absurd and often hor­ri­ble foo­leries of magic and reli­gion. No horse, for exam­ple would kill one of its foals to make the wind change direc­tion. Dogs do not rit­u­ally uri­nate in the hope of per­suad­ing heaven to do the same and send down rain. Asses do not bray a liturgy to cloud­less skies. Nor do cats attempt, by absti­nence from cat’s meat, to whee­dle the feline spir­its into benev­o­lence. Only man behaves with such gra­tu­itous folly. It is the price he has to pay for being intel­li­gent but not, as yet, intel­li­gent enough.” —Aldous Hux­ley

Reli­gion is based, I think, pri­mar­ily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the ter­ror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your trou­bles and dis­putes […] A good world needs knowl­edge, kind­li­ness, and courage; it does not need a regret­ful han­ker­ing after the past or a fet­ter­ing of the free intel­li­gence by the words uttered long ago by igno­rant men.” —Bertrand Rus­sell

It is very impor­tant not to mis­take hem­lock for pars­ley, but to believe or not believe in God is not impor­tant at all.” –Diderot

It would be absurd to speak about Chris­t­ian physics, though the Chris­tians invented physics. And it would be absurd to speak about Mus­lim alge­bra, though the Mus­lims invented alge­bra. It will one day be absurd to speak about Chris­t­ian or Mus­lim ethics.” —Sam Har­ris

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Agnos­ti­cism and Athe­ism: Five Mis­con­cep­tions, Five Quotes By Okla Elliott
6 votes, 5.00 avg. rat­ing (97% score)
  • Kiis­han Sekhon

    I believe if we were to look deeper and care­fully ana­lyze with­out dis­course of per­ma­nency, absolutes and objec­tiv­ity, we need look no fur­ther than look­ing at all these exam­ples and com­bine them to form a new con­cep­tu­al­ist idea whereby all is progress, intel­lec­tual infin­ity, and infi­nite expan­sion for it explains rel­a­tivism, dis­proves absolutes (i.e. cock­sure prophets <– I love this word) and focuses on prime evo­lu­tion to adapt, mod­ify and grow with­out judgement

  • Haider

    Bertrand Rus­sell was an agnos­tic, read his inter­view with Fr. Cople­ston http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/p20.htm

  • Davey Lee

    Awe­some mate­r­ial. Thank you for your work and research. My brief com­ments related to #2: I refuse to believe any­thing with­out evi­dence. Since there is no evi­dence of a deity, then I seri­ously do not believe there is a deity. How­ever, I can­not PROVE that there is no deity (much as I can­not PROVE there is no Santa Claus). Hence, I can­not say for cer­tainty that there is no deity, I can only rea­son that since there is no evi­dence for a deity, I for one do not believe there is any such entity. I think that allow­ing for even the most incon­ceiv­able of pos­si­bil­i­ties is by no means a sur­ren­der of my rea­son, so long as I stand firm in not com­pro­mis­ing my intel­lect by ever believ­ing ANYTHING with­out sound and cred­i­ble evi­dence. Again, thank you for a most infor­ma­tive post.

  • Bryan

    I dis­agree with point 2. I am cer­tain there is no god or gods.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003669172895 Jonathon Berry

      How are you cer­tain? I highly doubt this is true. Mak­ing such claims impedes on any progress as you’re sim­ply mir­ror­ing the claim of a the­is­tic believer — a gnos­tic stance…making you a gnos­tic athe­ist, which is no bet­ter than any other sort of absolute claim. No, you are not cer­tain. That’s what “sup­pos­edly” sep­a­rates you from a Christian/Muslim/etc.

      The dif­fer­ence is for the agnostic/atheist is our humil­ity when it comes to such knowl­edge claims, as we acknowl­edge that we can’t know. In terms of prob­a­bil­ity, a sort of God may not exist, but you can’t really prove that. Just as you can’t prove that Russell’s mag­i­cal teapot isn’t orbit­ing the globe. There’s insuf­fi­cient evi­dence. Any claim above and beyond claim­ing insuf­fi­cient evi­dence is self-defeating. So please, I implore you, stop it. Let’s keep our wits about our­selves and not fall into the pit­falls that our the­ist friends com­monly do.

  • ama­ja­mus

    I dis­agree with the “slo­gan” at the begin­ning of the article,“[t]he wages of faith is igno­rance … ” That is a pretty broad state­ment, espe­cially for an athe­ist try­ing to argue against a god. I am a Catholic and I am not an igno­rant per­son. I am a highly edu­cated per­son and a well trav­eled one at that.

    There are def­i­nitely a lot of igno­rant Chris­tians, but to link every Chris­t­ian as igno­rant because of a few (or more) is a great stereo­type. This is like say­ing athe­ists are all stu­pid because a few of them are really dumb.If they 9atheists admit that ” they admit there is the pos­si­bil­ity of a god or many gods exist­ing” why do they crit­i­cize peo­ple for hav­ing a lit­tle more faith in that possibility?

    “Sartre pointed out that the gap between the bio­log­i­cal facts of the
    body and what he called “the lived body” (where our con­scious­ness and
    expe­ri­ences take place) is so huge that sci­ence could never reach the
    core of our phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence” How could Satre say this then turn around and be a disbeliever/atheist/agnostic? If sci­ence could never “reach the core” then how do we know that “the core” may have some­thing to do with “super­sti­tious” and “spir­i­tual” awak­en­ing? Maybe “the core” is where spir­i­tu­al­ity lies.
    BTW, I have met many athe­ists who were intellectually-challenged and had no sense of rea­son (as I have with Christians.)

    One last word … remem­ber, it was a Catholic priest from Bel­gium who came up with the Big, Bang The­ory: Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeromy-Rutter/100000811362791 Jeromy Rut­ter

      The big bang is still only a the­ory, which, in essence, is prov­able only by rea­son and not prac­tice. It is impos­si­ble to recre­ate a big bang, and recre­ation is what makes it sci­en­tif­i­cally testable/falsifiable.
      Fur­ther the big bang can­not occur in an infi­nite field of noth­ing­ness (in other words, you can­not get exis­tence from the nonex­is­tent), with or with­out a cre­ator (a cre­ator in itself vio­lates non-existence), and, ulti­mately, the only real dif­fer­ence between bangers and cre­ation­ism is inten­tion.
      Also, the idea of causal­ity is mute, because it is a sys­tem of causal­ity that it brought into being with a bang, there­fore can­not pre­cede it and be a cause of it. There is no cause and effect until objects exist to be effected.
      Also, the cos­mos is not an object unto itself and ought not be treated as such.

      Not to our lack of knowl­edge on its “size” — if it is infi­nite it has no size. Nei­ther can infin­ity be cre­ated, as it has nei­ther end nor beginning.…it can never be com­pleted.
      But a finite uni­verse binds the power of a cre­ator. It unlim­ited poten­tial is only unlim­ited within the frame­work of its lim­ited power.
      Some­thing must exist to be con­scious. To say oth­er­wise is to say that “noth­ing” is con­scious, which means it doesnt exist.
      Con­scious­ness rises with the form, like a baby becom­ing con­scious. For all we know, we ARE god. Our own con­scious­ness, as sarte hints at, is what we do not under­stand.
      And our knowl­edge and belief is brought about by being a part of this causal sys­tem. Rea­son depends on it. With­out it, and the expe­ri­ence of out, we have no means for intel­li­gence at all. Hence, the­o­ries of deities must com­ply with our capa­ble means, or we admit eter­nal igno­rance, which makes it igno­rance that we have placed our faith.

      • http://www.facebook.com/adam.overton.7 Adam Over­ton

        It is impos­si­ble to recre­ate a big bang, and recre­ation is what makes it sci­en­tif­i­cally testable/falsifiable.”

        Actu­ally, it’s not entirely impos­si­ble. In fact, there have recently been great strides made in M The­ory. The minds behind some of these new insights have said that they believe it entirely pos­si­ble to cre­ate a new uni­verse in a laboratory.

        In all hon­esty, this cre­ation of an event so large, and unpre­dictable ter­ri­fies me for a num­ber of rea­sons. How­ever I believe that with­out test­ing the lim­its of our abil­i­ties and under­stand­ing, we will never grow as a race.

        If you’re curi­ous about this claim, there are links to videos on M The­ory on Dr. Michio Kaku’s web page. I’d put in a link, but I’m not sure what the guide­lines for this forum are, and would rather err on the side of caution.

    • Okla Elliott

      The slo­gan was not cho­sen by me, and I in fact dis­like it as well. When this was orig­i­nally posted at As It Ought to Be, I merely chose an image of the stars, imply­ing the vast­ness of exis­tence and our dif­fi­cult and uncer­tain place in it.

  • Ron V.

    Excel­lent essay, how­ever I dis­agree with the fol­low­ing state­ment from point 5 — “Of course human rea­son can­not fathom the uni­verse…” I fully believe that humans are capa­ble of know­ing the uni­verse. Even­tu­ally, if we man­age to avoid destroy­ing our­selves (which is not a given), we will under­stand every­thing that is under­stand­able. By that I mean that if there is no way to cross the event hori­zon of the uni­verse (how­ever you want to term the boundry of the Big Bang), we may never know for sure if we live in a uni­verse or a multiverse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.dimichele Sarah DiMichele

    This is fan­tas­tic! Easy to under­stand, not “preachy” or con­de­scend­ing as some other Athe­ist authors can come off as — thor­oughly enjoyed it! Thank you for sub­mit­ting it!