Saturday, October 29, 2011

Benedict XVI on Theistically Inclined Agnostics

An interesting passage from the Pope's recent address at the ecumenical meeting in Assisi:

They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.


  1. John S. Wilkins5:05 PM

    I don't know who he thinks he's describing, but it aint me or any agnostic I have ever known. This is just poisoning the well.

  2. branemrys6:12 PM

    "Poisoning the well" requires insinuating moral failing, not something of which one approves; you can't poison the well by claiming that people are interested in truth and have genuine reasons for not coming to conclusions you think right. Or what moral failing do you think he was trying to imply?

    I don't know how diverse your agnostic circle is, but I myself know a few of the searching-for-God agnostics, although they wouldn't characterize themselves as struggling in any way. Austin seems to have unusual numbers of them, for that matter; the hippy culture here seems to give some encouragement to people of the 'I don't know if it's God or just drugs, but I'm on a spiritual quest either way' type. They fit the profile, but somehow I doubt that it's what he had in mind.

  3. John S. Wilkins4:03 PM

    "Poisoning the well" here means that he's trying to frame the issue so that any agnostic claim will be undercut by his characterisation of all agnostics (not just the ones you claim to know are looking for gods). Yes, that is, from Il Papa's POV a moral failing, in that they haven't found it, but acc. to the Wiki definition:

    "Poisoning the well (or attempting to poison the well) is a rhetorical device where adverse information about a target is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say." 

    it qualifies.

    An agnostic position is one that says no answer can be given to a question. It may be that one also includes all possible similar questions, or that one says the inability to answer is inevitable and universal, or not. But if I am agnostic about some question, it follows I am no longer seeking to believe in what answers have been already given. I may have been once, as I arrived at my agnosticism.

    And not being a member of or believer in an "official" religion is insufficient to be called an agnostic, so I suspect your definition is equally poisonous. I haven't yet met a hippy/new ager (and I used to be one) who thought there was no God or spiritual dimension.

  4. branemrys10:11 PM

    I can entirely see thinking the Pope absurdly wrong; and he certainly is not talking about most people who would be considered agnostics. It's not even really clear who he's talking about, and I suspect he doesn't go around chatting with agnostics all over the place. But I really don't see any force in the argument you've given here. The Wiki definition, like a lot of Wiki definitions of informal fallacies, is dubious at best and not consistent with the actual history of the phrase since it was first used in the Kingsley-Newman debate; terms can change meaning, of course, but what you're really arguing is that claiming that some position has an intrinsic flaw that can be cured by another position is 'poisoning the well', which makes the phrase at best a rhetorical scare term with little content, since it would have to be applied to massive quantities of philosophical critique. For that matter, we would then have to apply the term 'poisoning the well' to anyone using the term 'poisoning the well', since it also "<span> is a rhetorical device where adverse information about a target is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say" -- identifying someone as a well-poisoner is (1) adverse information; (2) pre-empts further defense; (3) is only ever used to discredit; (4) and it sheds its discredit on anything further that might be said. Thus accusing anyone of poisoning the well would be poisoning the well. That's the incoherence one gets when one gets fallacy theory from Wikipedia; if what it says were right then almost any strong criticism that wasn't about superficial matters would be poisoning the well.</span>

    Likewise, I think you're being arbitrary about what counts as agnostic. An agnostic position as most people use the term is not one that says no answer can be given to a question; it's a position that says that no answer is available for it. This might be because there is a claim that there is no answer possible for it, and that's a very Huxleyan approach, but this is hardly the only sense in which the label is used, and since there is no authoritative body of agnostics to give authoritative pronouncements that the only True Agnostics are those who think an answer is impossible, or that people are not agnostics who, faced with the question, "Does God exist?" say, "I honestly don't know, and I don't know if I'll ever find out, but I'd be interested in finding out," I don't see at all what grounds you have for claiming that they are not. If you're really basing anything on Wiki definitions, you might take a look at the Wiki definition for agnosticism. I don't present it as a proof of meaning; but it's not like the meaning given is an uncommon one even among those self-identifying as agnostic, either.

  5. branemrys10:11 PM

    I do in fact know hippies who consider themselves agnostics, so you can either take my testimony on it or leave it, as you please, or you can just write it off as part of Austin's deliberate cultivation of weirdness -- which indeed it might well be. I don't think it matters much either way for the general point. Likewise, I don't know what 'definition' you're claiming is possibly poisonous since I didn't mention "<span>not being a member of or believer in an "official" religion"". Such people may be theists, atheists, or agnostics; we're talking people who call themselves agnostics here. But your 'poisonous' remark merely confirms the problem with the incoherence of the poisoning-the-well position that I noted above; I now apparently under suspicion of having a  'poisonous' definition (1) despite not having given any definition, since the argument was about self-labeling; (2) on grounds that could just as easily be reasons to think that I am incorrect or confused about the matter, rather than 'poisonous'; and (3) as part of a pre-emptive rhetorical labeling to discredit something I haven't even said yet, thus confirming that the Wiki definition of the phrase 'poisoning the well' absurdly makes it an autological phrase.</span>

    I also notice that you shove the vague phrase "or a spiritual dimension" into the criteria in the last sentence -- it seems to me to take everything else and qualify it to uselessness; I don't know what you're trying to convey with it. Even atheists can be found who believe "in a spiritual dimension", so often that it's a common and heated argument in atheist circles over whether such atheists are making an intelligible claim (e.g., here as just one example). So either you mean something very specific that you haven't conveyed, or it makes your criteria for atheist strangely restrictive. Similarly, your last sentence seems to make atheism the criterion of agnosticism -- sure, you're not likely to find hippies who think there is no God; this is also irrelevant, since thinking there is no God is different from thinking there might or might not be, or going back and forth on the question often enough that you have no stable answer and don't see any way that you ever will, or thinking you don't know but are interested in finding out, or regarding the question either way as largely a matter of speculation on insufficient evidence, all of which would widely be considered agnostic positions. Just as there can be agnostics who, while thinking no proof is possible but can be considered atheists if we're not too restrictive with the term, so too there is at least conceptual room for agnostics who, while thinking no proof is possible, can be theists in the broad sense of suspecting that there might be a God of some sort, who knows exactly which sort. Given human psychology, there surely are people out there who consider themselves agnostics, and who think it reasonable to suspect that there might be a God, and surely merely suspecting that it's a possibility worth taking seriously is not an automatic disqualification for true agnosticism? So I don't see the relevance of your last sentence to the question; and likewise I don't see why you insist that the label must be asymmetric, as if agnosticism were just fringe atheism rather than a distinct family of approaches, some members of which might be atheists in a broad sense and some members of which are not.


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