Are Agnostics a subset of Atheist?

From a discussion on Facebook that I will put my response here:


Gnosticism is a statement of special supernatural knowledge. If you are Gnostic you have special supernatural knowledge. If you are agnostic you don’t have special supernatural knowledge.

Theism is the belief in a deity or deities. If you are a Theist you believe in some form of deity. If you are aren’t a theist (or deist, or pantheist which are subsets of theist) then you are a not-theist, an atheist, one of the godless.

These two categories combine into four subsets:

The Gnostic Theist – I have special knowledge that god 100% exists.
The Agnostic Theist – I think that god exists, but I could be wrong.
The Agnostic Atheist – I’m not convinced that god exists, but I could be wrong (this is me btw)
The Gnostic Atheist – I have special knowledge that god does not exist, 100%.

I argue that the Gnostic Theist and the Gnostic Atheist do not exist, if some one had special knowledge over the debate, then the debate would be over. I think anyone that puts themselves into these categories doesn’t understand what special knowledge is 

The use of the term Agnostic in the general population is due to the stigmatisation of the word Atheist. Atheists are said to be immoral, satan worshippers, blasphemers (okay that is true), and any number of other nasty things. Using the term Agnostic allows you to express disbelief in a socially acceptable way and a good number of “Agnostics” use it as a badge of “intellectual superiority” and hold themselves above both the theist and the atheist.

But also there is the problem of things being attached to atheism. All atheism is is a lack of belief in god(s). It doesn’t mean that you believe in science, evolution, and the big bang. You can be an atheist and believe in spirits and the supernatural, just not god(s).

If you really want to define what I am you should look into secular humanism as a philosophy. I just use atheist as a shorthand because secular humanism requires lots of explanation.

Being an Atheist means being a Terrorist according to Saudi Arabian Government

Article 1: “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
Article 2: “Anyone who throws away their loyalty to the country’s rulers, or who swears allegiance to any party, organization, current [of thought], group, or individual inside or outside [the kingdom].”
Article 4: “Anyone who aids [“terrorist”] organizations, groups, currents [of thought], associations, or parties, or demonstrates affiliation with them, or sympathy with them, or promotes them, or holds meetings under their umbrella, either inside or outside the kingdom; this includes participation in audio, written, or visual media; social media in its audio, written, or visual forms; internet websites; or circulating their contents in any form, or using slogans of these groups and currents [of thought], or any symbols which point to support or sympathy with them.”
Article 6: “Contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the kingdom.”
Article 8: “Seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion, or calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form, or anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means.”
Article 9: “Attending conferences, seminars, or meetings inside or outside [the kingdom] targeting the security of society, or sowing discord in society.”
Article 11: “Inciting or making countries, committees, or international organizations antagonistic to the kingdom.”

Being an atheist, supporting an atheist, forming an atheist group, trying to find an atheist group, attending an atheist convention all make you a terrorist in Saudi Arabia.

The “Minimal Facts” Approach

Originally posted on Oxford Atheists, Secularists, and Humanists:

I attended a talk yesterday on an argument for specifically the resurrection that I had not come across before. It was the “minimal facts” approach, and essentially relies on the idea that through “facts” that virtually all scholars agree on, we can reasonably come to the conclusion that the resurrection happened. The five (or four) facts are:

  1. That Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. That the original disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them
  3. That church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed
  4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed
  5. The empty tomb (this was the “extra fact”, in that roughly 2/3 to 3/4 of scholars agree)

(I’d like to point out at this point that the argument comes from a book by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona called “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus”; I am in essence critiquing their argument, rather than the talk, which was…

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Evolution is cleverer than you are: cockroaches avoid poison baits by rewiring their taste system (and another paper on gene-culture coevolution)

Thaddeus Aid:

good stuff here

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

The latest issue of Science contains two papers (references below) worth reading. Sadly, both are behind paywalls, but judicious inquiry might yield a pdf). One, a short perspective by Simon Fisher and Matt Ridley, emphasizes that a lot of genetic changes supposedly responsible for major features human evolution—like the highly-touted FOXP2 gene, whose evolution was supposedly the cause of human speech,since mutations in the gene degrade human speech and that gene evolved quickly on the hominin branch of the ape lineage—might have evolved quickly only after cultural innovations or changes in other genes allowed the supposedly “responsible” genes to evolve in concert with that other change.

An example of culture-driven genetic evolution is the rapid evolution of lactose tolerance genes in human populations, which I recount in WEIT. In the descendants of human “pastoral” populations (that is, those groups who kept sheep, goats, or cows for milk), we observed…

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Happy New Year

Happy New Year from Science and Atheism.
I want to apologize for the lack of updates on this blog, but I have been very busy with personal issues and I haven’t been active here. I have added some new members of the team on the Facebook page and I have offered to let them write here as well. I hope that in the new year that I am able to get back into blogging here.
Please feel free to leave a comment about what you hope to accomplish this year.

Why is teaching evolution such an uphill battle?

Before you skip over this post, no, this isn’t going to be a rant about ‘those idiot creationists’, and it isn’t even going to be a case of me getting up on my soap box and shouting to the world that they’d better accept evolution or the consequences will be dire. I’m writing this blog from the perspective of education, regardless of the audience or the atmosphere, and hopefully to expand on why evolution is such a point of contention – and that it still would be even if we didn’t have any religion around.

The world of science education is a strange beast. Science is like nothing else we learn about in life. If we think about how we learn things growing up, we come up with a whole lot of scenarios where we encounter things with our senses, and learn by interacting with the more concrete aspects of reality. We learn by doing, learn by seeing and touching… but what does science do to us? It throws us into a world of technical jargon, abstract symbols and mathematics, theoretical models, hypotheses, hypothetical ‘thought experiments’ if you’re a physicist, abstract generalisations of principles and laws… basically a whole bunch of things that are not stuff we can see and touch. The consequence of all this, is that when faced with scientific learning, we’re thrown into a world of knowledge we’re often quite unfamiliar with managing in our minds. How often have we seen the likes of Ken Ham utter the phrase: “but were you there?” when faced with something we have deduced about past? How often have we seen those who oppose evolution asking if anyone has ever seen an ape evolve into a man? These are cases of people asking for concrete observations, when in fact the world of abstract thought – the world science is riddled with – is actually completely sufficient to deduce that evolution has happened. But why do some people find the less concrete arguments SO unconvincing? They’re perfectly valid arguments… aren’t they?

The answer comes from how our cognitive development progresses, or more specifically, where most of our population resides along that progression. If you’ve studied anything to do with education, chances are you should have heard the word ‘constructivism’ before. If you were paying attention, you may even be familiar with someone named Jean Piaget. Jean Piaget came up with four stages of cognitive development as a child grows up. Broadly speaking, as we grow up, we progress through these stages, from learning purely via our senses at the ‘sensorimotor’ stage,  eventually becoming able to mentally work with symbolisations at the ‘pre-operational’ stage. Then we move up to the ‘concrete operational’ stage where we have the ability to perform mental operations on our knowledge we gained through concrete interactions with the world, and finally we reach the ‘formal operational’ stage where we can perform mental operations on abstract thoughts. Guess where a lot of science resides? Right – the last stage. People who haven’t reached that stage will obviously have a lot of trouble with science, since it deals with so much abstract thought.

But what has all this got to do with evolution? Well – evolution is one of those things beyond our senses. It’s something we deduce must have happened in the past to our ancestors. Perhaps the point we start putting the pieces of the puzzle together is when we realise that the final stage of development – the ‘formal operational’ – is when we can start using deductive reasoning instead of inductive reasoning. We can deduce what must have happened, instead of relying on seeing something, and then generalising what we’ve observed. We can’t see an ape evolve into a man today (and boy do the creationists remind us!) but we don’t need to – we still have that valid reasoning in the abstract, symbolised, hypothetical, mental model. Sure, it’s backed up by evidence – lots of it. But if we’re stuck at the concrete operation stage, it’s very very hard to start considering hypotheticals such as “well, what would it mean if?”…What would it mean if some generic unspecified trait (rather than one we can see in front of us) was better for survival? What happens as a result of some trait (again, not specifying a concrete example) being passed on to offspring more often than others? What happens (hypothetically) as a result of populations being split by natural events, followed by continuing to pass on their traits separately for generations? These are hypotheticals – abstract scenarios of mental invention. The concrete operational person has a lot of trouble drawing conclusions from these, and it’s just not reasonable to expect it to be simply understood. No wonder there are some people who consistently reject valid reasoning, and instead sit there asking if we’ve ever seen the things we know to have happened. They don’t have the tools mentally to even fully grasp how deduction itself makes sense.

“But hold on!” I hear you say, “Piaget said that we reach that final stage by 12 years old!” Well yes, but the more we look into it, the more we see that Piaget was wrong about that benchmark age. Studies have repeatedly discovered in amongst their other research that the majority of us, even right through into college education, still function at the concrete operational stage. We’re locked into reasoning with what’s put in front of us and open to sight and touch. Few have the ability to reach beyond and start considering hypotheticals, or deducing what must have occurred before we came along and saw the data.

Given the nature of evolutionary theory, and the fact that even at university level, those who are well equipped to deal with deductive reasoning and hypothetical though are the minority, is it any wonder such a high proportion of the population rejects evolution? Even WITHOUT the more vocal religious groups adding to the problem? Perhaps now we can understand why around 50% of Americans, and not that much fewer in the UK, reject a concept like evolution which requires so much deductive reasoning and hypothetical thought.

So does religion play into any of this? Well, the answer is yes, and not in the way you might expect. There are more subtle things going on here aside from the overt rejections of evolution by some religious figureheads. We teaching types talk about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ order thinking skills. Lower order being rote learning, understanding and application of that knowledge. This is contrasted with higher order thinking, which involves ability to analyse, evaluate and create new knowledge, moving into what us teachers call the ability to get into the ‘extended abstract’ (if you’re a fan of john Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy). Two guesses what kind of cognitive ability one might develop by being asked to reach higher order thinking skills. You guessed it – the sort necessary to grasp scientific concepts like evolution. You see – those higher order skills are all about picking apart what we already know, analysing it, making evaluations about it, generating independent thought. The lower level thinking skills are about rote learning, putting it into practice, learning an understanding of what we’ve gained knowledge of… without taking those further steps of critical thinking and coming to new independent conclusions. Basically, remembering what we’re told and putting it into practice. None of this new independent ideas and critical thinking stuff.

I’ll leave it up to readers to match to what religion encourages with the lower or higher order thinking skills, and what implication it might have for the cognitive development of our kids.

I will however, leave you all with one fact. The republican party of Texas literally opposes critical thinking and higher order thinking skills within its education policy:

I can’t help but wonder what mindset generates such a view… and can’t help but connect this sort of culture in Texas to the fact nobody there seems to believe much in evolution. It’s also interesting to reconsider the question: Why does belief in God and religion decrease as intelligence increases?… I think there’s a few things correlated here.

- Sam

Thaddeus Aid:

I know Jerry and the other Gnu Atheists helped me to choose my post-grad subject.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

On October 23, 2010, I published (with the writer’s permission) an email I’d gotten from someone who’d been a dyed-in-the-wool, prosyletizing creationist, but had given that up because of this website. I verified his identity to be sure it wasn’t a hoax.  Here are two excerpts from that email:

I’m a 25-year-old fellow from the backwoods of the Appalachias with little education to speak of. I was raised Southern Baptist, donated time and money to the Discovery Institute, and participated in anti-evolution debates and seminars. I was one of the True Believers who would tell someone straight to their face that they were going to hell if they didn’t kneel down that instant and accept Lord Jesus into their hearts. And I’d say it with a smile. . .

[Interlude: reader describes reading about evolution to use as ammunition for his creationism]

You probably know the rest. The initial rejection…

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