Tuesday, April 19, 2011

New Religion Dispatches Feature: A Review of Vincent Bugliosi's Case for Agnosticism

Regular readers of the blog may be interested in my most recent Religion Dispatches essay, Unreasonable Doubt: Vincent Bugliosi Defends Agnosticism (not my title, but it's catchier than what I had). In it, I review what is touted as the agnostic contribution to the God debates: famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's Divinity of Doubt. In a phrase that was edited out of the final version of the essay, I basically characterize Bugliosi's book in the following terms: He essenitally agrees with the criticisms that atheists and theists level against each other, but rejects their defenses of their respective positions. The result, of course, is uncertainty.

But is the case for epistemic uncertainty about God's existence the same as a case for agnosticism? I don't think so. My main aim in the essay is to offer my thoughts on what sorts of arguments should have been taken up in a book that markets itself as a defense of agnosticism. I'm left wishing someone had written that book (or something a bit closer to it than what Bugliosi offers). Maybe someone will. (Bernard?)

One warning, however: This review essay was edited a bit more heavily than the essays I usually submit, probably because I spent less time doing my own tinkering and editing than I usually do (I think I felt some pressure to get the essay submitted the week that Bugliosi's book came out). Fortunately, as usual at Religion Dispatches, the editing was overwhelmingly beneficial: streamlining the prose, eliminating unnecessary qualifying phrases, cutting unnecessary digressions, all the while remaining sensitive to the substance of my argument.

But here's the warning: While the edits that were made to the section on the Kierkegaardian objection to agnosticism make it punchier and more readable, they also remove the "distancing" remarks that make it clear I am not personally endorsing Kierkegaard's view. Too many people close to me in my life are agnostics for me to sincerely believe that agnostics inevitably lack a passional relationship with their world. For reasons I've expressed in an earlier post, I think Kierkegaard's arguments offer some reason to think it can be legitimate to take "leaps of faith" beyond the limits of what we know (although I think a conversation about what constraints should be imposed on such leaps is essential). But I am far from convinced that Kierkegaard demonstrates that taking such a leap on the God-question is required of anyone who wishes to live a fully human life.

In any event, the essay is more open than I would have liked to the sort of misreading that comes out in the first reader's letter (although a part of me wants to ask that reader if he read all the way to the end of the article). I've submitted a clarifying response, but as of this moment it has not yet been posted. 


  1. Hi Eric

    I think you're right. It's not enough to say we can not be certain either way, there has to be a reason, in the face of such uncertainty, to choose not to choose. And that reason, itself, will be tied up with one's underlying narratives.

    That would be an interesting starting point for a project I think; assuming that all three stances are of themselves reasonable, and then considering what each of the narratives has to offer. It would mean moving away from arguments as such, I suspect, and into a sort of poetry almost.

    How do the meta-narratives affect our curiosity, our sense of compassion, our tolerance, our enthusiasm? Attempts to quantify such things often strike me as trite, just as attempts to show that other viewpoints are inherently unreasonable rarely progress beyond banalities.


  2. Eric,

    Recently I have been using a landscape metaphor to describe the extension of the human condition, the idea being that each one of us is situated at some spot on that landscape, closer to some and perhaps quite far away from others. Further, one does not stay put but moves on this landscape depending on one’s life experiences and life choices. The basic idea is that people literally live a different worlds (with some constants present, such as the kind of physical environment we all in our current condition observe around us, some basic intuitions, some basic moral perception, etc), which neatly explains disagreements and misunderstandings.

    Now, while reading your piece I was struck by Kierkegaard’s expression of “leaps of faith”, for it would represent a discontinuity or chasm in that existential landscape. Since a small child I have always been a theist some way or other, moving quite slowly indeed, so I haven’t myself experienced any such leap. I wonder if such leaps do in fact happen. Observing other people I notice that there are people who believe in God and live pretty much as if God does not exist (I am in that neighborhood I am sorry to say). Other people do not believe in God and live better lives, i.e. as if God does exist. Thus I see people kind of all over the place, and wonder if the phrase “leap of faith” is realistic. Perhaps people move around the existential landscape using small steps, and it is only in a poetic sense that one describes some movements as a “leap”. I don’t see faith as a binary quality; rather I see faith as a realization that grows in one. Also the existential landscape has many dimensions, so that even in those cases where the life a person undergoes a fast external change, it is perhaps the case that before that visible “leap” a long process of internal development has taken place. Here is where a philosophy of the human condition would come handy.

  3. Eric

    You've got me thinking about the case for agnosticism here. Three points seem crucial to my personal story in this regard.

    First, I agree the legal analogy is apt, but would argue this process is underpinned by agnosticism. The jury is asked to convict only if guilt can be established beyond reasonable doubt; that is the probability of guilt reaches some culturally defined threshold. If not, in our legal system at least, there is no need to establish innocence. Agnosticism is enough to secure freedom. In the case of God, there is no way of probably establishing either existence or non-existence, and so agnosticism does appear to do the job, just as it would in a jury room.

    Second, I don't buy the need to establish a position either way. This, to my mind, underestimates the power and creativity of personal narratives. It is perfectly possible to chisel the concepts of love, hope, justice, purpose etc from the agnostic rock, and many socially functioning agnostics, myself included, provide the evidence for this. While it is true God can powerfully inform the theist narrative, it is a mistake for the theist to assume that there aren't other equally effective ways of achieving the same outcome.

    Thirdly, if we accept that both atheism and theism are equally reasonable, then to embrace one is to claim that those who reasonably embrace the other are just plain wrong. And this step I don't yet believe can be taken reasonably. At this point, I see both stances as equally unreasonable. They appear to contain the quite remarkable claim that some people's intuitive hunches on matters that go beyond the evidence are better than others (itself not unreasonable) and that we can work out which is which (which in the absence of any method I find intellectually difficult to swallow).

    That's how I would begin to set about constructing a defence for agnosticism.


  4. Hi Eric,

    From your article: Atheists and theists make the passionate leap, but agnostics refuse, and in so doing miss out on a crucial element of life.

    I think there's something artificial about these categories. For instance, I have no clue what the ultimate nature of reality is and perhaps it will be forever beyond our reach. But, on the other hand, I don't think it is like the theists say it is, if only because I expect ultimate reality would not be so conventional and unsurprising. So, what does that make me?

    Bernard above is right to say we don't have to establish a position either way. Moreover, I believe the way the problem is formulated, as a choice between established doctrine, is a false choice. I fully expect that ultimate reality, if we ever find out, will prove far stranger than anything we can imagine.