Monday, October 19, 2020

Douglas Adams: On preferring the term 'atheist' over 'agnostic'

Douglas Adams was once interviewed by American Atheists on the use of the word “atheist."

In England we seem to have drifted from vague, wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague, wishy-washy Agnosticism…if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him [God], then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.

He continues:

I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year-old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe.
By contrast, he says:

I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance...I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view...God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

The interview was reprinted in:

Douglas Adams. The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. New York: Ballantine, 2005. (With a 2003 introduction by Terry Jones.) pp. 96-97.

Related: I like this excerpt from George Yancy's interview of Todd May in the New York Times (October 2020).

Yancy: If those who believe in the supernatural are mistaken epistemologically, do you feel that you have a responsibility to tell them that they are wrong or is it fine to allow religious believers to embrace beliefs that you would argue are false?

May: To me, whether or not to argue about the correctness of belief in the supernatural is very much dependent on context. For instance, I do volunteer teaching in a maximum-security prison, where faith among the incarcerated men often plays an important role in sustaining them psychologically. It would be unethical for me to try to argue that they’re mistaken. They adhere to different religions, they know that I’m an atheist, and so we sit around a table (or did until Covid-19 arrived) and discuss philosophical ideas together, often comparing how their different beliefs might incorporate or reject these ideas.

Alternatively, if someone is using religious faith to diminish others, challenging the correctness or coherence of the faith itself might be a justified form of confrontation. And for very different reasons a philosophical discussion of the supernatural would be a proper place to challenge religious belief.

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