Strong Agnostics v. Smug Epistemic Overreachers?

I’m a strong agnostic. I’m convinced that both atheists and theists are deluding themselves. I don’t think either atheists or theists know what the hell is really going on, and if one side happens to be right, it’s not because they’re thinking more clearly than the other side. It’s because they’re lucky. Indeed, I think that whichever side, in the end, is right, it will be for reasons neither side is offering right now! Think about that! We know so little about the universe just 350 intsy years after Newton, that the room for surprise is huge. Even monstrous and terrifying.

So what are you? Are you:

  • a “strong atheist” or “strong theist” (rhetorically blunt and thoroughly convinced that you’re right);
  • a “confidence atheist” or “confidence theist” (not 100% convinced, but nevertheless combative in your rhetoric and mockery of the other side); or
  • a weak atheist, a weak theist, or an agnostic (counseling ongoing and respectful dialogue, but convinced that both strong atheists and strong theists are smug epistemic overreachers)?

Or perhaps something else? Is there a potential stance here that I’ve missed?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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18 Responses to Strong Agnostics v. Smug Epistemic Overreachers?

  1. gonovelgo says:

    Or perhaps something else? Is there a potential stance here that I’ve missed?

    Well…yes, you are. What about confident atheists or confident theists who are reasonably convinced of their positions but who are not combative or mocking to the other side? It’s not as if they don’t exist.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Thanks for adding that. Civil confidence. What a concept!

    I wonder what role irony plays in our positions. How ironic are we about our lives? How serious do we take them? Can we step back from ourselves and say to ourselves, “You know, you’re full of shit here,” or “You might be full of shit here”?


  3. Grad Student says:

    I second gonovelgo’s remark.

    I’d also like to reiterate a comment I’ve made here before:

    Most of the Dawkins-ish rhetoric is directed at beliefs in things like creationism and the resurrection. That is, things about which science does have something to say.

    Unfortunately Dawkins and crew don’t distinguish between religious literalists and religionists with a more philosophical/scientific outlook on life, the universe, and everything.

    Now let me accuse you 😉 of committing the same sin as Dawkins. You sometimes criticize the new atheists as if their “jut-jawed confidence” was in the non-existence of a God that created the laws of physics and/or consciousness. However, as I articulated above, that’s generally not what they are confident about. Thus you don’t seem to distinguish between the confident critics of literalist religion and confident critics of a Deist-type God plus literalist religion.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    Damn! I admit that I don’t make that distinction. You definitely have discovered a blind spot in my own thinking for me. Thank you.

    I do notice that when I join some of the threads at atheist sites, that there are a lot of atheists who do fit my broader bear paw swipe, but before I get in discussions with one of them in the future, I should certainly ask them whether they make the distinction that you note.

    Thanks again for discovering that distinction that I haven’t been making.


  5. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    I’d also offer a Freudian observation to yours. So much of what passionately stirs argument with others is projection. In other words, you can make a pretty sure bet that the more passionate you are about someone else’s intellectual “errors,” the more likely it is that you are concealing from yourself similar moves in your own thinking.


  6. Grad Student says:

    Your irony/Freudian remarks remind a lot of my wife’s thinking on some of these matters (she’s a literary type also).

    I think literary types definitely have an edge on us sciency types in that they are much more self-aware of their limitations in gaining knowledge. Perhaps this is why self-awareness/self-referentiality seem to pervade a lot of literary theory/continental philosophy.

    The lesson I try to take from your side of the campus is to be aware that the scientific universe could be just the tip of the iceberg, and we may never know what’s below the water. Perhaps we scientists should take Godel’s theorem as a metaphor for science: there may be be plenty of truth out there that is unreachable by scientific methods.

    Still, at the end of the day, none of the above makes the ideas of literalist religion worth considering for very long.

  7. gonovelgo says:


    I’ve been wondering about this since last time I posted here – what exactly is it about Freudian arguments that you find so compelling? I mean, take this:

    In other words, you can make a pretty sure bet that the more passionate you are about someone else’s intellectual “errors,” the more likely it is that you are concealing from yourself similar moves in your own thinking.

    Why is that a sure bet? I only ask because many of my own English lectures are similarly eager to bring Freud into discussions on various topics, but I usually can’t see why they feel his opinion carries so much weight.

  8. santitafarella says:


    You ask a very good question about Freud. I hope you don’t mind a long answer.

    English professors have the habit of treating Freud as a creative writer, and thus part of the literary canon, not as a hard scientist, and we just aren’t as worried as science-oriented people are about Popper’s critique of Freud that his theories aren’t falsifiable (and therefore shouldn’t be in the mix of interpretive models).

    When I (or another English instructor or English oriented person) says: “Freud teaches us that . . .” we are doing it in the way we might say, “Blake teaches us about the horrors of childhood, and its passages from innocence to experience,” or “Shakespeare’s Macbeth teaches us about the role of unconscious guilt in self destruction.”

    Likewise, Freud, via his dazzling readings of dreams (and dreams are akin to literature) and literature and art (such as Oedipus and Michaelangelo’s Moses) teach us about the struggles of projection and the unconscious. English literature people are dream readers, and Freud is our Joseph in Egypt. He is one of our great dream readers.

    If you don’t think that literature and plays and Shakespeare and dreams offer any real insights about the human condition (because those insights are associative, general, and not subject to methods of scientific verification, nor do they necessarily explain particular cases) then you won’t think much of Freud. Freud was a creative writer in pseudo-scientific drag. He belongs in English departments, not in departments of scientific psychology (because his intuitions are not falsifiable), and, of course, that is exactly where you find him most talked about, and with enthusiasm.

    But here’s the key. The human psyche is large. It contains multitudes. There’s a part of us that carries an Oedipal complex inside us, and Freud detected that. We all project and have unconsious lives as well as conscious ones. We all have sexual energies percolating that give our words double meanings. Freud caught all of these things. He saw them explicitly and made them explicit, and wrote about them beautifully. He is a literary and dream critic. Like any other creative writer, he discovered a fresh language for talking about the human condition. It is not the final language, or a better language than other creative writers (like, say, Nietzsche or Blake or Euripides or Marx), but it is a language that English-people salivate to. They salivate to it because it is in the family of ways that novelists, poets, and creative writers and critics think. They think associatively. They see the world in terms of metacognitive ironies and hidden motives and concealed strategies and unconscious surprises that leap seemingly out of nowhere at a crucial moment in a story.

    If you’re a scientific oriented person, offer your English professor anti-Freud push back to force him or her to think and to stimulate class discussion. But also, offer him or her an open heart with regard to Freud, for when you say that Freud is bullshit, you are treading on your English professor’s dreams—what makes your English professor tick and go.

    To bring down the wrath of science on Freud is bring its wrath upon the value of the literary, poetic, and creative projects in general.

    I think, by the way, that one of the most beloved scientific theories might also have problems with falsification: natural selection. As an English person, when I read Darwin, I see a literary stylist before me, a creative writer, with a theory that one immediately intuits as true, and broadly applicable to the world (as Freud’s Oedipal Complex is true), and yet I also see it as explaining everything and so explaining nothing, and of being infinitely malleable. If, for example, you say: Why does this spider over here have spots and this one over here doesn’t, Darwin can give you a story for explaining both, but ultimately he must resort to the contingencies of each individual animal. Likewise Freud. Freud can explain why one person dreams of his mother, and why another doesn’t, but ultimately it is an explanation of contingent particularities that covers all bases non-falsifiably. Why is this? Because Darwin and Freud are creative writers working associately with creative tautologies applied to contingencies. Their theories are infinitely malleable. They can explain everything in particular (the wildest dream and the wildest species) and nothing in general. Likewise, they can make the grandest generalizations that explain nothing in particular.

    Why has this species survived? It’s fit. Why is it fit? Because it has survived! Why does Celia dream this? Forbidden desire. Why forbidden? Because she dreamed it!

    The varieties of species and the varieties of dreams are akin. They’re the wild animals we work with and theorize about and struggle to explain.


  9. gonovelgo says:

    I can see where you’re coming from on natural selection, but I don’t think that the theory is infinitely malleable. Certainly Darwin’s own writings are filled with examples of ‘this could be how it works’, but nowadays there’s a lot more behind it than just educated guesses. (In most cases – there will obviously always be gaps in our understanding.) Even in cases where a trait seems to convey a negative survival advantage, the rest of the evidence in favor of evolution makes it more likely that the trait does in fact aid survival in a way that isn’t obvious. By any reasonable standard, natural selection has already proven itself as thoroughly as it needs to.

    But anyway, that’s beside the point. I suppose my issue with Freud is that I’m very scientific in my outlook, even though I don’t study science. When one of my lecturers says ‘According to a Freudian interpretation of The Turn of the Screw, the Governess is [insert something here, it’s been too long since that lecture!]’, that’s all well and good. After all, there are dozens of methods of analyzing literature, and none of them can be objectively verified as being ‘the best’ way of doing it.

    What sometimes annoys me is when these Freudian ideas are then treated as facts in the ‘real world’ (and let’s not get into that debate or we’ll be here all day), or when a literary critic uses a literary example in order to ‘prove’ that their particular theory has utility in analyzing history or humanity in general. Indeed, an awful lot of English papers seem to begin with a discussion of a novel or short story or poem, only to launch into a seemingly unrelated discussion of something that might be better handled by a sociologist or a historian. The literature almost becomes vestigial in some cases, with the result that no part of the work does justice to the subjects at hand.

    So, you might say that Freud is the worst example of a trend that I dislike about the field as a whole. I would be perfectly content to study the history of literature, identifying trends in style or subject matter, but I get the impression that an awful lot of people would look down on such an endeavor. They seem to want ‘more’ out of their subject, which is, I think, why Freud can be so appealing.

    Incidentally, it was all of this, coupled with the sheer obtuseness of the essays I was made to read in first year, that convinced me to drop English in favor of History and Philosophy. I honestly wish I could have enjoyed it more, because I love literature and would like to be a novelist myself, but as an academic field I feel that it just isn’t for me. What, in your opinion, could be done to entice the more scientifically minded to the subject? (Or what could the more scientifically minded do to give the subject a fairer chance before they dismiss it, which I’m willing to admit I probably didn’t do.)

  10. santitafarella says:


    You have a good instinct for survival. There’s lots to hate about the use of a literary passage as a launching pad into a prosaic sociological or political discussion. And nobody who is pro-science is comfortable with creative languages or critical languages that veer too far from the empirical. English has always been akin to theology. It’s not hard to see why you might hate that aspect of it.

    The problem is that we all live impoverished lives. We go to literature for fresh ways of seeing, for pleasure, for fresh language, and for meaning, and we find (perhaps) our discussions about it in a classroom are simply not equal to the brilliance of the texts themselves. Talking prosaic politics or sociology around a passage (for example) is easy. It’s a way to reach to the lowest common denominator. Close reading is hard. It takes patience. And we live in a culture where sustained attention is peculiar. To eat a poem and fall into a poem, and avoid the temptation to step around the intensity of a poem, is hard.

    I think you might be surprised. If you really wanted to study English in more depth, you would find professors who would support your quest for studying literature qua literature. I would encourage you to have a look at the criticism of Helen Vendler (of Harvard) to see what that kind of academic writing might look like. I suppose that the way to draw the science minded to a liking of English is to treat (for example) the poem as a leaf or wild creature that can be studied closely. Vendler does that. I admit that she is in the minority.

    I wish I had a clearer solution. I wonder: Have you read Richard Rorty’s “Contingency, Irony, Solidarity”? That book, to my mind, is a bridge between English and philosophy. It might help you think about whether (for you) English is a valuable discipline.


  11. gonovelgo says:

    I haven’t read either of the authors you mentioned, but I’m sure I could find them easily enough. In fact, I would love a way to link the study of literature with the study of philosophy – as I’ve said, I write fiction myself, so I know exactly what it’s like to ‘fall into a poem’ (or in my case, a piece of prose). The scientist in me grows positively giddy at the thought of being able to systematically study that form of expression.

    I’ll probably try to dip into the field on my own time, but I’ve pretty much made up my mind about my subject choices for the upcoming semester. However, one good thing about the blurring of English’s boundaries that I mentioned earlier is that it seems pretty open to comment from people of diverse academic backgrounds, which is something I’m always in favor of. In the meantime I’ll let you know what I think of Helen Vendler. I’d appreciate it if you have any particular recommendations, particularly if they’re on the likes of JSTOR since I won’t have access to my university’s library for a little while.

  12. Jared K says:

    The problem with strong agnosticism, as opposed to the weak variety, is how confident the strong agnostic is of our ignorance. Typically, a strong agnostic is one who says “we [or I] cannot know if there is a God.” If you think about it for just a moment, that is a very bold claim. Generally, the bolder the claim, the more important it is that there be justification.

    I suppose there might be a “weaker” strong agnostic who would say “very probably, we cannot know if there is a God.”

    Generally, weak agnosticism is something more akin to saying “I don’t currently know if there is a God and I have no idea if anyone else knows. I’ve yet to see or experience for myself any good evidence one way or the other. Maybe the future will be different…”

    While I am fine with weak agnosticism, I sort of take issue with strong agnosticism because it is hard to see how such a bold proposition could be justified. Why think that we probably cannot know that God exists? It seems like a huge leap to an inference that cannot be made. If I’ve yet to see any good evidence one way or the other, why would I assume that tomorrow won’t provide such evidence? Why would I assume that others’ haven’t, or will not, come across some better evidence than what I’ve encountered?

    So I think that strong agnosticism is a bit smug and over-reaching and unjustified. At the risk of sounding self-referentially incoherent, I would say that we cannot know that we cannot know whether there is a God. I guess I’m saying that the strong agnostic, if she’s right, is lucky.

    And in some ways,it is hard to see the difference between an atheist and a strong agnostic. If we cannot and will not ever know whether there is a God, doesn’t this entail a sort of practical atheism?

  13. santitafarella says:


    I agree with you. When you define strong agnosticism the way that you do, then I’m definitely a weak agnostic.

    I think of myself as somebody who has the vase-face problem with regard to God. I can see both the atheist and theist arguments, and think both sides make good points, and if I jumped to one side or the other, would immediately start being haunted with doubts by the other side’s arguments.

    I’m having the same problem with the UFO issue right now. There are issues at the fringe of human understanding that have a spectral quality (God and UFOs being two of them).


    • Jared K says:


      Diane Rehm had an interesting discussion about UFOs on her radio show today on NPR. If you didn’t catch it, she had a couple of experts on, including someone from SETI. I think you can listen to it on NPRs website.

      I definitely agree that UFOs, per se, are ambiguous. It seems like *something* is going on (natural phenomenon, secret technology, something else?). But to make the leap to extra terrestrials who are here, right now, doesn’t seem very plausible to me at all.

      I get your point about the similarities between UFO enthusiasts and religionists, but little green men from other dimensions who are hiding and watching us from the sky strikes me personally as far less plausible than the idea of a necessary being that might explain why anything at all exists. But that is just me. But UFOs are a great and fascinating mystery.

      I don’t get much existential hope from it personally. I kind of understand what you mean though. I’ve always thought that seeing a ghost or poltergeist (which I am skeptical about) would have the opposite effect on me that it would with most folks–why be scared at the moment you’ve just discovered there is an afterlife?

  14. santitafarella says:


    There is a literary association (to which I belong) that carries the torch of “close reading” in the way that you are thinking. It’s called the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. You can find them on the web. They are a counterbalance to the postmodern-dominant MLA (to which I also belong).

    In addition to Vendler, you might read one of her Harvard proteges, Willard Spiegelman. Spiegelman was once a student at Harvard, and now teaches elsewhere. Terry Eagleton has also written an exceptional book on close reading (How to Read a Poem).

    And there are older models of “close reading” (like Lionel Trilling), and passionate defenders (like Harold Bloom).

    You must track down a copy of the literary bomb thrower, Camille Paglia. Her book, “Sexual Personae,” will rock your world.

    All the above names can be easily found at Amazon.

    Since you’re a fiction writer, track down Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot. His other books are great too. Also find James Woods’ “How Fiction Works.”

    The thread that attracts you to English definitely exists.


  15. gonovelgo says:

    Thanks, all of that will definitely keep me busy! In the interest of making the most informed decision possible, I’ll try to track down some of those before I have to finalize my choices.

  16. santitafarella says:


    Thanks for the Diana Rehm tip. I’ll try to locate it. By the way, they’re not green, they’re gray!


  17. santitafarella says:


    Let me know if any of those books were helpful a few months down the road.


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