Interview with Advocatus Atheist, Tristan Vick, on ignosticism and other things
Tristan Vick is a blogger and author who I have various dealings with online, not least of which is a co-edited book in the final stages of editing which we will release called Beyond An Absence Of Faith, an anthology of deconversion accounts which has been really fascinating to put together. Tristan has just completed a book on the position of ignosticism which is detailed in the interview.
Tristan has busily been writing both fiction and non-fiction as you will see in his bio. He blogs under the name Advocatus Atheist, and can be found here. Check him out!
TRISTAN VICK GRADUATED FROM MONTANA State University with degrees in English Literature and Asian Cultural Studies. He speaks fluent Japanese and lives in Japan with his wife and daughter. When he’s not commuting on the train or teaching English he spends his time reading, writing, blogging, and eating sara-udon. He is the author of the popular zombie series Bitten: A Resurrection Thriller, Bitten 2: Land of the Rising Dead, and the upcoming Bitten 3: Kingdom of the Living Dead. He is editor of the non-fiction collections Reason Against Blasphemy and Seasons of Freethought which collects together the freethought works of G.W. Foote and Robert G. Ingersoll. You can learn more about the author or contact him at: tristanvick.blogspot.com
Q1) As an atheist from the U.S., do you have a deconversion story considering the high religiosity of the State and the fact that many nonbelievers often come from a religious background?
A: As a matter of fact yes. I came out of three decades of Evangelical Christian belief. I was raised in a family that was part of the Assemblies of God denomination of Evangelical Christianity, but my father was Lutheran and my mother was mainstream Protestant. However, my mother’s side of the family has always been hyper religious, and speaking in tongues and hands on faith healing were common part of my religious upbringing. In college I joined Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) and met my Apologetics idol Josh McDowell twice!
Toward the end of my radical belief phase I got involved with a sect of Messianic Jews (i.e., Jews for Jesus) as I firmly felt that the Jews being Jesus’ people represented a truer, more pure, form of belief and so too represented, as far as I was concerned, a purer relationship with the one true God.
During summers, when I wasn’t going to school, I worked as a counselor at a popular summer Bible camp. I did the job of the Lord brainwashing the next generation of zombies for Jesus. A crime, by any civilized account, that I am still doing penetrance for in the form of fixing my mistake by posing a counter opposition to the dangers of non-thinking exclusivism in the form of teaching free-thinking, critical inquiry, and skepticism.
Q2) As Advocatus Atheist, what do you hope to achieve by blogging?
Like I said above, the political aspect of my anti-theistic stance arises from my deep seeded regret for having manipulated young minds into believing nonsense. The dangers of religion exist primarily because children are brainwashed at early ages, before they have fully develop good reasoning skills, and this allows them to be easily manipulated and duped into a slew of erroneous, often times harmful, beliefs which they simply take for granted because, as is so often the case in faith-based circles, “faith” is off limits to criticize. And if an authority figure tells a child not to question an just accept it—such as my Christian friends who tell their kids heaven is real—then the child’s curios questions of “Why, how, where?” get surpressed by the religious practice to suppress doubt. Instead, my reasoning has evolved to consider that the child’s answer is their best inference to the truth, and what I try to do now is ask them why they think that. Supply them more information. Instruct them to think some more. And let them know two very important things that religion doesn’t teach. 1) It’s perfectly okay to change your mind, and 2) I don’t know is a perfectly viable answer.
Religious faith doesn’t seem all that comfortable with heretical positions or answers which default to a sort of agnosticism about the way of the world. Religion wants to provide all the answers to all your questions. And many find this comforting. But the problem is that many of the answers religion provides are simply wrong.
So feeling guilty for my part in brainwashing young children, and having been a victim of it myself, I seek to correct the harm I inflicted on young developing minds by teaching people how to how to properly evaluate information—always keeping in mind that it’s perfectly okay to change our minds and that the answer “I don’t know” is a better answer than stubbornly clinging to dogmatic rubbish that has been thrice disproved.
The blogging allows me an outlet to express my frustration with religion, dogma, and all the dangers that arise when you value blind faith above reason and good rationale. So my blog has an array of challenging content. Everything from simple rant filled polemics, to more academic material, such as Biblical exegesis and the examination of early Christianity and discussions ranging from the historicity of Christ to the psychological effects of religion.
By getting such information out there into the open, I hope the next generation of children who get brainwashed might be bold enough to Google some of the more pressing concerns they may have regarding the reliability of their faith, and maybe they will happen across my blog and see that another guy was once in their shoes. And if I came to see the light, my hope is, they will realize that the answers are out there all they have to do is open their eyes to them.
It also allows me to share what I feel is a better alternative to religious experience, things like humanism, science, good philosophy, literature, and getting over the infantile notion that because we are imperfect that something must be direly wrong with us. Imperfection doesn’t mean we’re flawed, it means we are unique. Religion holds us up to an impossible ideal of perfection—saying we should all strive to be perfect like God—as if imperfection was a crime. But when you understand science, how we came to be, you realize the path of evolution we have traversed has led to a perfectly imperfect being—and that’s fine. Instead of feeling ashamed for our imperfections, we must learn to overcome our limitations. Again, religion goes about this the wrong way. It says the only way to overcome our limitations is to try to become more “Godly” (whatever that means). Rather, I take the humanist approach. We must learn to love each other despite our imperfections and then we can move forward by working together to overcome our limitations. I must prefer the outlook that says we can overcome our limitations by our own ingenuity and volition versus the one that says we are destined to fail so we need to defer all responsibility to an imaginary friend, then feel ashamed when we can’t live up to unreasonable expectations.
But my blogging may have a much simpler explanation too. As my blog’s slogan says, “I think, therefore I blog.”
Q3) What is the most memorable feedback you have had from blogging?
All those who have written in, either in the comments sections or via person email, who have expressed their great thanks and gratitude for some small thing I may have said that helped them in a significant way. To hear that my blogging isn’t just white noise fading into the static of the blogosphere makes me feel a sense of great accomplishment. Indeed, the fact that my one voice might be of some help to someone, and that there is worth in the endeavor to help others as much as humanly possible, makes me feel like blogging isn’t a complete waste of time. Because, I must admit, with the amount of inane, unthinking, religious opposition which arises—some days I just feel like giving up. But then every once in a while, someone chimes in with a story about how something I had written really helped them get through a rough patch in their life, and I must say, their gratitude means a lot to me.
Q4) You have just written a book on Ignosticism. What is Ignosticism in a nutshell?
It’s the position that the very definition of God is semantically flawed. So much so that, for example, to ask the question “Does God exist?” is meaningless. “God” can come to mean so many different things for so many different people that the way in which the word “God” is applied has capacity to mean nearly anything one wants it to mean in any given context. This, as you can imagine, proves to be problematic for the very reason a word which can mean anything and everything at any time couldn’t possibly mean anything.
I examine several reasons for why I feel ignosticism is a valid philosophical stance, and I find support in various fields of epistemology, psychology, and philosophy. As I was researching ignosticism I discovered that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of language-games seemed uncannily familiar to how religious faith derives their myriad concepts of God, and I looked at how the idea of God might be a conceptualization which comports to a very specific language game. Additionally, I offer ways to test this theory, and I finish the book by examining a few objections and doing my best to address them in a concise and straightforward manner.
Q5) What arguments do you have to defend such a position?
There is a theory of epistemology that is well supported called constructivism. In fact, most of our modern pedagogy in the West relies on the success of a type of learning theory derived from constructivism. I briefly outline what constructivism is in the book, and cite numerous works to show how well it really is supported, then I make the link between the idea that we *construct our knowledge and the field known as semantics by which we give meanings to words, which upon closer inspection seems to be the same exercise.
I don’t go in depth in either area (as this work is merely an introductory piece to these concepts) but I do make it clear that the link between constructivism and semantics is obvious. Then I talk about language games ala Wittgenstein’s keen observation that *naming a thing and describing a thing are two different acts. In the naming of something we are appending certain attributes to it. By describing a thing we are looking to see if it has attributes that reflect our experience of reality.
I then make the claim that God is not a real thing because everything we know about the term points toward God being strictly a conceptualization—a thing named and not described. I then use the theory of justification, which I call referential justification, to validate this claim by showing ways in which to test whether or not God relates back to reality in the same way as objects do or whether the idea of God is more representative of a concept with features of something being named rather than described.
After establishing these theories, I use them to show that, essentially, the premise of ignosticism is true. By all accounts is appears that the way the term “God” is used is representative of language-game rooted in the way we use language. By using my referential justification I clear away any doubt as to whether or not the myriad of religious concocted definitions of God may reference something in reality or whether it is a type of naming. There is strong evidence that every God-concept known to man has no referent in reality, and therefore any reference of God points back to its being a concept. I then show how we can know this for certain by showing how objects with referents have definitions/descriptions which converge and things which remain conceptual have definitions/descriptions which diverge. I then ask the simple question whether or not our understanding of the myriad of God concepts fits with the prior identification of something with a converging definition/description or whether it follows the latter example of something with diverging definitions/descriptions. I hold that it is the latter, and therefore any and all notions of God must be considered concepts, at least until we can find a description which converges. Only then would we have a word which is used to mean the same thing. But as it is, the word God means too many different things to quantify. Thus the word “God” is without meaning, and ignosticism is true.
Q6) What drove you to write a book on it and what do you hope to achieve (other than being on the NYT bestseller list, obviously)?
My goal was to avoid the pitfall of always having to give the theist the benefit of the doubt. When we hear their theological argument we usually have to concede to their position before we can argue against it. God is transcendent, the theologian might say, and we have to accept this premise before we start poking holes in this representation of God. Usually the nonbeliever gets burdened with the task of showing how the theology is philosophically unsound, or how the content of their claim isn’t compatible with science, or by pointing out the biases and revealing all of the informal fallacies one has to accept in order to get that particular theology of the ground. Then it’s a matter of arguing against the apologists preconceived defenses to why their very shaky theology must be taken seriously. And I simply feel that’s conceding way too much for someone who previously expressed a certainty in their ability to demonstrate their claims. I don’t want the religious debate to continue this way. Frankly, it’s a waste of time, and the only people who would be attracted to this sort of time-waste are philosophers (no offense) with nothing better to do.
I think the religious discourse should rather go like this: The theist asks, “Does God exist?” The atheist states, “What do you mean by God?”
The catch-22 it that if the theist offers any definition of God that is somehow different from any other, they have literally proved their definition to be one that adheres to the aforementioned language-game, and therefore they have inadvertently proved it meaningless to ask the question about a concept existing as a real object. Therefore, all the nonbeliever need do is simply remind the believer that their definition of God is meaningless and leave it at that.
I am certain this will frustrate many theologians who want you to concede to their points. But my book demonstrates that ignosticism isn’t simply a trick—that it’s representative of what’s actually going on when we talk about God, or invoke the idea of God, and because it matches up with reality in such a precise fashion we can be comforted knowing that the theory appears quite sound. Finally, if ignosticism is true, and I think it is, the conclusion that follows is simply that it is meaningless to talk about God because all that really is happening is that people are comparing competing conceptualizations and not actually describing anything. And like Wittgenstein observed, these are very different things. As such, it appears that “God” as a function of language only relates to conceptual things, and as such, God being merely a concept and not real validates the atheist position.
Q7) Have you seen a step change in the religious landscape in the US (even though you live in Japan) over the last decade?
Most definitely. Atheists can now get on CNN and be recognized as atheists. Less than ten years ago this could never have happened. The millennial are now the largest group growing disenfranchised with the idea of religion and are leaving the fold en-masse. Atheist thinkers have regained a prominence they hadn’t had since the Golden Age of Freethought. Atheists are fighting to gain rights in areas such as the military, public discource, and even politics—traditionally areas which have withheld rights to the individual simply for not carrying the party line and beliving in God like all the rest. The atheists are coming out and saying, “Hey, it’s cool to be the black sheep” and I think many find this sense of independence attractive. They can identify with it.
At the same time atheists are fighting to maintain a strong secularism which ensures the rights of all, opposed to a model theocracy which only favors the like-minded. Many Christians, especially in America, love to caterwaul about how everyone is out to get them. When really all that is being said is that yourself appointed privileged position in society has come to an end. You cannot demand you get certain rights while withholding the rights of others. The battle of the right wing conservative base, a highly religious majority, against gay rights is a keen example of this. We demand the right to get married… but you cannot… for religious reasons which we have imposed upon you—because we can. People are seeing that this cruel theocratic mindset doesn’t benefit society and they are saying to hell with it.
Even religious liberals are trying to distance themselves from the more conservative branches of their exact same faith! I like to listen to the New Covenant group on YouTube, because they are a group of liberal religious folk who aren’t afraid to point out their differences with their fellow brethren. And the more conservative groups will simply write off the liberal branches of faith as too heretical, but then in so doing make it harder for them to gain any sympathy from the liberal left and the secular minded groups—as they merely isolate themselves as insular, small-minded, bigots whose real concern isn’t fairness or equality but rather power and control.
Which is why for a young generation of millennialists it is easy to rebel against the system of religion that, coincidentally, represents everything the independent spirit wishes to get away from. The new wave of atheism has wedged its foot in the door and is waving to everyone in the pews to get out of the church. The real party starts outside of the church. Meanwhile, the religious are freaking out that people are leaving. After all, they will love to remind us that religion has a lot of good to offer. And well, that may be true. But perhaps the thing to realize about this truth is that it’s not exclusive. Religion may prove to offer some kind of net benefit to those who need it, but secular organizations are now proving they can offer the same kinds of benefits without the religious baggage. And many are ditching their faith and taking up the secular cause—not because it is so much better—but because it is just as good without the folly of religion to drag it into the mud.
Of course, this is where I expect apologists of faith to raise the issue of ‘secular’ tyrants like Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, etc. And we can all laugh at their expense for being ignoramuses. I mean, there is no need to be nice about it. If you make such a pathetically desperate argument just to salvage your sinking faith, then I I’m sorry, but I’m not going to help you by even taking your argument seriously. Especially when I already know how obviously flawed it is. And if you don’t, and you don’t understand why people are snickering behind your back when you make such a stupid, Ray Comfort level asinine argument, then you’re the one who needs to reconsider it—not the rest of us.
Q8) What is Japan like with regard to the religious and irreligious context?
Like many Asian cultures Japan is highly superstitious. Palm reading, star signs, and horoscopes are big here just like in many other Asian countries. But I would say most of it is a cultural based superstition, not a religious one.
Many people in Japan simply do not believe in God, but they might pray to their deceased ancestors, for example. They may not be actively religious, but every New Year ’s Eve everyone still goes to the Shrine to pray. So it’s not that they believe in strange things because it’s a part of their faith. They believe in strange things because these beliefs are so ingrained into their culture that it has just become a practice—a lot like how Westerners say “bless you” after you sneeze. Nobody thinks much of it.
But this isn’t to say that there aren’t any genuine believers. There are. Just far less of them per capita than any nation except for perhaps Sweden. But religious belief in Japan is representative of the minority, not the majority as back in the States and in most predominantly Muslim countries.
A whopping 75% of Japanese people identify themselves as Freethinkers with no religion. The next to predominant faiths are Buddhism and Shinto. Shinto is a type of pantheism, but aside from all the beautiful shrines in Japan, it’s a relatively small faith, similar to perhaps the localized faiths of Native Americans in America. Buddhism is much more prominent, but the Japanese form of Buddhism is mainly secular Buddhism. So even if you practice certain aspects of Buddhism, it can be toted as a philosophy and not a faith, per se. As such, this makes the native religious beliefs of Japan fully compatible with their predominantly secular culture. There’s hardly any friction and the two ideologies are not diametrically opposed. In other words, there is nothing controversial about saying you are a Buddhist but that you don’t believe in God.
Granted there still are fundamentalist groups of believers in Japan, but they are such a small fraction of a minority that they have no political sway and virtually no voice—so it’s hard to talk about them as anything other than fringe. So on the surface, upon first coming to Japan, it may seem that everyone practices some kind of religion or holds to superstitious belief, but upon getting acquainted more intimately with the culture, religion appears to play far less of a role in society than most places on the planet. And I think Japan is better off for it.
Additionally, the Japanese regard religion and politics as highly private affairs. More private than their sex lives in many cases. Whereas I can join my co-workers for after work drinks and laugh at a bit of ribald humor with my colleagues, if the subject changes to religion or politics a deathly silence falls over the group. Everyone suddenly becomes tight-lipped.
As you can imagine, it’s one of the things I like about Japan.
Q9) What are your top three books of all time (fiction and non-fiction list, please!)
You goddamn bastard! I’m going to slap you! Who asks such a question of a bibliophile? It’s practically impossible to give an adequate answer to. Instead I will simply name a few books I think people ought to read with regard to religion. First, please read Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained. Along the same lines I suggest Bruce M. Hood’s book Supersense as well as Jesse Bering’s book The Belief Instinct and Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain. I also highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, The Science of Evil by Simon-Baron Cohen, and Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness without God.
There is a reason all of these recommendations have a sociological and psychological focus, and the reason I recommend them is because once you read them you will never look at religion the same way again.
As for fiction books, that’s even more difficult. I am however a huge fan of Lewis Carroll, H.P. Lovecraft, and Douglas Adams. I also enjoy a slew of Indy authors such as Tonia Brown, Mainak Dhar, Rhiannon Frater, and Catt Dahman and so on and so forth.
But as an author I must say that my literary idol is J.K. Rowling. Not because she wrote Harry Potter and is wildly successful, not because she’s a damn fine writer, but because she represents everything I’d like to be as a writer. She has a love for silly, fun, and unusual words like I do. She bold in her storytelling choices, and I’d like to think I am too. She charts her own course, she writes the stories she wants to write, and she breaks the the mold, and dares to do things her way. I hope I can dare to take the same path.
Also, I’ve always harbored a massive crush on not because she’s a beautiful, elegant, and super intelligent woman, although these too, but because her mind is like crack to me. Yes, J.K. Rowling’s mind is my crack and I’m the providential crack baby.
But if the chance should ever arise that I’d be allotted ten minutes in a room alone with her, I think I’d be petrified to death. Not because I idolize her to the unhealthy extent I do, but because she is the kind of person who I’d melt into a puddle if I was near. I’d sweat profusely. I’d stutter. I’d trip up on words. You know, I’d suddenly do all the things I never do. I’d make a downright fool of myself, and the only thing I would take away from my encounter with such a great lady is the horrible realization that I had the uncanny ability to make her feel downright uncomfortable near me. The scenario could only end badly. With me rolling around on the floor frothing at the mouth and Joe climbing out the window making a break for the fire escape. And just to be honest, I respect the lady too much to subject her to such torturous discomfort and tedium.
10) What is the most difficult philosophical argument for you to overcome, or which challenges you, with regard to atheism or naturalism?
Interesting question. I’ll have to think about it. I’m not the sort of person who is bothered by not knowing. And I think for many philosophical minded people, those who look for answers, often expect to find the answers they’re looking for. And I don’t. Not really. I’m just contented that I’ve found many of the answers I’ve looked for. As for the rest, well, I don’t worry about it.
I mean, it’s not like I sit awake long past sunset, locked away in a dark room, with my face lit up by my computer monitor surfing the world wide web in a state of panic and distress because I can’t get to the bottom of some philosophical concept or because something has seemingly presented an insurmountable problem. If I don’t understand something, I ask someone who might. If there doesn’t seem to be an immediate answer, I simply try not to worry about it.
But I do have some highly specific concerns. Some of which may or mayn’t even be realistic. For example, I worry that if evolution works as well as it does, and all the smart people reproduce far less than all the lower I.Q. people, especially the religious variety who reproduce far too frequently, and suddenly I can’t help but have the concern that after a few thousand years of this we will have evolved to become more prone to religious thinking, superstition, and unquestioning with regard to authority instead of moving toward a more rational plane of existence.
I mean, it’s a silly concern, I know, but it’s one that sometimes pops into my head after reading a bout of extremely stupid religious Facebook posts or having replied to some rather idiotic comments on my blog by people who should know better but obviously have evolved to far in the wrong direction already. I feel that something needs to be done before we split into a race of super brains and mindless zombies—because although that would make for some great fiction, the possibility for such a reality terrifies me.
Like I said, my worries aren’t always realistic. And of course I may have, in a flourish or rhetoric, oversimplified things a bit. But underneath it all the problem poses a real significant challenge. And I do not have any ready available answer to how to address it. So at the moment, that’s what concerns me.
But as I said earlier, I try not to let it become a domineering preoccupation. For the most part, I’m content to write my novels. All of which are available on Amazon.com and the Book Depository. If you want to learn more about my upcoming projects, or even past works, head on over to my author page at: www.tristanvick.com
If you are interested in the religious debate, my atheist blog can be read at www.advocatusatheist.com
Thanks for the interview!
Stay tuned for more stuff from Tristan, and remember our upcoming deconversion anthology!