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Meditation 872
A Jury of Strawmen

by: JT

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In an article in the current Skeptical Inquirer[1], Jonathan C. Smith makes an unwarranted and misleading attack on agnosticism. Here's what he has to say:

... The agnostic stance is essentially that "the jury is still out" concerning a claim. Sensible and thinking people, including true believers, make up their minds all the time. It is perfectly reasonable to decide not to believe in intelligent life on the moon, the power of herbal tea to extend life by fifty years, or even the claims of famous psychics like Uri Geller that they can sometimes bend spoons with their thoughts. Indeed, it would be silly to assert, "Are there moon-men" The jury is out. Is green tea the fountain of life? The jury is out. Are spoon-bending psychics real? The jury is out." And absence of faith in such claims does not reflect a rigid atheism because it does not preclude the possibility that at some time supportive evidence for the claim might emerge. These are atheists following the simple rules of common sense.

In this fallacious argument, Smith falls on his face. He has set up a strawman (the agnostic stance is "the jury is still out") and then tried ineffectually to knock it down using irrelevant examples which have nothing to do with the possibility of the existence of a deity, and which unlike a deity, are all subject to proof. He concludes with an appeal to common sense, something we have all - including Professor Smith - seen frequently to be a less than perfect route to decision making. This from the author of a textbook subtitled "A Critical Thinker's Toolkit."[2] Some critical thinking!

Professor Smith states "Sensible and thinking people, including true believers, make up their minds all the time." That's true. But sensible and thinking people make decisions that have real meaning. Others, less sensible and less thoughtful also make decisions all the time - and they waste time and effort making unnecessary decisions and in demanding others make meaningless decisions.

Let's look at Smith's jury analogy - his claim that the agnostic stance is essentially that "the jury is still out." If we choose to stick with this questionable jury analogy, I contend that for many[3] agnostics the jury is in. It has delivered a verdict in the traditional Scots fashion - a resounding verdict of "Not Proven."[4]

But of course, that is if we choose to accept the jury analogy. But is the jury applicable? (And not just because a jury decision is a group decision, rather than one reached by an individual.) While the rule is not absolute, a jury can be required to reach a verdict. A great deal of pressure can be applied to a jury to do so. In many jurisdictions the judge has the power to impose sanctions such as sequestering a deadlocked jury almost indefinitely to force it to reach a verdict. It applies a great deal of pressure on the hold-outs to go along with the majority. That pressure can lead to an unwarranted and unjust verdict. But there is a requirement to produce a verdict.

We are under no such pressure, under no such necessity. If as Smith would have it, we are limited to pronouncing guilty or not guilty, nothing at all requires us to pronounce either way. I don't know is sufficient. The discussion can legitimately end there.

Further, a jury verdict has real implications. It affects the world. It affects third parties. But, in determining we are agnostic on the issue of god's existence, we affect nobody. We are not letting some crime go unpunished. A murderer is not walking free. An innocent man is not going to the gallows. We are not failing a victim by not awarding damages. No-one's life is affected one iota.[5]

The only thing to encourage me to rejoin the Anglican communion (as a theistic example[6]), is that I would be able to resume my rightful position as approximately[7] 31,415,926th in line for the British throne. And the only thing that would encourage me to declare myself an atheist would be... well to be honest, Professor Smith has nothing to offer that encourages such a step. Neither professed belief or professed atheism has anything to offer that outweighs the cost to my intellectual integrity that would be involved in rejecting an honestly considered agnosticism.

Regardless of how low a probability we might assign to a deity's existence, there is no necessity for an agnostic to declare for atheism. In a secular society, there is no meaningful advantage to so declare[8]. There is no reason at all for any agnostic to go beyond I don't know.

I have written before that I assign an extremely low subjective probability to any deity's existence, perhaps a lower probability than many proclaimed atheists. But that does not motivate me to join their ranks. The fact remains, on the issue of a god's existence, I don't know. Jonathan C. Smith's argument does nothing to change that.[9]



  1. Hope: Faith, Atheism, and Agnosticism, by Jonathan C. Smith, Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 2011 p. 51
  2. Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit, by Jonathan C. Smith
  3. As always, I do not claim to speak for all agnostics.
  4. Not Proven on Wikipedia
  5. Except the life of those atheists whose noses unnecessarily get out of joint about the continued existence of agnostics and agnosticism, and as for them, I don't care.
  6. Given the unlikelihood of picking the right version of god amongst the countless versions, the supposed rewards of heaven and the penalties of hell (which only some gods offer) can be safely ignored for this choice. Perhaps Smith and I might agree on this point.
  7. This number will never be known with absolute accuracy because of continuing deaths and births.
  8. For those unfortunate enough to live in a theocracy or an atheocracy, then there could be extremely strong reasons to make a decision, regardless of one's actual beliefs.
  9. Frankly, the questionable logic used by Smith makes it less likely I'd want to be associated with atheism.