I wrote the following little skit as part of an e-mail response and Thad and I read through it on an episode of The Non-Prophets. Several people have asked for a written version (and Martin keeps pestering me to post at the blog), so I thought I'd make a few quick edits and post it here.
This is very rough and I doubt I'll ever bother to update it to a proper 'final draft' - but, here it is...
NOTE: HUGE DISCLAIMER - the 'Agnostic' in this story represents a particular type of intellectual agnostic that makes assertions about the unknown and unknowable (and sends me countless e-mails) - this doesn't represent EVERY type of agnostic or everyone who uses the label. Many of us have used or currently use the word agnostic to describe ourselves without ever approaching the nonsense represented here.
A very sturdy looking box rests on a table as two men walk up to it…
Theist: That box has a leprechaun in it.
Atheist: I don't believe that...why do you?
Theist: I heard him talking.
Atheist: I don't believe that either...in fact, I have no evidence that leprechauns exist.
Theist: Well, either there's a leprechaun in the box or there isn't, right?
Theist: So it's 50/50...and since I heard him talk, I'm sure that there's a leprechaun in there.
Atheist: Either there's a leprechaun in the box or not, but that doesn't mean the odds are 50/50.
Theist: Of course it does.
Atheist: Actually, it doesn’t, but could you offer some evide...
Theist: Hang on! He's just told me that if you don't believe he's in there, he'll chain you to a tree after you're dead and stick his shillelagh up your ass for 10,000 years!
Atheist: Um, wow, but I was asking if you could offer some additional evidence beyond your claim that you heard him. I didn't hear him say that, by the way.
Theist: Well, you're not listening hard enough.
Atheist: Ok (listens)...noth...
Theist: Give it TIME! You've got to sincerely WANT to hear him...
Atheist: If he's in there, I'd like to know it...I'll keep listening.
Theist: Did you hear that?
Atheist: Nope, nothing.
Theist: You're either lying or you're so closed minded that he's not letting you hear him.
Atheist: Not letting me? Leprechauns can choose who can hear them?
Theist: Of course! He could open this lid, show himself to me...and you'd never see it, you'd think the box was closed the whole time. They're MAGIC!
Atheist: Well, do you have any evidence for any of this? I mean, I've never seen a leprechaun...I have no reason to think they even exist and every time you tell me how to prove it, the tests fail.
Theist: No, YOU fail. It worked for me.
Atheist: (Motions toward a handful of people to one side) Well, there are other people here who have tried this...and it failed for them.
Theist: Yes, but these people (motions toward a huge group off to another side) heard it. In fact there are WAY more people over here who will tell you they heard it.
(The Atheist moves off to ask them a few questions.)
Atheist: I talked to some of them...they all have a slightly different take on this. Some say it's a leprechaun; others say it's a fairy; still others say it's a goblin. They don’t all describe the same voice and they apparently have conflicting messages that they claim came from inside the box. Most of them simply said that they knew other people who claimed to know what was in the box.
Theist: Ah, yes! There's actually a troll in the box with the leprechaun. He sometimes pretends to be the leprechaun, or a fairy, or a goblin in order to fool those other people - but you'll notice they STILL heard something.
Atheist: Yes, some say that, but others don't.
Theist: Well, that troll sometimes blocks the sounds so people can't hear it.
Atheist: So, how do you know, when you hear the leprechaun, that you aren't hearing the troll?
Theist: Don't be absurd! The leprechaun is my friend; he makes sure that I only hear him.
Atheist: But how can you be sure...if you think there's a troll there too, who pretends to be a leprechaun...how can you know? Maybe there's ONLY the troll and he's just fucking with you.
Theist: Now you're just being thick. Look, there's a box, right?
Theist: Now why would there be a box here unless there was something in it?? There MUST be something in it, right?
Atheist: No, the box could be empty.
Theist: No it couldn't, or there'd be no reason for the box to exist! Boxes are for holding things. We all know that.
Atheist: So you're claiming that the box could not possibly be empty?
Atheist: And you don't see that as a flawed premise?
Theist: No, and it's confirmed by the fact that I heard a leprechaun.
Atheist: How did you hear him?
Theist: He talks to me telepathically.
Atheist: Oh, so you didn't mean to listen with my ears, you meant listen with my mind?
Theist: Your heart.
Atheist: That doesn't listen...
Theist: Your metaphoric heart!
Atheist: Ok...but that guy says he heard it with his ears.
Theist: He's wrong...he's hearing the troll.
Atheist: But I don't even hear the troll.
Theist: He's blocking you.
Atheist: Ok...how do you know all of this?
Theist: The leprechaun told me.
Atheist: Ok, so you've made appeals to magic, telepathy, leprechauns, trolls and non-empty boxes....you've offered no evidence. I'm sorry, but I don't believe you.
Theist: Don't forget the shillelagh!
Atheist: Right… and you've made threats about things that'll happen after I'm dead - when there's no evidence that there's any 'me' to experience anything after I'm dead. I just don't believe your claim.
Theist: What if you're wrong? Isn't that a lot to risk? He says he's got a pot of gold for you if you believe...isn't that worth believing?
Atheist: Look, even if I could make myself believe, which I can't, why would I want to do that? If there's no leprechaun in there, then I've wasted the opportunity find out what's really in the box. And if he wants me to follow his instructions...
Theist: Oh, he does...I've written them down for you, here...
Atheist: (Looks at the list) Then I'll have wasted time doing things that...does that say "Do not eat poo"?
Theist: Yup...great rule, isn't it?
Atheist: Yeah, but what about "Drop money in the box"
Theist: He's got needs too...pots of gold don't grow on trees.
Atheist: I thought he was magic.
Theist: He is...but, well, the money is so we can tell other people what the leprechaun wants.
Atheist: Why doesn't he tell them?
Theist: He could, but...well, he will, if they're open too it. Some, like you, are fooled by the troll.
Atheist: Why doesn't he get rid of the troll.
Theist: It's a mystery, but we're sure he will eventually.
Atheist: Anyway, if this isn't true, then I'll have wasted a lot of time and money on something false...only to avoid a threat that wasn't real.
Theist: Yeah...but what if you're wrong.
Atheist: Ok...look, I'm done. I do NOT believe there's a leprechaun in the box.
Theist: How can you be sure?
Atheist: I'm not, but I don't believe there is.
Theist: How can you say there's no leprechaun in the box!
Atheist: I didn't...I said I don't believe there is one.
Theist: Same thing.
Atheist: No it isn't...however, now that I've considered and rejected your claim...
Theist: Don't do it!
Atheist: I'm willing to say that I actually do believe there is no leprechaun in that box.
Theist: NO! You're making an irrational claim...you think you know everything?!??!
Atheist: No, I'm not claiming that I'm absolutely certain that there's no leprechaun in the box...but I actually believe, to some degree of certainty that there isn't...because if there were, I'd expect there to be some evidence to support it, and investigations keep coming up empty. I'll be back with some tools...we're going to open that box.
Theist: You can't open the box.
Atheist: Why not.
Theist: You just can't, it's impossible.
(Another person walks up)
Agnostic: He's right. Neither of you know what's in the box. You're both equally absurd to assert that you DO know.
Atheist: I didn't assert that I'm absolutely certain, I simply stated what my belief is...and it's based on the evidence, or lack thereof
Agnostic: Don't be silly...you're just as dogmatic as he is.
Atheist: I'm not dogmatic about this at all - I'd just like to open the box and find out.
Agnostic: The box is impervious.
Atheist: How do you know?
Agnostic: Um, well, I don't...it just seems impervious.
Atheist: Really, do you have other impervious things to compare it to?
Agnostic: Well, um, no...but I'm sure it's impervious.
Atheist: If you'll forgive me, as we're essentially on the same side in that we reject his assertion...
Agnostic: I don't reject it, I don't reject anything
Atheist: Do you accept his claim?
Agnostic: I don't know.
Atheist: You don't know whether you accept his claim?
Agnostic: No, I mean I don't know if he's right or not.
Atheist: Well, neither do I, but that's not what I asked.
Agnostic: The box is impervious
Atheist: Well, you sound just as dogmatic about our inability to know as he does about his private communications with the leprechaun
Agnostic: Now you're just being rude
Atheist: Look, I'm going to open this box
Agnostic: Silly atheist....
(The atheist manages to drill a tiny hole in the box...)
Atheist: Look, it's not impervious! I've got a hole here. We may eventually be able to investigate this in more detail.
Theist: You switched boxes!
Atheist: No, this is the box.
Agnostic: It's STILL impervious; your little hole doesn't give you enough information to support your claim.
Atheist: I can continue to investigate...and so far, there's no evidence to support the theist's claims.
Theist: You switched boxes!
Atheist: No I didn't.
Theist: Then, um...he's hiding. He needs you to believe without seeing him, so he's hiding.
Atheist: That makes no sense.
Theist: The troll has created an illusory hole that is providing you with false information about what's in the box!
Agnostic: That might be possible, I really couldn't say.
Atheist: No, I bet you couldn't.
The theist walks away, to tell other people about the leprechaun in the box.
The agnostic tries not to be anywhere near either of them, while secretly keeping an optimistic eye on the atheist's activities.
The atheist goes about his life, occasionally finding new ways to investigate the box, but he tries to enjoy his life while preventing the theist from ruining it by imposing the leprechaun's rules on everyone.