Atheism/agnosticism 2: Agnosticism better…

This is the second in a trio of posts: Atheism okay; Agnosticism better; Theism best of all.

No. 1 on atheism generated a minor firestorm from aggrieved atheists, so it will be interesting to see whether there are similarly militant agnostics out there waiting to start a fight about this post. 🙂

The impossibility of knowing?

Agnosticism hasn’t always had a good press – it’s often seen as wish-washy fence-sitting (‘I used to be agnostic but now I just can’t be sure’). There’s an apocryphal story of someone proudly announcing to the Master of Balliol College that he was an agnostic to be met with the response: “Young man, in this university we speak Latin not Greek, and the Latin for agnostic is ignoramus.”

This is mildly amusing, but hardly fair. When T.H. Huxley originally coined the term ‘agnostic’ in the 19th century, it actually carried the very precise meaning of someone who holds that it’s not possible to know the existence of anything beyond natural phenomena.

In this original technical sense, agnosticism is every bit as strong and robust as either atheism or theism, and in my view is rather more plausible than atheism. I’ve argued that a reasonable case can be made for a practical atheism, but it seems to me at least that Huxley’s agnosticism has rather stronger grounds. Where atheism holds that (at least on the balance of probabilities) there is no God or there cannot be a God, agnosticism holds that we simply can’t know whether or not there is a God. Of course, I don’t actually believe this to be the case, but it seems pretty plausible.

Contrary to the popular impression then, agnosticism need not be a position of mere ignorance or indecisiveness, but can be a definite commitment to the absolute impossibility of knowing about God (or strictly, about anything beyond natural phenomena).

Practical agnosticism

However, I’m not sure that the majority of people who call themselves agnostics are fact using the term in this very strong, technical sense. Most agnostics of my acquaintance are simply undecided on the issue of whether there’s a God or not, or perhaps undecided as to which religion’s version of God is the most likely. Some think that there probably is, or probably isn’t, a God; some are very interested, others totally indifferent; but in general it’s a practical agnosticism stemming from a lack of available evidence to make a final judgement, rather than from an absolute philosophical commitment to the impossibility of such evidence existing.

Positive uncertainty

I actually think there’s a lot to be said for applying this kind of practical agnosticism to a range of matters – not just religion. There are so many areas of life (politics, economics, ethics, theology, even aspects of history and science) that we genuinely don’t have enough evidence to be 100% certain about, or on which there are a range of valid opinions or interpretations. In such cases, it seems to me that a degree of practical agnosticism – or ‘positive uncertainty’ – is entirely appropriate. It’s simply having a healthy humility rather than arrogance; acknowledging that we don’t yet know for sure, and that we may well be wrong. I think we’d all get along a little better if we could take this attitude instead of clinging to our personal hobbyhorses and lobbing verbal shells across entrenched battle lines.

For me as a Christian, I feel it’s appropriate to be at least a little agnostic towards many aspects of Christian theology – whether or not there’s a hell, whether everyone will ultimately be redeemed, how the atonement works, etc. And in many such cases I would say, echoing Huxley, that it may not even be possible to know for certain – at least not this side of the river.

I would also add that a degree of healthy scepticism is often entirely appropriate, especially in areas like politics and religion where great claims are made which often turn out to be bogus or overstated. You only have to watch some of the nutcases on Christian satellite TV channels to see what I mean (Todd Bentley and Patricia King spring to mind). But when I say scepticism, I don’t mean a world-weary cynicism that refuses to trust or see good in anything.

Uncertain – but not uncommitted or uncaring

All that said, there’s a big difference between not being 100% certain and not knowing anything. Just because we may not be able to have total proof or total knowledge doesn’t mean we can’t still know quite a lot, or that we can’t make fairly accurate judgements based on probability, experience, reason, intuition and common sense. It just means we need to be prepared to revise our ideas if further evidence comes along, and that it’s wise (if hard) not to get too entrenched in our personal opinions.

There’s also a big difference between being uncertain and being uncommitted. I don’t need to have complete, certain knowledge and understanding in order to care or to act. Even if I’m not totally sure of my position, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be actively and even passionately (albeit provisionally) committed to it. Better in most cases to be engaged but a bit off-beam than to be correct but indifferent and uninvolved.

Finally, not knowing – even not being able to know – doesn’t mean not trying our hardest to find out. I don’t think Huxley is correct, but even if he is I’m still going to do my darndest to find out what’s out there, what’s going on behind the scenes, what it’s all about. Because it matters – to me at least. And often the process of searching for answers is at least as important and helpful as actually finding them.

But all said and done, perhaps it’s not so terrible to be an ignoramus…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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7 Responses to Atheism/agnosticism 2: Agnosticism better…

  1. johnm55 says:

    Contrary to the popular impression then, agnosticism need not be a position of mere ignorance or indecisiveness, but can be a definite commitment to the absolute impossibility of knowing about God (or strictly, about anything beyond natural phenomena).

    I was hoping a pseudo-militant agnostic to be able to stomp all over this piece, but unfortunately I find my self agreeing with almost everything in it. I don’t know if I have a definitive commitment to the absolute impossibility of knowing about god, I’m agnostic about that. What I do feel is that finding proof that a god or gods exist is not possible. Now to quote a favorite saying of the fundie creationists “absence of proof is not proof of absence” when you are arguing a position lack of evidence for your position tends to weaken the argument you are trying to make and strengthens that of the opposite side.
    I await the third post in the series to see what the arguments in favour of theism are, then I might try stomping all over the argument.

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    • I don’t want to disappoint you if you want to do some good stomping, but I’m not really planning any killer arguments for theism in my third post… My basic view is that there are plausible and reasonable grounds in favour of theism, and for me theism gives a better overall account of my whole experience of the world than the alternatives. But no amount of logic or anything else can ever prove God. Even if God were to appear in person and perform amazing miracles we could easily find alternative explanations – hoax, hallucination, natural phenomena. So our take on the available evidence is always going to come down partly to our starting assumptions and our desire to believe or not to.

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    • Tim Rayner says:

      @Johnm55

      TBH. I come from a Creationist’s perspective and I’d say that of the Creationist literature that I’ve read (the good, the bad and the shamefully ugly) I haven’t come across many who would use the argument you attach to them.

      I’ve seen them pointing to certain aspects of Geology and saying they go some way towards proving a worldwide, or at least, wide scale, cataclysmic flood (although that is technically flood-theorists rather than Creationists but due to their basis of a reading of Genesis as a factual document the one tends to be the other). I’ve seen them producing arguments of irreducible complexity and variance of parts of human and animal bodies (particularly the multivarious eye types throughout nature, wings and other complex organs and body mechanism) and I’ve seen them using lack of evidence from the other side (the lack of intermediate forms in the fossil record for example) as a basis for arguing its invalidity. You can make whatever of these arguments what you will. I offer them up not as proof of the Creationist position per-sé but as proof that no-one who calls themselves a Creationist and knows anything about that position would espouse the argument you are saying they would.

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      • In my experience, ‘absence of proof isn’t proof of absence’ is generally used (if at all) regarding the existence of God – where it’s a completely rubbish argument, not least because (in my view) there’s plenty of evidence – which of course is not the same as proof. 🙂

        At some point I’ll probably post about evolution/creationism, as in my view it’s an issue which divides Christians unnecessarily. Both sides agree that ‘God did it’, but simply differ on the methods and mechanisms he used. Both are doing their best to honour the Bible, to make sense of the scientific evidence and to take stumbling blocks out of people’s pathways to faith. The fact that Creationists have got it all wrong doesn’t stop them being Christians (only joking Tim) 😉

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  2. dsholland says:

    I wonder at the value of being able to “prove” God. What would that change? Most people who engage in counterproductive activities recognize they are acting unwisely but choose to do so anyway. If we cannot even choose to act in accordance with our own self interest why should “proof” of God make any difference? Jesus says this same thing to the rich man

    I used to say that any philosopher must eventually become an apologist, or as I read somewhere, “opening the mind is like opening the mouth, in both cases the purpose is to close it on something of substance”. The technical agnostic is like the old joke about the man who looks for his lost keys under the street light, because that’s where the light is best.

    If anyone is a true seeker they have my respect and support. We can reason together and both learn from the experience. I’ve heard it said that no one was ever argued into heaven (or out of it), all we can do is give each other pause and the opportunity to look where we haven’t before.

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  3. I like your humor and your views on religion. I have never come across an angelic with such beliefs or would admit them. Although I lack formal education I don’t consider myself ignorant. Like my pappy said, “it’s better to be ignorant than stupid,” I’m not flinging insults. What is lacking in education is made up by experience. In other words and keeping to the militant theme, I feel out gunned here and deliberated a long time before writing this post an exposing my ibnorance.
    May I state I am not militant in any way? I do sometimes tend to let my rants go too far and end up insulting someone or hurting someone’s feelings when I don’t intend to. As much as I dislike labels, I feel forced to choose to be an agnostic placing me between the rock and the hard place i.e., fanatic theists offering prayers for me on one side and fanatic atheist calling me lazy, coward and fence sitter on the other. I simply don’t believe in the god of the bible, but I don’t dispel the idea there may be a deity hiding somewhere in the universe or where ever deities congregate.
    It is refreshing to see I’m not the only one noticing the nutcases on TV. I had to force myself to stop pausing at these channels while searching for something intelligent to watch. I was beginning to form an unhealthy dislike for them. After all they are only trying to make a living.
    At the end of the day I am content in my newfound beliefs or rather disbeliefs. Now I don’t have to worry about being left behind nor suffering in eternity in everlasting bliss. You know, too much of a good thing . . . . Looking forward to you next post.

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    • Thanks Ray – really good to hear from you. It’s great to receive comments from someone who doesn’t have a huge axe to grind! I don’t think you’re exposing ignorance at all. Anyway, we’re all ignorant of most things – none of us has the time or mental capacity to know about (let alone understand) more than a tiny fraction of what’s going on in our own country, let alone the universe!

      For the most part I can’t stand ‘Christian’ TV or radio, and like you I’ve had to just stop watching them in order to keep anger levels down!

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