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).
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.
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…