Pardon the length of this page; while Agnosticism in its essence is not very complicated, it has — for good or for ill — a number of ramifications in occidental culture that need to be addressed, and I attempt to cover them all here.
What Is Agnosticism?
A lot of people have misconceptions about what Agnosticism is. So I will start at the beginning. This term was coined in the nineteenth century by T.H. Huxley. It comes from the Greek word γνωσις (gnósis), meaning “knowledge” or “to know,” with the negation prefix a-. So, literally, it means “not knowing” or “not to know.” Of course, this term applies specifically to religion or theology, so in that context, it means “not to know God.” Huxley himself explained what he intended this term to mean, so — unlike many other terms describing belief, religion, philosophy, etc. — there really is no question about this.
Agnosticism is simply an assertion that it is impossible to know, with any certainty, whether or not God exists, and even if he does, it is impossible to know anything about him.
That is the sum total of what is meant by “Agnosticism.” Nothing more, nothing less.
Having said that, this assertion has many potential implications, so that, ultimately, Agnosticism can mean different things to different people. So what I say about Agnosticism, may not apply to all Agnostics. Or to put it another way, more colloquially … your mileage may vary.
Is Agnosticism A Religion?
No! Properly speaking, it is a “secular philosophy.” Even this, however, implies that it is bigger than it is. The statement above is the sole essence of Agnosticism. The ramifications of this basic principle are something else entirely.
“The Unknowable God”
The idea that God is unknowable is not at all strange, and it’s millennia old. In fact, it’s a component of numerous religions. Ahura Mazda, the God of Zoroastrianism, for example, is considered vast and incomprehensible. The same goes for Allah, the God of Islam, and for the God of Bahá’i. Other religions and theologies consider their deities incomprehensible, including some Christian denominations, and Deism.
The term “Agnostic” is an ironic one, since the classical Gnostics — who were ultimately condemned as heretics by the orthodox Christian Church — explicitly referred to God as incomprehensible, as “the Unknown,” or “the Ineffable Divine.” (This irony may have inspired Huxley in deciding the term.)
At any rate, many religions actually agree with Agnostics, that God is unknowable. This usually surprises folks in both camps, but it is true, nonetheless! This doesn’t mean, of course, that followers of those religions are Agnostics. It just means the religion has facets which bear a similarity to Agnosticism.
Article of Faith?
Agnosticism is based upon simple observation of the world. There is no direct evidence of God’s existence, nothing that one can point to and say, “Here is God!” or even “There is God’s fingerprint.” Many religions assert that there’s implied evidence of God’s existence — in the “grand design” of the universe, in sacred writings, in miraculous or cataclysmic events, in cosmic “signs,” in prophecies and pronouncements of the divinely-inspired, in personal inspiration or mystical experience, in metaphysical exercises, or in many other ways. Ultimately, however, all of these things are just bald assertions, based upon the assumption that God exists, therefore these things are the way they are. None of them independently demonstrates the existence of God, without resorting to interpretation.
Agnosticism makes no such assumptions, and does not engage in interpretation of events. What is, is; what is not, is not; and what is not knowable, isn’t knowable.
Agnosticism vs. Atheism
Just as theistic religions and philosophies assume the existence of God, so too does atheism assume that God cannot exist. Just as God’s existence is not evident, God’s non-existence is equally not demonstrable. There is nothing observable which demonstrates that there cannot possibly be a God. If an omnipotent God existed, it would certainly be within the power of that deity to hide him/her/itself from us utterly and leave no evidence of its existence. In fact, such a deity could contrive positive evidence of his/her/its non-existence, and fool people completely! To assert that God cannot exist, is just as much a leap of faith as asserting that God does exist.
Some atheists define “atheism” as merely “lacking belief in a deity,” rather than “believing there is no deity.” However, this revised definition is not how “atheism” is typically defined in dictionaries. Furthermore, such a definition would include nearly all Agnostics, and that muddles the differences between the two viewpoints.
Having decided that theism and atheism are equally based on assumptions rather than observation, it’s fair to ask if the central tenet of Agnosticism might, likewise, be a bald assertion. The answer, quite simply, is that it is not. To say that the existence of God is uncertain, is based upon the observation that there is no proof, or disproof, of God’s existence. In the face of a lack of evidence either way, one cannot assume that either proposal is true. This is a reasonable, logical conclusion, thoroughly rational, which makes no assumptions, and which does not engage in interpretation.
But What If There Is A God?
Good question! Let’s examine this possibility.
As noted already, there is no evidence of God’s existence in nature. One cannot simply look around and conclude, based solely upon observation, that God exists. Even if one supposes it’s possible that some undetectable, deity-like being might somehow exist — as Agnostics concede — it’s pretty hard, if not impossible, to figure out anything about him. Thus, if one does, perchance, get to know God, it has to be through divine intervention, or “revelation.” That is, God must do something to make himself evident to a person.
History is full of people who’ve experienced such revelations. Most religions were founded on the teachings of a “prophet” to whom God revealed himself. All of those religions, however, disagree with each other — in some cases, violently!
How can it be that a single God, if he exists, could inspire so many different “prophets” in such vastly different ways? Such a God would, necessarily, be rather capricious, mercurial, and devious.
Of course, it’s possible that the supposed “real” God inspired only one of those religions, meaning all the rest are just pretenders. But this leaves one asking which of them could be the real one? How does one tell them apart? How can a person verify the divinity of any given religion?
The answer, quite simply, is that one cannot, in fact, verify any religion. It’s impossible! (Most religions claim this is not true — that it is the “one true religion,” and can even offer reasons why this is so; but in all cases, the reasoning is based on assumptions and interpretation, not on fact or observation.)
Even so … let’s assume that one of the world’s religions is, indeed, the “one true faith” of the “real God.” Why would such a God reveal himself in only one specific way, and leave the rest of the world untouched? Why would such a God not try to make evident that his religion is the religion? In an instant, an omnipotent God could make himself and his wishes known; why wouldn’t he?
Most theistic religions argue that God does not do this because he does not want to violate “free will;” he wants people to come to him willingly, rather than be thunderstruck into believing in him. This idea, however, leads one to ask the question of what sort of God would engage in “head games” of this kind?
The bottom line of all this, of course, is that it is totally unreasonable to believe in such a whimsical deity. Even according to most religions, God’s behavior is unexplainable and inconsistent. It is impossible to meaningfully worship an incomprehensible, whimsical, inconsistent God.
Agnosticism As A “Proving Ground”
Some Agnostics engage in a spiritual quest, surveying religions — theistic and non-theistic alike — in order to find something that suits them, or has “a ring of truth.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. They are entitled to do so.
The problem is that others often think that this is what “Agnostic” means; that Agnosticism is a lack of belief, a form of existential “fence-sitting.” This is not true of a majority of Agnostics, though; Agnosticism is an unequivocal conviction that God is, ultimately, not provable and not knowable. There is absolutely nothing indefinite about Agnosticism, however!
Anger At God
As they do with anyone who espouses a non-theistic philosophy, many theists (especially evangelical Christians) assume that Agnostics are “angry” at God. While I cannot speak for all Agnostics, it’s safe to say that most cannot be angry at something they don’t believe in.
Typically, this is an attempt to personalize the debate over God’s existence, and make it less rational. It’s an intellectual trap — just like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” The best thing to do when faced with such objections is to ignore them.
Why Not Forget About God?
Many atheists consider Agnostics to be “wishy-washy,” or hedging their bets. This is not true, either. Effectively, Agnostics agree with atheists on many points, especially in their rejection of theistic religion. In fact, there’s something of a continuum connecting these two philosophies. So-called “weak atheists” are those who do not rule out God’s existence, but assert that there is no point in believing in God. Well, many Agnostics agree with that! These “weak atheists” may call themselves atheists, but in reality, or perhaps in addition, some are actually agnostics.
(There’s a little controversy over whether a person can be both an atheist and an Agnostic. According to the recently-expanded definitions of “atheism” currently in vogue among atheists. I am, myself, a “weak atheist.” The only reason I don’t claim this label, is simply because I think the label of “Agnostic” best describes my thinking.)
With all of that having been said … the bottom line is that atheism and Agnosticism share a good deal in common. The major difference is that Agnostics don’t make the leap of faith necessary to assert that God cannot exist.
I am the Bishop of Litchfield County (CT) for the Universal Church Triumphant of the Apathetic Agnostic, or simply, the Apathetic Agnostic Church. What does this mean? Well, Apathetic Agnosticism has three main tenets, which are paraphrased as follows:
- The existence, or non-existence, of a Supreme Being is unknowable.
- If by chance a Supreme Being exists, s/he appears to be apathetic toward the world.
- We are, therefore, apathetic toward a possible Supreme Being.
These principles are summed up in the Church’s motto, Nesciamus non attingamus (Latin for “We don’t know, and we don’t care”).
Now … these may not sound like much of a foundation for a Church, but these three principles are simple, direct, rational, and based upon observation, rather than belief, faith or assumption. Ultimately, what better basis could there be?
One concern that many theists have about non-theistic philosophies is, that without a God to dictate standards of behavior, “anything goes.” Well, this is not the case. Philosophers of all stripes have grappled with the concept of ethics and morals, for centuries. Many ethical and moral traditions are non-theistic and require no God.
In ancient times, ancient Greek philosophers decided that ethics and morals could not have any metaphysical component; an action was moral (or not) based solely on rational analysis. One basis for this was a question Socrates once posed, which is called “the Euthyphro dilemma“: Do the gods demand what is good (and moral) because those things are inherently good (and moral), or does their desire for them, make them good (and moral) regardless of their own nature? If the former, then there is an objective basis for deciding what is moral and good, without resorting to the gods; if the latter, then the choice of goodness or morals is but divine whim and has no meaning at all.
Building on this idea, the Epicureans — and some other Socratic schools, such as the Stoics — constructed a solid, strict tradition of ethics and morals. By the 1st century CE, in fact, Stoic morality became the standard of morality for the Greco-Roman world; in fact, early Christianity adopted many Stoic ideas!
Shortly after the Socratic schools were founded, far away in China, Confucius (Kung Fu-tzu) established a school of philosophy, whose foundation was ethical behavior and following ancient ritual traditions. His work became the cornerstone for all later ethical and moral traditions in the Far East. His morals are strikingly similar to those taught in Christian churches everywhere. Yet — never once did Confucius resort to a God. He explained the impetus for morality as a way for people to interact meaningfully. (Thus, he anticipated the work of later scholars such as Hobbes and Kant.)
More recently, the rational nature of ethics and morals has been championed by Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Hobbes, and more recent philosophers who’ve built on their work. Their conception of morality as a “social contract,” a social adaptation meant to protect humanity as a whole, is rather compelling.
The main fear of many theists, in particular evangelical Christians, is “moral relativity,” or people deciding on their own individual morals, rather than living up to a single common standard. Kant in particular argued against this, however; if morality is a social contract, then it must be agreed upon by society as a whole — individuals cannot just fabricate their own moral standards. By definition, morality and ethics can never be “individualized” or capricious; otherwise they are not social “contracts” in the first place.
In any event, Agnosticism is not an excuse for being immoral or even amoral. As members of society, Agnostics are responsible for living in society harmoniously. The same goes for anyone, regardless of their own philosophy — this includes Christians, Muslims, atheists, Jews, Wiccans, Neopagans, etc.
So for anyone to object to Agnosticism because they think it’s an “anything-goes” philosophy — well, that’s groundless. There is no such thing as an “anything goes” philosophy! No serious philosophy — of any sort — advocates immorality.
Many people — in all camps — believe that Agnostics are simply waffling on the issue of God. Typically, it’s assumed that Agnostics haven’t made their minds up about what religion to follow. Or that they just haven’t made up their minds about God.
While some Agnostics may fit either of these descriptions, I know of none that do. Most Agnostics are far from uncertain or vacillating between religions. On the contrary, they are quite certain that God is neither provable nor disprovable, and incomprehensible, even if he does exist. There is no uncertainty in their minds.
That said, some Agnostics engage in spiritual exploration. Unburdened by the assumption that any given religion has any veracity, they freely look at all of them. Sometimes this is out of simple curiosity; other times it’s because they are looking for simple, objective truths that may be part of a religion.
In any event, it’s fallacious to think of Agnosticism as a state of vacillation or uncertainty. Most Agnostics are quite sure of what they believe.
The “Cover Story” Hypothesis
Some people think that atheists sometimes claim the label “Agnostic,” as a “cover” for their atheism. This assumption goes that “atheism” has a negative connotation; by using the label “Agnostic,” they’re trying to appear as though they’re still thinking about religion.
Well … the Agnosticism-as-cover-for-atheism hypothesis is, in my experience, bunk! I know of no atheists who are unafraid to state their convictions. The idea that they’d want to disguise their atheism is based on the assumption that atheism is “bad,” which is not an assumption that atheists themselves would make! (This is another example of how theists make assumptions about people based on their own subjective views, and have no clue what others actually think.)
The Religion Problem
This brings me to what I call “the religion problem.” What happens when one’s religious beliefs infringe on other people? In two words, nothing good! The hijackings on September 11, 2001 make it very clear that this overlap can be dangerous.
Of course, trying to reason with people who’ve crossed this line, is impossible. They will not, and cannot, comprehend that imposing their religious ideas on others is wrong, and in fact, anyone who tries to tell them so, is automatically “the enemy” worthy only of death.
It’s events like this that shake people’s faith in their own religions, though, which — ultimately — contradicts what the extremists are trying to do! This only further entrenches them in their extreme beliefs, which leads to even more extreme behavior, and so on.
While religion can be a force for good (using the September 11 example, one of the first charities to help out was the Salvation Army), extremism is an inevitable result — no matter the religion’s tenets.
“If You Just Ask God Into Your Life …”
I’ve heard this one before, so don’t bother. It’s virtually a self-fulfilling prophecy; in order to “ask God into my life,” I’d have to assume that God exists — at which time I’d “believe,” since that’s what I’ve already chosen to do!
You see, that’s all belief in God is: a choice. A choice to believe in something.
I’ve also heard, “Try reading the Bible, then you’ll see!” For the record: I have, indeed, read the Bible, in Greek as well as English. I know it quite well, in fact, better than most “believers.” It comes with the territory, having had an education in medieval history. I not only know the Bible well, but I also know the writings of the Church Fathers, too, and the history of the Church and Christianity as a whole. Furthermore, since I know Latin and Greek, I’ve read the New Testament in its original language, the Old Testament in the Septuagint, and know quite well the process by which it was translated into Latin, as well as the process by which the Biblical canon was decided.
The history of Christianity, and the history of the Bible itself, is far from flattering.
So, do not bother emailing me to tell me what the Bible says, or anything of that sort. I already know what it says. In fact, I’m familiar with numerous interpretations of it. None is appreciably better than any other, so you are not going to talk me into believing your interpretation, whichever one it may be.
The Meaning of Life
A lot of people maintain their belief in a deity — in spite of their own doubts, or the irrationality of believing in something that’s non-demonstrable — because it gives their lives ” meaning.” I must ask the obvious question:
Who says that life has to have meaning?
“Meaning” can only be inferred, it is not inherent. To look at the world, and one’s life, and decide that it has some particular “meaning,” is an erroneous inference, a baseless assumption. As an example, take the statement:
Jugebble megola varin os makudafuppel.
What does it mean? Are you able to figure it out? Are you dying to know? Or even just curious? Well, set your mind at ease; it doesn’t mean anything! I just made up those words — they’re gibberish. But — human instinct is to attempt some sort of interpretation; they’re words, after all, and a collection of words must mean something.
Finding meaning in things that have none, is not unusual; it’s known in psychology as pareidolia. Pareidolia can take forms such as seeing President Nixon’s face in the bumps on a potato, or a likeness of the Virgin Mary in the bark of a tree. To infer that life has some sort of “meaning,” is the same thing as trying to make sense of the gibberish I typed.
What To Believe?
Now that I’ve rambled quite a bit, I’ll come to a summary of sorts. What’s an Agnostic to do? Where does an Agnostic go on Sunday (or Saturday, or Friday night, etc.)?
This line of thinking assumes that one is somehow obliged be part of a religion and actively attend services — or, more generally, that one must actually believe in some form of spirituality.
This is, however, just an assumption. People pursue spirituality simply because it is “expected.” Unbelievably enough, however, one need not do this! The fact is that one need not concern onesself with anything “spiritual.” Living life on its own terms, in an ethically-sound manner, without resorting to metaphysics, can be very rewarding.
While an Agnostic really can’t put his or her heart into a theistic religion, there are non-theistic, or minimally theistic, religions, which they can find rewarding. Among them is Buddhism, but there are others, such as some forms of Pantheism and Neopaganism. Go ahead and investigate them, if you want.
Perhaps the most important thing that Agnostics can do, is to live in a genuine manner. Engaging in metaphysical thinking is useless, and can even be counter-productive. Learn to accept life for what it is.
That’s my sermon, and I’m sticking to it!