The essence of Agnosticism

Book: Agnosticism by Robin Le Poidevin
Art: A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie by Albert Bierstadt
Reading time: 8 mins

A misconception

In the myth of Adam and Eve, one of the first privileges granted to Adam is that of naming all the animals in the Garden of Eden. With the ability to name things, Adam has the power to think about, and differentiate between, the other inhabitants. Naming is a potent ability as for Adam, the ability to designate gives him dominion. But sometimes naming and categorising can be problematic.

The name Agnosticism has only been around for less than 150 years, and in that time the term has seen a good deal of hostility. Agnosticism is commonly seen as a position of belief, caught in the middle between theism and atheism. Because agnostics choose to answer the question of God’s existence with ‘I don’t know’, theists and atheists view them with great suspicion. To some theists and atheists, agnostics lack commitment and are just atheists under a different name. They are of the opinion that a person who calls themself an agnostic is indecisive and doesn’t have the nerve to pick a side. Another common assumption is that agnosticism is a compromise between theism and atheism. According to this view, agnostics want to please both sides and so are unwilling to take part in the struggle for knowledge. These misconceptions about agnosticism are the consequence of the desire to classify all those who acknowledge that they don’t know if God exists or not.

Categorising agnosticism as the position in the middle of theism and atheism ignores some of the subtleties of the debate over whether God does or does not exist. While no doubt many people who describe themselves as agnostic do so because their answer to whether God exists is that they don’t know, the first people who called themselves agnostics did so for a different reason. The biologist Thomas Henry Huxley first coined the term Agnosticism in 1889 and stated that it is not a belief, but a method of making conclusions that can only be demonstrated with evidence. To Huxley and his peers, agnosticism was a principle that involved reflection on the nature of knowledge and how to acquire it. Agnosticism is, therefore, the result of intellectual struggle, not an unwillingness to engage in that struggle.

“Agnosticism is not properly described as a ‘negative’ creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle, which is as much ethical and intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts: and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism.”

Thomas Henry Huxley

Agnosticism is thus a stance on knowledge, not a position of belief. While it may be seen as a position of belief when it comes to the nature of knowledge, it is not a belief when considering the existence of God. While Theism/Atheism addresses what you assert you may or may not believe, Gnosticism/Agnosticism addresses what you assert to know. Gnostics claim to possess knowledge while agnostics claim to not yet have enough knowledge. For this reason, the admission that one doesn’t possess all knowledge about God is compatible with either a theist or atheist outlook. For example, many atheists are agnostic atheists. They don’t claim that God does not exist for a fact, but instead only claim that theism has not provided sufficient evidence to support the existence of God.

Likewise, many theists are agnostics theists. As agnosticism is the reflection that you don’t have all the knowledge about something, it is possible to be agnostic about many things. So while a theist is sure of God’s existence; they may also be agnostic about certain properties of God. Theologians, experts in the study of God and religion, have found that it is a common view in theistic religions that human language is inadequate to capture God. God is thus greater than what can be conceived and his essential nature is unknown because it transcends our thoughts. Theism therefore naturally gives rise to the acknowledgement that having complete knowledge of God is unattainable. Thus, the agnostic theist may assert that they know that God exists; but not that they know all of God’s characteristics. Indeed, for some theists, commitment to certain values and a way of life is more important than the evidence for God’s existence. For these theists, what matters is the human response to the human condition.

Agnosticism is thus a provisional attitude which comes with the realisation that the debate over whether God exists has yet to be resolved, and perhaps can not be resolved. For some agnostics, it is not even important whether the debate is resolved or not; what matters is the human condition.

The limits of knowledge

There are limits to what we can know and these limits force us to adopt an agnostic attitude. That knowledge is limited has been brought to light by many philosophers in human history. One of these philosophers was Pyrrho. Pyrrho taught his students, also known as Pyrrhonian sceptics, that knowledge of things is impossible and the recognition of this will lead to a state of contentment. As the sceptic Sextus Empiricus later wrote, scepticism is the ‘ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all, an ability by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgement and afterwards to tranquillity’.

The Pyrrhonian sceptics were different from the other types of philosophers of the time. Whereas the dogmatists claimed to have found knowledge, and the academic philosophers claimed it could not be found, the sceptics claimed that they had not found knowledge yet and realised that they were compelled to keep searching. In this way, the sceptics had an agnostic attitude while the dogmatists were very much gnostics. Indeed, scepticism may be seen as the method that leads to an agnostic state of mind.

The sceptic claim that equally powerful opposing reasons for belief should compel us to suspend our belief altogether is perhaps best demonstrated when contemplating the creation of the universe. The theistic argument states that the universe was fine-tuned by God. Those who hold this position believe that God created the right conditions for the universe and life to emerge and that without his intervention, this emergence would have been impossible. On the other hand, some atheists argue that the fine-tuning of the universe and the emergence of life can be explained naturally. The multiverse theory states that our universe is just one of many. Some of the universes are chaotic whereas some, like ours, have laws of nature. The more universes there are, the more likely that some, of the universes, will have the right conditions for life.

Both arguments are difficult, maybe even impossible, to verify. For this reason, whichever argument seems more plausible is down to your point of view. On the one hand, it might seem less extravagant to you to posit the existence of just one entity, God, than to posit several objects, namely multiple universes. On the other hand, you may find that that one entity is unique to anything we are aware of and not something we can observe or test, whereas the multiverse just contains many universes like the one we know exists. It is for these reasons that atheists and theists reach somewhat of a stalemate when it comes to explaining how the universe and life came to be. The claim to absolute knowledge then seems unreasonable. Gnostic theists and gnostic atheists who say that they know for a fact everything to do with Gods existence are therefore irrational. When considering the limits to our knowledge, the agnostic attitude is the logical one to adopt for both theists and atheists.

“To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements, and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not toward final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,” – all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.”

Cardinal John Henry Newman

Uncertainty is good for you

The rational response to the world may lie in the agnostic attitude of doubt and uncertainty. Indeed, the presence of this attitude is used as evidence by each side. For some atheists, the fact that we cannot rid ourselves of doubt is evidence that God does not exist. If God did exist, he would not have made it difficult to work it out from the evidence in front of us. For theists, the fact that we occasionally have uncertainty is evidence that God does indeed exist. It is part of God’s plan for us to have free will and fashion ourselves. Both sides recognise that uncertainty makes us what we are.

We are also greater for it. This is most evident when we consider that tolerance is encouraged when you have an agnostic attitude. The agnostic attitude encourages people to be curious and accepting about other religions and even question their own. Questioning your religion may at first sound like it is the wrong thing to do. With the agnostic attitude, questioning is just the ability to reflect that you don’t know what God judges of other people. You understand that you can not make any claim that gay people, apostates or people in other religions will burn in hell. The fundamentalist, on the other hand, has a gnostic attitude and claims to know what kind of person God will send to heaven. They have very little tolerance.

With this in mind, it makes sense to teach the humble mindset of Agnosticism, not an attitude of gnostic arrogance. While naming was the first act afforded to Adam in the garden of Eden, the last was eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Eating the fruit may have given Adam and Eve knowledge, but it also gave them the doubt and uncertainty that comes with it. The agnostic attitude may have been a gift.

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