What should we make of the agnostic? Here is one definition of agnosticism: “Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—are unknown or unknowable.” (Wikipedia)
To delve deeper, we could all say that depending upon the assertion or claim being made, we are all believers, atheists, or agnostics in one sense or the other. For instance I do believe in the Judeo-Christian God and narrative. I do not believe Santa Claus exists (I’m a A-santa clause-eist?). I am agnostic about string theory in physics or whether Peyton Manning will end up a Forty-Niner.
Now clearly we normally use the designation “agnostic” to name those who in response to the question “Does God (whoever that might be) exist?”, reply “I don’t know and I’m not sure we can ever know.” So we normally view the agnostic as a skeptic. He is someone who reserves judgment or perhaps like Switzerland—is simply neutral in questions of this type.
However, I think there is another way to look at this and it might give us pause as to whether or not the agnostic is a skeptic or someone who reserves judgment.
Before going further though, I think it might be helpful to differentiate between at least two types of agnostics. The first agnostic is probably the least common type. This is the person who has perhaps a high school education, is young, is a laborer, probably not married, and simply has no philosophical/theological information or interest. Not only does this person not give much thought to whether or not God exists, if asked, he could only suggest something like “It is possible, but I really don’t know.” And this person might add: “And I don’t care.” Fine. We get it.
The more common type of agnostic is the person who has a college education, is a professional, and has some knowledge or background of philosophy/theology. This person reads widely. This person is more reflective. It is this type of agnostic I wish to focus on.
Here is what I think most agnostics (of this type) miss: One can only claim doubt (or a negative) regarding a positive assertion (“God exists”) because he has “positive” beliefs in some other area or direction (“It is highly doubtful God exists because of x, y, and z”). Doubt is the flip side of belief. We can only doubt one thing, because we believe this other thing over here on the other side. Now, is doubt and belief a dynamic process where one oscillates between two poles so to speak? Of course. Just read Mother Teresa’s letters where she sometimes questioned God’s existence or caring or read “Dark Night of the Soul.” But this is when we are talking about once a person has already committed to a belief. The counterpart to this is the old saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” The point being that if most atheists are honest, at some points they have questioned their atheism (doubted).
But I am speaking of something different. If we ask the agnostic to give us the reasons for his doubt, we usually hear appeals to empiricism, naturalism/materialism, scientism, or some other metaphysical starting point. We might sometimes hear appeals to sensibility, temperament and personality too. An argument that goes something like, “I’m just a skeptical kind of guy”, or “I just think we need to be tolerant and not assume we know one way or the other.” We might also hear appeals to the post-modern turn and a deterministic environment, where someone will assert that we believe what we do simply because of the environment, education, and context of our upbringing. In other words, if I grew up in Utah, there is a pretty good chance I will be a Mormon. If I grew up in Saudi Arabia, there is a good chance I will be Muslim. The only factor is context in this view.
What we rarely hear is: “I have no reasons for my agnosticism.” No, we always hear positive assertions for one’s agnosticism. And that is all fine and good. But that also means their agnosticism is only part of the story. To be an agnostic one also has to be a “believer” in something that gives one the very place to stand so his doubt can be understood and presented as reasonable. One only has doubts about some area because he has faith in some other area. This is the double edged sword of all endeavor and investigation. We cannot have one without the other. We believe because we doubt; we doubt because we believe.
The usual appeal is to empiricism/scientism. The thinking goes something like this: “We can only know or say we have knowledge of those things we recognize as universally objective like the roundness of the earth or that fire is hot. We can only believe or say something is true if we can prove it empirically. Part of this mindset is the assertion that only “science” can tell us what is true. Beyond that, we are told, everything else is subjective taste or preference. And, since we cannot prove God in the same objective manner—the same way we can prove the sun is hot, we are speaking of subjective taste to assert a belief in God or even the opposite—disbelief (although this is where many an atheist will part company with the agnostic). Thus, we can only answer “We don’t know–it is a subjective preference” to a question like “Does God exist?” and so we are agnostic.
Now, putting aside all the philosophical problems with this type of thinking (philosophical/logic/ category errors/straw man arguments), the first thing we notice is how much “belief” is being asserted and all under a sort of “I’m a skeptic” mask. Empiricism as an all encompassing world-view is a meta-physical POSITIVE belief system. While we all might be empiricists if the question is: “Would you rather check (see and feel it) to make sure your parachute is actually in the pack before jumping off the plane or would you rather accept my word for it?”, common sense tells most that empiricism can hardly touch the “big” questions of life—the questions we actually care about. Can we weigh love? Can justice be measured? Does evil show up on radar? Do purpose and meaning affect magnetic fields? To then say that because these categories do not meet these tests, they do not exist or are not true- is really an incredible view. To say that the modern Liberal Western concept of justice is no more true or right than the Nazi concept is incredible. As Connor Cunningham has pointed out, with this view, we all become Holocaust deniers. There is no truth, goodness, evil, or beauty if all is only matter in motion.
And those who adopt empiricism as an all encompassing meta-narrative are hardly skeptics or agnostic—they are true believers—with a faith as alive and strong as any other—as should be clear from where this radical view takes them. Which is more difficult to believe: That God exists and existence itself isn’t a random purposeless accident, or torturing a child is neither good nor evil- it is whatever a majority of people say it is? Which view is more reasonable? Only a true believer could posit the bit about torture being truer or more reasonable! Only a tiny minority hold such a radical view. The vast majority of people, both in the academy and on the street, over time immemorial, have held to a transcendental view of existence and posited an objective morality. To hold to those things an agnostic must believe requires the greatest of faith in the face an overwhelming movement, both past and present, in the opposite direction.
The agnostic means well but is short-sighted. For all the,” I’m above-it-all-taking -the- high- road” posturing, it really speaks of the person who always sits in the stands but never takes the field (although he is sure of what everyone on the field is doing right or wrong and has his reasons!). It is the fellow who sees the girl across the dance floor and wants to ask her but never does. He never does out of fear of the answer even though he tells all those nudging him, that he’s not really interested and he doubts her interest. He lives in a “what might have happened” world of the mundane always protected from the unknown.
We all live by faith. As to the agnostic (and really much of this also applies to the atheist), however, here is the difference: It is a faith that masquerades as skepticism.
We call them cool
Those hearts that have no scars to show
The ones that never do let go
And risk it- the tables being turned
We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always come with getting burned
But you got to be tough when consumed by desire
‘Cause it’s not enough just to stand outside the fire
We call them strong
Those who can face this world alone
Who seem to get by on their own
Those who will never take the fall
We call them weak
Who are unable to resist
The slightest chance love might exist
And for that forsake it all
They’re so hell bent on giving, walking a wire
Convinced it’s not living if you stand outside the fire
Standing outside the fire
Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire
There’s this love that is burning
Deep in my soul
Constantly yearning to get out of control
Wanting to fly higher and higher
I can’t abide standing outside the fire
-Garth Brooks, country western singer/philosopher