We are all Believers

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

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4 Responses to We are all Believers

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Great to see this being argued out. To put it succinctly, I think the belief at issue is whether an authority deserves credibility. A person says that god exists. That is great.. does it amount to something authoritative, believable, or even worth paying attention to? That is what seems to get you exercised.

    Where it used to be that anyone claiming to see and experience god was presumptively believed and disbelief was regarded as unusual if not bizarre, the credibility of these claims has so eroded over the years that authority has vanished and skeptics ask for evidence, which is, sadly, not really available. That makes agnosticism a common and courteous response, for those who, as you say, care at all.

    “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.”

    As usual, you are seeing faith under every rock. It is possible to take a reasoned and tentative view of the evidence available, choose which authorities to trust based on that evidence, and say that the god claims are at best based on an unprovable faith which, if one doesn't have the personal experiece that seems to compell belief of some kind, leaves one unconvinced and, disregarding the psychological arguments about where else it might come from, agnostic about the god claim. This is really not different from string theory. Is it really so hard to believe that belief can be withheld?

    “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.”

    Well, we feel some of these things as part of being human.. love, evil, meaning. So they are part of the furniture of our subjective existence whether we invite them in or not. God is an entirely different issue-a vast hypothesis cooked up to “explain” all the foregoing while evading all possible forms of detection and validation. This can easily be left to one side as an unncessary and uncompelling hypothesis, at least for those lacking the direct religious experience that apparently compells belief.

    And Johnny Cash probably had a comment on that ring of fire as well.

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  2. Burk Braun says:

    I might also ask- what is your problem with empiricism? When it applies, you take it as self-evidently sovereign over our models of reality, like in the earth-spins department. (I just finished a biography of Copernicus.)

    So you claim that it doesn't apply in the instance you are arguing about.. about god. But why would that be the case when the narrative that you are defending is full of empirically judge-able claims. Jesus did supernatural tricks, god created the whole universe, we have life after death, hell exists, morals are somehow dictated to us by god, evolution happens by some god-directed path despite all the material mechanisms that apparently do the job, etc.. and so forth.

    Then you have to go the intelligent design / Francis Collins route, where everything that looks mechanical- from the spinning earth, cosmic evolution, and physics to biological evolution and the distinctive genetic and cultural properties of mankind- is actually, behind some inscrutable curtain, “guided” by the god of oz. And this god never appears to take credit for its works, other than in the rather fevered and critically questionable (at least in terms of being god-written) scriptures. All signs and wonders dissolve to either complete mystery or rational explanation, with no mediating agent in between.

    Empiricism is not an all-encompassing metanarrative, rather it is the most elementary check on our rather fertile imaginations and astounding ability to oppress each other over the most empty but socially-freighted convictions of certainty and superior “discernment”.

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    If I could put a sharper point on this, the issue is not what you are allowed to believe personally- freedom reigns on that front, and you wouldn't care about agnostics, atheists, and the rest. Rather it is what you are allowed to foist onto others as some sort of valid model of reality.

    The process of sharing beliefs in how reality operates is a necessarily public process, and recipients understandably take your “faith” with a grain of salt, having their own intuitions and reasoning on such matters. So it falls to empiricism to umpire, as it were, propagation of such beliefs, making them either compelling by the logical interpretation of our shared reality, or not, by its lack.

    You might say that our shared reality includes interior experiences like intuition and “discernment”. But there is where a great revolution has taken place. As you are surely aware through your postmodernist studies, our intuitions and similar impressions/assumptions are heavily socially constructed- that is where any number of narratives and imaginative models can operate, not necessarily descriptive of reality at all.

    So for all the virtues of tradition and authority, it is not enough to determine what reality is like.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Since I think I’ve recounted most of my responses and thoughts in the very similar conversation with Bernard on Eric’s blog, I’m not going to hash all that out again here. So taking your entire response to my post into view, I will only comment sparingly.

    “To put it succinctly, I think the belief at issue is whether an authority deserves credibility.”

    Such as the authority of empiricism/scientism.

    “…that authority has vanished and skeptics ask for evidence…”

    The positive appeal to empiricism—the positive assertion of belief…so we could say that “believers” ask “why don’t you see truth as I do?” I think that was the very point of my post.

    “As usual, you are seeing faith under every rock. It is possible to take a reasoned and tentative view of the evidence available, choose which authorities to trust based on that evidence…”

    Not only under every rock but in every sentence like the one above. Notice the words “trust” and “choose”. Trusting and choosing is having faith that one has best interpreted the evidence and is exactly what we all do.

    “So you claim that it doesn't apply in the instance you are arguing about.. about god. But why would that be the case when the narrative that you are defending is full of empirically judge-able claims. Jesus did supernatural tricks, god created the whole universe, we have life after death, hell exists, morals are somehow dictated to us by god, evolution happens by some god-directed path despite all the material mechanisms that apparently do the job, etc.. and so forth.”

    Really? Wow. So you have tests you can do that will empirically prove what did or did not happen in history or about realms like hell? You mean like drilling down to the center of the earth and looking for hell? And you have something you can test or see that will tell us what happened before the big bang? Have you published anything regarding these new developments? I’m kidding of course. You are too right? You don’t really think we can travel back in time and empirically view/hear/ what Jesus said/did, right? And you understand that hell is not a physical place like South Dakota (some in SD may think so) or Mars, right? Is it possible you are only aware of the most simplistic fundamentalist understanding of the Christian narrative? What would happen if you actually engaged and addressed the Christianity put forth on this blog and Eric’s too?

    “Empiricism is not an all-encompassing metanarrative, rather it is the most elementary check…”

    Any cursory online search or library run will show that empiricism is a THEORY of knowledge or epistemology, which is the key starting point and foundation for any meta-narrative. It has a genealogy—a history as a philosophical view—it is no more elementary in this type of conversation than any other philosophical view. You are just wrong here.

    “Rather it is what you are allowed to foist onto others as some sort of valid model of reality.”

    You mean like you foisting your atheism as a valid model?

    “The process of sharing beliefs in how reality operates is a necessarily public process, and recipients understandably take your “faith” with a grain of salt…”

    And sharing your belief in atheism is public as well and you can well imagine why the great majority of people since time immemorial have taken your faith position with not a grain, but a boulder of salt, right? You do understand that atheism is still seen as a relatively radical minority view, right?

    “So it falls to empiricism to umpire, as it were, propagation of such beliefs…”

    There it is again, the positive assertion, the “belief” in the other direction. Such faith.

    To end, your ruminations on post-modernity (which I had though you a great critic…I guess until you think it may help) are partly true but although our faith positions and beliefs are always context laden they are not deterministic.

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