Bernard, I thought you might enjoy this essay and maybe you have already read it.  I actually found myself agreeing with, at least the sensibility behind much of this. 
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22 Responses to Agnostic?

  1. Burk Braun says:


    This article is, unfortunately, deeply wrong in its analysis. Atheists do not claim certainty about how the universe came to be, or that science will ever tell us the answer.

    What they do claim is that science is really the only rational way to ask the question, and that all theisms of whatever stripe are just so much dart-throwing when it comes to questions like this one- of science, of history, and of pretty much everthing else part of explicit theology.

    Atheism makes a study of religion, finding it to be psychologically motivated, often with high human values, but with uniformly low scientific values, and thus for any question about how reality operates outside its true metier of social binding, useless and false.

    So, formally, atheists are agnostics. But with the added confidence in their psychological analysis that all religions and theologies are factually wrong for very evident reasons of individual and collective human motivation. That is why we are atheists.

    That fact that religion spins so resolutely around the pole of belief in the unbelievable and contravenes so flagrantly the writer's principle of humility should really give agnostics pause- as to whether it really is so hard to figure out whether gods as promulgated by any of the thousands of faiths humans have devised over the millennia exist or not.


  2. Thanks Darrell

    Yes, I did enjoy that. Mine is a slightly different flavour of agnosticism than the writer's, because I think he makes too little of the notion of probabilistic belief. He, if I read him correctly, asserts his agnosticism on the grounds that we can not know, yet I would counter that we justifiably believe many things we can not know, hence Burk's contention that by this standard all atheists are formally agnostic.

    My version of agnosticism is perhaps more radical, certainly it sets the bar higher for the rational agnostic to clear. It asserts not only can we not be sure, but we can not even call one set of beliefs with regards to metaphysics more likely or more reasonable, the point at which I suspect I would end up disagreeing with both you and Burk (might be fun to see you both on the same side for once!)

    My plan is to develop a set of essays on my preferred flavour of agnosticism on my website at some stage, but I say this knowing full well I may lack the expertise to make a decent job of it.



  3. Darrell says:


    I look forward to your essays.


  4. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    I, too, would enjoy essays from you on this subject. I'd be especially interested in how you “practically implement” your agnosticism. For example, much law is an imposition of morality on others… sometimes on a significant minority of the population that disagrees. Do you justify imposing your moral preference on someone else who does not share it?

    I think this question goes to the root of why we have these sorts of discussions in the first place. I doubt most atheists very much care what Christians believe, until they start using those beliefs as justification for policies which infringe on rights they consider important. I feel the same way. It is naively suggested sometimes that science or naturalism is the only objective means by which we can adjudicate in such disputed territory, but this experientially doesn't work. On the question of abortion, for example, one can find atheists at any point in the spectrum: some completely opposed, some think it should be permissible at varying points during pregnancy, and even some (like Peter Singer) who think post-birth “abortion” should sometimes be permitted. Do you find that your agnosticism helps you navigate these “moral minefields” in ways perhaps not available to those of us who are “less agnostic”?




  5. Hi Ron

    Predictably searching questions, thank you.

    My framework for thinking about this is a sort of preference ethics, as you know. I don't think of rights as having any objective existence beyond their social construction. So, in my society, the majority has the right to impose moral norms on the minority, while the minority has the right to attempt to change their mind. We've strayed a little way from the Athenian ideal, but the system that bestows these rights suits my preferences, and so I would actively work to maintain it.

    With regard to an issue like abortion, my contention is that the process I go through in finding my preference (and I'm right at the 'right to choose' end of the spectrum) will be very similar to yours. We'll both have had to weigh up a number of competing factors, both will accept that new information or viewpoints might shift us, and we will both have considered the pragmatic implications of core values.

    You will think of these core values as your best guess at moral truths, I'll think of them as personally evolved preferences, but for all practical purposes this is, I suspect, an ad hoc difference.



  6. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    Thanks for the reply. While I think I understand how preferences work for you (and that they correlate to what I would call moral truths), what I'm having trouble seeing is where your robust agnosticism comes into play once these preferences spill into the public sphere. In the past, you've commented about how that non-agnostics, in making truth claims that they can't know are true, are privileging their own intuitions over that of others. You've even described this as “distasteful”. But when you support a law adjudicating between these preferences, aren't you also making a claim on someone else even though you can't know you are right?

    In Eric's post to which Darrell recently linked, he identifies belief with action. It's one thing to say we can't know who is right on a particular subject, and so withhold judgment. That is agnostic, certainly. But once you act, you have moved into the realm of belief. It can't be demonstrated scientifically that an 18-week-old fetus is a human being bearing God's image — certainly that is a metaphysical proposition. But if you vote to make it legal to destroy that fetus, then it seems to me you are asserting the belief that not only is such a metaphysical proposition in fact false, but also that society as a whole should act in accordance with that belief. But what is the basis for that belief, and in what sense are you still being agnostic (at least on this issue)?

    Clearly, we both have a right (at least for the time being!) to air our opinions publicly and lobby others to consider our position. I don't see anything substantively different in our respective motivations here, or our right to pursue them. But it does seem to me that acting in this instance is somewhat incongruent with agnosticism as you've described it previously.

    As you said, this may be a better topic for a blog essay…


  7. Burk Braun says:

    Ron, This certainly seems to be a sticking point. Not everyone has to pose as though their morals are “right” in any universal or objective sense. Not everyone needs to be making laws and other rules from a position of righteousness.

    Much simpler concepts suffice. If a rule seems to lead to good outcomes, (good as subjectively judged by each individual/most individuals, presupposing democracy), then that is a perfectly good foundation for the public square. Indeed a much better foundation then mutually incomprehensible if not secret judgements about objective “goodness”. You might say.. well if only everyone were a Christian, then we would be better off. But that only leads to the next level of.. well, if only everyone were an Anglican, the we would be better off, etc..

    We are dealing with that in the current gun debate. Many of the right fringe want to construct their right to guns as some absolute good, enshrined by the constitution. I have even heard them cite god-given rights to guns. What is one to make of that? What do you make of that?


  8. Hi Ron

    I agree that conscious action belies belief, but perhaps we should be careful when teasing apart what type of belief.

    If a person says to me, 'heads or tails, twenty dollars if you're right' I may call heads. The belief beneath this is not the belief that it will be heads, on this I am entirely agnostic. Rather it is the belief that calling something (anything) is a better bet than remaining silent.

    I have no moral belief with regard to whether a foetus really constitutes a human life (indeed, I can't even make sense of what this proposition might mean) but I personally prefer to live in a society where women get to make the decision themselves (in exactly the same way that I get to make the decision whether or not to donate a kidney, despite this being much more clearly a life and death decision).

    I don't think those who disagree with me are morally wrong. I just desire a different world than they do, as Burk suggests and within a democracy, get to express that preference. That's all.

    Perhaps worth repeating, I am not agnostic about all things. In fact, not about most things. But on the existence of God, and of moral truth, I am uncommitted.



  9. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    Laws work the same whether made from a position of righteousness or preference. They are indistinguishable in effect.

    Your “a rule is good if it leads to good outcomes” applies equally to those with moral absolutes as well as not. People committing moral evil is a bad outcome, so a law leading to it would be a bad law, in the eyes of a person whose moral absolutes are so inclined. I fail to see how you're somehow making a better foundation out of unbelief here.

    The pertinent question is: how far is your society justified in going when dealing with those whose preferences do not align with the majority? The French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” in 1789 was about as good a document of its kind crafted by unbelievers, before or since. And almost immediately the dechristianization began, with Catholic flesh being a regular staple of Madame de Guillotine. When there are no absolutes to govern the State, the State itself becomes absolute. The most shrill of the public atheist voices these days make sweeping claims about religion being the root of all evil, how religious “indoctrination” of children is tantamount to child abuse, etc. Increasingly, expression of traditional religious beliefs is being touted as “hate speech”. If these people were to gain power, to what could I appeal when it is decided that religious believers are enemies of the State? (Farfetched? Millions of Christians in the 20th century lost their lives for precisely that reason.)

    The gun debate is a bit of a red herring on this point. People like that blogger aren't coming to their position based on their religious beliefs… They're simply rationalizing positions they've arrived at independently of them, in the hopes of carrying along other believers. Regardless, I stand a better chance in a debate against a Christian who believes Christianity justifies possession of assault weapons than I do against an unbeliever who simply “prefers” a world in which he possesses them. At least I can argue with the former using the absolutes we claim to have in common. In reality, much of this debate is rooted in the apparent failure of most US citizens to understand the context and purpose of the 2nd Amendment in the first place. And whence this incredible lapse in basic civic education? I
    can't imagine, what with the high quality of our State-controlled schooling…

    (Not to mention that you can find atheists up and down the spectrum on most issues all on their lonesome. If you think that getting religion out of the discussion will clear these issues up, you're just not paying close enough attention.)


  10. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    I see. Thanks.

    I guess there's not much of a difference here between the role my moral beliefs play and the role your preferences play in our respective decisions.

    As I pointed out to Burk, the real question becomes how far a society's base principles permit it to go in defense of “the majority”, and what recourse the minority has against the State when that happens.



  11. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    The question of minority rights is not one necessarily solved by religion, as you very well know, looking through history.

    No, it is addressed by making meta-laws, like our constitution, which hem in the powers of the majority / state so that our common larger interests (i.e. a long-term, peaceful and diverse society) are preserved in the face of short-term temptations. It isn't rocket science, though was not well-understood (or executed) by the actors in the French revolution, despite the excellent model they received from the US. They had the excuse of fighting restorationist wars, etc. at the time, but it is a very weak excuse.

    Now, I would agree that having basic morals in common within a society is a very good thing. But one can't legislate them, so if you value those minority rights as above, then you have to accept and work with a community of various moral and metaphysical viewpoints. This leads to the proposition that practical questions that come into the public square should be dealt with in the most minimally theological way, so that the reasoning involved is maximally open (legible) to all.

    Thus, getting religion out of the discussion doesn't solve everyting- far from- but it does solve some meta-problems of how to debate issues and compromise on solutions among real communities. I mean, no matter how religiously uniform a community is, there will develop either diversity and schism (Protestantism, Islam), or more or less strict theocracy (Catholicism).

    “I stand a better chance in a debate against a Christian who believes Christianity justifies possession of assault weapons than I do against an unbeliever who simply “prefers” a world in which he possesses them.”

    Well, I have a problem with this, because.. what is the problem with guns? It isn't that they lead to heaven or to hell, (as far as anyone actually knows), but that they cause a world of hurt- very this-world mayhem. It isn't a theological problem and making it into one is a disservice to the actual problem, to rationality, and probably to theology as well. I mean, is it only Christians who are perturbed by gun violence? I really don't think so. Often it seems quite the opposite.

    Moral absolutes are a total red herring, a way to feel all superior and righteous without actually knowing one iota more than the next person. They are a primitive (and imaginary) mechanism of social control for societies that do not have worked-out legal systems and lack a civil (secular) culture of mutual accommodation.

    What I constantly hear is that religion is highly mysterious.. god is a cipher, the concepts are so incredibly vast as to be beyond human understanding. And then suddenly someone knows enough about it to set up a theocratic police state. No thank you.


    I am sure that much of our discussion involves taking the other person's perspective way out of context and to violent extremes. So let me just say that my basic point is that functionally, whether one claims to be “seeking” moral absolutes or not to be makes little difference on any plane- we can all work together for the individual & common good. But if one claims to know moral absolutes that make one a superior guide to temporal affairs, that is highly dangerous, whether derived from a religious or scientistic or other ideological source.


  12. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    As an aside, I would urge you to read more history. You seem to have a very Christian-centric view of many eras, when there are, I believe, more accurate perspectives out there. Get out of that echo-chamber!

    The historical enemy is not atheism. Most of the mildest countries on earth are functionally atheist today. Rather it is ideological certainty, whether of the Stalinist, Islamic, or whatever stripe.


  13. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    Gee, I thought you were the one with the slanted look at history, what with giving a pass to Robespierre & Co. while blaming Christianity for screwing up civilization. Oddly enough, I don't pursue history from overtly Christian sources. What appears to be a “Christian-centric” view may simply be an artifact of Western history's past two millenia being pretty much the history of Christianity in the first place. I actively try to avoid the echo-chamber. If you've got specific resources you think might be helpful, I'm happy to take a look at them.

    FWIW, I'm dead-set opposed to theocratic states, for largely Christian reasons. A lot of Christians today (though not all) have realized that the Constantinian project was probably not in line with Jesus' mission. Modern atheism arose and has flourished in societies based on Christian ideals. One can't say that Christianity has fared as well when the sword is in the other hand.

    Yes, ideology can be dangerous, regardless of the motivation. Frankly, I often feel more comfortable politically with the atheists I know (who tend to have a strong libertarian bent) than many of the folks I attend church with. I agree that dialog and civilized persuasion are the best way forward. But what I hear from atheists a lot these days is that their perspective should be treated with greater privilege than mine, because theirs is unbiased and based on “objective” science, while mine is based on silly woo-woo and should be kept well out of sight. Perhaps I can be forgiven for being a bit skeptical?

    I'm not threatened by atheism, per se. I think it's a minority view and likely to stay one for the foreseeable future. I'm more concerned about how atheist arguments can be used to facilitate a more intrusive State. I feel the same way about religious arguments. Perhaps this is a point on which we could agree…?


  14. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    Sounds great. One work you might be interested in is Jack Weatherford's book on the Mongols, who created a brief golden age along the silk road- the largest empire ever, indeed. Indeed, reading Marco Polo fills somewhat the same function- he experienced that empire in a unique and extensive way. He was a flack of sorts for the Mongol empire … but every empire has its dark and light sides.

    That is one that sticks out. Otherwise, I do not have many particular works, but more topics to suggest- on Spinoza, on Rome (Gibbon, and a great podcast- the history of Rome), the enlightnment, the American founding (critiques of David Barton's revisionism, for instance). I wish I had something useful to suggest on the French Revolution, but have not studied it terribly closely. I've read biographies of Trotsky, Stalin and Kruschev (auto)- informative, if not always the full story. The reformation is a another font of history combining very concrete and inscrutable issues. Jared Diamond on more ancient cultures; indeed I am reading a history of the Indo-Europeans, which underlays so much since. The Celts are pretty fascinating as well, though there is really very little material.

    Anyhow, there is so much more to history than the pros or cons of Christianity, or its martyrs, etc. Many other religions have come and gone, which were just as believed.


  15. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    The Mongols' achievements were impressive, no doubt. So was the ruthlessness applied to any who didn't fit with the plan. In terms of human life, it was a very, very expensive golden age.

    I'm particularly interested in the tools our positions bring to bear on restricting the power of states. I don't see where atheists and agnostics have done enough work here. I'm willing to grant a degree of slack, since they haven't been at it quite as long.


  16. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    Yes, I'd agree that is the critical topic. As noted, I regard our own founding as mostly an enlightenment / secular affair. Most of the people were Christians, more or less, but the leaders were significantly less Christian than we often think. And they set in motion precisely the mechanism you are asking for- the division of powers, the constitutional limitations, the elections- that had zero theological basis, but focused on using our human competitiveness and tendency to enthusiastically criticize others into a stable and fair system of running a political system. They discarded both monarchy and official church participation.. quite a novel experiment at the time, and going strong.

    One a deeper level, I think I understand what you mean. Most human societies have had a three-way divison of power / roles, between the warrior class, the priest class, and the merchant class. Not to mention the commoners. The priestly class has always used religious concepts to exert power, often for the common good and in opposition to aristocratic overreach. This is the kind of role you are looking for in putative atheist communities- guardians of conscience.

    It is a significant question, but not unsuperable. My view is that this class of people, if deprived of the nonsense narratives of supernaturalism and religion, and of that institutional structure, naturally turn towards expressing their ideals and convictions (and mystical feelings) in other ways, principally through art. Art and religion have always been tightly intertwined, and I think for the very good reason that they deal in similar issues of human value, motivation, and ideals. I am learing piano and Bach is really my bread and butter. Only part of his output was explicitly religious, but all of it is deeply moving and human-ist.

    It is art (in part at least) that wakens our empathy and other positive emotions, on which everything else rests, in terms of having a positive society, caring for others, etc.


  17. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    I have no illusions about the extent to which the American founders were devout Christians. But in the case of the American Republic, the notion that our inalienable rights come from a Creator and supercede the State is key, I think. Otherwise, all rights come from the State. No matter how well-crafted the system, if the State becomes absolute, freedom (at least for some) will be difficult to maintain. “Natural rights” is just so much handwaving… “Nature” confers nothing. The French revolutionaries recognized no authority above the State, and it went very badly very quickly.

    Your notion of a priest class using religion to exert power is simplistic, and not at all the kind of role I'm looking for in either atheist or Christian communities. Christianity is not an invention to control others… It is a narrative which attempts to make sense of human experience. Any idea can be seized upon and deployed by the power-seeking to control others, and there are those who have used Christianity in that way. But that has been fought against by other Christians and is arguably inconsistent with Christianity itself. I reject the notion of a priest class, or “guardians of conscience”. I'm talking about a narrative which can be internalized by people, and provides some degree of shared basis for tackling the hardest problems we face as a society.

    I think your point about art is a good one. But art is expression of ideals which, if it is to be meaningful, must be shared to some extent by the audience. Here we're back to a common narrative. Pulling something like that together is, to my mind, the big challenge facing atheists of a philosophical bent.


  18. RonH says:

    BTW, Burk, it is language like this that raises hackles: “My view is that this class of people, if deprived of the nonsense narratives of supernaturalism and religion, and of that institutional structure…”

    Dismissing as nonsense complex ideas which have been held for a very long time and by very intelligent people (many of whose intellectual and cultural achievements exceed yours by a wide margin) comes off as bigotry. And talk of depriving people of their narratives and institutional structure is simply ominous. So long as atheists persist in talking like that, religious people will oppose them tooth-and-nail as a perceived matter of survival. Just sayin'. Maybe you need to spend more time in your Bible.


  19. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    Got it.. I didn't mean anything ominous, just that the progress of education and enlightenment drives religious models of reality out of contention, by a natural process. Totally non-coercive, though sometimes helped along (or not) by pointed argument. And to call these ideas complex is no defense.. The Tolkein universe is complex. That doesn't make it real.

    I realize that very intellegent people hold religious ideas. Clearly we have modular approaches to cognition. Each items needs to be argued out on its own merits. Sometimes very intelligent, prominent people do stupid things- it is the nature of the human condition.


    The concept of an inalienable right is not necessarily religious. It just means that a state can not take it away- it is inherent. Whether that derives from one's view of the human condition, or from an agreement by the state's founders about such things, or from a religious narrative … is a separate matter.

    To be brutally real about this, however inalienable a right, it can always be taken away at the point of a gun (see our debates on torture, for instance). So these constructions are social compacts / conventions among people, who agree among themselves to act in certain ways- i.e. as a civilized society. If the narrative behind the construction is very strong, then surely we are all better off.

    But if such a narrative is losing its grip for other reasons, (i.e. religion), then it is going to be less helpful and some other social glue/convention needs to be cooked up. Today, France seems to be making a decent go of things in this respect, on a heavily secular basis (apparently only about 30% of the population believes in god). They seem, from the outside, to be a very decent and civilized society. So I think it is turning out OK, taking pages from both the Catholic and the Enlightenment threads of their history.


    You may reject the priestly class concept, but it is pretty central to anthropology, and clearly remains central to our own time's mixture of politics and religion. People need to be led. Narratives don't just drop out of the sky. You can seen this process in the Friday prayers in Islam- a total nexus of politics and religion. The question is … how good is the narrative, in an intellectual sense and in a humanistic sense? Must one yield to the other?


  20. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    When the State tries to take away an inalienable right, an heroic response from (at least some) of the citizenry may eventually be necessary to prevent it. If it comes to that, the right will not be retained without great sacrifice. If people are going to make that sacrifice — which may involve never reaping the fruit of their labors themselves — they must believe very strongly that such a sacrifice is “worth it”. That belief is fueled by the narrative underlying why they have those rights in the first place. That narrative must be especially strong for members of the majority to stick up for the rights of a minority. When the State begins to scapegoat a minority as being the cause of a society's problems, it tends to justify the withdrawl of that minority's rights on the grounds that they are enemies of the State in the first place, and so don't enjoy the privileges the State grants. What follows are often genocides, pogroms, and purges.

    I continue to maintain that the Christian narrative can be a more effective check to an overreaching State than anything I've seen atheists put together thus far. You mention France again, but it wasn't until 1905 that secularism was officially (and successfully) established (and the rest of the 20th century was not at all kind to France). I think it's a bit premature to proclaim France a success. And there are disturbing trends in secular Europe where free speech is concerned. Google around on hate speech laws in Europe (and Canada, for that matter). Restricting speech on the grounds that it can lead to civil unrest might well be the canary in the coal mine. You might add to your reading list some of William Shirer's firsthand accounts of life in Berlin during Hitler's rise to power.

    I'll say again that aggressive attacks on Christianity by high-profile atheists are going to backfire (as will reactionary responses by Christians). Telling a compelling story and living it out in a winsome way is how you change hearts and minds. It's how Christianity spread like wildfire in its first few centuries… before it decided that the sword might be a faster way to get things done. We are still reaping the consequences of that fateful decision. Will modern atheists be astute enough to learn from history? I honestly hope so, but I have my doubts.


  21. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    You are completely right. I have read Shirer, and it is a lesson for eternity.

    I guess my basic contention is that in this day and age, however morally positive or psychologically congenial the narrative, if it is intellectually a swiss cheese of unbelievable claims, it isn't going to work and shouldn't work. The Nazi claims about the Jews were that kind of thing, incidentally, and one can tell that didn't stop antisemitism in Germany or elsewhere. But that doesn't mean that we should give up being highly, highly skeptical of such things.

    The way I would address this is through that great accomplishment of the renaissance and enlightenment- the separation of fiction from fact. In literature, fiction became its own genre, rather than the medieval romances, histories, and myths that never quite separated the two. Once a firm separation came into practice, it became possible to spin the most instructive and edifying literature without having to employ some pose of factuality- it could be directly about the human condition. George Orwell is an example of an author who used fiction to reshape our moral world. And Tolstoy, Dickens, Shakepspeare, and many more.

    In this way, literature could be about the human condition, and history and science and the other non-fiction pursuits could gain a new freedom to just build models of reality, with as little infection from mythical, ideological, theological, and unconscious biases as humans can muster. Which is not saying much, bit still.

    This presupposes alot, of course- the prosperity and educational systems that bring everyone along on this trajectory of broad moral education. I guess it is easier to set up one authorized story that gives everyone the same lessons in easy weekly units. But it seems to me that time is gone for many reasons. The answer is that we don't need one narrative, but many narratives all earnestly doing that most basic human work of exploring our own condition, and seeking for a better one. What I really don't want is to live in a world where one has to choose between equally false narratives (say, Islam and Christianity) for political, utilitarian, or other extrinsic reasons.

    And not to forget that the true narrative has a role to play as well… the story of our biological origins on this earth, which is so moving in its unimaginable duration, effort, and pain. It makes me want to go out and save a polar bear!


  22. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    if it is intellectually a swiss cheese of unbelievable claims, it isn't going to work and shouldn't work. This is where your a prioris kick in with a vengeance. Christianity isn't a swiss cheese of unbelievable claims, unless you start with Burk's assumptions. And it has worked and can continue to work, unless you start with Burk's assumptions. And this is the bit where I tell you that if you can convince us to adopt your assumptions, you're golden. Winsomeness, compelling narrative, blah-blah. 😉

    The answer is that we don't need one narrative, but many narratives all earnestly doing that most basic human work of exploring our own condition, and seeking for a better one. Does my narrative get to be included?

    We Christians have our Story, and I think it's a humdinger. You guys get cracking on yours. I'm looking forward to hearing it!


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