How to be a Good Agnostic
There are three basic positions people have taken when it comes to the existence of God: theism, atheism, and agnosticism. Theism affirms that God(s) exists; atheism affirms that God does not exist (or that there is no good reason to believe God exists); agnosticism affirms that we either do not, or cannot know if God exists. It is the latter position that is the topic of this article.
Modern agnostics come in two basic forms: those who say no one can know if God exists, and those who confess that they personally have not yet determined if God exists. Both are epistemological positions. The former says "I can't have an informed position," while the latter says "I don't have a position yet" and thus remains tentative on the question of God's existence. Unfortunately, many agnostics are confused about the true nature of agnosticism.
There are three common mistakes people make in their confession and/or practice of agnosticism: (1) they falsely suppose that agnostics are neutral and without bias (2) they mistake uncertainty for ignorance; (3) they think of agnosticism as a position rather than a method of inquiry. Agnosticism-properly understood-is an active, methodological pursuit for obtaining positive knowledge of that which is true.
The Myth of Neutrality
Everyone is biased. It is impossible to be neutral on anything for which you know something about. Those who claim they lack bias are biased to the notion that they are unbiased. While all of us are biased we are biased in different degrees and in different directions. Those who claim to be agnostic on the question of God's existence are not neutral on the issue. Just a few minutes of probing will reveal where their bias lies. Some will be biased toward the notion that God does exist while others are biased toward the notion that God does not exist. One may choose to hide their bias, but they have it nonetheless. With the level of bias exhibited by some who call themselves agnostic I have to wonder if they are really agnostic at all. They seem confident that they know the answer to the question of God's existence, and yet they continue to describe themselves as agnostic.
Uncertainty vs. Ignorance
Being an agnostic does not mean one is comfortable with their ignorance, doing nothing to rid themselves of their uncertainty. Ignorance and agnosticism are two entirely different things. I do not know much about trigonometry, but that does not make me agnostic about trigonometry-it makes me ignorant of trigonometry. Someone who claims to be agnostic, and yet has not truly interacted with the arguments for and against God's existence is not a good agnostic. Agnostics are those who have considered the issue, are looking at the evidence, but have not yet come to a conclusion. An individual who knows nothing about a particular issue, and thus has no position is not an agnostic. A "good agnostic" is one who seeks to better understand the issue, amassing evidence which would eventually lead them to make a decision concerning God's existence.
Many who lay claim to the agnostic label are little more than intellectual cowards who don't want to take the time to study out the different positions, evaluate the evidence, and make a decision about what is true and what is false. They would rather sit on the fence of indecision all their life, taking no position at all. It is much easier to be without a position than to labor to find the truth, and then stand firm in that truth against error. While they say they search for truth they often look no further than the tip of their nose. Some will look to the hills, but will never allow themselves to find it because it's easier and safer to be a seeker of truth than it is to be a finder.
Process vs. Position
If we were going to get technical, agnosticism is not a position at all; it is an epistemological method/process for arriving at an ontological position. Agnosticism is the epistemic vehicle through which one comes to arrive at an epistemological position on an ontological question. Put differently, agnosticism is the epistemic route of the individual, whereas theism and atheism are the destinations themselves.
Darwin's bulldog, Thomas Huxley, was the first to introduce the concept of agnosticism, describing it in the following manner:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle. Positively the principle may be expressed as, in matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it can carry you without other considerations. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend the conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.
Agnosticism in the original sense meant that we should not claim to know more than we really know. If we have knowledge, we should claim it. If we do not have knowledge, we should not claim we do. In this sense agnosticism is a methodological skepticism with a view toward a conclusion.
David Eller noted that "agnosticism...is not a branch of religion but of epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge: what is it possible to say that we know with some acceptable degree of certainty, and how do we know that we know it? More accurately, it is a method in regard to knowledge, a method for separating out what we can justifiably say we know from what we cannot justifiably say we know. ... Agnosticism does not invite you to suspend judgment; it invites you to reach judgment in full light of the facts and the logic and to stand by it."1
Agnosticism, then, is not a third, alternative position on the God-question. The Law of the Excluded Middle guarantees that there can be no third position on this issue. God either exists or He does not. Agnosticism is a method/process we use to arrive at one of these two conclusions. Today, however, many have abandoned agnosticism as a process in favor of agnosticism as a position because it invites less confrontation in our pluralistic world. "It is more acceptable to be 'an Agnostic' than 'an Atheist,' since it appears not to refute belief but simply not to share it."2
Agnostics often pride themselves with being open-minded, but when their starting philosophy about truth is that one can never know truth (which in itself is an absolute truth claim and thus inconsistent with the agnostic philosophy because one absolutely knows that they cannot know anything absolutely!), they automatically become closed-minded. The mind can only be open if indeed there is something "out there" to discover and know. If there is nothing to discover then the mind is truly closed, and only then are we justified in not caring to seek out truth and discuss various truth-claims with those of opposing opinions. Agnosticism that degenerates into an "I don't discuss religion" agnosticism is not agnosticism at all. Such a person has already come to a position: there can be no answer, or the answer is unimportant. Such a position, however, is not agnostic, but certain, and thus not agnosticism at all. True agnostics are actively pursuing the truth, examining all the available evidence, and ready to take a position once sufficient evidence has been evaluated. That is why a true agnostic cannot stay agnostic for long!
Skepticism Is Not Worthy of Belief
1. David Eller, "Agnosticism: The Basis for Atheism, Not an Alternative to It"; available from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0OBB/is_1_42/ai_114244518; Internet; accessed 28 December 2004.
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