AGNOSTICISM: Questioning the Existence of God

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APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot

Ephesians 4:17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
17 This, therefore, I say and bear witness to in the Lord, that you no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind,

NOTE: The Christian Apologetic Response to Agnosticism is toward the end. But it is best to learn some things about the subject first.

Paul mentioned “the futility of their mind.” (Ephesians 4:17) What does that mean? The word translated as “futility,” according to The Anchor Bible, “implies emptiness, idleness, vanity, foolishness, purposelessness, and frustration.” The sense is that of uselessness as a consequence of being purposeless or incapable of producing results. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains renders the Greek, ‘do not live any longer like the heathen whose thoughts are useless.’ First, the Greek (ἔθνος ethnos) rendered “Gentiles” in this context is simply an unbeliever.

How to Interpret the Bible-1

Paul made the point that the renowned and recognition of the Greek and Roman world might have seemed remarkable, special, or unique, but chasing after them was momentary, fleeting, empty, foolish, and purposeless. Those who focused their life building a name and gaining recognition would end up with nothing but disappointment and dissatisfaction. This would apply in the world today too.

Today’s world has its intellectuals and its honored, to whom many look to for answers to such in-depth questions as how we (humans) got here and what is the purpose of life and the future of mankind. But what wisdom and direction do they really have to offer? Atheism, agnosticism, evolution, and many other incoherent and clashing ideas and theories are no more informative than the practices and superstitions of the past. Many worldly goals and dreams also seem to offer some small amount of satisfaction and fulfillment. Many people talk about what they have attained and achieved in science, art, music, sports, politics, etc. They take great pleasure in their momentary glory. Nonetheless, today’s history books and record books are full of heroes that have been forgotten or are seldom, if ever, mentioned. This leads to emptiness, idleness, vanity, foolishness, purposelessness, and frustration.

Philosopher Celestine N. Bittle wrote in his book God and His Creatures: “No people has ever been discovered which, in the strict sense of the term, is ‘atheistic.’ Individuals may be atheists, but a people, never. This universal belief is a tremendous fact.”

Agnosticism

Agnosticism is the view or belief that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural, is unknown and unknowable. Another definition provided is the view that “human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.”

The English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley coined the word agnostic in 1869 and said, “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” Earlier thinkers, however, had written works that promoted agnostic points of view, such as Sanjaya Belatthaputta, a 5th-century BCE Indian philosopher who expressed agnosticism about any afterlife; and Protagoras, a 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher who expressed agnosticism about the existence of “the gods.”

Defining Agnosticism

Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently, agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the “bosh” of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.

— Thomas Henry Huxley

That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions.

— Thomas Henry Huxley

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

— Thomas Henry Huxley

Being a scientist, above all else, Huxley presented agnosticism as a form of demarcation. A hypothesis with no supporting, objective, testable evidence is not an objective scientific claim. As such, there would be no way to test said hypotheses, leaving the results inconclusive. His agnosticism was incompatible with forming a belief as to the truth or falsehood of the claim at hand. Karl Popper would also describe himself as an agnostic. According to philosopher William L. Rowe, in this strict sense, agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.

AGNOSTICISM: Why They Are Wrong to Question the Existence of God

George H. Smith, while admitting that the narrow definition of atheist was the common usage definition of that word, and admitting that the broad definition of agnostic was the common usage definition of that word, promoted broadening the definition of atheist and narrowing the definition of agnostic. Smith rejects agnosticism as a third alternative to theism and atheism and promotes terms such as agnostic atheism (the view of those who do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity but claim that the existence of a deity is unknown or inherently unknowable) and agnostic theism (the view of those who believe in the existence of a deity(s), but claim that the existence of a deity is unknown or inherently unknowable).

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

Etymology

Agnostic (from Ancient Greek ἀ- (a-) ‘without’, and γνῶσις (gnōsis) ‘knowledge’) was used by Thomas Henry Huxley in a speech at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1869 to describe his philosophy, which rejects all claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge.

Early Christian church leaders used the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) to describe “spiritual knowledge”. Agnosticism is not to be confused with religious views opposing the ancient religious movement of Gnosticism in particular; Huxley used the term in a broader, more abstract sense. Huxley identified agnosticism not as a creed but rather as a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry.

The term Agnostic is also cognate with the Sanskrit word Ajñasi which translates literally to “not knowable”, and relates to the ancient Indian philosophical school of Ajñana, which proposes that it is impossible to obtain knowledge of metaphysical nature or ascertain the truth value of philosophical propositions; and even if knowledge was possible, it is useless and disadvantageous for final salvation.

In recent years, scientific literature dealing with neuroscience and psychology has used the word to mean “not knowable.” In technical and marketing literature, “agnostic” can also mean independence from some parameters—for example, “platform agnostic” (referring to cross-platform software) or “hardware-agnostic.”

Qualifying Agnosticism

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume contended that meaningful statements about the universe are always qualified by some degree of doubt. He asserted that the fallibility of human beings means that they cannot obtain absolute certainty except in trivial cases where a statement is true by definition (e.g., tautologies such as “all bachelors are unmarried” or “all triangles have three corners”).

Types

Strong Agnosticism (also called “hard,” “closed,” “strict,” or “permanent agnosticism”)
The view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, “I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you.”
Weak Agnosticism (also called “soft,” “open,” “empirical,” or “temporal agnosticism”)
The view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until evidence, if any, becomes available. A weak agnostic would say, “I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, if there is evidence, we can find something out.”
Apathetic Agnosticism
The view that no amount of debate can prove or disprove the existence of one or more deities, and if one or more deities exist, they do not appear to be concerned about the fate of humans. Therefore, their existence has little to no impact on personal human affairs and should be of little interest. An apathetic agnostic would say, “I don’t know whether any deity exists or not, and I don’t care if any deity exists or not.”
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History

Hindu Philosophy

Throughout the history of Hinduism, there has been a strong tradition of philosophic speculation and skepticism.

The Rig Veda takes an agnostic view on the fundamental question of how the universe and the gods were created. Nasadiya Sukta (Creation Hymn) in the tenth chapter of the Rig Veda says:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,
He, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
He, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
He knows – or maybe even he does not know.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS Young Christians

Hume, Kant, and Kierkegaard

Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, and Gödel presented arguments attempting to prove the existence of God rationally. The skeptical empiricism of David Hume, the antinomies of Immanuel Kant, and the existential philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard convinced many later philosophers to abandon these attempts, regarding it impossible to construct any unassailable proof for the existence or non-existence of God.

In his 1844 book, Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard writes:

Let us call this unknown something: God. It is nothing more than a name we assign to it. The idea of demonstrating that this unknown something (God) exists, could scarcely suggest itself to Reason. For if God does not exist it would of course be impossible to prove it; and if he does exist it would be folly to attempt it. For at the very outset, in beginning my proof, I would have presupposed it, not as doubtful but as certain (a presupposition is never doubtful, for the very reason that it is a presupposition), since otherwise I would not begin, readily understanding that the whole would be impossible if he did not exist. But if when I speak of proving God’s existence I mean that I propose to prove that the Unknown, which exists, is God, then I express myself unfortunately. For in that case I do not prove anything, least of all an existence, but merely develop the content of a conception.

DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM

Hume was Huxley’s favorite philosopher, calling him “the Prince of Agnostics”. Diderot wrote to his mistress, telling of a visit by Hume to the Baron D’Holbach, and describing how a word for the position that Huxley would later describe as agnosticism did not seem to exist, or at least was not common knowledge at the time.

The first time that M. Hume found himself at the table of the Baron, he was seated beside him. I don’t know for what purpose the English philosopher took it into his head to remark to the Baron that he did not believe in atheists, that he had never seen any. The Baron said to him: “Count how many we are here.” We are eighteen. The Baron added: “It isn’t too bad a showing to be able to point out to you fifteen at once: the three others haven’t made up their minds.”

— Denis Diderot

United Kingdom

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Raised in a religious environment, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) studied to be an Anglican clergyman. While eventually doubting parts of his faith, Darwin continued to help in church affairs, even while avoiding church attendance. Darwin stated that it would be “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist.” Although reticent about his religious views, in 1879, he wrote, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally … an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

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Thomas Henry Huxley

 

Thomas Henry Huxley

Agnostic views are as old as philosophical skepticism, but the terms agnostic and agnosticism was created by Huxley (1825–1895) to sum up his thoughts on contemporary developments of metaphysics about the “unconditioned” (William Hamilton) and the “unknowable” (Herbert Spencer). Though Huxley began to use the term “agnostic” in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time before that date. In a letter of September 23, 1860, to Charles Kingsley, Huxley discussed his views extensively:

I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter …

It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions …

That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

And again, to the same correspondent, May 6, 1863:

I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I—who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds—have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.

Of the origin of the name agnostic to describe this attitude, Huxley gave the following account:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis”—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion … So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic”. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. … To my great satisfaction the term took.

In 1889, Huxley wrote:

Therefore, although it be, as I believe, demonstrable that we have no real knowledge of the authorship, or of the date of composition of the Gospels, as they have come down to us, and that nothing better than more or less probable guesses can be arrived at on that subject.

No Agnostic Can be Valiant for Truth

William Stewart Ross

William Stewart Ross (1844–1906) wrote under the name of Saladin. He was associated with Victorian Freethinkers and the organization the British Secular Union. He edited the Secular Review from 1882; it was renamed Agnostic Journal and Eclectic Review and closed in 1907. Ross championed agnosticism in opposition to the atheism of Charles Bradlaugh as an open-ended spiritual exploration.

In Why I am an Agnostic (c. 1889), he claims that agnosticism is “the very reverse of atheism.”

REASONING WITH OTHER RELIGIONS

Bertrand Russell

 

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) declared Why I Am Not a Christian in 1927, a classic statement of agnosticism. He calls upon his readers to “stand on their own two feet and look fair and square at the world with a fearless attitude and a free intelligence.”

In 1939, Russell gave a lecture on The existence and nature of God, in which he characterized himself as an atheist. He said:

The existence and nature of God is a subject of which I can discuss only half. If one arrives at a negative conclusion concerning the first part of the question, the second part of the question does not arise; and my position, as you may have gathered, is a negative one on this matter.

However, later in the same lecture, discussing modern non-anthropomorphic concepts of God, Russell states:

That sort of God is, I think, not one that can actually be disproved, as I think the omnipotent and benevolent creator can.

In Russell’s 1947 pamphlet, Am I An Atheist or an Agnostic? (subtitled A Plea For Tolerance in the Face of New Dogmas), he ruminates on the problem of what to call himself:

As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell states:

An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.

Are Agnostics Atheists?

No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial.

Later in the essay, Russell adds:

I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence.

Leslie Weatherhead

In 1965, Christian theologian Leslie Weatherhead (1893–1976) published The Christian Agnostic, in which he argues:

… many professing agnostics are nearer belief in the true God than are many conventional church-goers who believe in a body that does not exist whom they miscall God.

Christian agnostics practice a distinct form of Christian agnosticism that applies only to the properties of God. Christian agnostics hold that it is difficult or impossible to be sure of anything beyond the basic tenets of the Christian faith. They believe that God or a higher power might exist, that Jesus may have a special relationship with God, might in some way be divine, and that God might perhaps be worshiped. This belief system has deep roots in the early days of the Church.

Although radical and unpalatable to conventional theologians, Weatherhead’s agnosticism falls far short of Huxley’s, and short even of weak agnosticism:

Of course, the human soul will always have the power to reject God, for choice is essential to its nature, but I cannot believe that anyone will finally do this.

In the summary chapter of The Christian Agnostic, Weatherhead stated what he believed in a sort of twelve-part creed:

  1. God: Weatherhead believed in God, whom he felt most comfortable referring to as “Father”. Like most Christians, he felt that the Creator was higher on a scale of values, but God must also be personal enough to interact directly with people.
  2. Christ: Weatherhead believed in the divinity of Jesus, in that he stood in a special relationship with God and “indeed an incarnation of God in a fuller sense than any other known Being.” Weatherhead argued that the New Testament never refers to Jesus as God, and neither did Jesus refer to himself in this way, instead calling himself the Son of Man and the Word. To say that Jesus was God’s “only begotten son” would be an impossibility to Weatherhead, as such information was not available. The virgin birth of Jesus was not an issue for Weatherhead, having (in his view) never been a major tenet for being a follower of Christ. Moreover, the New Testament traces Jesus’ lineage through his father Joseph, not Mary, to show that he descended from the house of David. Weatherhead did not believe Jesus to be sinless, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus got angry, cursed a fig tree because it did not produce fruit, and rebuked Peter, one of his closest disciples, calling him Satan. Since Jesus was morally superior, many theologians assume him to be sinless, though Jesus never made that claim for himself. Weatherhead apparently agreed with Nathaniel Mickelm, whom he quoted regarding the blood sacrifice of Jesus as something that was unnecessary for forgiveness. For Mickelm (and subsequently for Weatherhead), it would be a perversion of God to suppose that “God did not and could not forgive sins apart from the death of Christ.” Yet that sacrifice revealed something of the nature of God that made one want to be forgiven.
  3. Holy Spirit: Weatherhead conceded agnosticism when regarding the Holy Spirit, stating that “Few Christians, whom I know, think of the Holy Spirit as a separate Person”. His view was that this would equate to worshiping two gods instead of one.
  4. Church: Weatherhead’s view of the church was an idealistic one. The church on earth should be a photocopy of the divine original, in which all who loved Christ would be joined together to “worship and move forward to the unimaginable unity with God which is his will.”
  5. Bible: Weatherhead believed the Bible to be an amazing and often inspired collection of works that progressively revealed man’s search for and understanding of God, culminating in the best representation of God’s true nature in Jesus Christ. He was, however, critical of many passages, including some from Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, because they went against the nature of what Jesus taught, stating that “some of the passages of Browning are of far superior spiritual value.” Weatherhead insisted that one must reject anything in the Bible that did not coincide with the gospel of Christ, that is, anything that did not harmonize with the spirit of “love, liberty, gaiety, forgiveness, joy and acceptance.”
  6. Providence: Webster’s defines this as “God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny.” Weatherhead understood that God cared for humankind but that some would find this difficult (since suffering exists in the world). If “God is love,” it would be difficult to deny God’s Providence.
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United States

Robert G. Ingersoll

 

Robert G. Ingersoll

Robert G. Ingersoll (1833–1899), an Illinois lawyer and politician who evolved into a well-known and sought-after orator in 19th-century America, has been referred to as the “Great Agnostic.”

In an 1896 lecture titled Why I Am An Agnostic, Ingersoll related why he was an agnostic:

Is there a supernatural power—an arbitrary mind—an enthroned God—a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world—to which all causes bow? I do not deny. I do not know—but I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme—that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken—that there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer—no power that worship can persuade or change—no power that cares for man.

I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all—that there is no interference—no chance—that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects.

Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.

In the conclusion of the speech, he simply sums up the agnostic position as:

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know.

In 1885, Ingersoll explained his comparative view of agnosticism and atheism as follows:

The Agnostic is an Atheist. The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says, ‘I do not know, but I do not believe there is any God.’ The Atheist says the same.

 

Bernard Iddings Bell

Canon Bernard Iddings Bell (1886–1958), a popular cultural commentator, Episcopal priest, and author, lauded the necessity of agnosticism in Beyond Agnosticism: A Book for Tired Mechanists, calling it the foundation of “all intelligent Christianity”. Agnosticism was a temporary mindset in which one rigorously questioned the truths of the age, including the way in which one believed God. His view of Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Paine was that they were not denouncing true Christianity but rather “a gross perversion of it.” Part of the misunderstanding stemmed from ignorance of the concepts of God and religion. Historically, a god was any real, perceivable force that ruled the lives of humans and inspired admiration, love, fear, and homage; religion was the practice of it. Ancient peoples worshiped gods with real counterparts, such as Mammon (money and material things), Nabu (rationality), or Ba’al (violent weather); Bell argued that modern peoples were still paying homage—with their lives and their children’s lives—to these old gods of wealth, physical appetites, and self-deification. Thus, if one attempted to be agnostic passively, he or she would incidentally join the worship of the world’s gods.

In Unfashionable Convictions (1931), he criticized the Enlightenment’s complete faith in human sensory perception, augmented by scientific instruments, to accurately grasp reality. Firstly, it was fairly new, an innovation of the Western World, which Aristotle invented and Thomas Aquinas revived among the scientific community. Secondly, the divorce of “pure” science from human experience, as manifested in American Industrialization, had completely altered the environment, often disfiguring it, so as to suggest its insufficiency to human needs. Thirdly, because scientists were constantly producing more data—to the point where no single human could grasp it all at once—it followed that human intelligence was incapable of attaining a complete understanding of universe; therefore, to admit the mysteries of the unobserved universe was to be actually scientific.

Bell believed that there were two other ways that humans could perceive and interact with the world. Artistic experience was how one expressed meaning through speaking, writing, painting, gesturing—any sort of communication which shared insight into a human’s inner reality. Mystical experience was how one could “read” people and harmonize with them, being what we commonly call love. In summary, man was a scientist, artist, and lover. Without exercising all three, a person became “lopsided.”

Bell considered a humanist to be a person who cannot rightly ignore the other ways of knowing. However, humanism, like agnosticism, was also temporal and would eventually lead to either scientific materialism or theism. He lays out the following thesis:

  1. Truth cannot be discovered by reasoning on the evidence of scientific data alone. Modern peoples’ dissatisfaction with life is the result of depending on such incomplete data. Our ability to reason is not a way to discover Truth but rather a way to organize our knowledge and experiences sensibly. Without a full human perception of the world, one’s reason tends to lead one in the wrong direction.
  2. Beyond what can be measured with scientific tools, there are other types of perception, such as one’s ability to know another human through love. One’s loves cannot be dissected and logged in a scientific journal, but we know them far better than we know the sun’s surface. They show us an undefinable reality that is nevertheless intimate and personal, and they reveal qualities lovelier and truer than detached facts can provide.
  3. To be religious, in the Christian sense, is to live for the Whole of Reality (God) rather than for a small part (gods). Only by treating this Whole of Reality as a person—good and true and perfect—rather than an impersonal force can we come closer to the Truth. An ultimate Person can be loved, but a cosmic force cannot. A scientist can only discover peripheral truths, but a lover is able to get at the Truth.
  4. There are many reasons to believe in God but they are not sufficient for an agnostic to become a theist. It is not enough to believe in an ancient holy book, even though when it is accurately analyzed without bias, it proves to be more trustworthy and admirable than what we are taught in school. Neither is it enough to realize how probable it is that a personal God would have to show human beings how to live, considering they have so much trouble on their own. Nor is it enough to believe for the reason that, throughout history, millions of people have arrived at this Wholeness of Reality only through religious experience. The aforementioned reasons may warm one toward religion, but they fall short of convincing. However, if one presupposes that God is in fact a knowable, loving person, as an experiment, and then lives according that religion, he or she will suddenly come face to face with experiences previously unknown. One’s life becomes full, meaningful, and fearless in the face of death. It does not defy reason but exceeds it.
  5. Because God has been experienced through love, the orders of prayer, fellowship, and devotion now matter. They create order within one’s life, continually renewing the “missing piece” that had previously felt lost. They empower one to be compassionate and humble, not small-minded or arrogant.
  6. No truth should be denied outright, but all should be questioned. Science reveals an ever-growing vision of our universe that should not be discounted due to bias toward older understandings. Reason is to be trusted and cultivated. To believe in God is not to forego reason or to deny scientific facts, but to step into the unknown and discover the fullness of life.
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Demographics

 

Nonreligious population by country, 2010.

 

Percentage of people in various European countries who said: “I don’t believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force.” (2005)

Demographic research services normally do not differentiate between various types of non-religious respondents, so agnostics are often classified in the same category as atheists or other non-religious people.

A 2010 survey published in Encyclopædia Britannica found that the non-religious people or the agnostics made up about 9.6% of the world’s population. A November–December 2006 poll published in the Financial Times gives rates for the United States and five European countries. The rates of agnosticism in the United States were at 14%, while the rates of agnosticism in the European countries surveyed were considerably higher: Italy (20%), Spain (30%), Great Britain (35%), Germany (25%), and France (32%).

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that about 16% of the world’s people, the third largest group after Christianity and Islam, have no religious affiliation. According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, agnostics made up 3.3% of the US adult population. In the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, 55% of agnostic respondents expressed “a belief in God or a universal spirit,” whereas 41% stated that they thought that they felt a tension “being non-religious in a society where most people are religious.”

The Bart D. Ehrman Stumbling Blocks: From a Conservative Evangelical to an Atheist?

According to the 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 22% of Australians have “no religion”, a category that includes agnostics. Between 64% and 65% of Japanese and up to 81% of Vietnamese are atheists, agnostics, or do not believe in a god. An official European Union survey reported that 3% of the EU population is unsure about their belief in a god or spirit.

Criticism

Agnosticism is criticized from a variety of standpoints. Some atheists criticize the use of the term agnosticism as functionally indistinguishable from atheism; this results in frequent criticisms of those who adopt the term as avoiding the atheist label.

Theistic

Theistic critics claim that agnosticism is impossible in practice, since a person can live only either as if God did not exist (etsi deus non-daretur), or as if God did exist (etsi deus daretur).

Christian Response to Agnosticism

Agnosticism comes from two Greek words (a, “no”; gnosis, “knowledge”). The term agnosticism was coined by T. H. Huxley. It literally means “no-knowledge,” the opposite of a Gnostic (Huxley, vol. 5; see Gnosticism). Thus, an agnostic is someone who claims not to know. As applied to knowledge of God, there are two basic kinds of agnostics, those who claim that the existence and nature of God are not known, and those who hold God to be unknowable (see Analogy, Principle of; God, Evidence for). Since the first type does not eliminate all religious knowledge, attention here will center on the second.

Over 100 years before Huxley (1825–1895), the writings of David Hume (1711–1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) laid down the philosophical basis of agnosticism. Much of modern philosophy takes for granted the general validity of the types of arguments they set forth.

Skepticism of Hume. Even Kant was a rationalist (see Rationalism) until he was “awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” by reading Hume. Technically Hume’s views are skeptical but they serve agnostic aims. Hume’s reasoning is based in his claim that there are only two kinds of meaningful statements.

“If we take into our hands any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding).

Any statement that is neither purely a relation of ideas (definitional or mathematical) on the one hand or a matter of fact (empirical or factual) on the other is meaningless. Of course all statements about God fall outside these categories, hence knowledge of God becomes impossible (see Acognosticism).

Empirical Atomism. Furthermore, all sensations are experienced as “entirely loose and separate.” Causal connections are made by the mind only after one has observed a constant conjunction of things in experience. All one really experiences is a series of unconnected and separate sensations. Indeed, there is no direct knowledge even of one’s “self,” for all we know of ourselves is a disconnected bundle of sense impressions. It does make sense to speak of connections made only in the mind a priori or independent of experience. Hence, from experience there are no known and certainly no necessary connections. All matters of experience imply a possible contrary state of affairs.

Causality Based on Custom. According to Hume “all reasoning concerning matters of fact seems to be founded on the relation of cause and effect.… By means of that relation alone can we go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses” (Hume IV, 2; see Causality, Principle of; First Principles). And knowledge of the relation of cause and effect is not a priori but arises entirely from experience. There is always the possibility of the post hoc fallacy—namely, that things happen after other events (even regularly) but are not really caused by them. For example, the sun rises regularly after the rooster crows but certainly not because the rooster crows. One can never know causal connections. And without a knowledge of the Cause of this world, for example, one is left in agnosticism about such a supposed God.

Knowledge by Analogy. Even if one grants that every event has a cause, we cannot be sure what the cause is like. Hence, in his famous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume contends that the cause of the universe may be (1) different from human intelligence since human inventions differ from those of nature; (2) finite, since the effect is finite and one only need infer a cause adequate for the effect; (3) imperfect, since there are imperfections in nature; (4) multiple, for the creation of the world looks more like a long-range trial and error product of many cooperating deities; (5) male and female, since this is how humans generate; and (6) anthropomorphic, with hands, nose, eyes, and other body parts such as his creatures have. Hence, analogy leaves us in skepticism about the nature of any supposed Cause of the world.

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Agnosticism of Kant. The writings of Hume had a profound influence on the thinking of Kant. Before reading them, Kant held a form of rationalism in the tradition of Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716). Leibniz, and Christian Freiherr von Wolff (1679–1754) following him, believed reality was rationally knowable and that theism was demonstrable. It was the pen of Kant that put an abrupt end to this sort of thinking in the philosophical world.

The Impossibility of Knowing Reality. Kant granted to the rational tradition of Leibniz a rational, a priori dimension to knowledge, namely, the form of all knowledge is independent of experience. On the other hand, Kant agreed with Hume and the empiricists that the content of all knowledge came via the senses. The “stuff” of knowledge is provided by the senses but the structure of knowledge is attained eventually in the mind. This creative synthesis solved the problem of rationalism and empiricism. However, the unhappy result of this synthesis is agnosticism, for if one cannot know anything until after it is structured by sensation (time and space) and the categories of understanding (such as unity and causality), then there is no way to get outside one’s own being and know what it really was before he so formed it. That is, one can know what something is to him but never what it is in itself. Only the phenomenal, but not the noumenal, can be known. We must remain agnostic about reality. We know only that it is there but can never know what it is (Kant, 173f.).

The Antinomies of Human Reason. Not only is there an unbridgeable gulf between knowing and being, between the categories of our understanding and the nature of reality, but inevitable contradictions also result once we begin to trespass the boundary line (Kant, 393f.). For example, there is the antinomy of causality. If everything has a cause, then there cannot be a beginning cause and the causal series must stretch back infinitely. But it is impossible that the series be both infinite and also have a beginning. Such is the impossible paradox resulting from the application of the category of causality to reality.

These arguments do not exhaust the agnostic’s arsenal, but they do lie at the heart of the contention that God cannot be known. However, even some who are unwilling to admit to the validity of these arguments opt for a more subtle agnosticism. Such is the case with the school of thought called logical positivism.

Logical Positivism. Logical positivism or logical empiricism is a philosophy of logic and language that seeks to describe all reality in terms of the senses or experience. Its foundational ideas were developed by the nineteenth-century philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Its theological implications were described by A. J. Ayer (1910–1989) in his principle of empirical verifiability. Ayer alleged that human beings cannot analyze or define the infinite God, so it is impossible to speak more than gibberish about God. The idea of knowing or speaking of a noumenal being is preposterous. One may not even use the term God. Hence, even traditional agnosticism is untenable. The agnostic asks the question of whether God exists. For the positivist, even the question is meaningless. Hence, it is impossible to be an agnostic.

Oddly, Ayer’s acognosticism does not automatically negate the possibility of religious experience, as does agnosticism. Someone might experience God, but such a touching of infinitude could never be meaningfully expressed, so it is worthless to anyone except the recipient of its wonder. The logical positivist Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was perhaps more consistent in placing a deist type of restriction on positivistic thought (see Deism). If it is meaningless for us to speak of a God or even to use the term, then any infinite being would have the same problem regarding the physical. Wittgenstein denied that God could be concerned about, or revelatory within, the world. Between the noumenal and phenomenal spheres there can be only silence. In summary, for religious noncognitivists Ayer and Wittgenstein, metaphysical acognosticism is the net result of language analysis (see Analogy, Principle of).

Unfalsifiability. Antony Flew develops an agnostic philosophy by taking another angle on the limitations of language and awareness of the divine. There may or may not be a God; one cannot prove either thesis empirically. Therefore, one may not legitimately believe either thesis. To be verifiable, an argument must be falsifiable. God must be shown, one way or the other, to make a difference. Unless the theist can answer the challenge head-on, it would appear that he must have what R. M. Hare called a “blik” (Flew, 100). That is to say, he has an unfalsifiable belief in God despite all facts or states of affairs.

Logic of Agnosticism. There are two forms of agnosticism: The weak form simply holds that God is unknown. This of course leaves the door open that one may know God and indeed that some possibly do know God. As such, this agnosticism does not threaten Christian theism. The stronger form of agnosticism is mutually exclusive with Christianity. It claims that God is unknowable, that God cannot be known.

Another distinction must be made: There is unlimited and limited agnosticism. The former claims that God and all reality is completely unknowable. The latter claims only that God is partially unknowable because of the limitations of human finitude and sinfulness. The latter form of agnosticism may be granted by Christians as both possible and desirable.

This leaves three basic alternatives with respect to knowledge about God.

     1. We can know nothing about God; he is unknowable.

     2. We can know everything about God; he can be exhaustively known.

     3. We can know something, but not everything; God is partially knowable.

The first position is agnosticism; the second, dogmatism, and the last, realism. The dogmatic position is untenable. One would have to be infinite in order to know an infinite being exhaustively. Few if any informed theists have seriously held this kind of dogmatism.

However, theists (see Theism) sometimes argue as though partial agnosticism is also wrong. The form this argument takes is that agnosticism is wrong simply because one cannot know something is unknowable about reality without having knowledge about that something. But this is faulty reasoning. There is no contradiction in saying, “I know enough about reality to affirm that there are some things about reality that I cannot know.” For example, we can know enough about observation and reporting techniques to say that it is impossible for us to know the exact population of the world at a given instant (unknowability in practice). Likewise, one may know enough about the nature of finitude to say that it is impossible for finite beings to know exhaustively an infinite being. Thus, the Christian holds a controversy only against the complete agnostic who rules out in theory and practice all knowledge of God.

Self-defeating Agnosticism. Complete agnosticism reduces to the self-destructing (see Self-Refuting Statements) assertion that “one knows enough about reality to affirm that nothing can be known about reality” (see Logic). This statement is self-falsifying. One who knows something about reality cannot affirm in the same breath that all of reality is unknowable. And one who knows nothing whatsoever about reality has no basis for making a statement about reality. It will not suffice to say that knowledge of reality can only be purely and completely negative, that is, knowledge can only say what reality is not. For every negative presupposes a positive; one cannot meaningfully affirm that something is not and be totally devoid of a knowledge of the “something.” It follows that total agnosticism is self-defeating. It assumes knowledge of reality in order to deny all knowledge of reality.

Some have attempted to avoid this critique by forming their skepticism as a question: “What do I know about reality?” However, this merely delays the dilemma. Both agnostic and Christian should ask this question, but the answer separates the agnostic from the realist. “I can know something about God” differs significantly from “I can know nothing about God.” Once the answer is given in the latter form, a self-defeating assertion has been unavoidably made.

Neither will it help to take the mutist alternative by saying nothing. Thoughts can be as self-stultifying as assertions. The mutist cannot even think he or she knows absolutely nothing about reality without implying knowledge about reality.

Someone may be willing to grant that knowledge about finite reality is possible but not knowledge about infinite reality, the sort of knowledge at issue in Christian theism. If so, the position is no longer complete agnosticism, for it holds that something can be known about reality. This leaves the door open to discuss whether this reality is finite or infinite, personal or impersonal. Such discussion ventures beyond the question of agnosticism to debate finite godism and theism.

Kant’s Self-defeating Agnosticism. Kant’s argument that the categories of thought (such as unity and causality) do not apply to reality is just as unsuccessful. Unless categories of reality corresponded to categories of the mind, no statements can be made about reality, including the statement Kant made. Unless the real world were intelligible, no statement about it would apply. A preformation of the mind to reality is necessary whether one says anything about it—positive or negative. Otherwise, we think of an unthinkable reality.

The argument may be pressed that the agnostic need not be making any statement at all about reality but simply defining the limits of what we can know. Even this approach is self-defeating, however. To say that one cannot know any more than the limits of the phenomena or appearance is to draw a line in the sand while straddling it. To set such firm limits is to surpass them. It is not possible to contend that appearance ends here and reality begins there unless one can see at least some distance on the other side. How can one know the difference between appearance and reality who has not seen enough of appearance and reality to make the comparison?

Another self-defeating dimension is implied within Kant’s admission that he knows that the noumena is there but not what it is. Is it possible to know that something is without knowing something about what it is? Can pure “that-ness” be known? Does not all knowledge imply some knowledge of characteristics? Even a strange creature one had never seen before could not be observed to exist unless it had some recognizable characteristics as size, color, or movement. Even something invisible must leave some effect or trace in order to be observed. One need not know the origin or function of a thing or phenomenon. But it has been observed or the observer could not know that it is. It is not possible to affirm that something is without simultaneously declaring something about what it is. Even to describe it as the “in-itself” or the “real” is to say something. Further, Kant acknowledged the noumenal to be the unknowable “source” of the appearance we are receiving. All of this is informative about the real; there is a real, in-itself source of impressions. This is something less than complete agnosticism.

Other Forms of Skepticism. Hume’s Skepticism. The overall skeptical attempt to suspend all judgment about reality is self-defeating, since it implies a judgment about reality. How else could one know that suspending all judgment about reality is the wisest course, unless he knows indeed that realty is unknowable? Skepticism implies agnosticism; as shown above, agnosticism implies knowledge about reality. Unlimited skepticism that commends the suspension of all judgments about reality implies a most sweeping judgment about the knowability of reality. Why discourage all truth attempts, unless one knows in advance that they are futile? And how can one be in possession of this advance information without already knowing something about reality?

Hume’s contention that all meaningful statements are either a relation of ideas or else about matters of fact breaks its own rules. The statement fits neither category. Hence, on its own grounds it would be meaningless. It could not be purely a relation of ideas, for in that case it would not be informative about reality, as it purports to be. It is not purely a matter-of-fact statement since it claims to cover more than empirical matters. In short, Hume’s distinction is the basis for Ayer’s empirical verifiability principle, and the verifiability principle is itself not empirically verifiable (see Ayer, A. J.).

Hume’s radical empirical atomism that all events are “entirely loose and separate” and that even the self is only a bundle of sense impressions is unfeasible. If everything were unconnected, there would be no way of even making that particular statement, since some unity and connection are implied in the affirmation that everything is disconnected. To affirm “I am nothing but the impressions about myself” is self-defeating, for there is always the assumed unity of the “I (self)” making the assertion. But one cannot assume a unified self in order to deny it.

For replies to acognosticism, Wittgenstein’s mystic form of it, and Flew’s principle of falsifiability, see Acognosticism.

Some Specific Agnostic Claims. Hume denied the traditional uses of both causality and analogy as means of knowing the theistic God. Causality is based on custom and analogy would lead to either a finite, human god or to a God totally different than the alleged analog.

The Justification of Causality. Hume never denied the principle of causality. He admitted it would be absurd to maintain that things arise without a cause (Hume, I.187). What he did attempt was to deny that there is any philosophical way of establishing the principle of causality. If the causal principle is not a mere analytic relation of ideas, but is belief based on customary conjunction of matter-of-fact events, then there is no necessity in it. One cannot use it with philosophical justification. But we have already seen that dividing all content statements into these two classes is self-defeating. Hence, it is possible that the causal principle is both contentful and necessary.

The very denial of causal necessity implies a causal necessity. Unless there is a necessary ground (or cause) for the denial, then the denial does not necessarily stand. And if there is a necessary ground or cause for the denial, then the denial is self-defeating; in that event it is using a necessary causal connection to deny that there are necessary causal connections.

Some have attempted to avoid this objection by limiting necessity to the reality of logic and propositions but denying that necessity applies to reality. This does not succeed; in order for this statement to exclude necessity from the realm of reality, it must be a necessary statement about reality. It must claim that it is necessarily true about reality that no necessary statements can be made about reality. This actually does what it claims cannot be done.

A Foundation for Analogy. Likewise, Hume cannot deny all similarity between the world and God, for this would imply that the creation must be totally dissimilar from the Creator. It would mean that effects must be entirely different from their cause. This statement too is self-destructive; unless there is some knowledge of the cause, there can be no basis for denying all similarity between cause and its effect. Even a negative comparison implies positive knowledge of the terms being compared. Hence, either there is no basis for the affirmation that God must be totally dissimilar, or else there can be some knowledge of God in terms of our experience, in which case God is not necessarily totally dissimilar to what we know in our experience.

One should be cautioned here about overdrawing the conclusion of these arguments. Once it has been shown that total agnosticism is self-defeating, it does not ipso facto follow that God exists or that one has knowledge of God. These arguments show only that, if there is a God, one cannot maintain that he cannot be known. From this it follows only that God can be known, not that we do know anything about God. The disproof of agnosticism is not thereby the proof of realism or theism. Agnosticism only destroys itself and makes it possible to build Christian theism. The positive case for Christian knowledge of God must then be built (see God, Evidence for).

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Kant’s Antinomies. In each of Kant’s alleged antinomies there is a fallacy. One does not end in inevitable contradictions by speaking about reality in terms of the necessary conditions of human thought. For instance, it is a mistake to view everything as needing a cause, for in this case there would be an infinity of causes, and even God would need a cause. Only limited, changing, contingent things need causes. Once one arrives at an unlimited, unchanging, Necessary Being, there no longer is a need for a cause. The finite must be caused, but the infinite being would be uncaused. Kant’s other antinomies are likewise invalid (see Kant, Immanuel).

Conclusion. There are two kinds of agnosticism: limited and unlimited. The former is compatible with Christian claims of finite knowledge of an infinite God. Unlimited agnosticism, however, is self-destructive; it implies knowledge about reality in order to deny the possibility of any knowledge of reality. Both skepticism and noncognitivisms (acognosticism) are reducible to agnosticism. Unless it is impossible to know the real, it is unnecessary to disclaim the possibility of all cognitive knowledge of it or to dissuade men from making any judgments about it.

Unlimited agnosticism is a subtle form of dogmatism. In completely disclaiming the possibility of all knowledge of the real, it stands at the opposite pole from the position that claims all knowledge about reality. Either extreme is dogmatic. Both are must positions regarding knowledge as opposed to the position that we can or do know something about reality. And there is simply no process short of omniscience by which one can make such sweeping and categorical statements. Agnosticism is negative dogmatism, and every negative presupposes a positive. Hence, total agnosticism is not only self-defeating; it is self-deifying. Only an omniscient mind could be totally agnostic, and finite men confessedly do not possess omniscience. Hence, the door remains open for some knowledge of reality. Reality is not unknowable.—Norman L. Geisler, “Agnosticism,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 10–14.

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Atheistic

According to Richard Dawkins, a distinction between agnosticism and atheism is unwieldy and depends on how close to zero a person is willing to rate the probability of existence for any given god-like entity. About himself, Dawkins continues, “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” Dawkins also identifies two categories of agnostics; “Temporary Agnostics in Practice” (TAPs), and “Permanent Agnostics in Principle” (PAPs). He states that “agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability” and considers PAP a “deeply inescapable kind of fence-sitting”.

Ignosticism

A related concept is ignosticism, the view that a coherent definition of a deity must be put forward before the question of the existence of a deity can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition is not coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of a deity is meaningless or empirically untestable. A. J. Ayer, Theodore Drange, and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept the statement “a deity exists” as a meaningful proposition that can be argued for or against.

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