“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.”
Robert G. Ingersoll – Why I Am An Agnostic (1896)
The belief that the existence or nature of “God” is unknown and probably unknowable, or more broadly, the refusal to claim the existence or nonexistence of an “ultimate reality” (as Merriam-Webster defines it), became to be known as “agnosticism” mainly through Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 – 1895), an English biologist who coined the term. However, this post will not be a history or a detailed philosophical explanation of agnosticism. A very good introduction to this concept can be found in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas at the University of Virginia Library. Here, I will simply try to explain my own personal views.
Agnosticism is often viewed as a convenient way of avoiding to choose a “side”, in order not to offend anyone (and, granted, sometimes it is). Nevertheless, I do think this is the most honest and rational answer anyone can give. I truly don’t know whether we have a soul, or we are just electrical impulses in our brains, whether there is an afterlife after we die, or whether we are no more than decomposing matter. If I would have a child (which I don’t) and he or she would ask me whether there is a “God” (whatever that may mean… superior being, natural balance/order, karma, “the Force,” midichlorians, etc….), or what happens after we pass on, the most honest answer I could give that child is “I don’t know”. Sure, I could try to explain what various religions, theologians or philosophers thought – that there is a God, or that “God is dead”, “what is God?”, “what is life?” etc., etc., etc., but the ultimate truth is that I really do not know. And I don’t think anyone knows. All the knowledge we have on this subject are just theories and suppositions.
I would say (together with other agnostics) even that these problems are virtually unknowable. Firstly, to say with 100% certainty, objectively, whether there is or not life after death, or whether we have an immortal soul that lives on after we die, would mean to die and come back. And I don’t mean to die for a few minutes, seeing a white light, or experiencing some indescribable feelings (which can be interpreted, scientifically, as abnormal electro-chemical processes in a brain that is deprived of oxygen – 1, 2, 3). I mean actually die, being actually completely dead for a few days at least, and then come back to life and share your knowledge with the rest of us. Secondly, if I presume that a “superior being” exists (I don’t know how else to call it, so for lack of a better word, I call it “God”), I can’t possibly think, reasonably, rationally, that we as humans, can even begin to understand it. Can an ant understand a human? Or, more appropriately, can a chimpanzee understand a human? We share about 99% similarity at the gene level with chimpanzees, which are considered to be the second most intelligent species on this planet, yet they are not capable of truly understanding us. You can say that knowledge/science will evolve, and this way we will be able to comprehend a lot more things about the universe. I agree completely. But I also say that there is a limit. You can teach a chimpanzee sign language, and a whole lot of other things, you can dress it, you can even teach it to do menial tasks around the house. But it’ll still be a chimpanzee and it still won’t be able to understand the theory of relativity, for instance. Yes, we will explore the galaxy and colonize other planets, but still, all that we will ever be is apes in space. In that case, how can we ever think that we can understand things that are simply beyond us? To say that we are the epitome of evolution in this entire quasi-infinite universe is absolutely ridiculous and terribly arrogant. There are billions of billions of stars out there and even if only 0.5% of them would be able to accommodate life in their systems, that’s still a great deal of possible extraterrestrial higher intelligence. Don’t get me wrong, I do have confidence in mankind, and I do believe that we will achieve great scientific and technological feats in the future, and maybe (utopianly) even learn to live peacefully with one another, but in regards to understanding, I think we can never go beyond a certain point. What is that point, however, that’s yet to be discovered.
But how do my views hold when confronted to criticism? Let’s have a look at what some religious and atheist figures thought about agnosticism. Joseph Ratzinger (the former Pope Benedict XVI) wrote (in Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief And World Religions, 2004) that “agnosticism is always the fruit of a refusal of that knowledge which is in fact offered to man … The knowledge of God has always existed”. Speaking only for myself, I, personally, am not refusing any kind of knowledge. On the contrary, I seek it. I like reading and thinking about life, about our place in the world (or my place in the world). I like hearing multiple points of view, I think that listening to just one side is just constraining yourself, restricting yourself from knowledge…The way I see it, the religious/mystical texts present one way of bettering yourself. If these books really can help you become a better person, then I see no reason to shun them. Personally, I take pleasure in reading some of these books. I don’t take everything literally, of course; I don’t believe everything I read. What I do is enjoy the bits of wisdom I find in them, and think how I can apply that wisdom in my everyday life. (To go off on a tangent for a moment, I like the somewhat Jungian approach of Professor Jonathan Garb, whose thinking I came to know through a course he taught on Coursera called Modern European Mysticism and Psychological Thought.)
The Muslim scholar Dr. Laurence B. Brown raises the question (in his article Agnosticism), “You claim that nothing can be known with certainty … how, then, can you be so sure?” Well, that’s the point, I’m not sure. Agnosticism doesn’t express a certainty, but a doubt. It’s only a presumption that nothing can be known with certainty, until something is proven to be known with certainty. Brown continues: “Most often … the religiously unmotivated utilize the term [agnostic] to excuse personal disinterest, attempting thereby to legitimize escapism from the responsibility of serious investigation into religious evidences.” That can be true for some people, but, again, speaking for myself, I did not try in any way to escape any kind of serious investigation, not rejecting any kind of knowledge, as I explained earlier, and my sincere investigations have lead me to agnosticism. Later on in his article, Brown asserts that “Amongst those who do choose to embrace a faith, many arrive at their choice by throwing up their hands in frustration and choosing whatever religion suits best or, at the very minimum, offends least. Some file a telepathic communiqué with God to the effect that they are doing the best they can, others rest comfortably on insecure conclusions. Many become Agnostic with regard to all doctrinal faiths, pursuing an internal, personal faith for lack of exposure to a doctrinal belief which is pure and consistently Godly.” This is a trick assertion, because what the author refers to as being “a doctrinal belief which is pure and consistently Godly” is Islam. So, in other words, some people are agnostics because either they are completely ignorant of the Muslim faith, or they did not study it enough (or dismiss it because of prejudices – this is not mentioned in the quote, but it is in the full article). Well, I have studied it, as I have Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions. Yet, I am still not convinced that this religion is higher above any other one, or that it offers more complete “truths” than other doctrines.
I could not identify with atheism either. I must say I am kind of disappointed by the “new” atheist discourse, very arrogant, offensive and aggressive, attacking religion and religious beliefs left and right, ignoring the fact that a lot of religious people are actually intelligent and decent. The atheist movement seems to me to take the form, paradoxically (and ironically), of a very dogmatic religious movement – their view is the RIGHT one and everyone who disagrees is an idiot, leaving no room for discussion.
Richard Dawkins (in his book, The God Delusion, 2006) starts the section on agnosticism (Chapter 2) with a recollection of an old priest he used to know in his school days, who had a sort of admiration for atheists because “they at least had the courage of their misguided convictions.” The priest couldn’t stand the agnostics: “namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters.” Dawkins, however, concedes that “there is nothing wrong with being agnostic in cases where we lack evidence one way or the other”, and proceeds in distinguishing two kinds of agnosticism. One is “TAP, or Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, … the legitimate fence-sitting where there really is a definite answer, one way or the other, but we so far lack the evidence to reach it (or don’t understand the evidence, or haven’t time to read the evidence, etc.). …. There is a truth out there and one day we hope to know it, though for the moment we don’t.” The other is “PAP (Permanent Agnosticism in Principle). … The PAP style of agnosticism is appropriate for questions that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather, because the very idea of evidence is not applicable. The question exists on a different plane, or in a different dimension, beyond the zones where evidence can reach. … Philosophers cite this question as one that can never be answered, no matter what new evidence might one day become available. And some scientists and other intellectuals are convinced – too eagerly in my view – that the question of God’s existence belongs in the forever inaccessible PAP category. From this, as we shall see, they often make the illogical deduction that the hypothesis of God’s existence, and the hypothesis of his non-existence, have exactly equal probability of being right. The view that I shall defend is very different: 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.” He goes on to say that “PAP agnostics aver that we cannot say anything, one way or the other, on the question of whether or not God exists. The question, for PAP agnostics, is in principle unanswerable, and they should strictly refuse to place themselves anywhere on the spectrum of probabilities. The fact that I cannot know whether your red is the same as my green doesn’t make the probability 50 per cent. The proposition on offer is too meaningless to be dignified with a probability. Nevertheless, it is a common error, which we shall meet again, to leap from the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that his existence and his non-existence are equiprobable.”
I already said that I think the “ultimate reality” problem is unsolvable/unknowable, so I guess that puts me in the “PAP” category. I concur with Dawkins’ statement that the question whether God exists or not can only have a very simple answer: yes or no. But what I’m arguing is that there is no way of knowing or proving any one of those two answers. We can’t really say anything strong about any probability regarding the existence or non-existence of God, as I have written earlier in this post, and from that point of view, the hypothesis of God’s existence, and the hypothesis of his non-existence do have “equal probability of being right.” I would have actually agreed with his opinions about PAP agnosticism if throughout the book, Dawkins would have provided a single scientific, non-theoretical evidence about the non-existence of God. But, as a matter of fact, he only piles up evidence for the evil nature of religion, how it corrupts and lies and makes up fairy tales; he discusses (superficially) several theological concepts, “debunking” them for the mere fiction that they are… I already knew most of these things. Where’s the scientific evidence for the non-existence of God that he promised? Proving someone wrong doesn’t automatically make you right. Dawkins is not talking about God in this book, he’s talking about religion, and more specifically how religion and religious people are evil and should be eradicated; he’s talking about what religious people think about God, not “God” itself. He seems to think that the idea of even considering the existence of God is so ludicrous that is not even worth trying to disprove. Dawkins is not interested in proving the non-existence of God, but in proving the religious people wrong, which is more about ego than science.
In regards to the everlasting conflict between the two parties (believers and non-believers), it all stems, in my opinion, from a basic unwillingness to listen the other person’s point of view – and even from a basic disrespect for other people’s opinions (on both sides). The religious dogmatists don’t really understand the non-religious people’s point of view (and they don’t really want to), and the same can be said about the non-religious people. Many theists display a terrible ignorance of the Darwinist theory of evolution and a stupendous lack of touch with scientific reality (see, for example, the “intelligent design” theory), some even mocking it. Needless to say, the mere fact that we share about 99% of our genetic material with chimpanzees and bonobos is, I would say, enough evidence that we share a common ancestor. Many atheists, on the other hand, seem to mistake religion in general for religious fundamentalism, and seem to believe that without religion there would be no fanaticism, and everyone would become tolerant and nice. Well… that view is naïve to say the least. You could blame religion for the existence of fanatics; but the truth is that people with a tendency to become fanatics will become that regardless of their beliefs. It’s not the religion per se that makes fanatics, but ignorance, dogmatism, intolerance, and bigotry. People who share those traits (being also, quite frankly, a little imbecile) will find things to hate no matter what. Blaming religion for fundamentalism it’s like blaming guns for killing people, instead of the actual shooters. The understanding of most of the people on both sides of the other’s reasoning is superficial at best, thus making a reasonable discussion impossible. The problem, I think, is that both parties start from the conviction that their idea is (must be) the TRUE one (that “God” exists or not), and they construct their arguments to match that idea, instead of working their way objectively to see whether the various evidences lead to a logical conclusion (whatever that may be). They are already convinced of the truthfulness of their own arguments, so of course their conclusions will confirm their initial hypotheses.
I guess what ultimately bothers me are dogmatism and the mentality that if you’re not with me, then you’re against me. Now, I may not agree with some people’s opinions, but I see no reason to offend them. Also, I do not like seeking proselytes. I do not wish to force my opinion upon anyone, as I do not wish someone to force their opinions upon me. If I hear an opinion that I don’t agree with, I don’t feel the need to mock that person, or to necessarily explain why they are wrong and I am right. I know what I think and I don’t need to shout out my convictions everywhere I go and to everyone I meet. I truly believe that intelligent (and I include here non-prejudicial, open-minded, curious, even humble) people can find common ground and have a decent discussion no matter what their beliefs are.
In conclusion, it seems that none of the parties can even conceive that agnosticism as a personal choice might be possible without being ignorant or dishonest, or cowardly, or insecure, or because one couldn’t find any other “worthy” alternative. But I would say that what agnosticism argues is a lot more honest and a lot more rational than what most religions and atheism propose.
I do have a problem in truly believing in an “ultimate reality”… And yet, I’m not so eager to dismiss its existence. I wish I had the certainty of a true believer or of an atheist. But I don’t. All I have is doubt. Still, it is this doubt that pushes me forward toward a continuous search for knowledge. And I guess it is this doubt that makes me an agnostic.
If you liked this, you can support me on Patreon. Thank you!
 A small note on that: a superior being doesn’t necessarily mean a better one. We, as humans, are not necessarily “better” than chimpanzees; we just have a higher cognitive capacity.