Agnosticism

Agnosticism

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Published:
September 30, 2021

Throughout most of human history, belief in the existence of god or gods was seemingly ubiquitous. Indeed, the first commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, KJV) has a hidden premise—that people already believe in god(s). Consequently, the command is to make sure the real God is not subordinated to the false. But there is no recognition of the possibility that there might be no god(s) at all.

Historical Background

Still, it’s very difficult for me to believe that, until near-modernity, people almost never considered the possibility of no god. Or at least that the conventional religious wisdom in their surrounding culture just might be mere myth. One example of this recognition of ignorance—rare, I think, only for its being recorded—is found in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written circa 731 AD. In Chapter 12, describing King Edwin of Northumbria’s conversion to Christianity, one of Edwin’s retainers gives an allegorical description of how truly ignorant people are about everything, including god, that is outside their near-immediate experience:

"The present life of man upon earth … [is] like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house ... flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight … So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all." 

Philosophical consideration of this human dilemma came slowly, as classical knowledge revived and Western civilization moved into the Renaissance.  It was aided by a slow-growing societal secularism and tolerance for religious heterodoxy, exemplified by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This increasing openness was, ironically, facilitated by a partially discredited Catholic Church, which produced a tolerance for questioning god’s existence, when inquisition-like reprisal was no longer societally acceptable.

Finally, in 1869, the labeling word “agnostic” was coined by English biologist Thomas Huxley—too restrictively, in my view. But it has since become somewhat more expansive and I will use the term to mean: “one who is unable to satisfactorily decide whether god exists or not.” This is different from “atheism,” which takes a stand, declaring that god doesn’t exist. Agnosticism can be viewed as the pivot point between belief and non-belief.

In modernity, correlated strongly to the rise of higher education and scientific success, questioning god’s existence has been legitimated. While it is certainly true that a significant majority of the world’s population believe in various forms of god or gods, a purely secular mindset is alive and growing, first and foremost in what might be termed the “economic first world.” But, like the proverbial “elephant in the room,” I don’t think the Christian church universally, let alone Adventism specifically, is seriously addressing it—which is my motivation for this essay. Unfortunately, what I have written here is considerably longer than the usual Spectrum website offerings. The problem for me is that, even at its current length, I’m still inadequately addressing the topic. So I risk: a) exhausting my readers’ patience and/or b) their dissatisfaction with my coverage. But this trade-off between length and adequacy is my best attempt. So—caveat lector.

Legitimacy and Causes of Agnosticism

The Human Dilemma

The question of god’s existence is existential—in the most fundamental meaning of that word. We exist now, and we all face death. But is there hope beyond the grave? Christianity says yes, but is it true? If not we all face annihilation and, for anyone who is at all reflective, that should be significantly distressing. Now, Christianity also tells us that belief involves a “leap of faith.” And I think most believers and wannabe-believers can somewhat accept that. But one would wish that the leap-distance is short and doable. And the landing foundation is solid. We don’t want to be exemplifying Mark Twain’s cynical and humorous definition of faith, that it is: “believing what you know ain't so.”

The Problem of Evil

The primary, albeit too-frequently unrecognized, driver behind agnosticism (often with a follow-on move to atheism) is the Problem of Evil (POE). This term denotes a crucial and possibly unsolvable problem that humans confront. Perhaps its best-known and classic definition is attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE):

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

In my experience, both personal and in topical reading, Christians (or more broadly—ethical monotheists) do not deal with this dilemma very well. And the more fundamentalist the denominational persuasion, the worse the situation gets. But the POE is a deep human problem. Thus ignoring it, or worse—viewing any consideration as somehow illegitimate and dangerous—just suppresses it and produces a deep, unresolved inner tension. People understandably wish for a “clean” God—always ready to act in the face of evil. But reality is far messier. Epicurus’ 3rd argument: “Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?” gnaws inside. And your pastor too-likely would dispense a bromide if you applied to him (almost certainly a “him”) for answers.

The possible consequences? First an erosion of faith in God, or even in God’s existence. Because, as any well-informed non-believer would be happy to tell you: if there is no God, the POE is resolved! This truism is pretty much undeniable and, since most believers are at a loss for satisfactory answers, the genuine possibility of no-god looms. And one is moved closer to the “on-the-fence” position of agnosticism, with its distressing consequence that, if God doesn’t exist, then our death is permanent.

Theodicies

Responses to the POE—attempts to get God “off the hook”—are called theodicies. Within the SDA subculture, one might consider Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy to be, at bottom, a theodicy. The most prevalent theodicy is called the Free Will Defense. This places primary responsibility for evil on the acts of a perverted but free will—whether human or demonic. This does provide a plausible response for what is known as Moral Evil, but struggles to explain Natural Evil, and worse, to explain the intensity and duration of such evil. Many skeptics consider the theodicean enterprise to be a failure, but I don’t think that is at all fair. The problem for religionists—and especially for conservative Christians like SDAs, who have a tendency to think their theology has the God-mankind interaction all figured out—is that theodicies fail to exonerate God. But neither do they result in necessitating atheism. In other words, you can wind up at agnosticism.

Proving God Exists

While most people have neither the time nor temperament for a philosophical investigation of whether it’s possible to demonstrate God’s existence, we are in debt to those who have tried. A significant subset of the philosophy of religion involves efforts examining proposed proofs of God’s existence. For example, there is the Ontological Argument (Anselm and Descartes), and the Teleological / Cosmological Arguments (Aquinas). But none have adequately satisfied subsequent philosophical critique. They get you to plausibility but fall short of proof.

A Hidden God

Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel (1928-2016) wrote a now-famous book—Night—about his (slightly fictionalized) experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It is both moving and horrifying. In one of the most profound and disturbing passages, he writes:

At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. … Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing … And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: “… where is God?"

Here is an extreme example of humanity vainly crying out for God to show up in the face of evil. While none of us are likely to face trials this horrific, evil happens to everyone. Some are lightly touched over a long, secure lifetime. But most of us deal with many severely challenging problems—whether physical, financial, emotional, or interpersonal. And a believer should have the right to ask: where is God? So the companion problem to that of evil is the problem of God’s hiddenness. When we are in the proverbial “fiery furnace” it too often appears, admittedly from a “glass darkly” perspective, that God just hasn’t shown up. And then the follow-on question comes: is there really a God at all?

Religious Failure

There is also the all-too-pervasive evidence of religionists giving God a bad name. This comes in at least two forms: hypocrisy and foolishness.

Hypocrisy: Throughout much of Christian history the Catholic Church “put on a clinic” of hypocrisy and abuse of biblical Christianity. The short list includes: Crusades, the Inquisition, religious favor-for-hire (e.g., indulgences), wealthy and worldly monasteries, political power fights against secular rulers (e.g., the Investiture Controversy). And in modernity—pedophilia, at minimum. Such abuses, with corresponding disgust by laity, provided the societal climate for the Protestant Reformation to gain acceptance. But non-Catholics have no stone-throwing moral high-ground. We need look no further than the endemic racism of conservative American Protestantism. Starting in the antebellum South with Basil Manley’s theological defense of slavery, then the post-Civil War propaganda of the Lost Cause and continuing through the so-called Moral Majority—white fundamentalist evangelicals have been carrying water for racism for more than 200 years.

Foolishness, a few random examples

- Pentecostalism, on the margin (at minimum) takes the biblical concept of “in the spirit” and translates it into speaking nonsense, fainting, and bodily gyrations.

- The Westboro Baptist Church has been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”

- Anti-science. The rush to embrace Young Earth Creationism by fundamentalists, while initially plausible and certainly understandable, has by now become a point of ridicule by non-Christians. Not because of some perverse prejudice, but because the science is settled regarding the age of the earth. And the resistance demonstrates illiteracy and bad argumentation, with the corresponding loss of credibility for Christianity, generally.

To some it might seem illegitimate to use failures by religionists as an argument to push someone away from belief in God. But it’s fair to examine the ethical consequences (“by their fruits ye shall know them” – Matthew 7:20 KJV) of acting out one’s beliefs, to consider the more foundational question of whether the author of those beliefs is real or man-made.

Is There a Tipping Point?

When considering this topic with a readership whose majority are quite likely believers at present, or grew up that way, my above material could have the appearance of chipping away at faith-foundations. Thus, even discussing agnosticism can, for some, feel like a slippery slope into unbelief. Add to that the tendency of some who have rejected faith to engage in snarky superiority toward those who wrestle with the faith/no-faith issue, bullying honest searchers into feeling like fools, in line with that above Mark Twain faith definition. Thus, agnosticism can be made to seem like a “starter kit” for atheism. But a fairer definition is “merely” the admittedly uneasy position between belief and unbelief.

Nonetheless, having now rehearsed some of the problems that might push a believer toward agnosticism, what can be said for the reasonableness of making a faith-leap? Note up-front that nothing following will “rise” to the level of persuasiveness that should be close to compelling.  We tend, in modernity, to think of persuasion in terms of logic and science. Instead, I’m trying to speak only to the plausibility of choosing to believe. I’ll start with the most abstract and least-satisfying consideration.

Pascal’s WagerBlaise Pascal (1623-1662) formulated the problem of belief as a bet. God either exists, or doesn’t. And we can either believe in God or disbelieve. Thus, there are 4 total options: 1) God exists / we believe; 2) God exists / we disbelieve; 3) God doesn’t exist / we believe anyway; 4) God doesn’t exist / we don’t believe. Pascal says there is only one choice with a beneficial payoff—#1. In that case, he claims, we go to heaven and there is a heaven to go to. With all other choices—we lose, either because there is no eternal life (i.e., “heaven”) or we forfeit heaven because we rejected God. So, he views choosing #1 as a no-brainer.

Well, there are at least two objections that have been raised. First, Pascal assumes the theology he has been taught—with an ethical monotheistic God promising a glorious heavenly eternity—is the actual option before us. Critics have complained that there could be all sorts of other God-possibilities. However, in my view this complaint doesn’t break the argument. It just means that there needs to be not just any-old “god” but the one outlined in the Bible. Second, in practice, none of us can really believe in some “god” if we find the support for, and character of, such a deity to be weak or immoral, perhaps to the point of logical and ethical absurdity. Would anyone, in modernity, believe in Zeus, Thor, or Baal? We cannot believe in just anything—arbitrarily. But my overall response to this objection is to modify Pascal. I would say the argument retains much of its value if one recognizes that Pascal is calling attention to the existential criticality of the payoff, as #1 is the only option with a future for us. Consequently, we ought to examine the possibility of God’s existence with the greatest amount of diligence and seriousness. I’ve encountered many scoffers who seem to take pride in being “smarter” than those supposedly foolish Christians. However true that might be at times, Pascal demands we realize that the stakes are as high as it gets. No one should shrink from a full/fair consideration due to atheistic critics.

Origins: If we work our way fully backward in time, we come up to an unsolvable beginning choice. Let’s first, for simplicity, assume that the Big Bang is actually true. Then the atheistic position has either: a) the singularity from which all matter springs—coming from nothing, or b) matter, in singularity or universe form, has always existed. Neither of these conclusions are remotely satisfying. Conversely, if God initiated the universe, you answer one question: where did matter come from, with another: where did God come from? Either way we run up against humankind’s irremediable ignorance. So at this point we all get to “pick our poison.” Where did matter come from or where did God come from? Which do you prefer? Is one more “reasonable” than the other? Personally, I find the God-postulate more tolerable than the something-from-nothing option. At least there is something to fall back on (Argument from Transcendence). If you lean atheistic, you must address why something-from-nothing seems more “respectable” to you. My point is that—contrary to what some militant atheists might wish—both choices leave us in the dark, but moving off agnosticism entails our considering which we consider more plausible, and why.

Christianity’s god-formulation: In my reading of religious history, most god-candidates have been understood to operate transactionally. That is, humans give the god something, and they get something back. Works-oriented religion is a subset of this. But Christianity stands this model on its head. Not only is salvation not transactional, but we are given a tangible demonstration of God’s character in the incarnation of Jesus. That model and salvific method, I propose, is far more elevated—in appealing to our highest ethical principles—than the competition. I think this counts in considering whether Christianity might be true, and certainly whether it is preferable to alternatives. It doesn’t make Christianity true, of course, but we’re talking here about whether a leap of faith would be reasonable or not.

- Freedom and Hiddenness: The underlying strength of the Free Will Defense theodicy is the presumed reason why God would go to such consequential lengths to preserve freedom—you cannot have love without it. And God does not want a creation without love-capable creatures that can be in relation with him. Thus, some hiddenness is necessary, as it allows freedom to choose both for or against god, but also whether there is a god to be for in the first place. Too much “revealing” by god obviously removes, or at least seriously deprecates, freedom. Now, I’m very aware that an atheistic reaction could be something like: “Of course, there’s hiddenness. That’s because there’s no god to reveal in the first place.” Thus, an appeal to freedom-necessity to explain hiddenness can sound like lame special-pleading. But agnosticism cannot make my above atheistic-grounded hypothetical complaint. If you are “sitting” at a “don’t-know” position, then it is both fair and necessary to consider whether hiddenness can adequately be explained by god’s need to have a free creation.

“Saints”: Unfortunately, Catholicism has elevated multiple humans throughout history into “junior god” status, thus compromising the term. But, setting that specialized meaning aside, history is actually replete with examples of people who—however genuinely flawed they also were—have nonetheless exhibited character and actions that exemplify the highest ethical ideals. This is the flip-side of my above discussion of religious failure. So, where did this understanding and motivation come from? “Cleverly devised fables?” Possibly, as delusion can certainly drive beliefs and actions. But, while such exemplars of character are a minority compared with Christian fools and hypocrites, and ethical atheists and agnostics also exist and should not be discounted, I think it is fair to believe that a “saint” can genuinely be derived, motivated, and infused by interaction with a real, moral, and higher power. This consideration is in the arena sometimes labeled The Problem of Goodness.

Design?: Many Christian readers would, I think, find my placing this topic last—and with a question mark—odd, at minimum. Because for many (most?) believers the argument from design would rank high, perhaps first, if pressed to list various reasons that were persuasive in making a leap of faith (not to say such a leap is, or should be, merely rational). And once, I too held this as somewhat pivotal in my belief structure. Why I now consider it seriously problematic is, unfortunately, mostly beyond the scope of this essay. But the idea of design supporting a Christian-quality God runs into the POE, in that much of what we see in nature involves predation and parasitic relationships—hard to attribute to a good God, and also hard to conveniently assign blame to some post-fall activity—either explicitly by God altering some creatures for predation or by some super-rapid evolution. Yet it shows up in the fossil record and nothing indicates some sort of sudden shift where, say, carnivores once had bodies fit for a vegetarian diet.

Most Christians, in my experience, also have a rationale that stops at the argumentative level of William Paley’s watchmaker analogy. Or at best, Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity” argument in his book Darwin’s Black Box. These arguments are far from unassailable.

What is more supportive of God’s existence, as inferred from physical reality, is the idea of a fine-tuned universe. Sometimes also known as the Anthropic Principle or Goldilocks Enigma. Still, none of these explorations rise to the level of proof, nor should we expect that. But it would be well worth a reader’s time, if they strongly favor the design argument, to better understand its limitations.

Finally

This has been a very long essay (you were warned). Yet, unfortunately, not nearly long enough to delve into many subtopics or adequately consider some objections that are worthy of attention. Consequently, I sense in advance various “yeah, but” reactions by some readers to my thin outline of this complicated subject. However, my purpose here is actually modest, despite the length. The “elephant in the room” topic of agnosticism is, in my experience, hardly recognized, let alone addressed in much of organized religion. If God is real then there should not be topics too dangerous to consider, and no topic so confounding that making a choice violates reason. Jesus asked the question, in Luke 18:8: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (NIV). I suggest that ignoring or mishandling the question of belief/unbelief will result in less faith on earth, rather than more.

 


Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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