Religion is not a topic that is acceptable at most bars and dinner tables, but when it does arrive it is very common to hear people describe themselves as “Agnostic”. Of course I am deeply interested in Agnosticism, in both its historical / philosophical sense and in this more popular usage, and especially in terms of what has driven people towards this position. But I also have to note that the position taken by many people appears, on examination, to be somewhat confused.
When used by the cocktail party Agnostic, the term is intended to state a position of being undecided, and evokes an image – a sliding scale of belief, with the Pope and the clergy on the left, Richard Dawkins and other heathens on the right, and the middle clearly labeled “Agnostic”. This attractive center ground becomes an alluring default intellectual position for those who want to close conversations on the topic as soon as possible and is also a comfortable respite for those who value the spirit of “religious-tolerance”, which seems a natural, thought misguided perspective for those of a liberal and fair-minded nature. I will show that the very idea of seeing Belief as a sliding scale and taking a middle position on this issue are logically incoherent notions and cannot be captured by Agnosticism at all. I will begin with a couple of definitions
Agnostic A (Not) Gnostic (Knowing). So Agnostic is the position of not knowing in a active sense. We can be agnostic about many things, though the term has a popular usage referring specifically to the position taken on the existence of god. It was first used by Thomas Huxley in the 19th century and was used to describe a position of deep reflective practice in the natural sciences. It was a highly controversial position at that time and was equivalent to heathenism in the eyes of the religious
Atheism – A (Not) Theism (belief in god). So Atheism is the lack of belief in a god. No surprises there. But let’s also point out that culturally this has been twisted a little and the term is seen as an extreme position only. Really the definition implies that anyone lacking such beliefs, whether passively or aggressively, is a literal Atheist. This also applies to the various Gods when viewed anywhere from outside – so Hindus are Atheists when we are discussing Christianity and vise-versa.
It is clear that the two definitions reflect two related but differing aspects of experience – Knowledge (in the case of Agnostic), and Belief (in the case of Atheism). What is the relationship between Knowledge and Belief? I can disbelieve or believe an assertion based on knowledge of some relevant facts or lack of facts. When we see that those facts are relevant to the issue at hand, the combinatorial knowledge of those collective facts can lead us to believe in something. Sometimes that belief will be proven valid and useful such as I believed that a storm was coming based on weather formations and previous intuitions, and sometimes it will have proven to be poor judgment, such as when we confuse causation and correlation. Clearly knowledge represents relationships and states of the observed world, and we use those known relationships and states to infer relationships and states on the unobserved world including the future.
Now it is important to point out that religious belief does not quite operate in the way we just described. On the contrary, it appears that often religious belief requires one to ignore certain facts that are well known and understood (e.g. contradictions within scripture, metaphysical incoherence of the scriptures, scientific invalidation of the scriptures) in order to be believed. However, even in the case of those who scorn evidence-based thinking, the believer uses judgments based on knowledge statements in order to validate a system of belief – e.g. “god speaks to me, so I believe…”, “the feeling I have when I walk into a church is so strong so I believe…”, it is just that they have made poor choices into what pieces of knowledge supersede others. Even in this case, there remains a separation of knowledge (the voice or feeling) and belief (I believe in god). In neither this extreme religious position nor in the case of everyday beliefs, can one coherently see knowledge and belief as various extremes of the same thing. Thus I can no more construct a coherent sliding scale between extremities of knowledge and belief than I can between whether you are a lover of animals and if you liberal.
The sliding scale model is also reinforced through a misunderstanding about Atheism. As pointed out in the definition above, any person not holding the belief in god is an atheist by definition, and it is not therefore an extreme position but the default position. What makes this seem strange is because of a subtle but popular misunderstanding of what Atheism itself means. Atheism is not the belief that god does not exist – this is Antitheism and before you balk at the semantics please consider the difference carefully. Atheism itself is not a statement or theory to be tested and proven. It needs no evidence because it declares nothing. It is simply the lack of belief in another alternate thesis and this is extremely important. This popular misunderstanding of Atheism as a competing notion to be weighed up against Theism contributes to the image of polar extremes and the sliding scale. To stir things up further, it has to be pointed out here that many Atheists are Agnostic, another point that would be contradictory if this sliding scale were valid and to which I return later. Now, one can envisage a sliding-scale that represents a belief in a single notion, including belief in a god. But that sliding scale is actually a meter of a single measure, the extent to which I believe X to be true, or in other words the probability that I state that X is true. Lack of belief entirely could also be represented in this single measure as the rightmost or lowermost position, but not-knowing or Agnosticism would more obviously have no role to play whatsoever. A middle position here could only honestly be described as “I half-believe in god”. In my experience this is never the position that is meant by the Agnostic and is it is debatable about whether one can actually see a religious belief as half-held.
Agnosticism therefore, cannot and should not be seen as the middle ground between belief and lack of belief. But to many this conversation will involve too many semantics. The self-labeled Agnostics may agree in entirety with the argument made above, but may say that the word Agnostic is not an accurate reflection of the position they were trying to take on the issue. So what is a more accurate description of what they mean? Here are a few of my attempt to guess.
“I do not know whether god exists. I am not afraid to say this because nobody really knows. But I have not studied carefully the arguments for his existence because; quite frankly I do not class this as the most important issue in the world”
“I do not know whether god exists. Really it sounds very silly but if it really is true then the consequences are so huge that it seems illogical to take a strong anti-god position. So I prefer not to close all doors and stay undecided.”
There are two things at play when statements such as these are made – residue of religious belief, and ignorance in the thesis being stated, and I believe that the first is a manifestation of the second. Ignorance is not meant in a pejorative sense, but simply in the sense of passive not knowing. We do not know because we have not inquired, in the same sense that I am ignorant in the best practices of midwifery and in the social etiquette of Central Asian countries. So is Agnosticsm ignorance? Certainly not, since Agnosticism is the active form of not-knowing where, after taking into account all the available information regarding a question can only conclude that one does not know. Agnosticism and ignorance are hugely different. Whilst I am ignorant on midwifery and Central-Asian custom, I am agnostic on whether string theory is valid and whether supercomputers should be built on graphics processors rather than tradition CPUs. To return to belief, to say that I ‘don’t know’ because I have not looked is a declaration of ignorance.
The residual belief demonstrated by the first statement does not take long to crack open from either perspective. It should be clear the religious traditions of the world would see the holder of this notion as no different or even worse than heathens like myself come judgment day. To come at it from the other side, one does not have to look very hard to see holes in the Theistic thesis. One can do so for example, by watching a David Attenborough documentary, in the prone position if that is desired. This is why I believe that the residual of belief is actually a different expression of ignorance on the subject and can be treated the same.
Are there valid Agnostics at all? Yes, though not in the way that is popularly thought of. Many Atheists are Agnostic as pointed out earlier. Though the lack of evidence for god speaks volumes we cannot honestly say that we know that god does not exist. Nor does that make one particularly uncomfortable since this is the only workable starting place to scientific enquiry. Science, as human beings’ attempt to understand the way things are based on evidence, is the great Agnostic practice.
Since we have seen that Agnosticism is not often the accurate description of an undecided believer, then I will introduce a new word that represents the positions we described – Apatheism. Apa (from Apathetic) and Theism. So an Apatheist is someone who does not care about whether they believe in god or not. It performs as required – since it can be coherently viewed as the central point in the sliding meter of belief in the Theistic thesis and we can allow its adoption without contradiction and muddying of more useful notions. I believe that the people we are discussing have three options available
- You are an Apatheist. Thanks for taking the time to read this
- You are a religious person and should get more involved with the chruch
- You are an atheist
If you are an Apatheist then there is a very good chance you are also apathetic to the institutionalized rape of children, science-denying, the social and moral manipulation of the African continent, the subjugation of women, lack of sexual freedom, faith-violence, the right to die with dignity, asymmetries of natural rights, freedom of speech and most importantly the excavation of the true state of things. Instead, adopting the label of Atheist is a small step of opposition to those things and will reveal the presence of a vastly growing and empowered movement that is making steady, incremental progress against each. Since we have shown that the middle ground was not ground at all and that the previous position must reveal some dissonance in both logical and hence in mental events, then to unravel one’s true position can lead only to more ease and accepting and to a better understanding of oneself.