February 10, 2009
The puzzle of agnosticism
I must admit that I find agnosticism puzzling. For me, agnosticism is harder to understand than atheism or religious belief.
There is no doubt that religious people find agnosticism easier to deal with than atheism. You can see it in the way that those religious people who can get beyond the emotional reactions to atheism that I listed yesterday often argue that since one cannot prove that there is no god, one has to admit that one is unsure and that therefore one is 'really' an agnostic. They are right in their argument but wrong in their idea of what atheism and agnosticism involves.
All atheists will readily concede that there can be no proof of the non-existence of god because of the logical impossibility of proving such a negative. But having said that, we do live our lives assuming that there is no god and find that the world makes perfect sense and everything seems to work nicely. We are practically certain that there is no god just as we are certain that we can drive our cars without ever considering the possibility that a unicorn might suddenly run across the street or Santa Claus land in his sleigh right in our path, even though we are not 100% certain that unicorns and Santa Claus and flying reindeer don't exist either
What constitutes atheism should be easy to understand. What I find hard to understand is how the agnostic position differs from that of the atheist. Merriam-Webster defines an agnostic as "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable."
An atheist would have no objection to that statement. As I have said before, there is no possible logical argument and no conceivable evidence that could ever establish the negative conclusion that there is no god. So agnosticism and atheism seem to me to be logically equivalent, at least as far as that particular dictionary definition goes.
Some agnostics may be seeking to create a distance between themselves and atheists because they suffer from the same kind of misunderstanding about atheism as religious people, thinking that atheists are absolutely sure that there is no god, and thus they may wish to separate themselves from those whom they perceive as possessing an unjustifiable and arrogant certainty.
Or perhaps the difference between atheism and agnosticism lies in the secondary definition of an agnostic as "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god." (my italics)
It is true that while an atheist is not logically certain there is no god, he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They have no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason. Since atheists live as if there is no god, it is safe to say that atheists are committed to believing in the nonexistence of god.
So is that the difference? Is that why agnostics shun the word atheist and prefer the label of agnostic, because they are uncommitted on this question while atheists are committed? But what does being 'uncommitted' really mean? Is there a difference in the probabilities that atheists and agnostics assign to god's existence? Atheists assign the probability of god's existence to be infinitesimally close to zero. I doubt that the lack of commitment by agnostics to god's existence or non-existence means that they assign 50% probability to each option. Agnostics clearly think that god's non-existence is far more likely than his existence.
So are agnostics distinguished from atheists in that while they think that the probability of god's existence is very small, they give it a slightly higher value than the almost-but-effectively-zero value that atheists assign?
But that kind of difference is hard to quantify. One way to operationalize that vague notion and test the true beliefs of agnostics is to ask them if their lack of commitment to non-belief results in any observable behavioral differences when compared to that of atheists.
Atheists live as if they are sure that there is no god. Do agnostics behave in some way that is different from atheists as a result of being agnostic? Are agnostics nervous about being wrong about god's non-existence and only finding out after they are dead? Are they are hoping that their 'softer' agnosticism will result in god giving them a reduced punishment? Do they at least occasionally go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue or do other quasi-religious things? Are there some things they will not say or thoughts that they will not allow themselves to think because it is too risky, such as, for example, denying the Holy Spirit? After all, Jesus said: "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:32)?
If the answer is 'no' to all these questions, then they are atheists irrespective of what they choose to call themselves because they are living their lives as if they are committed to the non-existence of god. If they say 'yes' to any one, then I think we need to define them as believers who have serious doubts. (One wag unkindly described agnostics as cowardly atheists.)
I suspect that there are many agnostics among the readers of this blog. I would be curious to learn what they think on this question.
POST SCRIPT: The Blasphemy Challenge
I am not sure what "speaks against the Holy Spirit" exactly means but whatever it is, I want to be on record as having thus spoken, like all those who have done so as part of the Blasphemy Challenge.
Pat Condell says that he is so busy denying the Holy Spirit that he has hardly any time for anything else.