Friday, September 24, 2010

What is the point of agnosticism?

Are you a theist or atheist? Many people claim to be one or the other. It doesn't matter whether or not you attend church regularly or not at all. Scads of people who are not active religiously claim to believe in God. A quick Google search will reveal dozens of newspaper articles with statistics that claim upwards of 90% of people living in the USA believe in God. I suspect the numbers are lower elsewhere. On the other hand, there are people who do not believe in God which means they are somewhere in the minority (less than 10%).

Then there are those who we accuse of hedging their bets. The agnostics. They have concluded that they are unsure whether or not God exists since it is impossible to prove it either way. At times this has been held up as the thinking person's approach to religion and science. The term was apparently first coined by Victorian evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley as a way to refuse to take sides between the claims of the church and the claims of science.

Nowadays atheism is sexy. People like Dawkins and Hitchens are the rock stars of atheism. They publish popular books and hold public speaking engagements. It seems that being an agnostic is a choice opted for by relatively few.

Robin Le Poidevin has an interesting piece on the OUP blog about agnosticism today. He makes a few important points that I summarize below.

  • The idea that God may or may not exist is not very interesting. There are lots of things for which we have no proof.

  • Not having proof of God's existence does not increase nor decrease the possibility of God's existence.

  • The very idea of God makes his existence highly improbable. God by definition is unknowable. As a divine being science cannot study the evolutionary development of God.

Poidevin concludes with the following thought:

Perhaps God is like that: his understanding and capacities may be infinitely complex, but the underlying nature that gives rise to that complexity may be relatively simple. If so, then it isn’t a given that the probability of such a being is enormously improbable. And if God is not clearly improbable, then atheism is not the default position. Rather, agnosticism is. If, before we start to look at the evidence, the hypothesis that God exists is initially no less probable than the hypothesis that he doesn’t, that neither atheism nor theism has a head start, so to speak, then we should keep an open mind, rather than be atheists until presented by overwhelming evidence for God.

So what is the point of agnosticism? That it stands for open-mindedness, for a willingness to consider conflicting perspectives, for tolerance and humanity. It may even be the basis for a religious life.

What do you think? Can agnosticism be the basis for a religious life?


  1. Speaking as an agnostic who left the Christian fold, I remain fascinated by biblical studies composed by well informed scholars who also usually turn out to be moderate-liberal Christians. And when I seek to learn more about their lives and intellectual/spiritual journeys I usually discover that in their youth they were more conservative and only grew more moderate and liberal as the result of continued intensive study of the Bible they so love, throughout college and grad school. Here's a list of my favorite books by such scholars:

  2. Edward,

    This is true. There are many who start in more conservative circles. Once we confront the evidence honestly we end up having to reevaluate. Some end up, as you describe them, as moderate liberals. Others claim to be agnostic, but I think they are at the point where they are unsure which direction to go, but ultimately so not want to give up some type of faith. Thanks for the book list. I too enjoy reading the biographies of scholars to learn about their own journey.

  3. I think he should become familiar with Alvin Plantinga's work.

  4. It depends on whether you view a "religious life" with God as a relationship. It also depends on whether a relationship requires that you know some things with certainty about the other party. I think a Christian needs to believe a lot of things about God with certainty.

  5. Do you think that it is reasonable or fair to say that when conservatives "honestly" engage the evidence they will cease being conservative and become "moderate liberals" or agnostics? Are you accusing conservative scholars (D.A. Carson, Doug Moo, and others) of being intellectually dishonest (question not accusation)? I mean we are talking about some seriously intelligent and well-spoken scholars. I think that at most an individual can only speak of what is or is not intellectually honest for them. Personally, I have not encountered evidence against Biblical inerrancy (even after reading Bultmann, Ehrman, Enns and others) that I find convincing... for me.

  6. Phil,

    First I never said anything about the people you mention. Second, I said "some end up" as moderate liberals or agnostic. Everyone who does a PhD in biblical studies, including the people you name, end up reevaluating things they think and believe. Whats more, any scholar will be reevaluating the rest of his/her life. That is what being a scholar is all about.

    You are right, one can only speak for them self which is why I have not named names as you have. I never presume to know what anyone is thinking. The difference between those who are conservative and those who are not is a conclusion they reached based on the evidence. Just as you end your post "for me".

    I am not accusing anyone of being intellectually dishonest. I may disagree with these people on some points, but I am not accusing them of being dishonest. I know many of these people personally, have shared meals with them and given papers at conferences. So please do not make it seem as if I am somehow separating them outside the fold simply because we may disagree on some points.

    The fact is many people struggle with their faith. When they read the Bible questions are raised for which the answers may not be entirely satisfying. In the end this is not about conservative vs liberal scholars. It is about personal faith journey. Ed' point was only that there are many who reevaluate.

  7. The biggest puzzler for me is how do you actually live as an agnostic. How does the position give direction or any sort of shape to life?

    Most people I know who have told me they are agnostic live as though there is no God, they are "practical athiests". Some however are more cautous, perhaps just in case there is a God, and live according to some set of principles or rules they think the God would probably want.

    Im well aware that we dont all mean the same thing by "God" and that different conceptions of the nature, character, and/or activity of God lead to differently shaped lives. But if I havn't made up my mind either about which God to believe in or to believe in "God" at all, then am I to take a cautious stance and live as if there is a God (however I imagine that to shape my life), or a less cautious life, assuming that it is less likely that a God does exist, and if I discover that he does, presume on God's pardon?


  8. Eddie, I agree. Most agnostics are practical atheists. My suspicion is that many agnostics are either more atheist or more theists. Perhaps, as you suggest, they are hedging their bets.