Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Agnostic or Atheist?

I want to consider theistic agnosticism, which, loosely defined, is the position of being uncertain on whether there is a God.

I am seeing a lot of claims these days to the effect that one should get off the fence and be either a believing theist, or an atheist. This has probably been stimulated in part by the New Atheist movement. Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy with this movement, and I am an avid reader of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, these four likely being its most prominent and most articulate spokesmen.

I happened upon a certain website recently that seems to represent the typical "ixnay to the agnosticyay" view, and I would like to briefly analyze what I think is wrong with it, and why I continue to think of myself as an agnostic.

Now, Dawkins frequently makes the valid observation, in debates with theists (usually Christians), that most everyone today is an atheist with respect to Zeus or other gods of the ancient world. In other words, one must specify the gods one does or does not believe in. I agree with him on this. Indeed, I would be an atheist regarding not only Zeus, but also Allah, the old testament depiction of Jehovah, the Hindu pantheon of gods, and surely a great many other gods from the past and present that I have never even heard of.

However, there are two types of theism that I am uncertain about, and there could well be some degree of overlap between these two: one is the Christian God, as depicted in the writings of people like John Polkinghorne, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton. These make a good case, and go a long way toward giving plausible "apologetic" arguments for Christianity. I remain unconvinced, but can see their points, and think them worthy of serious consideration. No doubt these views represent relatively "liberal" theological positions, and I might well consider myself an atheist with respect to the God depicted by more Bible-literal sects, such as evangelical and other conservative clergy and religious writers. I come close to being an atheist even with regard to the deity put forth by the Polkinghorne et al writers mentioned above, but would deem their arguments sufficiently weighty and plausible that I suppose I stop short of being virtually certain they are wrong. Perhaps I am not looking in the right places, but I have yet to come across arguments anywhere near as convincing for the gods of Islam and Hinduism.

The other type of theism I consider plausible might blur a bit with Deism.....the argument that the universe seems a mighty big coincidence, never mind the question of why there is a universe anyway. Of course the literature is teeming with claims about how the "multiverse" is an alternative, and better, explanation of the apparent fine tuning of the world (I will not go into this here, but just give the Wikipedia reference). While the multiverse idea seems plausible, and could be right, I have a nagging suspicion that a deistic or theistic explanation might be as least as plausible.

One may discern two seemingly different forms of agnosticism. In one type, one says simply that he or she does not know if there is a God. In a second type, a stronger claim is made, that one cannot know whether there is a God or not. The first type leaves open the possibility that one might later make a more definite move into theism or atheism based on evidence or metaphysical insights.

Consider the analogy of a police detective: a certain person is a suspect in a murder. Some are convinced that the person is very likely the guilty culprit, while others are convinced that he is not. In neither case are these people absolutely certain, say, it is just that they are strongly inclined toward their belief. But the police detective is not sure either way. He can, let us say, imagine that the suspect committed the crime, but at the same time see that there are things that do not quite seem to add up to the suspect's guilt.

Let us say that the people reasonably sure of his guilt are in the position of the theist, while the ones fairly certain of his innocence are the atheists (the labels can be reversed here). But the police detective is truly agnostic on the issue. He can imagine plausible arguments either way. He may even be of the second kind of agnostic, and feel that it will be impossible to make the determination of his guilt or innocence. Or, he may be of the first type, and feel that further investigation into the case will tip the scales one way or the other.

The web site referenced above seems to dwell a lot on whether atheism or agnosticism is the more socially well-regarded position. I reject that consideration as being irrelevant. I simply point out that agnosticism with regard to some given theistic position is reasonable, being as it is analogous to the position of the police detective.


alley said...

You make me think too much about what I believe and why.

I've been in churches with hard line, literal interpretations of the bible and can't accept that. I also cannot accept the idea of multiple gods such as those found in the Greek traditions.

But I've also studied science (BS in biology and a science teacher at the high school level), and as much credit as I want to give to random events and evolution over vast amounts of time, I'm not sure I can 100% throw myself behind that either.

So, I guess I'm a new-agey christian or an agnostic with christian leanings. One thing I am sure of, is that organized religion in the absence of thought is a bad idea.

Rufus Otis said...

I don't consider agnosticism as partway to theism or atheism -- but rather and end position. In my opinion, you can't get past the question of what it is that one does or does not believe in. As you said, it's easy to profess disbelief regarding Zeus, Odin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Man In Robe in Clouds, etc. I also reject any "God" with whom one can talk, ask favors of, expect to intervene in human affairs, or help my team win the big game. This very concept is offensive to me. I'm not so sure I can equally and summarily reject an "ultimate reality" to which all is connected.

But as a human with the limits of human consciousness, I can neither believe nor disbelieve what can't be expressed in terms relative to my experience. In my essay, "What is Faith to an Agnostic", (now considered, of course, one of the primary documents of Agnosticism - much as Principia Mathematica is to classic mechanics), I can accept "that which is", without being able to enclose it in some "ism" that may be believed or rejected. All of our knowledge amount to explaining one concept with another one, or a collection of concepts... defining words with other words.