Why I Am An Agnostic


Larry Barnhart
January 2003

Agnosticism Defined

Recently I heard about a bumper sticker that said: "Militant Agnostic: I don't know and you don't either."

"Agnostic is an invented word. It was coined by the English biologist and religious sceptic T H Huxley (1825-95) to express his opposition to the views of religious gnostics of the time, who claimed that the world of the spirit (and hence God) was knowable (gnostic comes ultimately from Greek gnosis 'knowledge'). With the addition of the Greek-derived prefix a- 'not' Huxley proclaimed the ultimate unknowability of God.'" (1)

What Agnosticism Means to Me

My approach to agnosticism is less dogmatic. I have noticed that it is hard enough to track the cause and effect relationships in the reality observable by my five senses. I can only guess how much more difficult it is to divine the world beyond the five senses, where, I am told, that Mr. God lives. Therefore, it is my opinion that the time we spend trying to divine the world beyond the senses would be better used in trying to divine the world within the range of our five senses.

Finally, if we must have gods, "[l]et religion cease to picture the absolute as a magnified man; much worse as a cruel and blood-thirsty and treacherous monster, afflicted with 'a love of adulation as would be despised in a human being.'" (2)

In no case do I wish to undermine someone's faith. (The irony is that if someone is true to their faith, they do not need agreement from others to make it real.)

To sum it up, speculate about the world beyond the senses to your heart's content. But please refrain from using force, fraud and guilt to gain converts.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Parts Store

A few weeks ago I went to the auto parts store with a pragmatic fire-insurance Christian friend to get some goodies for our cars. While there we bumped into another friend who is an Ayn Rand atheist.

Later, when we were out in the parking lot I found myself surrounded. On one hand I was being told the wisdom of buying fire insurance, and on the other hand I was being told that by not rejecting the existence of God outright I was guilty of epistemological pandering. (He also handed me an article by Nathaniel Branden and said: "Check." At least he didn't say "check mate.")

Let me take each one in turn.

Buy Your Fire Insurance While You Still Can

Not more than a couple of days before, my pragmatic fire-insurance Christian friend explained to me his strategy of buying fire insurance: "All you have to do is say you believe. If the threat of hell-fire is not true, you have lost nothing. On the other hand, if hell-fire does exist and you do not say you believe, you will be suffering for a very long time."

What he says makes sense. If indeed God is as nasty and petty as many of her believers make her out to be, then I had better get my policy started immediately.

But there is a problem. Out of the 400 to 1,000 Christian sects, Mr. God only likes one and intends to burn the rest. Add the 400 to 1,000 Moslem sects and the odds are really against us.

First, we have multiple roulette wheels of religion, and we must assume that an accident of birth landed us in the right territory. Next, we have to assume that the five or so denominations we study include the one that Mr. God approves of. Finally, we have to assume that in spite of our "innate, sinful and misguided nature", we still have the wisdom to choose the one true religion out of the five or so we have explored to any depth.

So what do we have? Many different people telling me to choose their brand of Mr. God because I will burn in hell if I choose someone else's brand of Mr. God.

Let's take a look at what this means for me. The statistical odds of me choosing the right sect out of a multitude of choices is astronomically small. When the odds of my burning in hell anyway are so great, why should I submit my reason and integrity to someone who possesses only one qualification which I lack: the arrogance to proclaim knowledge of ultimate truth?

When I review everything people have told me about God over the years, there is one common theme that stands out -- the expert in question is a human being like myself.

Of course, they have recourse to holy texts. But that also presents problems. When the same text can translate to 1,000 denominations, which translation are we to believe? As one philosopher put it: "Even a plain thought gets tangled when told to a person with a knot in his head." (3)

Agnostics Are Guilty of Epistemological Violence

Now we are ready to address the article my atheist friend gave me.

To Nathaniel Branden's credit, he gives an excellent description of the agnostic position: "Agnosticism is the refusal to commit oneself one way or the other concerning the existence of God." (4) I would say that is true.

Then he goes on to say: "Of any position one might take concerning the question of the existence of God, agnosticism is, epistemologically, the least tenable." (5)

As Christians and other believers will find examples within the five senses and then project those principles into the world beyond our senses as proof of their point. Atheists apparently do the same.

"As an example of the irrationality of the demand for proof of a negative, project the following situation.

"Suppose that you attend a gathering with a friend. At this gathering, a stranger suddenly confronts you and charges you with having committed a murder. You indignantly deny it -- but the stranger insistently repeats his charge.

"'What murder?' you demand. Your accuser does not answer. 'Who was killed?' you demand. Your accuser does not answer. 'Why do you suspect me?' you demand.

"Your accuser smiles slyly and answers, 'I believe that you have committed a murder. Can you prove that you didn't?'

"You turn away -- and see that the friend with whom you came is looking at you tensely. You cry to him, 'You don't believe I'm a murderer, do you?'

"Your friend answers nervously, "No, of course I don't. I mean . . . he hasn't given any evidence that you're a murderer, he's just asserted it.... But ... on the other hand ... you haven't proved you're not a murderer, have you? I guess I'd have to say I don't know whether you're a murderer or not."

"Thereafter, your friend is very fair and conscientious, he makes it clear to everyone that he does not believe that you are a murderer; he is, he explains, an agnostic in the matter.

"If you were the victim of such a nightmare, you would feel that some monstrous injustice -- specifically, an epistemological injustice -- had been perpetrated against you. And you would be right." (6)

It has been said that Ted Bundy was very skilled at winning people's confidence, and by the time they figured out their misjudgment, it was too late.

This story reminds me that while I can study reality and delineate cause and effect relationships, I am still stuck in a world of probability. First, even within the world of the five senses, much of it resides outside of my sphere. Second, even when I have done my best to anticipate what will happen next, I often discover that my formula has some missing variables.

Therefore, are you less of a person because I do not claim omniscience and hold you 100% absolved of what is probably a frivolous claim? The fact that I am willing to bet my life on you should be sufficient.

Hey Guys, Let's Just Hang Out

According to Eric Hoffer, "The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not." (7) It is worth noting that while the truth can set you free, fanaticism about the truth generally backfires.

I like what Voltaire once said: "The man who says to me, 'believe as I do, or God will damn you,' will presently say, 'believe as I do, or I shall assassinate you.'" (8) Far from being an epistemological agnostic, I draw clear distinctions between life and death, between wealth and poverty and between misery and happiness. In contrast to the assertions I often hear: I do not accept the notion that the difference between food and poison is simply a matter of opinion.

My goal as an agnostic is to encourage people to choose a cosmological speculation that gives them a sense of peace in a temporary world. As I have not personally checked out the world beyond the senses, I am certainly not going to argue about things I know nothing about. (My brush with leukemia has not given me any special privileges.)

According to Anon Y Mous: "Men never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions." Before we start any more holy wars over lives not yet lived, we would do well to look at how we are living the one life we know for sure we have. If one tenth of the energy that has been spent on speculating about the world beyond the senses were applied to everyday affairs, we would have long ago recreated the garden!

If, in the world of the five senses, we cannot even agree that production creates more wealth and happiness than coercion, how can we be expected to agree on the world that awaits us once our bodies have evicted us?

"My atheism [agnosticism], like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests." (9)

To sum up my thesis: believe in Gods or non-Gods to your heart's content. But please avoid using force, fraud and guilt to gain converts.

1. John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990)., p. 13.
2. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1933)., p. 275.
3. Sufi Order, The Complete Sayings of Hazrat Inayat Khan (New Lebanon: Sufi Order Publications, 1978), p. 149.
4. Nathaniel Branden, "What is the Objectivist view of agnosticism?," Intellectual Ammunition Department, ???? Newsletter, April 1963
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), p. 81.
8. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1933)., p. 180.
9. George Santayana: Soliloquies in England quoted in Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1933)., p. 35.

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