I have been told that agnosticism is “the only intellectually ’safe’ position,” that it is honest because it says “we can’t know,” it acknowledges that it is impossible to know if a god exists or not. I disagree. I know that many people prefer agnostic because they are not prepared to confront the anger that is often unleashed on declared atheists. However, the word agnostic actually makes a statement not about beliefs (one can be a theist or non-theist and still be agnostic) but about our ability to know something. To declare that it is impossible to know something without even attempting an investigation is, to me, arrogant.
Avoiding the anger
To many people the word atheist is pejorative. Michael Shermer in The Science of Good and Evil says:
“Non-theism . . . avoids the pejorative spin doctoring typically applied to atheism associated with communism, liberalism, post-modernism, and the general decay of morals and culture. Such associations are risible and insulting to atheists, but are common in modern culture.”
However, just using another term for one’s beliefs doesn’t change the hostility of those who hate the belief. One could imagine non-theist, agnostic and bright becoming just as pejorative if atheists used only those terms. (Have a look at the sites NZ Christian Apologetics Network and The Brites for some rather childish examples of Christian attempts to demonise the term bright). On the other hand, insisting on the use of atheist and demanding respect for one’s beliefs could well lead to this word losing its negative connotations.
Temporary and permanent agnosticism
In the The God Delusion Richard Dawkins defines two types of agnosticism. Temporary agnostic in practice is the perfectly legitimate withholding of a decision because of lack of evidence. He cites Carl Sagan’s agnostic position on whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. Sagan was prepared to “reserve judgment until the evidence is in.”
But Permanent Agnostic in Practice declares that a question can never be answered. This is OK for some philosophical questions which can, in principle, never be answered (Dawkins gives the question – “do you see red as I do?”). However, Dawkins is critical of those who claim existence of a god in this category, believing that this is a question amenable to scientific investigation and, in principle, capable of being investigated and answered.
However, Dawkins acknowledges that everybody is agnostic about something, even if only because they have not had time to consider the evidence (or don’t understand the evidence). He defines seven levels of agnosticism with respect to existence of a god from those who “know” there is a god (Level 1) to those who equally “know” there is not a god (Level 7). Dawkins puts himself at level 6: De facto atheist (“I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” Or “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden”).
My dictionary defines an agnostic this way:
- a person who holds that knowledge of a supreme being, ultimate cause, etc., is impossible;
- a person who claims, with respect to any particular question, that the answer cannot be known with certainty.
Philosophically, agnosticism is more general than beliefs about a god. To me, a central position of agnosticism is the claim of inability to know about something. The word itself implies this – a-: not, without and gnostic: relating to knowledge. Philosophically it can describe a position that it is impossible to have any knowledge of reality. I think people who describe themselves as agnostic should understand this and decide if their agnosticism applies to reality in general or just to knowledge of a god. If only the later then why?
Humanity has an insatiable desire to know and understand reality. It’s part of our very nature and this curiosity is what enables us to deal with problems, alter our environment and generally build a better life. We cannot do this if we are agnostic about reality, or part of reality. How can we investigate and understand phenomena if we decide beforehand that they can’t be investigated and understood?
The arrogance of “ring-fencing”
The French Philosopher Auguste Comte 150 years ago commented on stars:
“We shall never be able to study, by any method, their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our positive knowledge of stars is necessarily limited to their geometric and mechanical phenomena”
Within a few years the invention of spectrometry proved him wrong! We don’t make that mistake now. Modern science has, in practice, left behind the idea that some parts of reality should be “ring-fenced,” declared “out-of-bounds” to investigation. Similarly, science is ignoring previous moral declarations that things like life, origins of the universe and consciousness should not be investigated. Today everything and anything are legitimate subjects of investigation. Except, for some people, God.
Many people, while not agnostic about reality in general, still declare themselves agnostic about God. This includes theists as well as non-theists. (In fact, theists are more likely than non-theists to claim a god cannot be investigated). But why? What is the evidence for excluding part of reality, declaring that it cannot be investigated or known? Nowhere! This is just a useful argument to protect a belief, to avoid an open-minded examination of ideas. Long theological arguments may be presented in justification but what do they amount to in reality. “I am declaring that this part of reality can not and should not be investigated. Why? Because I say so. Just take my word for it!”
Now isn’t that arrogant.
Science and the supernatural
Questions science cannot answer?
Debating science and religion
Putting Dawkins in his place
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Can science enrich faith?
Miracles and the supernatural?
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript
Richard Dawkins and the enemies of reason
Limits of science, limits of religion
Science, art & pumpkins
Miracles and the supernatural?