Towards an Inquisitive Agnosticism…

The court has heard arguments, impassioned and intemperate, both for belief and nonbelief in the existence of God. On one side we can count such notable apologists as William Lane Craig, John Lennox, David Bentley Hart and Edward Feser. On the other we find such renowned atheists as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. I would like to say a few words for the undecided – those of us remaining in the realm of agnosticism.

Agnosticism has, of course, a considerable heritage, ranging from “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Huxley and the more God haunted works of the great Anthony Kenny. Too often, however, it is caricatured as limp vacillation – or expressed as indolence in the guise of sophistication. I aspire to a substantive and engaged agnosticism.

I was raised by Evangelicals, but my faith was too shallow for an honest baptism and once I was imbued with adolescent audacity I embraced atheism along with rock music and underage drinking. (I do not mean to deride atheism in saying that, though I do mean to mock adolescent atheism.)

Over time I softened. Exposure to all the existential insecurities of life in an apparently absurd, uncaring universe endeared me to the individual and cultural advantages of religious narratives and religious rituals. I could see evidence of their inspirational powers not only in the lives of the devoted believers around me but in the poetry of Eliot or the death of Bonhoeffer.

Meanwhile, I could see that “Enlightenment values” were not quite as valuable as I had once imagined. Secular fantacism can be just as dangerous as its theistic cousins, and the atheist who might respond than Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist regimes were themselves quasi-religious side-steps the point that man is a religious creature, inclined towards the sacred, the teleogical and the ritualistic. It was childish of Christopher Hitchens to evade the implications of Marxist regimes for antitheism. He must have known that the Bolsheviks had established a group with the unambiguous name of the League of Militant Atheists.

Yet this does not explain my agnosticism. One could be a staunch atheist while acknowledging the utility of faith. One should not confuse the social value of Christianity, Islam or Judaism with the nagging question of whether their truth claims are correct.

Here one must distinguish between two forms of agnosticism, these being “weak” and “strong”. Advocates of the second make the positive claim that theists and atheists debate an unanswerable question. People who could be describe as “weak” agnostics, however, only assert that they have yet to arrive at an answer. I am an in the second camp. There might be a God and there might not be a God, if if someone put I a gun to mean and demanded that I decide I would tell them to shoot. Others may have better answers and I hope one day to be among them. Others, indeed, may be right and I hope I will be as well. Yet for now I am in no position to take a firm stand. I suspect that silent millions are with me on this.

Intelligent people should take care before disagreeing with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Avicenna, Aquinas, Leibniz and Anscombe. Intelligent people should also take care before disagreeing with Democritus, Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche and Russell. This is not, to say the least, a debate with easy answers.

And yet some of its best known participants behave as if its continuing existence is unfathomable. In this they are aided by their failure, wilful or otherwise, to understand what their rhetorical opponents say. Richard Dawkins, for example, in his book The God Delusion, rattles off impatient arguments against Aquinas’ famous “Five Ways” of proving God’s existence without appearing to know that he has read summaries that were given flesh elsewhere. What kind of derision would be due an evangelical who denied evolution by natural selection on the basis of a GCSE science textbook?

I must admit, lest a nonbeliever suspect me of a sneaking partisanship, to being especially impatient with atheists who behave with such imperious philistinism, not because I doubt that believers can be as presumptuous and intolerant but as atheists have marched under the flag of “reason” and their rhetorical campaigns have been fiercely effective. Those of us who promote the value of rational inquiry must insist that the truth comes before style and status.

At this point I must introduce actual arguments. Some agnostics, like the pugnacious Ron Rosenbaum, appear to have accepted indecision less as a response to the prevailing facts and theories of the God debate than as a reaction against the attitudes involved. This makes theirs a more stylistic than sceptical position and I shall concentrate on epistemology. The thorny questions I handle hereafter are by no means exhaustive and may be answerable. The questions, indeed, may have been answered already. Yet those answers are so controversial, and so elaborate, that agnosticism is a defensible stage at which the questions might be contemplated.

Why there is something rather than nothing? It sounds like a simple question yet it has bedevilled philosophers and scientists for centuries (and inspired the title of a lovely book of essays by the great Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski). Ah, said Lawrence Krauss, an eager atheistic physicist, matter arose due to the laws of quantum mechanics. Richard Dawkins was so taken with this answer that he that he compared Krauss to Charles Dawkins as an advocate of naturalism. Yet, as critics soon responded, the laws of quantum mechanics simply are not nothing. If Krauss was to demonstrate that they require no beginning he would have been reasonable but as it is he has simply extended the question. We might know how matter was created but that is a different question and we are still left to ponder our initial inquiry.

How do we consider these questions at all? The problem of consciousness has also vexed philosophers. There are those like Daniel Dennett with physicalist explanations that rely on nothing more than the human brain. Others, like Thomas Nagel, claim that these are insufficient. Some, like the “mysterian” Colin McGinn, argue that we are incapable of explaining consciousness. Who is right? This humble author is in no position to decide. I am not, mind you, attempting to sneak God through an open door. A naturalistic explanation could by all means fit. Yet with such controversy around such an important question it would be foolish to enforce an exclusive guest list.

The problem of consciousness is also wrapped up with the problem of intentionality; of whether there is directedness in the universe or whether it is an illusion of our overpraised grey matter. Some incorporate this into naturalistic analyses of existence but too many, mostly scientists, presuppose it. The biologist and antitheist Jerry Coyne, for example, has claimed that “meaning” evolved to help us make sense of our environment. Yet as Edward Feser has observed, Coyne, like Krauss, has not answered the question but relocated it as this would entail directedness towards “making sense”.

I should acknowledge a debt to Professor Feser, a Catholic philosopher who in polemics such as those of his book The Last Superstition convinced me that there was more to the age-old Aristotelian and Thomistic attempts to justify the existence of God with reference to metaphysics than we children of naturalists might have believed. Atheists often agree to this. Quentin Smith, a philosopher and a naturalist, has written that “the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold…an unjustified belief in naturalism”. To be sure, others would disagree. James Ladyman and Don Ross, for example, in their book Everything Must Go, deny that metaphysical inquiry is useful at all beyond the realm of the natural scientists. Yet my point, again, is that these questions are not so settled that fence-sitting is not a reasonable position.

These are not mere word games. Atheists who have abandoned their attachment to intentionality as a relic of Aristotelian abstraction, like Alex Rosenberg in The Atheist’s Guide to Humanity, also abandon their belief in meaning, purpose, selfhood, free will and, indeed, belief. That materialism can lead one to such nihilistic depths is not an argument for the existence of God. This view does not command so much as a majority of naturalists and even if this were not the case lead us back to the question of religion’s utility. But I think if one is intellectually curious it should at least be reason to accept that such terms as “naturalism”, “emergentism”, “scientism” and “dualism” are not features of arcane philosophical onanism but relevant to how future men could see the world. These are problems of existential significance even beyond the question of whether there is or is not a God.

It would be foolish to deny that there is an intuitive element to my agnosticism. It is that feeling that creeps into the unsuspecting mind, in bed, while walking or in front of a favourite TV show, that existence is fantastically, stupefyingly weird. How odd it is, indeed, that we engage on such almost pedantic levels with questions of football scores and A Level results while scarcely pausing to reflect that we have somehow come to exist in such an ancient and enormous, with all its millions of suns, stars and vast untouched empty spaces. Thank God, if you believe in Him, that our brains have evolved in such a manner that we can accept this without gibbering. Even if there were not, as I have maintained, apparently answerable questions that might lead us towards or away from faith I would leave room in whatever belief system I adhered to for the possibility of something unknown and even unimaginable. I simply do not believe our monkey minds are powerful enough to grasp all that might exist.

This might sound like defeatism; like an argument for passivity or indifference. Yet I promote an inquisitive agnosticism. We should not be quick to settle for our puzzled indecision but should strive to listen, inquire, argue and assess. There might be answers, or we might be unable to find them, but even if we cannot reach a comprehensive understanding of the strange phenomena that encompass our existence we can understand much more and there is good cause to try. If luminaries from Plato to Russell have defended means of rationally investigating the question of the divine that is itself good reason to assume that there is worth in such inquiry.

Some Christians maintain that this is futile and that God is reached if one is blessed by glimpsing Him through divine revelation. Those of us who, wrestling with our doubts, did not have such experiences might think this unfair – and doubly unfair for those in Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Sikh societies whose cultures appear to make them inaccessible. Nonetheless, emotional objections to this disparity, and rational objections regarding the likelihood of such experiences having natural explanations and being immune to external assessment from sceptics, do not make it impossible that such interventions exist. What can we do, though? I don’t know. We can only travel through our lives attentive enough to our surroundings as to spot the burning bush or see the open tomb.

All the epistemic worth of such argumentation may be irrelevant to the apatheist – one who is indifferent to the question. Why should they care whether or not there is a God? I hope the average person is safe to indulge in their comfortable prejudices (though, of course, some forms of deity might not accept this point) but at the least intelligent and intellectually curious individuals should not settle for passivity. I have sketched reasons why the relevant arguments concern, directly or otherwise, important questions of what it means to exist – and while a deistic entity might have no more involvement in our lives than that which is essential for our existence, a theistic God might have a far more active interest in our affairs on Earth and, perhaps, in the hereafter. I am sure that I am not alone among agnostics in pondering the implications of a possible creator on my possible existence once I depart from this vale.

Beyond this, it is our curiosity, as much as anything, that ennobles our kind – our restless desire to comprehend our predicament, even if such endeavours may be unsuccessful. We let ourselves down with indifference but also with presumption. The inquisitive agnostic may not be a wise men but he is at least struggling to achieve wisdom.

About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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2 Responses to Towards an Inquisitive Agnosticism…

  1. An Gíogóir says:

    A lot of food for thought there. Good piece.


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