True Agnostics Do Not Exist

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll

In "An Agnostic Manifesto" literary critic Ron Rosenbaum, a self-described agnostic, writes, "Agnosticism is not weak-tea atheism," but "radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty." He explains that unlike both atheists and theists, agnostics refuse to accept things on faith. For example, when asked about the origin of the universe – what "banged" and what caused it — the agnostic shrugs, ever so humbly, "I don't know."

It is a response calculated to let you know that he occupies an elevated plain of intellectual integrity. What the agnostic doesn't realize is that he is just as much a person of faith as those he tries to distance himself from. It begins with what he really knows.

What he knows

What he or anyone knows starts with personal experience.

Children learn about the dangers of a hot stove not from their mother's warnings but from the smarting of their curious fingertips. Adults will insist that a ball, swung over the head on a string, will follow a curved path when released, until they try it and discover that it continues on a straight one.

In cases where personal experience is no help — like questions about the origin of the universe or the existence of heaven, the soul and God — people depend on nonexperiential sources.

One source is intellectual predisposition, best expressed by Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin: "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism."

Note that Lewontin's trust in science as the fount of knowledge is based on his intellectual preference to a particular worldview, not on science's demonstrated power in answering life's ultimate questions.

Another source is our nonrational sensibilities. For instance, astrobiologist Paul Davies believes that a yet-to-be-discovered principle is woven into the cosmos that makes biological life inevitable. He believes this, not because he has any evidence to substantiate it, but because, as he puts it, he is "more comfortable" with it than the alternatives — presumably, those that include a necessary Being.

More to the point is NYU law professor Thomas Nagel who, in a moment of admirable candor, admitted, "It isn't just that I don't believe in God I hope there is no God! I don't want the universe to be like that."

For Davies and Nagel, knowledge is determined by emotional aversion and affinity.

Lastly, there is authority.

At the individual level, knowledge is limited. No one can personally verify every claim as fact. Thus, much of what we "know" depends on the word of others: journalists, scientists, teachers, parents, pastors. A person need not have lived in 19th-century France to know that Napoleon existed, nor bounce a laser beam off the moon to know that light travels at 186,282 miles per second. Obviously, authority-derived knowledge requires faith in the expertise and trustworthiness of other people.

It is even by faith that we know that the law of gravity will remain valid tomorrow.

Despite mathematical relationships that describe the effects of gravity, there is no consensus about its nature. Is it a distortion of space-time, an attractive force of tiny, mediating and, as of yet, hypothetical particles (gravitons?), a mysterious "action-at-a-distance" between bodies having mass? All of the above? Take your pick.

Without such knowledge, belief that the tide will rise in the morning is nothing more than belief that the future will be like the past. But if the universe is the fluke product of random collisions, as some claim, that belief requires faith in the unwavering regularity of nature and the infallibility of our sensory experiences and rational abilities.

If, on the other hand, the universe is the product of an Intelligence that wanted to make it intelligible, the lawful and predictable behavior of nature is a logical and reasonable expectation.

Consequently, the agnostic, like everyone else, has faith. What's more, Ron Rosenbaum's belief in "uncertainty" is an expression of faith in the certainty that answers to "ultimate" questions are uncertain. So, in reality, his faith is not in uncertainty at all. And that applies to his practiced faith, as well as his professed faith.

Practical belief

Faith is confirmed not in what we say (our beliefs), but in what we do (our behaviors).

A child standing nervously at the edge of the pool, being coaxed by his father in the water, must either plunge in or remain at water's edge. There is no middle way. He may believe with all his heart that his father won't let harm come to him, but until he jumps, his fear holds him captive in functional unbelief.

To the question, "Does God exist?" a person can answer: yes, I don't know, or no. But in practice, a person must live as if God does or doesn't exist; there is nothing else to do, but oscillate schizophrenically between the two.

Agnosticism is a statement, a mood, a posture. It thrives in the intellectual oxygen of coffeehouses and cocktail conversations. But outside of those breezy zones, the atmosphere supports only belief and unbelief.

Chattanoogan Regis Nicoll is a fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview who writes commentary on faith and culture for a number of print and online publications. This commentary is adapted from his book, "Why There Is a God and Why It Matters," available on Amazon.

Originally published May 15, 2017.

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