Agnosticism, unlike atheism, opens the door, however so slightly, to the possibility of a supreme, divine being. Agnosticism is a philosophical view, or concept, more than it is a functioning religion. Taking a stand that the truth, or the reality of certain claims, particularly the theological claims regarding the existence of God, are unknown or unknowable. And for the most part it seems un-provable. For some, the idea of a deity is one that is confusing and so is rendered meaningless and irrelevant to life (basically saying it is too much work to figure out. I don't care that much to bother).
Overall, there seems to be several streams of agnostic thought. On one hand we have those who believe that a deity probably does exist, but who is to say what can be known, if anything, about this deity. Another group would be those who believe that it is most likely improbable that one exists but leaves the door open to the possibility. And lastly, those individuals who are undecided, unconvinced or uncommitted about the matter and do not feel it important to them one way or another. And while it may or may not be possible to possess this knowledge of God, they do not possess that knowledge. Nor does it seem that they are really interested in finding out if such knowledge does exist that one can acquire.
It is also not unusual for some individuals to call themselves agnostics, yet having developed, or created, their own spiritual concepts. This is often a smorgasbord by taking a little of this, a little of that, borrowing some things from this faith and a portion from another, then add a dash of their own thoughts in spirituality and faith. Although this is not the typical stance of an agnostic, these individuals naively classify themselves as such. Free spirits that strive to avoid labels and any sense of "organized" religion into their lives. Being called an "agnostic" is safe. It is not part of an organized religion. It is not dogmatic as they feel organized religion is, and it does not lock them in to any particular thing. They believe a deity most likely exists but believe in their own way and on their own terms. Much like atheism, agnostics may think they are walking an intellectually high road when in fact, they are not even really on the journey.
Agnosticism came into greater prominence around the same time as atheism by those who would have been considered the "intellectual elites" of their age. Individuals who held influential positions in the fields of science, academics and philosophy, to name a few.
The word "agnosticism" is a combination of the Greek "a", meaning "without", and the word "gnosis" (knowledge), the translation being "unknowable", or "without knowledge". A term that was coined by a prominent English biologist by the name of Thomas Huxley in 1869 as a methodology, or tactic, for approaching religious questions. Particularly the existence of God, and specifically to repudiate the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the origins of life and the universe.
As individuals, who were influential in the various fields of science, began to query into the creation model, those influential in the theological realm sought to fight back at what they considered to be attempts to erode the validity of God's Word. There was blindness, I believe, on both sides of the issue. And as that same battle continues, there is blindness still today. An unwillingness to acknowledge discrepancies.
Thomas Huxley would later become known as "Darwin's Bulldog" in his attempts to defend Darwin's theory of evolution. This is interesting since prior to the publication of Charles Darwin's book, "The Origin of Species", Huxley had rejected Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's theory of transmutation (A theory of biological evolution holding that species evolve by the inheritance of traits acquired or modified through the use or disuse of body parts). Why did he reject this? It was based on what he considered insufficient evidence to support it. However, after Darwin's publication, Huxley reconsidered for he thought that Darwin at least gave a good enough hypothesis for it even though he felt the evidence was still lacking.
Why did Huxley change his mind? Supposedly, all it took was a good enough hypothesis for him to abandon the scientific ethics he held. But why? The obvious answer would be that there is only one other option for man to choose when we consider the beginning of life, and of the universe. And for those who reject God, it is not an option at all. That option being intelligent creation. We will examine this later.
Let us take a moment to review some of the statements key individuals for agnosticism have made over the years.
Thomas Huxley -
"I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless, I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I, who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds - have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them (A statement void of honesty, for there has always been more than a tittle or scintilla of this evidence.)
"I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori (pre formed or conceived) objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter..."
Robert G. Ingersoll - referred to as the "Great Agnostic", was a son of a Congregational minister. He later became an Illinois lawyer, politician, and a well-known orator in America during the 19th century. In his lecture entitled "Why I Am an Agnostic", he stated the following:
"Is there a supernatural power... an arbitrary mind... an enthroned God.... a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world to which all causes bow? I do not deny, I do not know. But I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme... that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken. That there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer... no power that worship can persuade or change... no power that cares for man. I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all... that there is no interference... no chance that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects. Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial can change the fact (that he doesn't know) It is as it is, and it will be as it must be."
Although not able to deny the existence of God, or knowing whether there was one, Ingersoll nevertheless made the conscious, personal decision not to believe and instead embraced nature, or naturalism. A typical approach for many agnostics and atheists is nature worship (although they wouldn't call it that) or humanism. Ingersoll's reasons for this, one can only speculate. It is a common theme we find time and again, that being a personal struggle to believe in a personal, relational God who can answer prayer, that cares for man and involves Himself in their affairs.
Bertrand Russell was a 20th century British mathematical logician and philosopher whose grandfather had been the British Prime Minister. Orphaned as a child, he was raised under a stern religious rule by his paternal grandmother, something he said that had influenced him throughout his life (it appears that it was something he viewed negatively). He admitted that there were difficulties with his ethical stances. He saw logic and science as principle tools of philosophy, and sought to show that mathematics was derived from logic.
In his pamphlet entitled, "Why I am not a Christian", Russell gave what is considered the classic statement for agnosticism. He laid out his arguments for the existence of God, and his objections to Christian teachings (again, like Ingersoll, most likely due to issues of his past). In a speech he gave in 1939 on the "existence and nature of God", he stated the following:
"The existence and nature of God is a subject of which I can discuss only half. If one arrives at a negative conclusion (which he personally seemed to have from his past) concerning the first part of the question, the second part of the question does not arise. And my position, as you may have gathered, is a negative one on this matter."
The Fog Of
"People only see what they are prepared to see."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
And yet, in 1947 he demonstrated his inner wrestling with the subject of God:
"As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God..."
In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell stated:
"An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time..."
"... I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence. (He should have considered a study in biblical prophesy.)
Though he would later question God's existence, in his undergraduate years, he fully accepted the Ontological Argument:
"I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane [at Cambridge University where Russell was a student], when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it; "Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound!" (Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1967)
An ontological argument for the existence of God is an argument that God's existence can be proved "a priori", meaning by intuition and reason alone. Opponents of this have preferred to rely on cosmological arguments for the existence of God instead. The argument works by examining the concept of God and arguing that it implies the actual existence of God. That is, if we can conceive of God, then God exists. It is thus self-contradictory to state that God does not exist. Russell wrestled with faith and what he really believed.
Whereas atheism brazenly states, with limited knowledge, that God does not exist, agnosticism states that knowledge of God is not attainable. That seems like a defeatist, closed-minded attitude. Not a sliver or a crumb? Ever? What could a statement like that be based on? Especially in light of the fact that we are constantly learning and acquiring new knowledge we did not have before.
In other words, man neither has the capability to ever know, will never have the opportunity to know, or will never be able to find a means to attain any kind of knowledge about God to know. Let me ask you, does that really sound like a reasonable statement? Well, it is conveniently never during an agnostic's lifetime anyway.
This is especially interesting in light of the fact that many, especially those in mathematics, have for years expressed a belief in the concept of other dimensions in space and time beyond our own. That surely isn't based on any overwhelming evidence. After all, we have grown up on Star Trek, Quantum Leap, Twilight Zone, Star Gate and others that have been inspired by these plausible concepts. We have come to believe in the potential of the existence of other dimensions that seem to hold intellectual merit. We have wireless internet, radio waves, satellite and T.V. signals, short wave, CB's, cell phone conversations and so much more invisibly moving through our airspace. Sounds and images that we do not see or hear, but they are there. It is only when we have the right equipment necessary that enables us to access them.
Is it then hard to conceive of a God, a supreme being, supreme meaning of highest power and authority, that resides on a plane not our own? Beyond His own creation? Not really.
What I have found interesting is that we may enjoy fantasizing about the possibility of what some would call "higher" intelligence, but would rather visualize it being just another accidental being from some far away galaxy that has "evolved" further, than a supreme being that is the reason behind all created things. This demonstrates one of those lessons I have learned over the years... people will believe what they want to believe, hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see, irregardless of anything else and in spite of any facts.
We pour millions of dollars into observatories, orbiting space telescopes and audio dishes as we search the vast universe for signs, signals or evidence of other life beyond our own. Why? There is a belief that the possibly may exist. Many individuals, including agnostics and atheists, are convinced that there is life beyond Earth. Yes, the same one's that say either there is no God or there is no way to know if there is a God. This demonstrates their capacity to believe even without knowledge or evidence, but choose what that may be. Intelligent life elsewhere? Yes. God? No.
Agnostics just don't want to be pinned down to a God reality, that would mean specificity and accountability.
This is where agnosticism has stopped. No defined answer, no nugget of cold-hard facts. Though many agnostics may be content to remain and live in this state of indifference and ignorance, we choose not to and so our journey presses onward in our search for further and deeper answers.
Agnosticism recognizes the potential of God, but just does not offer much beyond that. Once again, like atheism, agnosticism has given us empty dialog with no answers, no solution, no facts and has offered no conclusions.
How about science then? Hasn't science shown this God thing to be nothing more than superstition and folly?
That bend in the path is next!