Thin Gruel

Due to the inevitable definition diffusion words undergo as they pace through time as though a tireless miler, the word Agnostic has broken into four distinct meanings.

Nineteenth century author and literary critic Leslie Stephen wrote the sheepishly titled essay An Agnostic’s Apology. Primarily a defense of Thomas Huxley and Darwinism, the piece nonetheless hints, almost en passant, at formative attitudes toward the kissing-cousins; atheist and agnostic. Most useful, is a discussion about the almost forgotten Gnostics, almost forgotten due to the rather unfortunate pronunciation of the Gnostic negative (Ag-Nostic, instead of A-Gnostic). Lesile writes:

The Gnostic holds that our reason can, in some sense, transcend the narrow limits of experience. He holds that we can attain truths not capable of verification, and not needing verification, by actual experiment or observation. He holds, further, that a knowledge of those truths is essential to the highest interests of mankind, and enables us in some sort to solve the dark riddle of the universe. A complete solution, as everyone admits, is beyond our power. But some answer may be given to the doubts which harass and perplex us when we try to frame any adequate conception of the vast order of which we form an insignificant portion. We cannot say why this or that arrangement is what it is ; we can say, though obscurely, that some answer exists, and would be satisfactory, if we could only find it. Overpowered, as every honest and serious thinker is at times overpowered, by the sight of pain, folly, and helplessness, by the jarring discords which run through the vast harmony of the universe, we are yet enabled to hear at times a whisper that all is well, to trust to it as coming from the most authentic source, and to know that only the temporary bars of sense prevent us from recognising with certainty that the harmony beneath the discords is a reality and not a dream. This knowledge is embodied in the central dogma of theology. God is the name of the harmony ; and God is knowable.

Agnosticism, from the perspective of a 19th century theologian or philosopher, is simply the negative of the above. Note that the position of the Gnostic is not limited to the concluding sentence, but encapsulates a epistemological attitude unconcerned with the demands of hardened materialists (reread the first two sentences if that is not immediately clear).

Winding our clock forward to the 21 century we find agnostic limited strictly to the heavens, and easily married to all kinds of lazy buffoonery. This is a rather unfortunate fate for what might have otherwise been a perfectly serviceable word; a postion that one might be proud to carry a banner for. But now, dear reader, we have more confusion than clarity, exactly what do you mean by agnostic?

Intellectual Honesty

Many if not most basically secular people readily self identify as agnostics. It’s a position easily adopted and simply defended by the seemingly meek I do not know. Why this position is so appealing is obvious, for admitting to ignorance and the technical possibility of god allows one to secure an unassailable strong point of intellectual security. Yes, there is only one truly intellectually satisfying position one can take about God: I am not sure either way.

However, *thunderclap* if the above is all someone wishes to convey by their adherence to agnosticism, that there is a spectrum of belief ranging from dead certain there is (undoubting religious faith) to dead certain there isn’t (not merely atheism, but dogmatic atheism) and they fall almost all the way to the atheist side but not quite, then those people are being… very silly. You don’t need a word for the 99% agnostic, because there is already a word for that: atheist. Atheism is no more wholly dogmatic than, say, accepting free speech and yet recognizing that there might be circumstances where it should be curtailed. An atheist is unconvinced by arguments for god, and proceeds as if god does not exist. If you make your choices as if god does not exist, then you are an atheist. Get a life, and stop calling yourself an agnostic.

Unless, you are the the third and altogether more respectable type of agnostic. That is, someone who believes that the question itself, whether god exists or does not exist, is beyond our understanding. That the essential nature of all things is somehow unknowable, and that knowledge is limited to what we can gather by our senses (experience). This type of agnostic is more like the 19th century version, and has a position considerably more robust and interesting than the agnostic who merely wants to acknowledge the intellectual caveat of doubt. I disagree with this agnostic, in as much as I think the nature of god is a scientific question (either a loving god interested in the affairs of man created the universe… or it didn’t) but at least in this case we have a distinct postion on the nature of knowledge and metaphysics.

The fourth type of agnostic doesn’t know that they are really anything but. Again, this type of self identifying agnostic suffers from a position on god that doesn’t jive with their basic epistemology. Go back and read for (hopefully) the third time the opening sentences of Leslie Stephen’s thoughts on Gnostics. We all know people like that, perhaps you are one, dear reader. They/you think your mind capable of unlocking things you choose to call true about the nature of reality, without the need for a rigorous experiment or materialist foundation. That is all well and good, but if you also think the nature of god is unknowable by definition, then your viewpoint is no longer cogent. If you think it is possible to know the mind of god, and yet are unsure if it exists, then you… are a gnostic.

Robin Lindsay


NB: as I have written elsewhere and often, I am not overly concerned about the metamorphosis of word meanings, and nor am I all that interested in arguments that insist on trapping opponents in esoteric or academic definitions of words. However, the above is not an attempt to reclaim an older definition of agnostic as standard, but to illustrate that: the philosophical position advocated by many who call themselves agnostics, isn’t really much of a position at all, and not because it is wrong, but because it is thin.


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