Do Agnostics Exist?

When asked if agnostics are atheists, Bertrand Russell answered,

“No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God, the atheist that we can know there is not. The agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial.”1

He does concede that certain agnostics who think the existence of God so improbable as to not be worth considering are not far removed from atheism.

At any rate, I recently discovered that not every atheist allows for the category of agnostic.

1 Interview in Look magazine, November 3, 1953

Refining an Atheist Identity | Ignostic Atheist.

 

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Author: Scott

Follower of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, writer, mentor

15 thoughts on “Do Agnostics Exist?”

  1. If you want to examine the original meaning of agnostic, you might want to look into Huxley, who coined the term.

    That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism.

    To add to your citing of Russell,

    I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. 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.

    Today, however, atheists separate the two, with agnosticism concerning the knowability of a god-being, and atheism concerning the actual belief held.

    1. Great input Ignostic Atheist! I read the Huxley article. Very interesting!

      “That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty.”

      Not an unreasonable demand. The battleground will be what qualifies as logical justification, but as a Christian I would certainly require this of anyone making a doctrinal claim, etc. Hey Ignostic Atheist, write and article describing your own journey into your “ignostic atheism” and I will post it. Just looking for information and discussion.

      1. There is also the question of what qualifies as objective. You would think it would be simple, but I’ve encountered some who would drag it down to solipsism and nihilism in order to contort a subjective experience into objectivity.

        Do doctrinal claims include things like, “A god exists”?

      2. In truth I don’t believe we can be truly objective. But that is not license to simply let subjectivism rule the day. I would also say that a subjective experience does not exclude and objective reality, and yet anything that is objectively real must ultimately be proven to be so. That is, subjectivity is finally not enough.

        Of course this raises the question of what can be known and how. To demand that metaphysical realities be able to be rendered in a science experiment only forces the scientist to miss what many, even most consider to be an exquisite reality.

        I don’t consider belief in God to be a doctrinal declaration per se. But I also understand that we enter into the knowledge of God by faith, but many proofs follow, though probably none that you would consider valid.

  2. I say that there are certain things that we all assume to get through our day. That, while I might be a brain in a vat, and everything I know could be my own dreamings, I assume that my senses are adequate when they correlate with others. That’s two assumptions, that others exist and that my senses are sometimes reliable. Theists, however, hold an additional foundational belief, that there is a god. Now, a fair portion of the world believes there is a god, but for some reason they can’t manage to agree on what exactly it is. Obviously Vishnu and Allah are two distinct conceptions, but even within a religion, or in individual churches, you’ll find differences in what exactly constitutes a god. This is where Sophisticated Theology kicks in and tries to say that, therefore, it’s not the particulars that matter, but that we all have this vague sense of a god-being. Of course, that’s not even true. I don’t.

    So we are left with the question of whether god-belief is an evolutionary byproduct, or if there really is something out there to believe in, that isn’t willing to provide evidence of his existence, and yet still desires worship.

    You admit that knowledge of a god is based upon faith, but follow it up by saying that many proofs follow from that. One does not work with the other. If you are to have faith, it must be without proof. Admitting that faith is required means that your proofs consist of confirmation biases, and not actual proofs.

    1. Faith and proofs are not forever mutually exclusive. I heard the story of Jesus when I was a child and by faith accepted its truth. However, while I have not seen God with my eyes, I have experienced the evidence of His existence and involvement in my life in many ways, many times. For example, I have that there is a God. As I have walked by faith and exercised my spiritual muscles by applying myself to a relationship with God by faith through means such as Bible reading, worship, prayer, obedience to the commands of Jesus, etc., I have experienced manifestations of the Presence of God through such experiences as the baptism in the Holy Spirit, answered prayers, physical healing, a changed life (instantaneously when I was saved), empowerment for ministry (marked by observation of others being changed as a result), and so on. Now, one could say that all of that is just subjective emotionalism or the imaginations of the irrational, but how many times can one experience such things over a period of years before it moves into the category of evidence? I can’t really see gravity, but I feel its effects. Likewise, I do not see God with my eyes, but I have many times felt His effects.

      As for the idea that religion has evolutionary causes, I remain, not surprisingly, unconvinced. And concerning the idea of the overall tendency of humans to believe in God, such widespread belief, though disparate in its conclusions about God’s identity, does point to a persistent sense deeply ingrained in humanity that there is a God. Dawkins’s idea that religious belief is simply the downside of man’s instinct to anticipate a predator is unsatisfactory. I did not watch the Youtube link you sent just yet but I read just yesterday Dawkins’ treatment of the subject.

      1. And if all these subjective experiences are illusions fabricated by your subconscious, a product of evolution and lifelong indoctrination, how would you know? Do you take it to heart that, “Thou shalt not put the Lord to thy test?” And what is that if not an old fashioned, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” What I’m asking is if you’ve ever critically examined these events and beliefs, or if you take anything that merely could be evidence of your god as evidence of your god.

        The great thing about gravity is that you can also measure its effects, and it behaves consistently. A god, on the other hand, either cannot be measured, or is hit-and-miss in its results. Worse, the predictions you might make for the way the universe would behave if there were a god do not match up with what we observe.

      2. It’s easy to label everything irrational that others experience. Your point is well-taken and fair. However, I would ask you, can you imagine any scenario in which someone could say yes to your questions and you would accept it and consider it? It is not that hard to determine when you are in the Presence of God. It really isn’t. One reason is that Christians are not 24/7 feeling something. In one sense we know we are always in the Presence of God (as you are though you do not accept it). But then there is the special, personal experience of God’s Presence and you know when you are in it. I am afraid that the only thing that would satisfy your call for critical examination would be some test whereby you can take a Polaroid of God. (More later, I have to run.)

      3. What would motivate me to think twice about religion:
        The same religion arising independently in separate locations.
        Religious texts that contain details that could not have been known by the culture at the time. e.g.: germs, cells, atoms.
        Religious texts that espouse morality that isn’t clearly derived from its human culture, as opposed to a perfect moral being.
        For more, Sean Carroll again graces us with a quick list of things you might expect in a theistic world.

        Critical examination is considering that you may be wrong and searching for alternative hypotheses. Then, for the sake of being thorough, it is not dismissing them without a thought, but instead analyzing them for their ability to explain phenomena. People who believe that gay marriage causes earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes, for example, are not critically examining their beliefs. More mildly, if you look at a sunset and imagine that God painted it for our benefit, you’re showing a shocking lack of knowledge about the pollution coming out of the city over the horizon. And, you know, meteorology.

        Also, I’ve not labeled anything irrational. Rationality is at the mercy of our feelings, as is shown by the human ability to rationalize virtually any belief. A more appropriate word would be uninformed or unaware.

      4. Well your first requirement decides for God how He should do things. He has not chosen to orchestrate a simultaneous outbreak of revelation all at once, though the Pentecostal outpouring of the 20th century comes close to that. As for your second requirement, I suppose one could say that is not the purpose of the Bible. That is, its purpose is not to prove anything or to give Nostradamus-style utterances that would seem nonsensical in its context. I think we get into trouble anytime we decide with our reason to express what God would or should do.

        There are a great many genius and near-genius level scholars who have done exactly what you are talking about as pertains to critical examination and arrived at faith in God. I could try to convince that I have done that but you have no reason to think I know anything. But C.S. Lewis, John Lennox, and Polkinghorne are three examples not to mention people such as Lee Strobel and his “Case” books.

      5. Ok, the alternative is that there exists an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing god who can’t seem to figure out what it would take to make me aware of his existence, and thereby be saved from an eternity in torment.

        Of course, maybe the answer to this is that I must first make the leap of faith, but I would only be leaping in a direction specified by my local or familial culture, as is shown by the variety of regional religions. Which raises the question, who made this first true leap of faith, and how did he know which way to leap? Trial and error? Or did God decided to only reveal himself to this person or few persons, knowing that the available evidence would be sorely lacking for future generations, and damning them to suffer forever if they don’t blindly follow an anachronistic story?

        The options I gave were not requirements. Nobody is saying your god would or should do them all. However, given what we are told of his intents and feelings for us, we should not expect him to do nothing. Even assuming the story of Jesus is true and divine, I am without evidence that it is. And whose fault would that be?

      6. I think all of your questions are valid and thought provoking. I don’t say that they are easy. The Bible says that to some degree every person is responsible for recognizing through nature that there is a God. Of course, someone convinced of evolution, especially atheistic evolution, would not agree with that because they see something different when they look at nature.

        Often the question comes up in my classes concerning those in dark corners of the world who have not heard the gospel. Of course, I can’t know who has or hasn’t heard, though I can make some reasonable assessments about that. This is why, of course, that those who do know the gospel feel compelled to share it with those who do not. If the question is asked by someone who believes in Jesus and is concerned about those who we consider to be lost, that is one thing. We do our best to reach and leave the rest to God. God makes a way for those who have not heard in ways you might be willing to accept (a topic for another time perhaps). But if the question is asked as a means of pointing to yet another reason not to believe in God, that is another matter entirely. There is either a God or there is not. If there is, there is no guarantee that I will agree with His methods. That does not negate His existence.

        Your point about the influence of our local, familial cultures is a good one. However, it only points to the difficulty of spreading the message, not to the reality of God’s existence. It highlights the urgency of the matter.

        You know, part of the problem that we live with in the world (according to the Christian worldview) is that we live in a fallen world. We believe that mankind fell into sin and, even though Jesus has come and brought redemption, some things are going to be difficult until things come to a final completion. We also believe there is a spiritual enemy and evil spiritual forces that work against those who have never heard by trying to prevent them from ever hearing. Without these key parts of the Christian worldview, the rest of the Christian story does not make sense.

      7. So, just a further thought in the form of a question: What would a critical examination of someone’s faith in God and claims of experiencing God look like?

  3. The Bible says that to some degree every person is responsible for recognizing through nature that there is a God.

    The bible says that you are responsible for justifying your misapprehension. Lovely example of a self-reinforcing delusion.

    Of course, someone convinced of evolution, especially atheistic evolution, would not agree with that because they see something different when they look at nature.

    If I grant that there could actually be a god, and that he is perfect while I am imperfect, then whose fault is my ignorance? If I remain ignorant while he wishes me not to be, then he must not really have his heart in it. Or, more likely, simply doesn’t exist.

    There is either a God or there is not. If there is, there is no guarantee that I will agree with His methods. That does not negate His existence.

    However, Christian dogma has kindly provided us with characteristics of your god such as omnipotence and omnibenevolence, and comparing them to what we do observe in real life, there is quite the schism between what he supposedly wants to do, and what has been done.

    Your point about the influence of our local, familial cultures is a good one. However, it only points to the difficulty of spreading the message, not to the reality of God’s existence. It highlights the urgency of the matter.

    No, if there were something that was recognized as undeniably true about a particular religion, we would not see a patchwork of regional religions spread by immigration and conquest. That’s the way truth works, it spreads on its own virtue. This is why there is no regional science or local mathematics.

    Without these key parts of the Christian worldview, the rest of the Christian story does not make sense.

    It really doesn’t make sense with them. For example, your god made Lucifer in the full knowledge that he would cause an eternity of grief. Since you seem to buy the original sin story, he put the tree of knowledge in the garden with full knowledge that it would result in original sin and 99.9% of his beloved creation burning for an eternity in hell. Then there’s the eternity of hell. What kind of transgression could ever morally justify an eternity of torment? That’s infinite punishment for a finite crime. But wait, God sent himself down to die temporarily in our place, so 2000 years later, only those who refuse to ignore everything we know about the universe will burn forever.

    If it helps you rest easy, good for you. I sleep fine without a macabre bedtime story. But I can see this is going nowhere in a hurry, so good day to you.

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