AFT Blog # 45: Agnosticism

Why We Are Not Agnostics

David Rand, 2014-07-01

The statement of principles of the organization AFT, our Atheist Manifesto, declares that “We are not agnostics. We know that the various theisms are baseless prescientific mythologies, inherited from antiquity, and that their falsehood is a certainty beyond all reasonable doubt.” In this blog, David Rand explains the meaning and importance of that part of our manifesto.

The term “agnostic” was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in the 19th century by adding the prefix “a” meaning “without” to the word “gnostic” which indicates an intuitive and revealed knowledge of divine mysteries. Thus, “agnostic” briefly means “without knowledge of god.”

According to common usage, “agnosticism” is often used in contrast to atheism. An agnostic is someone who is not quite an atheist or can be located somewhere on the spectrum between theistic belief and atheistic non-belief. But in reality, I doubt that most agnostics are really halfway between. The agnostic individual is probably either a theist who wishes to disassociate himself or herself from churches and religious institutions and yet remains a believer; or he or she is a closeted atheist, one who lacks the will to assume his or her atheism. This form of agnosticism is intellectual prevarication.

Indeed, we must recognize that there really is no choice to be made. Atheism is a scientific certainty. Not an absolute certainty such as only religions have the pretension to put forward. Rather, atheism is a certainty beyond all reasonable doubt. It has all of science on its side and it is falsifiable (by the discovery of a god, for example). The various theisms, on the other hand, are mythologies inherited from antiquity, they are unsupported by any proof whatsoever, they contradict each other and each one contradicts itself within its own system of dogmas. The problem of evil and the problem of divine will[1,2] are examples of this self-contradiction. We are not only justified in rejecting all theisms, we are obligated to do so if we wish to be intellectually consistent.

Taking an idea from David Eller[3], agnosticism is an expression of doubt applied to the religious domain, to theism to be exact. It is not a valid position to be adopted, rather it is a cognitive tool to be used, to be applied to an hypothesis in order to test it. When we apply this tool, this doubt, to the hypothesis of the existence of “God” by challenging this belief, by asking questions, by requiring supporting evidence, we quickly realize that the hypothesis is completely vacuous. There simply is no supporting evidence for the god-hypothesis, no valid proof. Anything that human beings might once have tried to explain by the action of a god – natural phenomena, heavenly bodies, the various forms of life on earth – all of these are in the domain of science. We now have material, scientific explanations for a large number of these phenomena, and with the passing years and the progress of research that number continues to increase, while the phenomena which some people still try to attribute to divine action are fewer and fewer, restricted to an ever smaller scope. We can now see clearly that the god-hypothesis has only one use, the only use it has ever had: it is a metaphor for our ignorance. When someone says “God only knows” they mean that no-one knows. In those situations where our current scientific knowledge remains insufficient to explain something, there are those who will still declare, “God did it!” Each and every scientific discovery, no matter how small or trivial, constitutes yet another nail in the coffin of the god-hypothesis, reducing yet again its field of application, that is to say, the field where ignorance and magical thinking continue to have sway.

Can use of the term “agnostic” ever be justified? Rarely, only in special situations. Used figuratively, it can be applied outside the religious domain to indicate a functional neutrality. For example, in information systems, it is sometimes said that a software programme is “agnostic” with respect to the underlying operating system – it is “OS-agnostic” – implying that it ignores the specifics of the OS and thus has the advantage of being independent of it. Returning to religion, a believer who begins to question his or her beliefs and follow a path towards non-belief may pass through an agnostic stage, but this should be temporary, a passing phase, before moving on to atheism and rejection of the supernatural.

However, to maintain an agnostic position for decades or an entire lifetime, to adopt it as a final conclusion, is tantamount to being locked into absolute scepticism. It is an irrational stance which is equivalent to rubber-stamping theism as still plausible, still possible. Thus agnosticism, unless it is temporary or used appropriately as a tool of doubt, is dogmatic because it imposes neutrality in a context – theism – where we certainly have enough evidence to draw a conclusion.

Possibly the worst variant of agnosticism is that which is rationalized using a statement such as “I do not believe in God, but instead of saying I am atheist I define myself as agnostic out of respect for believers.” Would a paleontologist refrain from calling himself or herself an “evolutionist” so as to avoid offending creationists? This “respectful” agnosticism persists for the same reasons that anti-blasphemy laws continue to remain on the books: as religious believers are unable to provide any rational justification whatsoever for their dogma, they therefore bully others into respecting their beliefs. This bullying behaviour ranges from social disapproval to legal repression. In fact, this form of agnosticism has nothing at all to do with respect. Those who profess it choose to capitulate to the bullying and make themselves victims of it. Under a theocratic regime, for example Saudi Arabia, such a stance is completely understandable given the very real and even draconian nature of the threat. But in a country like Canada where we enjoy significant (although incomplete) freedom of expression, “respectful” agnosticism is a manifestation of the most abject intellectual cowardice.

Agnosticism is at its most dogmatic when it is symmetric, i.e. when it is claimed that the existence of a god has the same probability as its non-existence. This assertion constitutes a serious logical error, an example of the fallacy of the mean. Viewing belief in god(s) and non-belief as two “extremes,” the symmetric agnostic draws the false conclusion that the best position to adopt is halfway between them. It may be impossible for me to prove the non-existence of Santa Clause, but that does not imply that the probability of his existence must be 50%. Theologians sometimes take the trouble to write fat volumes in the hope of convincing themselves that the probability of the existence of “God” must be at least 50%. But the symmetric agnostic is lazy; he or she simply assumes, right off the bat, that the chances are 1 in 2.

Thus, agnosticism, unless it is a passing phase, is harmful to the intellectual and moral progress of humanity because it legitimizes theisms – those irrational, dangerous and unsubstantiated ideologies – because it implicitly promotes the idea that they are as likely to be valid as invalid.

Finally, the term “agnostic” is useless. To say that one has no knowledge of god is comparable to saying that one has no knowledge of unicorns or griffons. As these mythological creatures do not exist, no-one can possibly have any knowledge of them! As gods are mythological supernatural agents, none of us has any knowledge of them, by definition. To say that one does not know “God” is a tautology.


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