Jun 23, 2010

A Question About Agnosticism

An agnostic about the existence of God says that he cannot know whether or not there is a God, so it is sensible to withhold judgment on the question. Assuming one is agnostic regarding God, yet does not believe that entities like space aliens, ghosts, leprechauns, fairies, etc., exist, then the question arises of why disbelieve in the latter and not the former? If the agnostic answer is that space aliens et al are clearly man-made fictions, then well and good. (Putting aside for argument's sake that examining the origins of religion also show it as a similar man-made fiction) I wonder if there is another factor at work in not disbelieving in God.

Note that space aliens, ghosts, leprechauns, fairies, and the like are of little importance to men. They interfere in our affairs for good or bad, but only to a limited extent. Not so God. God made the world, gives to life morals and meaning, and provides an afterlife for us. Unlike the leprechaun and his counterparts, God is of utmost importance to men. God, if real, is fundamental to the universe and our lives.

Is the agnostic's hesitance to disbelieve in God due to the fundamental importance attached to God?

God's importance is of a philosophical nature. To disbelieve in leprechauns is to - at no great cost - exclude them as a reason for one's good or bad luck or just as a curious creature from one's understanding of reality. Is the philosophical importance attached to God an impediment to disbelief for an agnostic who does not believe there are leprechauns? The existence of leprechauns is intellectually easy to dismiss. Perhaps for some the existence of God is not so intellectually easy to dismiss solely because fundamental intellectual matters are by definition attached to His existence and with that comes the unpleasant realization that these important matters would be dismissed with Him - which is nihilism; but not being nihilists, they settle on agnosticism. In other words, the importance of an alleged supernatural being is related to withholding disbelief in it. "Afterall, God is important, so maybe He exists." Is it rational to hold that one unimportant supernatural being does not exist but an important one may or may not exist?

I raise this question because I often sense this is implicitly in what agnostics argue. Then again, maybe it is just me reading too much into their positions. I don't know.

If one is agnostically stopping short of disbelief in God as a result of this supernatural being's importance, here is a thought experiment that might clarify. Imagine a leprechaun, not as a mere mischevious and secretive magical creature, but instead imagine the leprechaun is the creator of the universe, giver of life and morals. Then the leprechaun becomes God.

Is withholding judgment on the existence of that God rational? Hardly. Same for any God, goblin, or ghost. The point is, the importance or non-importance to mankind of any supernatural beings is not important in reasoning to the conclusion that there are no such beings.


  1. I try not to conflate agnosticism with the question of belief/disbelief. I have met several Christians who are essentially agnostic - they admit that they do not know whether or not God exists. Yet, they believe that God exists solely on the basis of faith. Likewise (and more sensibly), one does not need to know that God does not exist to disbelieve. If either side actually had knowledge (gnosis) of God's existence (or non-existence) then the question of belief would have long been settled.

  2. Thanks, James. I must disagree, though, your last sentence on the question of belief having been settled. There are certain types of minds that are going to believe no matter what evidence may say - they are the true religious minds! You give them more credit than I can because they want reality to conform to their mind's contents of supernatural notions. Also I think there is plenty of evidence that any supernatural claims are merely man-made: the results of improperly using the mind. I think the only response then is to dismiss such claims as unreal.

  3. Whether or not such people would continue to believe if the knowledge has been settled (and just look at the anti-evolutionists), I think that it is telling how often 'faith' is dragged out. Isn't faith, after all, exclaiming that one continues to believe despite a lack of knowledge? But my main point with regards to agnosticism is simply that people often don't connect their beliefs strongly to what they know and, as a consequence, one can admit agnosticism while remaining a theist.

  4. I think there are probably many reasons for the persistence of agnosticism.

    I think you're partly right: obviously, if a leprechaun were to possess the attributes that are attached to God, then we'd probably view leprechauns differently. But, having said that, the attributes would then destroy any notions we may have had about what leprechauns are: for starters, there could only be one leprechaun; it wouldn't have "parts" (arms, leg, red hair and beard); etc. I'm thinking of Aquinas' arguments for the existence of God: he starts out, not by presuming the existence of God, but by listing observable phenomena and going from there.

    I also think another reason might be that there just aren't any societies or cultures that are naturally atheistic. It seems as if people are hard-wired to believe.

    Another reason is that most people probably know theists whom they like and admire. It's hard to hold theism as irrational when you know perfectly intelligent and sensible people who hold those beliefs. The two most intelligent people I ever met, for example, were both Catholic priests: one was a professor of Physics who studied under the late great Victor Hess, the other taught philosophy. I'm sure that's probably a fairly common experience with agnostics.

    I once read a booklet "Why the Question: Is There A God"? written by the priest/physicist mentioned above. It's been a while since I read it, but he had some other reasons for the persistence of belief -- I just can't remember them now.