Part Eleven: Agnosticism and Atheism
An important distinction that must now be made is the difference between an agnostic and an atheist. The atheist asserts a belief that God does not exist, and the agnostic asserts that it is not known (perhaps not even knowable) whether God exists or not. A criticism I frequently hear against atheism comes from agnostics. It basically goes as follows: many atheists condemn theism for being too faith-oriented and dogmatic about the belief in the existence of God, and yet they in turn hold faith and dogma about the nonexistence of God. In other words, atheists are being as rigid and dogmatic as theists.
This is a insightful point, and I must make something very clear about atheism. There indeed seems to be a metaphysical truth about God; it seems clear that despite whether we believe or can prove whether or not God exists, there really is a God out there or not. Unfortunately, that truth is a factual mystery, because all of the empirical and metaphysical evidence we as humans have assembled have turned out to be inconclusive. The real fact of the matter about God eludes us.
In this metaphysical sense, I am clearly agnostic. I simply don't know whether God really exists or not, and sometimes I doubt if it is within human bounds to discover. So why do I call myself an atheist, then? As an atheist, I do not assert that God in all metaphysical reality does not nor could not exist. I doubt his existence very strongly, but my doubts are not really the point. The point about being an atheist or a theist is not so much, "is there a God or not?" but rather "do I or do I not live my life as if there was a God?" There is a clear difference between these questions.
The first question is a metaphysical one, and though we all may ask it, I strongly doubt whether there ever really arises solid factual proof for the existence or nonexistence of God either way. I tried to show this fact in earlier sections by pointing out the flaws with the arguments for and against the existence of God. In that sense I think many people are agnostic, and I concede that I am certainly one of them.
I have found that the second question that shifts from metaphysics to a more everyday human perspective about God is more honest and fruitful. This move was also illustrated by my movement from the metaphysical proofs to William James's pragmatic ones. If one believes in God, there are certain changes that person will probably make in one's life and attitude, and the same is true for the atheist. A theist may pray, try to develop their relationship with God, visit churches, etc. The atheist may begin to search for more beliefs to complement their atheism, and then proceed from that larger framework.
James held a view about agnosticism that I also agree with, though to less extremity. Looking at God and Godlessness in terms of how we conduct ourselves in our lives does not leave much room for agnosticism. If someone lives their life as if there is a God or is not a God, there are usually (but not in every case) immediate implications to that belief that affect that person's life. But how does believing that God's existence is unknown affect one's life? That depends on how conclusive that remark is. Most of us face a certain agnosticism of sorts when we begin to doubt and question religions. In fact, that feeling of the unknown is an excellent incentive to look for more answers and to continue searching philosophically. There is that period of "in-betweens" that we face when we are searching and converting, and that is a natural and beneficial stage. For some people this lasts a few months and for other it lasts many years, but the point is that it involves searching.
But what if this agnosticism is not a temporary search, but is permanent and conclusive? Some people have weighed the issue of God and have come to a fairly final conclusion that the issue is too mysterious to consider any longer. The searching for or against God has ended, and this person moves on to other philosophical issues. I can fully empathize with this person's position, but only from the angle of evidence, facts, and metaphysics. There is still a pragmatic perspective about God that many people do not consider, and it is so very important to understand this before one makes any definite conclusions on the matter.
From the pragmatic angle, is agnosticism a viable alternative? Remember, the pragmatics of an idea lies in how it affects one's activities and attitudes; also, what benefits and disadvantages the belief grants its owner. Pragmatics is concerned not so much with a hypothetical conclusion, but with practical consequences that may affect a person's life. We should look to the agnostic's change in behavior to assess its pragmatic value.
We know, or can at least easily imagine, the changes theism can have on someone pragmatically. We also know that the atheist leads a different pragmatic life than the theist, as I have outlined earlier. What about the agnostic? The agnostic clearly does not do what the theist does, at least not most agnostics. For example, most agnostics do not visit church or read the Bible. But when you compare the lifestyle of the atheist with the agnostic, is there really any difference? There is not. The only difference might arise in conversation, in which case the typical atheist tends to speak more boldly against God's existence whereas the agnostic holds milder views. But as for a world-view and lifestyle, there is little difference at all.
I call myself an atheist because I live my life as if there was not a God, not because I truly believe in any definitive way that there is absolutely no God. There really could be a God for all I know, and I could be very wrong about my skepticism. But for now, I don't know who is right or who is wrong. Nonetheless, the option to believe or disbelieve in God is a "forced" one, as Williams James said. It's not forced just because the implications of this belief are so great, but because you really have no choice but to make some sort of decision. The person who suspends all consideration of the issue of God is basically deciding to stay within whatever religious system that they are already in, be it theistic or atheistic. In other words, not deciding and being indecisive (in a conclusive manner) is still making some sort of decision. Deciding not to decide is a default choice to stay where you are at, wherever that might be.
There is something we can all learn from agnosticism, though, and there is also something important agnostics can learn from us. Agnostics may be acting and living just like atheists; if it walks like an atheist, and talks almost exactly like an atheist, do you call it an atheist? The agnostic has to consider whether they are willing to accept the implications of that fact, and it would be wise for them not to neglect its consideration. But I have always felt that atheists and theists alike have something to learn from the agnostic attitude. The searching of agnosticism is a beautiful state to me because it exemplifies the budding and maturing of the human mind, and it is where the greatest angst and philosophical joy resides. Always searching, always wondering, never settling too stubbornly; it brings out the best in us as thinkers. It is when we think we reach definite conclusions that we begin to grow lax and too dogmatic about our positions. The agnostic teaches us humility and activity; humbled by the mystery, but active in our pursuit for truth, both worldly and personal.
This touches upon an observation I have made about people and how they regard religion, especially God. It seems that many people, especially at my age in their undergraduate years, are in a sort of religious limbo. It seems that they have started to doubt theism, but have left the pursuit half finished. Many of these people call themselves agnostics, but the truth is that they have not formulated much of an opinion yet. Unfortunately, many of these people are taking little effort to try to formulate that opinion any further.
I can speculate that perhaps this is because God is a very difficult issue to ponder. And despite its difficulty, there usually does not seem to be an immediate need to reach a conclusion anytime soon. We can typically go about our lives without feeling pressed to reflect upon God. Even theists who have made their decision sometimes say their prayers absent-mindedly or with less conviction. Even atheists who have made their decision simply move on with their careers and forget all about their own Godlessness.
I do not condemn this because it happens to all of us. Some theists may say that their fellow believers should try not to neglect their appreciation of God or grow lax in their lifestyle, and I can also understand that view. But as an atheist, and more generally as a humanistic thinker who likes to gauge a religion's worth based on how it affects us honestly in our everyday lives, I do not regard this as a bad sign. If our lives are so peaceful that we are able to get along without engaging in herculean intellectual struggles, then we should welcome that peace and ease of mind.
But my appreciation is cautionary. I want people to be at peace with themselves and satisfied with their beliefs, but there can be dreadful consequences for having too much peace of mind. One should never become so relaxed with their beliefs that they wield them dogmatically, or regard them as so solid that they need little defense or explanation. Every philosophical idea needs defending, explaining, and redefinition, and one should try not to neglect that fact. And as our lives change, our beliefs too sometimes need to change. The consistent and meditative thinker will be prepared to assess and address those changes as they occur. Many people don't give God or an afterlife much thought until someone they love dies, or worse yet, when they themselves almost die or face imminent demise.
So think of philosophy as exercise for the soul. Neglect to philosophize, and your heart and mind will grow duller and less equipped to deal with problems when they arise. For imagine this: you are hiking on a rocky ledge. You slip and are just barely able to grab hold of a rock in time to keep from falling down the side of a cliff. At this point, you're going to need all the physical strength you can muster. If your strength is lacking because you have neglected to exercise your body,then you're going to regret that decision not to exercise. The same is true for the mind in times of philosophical dilemma. A neglected spirit will be ill- equipped to handle problems when they arise.
So to these roaming agnostics, or to anyone who may have grown too sedentary with their beliefs: be careful. Philosophy is not a hobby and philosophical issues are not mind-games. Keep exercising, and you'll be alright.