Agnosticism: The Perfect Answer That Never Delivers

Based on the enduring lack of conclusive, objectively verifiable, purely empirical evidence, agnostics claim to simply not know whether or not there’s a God. As a rational response to the question of God, it’s an unassailable stance. All emotions, intuition, and inspiration aside—all subjective persuasions aside—the unadorned fact remains that we don’t know whether or not there’s a God. Struggle though so many do to muddle the two categories of knowledge, belief remains separate from fact.

So, since agnosticism is easily the most logical position to take relative to the question of God, why are there so few agnostics in the world? I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think of themselves as rational and logical. Yet some 95% of people believe there’s a God.

What gives?

The reason agnosticism fails to attract people is because its core truth is in direct contradiction to the actual experience of life. Agnosticism and reality go together like wax fruit and a hearty appetite.

Agnosticism is all about doubt, about being uncertain as to what ultimately rules or determines life. But the things that actually do rule and determine life couldn’t be more certain or clear. Like death, for instance. Talk about a firm, clear reality. Death is as definite as it gets. As is being sick. As is being pregnant. As is being born in the first place.

Family. Stress. Joy. Taxes. Hunger. Getting evicted. Falling in love. Losing your job. Getting cut off on the freeway. Tripping on the sidewalk. A dog attacking your ankles. All of our lives are utterly dominated by conclusive, objectively verifiable, purely empirical facts and truths.

Life consists of a lot of very clear, very definite stuff. And that stuff brings up very clear, very definite questions.

And such questions demand very clear, very definite answers.

“I don’t know” is about as unclear and indefinite an answer as can be. You can’t do anything with it. It’s like bringing a ping-pong paddle to play golf with. No good.

The core of agnosticism is ambiguity. But life is anything but ambiguous. And that is why so very few people find agnosticism satisfying.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://megaloi.blogspot.com Redlefty

    On Facebook my religion is listed as "Agnostically Christian". It basically means I've chosen a path but I admit that I don't really know if it's the right one.

    I've found that many grad-level theology students come out of the programs much more agnostic than they were when they went in. Perhaps Kierkegaard was right, and scholarship complicates faith?

    I differ with your statement that real life is unambiguous, especially when you have "falling in love" in the list! We still don't know WHAT the heck is going on with love, even at a physiological/neurological level. Go beyond that into things like generosity and selflessness and we quickly bump up against things that don't have an unambiguous, evolutionary explanation.

    I'd say real life is quite fuzzy.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    I don't have to know how a car works to know when I've been hit by one. Of course no one understands what love "is." But they sure as heck know when love has them in its grips, don't they? That's all I meant. Being in love is as real as being hungry.

  • http://suddenlyatheist.wordpress.com/ morsec0de

    I've probably written this exact same explanation before, but I might as well add it one more time.

    I am an agnostic atheist. I say that because atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive.

    Agnosticism deals with knowledge, and atheism deals with belief (in this case, the lack of belief, but I digress).

    Think of it as if they are asking two separate questions.

    Question: Is there a god?

    Answer: I don't know.

    Conclusion: Agnostic

    Question: Do you believe that there is a god?

    Answer: No.

    Conclusion: Atheist

    I recognize that when dealing with something non-falsifiable like the Christian deity, you can never say it absolutely does or does not exist. And so, to be intellectually honest, I embrace the 'agnostic' label. But at the same time, I see no evidence for a god, and don't believe there to be one, and so I also embrace the label 'atheist'.

  • http://fvthinker.blogspot.com Mike (FVThinker) Bur

    John, John, John….

    I thought I thoroughly explained what an atheist is at http://suddenlychristian.com/2009/01/26/atheists-

    Virtually every one of us atheists is an agnostic (including Richard Dawkins)…and there are lots and lots of us agnostics. I would venture a guess that most of the world population is agnostic on the matter (whether they will say so or not).

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Mike, Mike, Mike: Do you actually think your "explanation" of the difference between atheism and agnosticism was clear? I've here defined and used the words the way the dictionary and 99.99% of people do. Gimme a break.

  • Candace

    I also think there are so few (true) agnostics because humans have an enormous problem with a) ambiguity and b) humility.

    Both of which are required, for the agnostic.

    I found my former atheism very easy to defend. Had a glib answer for everything then.

    I find my current theism even easier, for a variety of reasons.

    The hardest position I was ever in was the agnostic one. I didn't like not knowing. And I didn't like the humility it took to say I did not know whenever the subject came up in conversation. And the fact I truly did not know, and said so, drove people crazy. Those discussions got more heated than any I've had before or since.

  • http://anziulewicz.livejournal.com Chuck Anziulewicz

    Maybe there’s more than one kind of agnostic:

    1: The person who says he doesn’t know whether God exists.

    2: The person who claims that the existence of God can be neither proven nor disproven.

  • Candace

    I think Mike should change his e-name to Mike(FVPedant)Burns.

  • http://fvthinker.blogspot.com Mike (FVThinker) Burns

    Just to be clear…humility is a good thing, isn’t it?

  • http://fvthinker.blogspot.com Mike (FVThinker) Bur

    I find it pretty easy to acknowledge that which I don't know. In my field, I would be considered and expert, but I would never claim complete knowledge. I assume that there is much more to be know and I go about seeking that knowledge.

    I don't know if that would be considered humility, but if I ever think that I 'Know', then I am in trouble.

  • Candace

    About earthly things, I'd have to agree.

    About my heavenly Father? *I* know, now. And with more certainty than I've ever known anything.

    The exercise in humility comes now in the form of living in that knowledge, in this world, in an appropriate way. And it's the biggest challenge I've ever faced. I doubt I will ever come close to mastery of it in this lifetime.

    Ah, well … something to keep me busy … :-)

  • http://fvthinker.blogspot.com Mike (FVThinker) Bur

    It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. — Mark Twain

  • Candace

    A very good thing. Also difficult, and not part of what comes naturally and willingly to most humans.

  • Candace

    Yeah, that's the ticket. I'll listen to Mark Twain rather than God … (not)

  • http://suddenlyatheist.wordpress.com/ morsec0de

    Well, Twain's books are certainly much better written. IMHO

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore
  • http://suddenlyatheist.wordpress.com/ morsec0de

    If we're talking the Bible, I prefer Song of Songs over anything in the NT.

  • http://openparachute.wordpress.com/ Ken

    I am happy to call myself an atheist meaning that I don't believe there is a god. That's not the same as "knowing." And, of course beliefs change – if I came across convincing evidence I might end up believing there was a god.

    I have seen polls which indicate most atheists mean "belief" rather than "know."

    As for agnostic. I can't get away from understanding philosophical agnosticism to mean that it is impossible to know – in other words knowledge (about anything) is impossible. That is not a position I can support. So I reject the use of that word.

  • http://makotokan.org Will

    John – Agnosticism is, as you say, the most logical position to take on the existence of God. But I'd also argue that it's the most ethical as well. When you don't claim to know ultimate reality, it puts you on a different footing. Yes, it's hard to answer the questions of life with "I don't know", but it's intellectually and ethically faulty to pretend that you do know when you don't.

    Agnosticism, to be an effective life philosophy, just requires more rigor than most people are willing or able to exercise. There are so few agnostics because we are all too busy or not thoughtful enough or too stupid or lazy to be otherwise. :-)

    Ken – I'm a philosophical agnostic. It's true – you can't know anything with certainty. But you can figure out what is "most true". Agnosticism is the most scientific philosophy. Scientists accept that they might have to throw a theory out if a new, better theory comes along (or at least, they should). That doesn't stop them from doing very impressive things with their current theories. Newtons laws are still valid, even though the theory of relativity changed the way we understand physics.

  • http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/ thinkpoint

    Atheists contradict themselves:

    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/atheis

  • Sophie

    thinkpoint, that is just utterly hypocritical, and thus utterly Christian of you.

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html


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