The Agnostic and the Atheist

Is agnosticism an tenable position in a religiously plural society? No.

In my recent travels in Europe I fell into a conversation with a self-professed agnostic and a self-professed atheist, in which the atheist challenged the intellectual integrity of the agnostic’s position. The atheist’s argument was simple.

The agnostic maintained that God’s existence was a matter beyond determination by either human logic or human science, and thus he preferred to take no stand on the matter.

The atheist’s retort was that realistically a great deal of what we believe or disbelieve is beyond the determination of logic and science. We cannot be definitive in that sense about a great deal of reality. And while agnosticism may be justified in matters where we are not required to make decisions, it cannot be justified in matters where we are. A biologist may be agnostic about certain aspects of quantum mechanics contested even by physicists, but not about evolution. In the same way, with belief in God permeating every part of public life no member of the public affected by that belief can stay on the sidelines.

As I listened to this discussion I was inclined to agree with the atheist, even though in many areas I’m a non-committal kind of person. If there is a relationship between what humans believe and how humans behave, then in some areas making decisions about what we believe about what others believe is critical. I may be agnostic about whether tap water needs to be filtered, and thus drink it either way. But I only get to vote once for candidate who rallies public support or opposition to women’s reproductive rights on the basis of his/her belief in God and about God. However complex the calculus of political decision making, it cannot go forward until that value (yes or not to the candidate’s god) is determined.

This is why committed inter-religious dialogue is critical. We need to know what God/gods others believe in because their belief will play a role in public discourse and public decision making. How we vote, and how we speak on public issues, will be determined at least in part by our assessment of the existence and nature of their God. There are no agnostics in the voting booth, only those conscious or unconscious of their own beliefs.