Down with Agnosticism
November 21, 2011 by 72 Comments
I’m against Agnosticism. I think it is hooey. Ancient Skepticism made the beautiful point that we are such imperfect sensing and thinking beings that we cannot really know anything; that everything true has an opposite that can also be argued; that true contradictions can be shown; and that irrational states of mind teach us that all states of mind are somewhat irrational– it’s always only one version of the truth. (This critique is true and solid. Science gets around it by dealing with what seems true to humans, just like common sense does. But it is still a beautiful truth.)
But Agnosticism isn’t pretty like that. Agnositicsm points this excellent truth about all epistomology, at one single target, the supernatural invention of one particular hairless ape, at one particular moment in its culture. We don’t know if Zeus exists? Uh, yeah we do. He doesn’t.
I have to give the Jewish Christian Muslim Father God the same respect I give Superman. Does this character exist? Um. No. I know when Superman was made up. Because I’m a historian, I know when God was made up too.
This thing about ‘I can’t prove there’s no God’ is not persuasive. Either you espouse true and full Skepticism, which is a robust philosophical position denying all knowledge, or you embrace Rationalism in which you are free to decipher the world based on evidence, evaluation of bias, vigilant sniffing against desire-driven delusions. True Skeptics cannot know anything, can barely trust the ground beneath our feet.
Rationalists do not need some special holding pen called “maybe despite all common sense” for every last un-evidenced thing someone reports. Rationalism bases conclusions on evidence, examines opposing proposals, tries to acquire a big perspective, and then takes a step toward knowledge. “I doubt, therefore I am,” is the first step, you don’t get to leap all the way to nonsense from there, but you do get to walk towards knowledge and take careful steps. The proposal that we can speak plainly about the existence of fairies and vampires but not God is absurd. There is no call to prove a negative. In rationalism you can dismiss a claim if there is no evidence for it, especially if it seems to be a very historically-specific claim, located in a particular culture, argued by people who admit they are frightened by the opposing conclusion, and no one can even agree on the claimed item’s attributes anyway.
The fact that life feels weird to humans proves exactly and only that life feels weird to humans. There is no reason to dismiss that weirdness (indeed I devote my life to the weirdness), but there is no reason to take it as evidence of something else, some tertiary being or force, called in to hold the weirdness and give it more meaning.
The notion of Agnosticism has no intellectual pedigree. Huxley made it up a hundred years ago, stating plainly that he was taking the idea from Catholic Fideism which was itself a crazy (I’d say mis)use of Ancient Skepticism to fight Protestantism, holding that since we cannot know anything, even whether God exists, let us choose to believe not only that he does, but that so must the Pope.
It is time we stopped using the term agnostic. If people want to retain it with the meaning “I personally have not yet made up my mind” that seems okay, but we have to stop parroting the notion that you “can’t prove a negative,” so you can’t be an atheist. It is not so. The argument is historical, not rational, indeed, not philosophically tenable.
What is more, I cannot say there are no unicorns because it is at least possible to have a horse with a horn or a one horned goat that happens to look like a horse, but I can say that a Pegasus does not exist because you would need wings the size of a football field to lift a horse. God is defined in negative theology as a being so unknowable to us that he “doesn’t exist” and when theologians become as subtle as this we know we are at least in interesting company, but if I go with all powerful, all good, and all knowing, and also ruler of a world like ours, with the cruelty, betrayal, torture, and heartache we have seen around here, well, that’s more of a Pegasus than a unicorn and it is reasonable to say, that Pegasus there, that does not exist.
Anyway that’s what I think. What do you think?