The Spiritual Practice of Agnosticism

The Aesop fable about the boy who cried wolf has long been viewed as a cautionary tale about lying. The boy knowingly cried “wolf!” merely to disturb the villagers. The boy eventually pays the price in dead sheep when the villagers stop responding.

There is another and more dangerous way of crying wolf, however: continually calling “wolf!” because there might be one but there might not.

In this way of crying wolf, the boy is expressing his fears—his own psychodrama. He may even be utterly convinced that a wolf is threatening and nearby. He may even be imagining what a wolf attack might look like. Still, despite the boy’s true alarm, there is no wolf, and the villagers are wasting their time running to help the boy. Wasting time that would be better taken with other ventures.

It’s Not About Not Deciding

As an agnostic, I’m very aware that we agnostics are often seen as fence-sitters—the tepid ones choosing neither hot nor cold. Why can’t we just buck up and admit that we’re atheists? Or why can’t we admit that we have a soft spot for one god or another? Why can’t we just cry wolf or shut up?

Contrary to the cliche, agnosticism isn’t about not deciding. It’s about honestly facing what we know about knowing itself. It is, as the Victorian biologist, T.H. Huxley, who coined the term, said, “not a creed but a method.” (Athiesm is a creed because it is a belief, like theism.)

Agnosticism is a method that is, I believe, a spiritual practice like Christian Centering Prayer or Buddhist meditation.

When Huxley first used the word in print in 1889, he contrasted his confidence in human knowledge with that of the convinced believers. He said,

They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis”—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.

Knowing and Thinking We Know

Gnostic in Greek means “knowledge.” In the Western world we know the term best from the early Christian movement called Gnosticism, which claimed esoteric knowledge of the workings of the universe. Such knowledge, Huxley pointed out, can be neither proven nor disproven. The Gnostics claimed to have “solved the problem of existence.” Huxley, however, wasn’t so sure of their untestable opinions. (Neither, it might be mentioned, was the Church so sure of their solution.)

In other words, Gnosticism wasn’t about knowing, it was about belief. Agnosticism is about how and what we know.

Boiled down to its simplest formulation, the way of agnosticism according to Huxley is: “do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

No matter how convinced you are that the wolf is near, don’t cry wolf until you see one.

This is not fence-sitting or vacillation. It is, rather, a commitment to the active search for what we can know. In this way it is much like the spiritual practice of via negativa, a method of removing those things that are not “god” in order to discover god.

Huxley, however, saw his method as a positive rather than negative path. He wrote:

. . . Agnosticism is not properly described as a “negative” creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle, which is as much ethical as intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. That is what agnosticism asserts and, in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism. (“Agnosticism and Christianity”)

It’s About the Questions

Huxley made it very clear that scientific materialists don’t have the answers either. No one does. All of us find ourselves improvising with as much information as we can scramble together—as have all people for all of human history. Agnostics are committed, however, to the common human project of learning more and more. Of knowing what is actually here, not what we only imagine. This commitment requires us to have active minds engaged in continual searching.

As psychologist Ellen J. Langer puts it in her book Mindfulness, “Just as mindlessness is the rigid reliance on old categories, mindfulness means the continual creation of new ones.”

The method of agnosticism is a way of being mindful. A way of being in the present moment and making that moment an open and creative matrix.

Agnosticism is a commitment to only crying “wolf!” when such a cry will do real good.

  • stevelabonne

    Agnosticism sounds like such a reasonable position at first blush. The question is, though, exactly what are the things about which you are genuinely unsure? Are you truly open-minded about the existence of Zeus? Of Odin? Of Santa Claus? Or really only about the God with which you happen to have been brought up?

    • David Breeden

      A good question. I think I would have agreed with Socrates in asking “Can Zeus make it rain without clouds?” I hope so. The human will to believe what agrees with our biases–and our ability to compartmentalize information which contradicts our opinions– is truly a frightening thing.

      • jamesiford

        I don’t think the call is to some “open mindedness” where all things are seen as equal. Which on the face of it is a rather silly position to take. Rather agnosticism is a deep curiosity, a quest, a path. And all along the path we’re called upon to make decisions. But these decisions are also always provisional. Whatever, I reflected on all this myself a while back.

        • Nick Winters

          I always approached agnosticism as a reflection on the inherent flaws in our cognition and in the human condition. Because of these flaws, we always must search for the truth, using the most effective tools available to us (yay science!). I think you’re right that our answers to the great questions must always be provisional.

          • stevelabonne

            No quarrel with any of the above, in fact what is being described in these comments is the very method of science. My only caveat is to note that not everything is equally provisional. While there is a potentially infinite amount that we don’t know, there is also a vast amount of scientific understanding that is so firmly established- in the sense that huge swathes of extremely well-tested and successfully applied knowledge would go completely out the window if it were false- that it simply isn’t open to serious question by anyone who is genuinely practicing cognitive modesty. And it precludes a lot of things that most people would like to believe or at least to hold open as a possibility.

          • David Breeden

            Steve, I’m preparing for a multi faith discussion on the question “Will science replace religion in a hundred years?” I”m planning to make exactly your point.

          • stevelabonne

            Sounds interesting. As a UU I certainly would reply to that question in the negative!

          • Nick Winters

            I agree completely; degrees of certainty are the way to go.

        • David Breeden

          James, an excellent sermon! You said it better than I. BTW, I’m teaching -Buddhism Without Beliefs- for an adult RE class this fall. A brilliant book.

  • Nick Winters

    I identify with your definition of Agnosticism; I’d just say that there are a lot of agnostic atheists out there who view atheism vs. theism as simply the answer to the question “do you believe a god exists?”

    My answer (as one of them) would be no, because I don’t know and haven’t been convinced.

    That’s also my answer to the anti-theist, who asks “do you believe that no god exists?”

    Agnosticism is, I think, the most intellectually honest position. As a practical matter, though, belief (acceptance of a claim as true) is a binary position. Agnosticism basically pushes you to always answer “no” to claims until they’ve been proved. This entails a sort of practical atheism, since theism is a positive claim that needs to be proved.

    Of course, the more popular definitions of atheist are that it is an anti-theist creed, so your mileage may vary. I just want to remind you that the term atheism encompasses many varieties, including those that don’t affirm certainty of the nonexistence of any deity. Semantics though that may be ;-)

  • Psycho Gecko

    So which are you, agnostic theist or agnostic atheist? It’s not like a statement about what you think you can know answers the question of what you believe.

    • David Breeden

      I’m neither. I’m comfortable with not knowing. And not believing either way. Since “god” is experiential, I think it’s unlikely that I will experience anything that I will call god. After all, I was raised Pentecostal, so I’ve been around the barn with religious emotions. On the other hand, definitions of god as coextensive with the observable universe–pantheism–are compelling enough. Just not what most Westerners define as a deity.

      • Psycho Gecko

        You don’t appear to actively believe in a deity, so agnostic atheist. Congrats, you’re right up there with most other atheists, who acknowledge that it’s not possible to prove no gods exist, but who do not believe in one because there hasn’t been evidence to prove the claim that a god exists.

        • Angie DuBois

          Why do you feel compelled to label him

          • Psycho Gecko

            Because people who label themselves only as agnostics are misusing the word either deliberately or out of ignorance. I can better sympathize with someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson who does it because “atheist” is seen as having too many negative connotations.

            Unfortunately, a lot of people use agnostic as if it’s some sort of third category. It’s not. It’s a statement about knowledge, but the question is about belief. So they manage to get a yes or no question wrong, then tend to accuse atheists of being 100% sure that no gods exist. This highlights even more ignorance.

            It’s almost as ignorant as saying something like “Athiesm [sic] is a creed because it is a belief, like theism.” Such a quote highlights that the person writing doesn’t even know the definition of the terms they use.

            Plus, as I pointed out, it ignores the existence of most atheists, who would more accurately be called agnostic atheists. Gnostic atheists are rare. Heck, even agnostic theists, rare though they are, are either ignored or lumped in with all the gnostic ones. A lot of people who claim the label of simply “agnostic” would view Richard Dawkins as obnoxious (and he certainly can be at times, especially on Twitter). Yet Richard Dawkins is also agnostic. An agnostic atheist.

            Instead of accepting reality, such agnostics like to pretend they’re the only group that’s basing their view of things on evidence, ignoring so much more of it in the process.

            Why would anyone treat such a person as a noteworthy thinker about religion?

          • Angie DuBois

            I see. You’re just requiring him to clarify his statements. That makes sense. T-mobile. America’s First Nationwide 4G Network

  • Muriel Volestrangler

    What do you mean by ‘spiritual’ here, and why do you see agnosticism as a ‘spiritual practice’? Would skepticism also be a spiritual practice by this definition, or materialism or naturalism?

    • David Breeden

      I’m trying to say that agnosticism is a spiritual practice in a way similar to some other spiritual practices–such as lectio divina or centering prayer. It’s a way of using the mind to look at the mind. I suppose skepticism–in the philosophical sense–is similar. Materialism and naturalism aren’t ways of knowing, if I understand properly. But I’m always happy to learn something new or see something in a new way. Via negativa is a time-honored practice. The greatest work in that vein, The Cloud of Unknowing, works through the implications of knowing the knower doesn’t know. Agnosticism, as far as I’m concerned.