The Way of the Agnostic

The Way of the Agnostic January 21, 2013

How do you evaluate the claims of a religion? Many readers of this blog are agnostic or atheist (as witnessed in the comments of the latest Questions That Haunt (which I will answer in the next 24 hours!)). Well, Gary Cutting has some words of wisdom for you:

To evaluate a religion, we need to distinguish the three great human needs religions typically claim to satisfy: love, understanding, and knowledge.  Doing so lets us appreciate religious love and understanding, even if we remain agnostic regarding religious knowledge.  (For those with concerns about talking of knowledge here:  I’m using “knowledge” to mean believing, with appropriate justification, what is true.  Knowledge in this sense may be highly probable but not certain; and faith—e.g., belief on reliable testimony—may provide appropriate justification.)

A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them.  Often this love is understood, at least partly, in terms of a moral code that guides all aspects of a believer’s life. Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular.  Among other things, it typically helps believers make sense of the group’s moral code.  Religious knowledge offers a metaphysical and/or historical account of supernatural realities that, if true, shows the operation of a benevolent power in the universe.  The account is thought to provide a causal explanation of how the religion came to exist and, at the same time, a foundation for its morality and system of understanding.

He continues:

There remains much more to be said about the status of religious knowledge, looking in detail at the cases for and against various religious claims.  My own view is that agnosticism will often be the best stance regarding religious knowledge claims (both religious and atheistic).  But my present concern is to emphasize that, even if it falls short of knowledge, religion can be an important source of understanding.

Non-believers — and many believers themselves — assume that, without a grounding in religious knowledge, there is no foothold for fruitful religious understanding.  But is this really so?  Is it perhaps possible to have understanding without knowledge?  Here some reflections on the limits of science, our paradigm of knowledge, will be helpful.

Read the rest: The Way of the Agnostic –

I’d be keen to hear what some of you agnostic and atheistic readers think of his essay. (For the record, I’m currently somewhere on the Christian agnosticism/igtheism spectrum.)

"Have you considered professional online editing services like ?"

The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I am somewhat distraught to hear you’re on the agnostic/ignostic scale. I don’t see how you can do that and be Christian. How do you deal with CS Lewis’ poser: “Christ claimed to be the son of God. He was either truthful or a madman.”?

    It makes sense that this is how an non-theist evaluates religion. As I a theist I evaluate religion by how well it represents and supports my relationship with God.

    • CS Lewis is not the standard.

      • Simon

        Well then take CS Lewis out of the sentence, the question still stands

        • For starters, I reject the one-dimensional premise that “truth” or “madness” are the only possible qualifiers of Jesus’ purported claim. And yes, I say “purported claim” because, in reality, it is the writers of the Gospels who claimed Jesus said he was the son of God. So let’s be intellectually honest, here. Also, the kind of “either/or” thinking that CS Lewis presents is wholly unreasonable. Why? Because he leaves out the most obvious caveat: that Jesus (or, I should say, the writers of the Gospels) may have been lying (and one need not be a madman to be a liar).

          But here’s the thing. Back in the first century, to claim a king was the son of a god was actually not unheard of, particularly in the highly Greco-Roman religious consciousness of the time (e.g. , Caesar Augustus was claimed to be the son of a god; Google it, it will enlighten you).

        • LoneWolf

          Not if the question is a false dichotomy.

          • Which would invalidate the very premise of Lewis’ argument.

  • I like this line: “Critics of a religion — and of religion in general — usually focus on knowledge claims [as opposed to understanding and love].” My partner called himself a Christian Agnosic a few years ago and I have held on to that label. I feel about Christianity the way I do about homosexuality: I’m kind of done trying to convince anyone about the “truth” of either. (Perhaps because I am not a theologian!) I wrote about this a week or so ago: I don’t know 100% for sure if God exists, and if God exists, what exact form he or she has. I choose to relate to God through Jesus and through a Christianity based on loving people.

  • Agnosticism is the most honest approach to the “god question.” It isn’t captive to absolutisms, whether they are outright claims of truth, or outright claims of denial. Agnosticism is the comma and the question mark, not the period or the exclamation point.

    • ME

      Whoa nelly. Faith is just as honest. It admits “I don’t know” but I choose to believe anyway. Better than “honest” if you ask me.

      • I guess it begs the question then: why do you choose to believe? Is that really faith? Or is it just opinion wearing a dress called faith?

        • ME

          Faith is certainly not a fact, or unequivocal knowledge. But it’s more than opinion, opinion doesn’t put any skin in the game, opinion connotes standing on the sideline. Faith is a passionate choice to act on belief in the absence of knowledge or fact.

          Why do I believe? Personal and subjective experience. In my opinion God is somewhat obscured in this world and we can have no expectation of certain knowledge in this lifetime. There will always be a “leap to faith” required.

  • That’s a good, honest answer. Though I thoroughly enjoyed where you wrote “in my opinion.” It demonstrates exactly what I was saying: belief-based “faith” proceeds from opinion (which is comprised foremost of “personal and subjective experience”).

    • ME

      Right. But, agnosticism is opinion, too. It’s a passive faith choice. It’s believing that there’s nothing to believe in. Neither believers, agnostics, nor atheists have facts or knowledge on their side. I fully understand when atheist/agnostics believe Christianity to be highly, highly improbable.

      I like it when people come across Jesus and just follow him however unlikely and crazy it seems. Take what Tony wrote, for instance. He says he’s agnostic, but, look who he’s hitching his wagon to. Looks like some sort of faith to me.

      • I disagree with your assessment of agnosticism. It approaches belief with caution, but that is not the same thing as being “faithless.” The “faith” of the agnostic is more honest (and the least lazy), because the agnostic will not believe without qualification. To them, if there is a “God,” they cannot just love this deity with their “whole heart and soul” but must also do so with their whole mind (see Matthew 22:37-40).

        As for Tony “hitching his wagon” to Jesus . . . well, Tony isn’t the standard. But I am in a similar boat as Tony, though our approach is somewhat different. For me, I follow the Jesus Way (the way of love), not so much because I “believe” the Gospels are solid fact (they aren’t) or that the Christian “God” is the supreme deity of the universe (it isn’t), but because I accept the ethos of the Jesus of the Gospels as universal truth (i.e, the ethos of love). I see the same truth of love in other traditions, including Judaism, Buddhism, and even Atheism. To hell with theologies. The love-based ethos of how to live is more important than nebulous (and often stupid) ideas about what to believe.

        • R. Jay, as usual, thanks for this.

          • My pleasure Rob. Too many traditional Christians and other like religionists are slaves to the “what to believe” box. And by “believe,” of course, I mean believe “ideas” about “things” that are complete made-up concepts. That kind of religion is such ridiculous fiction. I do not respect it. Not because I am hostile toward it. But because there is nothing about such religion that is in any way respectable. It does not liberate the mind. It entraps it.

        • ME

          For the record I didn’t call agnosticism faithless. I have much respect for the agnostic position.

          Do you believe that Christian belief is lazy? For one, such as myself, who has gone through great spiritual struggle trying to reconcile rationality with faith/belief I find it would be unfair to imply faith as potentially lazy. Anyway, laziness is probably not a valuable way to look at it.

          I wonder if we can agree that both positions, yours an mine, are both “opinion.” You state that God is not deity of the universe as if it is a fact. What knowledge do either of us have to claim that as so or not so? Can’t be done. Your position is just as much a position of faith as mine. It’s a matter of how we assess the probabilities.

          • I believe much traditional Christian belief is lazy, yes. In particular, belief based in theology and mythology (e.g., theology being something like “Jesus is God,” and mythology being something like “Jesus rose from the dead.”). But I must qualify this: belief in such things is especially lazy when such beliefs are presented as fact and/or truth, and where disbelief in such things inspires discrimination and ridicule by believers upon non-believers.

            Two Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes come to mind:

            “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

            “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

            Here’s what I specifically stated about God: “the Christian ‘God’ is the supreme deity of the universe (it isn’t)”

            My issue is with the traditional Christian claim about what “God” is believed to be. Inasmuch as that Christian claim has never been demonstrated by evidence to be true, I do not accept the claim (and mass belief is not evidence; the entire population of Europe for centuries believed the sun revolved around the earth). As such, until a claim is proven (and it is Christians who are the claimants, and therefore possess the burden to prove their claim), no one can be compelled to accept it.

            That is my basis for refuting the traditional claim about “God.”

        • ME

          Also, a point for debate. You accept the ethos of Jesus in the Gospels as a universal truth. Making any sort of truth claim, to me, comes across as a great leap of faith. I’m fine with it, I just hope you wouldn’t be critical of others who make a claim of universal truth. There’s a truth out there, but, who can prove they know it? What makes your truth claim of the ethos of love any better than a Darwinian atheist’s truth claim, or a truth claim from a fundamentalist baptist, or a truth claim about Flying Spaghetti Monster?

          • The ethos of Jesus is centered on love as both the means and the end (i.e., love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, strength; love your neighbor as yourself). It is a “universal” truth because love works universally to achieve the vision of oneness (inner and outer) Jesus championed (though his vision, while flavored by his culture’s theological beliefs, was not original). It is a oneness — by which I mean a unifying quality that generates wholeness and undoes brokenness — that human beings innately yearn for, in spite of the pervasive human addiction to destructive pursuits.

            I would also say Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (beautifully espoused in the proverbs of the Dhammapada, Buddhism’s foremost wisdom book) are also representative of universal truth. And surely there are similar threads that run through every culture, philosophy, and religion.

            The universal truth I am speaking about, however, is not based on an idea, or a belief. For example, “Jesus rose from the dead” is a belief, an idea, an opinion. To claim it is truth places a great evidentiary burden on the claimant. To believe in it in spite of evidence is not a leap of faith. It is simply a leap.

            The fact of love, on the other hand, is practical as well as practicable (think “praxis”). People can deny this fact, but that would be like denying that the sun shines. Because love is operative. Love works. It shines. Across the board. It is proven, and can be measurably re-proven every single day.

            And love is not the property of any system, be it religious or non-religious. Love does not require theology or notions of “god.” Love is as much for the grasp of the atheist as it is of the theist. Love is not captive to our artificial distinctions.

            That’s why it isn’t a leap of faith, as you put it. To claim love as truth is simply a recognition of fact.

        • NateW

          I think that you are both perhaps seeing the same truth, but from different angles. Faith in Christ isn’t an authority based confidence that I KNOW something true, but is an awareness (awakened within an experiential encounter of purely selfless love) that I am KNOWN BY that which is true.

          1 Corinthians 8:2-3
          If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

          1 John 4:10-12
          In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

          So I think it is fair to say that there is a sense in which a Christian must remain agnostic, admitting that God cannot be grasped and held by our concepts of what it means for Him to “exist,”or even atheistic, denying the “existence” of a mythical/Deus ex Machina (to borrow from Peter Rollins) God who exists as one arbitrarily acting upon our world from the outside. At the same time though, we must exercise great caution in broadly claiming that other’s conceptions are “complete made up….ridiculous fiction.” I’m sure that you don’t mean to say that there are no individuals who believe these things and also are, by grace, living the “ethos of Love”? If there are, then perhaps it is not one’s theology that needs to be domonized, but the spirit in which it is held?

          Do not be too quick to denounce the Truth present in traditional/conservative Christianity. True, many are enslaved rather than liberated, but many are genuinely in love with God as a supremely loving deity, believe the bible is word for word true, and yet love their neighbors better than you or I.

          I have been within those faith structures, questioned them, left them, critiqued them, and criticized them, but once I humbly opened my eyes I found that my new “progressive” conceptualizations of God had simply brought me full circle, allowing me to see for the first time the truth of what had always been right in front of me.

          • NateW, let me illustrate why I have a problem with those who believe in traditional Christian theology as truth, while also claiming to follow the Jesus ethos of love.

            A close friend of mine (younger than me) is a pastor at the church I attend. We’ve known each other for years, during which time we’ve met regularly for coffee and friendly chats, as any good friends would do. From the very beginning he has known I am gay, as does his wife, who is also a friend. This has never been a problem. He never treated me differently than any other person. He never brought the “gay” issue up in any form.

            Until this most recent weekend.

            On Sunday I wrote a piece on my blog titled Gay Love Is Not Sin, It Is Love. My good friend took great exception to this, and in doing so he threw the Bible’s “clear teachings” on homosexuality at me, and then proceeded to diminish me for having “gone backward” after making “so much progress with Jesus.” And then he said the unthinkable: he essentially hurled the “love the sinner, hate the sin” line at me.

            This is because he, for all his kindness and graciousness and love, accepts certain theological notions as the lens through which such kindness and graciousness and love must be expressed. In other words, conditionally. And his conditions rest upon a belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God in all matters.

            And on Sunday, his theological beliefs won out over his love ethos. And he destroyed our friendship.

            So you see, my good friend’s theology became a barrier to his love for me. His love, after all these years, turned out to be conditional.

            Which makes it not love.

            That is why theology and belief in notions and ideas is dangerous.

            • Ugh. That sucks man. And, I totally agree.

              • Yes. It definitely sucks. I am still processing this. It’s easy when someone outright bashes you for being gay. I can deal with that. What happened with my friend was far, far more insidious. It’s a strange deception that I never saw coming. This is why people do not understand the dangers of clinging to theological notions as if they are absolute truths. It is frequently the facilitator of incredible harm.

                And so now I have to consider how I am going to respond to this. At the moment, my thoughts are reflected in my most recent tweet: “It is the water that is poisoned. We do not heal the sick and solve the problem by merely washing the cup from which we drink.”

                • R. Jay; I was thinking about a few friends I’ve lost over the last few years as I attempt to build a view of the world that allows for me to be open to everyone’s ideas, and consistent and true to my understanding of what is right. Accepting that other people have different sexual desires than me was never that difficult. Where I have lost friends is when I find out that their ridiculous theories are more important than the friendship. The ticket to their friendship is not just accepting, but actually believing what they do. Friendship is a huge price to pay, but compromising your self is huger.

                  • People who are not gay need to start understanding that when someone such as me says, “I am gay,” I am not telling them about my “sexual desires.”

                    It is the unyielding attachment to certain conservative theologies that permits many Christians to sexualize an entire group, whereby we are perceived as creatures of licentiousness rather than beloved human beings. It is an evil that must be called out.

                    By the way, I applaud you for pursuing an inclusive worldview. And I agree with you. The compromise of one’s self is a huge price to pay.

      • There seems to be a range of meanings of the word agnostic. From “I don’t know” to “we can’t know.”

  • I loved the article. And, I’ve been a huge Simon Critchley fan (who the article was partly in response to) for years.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    Very interesting. I’m a Jewish atheist with experience in Christian and Buddhist faith communities, so this is a topic I both spend a lot of time thinking about and have some practical understanding of. First some quick criticisms:

    1. I would add “behavior of believers” to the list. How a religion is actually practiced by the adherents is at least as important as the other three categories combined.

    2. “Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false. Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them… But the no-arguments view ignores the role of evidence and argument behind the religious beliefs of many informed and intelligent people.” – This is a strawman. What actually happens most often is that a religious claim is examined and found not to meet particular standards. Refutation may or may not include a positive argument for an alternative, depending on the claim.

    3. “It may well be that physical science will ultimately give us a complete account of reality. It may, that is, give us causal laws that allow us to predict (up to the limits of any quantum or similar uncertainty) everything that happens in the universe.” – This is already known to be impossible. Chaotic systems are in inherent part of the universe. Research on the physicalness of consciousness and psychology have already been folded into the paradigm.

    So even though I think there are some major flaws in how Gutting understands materialist philosophy, his core point is a good one. After considerable thought I agree that his axis of community love, religious understanding, religious knowledge (and behavior of believers) are good ways of judging the merits of different religions from the outside. And not all religions (and denominations) are equal on these. For instance, Christian Quakers have extremely good behavioral ethics and strong community love, but are much weaker to say Sunni Islam on religious understanding and knowledge. And these do seem to be universal merits that all religions want to promote themselves by.

    What is left out of the essay is how the agnostic is supposed to judge these qualities. I have no idea what Gutting would say, but for me it would seem the agnostic would use their own moral center to judge and compare the qualities of love and behavior, while using a skepticism based in materialism (which is the default assumption) to judge understanding and knowledge.

  • T.S.Gay

    Jubal DiGriz:
    Could you expand on your own moral center. How did you get there? Jonathan Haidt, the moral psychologist, has presented some interesting findings on the discrepancies in the research.

    • Jubal DiGriz

      I’m not familiar enough with Haidt to know what discrepancies you’re referring to, but I’ll try to answer your question.

      From my own self-reflection I think my moral compass has been a product of trial and error. I have notions of what I’d like to do, mostly selfish, and find I’m prevented from doing those things mostly by other people. By developing empathy I have a greater understanding that other people have the same fundamental desires that I do, and over time I’ve learned the most efficient way of working toward a satisfying life for myself is working for a satisfying life for others, even at an inconvenience to myself. I evaluate religions morally on how much their creed and structure would aid me (and others) accomplish this.

      Please note this not a coherent philosophy and has no coherent epistemology. I take this approach because it works, and I’m constantly reevaluating what “best action” to take and what my ideal state is. But I’ve found this approach more useful than trying to follow a static moral code.

  • AJG

    I think most believers associate agnosticism with “nice atheism”, i.e. atheists that won’t tell you you’re stupid for believing in God. I don’t believe agnosticism is any different from atheism. Theism is the belief in a god or gods. Everyone who doesn’t have an active belief is outside the theist circle.

    • AJG

      For example, Russell’s teapot demonstrates the paucity of the agnostic position:

      “I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.”

  • He starts out acknowledging there are repugnant claims in religion, but quickly switches to talking about some mysterious force within it that even the religious themselves don’t understand. He offers that there is no justification for exclusivism. If all religions everywhere agreed to that, all of the problems related to religion would be pretty much over. He offers a kind and gentle definition of the “special pleading” logical fallacy. But then points to the very technical arguments from the likes of Plantiga, the ones that very few will actually dig into, and just claims that they are valid.

    What he completely misses is that science already says it doesn’t know everything. Religion does not have a claim on that. It doesn’t matter that, “…opposing sides have arguments that they find plausible but the other side rejects.” This is the argument: “it is possible, therefore it is plausible”. It fails because we are limited beings. We can not claim anything with 100% certainty, therefore anything is possible. If you want to open the door to “anything is plausible”, then your personal God suddenly has an awful lot of competition.

    So I disagree with Gary, atheists can “merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion.” Asuming the question at hand is, “should I spend my time pursuing the questions of your specific God and/or religious claims?” At some point, if we are to move forward, cure diseases and build a just world, we have to leave behind navel gazing and get on with the actual work. Although not true for all theologians, and the jury is still out for Tony, statements like, “There remains much more to be said about the status of religious knowledge” are just a way for them to try to keep their jobs.

    Finally, he points out that we don’t understand consciousness, so science can’t explain love and beauty. This is another play on the “we don’t know everything, so it’s still possible that religion will provide the answer”. He points out that “art, literature, history and philosophy” help provide insight into those experiences. He goes on to mention some great minds that have helped us with that, and fails to mention that religion has had some huge problems with those particular minds. If even just once a year churches read Aristotle instead of Paul, it would be a huge step forward.

    In the end, I hope it is believers that read this, and get the message that, “We should, then, make room for those who embrace a religion as a source of love and understanding but remain agnostic about the religion’s knowledge claims.” That includes speaking up about those doubts, firing your leaders if they question your right to have them, and actively protesting those who are crossing the lines of peace and justice by not being agnostic. Non-believers, if they are doing it right, already accept that all knowledge is contingent on new evidence we will find tomorrow. They are already encouraging questions and exploration. They don’t need a 20 minute speech every Sunday telling them where knowledge comes from.

    • Short Version: People who go to church with doubts do not have a lock on agnosticism. All knowledge is contingent on evidence that will be found in the future. If you are a caring, just person, you respect everyone’s opinion and you listen to all points of view. You don’t need anyone tell you this, the simple lessons that cut across all peaceful societies cover it. The limit to this is when your beliefs turn into harmful actions. Gary cleverly skirts how much of that has come out of religious communities.

      • Nick Gotts

        No, if you are a caring, just person, you most certainly do not respect racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia…

  • toddh

    “Agnostic: Lazy man’s Atheist.” – Pierce Hawthorne
    “To me, religion is like Paul Rudd. I see the appeal, and I would never take it away from anyone. But I would also never stand in line for it.” – Jeff Winger

    I do all my theological reasoning via sitcoms 🙂

  • Pingback: Emergent Agnosticism()

  • smrnda

    I tell people that I am a materialist (in the sense of ‘the physical world is real’ not in the sense of ‘get lots of stuff’ and also since I prefer to say what I believe in rather than what I do not) since I’m going to believe in whatever there is the most evidence for. The physical universe, as explained by science, has a lot of evidence for it. I think religious claims are outside of the realm of any sort of systematic inquiry, and can therefore be at best speculation, kind of like wondering who Jack the Ripper was, or what contact with an alien intelligence might be like – nothing we can ever gain definite knowledge on, so I just don’t see it being worth the investment. Miracle account exist but, so far I have yet to hear of a single miracle account that isn’t just 4th hand word of mouth (on par with any story that’s likely to be exaggerated) and so I put them in the ‘can’t prove’ category.

    Overall, I think religion offers inadequate explanations for the human condition, not totally false all the time, but definitely not as good as psychology, sociology or economics for explaining human behavior.

    On people’s spiritual experiences, I find them to be mostly self-deception. “Personal relationships” typically have things that people’s ‘personal relationships’ with god just don’t have. I don’t have to convince myself my partner is real, and I get explicit communication from her every day. Of course, god or the gods could be distant, unapproachable and not particularly invested in the human condition, which seems a more reasonable possibility to me given the way the world is.

  • Nick Gotts

    Gutting’s article is hogwash. With regard to knowledge, the arguments of Plantinga and company are contemptible rubbish, among the stupidest ever put forward by professional philosophers – Plantinga’s so-called evolutionary argument against naturalism taking first prize among those I’ve encountered. If there were really any remotely intellectually respectable arguments for theism, we’d know about them. As for love and understanding – there is no religion I know of that does not promote misogyny or at the very least (I’m thinking of some forms of neo-paganism here) a harmful gender essentialism (I know there are individual exceptions, but they, and the liberation of women itself, have come into existence only as the hold of religion on culture has weakened) – as is true also of democracy, individual liberty, medicine more likely to cure than kill, the welfare state, and more than the most rudimentary understanding of either the physical world, or human psychology.