The Spiritual Practice of Agnosticism

The Spiritual Practice of Agnosticism August 28, 2014


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.

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