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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Head to Head: Theism and the Skeptics [Part 2]

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse”.
(Romans 1:20)
“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life”.
(1 John 5:13)
Have you noticed that our age is great for pretending not to know what the Bible says it could and should know?

Honestly, it’s enough to make one cynical.

Some time ago, in two previous posts (The Atheist’s New Clothes and What You Don’t Know Can Kill You) I pointed out that Christianity’s two skeptical critics, atheism and agnosticism, are essentially irrational, and explained why they just cannot be taken seriously.

Last post, I pounded on atheism for a bit. At the end, we saw that it is not just foolish, it isn’t even believable at all. But if atheism lost that battle, I suggested it would quickly call in its cousin, agnosticism, to fight the battle for it.

So in comes the cousin; or rather, cousins. For it turns out that atheism has two of them, one strong and one weak. The problem is that the strong one doesn’t really want to fight; the one who does is a ninety-pound weakling.

The Agnostic Spectrum

Agnosticism, you will recall, is the confession “I do not know if God exists”. This covers a range of positions, all the way from the cynical (“I really, really, find no reason to believe in God”) to the neutral (“Maybe there is a God, maybe not”) to the tentative (“I suspect there is a God”), and many degrees between all these.

But it’s not the degree of disbelief or even the attitude of the disbeliever that makes the important difference in agnosticism. What really matters is how many people the agnostic’s claim is intended to cover. Is it just a claim about what one person does or does not know? Or is it a claim about what other people know, or even a claim about what is knowable by anyone?

The key question to ask the agnostic, then, is this: “When you say, ‘I don’t know’, are you making a personal statement or are you trying to make a universal claim?”

Based on the response given, we find that agnosticism breaks down into two types: personal agnostics (those who are only telling us about where their own beliefs presently stand) and universal agnostics (those who say not only that they don't know if there is a God or not, but who also insist that no one else can either).

Atheisms Strong and Weak Cousins

Now the first kind of agnosticism is rationally strong. It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I don’t know”. That’s just a personal confession, not a claim about what other people know or what is knowable. But personal agnosticism has no fight to pick with theism.

In fact, the theist can quite readily agree that the personal agnostic may well not know God, and may not even be aware of any evidence for God. He can simply say, “I well believe that you do not know if there is a God, and don’t know the relevant evidence”. No problem there. And if the agnostic is only making a personal claim, then there really isn’t a dispute.

So atheism’s strong cousin, the one with reason on his side, is no threat. He curls up to take a nap. Up steps the second cousin, universal agnosticism, wags his skinny fist under the theist’s nose and says, “Yeah? Well, I don’t know any God, and you can’t either!”

Really? How sensible is that?

Does it make sense to say that just because I don’t know a thing, you cannot? Or if you don’t know something, does it mean that someone else can’t? Or even if a bunch of us don’t know, does it mean no other people in the entire world can? Is that the way things work anywhere in real life?

Knowing and Nonsense

Look, I may never have been to the country of Moldova. Sure, I’ve met people who claim to be from there, and I’ve seen a region called “Moldova” on maps. But maybe I’m a Moldovagnostic: I refuse to have any opinion about its existence because I only believe in what I’ve experienced first hand and can prove to myself. But what twisted, solipsistic illogic would convince me that no one else could know? How stupid would that be? And how could I rationally defend such a conclusion?

I couldn’t. It might well be that I’ve never been to Moldova and don’t believe in it — that has zero impact on whether or not such a place exists. And if other people have been there, and if globes are not a “conspiracy of cartographers”, then I’m being an idiot.

That is, “idiot” in its etymological sense, meaning “one who thinks that only he knows anything” (“id + iot”).

The Weakness of Irrationalism

So atheism’s feisty second cousin, universal agnosticism, has no actual ability to fight against anyone who says, “Well, you may not know God, but I do”. All he can do is ask, “How can you know?” But theism has ready answers to that: “I know because of Jesus Christ. I know because of the Word of God. I know because of the empirical evidence of Creation. I know because of the internal witness of the Holy Spirit …” And universal agnosticism cannot come back and say, “No, you don’t”, because that is not something that it could possibly know.

Universal agnosticism ends up having a hissy fit: “You can’t know … you mustn’t know … I don’t know, so how could you … I don’t believe you …” But it’s really got nothing to say. Its noodle-like arms are incapable of delivering a single punch.

The Slumbering Agnostic

But before we write agnosticism off completely, maybe we should go over and push that sleepy cousin, personal agnosticism, with a toe, and wake him up long enough to say, “Hey, I agree you don’t know God … but if you could, would you like to?”

“I can’t”, he says, pulling his blanket back up to his chin.

“Why do you think that?” you reply.

“Well …” he sits up groggily, “I don’t know any God, so …”

“So what? What would keep you from getting knowledge you don’t currently have? God has promised that those who sincerely seek Him will find Him. Why don’t you come and see? Wake up and consider my evidence. Or pray to God to show you the truth. Or read the Bible and pray for illumination. Or join with His people and see if His work in them is real. Consider all the evidence, and then make your decision”.

Suddenly he splits in two. One version of him just rolls over and says, “Buzz off”. The second one rubs his eyes and stands up. “Okay”, he says, “I’ll come and have a look. I’m not optimistic, but I realize I don’t know everything yet, and I sure would hate to miss the evidence if you’ve really got any”.

The Perilous State of Unbelief

Thus personal agnosticism becomes potential theism. When agnosticism is open to evidence, it lives continually in peril of losing itself to belief. It is as the famous poet Arthur Hugh Clough put it, in “There Is No God, The Wicked Saith”:

... almost everyone when age,
Disease or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
Or something very like Him.

Life has a way of making you doubt your agnosticism. It might be a sunset, a wedding, the birth of a baby, a moment of love, a fearsome diagnosis. But everyone inclines at different times to wonder if it’s just possible there is a God.

What the agnostic ends up with, for all his skepticism, is a life characterized by doubt and anxiety about the meaninglessness of everything, punctuated by shards of light — moments when the truth of God pierces his armor and leaves him trembling with sudden terror lest his skepticism should be wrong after all. So his attitude is not a particularly comfortable one.

Meanwhile, however many moments of doubt a theist may encounter, he is comforted by his faith, bolstered by his experiences of God in the past, and calmed by his conviction of the ultimate goodness of the Lord. Doubts come, but they also fade. Faith takes the theist through the rough times.

But how does an agnostic keep his agnosticism strong? Only by claiming, prior to all investigation, of course, that’s there’s simply no evidence to be had. A thing he cannot possibly know.

Why Theism Wins

Agnosticism has this advantage over its cousin, atheism: it can at least be held rationally. But it can only be held as a personal confession, not a statement about what anyone else knows or what can be knowable. About those latter two, a rational agnosticism can have no opinion, or it simply reverts to being bigoted unbelief.

To be rational, it has to deal with the available evidence — not merely avoid it or dismiss it by pretending it doesn’t exist. And, should evidence appear, the rational agnostic must abandon his agnosticism. Thus every sincere agnostic is also a potential theist.

The theist, on the other hand, is able to deal with occasions of doubt or uncertainty because of the evidentiary nature of his or her belief plus the bridging wisdom of faith that allows for the fact that we human beings always have incomplete information about the world, and yet we still need to know what to believe and how to live our lives.

There’s nothing rationally wrong with being an agnostic … provided you don’t leave it there.


  1. Even though what you are saying about agnosticism/atheism is technically correct, that they are an untenable and totally incongruent world view as regards theism, it seems to be a fact that this view is slowly winning out in America. If you look at all the government sponsored and legalistic, judiciary supported, attacks on religious manifestation in the USA, e.g., it indeed seems like the start of a systematic campaign by the ag/at camp, via the ACLU and science e.g., to try and totally marginalize Christian religion, beliefs and institutions, especially under the current administration. Unfortunately, I don't think that the views expressed here in this site will change that. It seems to have an aura of inevitability about it. The fault, of course, lies with the country, the voter, as a whole. We have seen whole countries go down the wrong path because voters are not astute enough, too complacent, and are too biased to intervene and change the country's direction. Also, isn't it true that we have not yet reached the point of which Christ said, who shall I find still believing in me when I return. Based on that, shouldn't we simply expect things to get considerably worse?

    Below is an interesting article exploring the divide between the two camps, of modern pop culture and science, and the Christian. There are voices out there that say that the Christian once more has to prepare himself for adversity and to give witness to the truth.


    1. Quite true, Qman...we won't change the world with a blog...but we might change some Christian minds.

      We write for Christians here. When I want to tackle unbelievers -- which I very often do -- I go elsewhere. This isn't the blog for that...nor is it a blog that tries to do that. We aim to help Christians think through the reasonableness of their faith and the rationality of their own practices. We look at theology, issues and culture for Christians, not for agnostics or atheists.

      But it can sure help Christians to know that their chief skeptics, the atheists and agnostics have, as they say in the South, "gone froggin' without a stick."

    2. Well, yes, IC, but blogging can also turn into an interesting hobby and if you learn something while pursuing that so much the better. From what I see, you cover quite some ground on this site and, what is attractive to me, as a believer (albeit with a Catholic tradition), is the fact that the tone and presentation is informative, rational, intelligent, friendly and considerate. So, because of the wide range of topics, what I am not clear about is if this blog is strictly intended as a place for (protestant, evangelical) education or also as a place to hang out and engage in a debate (with tone and content appropriately moderated). To me a debate is often in order to settle points needing clarification, to be speculative sometimes, poke fun at other times, hone your debating and writing skills and, yes, to assimilate and disseminate knowledge concerning the topic at hand. Now, I also know that in a pedagogical setting the prof is the last one who wants a freewheeling debate and only one specific to the course material. I guess that's why I originally asked about a mission statement (I actually discovered something similar in the line at the very top of this blog). My guess is also that there may be little traffic on this site because people prefer to be in a more freewheeling environment rather than a classroom/lecture hall one? (Unless you guys filter out a lot of responses that are not of the classroom setting type).

    3. Actually, Q, you may be astounded to hear this, but we have not actually filtered any responses to date. Everybody who has commented has been of the interested and polite type. So I would say, by all means, if you have questions or comments, bring 'em on.

    4. We're not a lecture hall, Qman. But at the same time, we're also not a free-for-all. We don't quite see the value of being completely indiscriminate.

      Tom and I have talked about this, and we both find the level of debate that is frequently offered on the internet generally as rather debased, of low quality and of low rationality. This is because people who have no interest in the main topic in question have open access to post nonsense that has nothing to do with the main question.

      We would like to cure this fault in the open-forum format by promising only to post those comments that are at least tangentially relevant to the topic in hand: and we think we're doing a service to our audience by not throwing things wide open.

      All views are quite welcome here -- at least, all views that have *some* connection to the topics in hand.

      That being said, for the moment it seems like Tom, RJ, Bernie and me are the only people willing to write an actual article...oh, and HS of course, who gave us a very intelligent response, one impressive enough to merit its own post. Good on him. But then, I've known him for a bit, and he's a smart, smart guy.

      Until more people want to chime in, I guess we are as we are. We're not really filtering, but I suspect that's because we don't have to -- since we're not wide open either, we're not getting the bizarre, the off-topic and the weird at the moment.

      I rather like that. Is it not working for you?

    5. Thanks for the clarifications. Of course civility works for me. One of my deeper interests is, if civility so obviously is desirable and beneficial then why isn't it the norm with every human being and what will it take to get us there? Then on the other hand, that would be heaven on earth and Christ and all of us could finally breathe a sigh of relief and say mission accomplished. So we keep plugging away having to be our brother's keeper whether or not we really want that job.