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Thursday, September 11, 2014

What You Don’t Know Can Kill You

NOT my English teacher. Photo: Zoe Margolis
He was a walking nightmare — tall, balding, all angles-and-bones, a vulture of a man. His beady eyes peered out predaciously over his hawk-like nose, and his battered tweed jacket emanated chalk dust clouds as he strode up and down the aisles. We students cowered in fear, praying he would not ask us the next question. Chances are we couldn’t answer it.

Hey, chances are we couldn’t even understand it, so high over our heads was his vocabulary.

But cowering would not save us. He would pick someone at random. “You.” he would say, “what does ‘ephemeral’ mean?” His respondent would not know. He would repeat the question, stepping closer to the cringing child. No answer.

He would persist: “Don’t you have a dictionary?” … “Can’t you ask anyone?”

Silence.

He would pounce: “You reeeeely are maaarvelous”, he would intone, “you voluntarily remain ignorant!” Spinning on his heel, he would stride away, seeking a new victim. And we would all keep our hands down and our eyes on the floor.

He was my senior English teacher. And it would take me years to realize that however mean and intimidating his manner was, in at least one way he was right:

There really is no excuse for insisting on not knowing things that you could and should know. Especially really important things.

The Atheist’s Last Resort

In my last post, we saw that atheism is not at all the fearsome thing its promoters would like you to think it is: in fact, it’s an astonishingly unintelligent and unscientific belief … a blustering, brain-dead cynicism, that no Christian has any reason to fear. And I pointed out that even the smarter so-called “atheists” realize this, Richard Dawkins being a particular case in point. He denies he’s an atheist, and insists he is, rather, a “strong agnostic”, meaning “one who is as near to certainty as he can be that there probably is no God”. Numerous photos like the one above exist of Dawkins posing in front of an “atheist” bus banner that reads, “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”.

Probably.

In this post, I want to suggest that Dawkins has fled the straw house of atheism only to take refuge in the stick house of agnosticism; but that a little rational thought — really the merest huff and puff — will be sufficient to blow that house down too. See if I justify that.

The Agnostic Spectrum

Now, at little explanation is necessary of why Dawkins chooses the adjective “strong” to describe his agnostic position. It’s because he knows that there is actually a spectrum. Some agnostics are of what we might call the “soft” or “weak” agnostic type: they are people who doubt the existence of God but aren’t really convinced they’re right. In fact some, like the famous agnostic author Thomas Hardy, actually long for God to exist, and lament His absence, but find they cannot quite bring themselves to believe. On the other end of the spectrum are the “hard” or “strong” agnostics like Dawkins, who claim that though they admit there always exists a tiny possibility they might be missing something, they consider the chances of that excessively slim, and so they really, really, really think there probably is no God.

If you’re talking to an agnostic, you always have to place them on that spectrum before you know what to say. Anyway, Dawkins is clear: he’s the “hard/strong” type.

Strong?

But just how strong is agnosticism, really?

Well, a little thought shows it’s not quite as confused as atheism. For one thing, agnosticism (from the Greek ‘a’ + ‘gnosis’) is the word from which we get our modern English word “ignorant”. Not slang usage, meaning “crude”, of course, but the literal meaning of “not knowing”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re ignorant of something, but it’s hardly a point of pride. Still, admitting there are limits to what one knows can be duly modest, and as we saw last post, good science values such modesty. So we have to give credit where it is due: it is indeed better that a man or woman should admit his or her lack of information rather than lie about it.

So despite being a confession of ignorance, agnosticism can be intellectually sound. But it depends. As my English teacher knew, to confess one’s ignorance is okay when one can do nothing about it; but it is nowhere near so laudable when one could and should find out something.

Should We Know?

But why should we know? Sure, we may say that there are “evidences in nature” that God exists. Even Richard Dawkins admits for biologists there’s a sort of evidentiary temptation there to attribute the patterns one sees to design. But, for many, hasn’t resisting that conclusion proved possible? Surely that evidence is not overwhelming?

On the other hand, what about all the nastiness in the world? What about “nature red in tooth and claw”? What about tidal waves, cancers and slavery? What about injustice? How could a good God allow such things, if He existed? Does not that, then, provide good reason to doubt?

Left to our own devices, can we really be blamed if we remain hesitant to assert with confidence that God exists? Perhaps we might say that, though atheism is a wash, agnosticism remains the best option for an honest, thinking person? In fact, would it not be somewhat intellectually dishonest and immodest about our own scientific knowledge to insist on the God Hypothesis when in fact we have no way of being certain?

It is certainly true that the evidence in nature can be read one way or the other. Some things may seem to suggest a creator and others — such as the violence in nature — may give us a strong incentive to disbelieve in any such explanation. And while it is, of course, true that some humans are smarter than others, there is none of us — not even our Einsteins — who has such a capacious grasp of the universe that he or she can draw irrefutable conclusions about the existence and nature of God. For every person who says one thing, there is an equally intelligent one who says another.

So it’s all equal, really; none of us knows anything for sure …

Why We Should

Yep, that’s true. Or it would be, except for one fact:
“God … spoke …” (Hebrews 1:1)
That’s a remarkable fact. Had God not spoken, we would all be quite at sea about what to know, at least with any degree of confidence. We would all make up our own ideas about possible God (or gods) as seemed best to us or our society, or we would suspend any conclusion indefinitely and remain one or another kind of agnostic. And we could not show that any view was better than another.

But everything changes if God spoke. For if God exists, then surely He would be quite capable of revealing aspects of Himself to us, limited though we are in our own natural intellectual resources. Of course, He could never explain everything to us — that would be like trying to put the Atlantic Ocean into a pop can — but He could certainly tell us about aspects of His nature, personality, designs and intentions, if He ever chose to do so. Even we human beings are capable of that.

Then the whole matter simply becomes this: if God spoke, and spoke clearly and unequivocally — and more, if He even incarnated Himself, was “made flesh and dwelt among us” in a form so morally admirable and pure of teaching that we could not possibly misunderstand His identity — and if He came right out and said that God was desiring a very intimate and personal relationship with us and had defined precisely the terms on which that could happen — and if, after seeing all that, a person were voluntarily to choose to remain ignorant, then whose fault is that?

My English teacher would know.

How Bad is Agnosticism?

God says you should know. He says you really DO know. He says you’re fighting it. He says you know you’re fighting it.

Well, how bad could that be?

Pretty bad, actually. That’s what the Bible calls “willful unbelief”. And willful unbelief sends people to hell. Why? Because they want to go. They’ve decided that no matter what God does, nothing is ever a good enough reason to want a relationship with God. As C.S. Lewis once put it:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’, and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it”.
(from The Great Divorce)
Richard Dawkins is one who surely should know better. I hope, for his sake, one day soon he will. Saying “I just didn’t know” is no defense when you could and should have known.

Final Objections

“But wait,” cries the persistent agnostic, “what about those people who have never heard God’s voice?” Well, Romans says there aren’t really any of those. In one form and another, God’s voice goes out to the ends of the Earth. And all mankind knows intuitively that there is a God, deny it though some will.

But now, even if there ever were such, that wouldn’t include you, would it? You may choose to doubt God that has been fair to some mythical native on a remote island, but you sure can’t say God hasn’t been fair to you.

You have no reason to be an agnostic. You know God has spoken. You know where, and how, and in how many ways. Preeminently, you know He’s spoken in His Son, Jesus Christ. If you don’t care enough to find out what He’s said, then you are quite simply in willful unbelief.

Conclusion

As a statement of where one is right now, agnosticism is not a bad intellectual option. It’s quite fair to say, “I don’t know yet if God exists or loves me”. But perhaps I now owe you an apology, because I’ve now set fire to that refuge — at least for you.

God spoke. You should know. You could know. If not before you read this post, then you surely know now what direction to search. “Hard agnostic” though you may be, don’t let yourself become a “hardened agnostic”. Because “hardening” yourself is an action that is willful, culpable and damnable.

Good thing there’s another way.

4 comments :

  1. Playing the role of the agnostic * somewhere on the 0-7 scale * I do not find this argument helpful, unless one takes the view that there exists one and only one assertion (i.e. the Scriptures) which claim clearly that God spoke and that assertion is most likely true. What if there are other assertions? E.g. God speaks but only via personal experience and conscience. Or God has spoken and his prophet is Mohammed. Or God has spoken and Joseph Smith is his main man. The agnostic has to evaluate all such claims to "revelation" and "bet" perhaps on one of them, given they are mutually exclusive. Of course even once we admit that God has spoken according to the OT and NT scriptures, we have yet to reach the hurdle of "what does it mean". One interesting observation re. human thought is that most agnostics wish they could no, one way or the other.

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  2. Well, Russ, it's not so much designed to "help" the agnostic -- although I think it can, if he's thinking carefully -- as to help Christians (our audience) to see why agnosticism is no danger to theism.

    Of course I don't expect the agnostic to feel that because the Bible says something he is obliged to believe it. Please let me add that caveat. I'm not saying he *knows* if or where God has spoken. He plainly doesn't and admits he doesn't. And he can't be expected to take our word alone for a confirmation.

    However, if he wants to *remain* a rational agnostic, he should be able to tell us through a rational argument how that he has ruled out the *possibility* that God has spoken. Is it a rational judment on his part, or merely a hope/wish/desire? If it's any of the latter, then it's merely an expression of his own not-knowing, but not a position a rational person must share. If, on the other hand, he's going on evidence, then he should be able to say what his evidence-of-God's-not-speaking is.

    But he cannot.

    Add to that this: that if God *has* spoken -- in any tradition or way at all -- then agnosticism is only warranted as a temporary statement of personal confusion. And if, as the Bible asserts, one can actually *see* and *know* of His existence and/or will, and the agnostic is preserving his agnosticism only by refusing to see what God claims he/she ought to be able to see, then his/her agnosticism is not rationally grounded, but rather premised on a willful rejection of the evidence.

    So the argument achieves two things: firstly, it gives us an explanation for why wish-agnosticism may be rational for a lone individual, but that him claiming anyone else is obligated to be an agnostic is irrational. (They may or may not be, depending on whether or not they have different information than the agnostic.) Secondly, it shows that agnosticism is no kind of threat at all to a theist; and that if one did, in fact know God, then no matter how many agnostics there were, it wouldn't rationally imperil what the theist himself or herself personally knew.

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  3. Thanks for the clarification. I had assumed the essay was to "help" or point out a "better way" for the agnostic. If the main audience is Christians, I get the point.

    And like a consistent "atheist" I concur that any rational person has to accept that both God could exist and could be a person who wishes to reveal himself to us. Those are both reasonable, event though one might wish to debate the probability of such claims.

    The typical pragmatic agnostic position is almost: "I don't care or why should I care?" I think we can agree that this is simply academic laziness in the guise of intellectualism. It is true, that humans can and do take the "I don't really care" posture, and God does not necessarily reveal to them their folly.

    I more reasoned agnostic position in my mind is: "Well there are just so many voices crying out that God has revealed himself. And many of them are contradictory and I simply do not have the time to really research each one of them thoroughly to pick out a best one if one actually exists". I am somewhat sympathetic with this view, but it boils down to laziness as well.

    Faith based on Biblical revelation is indeed reasonable and I agree, should never be threatened by the tepid waters of agnosticism. Thanks for your thoughts.

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    1. Nicely put, Russ. I agree.

      I talk to quite a lot of nominal atheists...meaning people who have chosen that position without knowing anything about it at all. Often they've just "heard somewhere" that all intelligent people are atheists, and they sure want to be one of those, so they opt to call themselves that.

      Others are quite relieved by the fact that calling themselves atheists obviates the need to do any search of the various beliefs, philosophies, religions and ideologies in the world -- better to banish them all with a wave of the back of your hand than have to struggle with any facts, they suppose.

      Still others...and if I can believe his own account, Dawkins is one of these...take atheism to heart because of some personal tragedy, often one in their youth. Like the young C.S. Lewis, they are angry at God for allowing bad things to happen to them, so they "pay Him back" by denying His existence. That's maybe the oddest position of all.

      Anyway, I really believe nobody becomes an atheist through sound reason, for the simple reason that atheism is irrational, meaning it's the negation of the idea that God exists premised on insufficient data to make such a claim. So I find there's always something else that is really motivating it, and unless we get past the superficial level and on to the real cause, there's not a lot one can do about it.

      Mercifully, sometimes God allows us to find a way.

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