Sunday, January 19, 2020

Agnosticism and Folly

“Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”

Solomon, wisest man of his day and the greatest king of Israel — at least by the world’s standard of measurement — talks about two alternatives we all face in life, picturing them by extended metaphor as a pair of women offering invitations.

On the surface there are similarities: both women are offering food of a sort to those who are simple, naïve or untaught, just as we all are when we come into the world.

But the similarities end there.

Wisdom’s Offering

The woman that Solomon calls Wisdom built her own house, and it is an opulent mansion of seven pillars. That’s a statement of character right there. She extends her invitation in the decorous manner of a hospitable and generous housewife, sending her servants to share the news of a good meal for those in need of one. She has diligently prepared a feast: meat, bread and wine; a table full of choice in the company of the like-minded. It is a picture of insight and the fear of the Lord, things that lead to life and health.

Folly’s Offering

The woman Solomon calls Folly sits outside a door, but is it her house or someone else’s? We aren’t told. We know she certainly didn’t build it. She extends her invitation in the manner of a streetwalker attempting to seduce the naïve. She offers refreshment of a sort as well, though only bread and water that is not even her own. Rather than eating it around a table full of wise guests (she has no table), those who opt for her Folly’s meager scraps must devour them in secret and discover that they lead to death and regret.

Simplicity and Agnosticism

These are two images well worth pondering.

We are born into and wander through the world absorbing impressions. Some of us distill these impressions into conclusions as we get older, and may even adjust our behavior on the basis of them. Others among us are as simple at sixty (in the sense Solomon uses the word) as they were at six. I don’t mean they are unintelligent: they may be doctors, bankers and engineers. They may retain all kinds of information and use it to get ahead in the world. But what they fail to do is draw any moral conclusions or modify their behavior in any useful way beyond that which seems comfortable or natural to them on the basis of personal preference or upbringing. They have never questioned or reset their own defaults. In the spiritual realm they remain simple. If they eat, it is in the house of Folly.

This simplicity seems logical at first. Agnosticism proceeds from the assumption that truth cannot be known; that certainty is impossible and therefore not worth seeking. So for the agnostic the number of real possibilities in the universe remains unknown because he does not study on them at any length, considering them a waste of time. Better instead to concentrate on the material world: on that which may be felt and experienced through the senses.

Only Two Options

In Solomon’s extended metaphors, on the other hand, the possibilities are only two: the truth of God, and everything else.

Wisdom starts with God as its baseline assumption. Solomon calls it the beginning of insight; all kinds of understanding can be effectively built on it because it represents reality. It represents things as they actually are, not as we might wish them to be. That God exists and is to be reverenced is so obvious that it can be intuited from nature, Paul tells us, as does Solomon’s father David. The agnostic relies only on his or her senses, but the Bible teaches that if you pay attention, even the senses lead you to God. Start with that baseline and you have truly built your house on a rock.

Then there is the house of Folly. The agnostic who never wavers in his or her agnosticism gives the appearance of rationality, but he or she is not a true inquirer. They know nothing because they want to know nothing. They are “without excuse”, Paul says. They “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” They “did not see fit to acknowledge God.” They turned in at the house of the woman called Folly for a few bites of stolen bread and water that will not satisfy, and find themselves led to an inevitable and sorry destination.

Stealing from Wisdom’s Table

But even the bread and water offered by Folly — the scraps of rationality and sanity that give agnosticism any appeal at all — are derivative in nature. They do not belong to Folly; they have been misappropriated from Wisdom’s table. We find the same in the morality espoused by many agnostics; it lacks foundation.

Christopher Hitchens saw the perplexity of certain Christians with well-behaved agnostics as being unreasonable. He said they asked:
“Since you don’t believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart’s content?”
To Hitchens’ way of thinking, this was “a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question.” And he was right in this respect: of course agnostics may behave morally. Most do. An agnostic may have no natural inclination at all toward raping or killing, and may well find the insinuation that he should more than a little bizarre. Social and sane beings also have a healthy self-interest in avoiding things like jail or the reprisals of the injured and their families. Such disincentives act to curb dyscivic impulses.

More often though, like Folly, individual agnostics have stolen a few morsels of truth from Wisdom’s table that they refuse to surrender, unconscious of the fact that there is no logical consistency to or foundation for their behavior.

The Real Unanswered Question

In fact, the question Hitchens mocked is not the one I would have liked to hear him answer. The real question is not “What stops you?”, whether the answer to that is rational or not. The real question is “What ought to stop everyone else?” On the basis of what moral authority would you insist that it is wrong for a man to lie about you under oath, or to seduce your wife, or to break into your home and steal your big screen TV? To what moral authority do you appeal when someone knocks you down and takes your wallet, keys your Porsche, or poisons your dog? Without a God in the universe, why should I be kind to anyone else? If there is no real connection between how I treat others and how I will ultimately be treated, why should I treat people well if they give me no reason to like them?

Well, it may be argued, “What goes around comes around.” It’s karma. “After all, a functioning society depends on people curbing their baser impulses. It’s just common sense.”

But platitudes provide little comfort in times of crisis. Put the most dispassionate agnostic on the receiving end of a major violation of one of the Ten Commandments, and he inevitably finds himself experiencing something that is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from genuine moral outrage — except that he can give no logical explanation for his feeling such a thing “ought not” to have happened. The agnostic in the emergency room, blood streaming down his forehead, is much less able than he might have expected to reflect analytically on the counterproductivity of violence for long-term social cohesion or the inevitability of a certain amount of “acting out” among the less reflective members of society. He is far more likely to feel a genuinely outrageous thing has happened to him, and that someone ought to do something about it.

Hitchens, like other agnostics, swiped more than a few of his standards from the Christian’s table, but wanted nothing to do with either Wisdom or the God who is the source of it.


  1. "They may retain all kinds of information and use it to get ahead in the world. But what they fail to do is draw any moral conclusions or modify their behavior in any useful way beyond that which seems comfortable or natural to them on the basis of personal preference or upbringing. They have never questioned or reset their own defaults."

    You have hit the nail on the head here. As you say, people reset their defaults all the time depending on the nature of the problem but not consistently in the moral sphere. In the moral sphere I have personally known some people to reset their lifes when they observe the damage done in their extended families by, e.g., drinking, smoking, lying, divorce. Children, who observe such behavior in their elders may become determined not to adopt it in their own lifes to prevent the damage it can cause. So, reset, as you say, depends on how your comfort level is affected but also on whether one has developed an internal sense of morality, of right and wrong. The question is if course - why doesn't everybody reset where it is most important, namely in the moral sphere? Simple, as you say, because of comfort. It would be inconvenient, impose additional and unwanted obligations (church attendance, the discipline of prayer, dropping or fighting poor personal habits, traits, and inclinations, having to believe in the possibility of invisible alternate realities (which may rank very low on your probability scale of what is reasonable) etc..

    A lot of this is simply behavioral and there is such a vast statistical distribution of different backgrounds and behaviors that one seemingly cannot squeeze them into the same psychological space. However, I fully agree that there is an exception to that in the moral sphere where we obviously must all fit into the same benign small space, or all bets are off for our eternal wellbeing. There is no democracy in heaven, which is probably another reason why the agnostic is not interested in the place.

  2. Here are potential Friday Too Hot to Handle topics.

    Interesting, just came across this ABC News Headline from October last year. It describes
    how computer scientists were able to take Goedel's (the Austrian mathematician's) ontological proof that God exists and make the proof nearly instantaneous on a Mac computer.

    Computer Scientists 'Prove' God Exists

    This is dealt with in detail also in Wikipedia.ödel's_ontological_proof

    Further, this can then be combined with studies showing the very significant social and personal benefits obtained through church attendance. This has been one of my contentions and somewhat simplistic indirect proof of God's existence, namely, through the concreteness of spiritual as well as material benefits in this material universe for his followers.

    From the Heritage Foundation:

    Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability

    From the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research:

    The Role of African-American Churches in Reducing Crime Among Black Youth


    How religion cuts crime: Church-goers are less likely to shoplift, take drugs and download music illegally - See more at:

    Give me that Old Time Religion…to reduce crime

    The life benefits of regular church attendance