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No Case for Agnosticism

“Agnosticism is not a third position. It is the evasion of a position”

– Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem

People often say that atheism[1] is a belief in the same way that theism is a belief. According to this view, insofar as we cannot demonstrate the nonexistence of God, the claim that he does not exist represents some kind of negative “leap of faith,” an undemonstrable proposition akin to religious belief. Hence, agnosticism[2] is the only true rational position with regard to the existence of “God.” Therefore, as it stands outside the scope of our possibilities of knowing, it would be rationally illegitimate to choose clearly between theism and atheism. As Husserl[3] would say, we have to put God in Epochè. This view is quite popular amongst intellectuals, even some of those who adopt a naturalistic worldview.

The purpose of this article is to show that, insofar as we share a naturalistic (scientific) worldview, this agnosticism is unfounded. It implicitly assumes that the monotheistic idea of God has a special and unique status which preserves it from normal, rational inquiry. I therefore ask a very simple question: why, exactly? I want to show that as long as no good reason is given, we are rationally justified in choosing atheism. In my view, agnostics have to prove that this special status given to the idea of God (and no other) is rationally founded, and is not simply the expression of historical and cultural bias.

Asking this question in a complete and systematic way is the focus of this article. I have invented no stunning argument, but I believe that if it is correctly construed, this question actually becomes a problem that agnostics must resolve. Here is how I proceed.

First, I define rational attitude. This definition, of course, will be purely operational: I am addressing myself to those who already recognize a similar definition. To demonstrate its validity, some kind of universally accepted superconception of knowledge would be needed, from which it could be derived logically. I think this cannot be done, but I also think that people who reject this definition fail to understand the way in which valid knowledge is actually produced.

Second, I suggest that this conception of rationality leads not to agnosticism but to atheism. The most prudent way of putting this would probably be to say that rationality opens to religion a space of justification that is too limited to be satisfying because it could also be used to justify almost any belief. To my knowledge the only truly valid argument in favor of agnosticism is that we cannot demonstrate the nonexistence of God. Insofar as we cannot demonstrate the nonexistence of Russell’s Great Teapot either, I believe this argument is simply too weak to justify agnosticism by itself. Hence my question: Is there anything else that speaks in favor of agnosticism?

My question goes like this:

1) Recognizing the validity of a scientific conception of rationality that is derived from the basic consensus between pertinent epistemologists (logical empiricism, Popper, Kunh, Laudan, etc.), which conception implies that:

a) we adopt, on the question of the justification of our beliefs, a skeptical attitude which views even scientific knowledge as a rational construction which does not satisfy the traditional conception of truth as the perfect correspondence between thought and things (this conception being inapplicable to human knowledge);

b) scientific theories are selected (that is, are allowed to enter the body of science and become common knowledge) not on the basis of their truth but because they are the strongest, that is, the most plausible and justified for the time being (some of their implications can be verified at least in principle; they explain phenomena which, up to that point, were enigmas; they resolve more problems than their competitors; they simplify and define the frame of further research in a given field; they allow predictions; etc.);

c) scientific rationality is the unique source of valid knowledge of the exterior world;

d) other fields of thought (as philosophy) must therefore be at least congruent with scientific rationality in the sense that they cannot contradict the results, the method and the spirit of scientific research, the superior validity of which is evident, if not demonstrable per se, in view of its numerous applications;

e) we can deduce a definition of a rational attitude as the fact of accepting the validity of a given hypothesis (scientific or other) only if is strongly justified by facts or arguments, in other words if it as a satisfying weight in the balance (we have good reasons to believe it might be correct and no good reason for rejecting it);

f) we are justified to reject weak hypotheses insofar as the weeding of ideas is an important condition of the progress of human knowledge;

2) distinguishing between the possibility of some form or other of transcendence, which we can say nothing about but cannot discard as an absurd idea, AND the hypothesis of a monotheistic God which is a particular explanation of man and the universe, the formulation of which can be traced to the Bronze Age[2];

3) recognizing that this particular hypothesis has no satisfying rational justification because:

a) it brutally contradicts the basic method of science by explaining natural phenomena with something other than natural phenomena;

b) it is useless because it adds no supplementary layer of explanation to existing scientific models which already account for natural phenomena (for example, astrophysical phenomena gain no superior intelligibility by the supposition that God initiated the Big Bang);

c) the arguments in its favor are systematically counterbalanced by stronger arguments produced by scientific rationality (I give two examples: the need for hope is better explained by psychology than by the idea of a religious intuition; the improbability of complex natural orders and systems is better explained by evolutionary theory than by the postulation of a supernatural creator);

d) it is highly suspect of being a cultural invention because of what we know about psychology (for example, the projection of the father figure, or the need for an ultimate foundation of our moral beliefs) and history (the voting of various dogmas and attributes of God by assemblies of bishops);

4) Why, then, should a rational attitude be condemned to agnosticism and not be allowed to choose atheism, considering that the space of justification for monotheistic religion is extremely limited and unsatisfying (we cannot prove the nonexistence of God),

a) considering we cannot prove either the nonexistence of most human fantasies (fairies, dragons, planet-gods and the like);

b) but that we nevertheless, with good reason, have for long eliminated them from the reservoir of knowledge?

In short, I think that the weight of demonstration is not on the atheist’s shoulders but on those of the agnostic. Atheism is not a belief, rather it is the absence of a belief, and it is beliefs which need to be justified. This is, in fact, basic common sense. We proceed this way in our everyday life.

If, for example, my girlfriend is twenty minutes late for a rendezvous and my friend suggests she has been kidnapped, I will not base my future actions on my friend’s suggestion–even if it is a possibility which cannot at present be eliminated. I will not be agnostic towards the possibility, rather I will reject it and laugh about it because I have, for the moment, no good reason to believe that this unlikely possibility has a significant weight in the balance. What would be the sense of my friend noting that I have a belief that my girlfriend has not been kidnapped and then asking me to prove that I am right?

In my view, the idea of God places us in a similar situation. If this is not the case, agnostics need to demonstrate why.


[1] By atheism I have in mind disbelief in the existence of deity.

[2] By agnosticism I mean a mindset which holds that it is impossible to determine the truth value of theism because there is no way of demonstrating either the existence or the nonexistence of God.

[3] Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl (1859-1938), German philosopher, “father” of the philosophical movement known as phenomenology.