Agnosticism

Throughout most of human history, belief in the existence of god or gods was seemingly ubiquitous. Indeed, the first commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, KJV) has a hidden premise—that people already believe in god(s). Consequently, the command is to make sure the real God is not subordinated to the false. But there is no recognition of the possibility that there might be no god(s) at all.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11434

Or that there is only one God. …

The elephant in the room is pretty large!

Some of you know me, and some are relatives, but allow a brief introduction. I was born a fourth generation SDA. Educated throughout in SDA schools. BA Theology SAU, MDiv Summa cum Laude Andrews U., former PhD candidate NT theology Andrews U… Invited to write a new interpretation of Daniel and Revelation by Review and Herald Publishing, recommended by Kenneth Strand. I made a carefully considered transition, replacing faith with reason, recognizing only objective reality. As a consequence, I am a-theist, or non-theist. I included the quick bio simply to indicate that I am conversant with the subject and have the tools which enabled an in-depth examination.

Allow me to make some comments on your presentation. First, it is courageous of you to even touch on this subject. You are obviously not on the church payroll. That said, I would take issue with some things.

Definition of “atheist”: You have defined it in terms of “hard atheism”, active denial of god(s). As you state, “atheism,” which takes a stand, declaring that god doesn’t exist." However, basic atheism is the simple answer “NO” to the question, “Do you believe in god(s)?” Some deny the possibility of gods, but that is an additional step. There is no “ism” involved. It is simply the lack of belief. There is no philosophy or other commonality necessitated among those who lack belief any more than those lacking belief in elves necessarily share any other commonality. I would submit that if asking the self-styled agnostic the same question, that due to the self-confessed inability to have knowledge of gods, she would also answer NO. I suspect that in most cases, agnosticism is just a more comfortable refuge for non-belief due to the stigma atheism sometimes carries. I’m not sure how much real estate there is between saying, "No, I don’t believe in god(s) and "No, I don’t have enough knowledge about god(s) to believe.

Of the tens of thousands of gods humans have believed in throughout history, I would hazard a guess that if asked the question of belief, most readers here would also answer “NO”.

Do you believe in Zeus? no
Do you believe in Shiva? no
Do you believe in Ba’al? no
Do you believe in Odin? no
Do you believe in Jupiter? no
Do you believe in Thor? no
Do you believe in Quetzalcoatl? no
Do you believe in the Great Kahuna? no
etc etc etc

When asked if I believe in Yahweh, the tribal god of a small bronze age population in Canaan or El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon who also shows up as the creator in Gen 1, I answer “NO”, for most of the same reasons readers would answer no to the questions above. I believe in one less god than you do, or maybe two. In relation to thousands of gods believed in throughout history, the readers here are atheist.

I would also suggest that considering the consequences of rejecting any proposition is a fallacy. A proposition is either true or false, no matter how anyone might react to it emotionally.

Some will now suggest that God exists as a valid presupposition. Presupposing this or anything else is arbitrary, that is, such a presupposition by definition lacks cause or evidence. It is as though nothing has been said. As such, it can be dismissed, or to quote Hitchens razor, “That which can be proposed without evidence can be rejected without evidence.”

But even prior to that discussion is a further problem, conceptualization. What is it that is being claimed to exist? Until a concept is filled with content and clarity, it is premature to even discuss its existence. What is a god? The great minds of theology have wrestled with this question through the centuries. The solution in virtually all theological references has been put forward as the the negative way and the positive way.

The negative way tells us what god is not: God is not composed of matter and does not occupy space or time. God is invisible. God cannot be comprehended. God cannot be defined. God cannot be described. Adding terms such as “supernatural” or “spirit” is not useful as they are themselves lacking definition. The negative way could be used to define the term “nothing”.

The positive way tells us the personality quirks of a god. God is love. God is jealous. God is just. God is patient. God is powerful. God knows everything.

But none of the many characteristics tell us what a god is. Until the concept is filled with content, discussing existence is premature. To exist means to exist as something. This, not that.

That aside, in discussing the problems for the various proofs for god (or at least arguments for plausibility) which you present, you have neglected the primary issue. Evidence. Even if the term “god” is conceptualized beyond, “You know what I mean”, presenting arguments in favor of existence is also premature. Before presenting arguments, it is first incumbent on the proponent to present evidence, and that is the very thing which is missing. Data can be interpreted. But arguments cannot replace evidence.

Just a quick not on faith and reason, and no, they are not compatible or even complimentary. Faith is belief (as an epistemological method) in the absence of evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary. By its very nature, faith has no means of validation or verification and as such cannot claim the status of knowledge. What can even be purported to be known by faith? In the Judeo-Christian context, it ultimately means faith in other humans; that is, the claims, written, or spoken that they have special knowledge (God whispering in their ear) that is unavailable to the rest of us. Are they mentally ill? Are they lying? Are they deluded? Did someone else make up the story of the prophet presented as making the claim? (I’d point out here that most of the books that made it into the canon make no claims of inspiration/revelation. That was left to others to do who deemed them to be holy scripture). The bottom line is that faith in an epistemological sense is never exercised in the stated object (God); rather, faith is exercised solely toward the claimant. It short circuits the rigorous requirements of reason and logic in attempt to arrive at knowledge by taking someone’s word for it. Even worse, it can often contradict verified and testable knowledge of reality.

I would also suggest that most readers would reject the claims of Muhammad or Joseph Smith or…others. I would reject them also. I would guess that many of the reasons we would hold in common.

Parenthetically, the first commandment assumes the existence of other gods, but requires the people to keep Yahweh in the superior position. It says nothing about a “real” god or “false” gods.

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I’ve never seen agnosticism tackled before from a Christian perspective. Thank you for your work on this.

There are a lot of points I would like to discuss from your essay, but I will limit it to freewill. Freewill is an easy thing to say, but much more difficult to really define or understand. From my understanding of determinism, libertarianism and compatibilitism; the theodocy of the Great Controversy seems deeply flawed.

If we are determined to the extent of original sin, nature (sins of our forefathers?) and nurture, to what extent is a person’s ability to believe there is a God and therefore to believe in God, free? What is this leap of faith that some people seem more able to “jump”? How is it right that our individual ability to reconcile with God is subject to a non level playing field?

Perhaps the ends do justify the means (Great Controversy), but this seems like a callous way of dealing with freewill. What is the point of freewill if God effectively holds a gun to your head to coerce compliance? Is God so unempathetic that he can’t understand or resolve to find a solution for those who find themselves unable to believe? Is God so insecure that he condemns the very use of the power of freewill to diverge from His will? If so; whence freewill?

To me, the theodicy of the Great Controversy speaks only to the winners; those who have made that great the leap of faith. It plays scant regard to the losers, in this case agnostics. This feels more akin to evolution and the survival of the fittest.

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Hi Bart, wow we might have been at Andrews at the same time 85-87
Bart you say you replaced “faith with reason.” At one time you saw them as very compatible so what was it that actually effected you so drastically?

I left AU in '81. I finally started to critically examine all of my beliefs in the light of reason and saw the flaws in faith as a method of gaining knowledge. It is useless. Its conclusions are unverifiable and often unfalsifiable; as such, it serves no purpose. If a position of faith can be verified also through reason, it is a happy coincidence, but faith has not added anything to the mix. Even searching for evidence to confirm a faith position is an admission that faith has nothing to recommend itself. Reason is all we have. It is certainly subject to error, which is why all knowledge must remain open to questioning, refinement, or correction. Reason has a built in method for addressing fallibility. Faith has nothing of the kind. At its base is a credulous surrender of ones reasoning processes to the claims of others.

In all things, ask “What do I know, and how do I know it?” The answer “Thus spake person X” is not a reliable method of knowing anything except that which that person claims.

In the Judeo Christian tradition, if such a thing exists, the claimant is often anonymous and didn’t even claim special knowledge. Whoever narrated the events of the Torah, Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Hebrews among others are in this category. Whoever wrote them just told stories and claimed nothing and didn’t indicate their sources or how they knew anything about what they wrote.

I tend to disagree with you on this with perhaps a subtle rephrase. I believe there is a difference in believing there is no God versus not knowing if there is a God. I also don’t think taking refuge in a label because of some kind of stigma attached to that label is honest. I would be more inclined not to assume a less than honest motive for one’s position.

Or to put it another way - I think it takes as much faith to believe there is no God as it does to believe there is a God. Agnosticism cannot fall into either position of faith.

Yes, Bart I see. Faith is not an epistemology however. I have been praying for you. You have a good mind, but something else is at work here I think.

Ah yes, that ole devil is to blame.

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Please reread my post. I clearly stated that basic atheism is answering NO to the question, “Do you believe in a god”. This is indicating a lack of belief. It is not the affirmative position you suggest, “There is no god.” Most atheists, I believe, would take this stance. It is the same as answering NO to the question, “Do you believe in gnomes?” Until someone can explain what a gnome is and then offer sufficient evidence that they exist, I will continue to not believe in them.

Faith is not needed in order to not believe in something.

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No No, I didn’t mean that :slightly_smiling_face:

Ok, so I don’t want to misinterpret you. That is not my objective.

Is answering “no” to the question, “Do you believe in God?” simply another way of saying, “I do not believe in God”?

I think it is a more existential question than “Do you believe in gnomes?”. Self awareness and consciousness lead us to deeper questions. Our place in the universe and mortality makes the question of God, in my opinion, of a different category.

Does it take faith to believe that something came from nothing? Or does this question of the origins of the universe lead to the discussion of God versus no God?

I completely agree, Hitchens razor - “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”.

Which means that matter self generating in the beginning is cut. There is no evidence of such…therefore it can be dismissed without evidence. Limitations for human reason must also be addressed.

Frank

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However, Christianity is built also on claims that people know what, and essentially who, they know through personal experience…not just by reading the accounts of others in a collection of writings.

Frank

I agree it can, but also, so can God be dismissed without evidence. So it doesn’t get us any nearer to a solution. Hence the agnostic position.

That’s the point. Hitchen’s razor ends up pointing back to atheistic and materialistic arguments which are based solely on reason. At some point, everyone crosses over into the realm of faith, where evidence cannot be provided. Reason has its own limitations. The question becomes, in what do we choose to place faith?

Frank

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I agree we ultimately get into the realm of metaphysics. I disagree, from an agnostic point of view, we get into the realm of faith. I think an agnostic would be more likely to understand there are questions which cannot be answered by purely materialistic assumptions, but would come down on the side “we can’t know the answer”.

There are innumerable things we don’t yet know. That’s not the same as unknowable. The operable word is yet; we don’t know, yet. The answer of previous centuries, that a god did it, really tells us nothing.

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Is there any particular reason that one would assume that there was a time before existence? Does existence require a cause? Some theists of a certain persuasion assume that existence was popped into being ex nihilo, but that is an assumption, not a certainty.

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