The Agnostic Reader

Lately, it seems to me, we live in a world of extremes. For a relatively brief moment starting in the mid-1970s and reaching its apex in the 1990s, the advent of postmodernism offered the possibility of the acceptance of, perhaps even the demand for, a true plurality of values without hierarchy, a cathartic release of energies that would flow in the variegated networks of desire and not the unilateral pathway of power. Now it appears that postmodernism is dead, or at the very least moribund, long before most people attained any real understanding of what it was and what it promised.

Political divisions are becoming increasingly polarized. Compromise has given way to stubborn opposition; discussion has become calcified into slogans that are meant less to convince than to mobilize the already converted. A general and pervasive Manicheanism has suffused global thought. There are simply two choices, right and wrong, while the precise identity of that choice varies with the political and cultural orientation of the chooser.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent spate of books defending atheism (or, more to the point, attacking Christianity) that have saturated the market and the popular imagination. The titles themselves render further comment unnecessary: The End of Faith, The God Delusion, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Not surprisingly, the religious (and largely Christian) backlash against these authors has been similarly devoid of nuance.

The atheists see a world of radical fundamentalism in which religion vouchsafes the ridicule and destruction of others while the religious see a world of unchecked hedonism in which the total relativity of value not only encourages but also sanctions moral decay. Enraptured by the caustic frenzy of their vitriol, both sides allow a vital point to slip their grasp. The question is not the relative worth of any given religion or even the religious impulse as an anthropological inclination (even the religious often condemn the abuses of organized religion) but rather the question revolves around the foundation of the division itself: is there or is there not a God?

On this question both sides are equally dogmatic. The presupposition that without divine law there would be no morality is no proof of God. The insistence that the universe follows the laws discerned by physics and that such laws can never be broached by so-called miracles is no proof of the absence of God. Because God is defined in a purely negative manner (God is not all of the things we are: finite, limited in knowledge and power, mortal, contingent, corporeal, and so on), there are not likely to be any positive traces of God’s existence. On the other hand, as every atheist confesses to her chagrin, there can be no proof of non-existence.

And yet in our world, which seems to have been sapped of every shade that might mediate between black and white, atheists insist that there can be no God anymore than there can be unicorns while theists insist that there must be a God if we assume that we exist ourselves. Both sides, in other words, have produced a remarkable display of faith.

Faith, however, does not come so easily to everyone. To some of us, it comes not at all. At least since Aristotle, many have believed that rationality is the defining characteristic of being human and while rationality has come under rather severe critical fire in the last several decades, it still appears to me to be our best bet in matters of such dire contention. And the fact of the matter is that if we are to set faith aside as by definition non-rational, then there can be no rational proof for or against the existence of God. There may be arguments that one finds more or less compelling but these arguments do not and cannot attain the level of proof.

This realization leaves open the space for the re-emergence of a category that we hear less and less about in these polarized times: agnosticism. Agnosticism, simply put, is a subset of skepticism that insists that in matters divine (virtually by definition) there is simply as yet no rational means by which to adequately pass judgment on the existence or non-existence of God. Agnosticism does not deny the importance of the issue. Indeed many agnostics would agree that the God-question is of central importance with respect to our existence and its meaningfulness. But it is owing to the very centrality of the question that the agnostic refuses to profess a faith (in either theism or atheism) that she has no right to claim.

Both dogmatic poles have often dismissed the agnostic’s position as pusillanimous fence sitting or the inability to face the overwhelming evidence (whatever that evidence purports to demonstrate). The agnostic, however, stakes out her position precisely on the basis of a rather courageous recognition of her limited knowledge. It is above all the courage involved in living with a commitment to the recognition of doubt that serves as the most rewarding contribution of The Agnostic Reader, a collection of essays on various subjects involving agnosticism published by Prometheus Books and edited by S.T. Joshi.

Living with doubt is a theme that runs like a red thread though most of these essays. It is most succinctly expressed by the great iconoclast of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken in his essay “On Happiness”, in which Mencken agrees that there must be some sort of bovine satisfaction in the untroubled conviction that there is a benevolent deity watching over one’s every move. Of the skeptic, however, he writes: “His doubts, if they are real, undoubtedly tend to make him uneasy, and hence unhappy, for they play upon themselves quite as much as upon the certainties of the other fellow. What comforts him, in the long run, I suppose, is his pride in his capacity to face them.” For the agnostic, there can be no easy complacency; rather the agnostic takes pride in fulfilling the essential aspect of being a human. That is, she enjoys her status as a rational being unafraid in the exercise of her reason; she accepts herself as a questioner.

The essays are divided into six groups prefaced by a brief introduction written by Joshi. The first section, “Some Overviews”, begins with an essay by Thomas Henry Huxley, the man who coined the term agnosticism. Huxley introduces several issues that will remain integral to agnosticism as a form of thought and as an ethical disposition. Indeed, Huxley attempts to demonstrate that agnosticism as a form of thought is an ethical disposition. It is the insistence that morality cannot be severed from the pursuit of rational understanding and moreover that rationality is wholly commensurate with morality that makes this essay still of vital interest over a century after its publication. The highlight of this section, however, is Bertrand Russell’s “What is an Agnostic?” In this essay, Russell responds to a series of questions posited by an editor of Look magazine. While many of the questions are terribly naïve, Russell replies with the characteristic wit and insight that made him one of the great stylists of the English language.

The second section, “The Critical Study of Religion”, is perhaps the most disappointing of the book. The essays, authored by figures largely forgotten today, concern themselves with the same obvious contradictions in the Bible and in Christian dogma that have been the favorite whipping posts for skeptics since the Middle Ages. The argumentation is largely stale and in some places almost wholly misguided.

Edward Westermarck, for instance, occupies much of his essay, “Christianity and Morals”, debunking, as inconsistent with the teachings of Christ, the Pauline/Lutheran insistence that salvation cannot be earned by good works but can only be received as an act of divine grace. However, Westermarck seems to have misunderstood the historical and theological importance behind the assertion, particularly when it comes to the Lutheran version of the dictum. The theological key here is that a human being (as finite, corporeal, limited in reason and power) cannot earn through any finite deed confluence with infinite Being. In this sense, the Lutheran doctrine is actually a profound insight into the relationship between Being itself (here understood as God) and individual finite beings. To demand that this doctrine be consistent with Christ’s insistence on charity is to miss the point.

The third section highlights the interactions between “Agnosticism and Science” and includes essays by Albert Einstein and Isaac Asimov. Asimov restricts himself to the rather tedious exercise of comparing the account of creation proffered by Genesis with the account hypothesized by modern science. Einstein, however, imagines a universe in which God is an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover (as opposed to the personal deity willing to interfere with quotidian life via miracles) that is wholly commensurate with the picture of life slowly being discerned by scientific investigation. Of all the essays, it is probably Einstein’s that most clearly takes seriously the Aristotelian/Thomist notion of God as a necessary ground of existence, a notion that, in the final analysis, may turn out to be more scientific than religious.

“The Deficiencies of Religion” contains three essays taking Christianity (which is here asked to stand in for all of religion) to task for various failings with respect to society and social progress. The first essay is an excerpt from Arthur Schopenhauer’s devastating collection of essays, Parerga et Paralipomena. The selection, however, turns out to be rather poorly chosen. Coming from the author of The World as Will and Representation, a deeply pessimistic tome that nevertheless seeks redemptive abnegation without the figure of an omnipresent God, this essay only highlights the most obvious flaws in the Christian system without exploring the human desire for salvation despite God’s possible absence (something he does so well elsewhere).

The best essay in this section, and indeed one of the highlights of the collection, is Charles T. Gorham’s “Christianity and Civilization”. This essay explores an issue of fundamental concern to anyone (agnostic or not) who values pure and unfettered thought. Gorham asks the rather obvious yet difficult question: to what extent is religion conducive to the intellectual and social progress of human beings and to what extent is it a hindrance? If we look to an external source as the arbiter of moral decisions are we not divesting ourselves of the power of ethical judgment? Are we not thereby vitiating our faculties of their ability to reason and make our way in the world? Gorman’s solution, a rather farfetched appeal to some deeper human unity, holds little appeal for me but the persistence with which he pursues the question is to be greatly admired.

The fifth section charts “Christianity in Decline” with four essays that mostly tout the advance of rationality over superstition or at least religion’s accommodation of scientific endeavor. Harry Elmer Barnes envisages a rather preposterous situation in which religion looks to science for its doctrines on sex, alcohol, and social dilemmas; the facile nature of his argument makes this one of the more risible efforts contained within the book.

The final section, “The Agnostic Way of Life” treats such topics as happiness without a secure belief in the existence of God (the Mencken essay discussed above), the ethics of humanism in comparison to a religious mode of morality, and the moral superiority of secularism. This section is one of the most compelling and deals with concerns specific to agnosticism.

This last observation introduces the greatest failing of the collection. The book is not quite agnostic enough. Many of the essays tend more toward the atheistic than the agnostic. A reader that dedicates itself to an exploration of the issues surrounding agnosticism would do well to emphasize those areas that distinguish agnosticism from theism and atheism and to investigate those challenges of thought that are specific to the agnostic. Indeed, the book would have benefited from more dedicated philosophical/theological considerations of the implications of doubt for human understanding and action. Aside from the final section, these concerns were not much in evidence.

But surely agnosticism deserves the kind of rigorous defense I have in mind here. It is our capacity to doubt and our insistence upon true knowledge that makes us what we are. It is uncertainty that leads to improvisation, to creativity, to imagination. Pico della Mirandola once wrote that even the angels were jealous of the human being insofar as the latter encompassed all elements of the universe. The human being comprises the spiritual and the corporeal. Moreover, it is our ability to doubt (something unavailable to the angel in Pico’s text) that guarantees us the freedom that makes life as rich and as troubling as it is. Abnegating our right to doubt in preference for the dogmas of theism or atheism, it seems to me, condemns us to a life vitiated of the delights of discovery and unbounded contemplation. If agnosticism can serve as the necessary foundation of the continued project of enlightenment, then it deserves our most eloquent justification.

RATING 5 / 10