A doubter’s guide to agnosticism

I’m re-posting a few of the articles I originally published on my now-defunct Geocities site, from what I now think of as Via Negativa’s 11-month gestation period. Here’s one from February 9, 2003, which, whatever other merits it may have, shows where I was philosophically and what led me to title this blog as I did. New additions are in brackets.

Though they are often used interchangeably, agnosticism and atheism are not the same. Etymologically, an atheist is “without god” while an agnostic is “unknowing [of god or other ultimates].” Someone who identifies as an atheist, however, uses the term to mean “without belief in god,” while people who describe themselves as agnostics usually mean to suggest that they have not made up their minds about the existence of god and/or other religious claims. In both cases, the influence of Christianity’s unique emphasis on intellectual assent to propositions as part of the emotional commitment to Christ is unmistakable. [Here I had in mind the distinction between faith as belief that xyz is true vs. trust in some god, ground of being or ultimate reality, which I picked up from Leo Baeck by way of Martin Buber. It’s all too easy for people from a Christian culture to assume that all other religions make the same demands of their adherents, but this is far from the case.]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “agnostic” was invented by the great naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley at a meeting of the London Metaphysical Society in 1869. He explicitly cited Biblical/pagan Greek precedent for this coinage: St. Paul’s sermon about the shrine to the Unknown God (an attempt by polytheistic Athenians to “cover all bases” — see Acts 17:23). Thus, although the term itself is modern, the intuition is ancient, as Huxley recognized. Indeed, many modern nature writers and ecologists cite humility as the scientist’s most important attribute, since “nature is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know.” [Quote attributed to ecologist Frank Engler.]

Huxley’s neologism quickly caught on in the late 19th century, both as a self-description for those who wanted to stress the paramount importance of observable phenomena in the sciences, and as a way to characterize non-theistic philosophies such as Buddhism or Sankhya. But given its uniquely Christian origins, I wonder how meaningful it is to use the same language to describe basic postures of belief within widely divergent religious traditions — even other monotheistic ones such as Rabbinical Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism. Is the god that a worldly Muslim doesn’t acknowledge the same as the god repudiated by an atheist of Protestant heritage?

Western atheism also has sound Christian roots. The French “Enlightenment” thinker Voltaire once cynically remarked, “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Some 150 years later, the Russian anarchist Bakunin replied quite earnestly, “If God DID exist, it would be necessary to overthrow him!” Both men could fairly be described as humanists, a posture that developed quite early within Christian scholasticism in its struggle with the centripetal force of church authority. Furthermore, their respective statements are consistent with an intellectual rebellion against god as Lord of Hosts, Heavenly Father, etc. that goes back at least as far as the 3rd century writer known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius (a.k.a. St. Denis), if not all the way to Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew, 27:46. This tradition might be described as religious agnosticism, and is the common source of modern atheism and agnosticism. It ranges from a conviction that knowledge of ultimate truth(s) is unattainable by mortals, to a mystical praxis of Unknowing as a point of departure for deeper communion, to a pragmatic open-mindedness characteristic of many modern church-goers.

In sum, my feeling about these terms and what they signify is simply that they make no sense outside a religious context. Christian fundamentalists use the term “atheist” to describe any unbeliever as they define him, but many younger folks are quite simply materialists or sensualists for whom the existence or non-existence of god is a matter of almost complete indifference. The label “atheist” implies an active commitment to unbelief that very few people share — unless we are to return to the strict, etymological meaning, which is of course Greek and therefore pagan. (Are fundamentalists condemning themselves to eternal hellfire through their unChristian application of this word?)

To orthodox Christians, the notions of agnosticism and atheism blur together for the same reason they might have blended in the minds of Voltaire and Bakunin: both signify rebellion. What is a conventional believer to make of someone who worships a non-hierarchical (yet still personal) god? In the West, most such worshippers — including the great Meister Eckardt, famous for statements like “for the love of God, get rid of god” — were burned as heretics. Yet a quick overview of Eastern Christian traditions suggests that non-Roman churches were relatively hospitable to this position. And one could argue that honoring the Job-like rebel has been central to the survival of Rabbinical Judaism through centuries of exile and persecution. Most Jewish thinkers, of whatever school of thought, honor the memory of the patriarch Jacob/Israel second only to Abraham. Both men wrestled with God, Abraham through cunning speech alone (though his wife, Sarah, used laughter) and Jacob in the flesh.

Looking deeper, we find that the entire Hebraic tradition as presented in the Bible is based upon acts of rebellion and a fanatic commitment to atheism: rebellion against Pharaoh and, much later, against Babylon and other imperial rulers; atheism in the sense of the central commandment against “idolatry.” Even the most innocuous fetishes must be destroyed, or the Hebrews’ collective covenantal relationship with YHWH would be endangered. Originally, perhaps, it was only the power of competing deities that had to be denied, as many scholars claim. But a distinction between denial of power and complete nullification strikes me as fairly academic, if not completely meaningless to all but the most theologically sophisticated of believers.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with major and minor commandments against any attempt by individuals to influence events through supernatural means other than petition to YHWH. Even planting by signs was suspect. Originally, as I’ve implied, these laws were instituted with communal survival as the main desideratum (one of the astonishing things about the Old Testament is how little of it evinces any concern with the afterlife, even in later, individualist tracts like Job and Ecclesiastes). But simultaneous with the institution of secular kingship (viewed as blasphemous by YHWH himself) comes news of a movement — mysterious to us today — of ecstatics and visionaries claiming direct revelatory knowledge: the nebiim, or prophets.

It’s my contention that the prophets’ emphasis on individual moral behavior laid the groundwork for agnosticism in two ways. First, it extended the earlier commandment against idolatry to include ANY attempt to encompass divine sovereignty within human conceptual frameworks. (It’s fun to speculate whether this might have derived from actual contemplative practice — an early version of the Via Negativa — but I don’t think that’s intrinsic to this revolution in thinking as I imagine it.) To this day, I gather that many religious Jews feel uncomfortable pronouncing or even writing out the name of G-d.

Second, this movement made possible the skepticism of critics like Qoheleth “the Preacher,” not to mention the angst of later prophets like Jeremiah, who strove to make themselves heard above a din of contradictory prophets all claiming to speak for the same god. It’s interesting to me how Ecclesiastes moves from worldly cynicism to a kind of pragmatic orthodoxy reminiscent of Confucianism. Neither Qoheleth nor Confucius would have us waste much breath on questions we cannot reasonably expect to answer in this life. Such speculation, they felt, only distracted from much more vital questions of ethical behavior. In this, they would’ve agreed with Buddha, as well.

So, ignoring for a moment the pitfalls inherent in overly facile assimilations of Western and Eastern philosophies, we can at least propose one further question: when agnosticism becomes orthodox, what is heterodox?

Most religious historians agree that the proximate cause of Buddhism’s eventual disappearance from India lay in the rise of Shaivism and Vishnavism: emotional, functionally monotheistic cults. If true, one can imagine a populist revolt against Buddhism’s deracination of all passion as a source of attachment and bad karma. Confucianism, on the other hand, was opposed by highly individualistic forms of Buddhism and Daoism evolving in tandem. Both Buddhism and Confucianism originally spread, however, through the royal sponsorship of elite institutions with relatively little concern for the details of village belief, so comparisons with the more totalistic world religions aren’t very instructive.

One perennial avenue of rebellion against orthodoxy is in ecstasis itself. It’s a commonplace of comparative religion that movements such as Voudun or Pentacostalism find fertile ground among people living on the margins of society. And when orthodoxy becomes more-or-less agnostic, such as seems to have been the case for most literate Greeks and Romans and many cosmopolitan Jews of the ancient world, then rebellion often turns fanatic and absolutist. There is a strong sense in which the holy warrior — whether crusader, jihadi or zealot — longs for a literal ecstasis (death).

And in any case, even outside a religious context, rebellion in the absence of imagination so often leads to appalling violence! I wonder if the most stifling orthodoxy wouldn’t be preferable?

“I don’t know”: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. Are these three statements one and the same? Frankly, I’m skeptical.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

8 Comments


  1. The central insight here still strikes me as valid: that the first atheists were the strict Yahwists who insisted that no other gods were real. I’m sure this isn’t a novel insight, and any scholar of religion who happens across this essay will view me as hopelessly uninformed, but there’s something to be said for thinking things through on one’s own.

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  2. You don’t strike me as hopelessly uninformed, but then I’m not a scholar of religion! My only nit-picking is with your statement that the Pseudo-Dionysus was ‘aka St Denis’: I understand St Denis was, arguably, Dionysus of Paris, who was conflated with Dionysus the Areopagite in the acts of the Apostles, who in turn was long conflated with the mystical writer later identified as the Pseudo-Dionysus, on account of how he wasn’t the real one after all and probably wasn’t even called Denis/ Dionysius! (Funnily enough, the who-was-the-real St-Denis ruckus was one of the things which Peter Abelard got into trouble over, along with the thornier questions of scholastic humanism, and his last words were said to be ‘I don’t know…’)

    Also you give the impression Meister Eckhardt was burned but I don’t think he was…

    But, as I say, nit-picking, and I am a sad-minded pedant. You range over such wide areas and raise such challenging questions, I always enjoy your writing on these topics very much. One of the problems with considering or calling oneself agnostic, I find, is that it seems to presuppose a state of mere indecision, that one hasn’t made up one’s mind yet, but that the state of the made-up mind is the ideal, and eventually I will plump down on one side or the other. This seems to go with the ’emphasis on intellectual assent’ which our culture demands of us, on both sides of the religious divide. A commitment to remaining in a state of deeper, mindful unknowing of the cloudy sort is a difficult one to explain and indeed to maintain.

    I’m not sure that this kind of agnosticism ever does really become orthodox, in fact, but will perhaps either fall away into polarised states of fundamentalism(whether founded on belief or unbelief) or sensual materialism. I still hope that enough of a critical mass of it can be maintained for the health and sanity of the world, however.

    It also strikes me that the states of agnosticism and gnosticism are sometimes very close together. Paradox upon paradox.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Lucy. Point taken about St. Denis, and I guess you’re right about Eckhart, too — the Wikipedia says, “purportedly died before his verdict was received.” You make a really good point, which I want to highlight for readers of this thread:

      One of the problems with considering or calling oneself agnostic, I find, is that it seems to presuppose a state of mere indecision, that one hasn’t made up one’s mind yet, but that the state of the made-up mind is the ideal, and eventually I will plump down on one side or the other. This seems to go with the ‘emphasis on intellectual assent’ which our culture demands of us, on both sides of the religious divide. A commitment to remaining in a state of deeper, mindful unknowing of the cloudy sort is a difficult one to explain and indeed to maintain.

      I am actually quite certain that literal interpretations of doctrine are wrong in every way: not based in reality, and also harmful to their adherents, warping the imagination. So I resent the suggestion often made by atheists that agnostics are wishy-washy sorts who are unafraid to commit to a position. I am also fairly certain that certain ways of looking at the world which could be described as religious have much to recommend them — more on that, perhaps, in another post.

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  3. I agree that there is the general view, especially by others, of agnostics as wishy-washy and that this may often be the case.

    There is also the deeply committed epistemological view that we simply can not know. As Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” [not directly regarding this issue, I know.] Some (few) of us are deeply committed to this view of agnosticism. It is not that I am simply undecided and some day will make up my mind. My mind is made up, and firmly so.

    All three views are based on decisions; two are based on faith and one is based on what is perhaps a kind of faith after all but on the limits of humankind’s knowledge and possibility for said knowledge.

    I quite enjoyed the post, Dave.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Mark. Excellent point.

      That Wittgenstein quote is gold, isn’t it? Though as a poet, if I followed his advice I’d never write a line. :)

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  4. That it is … but please don’t take it too much to heart. Some of us want you to keep writing. Clearly, if one looked at my own writing, they’d see I frequently fail to follow it also.

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  5. Ernest Hemingway~ Theres absolutely nothing noble in becoming superior to your fellow men. True nobility is being superior to your former self.

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