How to be agnostic

Mark Vernon argues against atheism and belief

agnostic200I used to be a priest in the Church of England. Then – to cut a long story short – a few years later, I left, an atheist. The transition came about partly as a result of disillusionment with the church and its conflicts over issues in sexuality and gender; and partly, at a more intellectual level, because I started to read humanist philosophers. There I found a mixture of scepticism about the existence of God, deconstruction of the power games inherent in theology, and the rationalist call to “Grow Up!”. I lost my faith, though it felt like a liberation.

But then, something else unexpected happened. I found I was actually becoming an agnostic. Over time, I came to feel that the triumphalism that too often seems to be part and parcel of atheism entails a poverty of spirit that is detrimental to our humanity. It tends to ignore or ridicule the “big” questions of life – those questions of existence that are natural to ask, if never finding conclusive answers – for fear of letting theology in through the back door. Plus, I came to think that whether or not God exists is an open question, having pondered the arguments for and against several times over. And that keeping it open, rather than trying to find a knockout blow one way or another, is key. This is because, for all religion’s ills, for all its irrationality, religious traditions preserve a way of life that human beings are the poorer without. As Bernard Williams put it: “That religion can be a nasty business is a fact built into any religion worth worrying about, and that is one reason why it has seemed to so many people the only adequate response to the nasty business that everything is.”

My agnosticism gradually became more committed and passionate. It seemed to me to embody an attitude to life that is severely, even dangerously, lacking in public life. Think of the endless skirmishes between science and religion. They are at best a cul-de-sac, and at worse a risky self-indulgence. They are a cul-de-sac in the same way that arguing about whether God exists only goes round and round in circles. They are dangerous because in forcing people to take sides, they are pushed to fundamentalist extremes – whether based on religious or scientific dogma. This rides roughshod over the intellectual ground that is genuinely fascinating, humanly enriching, and socially essential: the places where science and religion reach the respective limits of their understanding and meet. The militant atheist, like the fundamentalist believer, tries to rubbish such engagement because it offends their faith that science, or religion, can and should say it all.

The question, though, is how can such an agnosticism be fleshed out? Can it be made to bear intellectual weight, and not just be reduced to a sophisticated shrug of the shoulders?

Consider a comparison between two agnostic figures in the history of philosophy, Bertrand Russell and Socrates. That Russell was an agnostic, though one who was “atheistically inclined”, we can take as right because it was what he called himself. He described the position saying: “An agnostic is a man who thinks that it is impossible to know the truth in the matters such as God and a future life with which the Christian religion and other religions are concerned. Or, if not for ever impossible, at any rate impossible at present.”

Socrates is an agnostic figure for a different reason. From what can be gleaned via Plato, he came to understand that the key to wisdom is not being able to prove beliefs, but understanding the extent of your ignorance. He was agnostic in not assenting to philosophical systems, and instead went around ancient Athens asking awkward questions. For him, the importance of reason was not that it could potentially understand all but that it exposed the limitations of all our understanding. Hence the word philosopher was invented for him; he was a lover of wisdom that is desired precisely because it is lacked. Philosophy, it seems, was not about establishing truths. And its aim of thinking clearly was a means to an end. That end was a matter of learning what it is to be an “in between” animal – in between the brute ignorance of the beasts, and the true wisdom of the gods: ignorant but not pig ignorant.

Now, Socrates differs from Russell in all sorts of ways, of course. However, their different “agnosticisms” are illuminating. For if Russell’s agnosticism made him tend towards atheism, Socrates’ agnosticism made him want to hold onto god-talk and religious practice: it did not leave him “atheistically inclined”. Quite the opposite, in fact. It intensified his sense of what it was to be religious. For in theology, “god-talk”, he found the perfect reflection of human uncertainty since matters divine are nothing if not ultimately unknown. It richly reflected his conviction of the “in between” status of human beings. Unlike the orthodox believer, Socrates’ uncertain attitude undermines any certain beliefs. But equally, unlike the committed atheist (or “near” atheist), his agnostic sensibility remains open to what god-talk might reveal about being human. Socrates’ agnosticism lies at the heart of his fascination with the big questions of how to live and where to find meaning in life.

This religiously-inclined agnosticism can be illuminated further by reconsidering one of the most common arguments in the theist/atheist debate – that of whether the basis for morality is morality itself or God. It originates in one of Socrates’ most famous theological arguments, found in the dialogue the Euthyphro. Plato tells the story of Socrates’ conversation with a young man, after whom the dialogue is named. Euthyphro had come to the Athenian courts to prosecute a charge of murder, and no ordinary murder, but one allegedly committed by his father. What is even more startling about the case is that the person whom his father had supposedly killed was a slave. The sequence of events was that this slave had himself killed another slave in a drunken rage, Euthyphro’s father had bound the offender and dumped him in a ditch, and had then forgotten about him; left there, the slave died of exposure. Euthyphro is a puritanical young man who feels his father must be brought to justice to cleanse what he considers to be a stain on his family. And this is what interests Socrates. Socrates thinks that for Euthyphro to pursue such a headline-grabbing case, he must be very sure that the moral benefit he would gain from the prosecution would not be outweighed by the offense of dishonouring his father. In short, Euthyphro is acting dogmatically – as if he has very certain knowledge of what it means to be pious.

Euthyphro argues that he is right to prosecute his father because he believes that the gods denounce murderous acts. This is what makes the crime so bad. Socrates is fascinated by this assumption too. In it, he sees a more general thesis: what is good is what the gods love. And, conversely, what is wrong is what the gods hate. Moreover, thinks Socrates, this thesis raises a wider question still. Is what is good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?

The reason this dilemma is remembered is that it is taken to be profoundly undermining of theistic belief. The good is good because it is good, not because of any feelings someone, even a god, might have for it. So, it suggests that what is good is prior to anything a deity may say, which not only implies that the deity is subject to something over which it has no options, but that morally speaking we do not need theism to tell us what is good.

The standard reply to this challenge is that God is goodness itself. The atheist’s argument is flawed, theists say, because it suggests that there is some kind of separation between the virtue and the being of the divinity which in the case of God there is not. But, replies the atheist, you cannot escape the fact that you say God is good because God has the properties of goodness. In which case, you should be able to list the properties of goodness without reference to God. And so the argument goes round and round.

What is interesting about the original account of it in the Euthyphro, though, is that Socrates does not pose any arguments like this at all. It apparently never occurs to him, or Euthyphro, that the dilemma is a challenge to the gods. This could be put down to a number of things. Perhaps the pressing matter in the dialogue is not whether the gods exist but whether Euthyphro should prosecute his father; however, the conversation broadens out in other ways, so why not in this direction? Alternatively, it might be thought that Socrates lived in a society in which the existence of the gods was basically beyond question; ancient Athenians did not experience the world as disenchanted in the way that we, it is said, do today. But agnostic and atheistic ideas did circulate in Fifth century Athens, so it is significant that Plato does not choose to make something of them here.

I think that Socrates does not see the dilemma as troubling vis-à-vis the gods because of his conviction about the “in between” nature of the human condition. This implies, first, that he thinks that no one, with any seriousness, can presume to know what may or may not cause a divinity a sleepless night. And, second, it implies that what is far more obvious to him is that the dilemma should be troubling to human beings. Whatever it may be to be a god, it is human beings who must grapple with what it means to be good, not the gods. (Socrates would also be concerned about the assumption behind the modern atheist’s reply that the properties of goodness can be listed. What are these properties of goodness, he would ask: tell me that and you are a wiser man than I.)

So what does this suggest about Socrates’ approach to theology and how it connects with his philosophical way of life? First, it implies that Socrates was not very interested in debates about whether gods exist or not. Perhaps he suspected that when conducted as a knock-out between a theist and an atheist they go nowhere fast. Having said that, he was interested in theological debate: if god-talk can avoid getting hung up on “proofs”, then it can become a way of critiquing human knowledge. Examining what people take to be divine is valuable because it reminds them that they are made lower than gods and that aspirations to god-like knowledge will remain just that – aspirations.

Further, this attitude itself becomes a valuable source of insight, for its humility is a sign of having embraced the human condition. With it, the vain attempt to overcome human limits is ditched, and the challenge to understand is taken on. And this, in turn, is what makes life worthwhile. It produces the best kind of human beings, people who not merely are ignorant, but recognise the ways in which they are. To this extent, they become wise and lovers of wisdom.

What are the implications of this for the debate between theists and atheists today; what might the agnostic’s contribution be? The 15th century cardinal and philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa provides some suggestions. His best known work was entitled De Docta Ignorantia, “Of Learned Ignorance”. In it he pointed out that wise people from Solomon to Socrates realised that the most interesting things are difficult and unexplainable in words and that they know nothing except that they do not know. How, then, are we to interpret human beings’ desire to know nonetheless? The answer is that we desire to know that we do not know. This is the great challenge of the intellect:

“If we can fully attain unto this [knowledge of our ignorance], we will attain unto learned ignorance. For a man – even one very well versed in learning – will attain unto nothing more perfect than to be found to be most learned in the ignorance which is distinctively his. The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be.”

In this learning, one learns something about what one does not know, as it were. Nicholas was a Platonist and so expressed this with the thought that truth is unitary, simple and absolute – and this is why it is unknowable: insofar as we know anything, human beings know in ways that are always multiple, complex and relative. The nature of human knowledge, therefore, is that it always results in contradictions. Which is not surprising, since it is in the coincidentia oppositorum – the realm in which all contradictions meet – that the divinity would dwell.

Nicholas’ words carry challenging implications for atheists and theists alike. For atheists, he makes the point that whatever they envisage God not to be, they must allow that image to be the most perfect thing possible. Else, they are lambasting not God but mere idols, something the believer would want to cast down too. For theists, he emphasizes that they need the “sacred ignorance” of negative theology to remember that God is ineffable. He concludes that strictly speaking God is known neither in this life, nor in the life to come, since being infinity, only infinity can comprehend itself. “The precise truth shines incomprehensibly within the darkness of our ignorance,” is a typically paradoxical formulation of his message.

So much for that. But I think the agnostic contribution to these debates is not merely academic. It matters because today we live in a culture with a lust for certainty. Dogmatic science would have us believe that it has all the answers and can feed us body and soul. Religion, too, is being hijacked by a conservatism that turns the quest for the unknown God into a feel-good experience on a Sunday morning. Agnosticism matters because it rejects an equal and opposite militant atheism or fundamentalist retreat. Daniel J. Boorstin put it well: “I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress.”

Further, if science has limits, as only the dogmatist denies, it is an ever-curious agnosticism that best expresses wonder at the world. Ultimately, it does not seek to explain everything but to nurture a piety towards creation. This agnosticism too understands the religious quest not as the imposition of answers, but as the pursuit of connections and questions. It is not just those individuals disillusioned with dogmatic science and strident religion who might turn to Socrates for clues as to how to be agnostic. Our flourishing as human beings, as “in between” creatures, needs this tradition too.

Mark Vernon‘s latest book is Plato’s Podcasts.

  1. This is a call of sanity that is badly needed. For years I have been putting forward – in numerous books and articles – a position that is very similar to Mr. Vernon’s. But I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic. Agnosticism leaves the door ajar; witness the last sentence in the Russell quotation. Like Vernon, I find the answer to the human dilemma in Socrates’ fecund ignorance rather than Russell’s barren agnosticism. Blending Plato and Kant, I hold that the objective methods of science cannot tell us anything about ultimate reality or values. But without a metaphysical dimension to our thinking, we are less than human. We create for ourselves and in ourselves the ultimately real and the absolutely good – that is Plato’s Form of the Good that is beyond knowledge and beyond being; that is truly ineffable and can only be spoken of in metaphor and parable and myth – myth that reason must constantly undo. Religion gives us life-enriching myths; accepted as dogmatic beliefs those myths turn into superstitions that breed woe; but acknowledged as myth they would enrich human culture.

  2. Moonlit Minds « Moonlit Minds - pingback on October 30, 2009 at 6:03 pm
  3. The benefits of religious belief generally outweigh the believer’s need for intelligibility. I’ll mention just two examples. Wilberforce, a 19th-century evangelical Christian busybody was very influential in persuading the British Empire to abolish slavery. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833, we may presume, influenced things in North America; blah, blah, blah. In that regard, there is this: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1). Arguably the idea ‘each person is worthy of justice’ is a religious notion, not a philosopher’s notion. Those two old Greek philosophers (Plato and Aristotle) were pretty conventional in thinking “Slaves are a fact of nature”. Russell, by the way, was born five years after the abolition of slavery in the U.S—not so long ago, eh?

    Socrates, notwithstanding the he was an agnostic, was a true believer. Make no mistake about that; he was agnostic. In the Apology he said “For the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtually nothingness, so that the dead has no consciousness of anything, or it is, as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place” (40c). Socrates acted on the second option. As per the Phaedo, Socrates chose murder-by-suicide to improve his chances at a long-term stay on the Islands of the Blest (Phaedo 106-117). Oddly modern commentators on the Phaedo close their eyes and rush past the Socrates’ Homeric and heroic death scene.

  4. Of course it is not possible to be certain at this distance, but I don’t think that Socrates could have changed his position so dramatically in the one month between the trial and the drinking of the hemlock. I believe that the position of the Phaedo is more Platonic than Socratic. In any case, I think that what was most important for both Socrates and Plato was not belief in the survival of the soul but the ‘divinity’ of that inner reality of a human being for which the term ‘soul’ is a shorthand symbol.

Leave a Reply

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: