Published: November 10, 2015
Religious ‘nones’,1 such as agnostics and atheists, are on the rise in many Western countries.2 The ‘New atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins have likely contributed to this trend—using so-called ‘science’ (especially evolution and deep time) to create uncertainty about God in a lot of people. Many people are aware of the rise in atheism, but less talked about is the rise of agnosticism. In fact, more people self-identify as agnostics than atheists. So what is agnosticism? And how can Christians respond to it?
What is agnosticism?
The term ‘agnostic’ was first coined by ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Thomas Henry Huxley in the 19th century. Fundamentally, agnostics are unsure about God’s existence. However, this comes in a few different forms.
The first is a personal stance: “I don’t know if God exists or not.” This is often called weak agnosticism. It doesn’t make any claims beyond what the agnostics themselves are uncertain of. They may think we can know in principle whether God exists or not, it’s just that they don’t know.
The second is a universal claim: “We cannot know if God exists or not.” This is often called strong agnosticism. It’s actually a claim to knowledge. It makes the claim that there isn’t enough evidence for anyone to know whether God exists or not.3
Agnosticism and atheism
Agnosticism is often closely linked with atheism. Many atheists and agnostics share a common ‘lack of belief in God’. But all sorts of things ‘lack belief in God’—agnostics and atheists, as well as cats, spiders, roses, bacteria, rocks, etc.
Thomas Henry Huxley, dubbed ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ for his spirited defense of Darwin’s ideas, coined the term ‘agnostic’.
To clarify, Richard Dawkins uses a scale of certainty from 1 to 7; 1 representing someone certain that God exists, and 7 representing someone certain that God doesn’t exist. Where does Dawkins stand?
“6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist: ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’ …
“I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7—I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”4
Dawkins doesn’t just ‘lack a belief in God’ as rocks do. Rather, he is almost certain that God doesn’t exist, and he says he is convinced enough to live as if God doesn’t exist. But, he still thinks he can’t be absolutely certain about whether God exists or not.
There are all sorts of reasons why self-styled ‘agnostics’ and ‘atheists’ don’t like one or the other label. However, there is rarely any difference in what each actually stands for. Most ‘agnostics’ think the probability of God’s existence is very low, and live as if God doesn’t exist.
Strong agnostics are an exception. Those we might label ‘atheist agnostics’, like Dawkins, disavow absolute certainty regarding their atheistic conclusions, but they think it’s possible to come to a best explanation of the evidence. Strong agnostics reject this claim. They think the question of God’s existence is unanswerable.
Agnosticism: the proper starting point?
Agnostic Robin Le Poidevin proposes that weak agnosticism should be the starting point for everyone: “There should be no presumption of atheism, and indeed no presumption of theism either. The initial position should be an agnostic one, which means that theists and atheists share the burden of proof.”5
But note the ethical force in his statement; “The initial position should be an agnostic one [emphasis added]”. Why should I presume ignorance about God’s existence? Is that the only way to give all the claims a fair hearing? First, that’s simply not true; agnosticism is a bias, so it’s no less free from the dangers of confirmation bias than theism or atheism. If we presume not to know whether God exists, we may treat the truth superficially and improperly preserve a pretended neutrality between the options. Second, from within agnosticism this only amounts to a recommendation, not an obligation. Agnosticism cannot ground objective morals.
Theism, on the other hand, is the only option that can ground moral obligation. As such, if we have an objective moral duty to presume anything about God’s existence, such a duty itself constitutes evidence for God. And since God is the ultimate good, if He were to command us to presume anything, He would command us to presume the truth, i.e. that God exists.
Agnosticism, knowledge, and certainty
Agnosticism of all varieties strongly rejects the statements “I know God exists” and “I know God doesn’t exist”. Dawkins’ affirmation of agnosticism shows why:
“I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”6
Few people in ordinary parlance would have any hesitation about saying “I know fairies don’t exist”. But Dawkins confesses himself agnostic about the existence of fairies. Why? It’s theoretically possible that fairies could exist somewhere we haven’t looked.
This is a strange use of language. Dawkins knows this, which is presumably why he prefers to call himself an atheist. For instance, I know I have a left hand. I can see it, feel it, and use it. But I can’t rule out the theoretical possibility that I don’t have a left hand, and that I’m plugged into the Matrix, which stimulates my brain to make me believe I have a left hand. And yet practically nobody will say that I’m wrong for saying “I know I have a left hand”.7 In the same way, if an atheist says “I know there’s no God”, they’re not saying that their atheism is beyond all possible doubt. Likewise for the theist who says ‘I know God exists’. We don’t need absolute certainty to say we know something.
Agnosticism: beyond all reasonable doubt?
But might the agnostic just demand a high level of certainty to justify claiming to know whether God exists or not? For the strong agnostic, this would mean that nobody can know beyond all reasonable doubt if God exists or not. But to know this, the strong agnostic would need practically exhaustive knowledge of what everyone can know about God! And since theism (and atheism) can be doubted, some people may be in a better position to know if God exists than others. Some people might have a better grasp of the evidence than others, or (if God exists) God may have revealed himself clearly to some people. Strong agnostics are just ordinary people; they cannot know what everyone else can know about God.
However, may not weak agnostics still demand extremely high levels of certainty to justify knowing if God exists or not? After all, they may just happen to be in a poor place to know if God exists or not.
This also has a number of problems. First, either God exists, or He doesn’t. And, theism and atheism imply starkly different worlds. Atheism is a world of no objective purpose, meaning, beauty, or value. Theism expects science to work; it’s a massive accident if God doesn’t exist. But this contradicts strong agnosticism, which entails that theistic and atheistic worlds must be indiscernible. It also means weak agnosticism is flawed. The wildly different implications of theism and atheism make it unreasonable to remain agnostic forever.
Second, the weak agnostic might be unreasonably incredulous regarding the evidence for God. For instance, most Muslims reject the historicity of Jesus’ death by crucifixion based on the Koran (e.g. Surah 4:157), despite the fact there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus died by crucifixion. Muslims refuse to accept an obvious truth due to a deeply held prior commitment. If so many people can be blinded to well-evidenced truths due to a faulty bias, it’s not hard to see that the same is possible for the agnostic.8
Third, it assumes that their allegedly poor position to know about God is permanent. Rather, a person’s ability to know truths fluctuates with changing circumstances. It may be that they were once in a better position to know, or that they will come into a better position to know. The weak agnostic’s ability to know about God is in principle provisional.
Finally, a dogged stance of doubt in the face of uncertainty is not very reasonable. For instance, Jesus said: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). The psalmist said: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). God’s goodness is worth grasping, and He is willing to answer those who seek after Him. As such, even if there is such a thing as reasonable uncertainty, that need not translate (and if God exists, certainly should not translate) into reasonable doubt.
Agnosticism and God’s ‘hiddenness’
Does the nature of God prevent us from knowing if He exists or not? After all, we can’t see or touch God. Still, the answer is no. We can’t see or touch electrons, but that doesn’t stop us from knowing that they exist. Nor does it matter that we can’t know God exhaustively. We don’t need to know everything about cars or quarks to know if they exist.
But doesn’t God have to make himself known to everyone sufficiently to make them culpable for not believing in Him? He does, and the Bible says He does (Romans 1:18–20, see also Is God obscure and arbitrary in what He wants from us?). However, the Bible doesn’t say that God is always obvious to everybody. Nor would God have to be to make people morally culpable for rejecting Him. God is not duty bound to make himself constantly obvious to sinners who consistently reject Him.
Agnosticism entails uncertainty about God. It is often closely linked with atheism. However, by tying knowledge too closely to certainty, it ends up as a prejudice against God. The opposite of faith is doubt, not just outright denial. The correct response to doubting God is not to withhold belief, but this: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). If agnostics are truly unsure about God, then they can already see that faith in God is not unreasonable. Rather than a dogged stance of doubt, it is better to ‘run’ with the reasonableness of belief in God with an open mind. “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:8).
References and notes
- That is, those who identify their religious affiliation on surveys as ‘none’ or ‘no religion’. Return to text.
- America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center, www.pewforum.org, accessed 28 July 2015. Return to text.
- We can perhaps further divide strong agnosticism into provisional and principled versions; i.e. the evidential situation may be provisionally insufficient to justify knowledge of whether God exists or not, though it may be sufficient at a future date; or it may be in principle impossible to know if God exists or not. Return to text.
- Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, Mariner Books, New York, pp. 73–74, 2008. Return to text.
- Le Poidevin, R. Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 1010–1011, 2010. Return to text.
- Dawkins, ref. 4, p. 74. Return to text.
- Some philosophical skeptics might press the point by saying ‘we can’t know anything’ or ‘we can’t know anything for certain’. However, both statements are self-refuting. If we can’t know anything (for certain), then we can’t know that statement is correct (for certain). And there’s no reason to think those statements are sole exceptions to the rule (i.e. ‘we can’t know anything (for certain) except this proposition’); there’s nothing about that statement that endears itself to us as uniquely true. We seem to know many things, and we cannot live as if we know nothing. There may even be some things we might know for certain (such as e.g. our own awareness of being in pain at a point in time). Philosophical skepticism is implausible and unliveable. Return to text.
- The agnostic may of course retort that this could be true of any view, and he would be right. But that only proves that we need to be careful about how we assess the evidence if we want to know the truth, not that the agnostic is justified in his ignorance. Return to text.
graham P., New Zealand, 9 November 2015
Pretty good article and thorough. One of the presuppositions of agnostics is that they trust the validity of their reason, which they have no right to do. Being agnostic, they should (moral obligation? bear with me), they should doubt that their own thoughts have any relationship to reality.
This would lead them to profound questions like 'how do I know that I exist?' which in turn would cause them to ask 'how do believers know that God exists?', the answer to which is 'God's word tells us that we do exist', which is the foundation of reformation (or Biblical) Christianity.
Murk P., Canada, 10 November 2015
Pretty well done
"However, the Bible doesn’t say that God is always obvious to everybody."
Be careful here....don't become like our opponents
Psalm 19:1-6 states that He uses the stars to reveal knowledge of Himself
(Verses 7-11 speak
of laws that support this knowledge
Vs 12 speaks of the possibility of error but only if one trusts in himself - which anyone who thinks honestly will realize due to His revrlation
Vs 13 reveals solution of this problem
As is always the case the certainty of doubt (or utter skepticism - ie the destruction of the possibility of knowledge) is where one ends up if one starts with self - this would entail placing trust in man (self) which the Bible calls foolish (Jer 17:5)
Furthermore this is Gods world (Psalm 24:1)
Since He came he no longer overlooks such ignorance (Acts 17:30)
If we jump into their worldview (for arguments sake) We would end up with:
There is no Sovereign who holds all things together and directs history
Anything can happen
The only way to know anything can happen is if it can't
(The laws of thought, reliability of memory, senses, mind and that the future will be like the past cannot be variant to make this claim)
Also no Sovereign means no necessary connection between what happens inside mind and outside mind
As per Prov1:7 rejection of the One who made and sustains always ends up with fairies in the garden
As you alluded to ethics are involved in every knowledge transaction (Rom 2:14-15)
Shaun Doyle responds
You're right, we do need to be careful how far we take this statement. We need to strike the right balance; God doesn't leave anyone with a legitimate excuse for refusing to acknowledge Him, but that doesn't mean He always makes himself obvious to us all.
Nonetheless, there are many places in Scripture where it says that God "hides his face" from people. It usually refers to sinners, but there are times when God refuses to make himself obvious to His people for reasons that have nothing to do with their sin. Job is of course a primary example; while God did eventually appear to Job, it took quite some time. And even when God did appear, He didn't answer all of Job's chiding questions. Instead, God chided Job back for having the temerity to demand an answer from Him. Nonetheless, God did say that Job had spoken about Him rightly, because God had not brought Job's suffering on him for any special sin he had committed, unlike what his friends claimed.
Gordon S., United Kingdom, 10 November 2015
I can't see air or normally feel it, but I believe it exists. Christ spoke of the wind (John 3:8) Job said similarly:"Lo,he goeth by me, and I see[him] not; and he passeth along,and I perceive him not." Then we have Paul saying as to God:" In him we live and exist." (JND translation). Although we can't see God because He is a spirit, we can see evidence of his existence in his creatorial work. We can also see the effects of sin in the world, though that is a subject in itself.
Robert B., United States, 10 November 2015
I speak as someone who has "been there".
What you term as "weak agnosticism" was for me as a young man, an outgrowth of the epistemological uncertainty about whether anything at all is knowable. It was various science fiction inspired scenarios that expanded the realm of uncertainty to cover EVERYTHING except the existence of my perceptions and the existence of myself. Though I despaired of ever achieving cetainty about anything else, I couldn't claim with any certainty that "nothing is knowable". Such a statement of absolute certainty would have been inconsistant. That Dawkins lives as if he has certainty about the knowability of God is his main error.
God knows about the human condition, where we cannot be absolutely certain that our senses, logical inferences, and memories reflect objective truth. An omnipotent God would have the power to go beyond the limits of our knowledge. Such was my hope when I was still an agnostic.
Optimistically hoping that there is an answer to the seeming inevitability of uncertainty and suspecting that if God existed, that then He would have the means to provide certainty to me, was more logical to me than the pessimism of Dawkins and his strong agnosticism/atheism. Much hinged on whether God existed or not. It seemed impossible to prove that God didn't exist. The closest aproximation of that would be to fail at a diligent effort to prove that God DOES exist.
My own lack of diligence set me adrift for decades. These words are a promise to everyone:
"... seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you".
Dawkins has a mustard seed of faith in God. Indeed, he is closer to God than the legions of people who don' t know and couldn't care less.
He needs to take that shred of belief and knock on God's door... Jesus
Don S., United States, 10 November 2015
Dawkins says that the existence of God is low probability, so he lives his life that way. Car accidents are also low probability, and plane accidents quite lower. I wonder if he lives his life that way also? Does he use his seat belt? Does he have anti-lock brakes? Airbags? Or does he live like the low probabilities are real? Seat belts are quite restrictive to ones personal actions, but I bet he is more than willing to accept authorities forcing their seat belt morality on him. He just does not accept God's restrictions which are just as beneficial to his life sustenance as seat belts are. With Dawkins, the contradictions continue to abound!
Tommy S., United States, 10 November 2015
It's important to note that for one to claim absolutely that God doesn't exist would require omniscience. But to claim that he does exist only requires a small amount of knowledge. For example, if one were to claim absolutely that there is no gold in China, they would have to know everything about China, every square inch above and below ground and every person or thing in China. But to claim you know that gold exists in China would only require, for example, that you know of one place that has even just a speck.
Shaun Doyle responds
Actually, it's quite simple (in principle) to show that God doesn't exist. All an atheist has to do is show that the concept of God is incoherent, like the notion of a married bachelor. In fact, this is what atheists typically try to do with such arguments as the omnipotence paradoxes
—they try to show that the concept of God is incoherent. These attempts fail, not because such attempts are logically invalid, but because their premises are false—the concept of God is coherent and God does in fact exist. But it does show that an atheist doesn't need to be omniscient to show that God doesn't exist.
Gerry T., Canada, 10 November 2015
I have always found that bus advertisement ironic. It's precisely because God does exist that we can stop worrying and enjoy life.
James T., United States, 11 November 2015
I used to have a neighbor who sadly passed away years ago,who declared himself an agnostic. He told my dad that he just doesn't know what to believe in and that he wanted to be the best person he can to everyone and that he hoped that if God exists, that God would accept him. His wife told my family that on his deathbed that he was giving his life to God before he died and asked God "Why are you doing this". I do believe hes in heaven cause he wasn't an evil person and he never said he didn't want there to be a God. He was just lost and didn't know what to believe in. I wanna know what you guys think of agnostics that aren't evil and also would accept God in their lives?
Shaun Doyle responds
First, the idea that there are agnostics who aren't evil is not something Scripture agrees with: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). We're all guilty before God, so the only way for any of us to be right with God is to trust in His Son and His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. There is no such thing as a sinless agnostic, especially since the greatest commandment is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength." Agnostics aren't even sure God exists, so how can they love God with everything they've got?
Would agnostics accept God? It may be true that all of them would accept God under the right circumstances, but that is irrelevant. God does not judge people on what they would do; He judges them on what they actually do.
What do we think of 'friendly agnostics'? We think they're fellow sons and daughters of Adam, fully made in God's image like us, who need salvation in Christ as much as anyone else does. And since they don't accept Christ, they need the gospel. And we preach the same gospel message to agnostics as we would to any other unbeliever, though of course we would contextualize the message to deal with their specific ideological issues.
Terry D P., Australia, 12 November 2015
Many atheists claim their belief in the non-existence of God is based on science, specifically, the science or mathematics of probability, i.e. the creation of all life on earth was by random mutations. A mathematical definition of probability from Wikipedia is:
«/ Probability is the measure of the likeliness that an event will occur. Probability is quantified as a number between 0 and 1 (where 0 indicates impossibility and 1 indicates certainty). The higher the probability of an event, the more certain we are that the event will occur. A simple example is the toss of a fair (unbiased) coin. Since the two outcomes are equally probable, the probability of "heads" equals the probability of "tails", so the probability is 1/2 (or 50%) chance of either "heads" or “tails". /»
The probability of God’s existence has a mutually exclusive binomial sample space, i.e. either “Heads = God exists” or “Tails = God doesn't exist”.
So my question to atheists is this: What metaphoric coin did you toss and how many times did you toss it before concluding: “There probably is no God.”?
If atheism is based on science, atheists should be able to cite the experimental test trials by which they came to the conclusion…
Pr(God doesn’t exist) = 1, implying Pr(God exists)) = (1–Pr(God doesn’t exist)) = 0.
Otherwise we must conclude that atheism is not based on the scientific method as they apparently claim.
Shaun Doyle responds
Bear in mind that this is an article on agnosticism, not atheism, and while the two can be held by people with virtually identical worldviews, this isn't always the case, and the terms themselves mean different things. Agnosticism conveys the idea of uncertainty about God's existence; atheism is the idea that God doesn't exist. No self-styled agnostic will say that the probability of God's existence is zero; they will either assign it a (usually small) non-zero probability, or they will decry the very idea of applying probability calculus to the question of God's existence.