On Agnosticism,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

In an age simultaneously still reeling from the decline of religion and one in which science has yet to fully deliver on its promises, it seems to me agnosticism is surely the only mature response. Both theism and its opposite certainly have their merits and bright ideas; Lord above knows I’ve dabbled in both, myself, over the years. However, I think it’s time that we stop making a habit of claiming to know the answers to the great mysteries of life when it’s obvious that we don’t, and, at least for the foreseeable future, can’t. Fundamentalists on both sides have always caused more trouble than those playing host to a simple set of potentially false beliefs should.

Is there a god? The fact is, we just don’t know. We may have beautifully constructed and convincing ideas, but they are just that: ideas and opinions. And I believe the time has come to be honest about this fact. To me, it is obvious that the problem runs deeper than the answer to this one question, as important as the question is. The attitude of certainty when certainty is not warranted has always been a major cause of trouble in human relations. Human history is riddled with conflict propagated by those at all points on the political and religious spectrums. The refusal to recognize that beliefs are just beliefs—and the refusal to respect the beliefs of others, regardless of their content, be they political or spiritual—has, for all time, wreaked havoc on human life the world over. Beliefs of various kinds defended at any cost resulted in over 108 million recorded wartime deaths during the twentieth century alone. This is not to mention the additional numbers added to this total in the more domestic disputes around the world.

The problem is the acknowledgement of uncertainty doesn’t seem to sit right alongside the human condition. We seem to have this hell-bent desire to fit ourselves into neatly packed boxes. I am a theist, or I am an atheist. I am a Christian, or I am a Muslim. I am a liberal, or I am a conservative. I am this, or I am that, but I’m certainly not both, and I’m sure as hell not neither. It takes a brave person to sit in the middle and take it all in.

It seems that people who are wise enough to say “I don’t know” are attacked as a fence-sitters. If they don’t profess to know things that they don’t know, then they are simply dismissed as too gutless to make a decision. They are wishy-washy and not to be taken seriously. They have no firm and potentially false opinions to batter their opponents over the head with, so they are not worth humoring. Tolerance and respect have never made for good TV. While atheists and theists alike perform all sorts of mental gymnastics to make their opinions appear as facts, the agnostic is relegated to a position of unimportance. They are assumed to have nothing to offer the conversation. I tend to disagree.

Belief is belief and needs to be acknowledged as such, regardless of which direction it leans. The fact of one’s beliefs does not make one’s beliefs fact. The search for truth is a noble quest and must be taken seriously. Both atheists and theists have, without a doubt, the right idea when it comes to the search in that, first and foremost, the search must take place. Both positions require at least a little bit of seeking. Unfortunately, however, the truth is unexciting. The truth is that, currently, we don’t know. It’s a boring truth, and it’s a truth that I wish wasn’t so. I wish we had the answer, because it is fascinating either way; unfortunately, we don’t. And there is no need to pretend we do.

We, as people, hold our beliefs dear—and rightly so. They provide comfort in a tumultuous world. But I propose loosening the reins, acknowledging belief as belief rather than fact, and acknowledging that we are all traveling this big and scary universe together. Frankly, none of us really knows what we’re doing here.

I propose agnosticism. I propose humility in the face of the big questions as a remedy to some of our many societal ills. I propose an acknowledgement of “I don’t know” and the welcoming of the common ground that will reveal itself to us under its unassuming guise.

As I said before, the issue runs deep. It is not just a question of whether there is or is not a god—although this is, of course, a fascinating question. It is an issue of how we will choose, as a human race together on one planet, to relate to one another. Can we learn to say that we’re not sure of something and be open to the ideas of others? Can the Left learn to respect the Right and vice versa? Can we disagree with the principles but love the person? Can we even go as far as to disagree with the principles but be open to changing our minds? How many times in our lives have we been wrong? Too many to count. And this is, of course, okay. Nobody learns by being right all the time. What kind of world do we want to live in? Do we want to claim a god of peace and then kill in its name? Or do we really want peace? Can we be willing to drop the labels and allow our children to grow in a world of freedom? Can we learn to express our views without having the desire to convert by force and without the fear of persecution?

An attitude of agnosticism, regardless of the actual belief lurking behind it, can save us all. An attitude of open-mindedness, tolerance, and respect is the answer. Not tolerance for its own sake; I’m not pushing an agenda of passivity but rather a true acknowledgement that, if we’re honest, we do not know the answers to the great mysteries of life. We do not know the cause of the cosmos or the cause of consciousness. We cannot grasp the complexities of the hearts and minds of others. There is so much to be learned; it is exciting. But until we have learned it, let’s not pretend. Let us live in excited anticipation of the future knowledge that may or may not come and lean into the discomfort of the uncertainty. Let us all acknowledge our biases, our intolerance, our self-justification, and false pretenses. And as we move forward, let us learn together, grow together, and stand together in a new and improved, agnostically inclined, Brotherhood of Confusion.

In an age simultaneously still reeling from the decline of religion and one in which science has yet to fully deliver on its promises, it seems to me agnosticism is surely the only mature response. Both theism and its opposite certainly have their merits and bright ideas; Lord above knows I’ve dabbled in both, myself, …