Agnosticism: The Impossible Belief

In the onset of the New Atheism there is a contingency of people who have reservations about the militancy of the followers of Richard Dawkins and the other champions of modern atheism. Rather than jumping wholeheartedly into the ‘Dawkinite’ camp, many direct their allegiance to a different line of thought – agnosticism.

The following is not intended to be a thorough examination of agnosticism and all it has to offer. However, I think a careful consideration of how agnostic ideas relate to Biblical thinking is needed.

Historic Overview

The term agnosticism was invented in 1869 by Thomas Huxley. The word was used by Huxley as a play on the name of a group in the early church, the Gnostics. This group claimed to know particular things for certain, therefore, those things were not open to free inquiry. Huxley’s term was to represent a thought process altogether opposite.

In fact, a little over thirty years after Huxley first used the term, Robert Flint, in his book titled Agnosticism, elaborately argued that the term was inapt to describe what Thomas Huxley, and by that time Herbert Spencer, were building as a system of belief. Flint was not alone in suggesting that the term skepticism was a more suitable description.

By way of that description, the type of thinking that Huxley and Spencer were purporting could be found as far back as the Greek skepticism of Pyrrho and others. These ancient skeptics shared a common emphasis against assumed knowledge of the physical world. A thin like of this thinking can be traced all the way up to the skepticism of David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. It was their work that laid the philosophical basis of agnosticism. As Norman Geisler states, “Much of modern philosophy takes for granted the general validity of the types of arguments they set forth.”

By the 19th century, to the time of Huxley and Spencer, we see the ideas of Sir William Hamilton and H.L. Mansel. Robert Flint connected the four men in stating, “His [Spencer’s] agnosticism…was almost entirely derived from the teaching of Hamilton and Mansel.” However, despite that fact, the ideas of Hamilton and Mansel differed greatly from that of Huxley and Spencer in that Hamilton and Mansel were actually pro-theistic. Hamilton’s skepticism carried with it the idea of “denying that God can be known while affirming that God ought to be believed in”. There is an obvious connection there to the later teachings of Barthianism.

Though Huxley and Spencer adopted much of what Hamilton and Mansel’s skepticism taught, this new term “agnosticism” represented a decidedly anti-theistic view. The resulting philosophy does not simply imply “I do not know,” but, “One cannot know.” It is this statement that lies beneath the thinking of today’s agnosticism. It must be reiterated, however, while Huxley coined the term, it was Hume who built the structure.

Evaluation

Since the time of Hume and Huxley, there has grown out of their teachings two types of agnosticism: unlimited and limited.

The first of the two, unlimited agnosticism, denies that anyone can completely know anything about anyone or anything. For example, we cannot know for sure that God in reality exists. However, this stringent of a thought process is self-defeating. It reduces to the point that one knows just enough about reality that he is able to affirm that nothing can be known about reality. But, if nothing can be known about reality, then one can not know for sure that nothing can be know about reality. The idea destroys itself.

Norman Geisler states:

“For if one knows something about reality, then he surely cannot affirm in the same breath that all of reality is unknowable. And of course if one knows nothing whatsoever about reality, then he had no basis whatsoever for making a stament about reality…. It follows that total agnosticism is self-defeating because it assumes some knowledge about reality in order to deny any knowledge of reality.”

In the end, there is no way to make the statements about reality that a total agnostic makes unless the individual is omniscient. Even then, if a person claims omniscience then he not only defeats his belief, he defies his belief as well. He would have to know everything in order to know that he could know nothing. Such a claim is nothing more than illogical confusion.

The inconsistency of total agnosticism is vividly illustrated in a person’s belief in the existence of God. If a person says, “I can know something about God”, he does not confine himself to an infinitive and leaves room for a finite knowledge of something infinite. However, if a person says, “I can know nothing about God”, he presumes something about God in order to deny any presumption about God.

The second type, limited agnosticism is the less dangerous and the more consistent of the two. Limited agnosticism allows for knowledge about a known finite reality, but it does not allow for any knowledge about an alleged infinite reality, such as the existence of God. This limited form of agnosticism is no threat to Christianity or nearly any form of theism because it grants the possibility of a finite knowledge of an infinite God.

The potential of reconciling limited agnosticism with theism, and more specifically Biblical theism, makes conversation between the two possible. It allows for realism. The Christian certainly does not know everything there is to know about the God of the Bible. Nevertheless, it is possible to show evidence of what a Christian does know and has proven to be reality. The limited agnostic can be open to that evidence. However, both must recognize that the discussion at that point goes from an epistemological discussion to a theological discussion.

Application

So how do we apply all this? How does this fit into evangelizing and sharing the Gospel with people? The answer is simple. When we are questioned, we must be ready.

When confronted by an agnostic, we have to determine whether the person is a limited agnostic or an unlimited agnostic. If they claim to believe that it is impossible to know anything about God, then they are inconsistent with their own belief. They know something that, according to them, is unknowable. Obviously, realizing this could push a person to slide over to the category of limited agnosticism. Then, however, they have to be open to the reality of any evidence that suggest the existence of God is the message salvation in His Word.

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