Is Theological Agnosticism a defensible position?



Given that there is a substantive body of debate between atheism and religion, how can the proposition that the existence of God(s) is unknowable really be defended?

Neil Meyer

Posted 2013-04-18T11:40:04.783

Reputation: 2 161



As long as there is debate, there can and most likely will be people who don't know which side to choose. I don't think that's strange, because given that there's debate, you must conclude that it isn't just clear which side has the truth. There will be people who think the arguments of both sides may be true, or neither arguments - both situations can reasonably result in not knowing.

Let's take this example with religion. To convince people who don't know to choose a side, there has to be really hard evidence, so that you actually can only 'choose' one side. So when you say agnosticism is undefendable, you'll have to argue that there is such evidence.

Well, what evidence would that be? That there is a God or that there isn't one? As long as both sides can be argued for, there can be people who say they don't know which side has the best arguments, and therefore don't wish to choose a side.

Besides, I don't think there is a thing like evidence possible for religion or atheism. These topics were, are and will be topics for belief and faith, not for reasonings. Agnosticism therefore was, is and will be a 'valid' position, whatever that would mean in this context.


Posted 2013-04-18T11:40:04.783


"There will be people who think the arguments of both sides may be true, or neither arguments - both situations will result in not knowing." This is false. I agree that the existence of a widespread debate might be taken as a (tenable) reason for remaining agnostic, though. – Eric '3ToedSloth' – 2013-04-19T09:12:09.663

@Eric'3ToedSloth' I changed "will result" to "can reasonably result" - is that what you're hitting at? If not, why is the statement false? – None – 2013-04-19T09:13:36.487

Your reformulation is better. My point is that a debate about something, no matter how widespread, is fully compatible with knowing, not knowing, or not being knowable at all. A debate might not even be an indicator for one side or the other. You can debate for days or weeks when the next Star Trek series will be aired (based on all kinds of faulty or correct evidence). Some participants might know, others might not know, or the question might not be answerable at all, because there will be no next series. – Eric '3ToedSloth' – 2013-04-19T09:24:03.897


Agnosticism is independent of both theism and atheism. Theism is a position of belief: one either believes that there is at least one god or one does not believe that there is at least one god. Agnosticism is a meta-position on the possibility of knowledge: the agnostic does not believe that one can be certain about the existence of gods. According to wikipedia, there can be agnostic theists, who are uncertain but believe; agnostic atheists, who are uncertain but do not believe; and agnostic apatheists, who are uncertain and don't care.

Agnosticism is defensible logically simply because there is no means for a mortal human to verify the existence of an immortal god, at best we could verify that some being had godlike powers and a long life span. In our current situation we have no evidence of the existence of godlike powers at all.


Posted 2013-04-18T11:40:04.783

Reputation: 1 164


Given that there is a substantive body of debate between atheism and religion, how can the proposition that the existence of God(s) is knowable really be defended?

In other words, the fact that intelligent and knowledgeable people disagree on a subject and have done so for millennia indicates that there are multiple defensible positions; the this makes it harder to be certain that one particular viewpoint is correct, not easier. When the vast majority of experts on a subject have come to a consensus agreement, then it is quite easy to say that the reality of this matter is in fact "knowable," because we can feel fairly confident that the consensus position is well-supported enough to constitute real knowledge. We know, for instance, that the earth is round rather than flat, because that is the consensus. But the existence of a "substantive body of debate" on a subject means that it is just as unreasonable to claim that we as a society "know" that one side is "right" as it is to claim that the other side is correct. If the existence of such a debate makes the answer to the debate knowable, then surely it must be necessary to actually say which side is "known" to be correct--but if this side is "knowably" correct, then why is there still a debate on the subject?

The fact that there is no such consensus on the existence or nonexistence of any deities implies that we do not know for sure whether or not any God or gods exist; it is upon this very uncertainty and doubt that we predicate our idea of faith. We do not "believe" that the earth is round; we know it. But even those who "know" that some particular God exists generally recognize that this "knowledge" is largely an act of faith, rather than a passive recognition of a truth established through years of debate with atheists that the theists have somehow "won." Similarly, those who believe that God does not exist generally claim that the evidence for the existence of God is insufficient and/or that there is strong evidence against the existence of God, and their personal conclusion based on this evidence and/or lack thereof is that God does not exist. But this does not mean that they know that God exists in the sense that they have "won" the argument against the theists.

This, by the way, is essentially the starting point for Pascal's wager. He says that the evidence for and against God is "stacked infinitely high in both directions," and proceeds to argue that the best course of action is therefore to assume that God exists and act accordingly (and, meanwhile, to try to develop a more genuine form of faith).

Kyle Strand

Posted 2013-04-18T11:40:04.783

Reputation: 111

By the way, someone can see the criticism of Pascal's wager in

– Annotations – 2013-04-20T22:30:03.910

...that's nice, I guess. I've always felt that most criticism of the Wager is founded in a misunderstanding of Pascal's point, but that's not really relevant to the original question. – Kyle Strand – 2013-04-20T23:21:55.323

It is relevant in the sense that “Unbelievers who persistently endeavor in an honest, rational effort to search for the truth are commended by Pascal...”. The option to live a good life clearly dominates the option of living an evil life, regardless of belief in a god (Wikipedia). – Annotations – 2013-04-21T01:24:22.320

I'm sorry, but I still don't see how that's relevant to this discussion. – Kyle Strand – 2013-04-21T02:33:22.603

“This ... the starting point for Pascal's wager ... the best course of action is therefore to assume that God exists and act accordingly (and, meanwhile, to try to develop a more genuine form of faith).” But perhaps one cannot simply believe in God at will; and rationality cannot require the impossible. Pascal is well aware of this objection: “I am so made that I cannot believe", however, he contends that one can take steps to cultivate such belief. Critics may question the psychology of belief formation that Pascal presupposes, pointing out that one could strive to believe, yet fail. (SEP) – Annotations – 2013-04-21T03:27:50.690

Pascal admits that you “must renounce reason” in order to follow his advice. Rationality requires us to refrain from assigning a probability to God's existence. Or rationality does not require it, but at least permits it. Either way, the Wager not even get off the ground. Morality may require you to wager against God. Pascal himself is aware of one such argument. Wagering for God may require you to corrupt yourself, thus violating a Kantian duty to yourself. To Voltaire Pascal's calculations, and his appeal to self-interest, are unworthy of the gravity of the subject of theistic belief. (SEP) – Annotations – 2013-04-21T03:30:59.177

The original question was whether it's reasonable to defend the proposition that the existence of God is unknowable. I mentioned the Wager simply because it's an interesting example of an argument that starts with the premise that it's impossible to logically ascertain whether or not God exists. The history of criticisms of the Wager is completely irrelevant to the original question and, therefore, to my answer. – Kyle Strand – 2013-04-21T03:43:40.863

let us continue this discussion in chat

– Kyle Strand – 2013-04-21T03:46:59.660


It is this simple: Without doubt there would be no faith. Who would believe in god if we knew he/she existed? Atheism is a faith, because it has an element of belief (in that god does NOT exist). Agnostics get my vote – nobody knows anything. Why choose to believe at all?? Believers in anything will always be suspicious in my mind :-)

Ketil Nonslid

Posted 2013-04-18T11:40:04.783

Reputation: 1


Agnosticism in the religious context is thought by many to be a more reasonable as well as a more conciliatory position than atheism. In fact it is not; it is a fence-sitting position premised on confusions about knowledge and rationality. Strictly speaking, if knowledge is a matter of definitive proof, then we know nothing outside mathematics and logic, and there only because we have defined the terms, axioms and operations from which the ‘truths’ of these formal systems follow. For consider any inductive inference can be called in question by sceptical arguments challenging me to ‘prove’ that I am not asleep and dreaming, or hallucinating, or a brain in a vat. In practice we give the name of knowledge to what has been repeatedly tested and verified, and which forms the basis for other things we think and do. We take knowledge by a repeated empirical or inductive success, and this despite the fact that it cannot be ‘proved’ to the standards of a theorem in mathematics.

The point about the supposed reasonableness of religious agnosticism is that to think there might be supernatural beings or entities in the universe has the same rational ground as thinking that a china teapot is in orbit round the sun. This was Bertrand Russell’s amusing way of pointing out the agnostic’s problem: he cannot prove that there is not a china teapot flying round the sun, so by his lights he must leave open the possibility that there is such a thing, and suspend judgement either way. But obviously enough, every consideration of evidence and reason weighs so heavily against there being such a thing that to entertain the possibility that it might be so, not even to think it equally likely or unlikely, is irrational to the extent of unsoundness.

All one has to do is to think very seriously about what is putatively meant by hypothesizing the existence of supernatural entities or beings, deities, fairies, gnomes, ghosts, consistently with the world as we encounter and investigate it. The gods of Olympus or the Hindu pantheon are at one, evidentially and logically, with the tooth fairy and the flying teapot: if it is a form of unsoundness to continue to believe in the tooth fairy into adult life, and to organize one’s life around its existence, then it is a form of unsoundness to believe in the existence of any of the deities, fairies, gnomes, ghosts. It only seems not to be unsoundness to believe in the gods of traditional religions because doing so has such a weight of historical and social sanction, exploiting the credulity, needs and fears of unreflective adults, though some quite intelligent adults believe, usually convolutedly sophistical versions of such things too.

There is a variety of atheistic positions with respect to different concepts of God. Atheism can be "disbelief-atheism" and "absence-of-belief-atheism". A person might maintain that anthropomorphic gods such as Zeus do not exist and therefore be a "disbelief-atheist" with respect to Zeus and similar gods. However, he can be "absence-of-belief-atheist" with respect to Paul Tillich’s God. Similarly an agnostic can consider the arguments for and against a god's existence and stay undecided, “indecision-agnosticism”, or may not have any arguments at all, "absence-of-belief-agnosticism". If atheism is the claim that, in the absence of evidence for God we should presume that God does not exist, i.e. an “absence-of-belief-atheism” claim, then it seems to match "absence-of-belief-atheism" with "absence-of-belief-agnosticism", i.e. merely the absence of belief in God. On this definition atheism or agnosticism ceases to be a view, and even infants count as atheists or agnostics. I think "disbelief-atheism" and “indecision-agnosticism” require justification.

We do not have a priori disproof that many things do not exist, yet it is reasonable and justified to believe that they do not: flying pink unicorns are not real, there is no Santa Claus, a defendant is not guilty, a patient does not have a particular disease, so on. None of these achieve the level of deductive proof. Believing that something does not exist is reasonable even though no logical impossibility is manifest. Believing that something exist or even being agnostic about their existence on the basis of their mere possibility would not be justified.

Sensible people don’t believe in elves, fairies, or the bogeyman under the bed. You look under the bed at random times, check the locks on windows and doors, make discreet inquiries about other beds in the neighborhood, and so forth.You then might point out that common sense and science wouldn’t get very far if they took every such mere ‘‘logical’’ possibility equally seriously. At a certain point, we simply have to rely on ‘‘inference to the best explanation’’ of all the evidence we can get, and accept, at least provisionally, conclusions that have been shown in this way to be true ‘‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’’These are not processes that anyone yet seriously understands, but they are ones on which jury trials and the rest of our lives manifestly depend.This argument doesn’t justify mere agnosticism: people are presumably not agnostic about bogeymen; rather, it justifies full disbelief. What’s bad enough for bogeymen is bad enough for God.

No matter how distinctive religious or faith's experiences may be, it’s perfectly obvious that they themselves can’t establish much of anything beyond themselves, any more than dreams of ghosts do: what would need to be shown is that God or ghosts would be the best explanation of those experiences; but this no one has even seriously begun to do. Indeed, ask yourself how local, personal experiences could possibly provide serious evidence for the existence of a necessary,eternal, omni-being responsible for the creation of the world. How does the presence of such a being feel differently from that of a merely contingent, finitely old and powerful one? How does one know one is in the presence of the genuine creator of everything ? Imagine someone claiming the universe was fifteen billion years old only on the basis of a gut feeling. In addition to maybe securing some corroborative evidence for such lavish claims, it would, of course, also be a good idea to run some controlled experiments on such experiences to rule out the effects of, for example, lively and hyperbolic imaginations, wishful thinking, and, of course, the massive religious indoctrination imposed on everyone in our culture since earliest childhood.

The philosopher Plantinga reasonably claims that many of our ordinary beliefs based on memory and perception are not arrived at by conscious reasoning, for example, to a best explanation of one’s experience, but are automatically ‘‘triggered’’or ‘‘occasioned’’ by experience, involving little or no reasoning at all. For example,someone doesn’t infer from certain sensations that she remembers seeing a cat last week; she just remembers seeing one. Whether or not she arrived at this belief by a ‘‘justified’’ route, she is ‘‘warranted’’ in believing she saw a cat insofar as her eyes and memory are reliable.

Plantinga then proceeds to claim that human beings are endowed with a special faculty, a ‘‘sensus divinitatus,’’ which similarly doesn’t provide so much a rational basis for religious belief as a means by which such belief ‘‘is triggered or occasioned by a wide variety of circumstances, including the marvelous, impressive beauty of the night sky; the timeless crash and roar of the surf that resonates deep within us; the majestic grandeur of the mountains,’’ not to mention ‘‘awareness of guilt’’. The question is whether, on reflection, there is any independent reason to think that extravagant beliefs occasioned by mountain peaks and free-floating guilt are in fact caused by the reliable operation of a sensus divinitatus–detecting God. Of course there isn’t, any more than there’s any reason to think that beliefs about ghosts ‘‘occasioned’’ by misty graveyards and decrepit old houses are caused by real ghosts much less through the operation of a ‘‘sensus spiritatus’’. And that’s partly because there’s no reason to think that ghosts or God exists.

There is no evidence that a religious faith that rejects reason would also serve us while seeking truth. If faith is the only way to know the truth of God, how are we to know which God to have faith in? Rational argument can not reach the believers because the believers had declared that it can not by his own decree. I don't see how anyone can protest that his beliefs ought to be immune to the standards of objective investigation, simply by claiming that they are held on the basis of faith. It is the true horror of faith. Faith leads people to believe in something, it doesn't matter what, without a whisper of doubt, or a whiff of evidence, and believe so strongly in some cases, that they are prepared to kill and die for it, without the need for further justification. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. Just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. Why is religion such a potent source of violence? If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence would you invoke to prove he should value evidence? Faith is a conversation stopper.


Posted 2013-04-18T11:40:04.783

Reputation: 3 058

So... this is a yes? – Ryan Frame – 2013-04-19T02:54:54.900

@RyanFrame Yes, believing that something exist or even being agnostic about their existence on the basis of their mere possibility would not be justified. Believing that something does not exist is reasonable even though no logical impossibility is manifest. There is no Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, and Holy Trinity. – Annotations – 2013-04-19T03:23:26.617

@RyanFrame There is a new question post, therefore I post a new answer too. – Annotations – 2013-04-19T14:15:21.070


I think the answer to the question, as asked, is much simpler than it appears. The existence of lots of arguments for mutually exclusive positions has no bearing on the defensibility of some other proposition mutually exclusive with the first two.

If you have a balance with a napkin over it, and one side is lower than another, good arguments might be made that the lower side has one egg on it, or no eggs. People may use lots of convincing arguments. However, the position that the napkin precludes any knowledge of why the balance is in the observed configuration is a position which can be defended. It doesn't mean it's correct, but defensibility is not the same as correctness.


Posted 2013-04-18T11:40:04.783

Reputation: 46


I think first that it should be noted that the vast majority of people who are religous are so because they grew up in a community where this was a given. Choice doesn't really come into it. Culture and religion in these communities are inextricably intertwined. This is as true for the various forms of athiesms/materialistic philosophies that develop as a reaction to theistic positions.

It should also be acknowledged that religious people can be irreligous and the irreligous religous.

Secondly reason is not why religious adhere to religion, or why indeed a new religion comes into being. The force for this comes from elsewhere. Reason is almost always a rationalisation of ones position. It happens after the fact. It may also have to do with the prestige of Reason within Western discourse. This is not just true of religions but also for the arts.

Faith and Belief are the key elements in religion. When probed by reason the support will seem flimsy; but this is obvious because they were not built on rational grounds. The perspective is wrong. A better view is to look at it anthropologically and see what that faith and its performance in thought and in ritual and action does for him and his community.

So how do we characterise the agnostic? We must give at least a context. Lets us say Christianity. He straddles a border between thiesm and non-thiesm. He was either born there, or rejected a tradition but there is no emotionally compelling reason for him to move directly into the habitus of a new tradition.

That God is unknowable - is not just an agnostic position but also a respectable position in both Islam - where it is the mainstream opinion & Christianity - where it goes under the name Negative Theology.

What about existence?

When one asserts the existence of God, what does this claim mean? It certainly is not the same as the existence of the Planet Pluto - Ash'arite Islamic Theology and the Catholic Theologian Aquinas placed God outside of space & time. But this is simply a negative claim. It does not mean we know where He is, only where he is not.

It seems that existence is unknowable in the positive sense. It can only be asserted and affirmed by faith and belief.

All this of course ignores the possibility of direct cognisance - Revelation in Christianity and tearing away the veil in Islam. This form of knowledge is only available to a few, in both traditions - to Prophets.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2013-04-18T11:40:04.783

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