Speaking of Faith: The Curious Case of Agnosticism
By Mark Pierson
"It's not what you know, it's who you know." "Know your enemy." Popular phrases like these reinforce the notion that knowledge is of the utmost importance. Indeed, many people think being called "ignorant" is among the worst of insults. After all, who wants to be characterized as someone who ignores facts? Yet there is a religious position that actually takes pride in not knowing what is true or false. Agnosticism gets its name from the Greek prefix a- (no, not) and the noun gnosis (knowledge). Some have called it the "non-position position," however, because its most basic belief is that one cannot really know what to believe.
Not Atheism, Not Relativism, but What?
Time after time, Christian apologists have successfully shot down the arguments of atheists, from the philosopher Nietzsche boldly saying, "God is dead," to zoologist Richard Dawkins claiming "Evolution is a fact!" The evidence simply convinces most people of a higher power. But when it comes to who or what this higher power is, many seem content not knowing. Do you believe in only one God, or in many gods? "I don't know." Is God distinct from the universe because He made it, or is the universe itself sort of divine-like Mother Nature? "I'm not sure." Do you believe in a personal deity who can be known, like the God of the Bible, or is "god" just an impersonal force like in Star Wars? "Who can say, really?" And so we Christians often get confused (if not annoyed) because agnostics not only doubt every basic belief of ours, but also the beliefs of everyone else.
This is partly due to globalization--the increase in knowledge of other religions, cultures, and worldviews. When people are confronted with a buffet of beliefs in the cafeteria of religion, some simply throw up their hands in despair. "How can we ever know which one is correct? But what agnostics don't say is that all religious beliefs are correct, depending on how one views them. That is the position of relativism, which says there are many paths to the same "god"--that whole Jesus-is-true-for-you-but-Buddha-is-true-for-me nonsense. Agnostics, like Christians and atheists, realize that all religions contradict each other. So while they can all be false, they can't all be true because that flies in the face of simple logic.
Humble Honesty or Skeptical Smokescreen?
It can be helpful to distinguish between two general types of agnostics. First, there are those who think there's currently insufficient evidence for reaching definite conclusions about religion, but (and that's a crucial but) they are willing to leave the door open for the possibility that something will convince them someday. Agnostics such as these hope to acquire some new evidence and discover the truth at some point, or at least be able to cross a few options off their list.
The second type of agnostic goes far beyond this and claims it is impossible for anyone to know what religious position is true. It's not simply a matter of needing the missing pieces of the puzzle, but of declaring that the pieces will never be found. These agnostics not only claim they don't know, but also that they can't know.
When Arrogant Ignorance Knows No Bounds
In my experience, the first kind of agnostic is few and far between. That's because they are genuinely humble about how little they know, and are willing to do some research in hopes of learning something. Conversation with this type of agnostic is generally more fruitful, because they are willing to listen and exchange ideas. However, talking with the second kind of agnostic can be more difficult. They regularly remain stubborn in their views, often using statements about how "nobody can know anything" as a trump card to shut down all conversation. Sometimes it seems like their insistent "I don't know" is really "I don't want to know." Then agnosticism becomes a cop-out--an excuse that allows one to be lazy and not look for answers. Or it's used to play an endless game of questioning, where nothing but 100% proof with absolute certainty will satisfy. It's like children who keep asking "Why?" after every answer you give. When you finally say, "I don't know," they act like they achieved some grand victory when in fact they never really wanted an answer in the first place.
While agnostics are not always on the same page, one thing many seem to have in common is their dismissal of the specific truths of the Christian faith. Often times this is not just the result of globalization, but of someone or something (like a professor, textbook, webpage, or roommate) actively trying to point out supposed problems in the Bible. So while agnostics all say, "I don't know what's true," many of them would add, "but I do know that the beliefs particular to Christianity aren't." The idea of progress is also considered important here. If we hold to the primitive and erroneous views of the Bible, the argument goes, then we'll be closing our eyes to other options and miss the truth. It is a fair question to ask the agnostic, "How do you know that?" And, "How do you know that the Bible is as full of holes as you've been led to believe? Why don't you doubt those who told you this as much as you doubt the text itself?" More often than not, a double standard is at work.
Indeed, by now you may have noticed some serious problems with agnosticism. To state flat out that we cannot know anything about religious matters is a claim of knowledge about religion. This view is therefore self-refuting. Likewise, not committing to any particular beliefs in favor of sitting on the fence indefinitely is actually a commitment in itself-a commitment to being non-committal. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with a healthy skepticism. Nobody should believe everything they hear. But there is also such a thing as unhealthy skepticism, which is dangerous. The truth will be missed if an unreasonable amount of certainty is demanded before knowledge is considered possible. Plus, it is inconsistent to apply such extreme skepticism to religious questions but not to other things in life. Imagine endlessly asking about whether the lunch your mom made was really poisoned, with no answers ever satisfying you. Eventually you'd starve to death!
You Shall Know the Truth
It is precisely when it comes to knowing the truth that Christianity alone has something to offer. Our God has not primarily made Himself known through philosophy or personal experience. Nor has He done so in creation or even by doctrines. Instead, the Christian God has revealed Himself first and foremost through a person--a real flesh and blood man who lived at an actual time and place, who said and did particular things. Knowing the truth about God depends on knowing the truth about this person, Jesus Christ. As a figure in history, Jesus has opened Himself up to being investigated, to the evidence being weighed, and to a verdict being rendered based on the reliability of the testimony about Him. So there is no need to throw one's hands up in despair when deciding between Jesus and Buddha, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or other religious leaders. Nor should anyone be stumped by questions about whether God exists and what He's like. These all are answered--these are all known--by examining the evidence in the Gospel accounts of the One who is "God with us." And in the end, faith is never something we can talk a person into. It's the gift of the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us by the Gospel.
Agnostics may think they have the upper hand by remaining undecided, but there is no neutrality when it comes to Jesus. You are either for Him or against Him. Period. As Christ Himself said, only those who know they're sick will look for a doctor. Sadly, agnostics prefer ignorance, and thereby reject both the diagnosis and the cure. For those interested in the truth, however, you can point them to this Man who is Truth itself, whose historic life, death, and resurrection have set the world free from guilt, death, and religious ignorance. For if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36).
This article was originally published in the winter 2013 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
Rev. Mark Pierson is the pastor at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Long Beach, California.
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