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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Headquarters

Functional Unbelief

There Are No True Agnostics

by Regis Nicoll

Agnostic Ron Rosenbaum wants to clear something up: "Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism," he says, but the stout ale of "radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty." In fact, he insists, his belief system is just as distinct from atheism as it is from theism. It is important that you know this.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 15

In "An Agnostic Manifesto" published on June 28, 2010, at Slate, Rosenbaum takes great pains to explain that God-deniers, like God-believers, have childlike faith: faith that reality is nothing but the sum-total of the physical world; faith that science is the sole source of knowledge; faith that the materialistic quest will unravel the deepest mysteries of the universe, including the ultimate questions about human existence; and faith that their beliefs are not based on faith, but are settled beyond rational argument.

For example, atheists believe that the universe is the product of some materialistic process. For the moment, a cosmos-birthing fluctuation in the quantum potential is a popular explanation. They believe in it, not because it is proven or even provable, but because it must be true to keep their worldview from collapsing like a dying star.

God-deniers dismiss God-believers for their dogmatic claims, yet fail themselves, as Rosenbaum rightly notes, "to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing." Not to mention the impossibility of nothing creating everything!

But agnostics, Rosenbaum proudly points out, refuse to believe what is not or cannot be verified as true, and they therefore stand against the dogmatism of both theism and atheism. When faced with the question of cosmogenesis—what "banged," and who or what did the banging—the agnostic shrugs, ever so humbly, and says, "I don't know."

It is a response calculated to let you know that the agnostic occupies an elevated plain of intellectual integrity, one on which lives are directed by facts, not faith. What the agnostic doesn't realize, however, or willfully ignores, is that he is just as much a person of faith as those he tries to distance himself from. It begins with what he really knows.

What He Knows & How He Knows It

What he, or any person, knows is what he accepts as true; and what he accepts as true depends on several factors, starting with personal experience.

Children learn about the dangers of a hot stove not from their mothers' warnings but from the smarting of their own curious fingertips. Adults will stubbornly insist that a ball swung over the head on a string will follow a curved path when released, until they try it themselves and discover that it continues on a straight one.

In cases where personal experience is no help—as when contemplating questions about the origin of the universe, the existence of heaven or of the soul, the meaning of life, and so on—people depend on non-experiential sources of knowledge.

One such source is intellectual predisposition. This was best expressed by the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, who once said: "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises . . . because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism."

Note that Lewontin's faith in science as the ultimate source of knowledge is based on his intellectual preference for a particular worldview, not on science's proven explanatory power in answering ultimate questions.

Another source is our non-rational sensibilities. For example, as I pointed out in "Radio Silence" in Salvo 14, astrobiologist Paul Davies believes that a yet-to-be-discovered principle has been woven into the cosmos so as to make the emergence of biological life inevitable. He believes this, not because he has any evidence to substantiate this notion, but because, as he says, he is "more comfortable" with it than with the alternatives, which presumably include a necessary, non-contingent Being.

More to the point is NYU law professor Thomas Nagel, who, in a moment of admirable candor, admitted, "It isn't just that I don't believe in God . . . I hope there is no God! . . . I don't want the universe to be like that."

For Davies, and particularly for Nagel, knowledge is determined neither by empirical proof nor by observational data, but by emotional aversion and affinity.

Whom We Believe

Lastly, there is authority.

At the individual level, knowledge is limited. No one can directly verify every claim that is trotted out as fact. For that reason, much of what "we know" depends on the word of others: on journalists, scientists, historians, teachers, parents, pastors, peers. The existence of subject-matter experts means that a person need not have lived in nineteenth-century France to know that Napoleon existed, nor does he need to understand the theory of special relativity to know that light travels at 186,282 miles per second, nor must he contract syphilis to know that extramarital sex can lead to an STD.

Obviously, authority-derived knowledge requires faith—faith in the expertise and trustworthiness of other people. It is by faith that a non-chemist knows that arsenic is poison (as experiential knowledge would be fatal), that a child knows the identity of his biological parents (unless he has settled the matter with a definitive DNA test), or that anyone knows anything about the lives of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Jesus Christ.

It is even by faith that we know that the law of gravity will remain valid tomorrow. Absurd?

Despite mathematical relationships that describe the effects of gravity with astounding precision, there is no consensus about the nature of the thing. Is it a distortion of space-time? An attractive force of tiny, mediating, and (as of yet) hypothetical particles (gravitons?) that act like a gigantic rubber band? A mysterious "action-at-a distance" between bodies having mass? All of the above? None? Take your pick. The lack of consensus indicates that we know neither the what nor the why of gravity.

Without such knowledge, belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is nothing more than belief that the future will be like the past. But if the universe is the fluke product of random collisions, as atheists contend, then that simple belief requires faith of a high order—faith not only in the unwavering regularity of nature but, more fundamentally, faith that our sensory experiences correspond to reality, and that our minds and intellects have the ability to discern the true nature of things.

If, on the other hand, the universe is the product of an Intelligence that wanted to make its creation intelligible to intelligent beings, then the lawful, orderly, and predictable behavior of nature is a logical and reasonable expectation. Three thousand years ago, Solomon penned a 32 chapter lesson listing all he had learned about wisdom. First on his list was this: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." Indeed, more important than what we believe is whom we believe.

The claims of Ron Rosenbaum notwithstanding, the agnostic, like everyone else, exercises faith. What's more, his belief in "uncertainty" is an expression of faith in the certainty that the answers to ultimate questions are uncertain. So in reality, his faith is not in uncertainty at all. And that applies to his practiced faith as well as to his professed faith.

Practical Belief

Faith is confirmed not in what we say (our beliefs), but in what we do (our behaviors).

A child standing nervously at the edge of a pool, being coaxed by his father to jump in to him in the water, must either plunge in or remain standing at the water's edge. There is no middle way. The child may believe with all his heart that his father won't let harm come to him, but until he jumps, his fear holds him captive in functional unbelief. When the "rubber" of belief meets the "road" of decision, doubt defaults to unbelief.

To the most important question in life—"Does God exist?"—a person can answer "Yes," "I don't know," or "No." But in practice, a person must live as if God either does or does not exist; there is nothing else to do, except perhaps to oscillate schizophrenically between the two.

Behavioral studies by various pollsters (Barna and Pew, to name two) suggest that many Americans who self-identify as Christians are functional non-Christians—if not atheists—because their lives reflect neither the teachings nor the example of Jesus Christ. By their words, they profess faith in Christ, but by their actions, they reveal that their faith is in something else.

In the same way, the agnostic, who ever so humbly professes uncertainty as to God's existence, discloses his functional atheism by rejecting revealed truth and ordering his life as if God did not exist. He is attempting to avoid the costs of associating with atheism while at the same time enjoying the "benefits" thereof. In the end, that is pretty "weak tea."

Agnosticism is a statement, a mood, a posture. It thrives in the intellectual oxygen of coffee houses and cocktail conversations. But outside of those artificial environments, in the real world where life is lived, the atmosphere supports only belief and unbelief.

It may well be that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it is certain that there are no agnostics there, or anywhere else on terra firma. 

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