Agnosticism as a Guide

What should we believe?  I had an interesting exchange with someone on Twitter.  The person acknowledged agnosticism is a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry.  He went on to say that atheism is simply a position concerning religious belief and it doesn’t guide anything.  Agnosticism is a methodology of honesty towards existence that should guide our beliefs.  Thomas Henry Huxley created the term and said this about it:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle…Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

The person I was chatting with also said agnosticism is simply a position regarding religious knowledge and that there are agnostic theists.  The use of the agnostic adjective to describe faith-based theistic beliefs is like saying there are female theists.  One has very little to do with the other even though both labels are accurate.  Theism makes no claims of knowledge and agnostic theism doesn’t modify the term at all.  Additionally, if you apply agnosticism to your religious viewpoint then you “do not pretend that conclusions are certain” which is entirely what theism does.  Believing in a religion is a leap of faith to believe in the unproven using a deliberate defiance of your own reason. One of my favorite paragraphs from Huxley is:

 I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution of existing religions. On trial of any so-called miracle the verdict of science is “Not proven.” But true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which “are not dreamt of in our philosophy.” The theological “gnosis” would have us believe that the world is a conjuror’s house; the anti-theological “gnosis” talks as if it were a “dirt-pie” made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.

Someone can technically call themselves an agnostic theist just as someone could call themselves a gnostic atheist to claim knowledge for their disbelief, but both extremes are missing the point of the term they’re using to describe their belief position. I’m told repeatedly by atheists that atheism is only a “lack of theistic belief” and isn’t the same as an anti-theistic claim that theism is proven to be false. On this, Bertrand Russel said:

…an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.

I agree that atheism is just a position. It exists to describe the rejection of religion and if there weren’t any theistic beliefs then there wouldn’t be a need for the term. It doesn’t guide or inform anyone of what they should believe since it’s only the destination. Just as Christianity or Buddhism is the path to religious beliefs, agnosticism can serve as the path to disbelief in things we can’t honestly know.

I’m a de facto atheist in agreement with a weak atheist position that simply says I “lack theistic beliefs.”  I don’t have any sort of proof or knowledge that leads me to reject the religions around me.  I don’t adopt the religions that people try to share with me because I have an honest guide in agnosticism which “simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.”

Liberty and Religions

The country of my birth talks a lot about liberty and freedom and we’re approaching our Independence Day on July 4th. This has me thinking a little about our liberties. Simply put, liberty is our freedom to have control over our own actions and take responsibility for our actions. I say we must take responsibility for our actions because sometimes people want to push their responsibilities off on imaginary friends. I see liberty as the gift we give each other when we value our own individual lives. Liberty isn’t something granted to our existence through the kindness of a god as our master. Robert Ingersoll said this of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin in one of his most popular lectures, titled Individuality:

They knew that to put God in the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality and liberty of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.

Ingersoll provided two different ways to live with many example contrasts for the natural or supernatural in his lecture Which Way? He spoke of people depriving others liberty when they lack the courage to enjoy their human rights. When you put yourself under the yoke and command of religion then you see no problem with turning others into servants as well to further justify your subservience.

One way is to be an honest man, giving to others your thought, standing erect, intrepid, careless of phantoms and hells.

The other way is to cringe and crawl, to betray your nobler self and to deprive others of the liberty that you have not the courage to enjoy.

Ingersoll said liberty was his religion in his lecture called About The Holy Bible where he speaks about the people that believe in the Bible.

They forget its ignorance and savagery, its hatred of liberty, its religious persecution; they remember heaven, but they forget the dungeon of eternal pain. They forget that it imprisons the brain and corrupts the heart. They forget that it is the enemy of intellectual freedom. Liberty is my religion. Liberty of hand and brain — of thought and labor, liberty is a word hated by kings — loathed by popes. It is a word that shatters thrones and altars — that leaves the crowned without subjects, and the outstretched hand of superstition without alms. Liberty is the blossom and fruit of justice — the perfume of mercy. Liberty is the seed and soil, the air and light, the dew and rain of progress, love and joy.

Trying to spread and apply religion to every person in a society is counter to the ideals of liberty. Religious beliefs and faith do not lead to freedom and in my view do not lead to true happiness. On this 4th of July when you think about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, think also about the liberty and happiness of those of us that don’t believe in your religion if you have faith in one. In return, I’ll think about your liberty and happiness and your society given right to keep your religion and leave me out of it.