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.”