the radical agnostic

April 9, 2008

If there is any peril in having a reality-based outlook at a time when religion seems to be on a lot of people’s minds, I think it comes from those who have yet to learn the main lesson of the 20th century: diversity and nature are more important than personal conviction.

I call myself a ‘radical agnostic’.

A radical agnostic couldn’t care less about questions of providence, creation and the existence of God. However, the radical agnostic is bold enough to admit that after all there just miiiiight be a God who’ll ultimately round up all ‘reality-based’ outlookers and send them packing down to Hell.

The existence or inexistence of God, the transcendence or non-transcendence of dogmas, the need or non-need of tradition are questions that don’t make a jot of difference, cosmically speaking: our ignorance is so mind-bogglingly vast, and the possibility of finally bridging it so utterly remote, that both believing and disbelieving seem like acts of arrogance and presumption.

Indeed, religious beliefs get special help from arrogance and presumption. The radical agnostic sometimes suspects that “I believe” actually means “I want”:

“I want in God (to live well, not to suffer, to go to heaven, to live eternally, my enemies to suffer, &c).”

… and it’s no wonder that all religions seek to deny the very thing that promotes them: while their survival and growth depends mainly on family and ethnic ties more than on any inherent truth or strength in their dogmas, they at the same time try to cynically sustain that ‘believing’ is an expression of selflessness capable of helping to congregate white and black, rich and poor in a common ideal. Hmm. And you’d better start believing now, or else…!

Yes. Ironically, the message spread by gospels of all religions is, “believe, or else your soul won’t be able to reap the fruits desired by your animality,” fruits such as happiness, pleasure, memory and relief from pain. Forget spiritual rewards: belief is the hope you’ll get your animal urges satiated.

Atheists, of course, get their fair share of arrogance & presumption. Saying things like “I know there is no god.” has the same logical & presumption status as “I know what’s happening in Alpha Centauri right now.”

I may sound like I’m against anybody who’s not a radical agnostic. But I think diversity of nature is the key concept here. In spite of all I’ve said, I think humanity may slowly come to recognise that different people believe different things simply because they are differently constituted; therefore, arguing endlessly about what’s true or logical or believable will be seen in a more benevolent light for what it is: just a harmless pastime. Nobody knows anything, and humans will have to evolve into something greater than human before anything new is actually learnt.

I stand by my epigraph, always: “You’ll never get any further than plausible.”

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7 Responses to “the radical agnostic”

  1. Ed Says:

    A good analysis of the intolerance that exists today between the dogmatic believers and cultural and social secularists. Their mutual antipathy is neither productive nor rational. Each side seems to need to proselytize as some form of attempted vindication. They cannot continence any dissent lest it infect their own views which must therefore be more fragile than they dare or can admit. In the end, certainty is an illusion. Thanks.

  2. jrc Says:

    Great stuff. I consider myself a radical agnostic and have for a while. I decided to google the term and you were a top hit. Your essay is perfect and very well written. One of my favorite arguments to the believers goes: “Look around you, do you think that the creator of all of this cares whether you steal or boink your neighbors wife?” If you think rationally about it the probability is close to zero.
    The radical part of my radical agnosticism is that I feel that there is a creator (so I’m not athiest), but that there is no way that we could conceive of its existance because the creator would have to be in another reality. I dont believe that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, this requires an alternate reality from which to create our own. From our vantage point everything is plausible and unverifiable. Radical? Maybe. Then again Jesus may show up tomorrow…
    keep the faith ;-)>

  3. Jamie Says:

    Like the guy above, I googled ‘radical agnostic’ after deciding I was one.
    Well said piece.
    J.

  4. Permafrost Says:

    Thanks. I’ve since extended the definition of ‘radical agnostic’ a bit. Please take a look at my latest post.

  5. Greg Scott Says:

    A few years ago I too decided that radical agnosticism describes my position, and this was before I had done much reading on the topic. My thinking followed two main lines: The appeal to science as a proof that the deity does not exist, and the appeal to faith as a proof that it does exist.

    Many have claimed that the rational and productive methods and processes of science are categorically opposed to the existence of a deity; they claim that the supposed success of science is proof that the deity does not exist. With some careful thought one realizes that the methods and processes of science cannot bring any concept to the level of proof, to paraphrase Permafrost’s epigraph: ‘You’ll never get further than plausible.’ While it is true that objects falling to earth under the influence of earth’s gravity will very likely continue to do so in accordance with Newton’s equations, the very nature of gravity can never be understood beyond all possible future doubt. Einstein’s work, which cannot be mathematically derived from Newton’s equations, seemed for a while to have undone the ‘Law’ status of Newton’s work by introducing limits to it, and it is possible that Einstein’s concepts will be in some ways undone by Quantum or Membrane theory. No matter. Science is good at eliminating unsupportable hypotheses and theories, but has no mechanism by which a given theory is declared ‘off limits’. Even if a theory or ‘scientific law’ is untoppled for the rest of human existence in any form anywhere, the most that can be said is that the theory will not have been subjected to the critical test that would expose its flaws. And this will be true, even if the theory in question happens to actually be absolutely and unassailably true. And even if a theory happens to be unassailably true, there is no way to hold that our understanding of it comes close to the nature of the thing, whatever that may mean. So an appeal to science cannot lead to the conclusion that deity does not exist.

    Taking fundamentalist Christianity as a stepping-off point, the teaching is that the faith that leads to ‘salvation’ is not obtained through the merits or the efforts of people; this would result in the anti-biblical position of salvation by works and not by faith. There have been heroic efforts to ‘solve’ the difficulty this poses with regard to the choice of people regarding salvation. There are layers of subterfuge and double-talk, like ‘pre-venient grace’, or that we simply cannot understand the sacred mysteries involved. But however you cut the cake of grace, faith must come from God (according to prevailing Christian teaching) and God will in no way be surprised in the end time by some he wanted in heaven but sadly were not ‘witnessed to’, or by some who made it in who he did not choose to be there. He did all the choosing in eternities past, and there is no getting around it. The faith in question is a supernatural faith and is NOT obtainable by any human means whatsoever.

    From the above I conclude that whether or not an atheist appeals to science or some approach to natural reason, he must appeal to something ‘supernatural’ in order to claim proof that there is no deity. He must have something analogous to saving faith in order to claim ‘assurance’ that there is no deity. What could possibly be the basis for such a ‘faith’? What set of higher order concepts contains the dogma that there is no deity? While it is my opinion that there is no deity, I am not willing to appeal to some higher order as the basis or proof of my claim.

    So I hold that radical agnosticism is a stronger argument against belief in a deity than is atheism. It is in line with the skepticism (not cynicism) that is at the core of the best of human knowledge, and remains fearlessly open to whatever kinds of operationalizable questions we can ask, and to whatever kind of unambiguous tests that can be applied to them.

  6. Permafrost Says:

    Greg,
    Thank you for your extended comment. It’s been some time since I published this post and its sequel. In conversations with people I have found it rather hard to make the term “radical agnostic” understood, and about three months ago I stopped using it to define myself. I’ve since replaced it with a much better term —one that really says a lot of what I mean, particularly in the second post. I’ve been hoping to find the time to write about that decision and why I think I’ll stick to the new term for quite a while. I hope you drop by in the future and find a new post about it.

  7. emdrgreg Says:

    Hey, Permafrost. Thanks for your reply. I did drop by the other site after writing the above; I’ll go back. I don’t recall seeing the other term you mention. In the end, I suppose the term we use isn’t very important, but I’d like to hear more of your thoughts. The bottom line for me is that it is not prudent to claim any kind of assurance concerning most religious issues, and this certainly doesn’t imply what most people think when they hear ‘agnostic’– that a person is just on the fence, or having a ‘crisis of faith’.


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