Principled agnosticism is a more complicated system of thought than what British philosopher Julian Baggini calls flattering the woolly-minded
So, in an era that has brought us much talk of and much noise from the militant atheism campus what is “principled agnosticism”? The first recorded use of the phrase was by Madeleine Bunting, one of the more genuinely liberal writers still working for The Guardian newspaper, in a column published in April 2011 (Real debates about faith are drowned by the foghorn voices of militant atheists). The combination of words produces a strange, almost dissonant vibration in the mind. It looks odd too, as if trying to create a sturdy, hard edged container into which all vagueness and uncertainty in about spiritual matters can be stored. And yet what could a hard line, dogmatic atheism be about other than a kind of willful ignorance. And why should any kind of ignorance be regarded as valuable enough to be packed in a strongbox?
Atheism, “I do not believe in God;” is dogmatic and therefore can become a principle to be fought for. Agnosticism, “I am not convinced God either exists or does not exist,” is the nearest an agnostic can get to being principled about their position. In fact, if a fair and unbiased survey were carried out in Britain there would probably be as few hard line atheists as religious fundamentalists. Most people would probable fall between “Well I think it’s possible there’s something higher than us,” and “I never think about it at all, what happens happens and we just have to carry on.”
Many people are agnostic in the sense of not being sure about the beliefs and dogmas of religion. Polls are notoriously unreliable when it comes to indicating what populations supposedly believe, but a Harris poll carried out around the time Bunting’s article was published showed slightly over one third of British respondents said they were agnostic, about the same number as said they believe in a “supreme being”, and about twice the number who said they were atheists. Whatever the details, agnostics are out there, and in numbers. But can this state of unknowing be thought ‘principled’?
Personally, having read a great deal of both eastern and western philosophy I dislike the term atheist. If I want to be a complete arsehole when arguing with American evangelical Christians I will say I’m a Pagan Atheist because while a Judeo Christian atheist can only not believe in one God I don’t believe in thousands. In a way that is indicative of my position on religion. There are other concepts of the divine besides that of the Abrahamic religions and some I find very interesting. There is a lot of evidence for example that among the Greeks and Romans between three thousand and fifteen hundred years ago, educated people did not believe in their Gods, Zeus, Mercury, Venus, Athena et al as conscious beings and the same way as Christians have believed in God. It was the same with the pagans of northern and western Europe too. They did not believe that sacrificing a rooster or a lamb or dancing naked round a bonfire while chanting hymns to the appropriate divinity would guarantee success in any venture, they knew it could do no harm.
Just as religionists can be divided into different levels of belief so can Agnostics. “I’m Church of England many people will say though since they were baptized the extent of their religious faith has been attendance at weddings, christenings and funerals, at the other extreme a Bible literalists who read the text as the word of God and try to live by it. The first type on agnosticism can be described as the ” yeah, whatever” agnostic, people who don’t know and don’t care whether religion is a good or bad, they simply don’t think about it. They care so little that they can’t even be arsed saying they don’t believe in God.
A second category might be termed the atheistically-inclined agnostics, they do not believe in God nor are they likely to ever embrace a religious faith but they are intellectually honest enough to admit the non existence can never be proved. Mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell fell into this group.. He used to tell the story of being asked his religion when, in 1918, he was sentenced to a spell in prison. He describes how the prison officer could not spell “agnostic” and had even more difficulty understanding what it meant. As late as 1918, in the aftermath of World War 1 it was so inconceivable to a poorly educated person that somebody did not believe in God many were ignorant of the terms used to describe such attitudes. Russell adopted his agnostic position for strictly philosophical reasons. He recognized that any purported proof for God’s nonexistence could never be conclusive. So his atheistic inclinations had to do with intuitive feeling rather than pure reason.
A third kind of agnosticism is almost the direct opposite of Russell’s beliefs. Religiously-inclined agnosticism is found among people who cannot bring themselves to believe in the Judeo – Christian ideal of God but find the idea of religion and it’s rituals and prayers appealing. For them religion is about belonging, being part of a community, or perhaps about the cultural aspects of faith as the inspiration of so much great art, music and literature. Individuals who find themselves in this camp agree that the question of God is likely never to be settled. However, they cannot discard the feeling or instinct that there’s something beyond conscious understanding in the religious way of life that can be of great value in giving meaning to individuals lives and binding communities together. The English playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett, best know for The Madness Of King George and the stage hit “The History Boys”, writing in his memoir “Untold Stories” described his love of churches, particularly old churches, ecclesiastical art and architecture and religious music but admitted that he cannot bring himself to believe in God. Bennett made it clear his love of church buildings is not confined to the great Gothic cathedrals but includes small village churches as well. In spite of my own unbelief I understand just what he means. There are many small medieval churches in the area around my home that are not only in wonderful settings and are an integral part of the landscape but are such a rich repository of history too.
As Alan Bennett and others have noted, one of the mysteries of religion lies in its ability to inspire cultural endeavor. From the sacred architect of Zoroastrian and Hebrew temples in the middle east and the ornate beauty of Hindu temples in India to the Moorish mosques of North Africa and southern Spain the inspirational flame is present. From the plainsong chants of medieval Monastic communities to the music of Johan Sebastian Bach and on into twentieth century works there is a continuous thread of inspiration.
Maybe the bond of community that was underpinned by participation in communal worship and shared ritual, from the tribal ceremonies and festivals connects us to what Jung called “the common consciousness”. These practices emerged first in the most primitive hunter – gatherer communities and developed into church-going as human development progressed through several stages. . It might be the way that religious language and ritual appears to reflect something fundamental in the human psyche, namely that we need what Keats called a “negative capability” – the capacity to live happily with the manifold uncertainties that surround us. God-talk, when divinity is recognized as being unknown and beyond our reach, can be a powerful expression of that.
Mention of Keats brings the discussion to the first great agnostic movement, the eighteenth and nineteenth century Romantics. “Romantic” is not used here in the sense of a romantic novel aka bodice ripper or of a Hollywood rom – com but in the sense of a Romanesque world view, a yearning as the “dark, satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution darkened the skies with coal smoke and the human soul with inescapable drudgery. The Romantics, primarily a literary movement that included Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelly, Byron Keats and on their periphery William Blake, longed for a more innocent, pastoral existence that that the parallel Age of Reason and nascent industrial era seemed to offer. The enlightenment philosophers had dared to question the notion that the great universal truth lay in God. The scientists had held out the promise that science and reason would provide the answers to all questions. The Romantics however looked at the nightmarish world science was leading towards, the authoritarianism of capital replacing the authoritarianism of church and crown, and they understood science alone was not enough to free people to fulfill their potential.
While most Romantics professed themselves to be either agnostic or atheist, some, Coleridge and Blake to the fore, were deeply religious, mystical in fact. But their religious faith was vastly different to the teachings of the established churches.
It is in this perspective that the notion of principled agnosticism starts to make sense. It could be referred to as having an “agnostic spirit”. Moreover, once one is aware of it, the idea starts to appear in many surprising places.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury recently spoke on climate change, he argued that we humans need to develop a deeper understanding of the limits of our knowledge of the world in which we live. Gaia to borrow James Lovelock’s metaphor for Earth’s eco system is bigger than us and to ignore that fact is hubris. Further, only with such an attitude can we hope to mitigate the damage that comes about as a result of a misplaced confidence in our ability to manipulate and control things. To put it another way, Dr. Williams was urging humanity (or English speaking humans at least) to develop an ethos of principled agnosticism in response to climate change. We should not offer unquestioning belief to the Hockey Stick god of climate science but nor should we close our eyes to what is going on around us.
Not long ago, on trying to introduce a note of reason in a forum dominated by climate science fanatics I suggested that if carbon dioxide pollution was responsible for changes in weather systems, then with three hundred years momentum behind it, the juggernaut is not going to be turned round quickly even if we were to shut down the oil wells, coal mines and power stations that depend on them overnight. The fury of the mob (which Bill Gates and others like to refer to as the wisdom of the crowd) that was directed at me resembled the “Two Minutes Hate” in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
Thus as the militant atheists rage against religion we see that a fanatical devotion to science has led them to turn it into a quasi religious belief system and deploy the tactics of The Inquisition against those who question it.
The philosopher John Gray has written extensively on the dangers of a confident belief in progress– what you might call ‘progressivism’ or the ideas of “progressive liberals (USA) or the “progressive left” (UK, Australia, Canada) and the notion that it is humankind’s destiny to improve their lot. This is dangerous when it seeks to transcend what are actually innate human flaws, to change human nature by legislation.. Politics becomes authoritarian when it tries to eradicate prejudice, parochialism and mistrust of what is different and alien to us. Those imperfections are part of us, they are a relic of tribalism and also the dark side of the religious instinct and associated ethical imperative to serve others. The twentieth century’s obsessive self interest, flirtations with eugenics which was of the political left not the right (Hitler’s political movement was called The National Socialist Party) and inspired by Social Darwinism and the utopianism of the Labour movement after it was hijacked by left wing elitists would be a disturbing case in point. ‘Scientific and technological advance has not, and cannot, diminish the realm of mystery and tragedy in which it is our lot to dwell,’ Gray has written. Again, he is invoking the agnostic spirit first identified by the Romantics as conducive to human flourishing because it alerts us to our delusions of omnipotence.
The medical scientist and writer, Raymond Tallis, provides a different reflection on this stance in an article on ‘knowingness’in the current issue of Philosophy Now. It illustrates an important point, namely that to be agnostic is not somehow to be against the growth of knowledge. Rather, it arises precisely because of increases in human knowledge. Tallis deploys the metaphor of a circle. If the circle represents the domain of knowledge, and grows larger with human discoveries, that also leads to greater contact with uncertainty, the boundary between what is known and unknown represented by the circle’s circumference. Thus, he avers, “a small mind finds a small world to match it, and the smaller the mind the more it feels it has the world sussed.”
Principled agnosticism, then, is the practice of open mindedness which brings with it a kind of humility. Once concept of Hinduism and Buddhism is to see life as a journey, a quest for knowledge and understanding; the culmination of he quest, the ultimate knowledge is to reach the end of our journey and understand we know nothing.
An agnostic spirit coupled with a principled approach then, actually broadens the mind.
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