Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
Mainstream agnosticism about God is often held as the most “rationalist” position because, at the end of the day, it seems that intellectual honesty requires us to admit that we don’t know whether there is a God or not. On the contrary, the opposing positions are considered dogmatic: theism and atheism demand that God either exists or not on dubious grounds or on no ground at all.
In this letter I will try to show that rationalism doesn’t support the mainstream conception of agnosticism any more than it does with theism or atheism. Indeed, mainstream theism and atheism stand much better rational scrutiny than their agnostic counterpart. The conclusion I hope to reach is that, contrarily to theism and atheism, agnosticism needs sophistication to be upheld: its mainstream version is vulnerable to an inescapable trilemma.
Agnostics about God are people who suspend their judgment about the existence of God: they do not know whether God exists. In its mainstream version, agnosticism is made compatible with scientific progress and is usually contrasted with religious theism and atheism because it blocks the antiscientific demand of making statements about something beyond the reach of our sensorial-intellectual-rational means. This compatibility (and limitation) with respect to science is what I think motivates many agnostics to believe in the rationalism of their position.
Now, how do agnostics understand their worldview more generally? In my opinion, they must hold one of the following three positions: they either do not care, they live as if God existed, or they live as if God didn’t exist. I don’t see any further position for them to hold, unless they start defending much more sophisticated versions of agnosticism. Unfortunately, these three possibilities get transformed into an inescapable trilemma, jeopardizing their rationalist ambitions.
Let’s start with the first horn of the trilemma: agnosticism as “I don’t care”. The problem with this position is that the existence of God seems to be a very different question than the existence of unicorns, fairies or goblins. No one cares if these latter exist or not, but God is different: its existence gives norms for the whole universe and human life, its nonexistence makes it the case that human beings are “left on their own”. Hence, the first horn either becomes a stubborn “non-position” in the sense of refusing to engage with the topic, or it gets reduced to one of the latter horns.
We move now to the second horn: agnosticism “as if God existed”. This means that agnostics shall find ways to live with the norms and according to the existence of God. For instance, try to decipher the scientific universe, morality and providence as if there were a unified, supernatural intelligence determining everything. They do not necessarily need to “go to church” (to a mosque, synagogue or temple), but they shall engage in interpreting reality as if there were a universal designer. However, even if this doesn’t make them necessarily “religious”, their actual position is indistinguishable from the one of a theist: indeed, acting “as if God existed” means nothing but believing in God’s existence.
The agnostic has still a third move, leading to the third horn of the trilemma: agnosticism “as if God didn’t exist”. In this case, the agnostic thinks that, even if she doesn’t know whether God literally exists or not, she is going to try to construct her normative system and her understanding of the universe independently of anything supernatural. But this position is indistinguishable from atheism! Atheists do not need to believe that there is no God: they just live without God. Atheism would be justified even if God truly existed but had no influence on reality or there were no way to decipher his message. From a perspective limited by an earthly existence, an unreachable God and a nonexistent God are pretty much the same.
To sum up: the trilemma shows that mainstream agnosticism becomes a stubborn “non-position”, or gets reduced to either theism or atheism. This of course doesn’t mean that more sophisticated versions of agnosticism couldn’t avoid the trilemma.
Agnosticism could reinforce its relativist component and try to give credit to both theism and atheism depending on different social-cultural-moral-theoretical contexts. Or it could stress its openness and tolerance for different understandings of the world. However, a relativization of agnosticism would hardly avoid strong tensions with science and structural contradictions, and must give up rationalist demands.
Another way to defend agnosticism would be to strengthen its skeptical component and accept a “soft atheistic position” without the rationalist faith in the human capability to live a good life without God. This time, however, agnosticism would risk to fall into unsustainable normative nihilism – giving up any form of normativity, even scientific.
Sometimes, it is hard to draw the line between atheism and agnosticism, and it might often sound as if the distinction is just one of interchangeable words. Still, what I wanted to show, is that mainstream agnostics shouldn’t be as laid-back as they often are: theism and atheism weren’t born in a day, and the shaking of shoulders won’t pose serious threats to their rationalist defense.