Religion vs. agnostic know-nothings

By  Ian Hunter
  • September 30, 2010
Not long ago I was invited, along with half a dozen other men, to debate the proposition: “Resolved: That agnosticism is the only honest religious position.”

It was an old-fashioned evening — shades of the 1860 debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley when Huxley said he would rather be descended from an ape than from a bishop (alas, an often sympathetic position) — but it was enjoyable all the same. Afterwards, one participant remarked: “I didn’t know people met to discuss serious questions.”

Each participant got five minutes to state his position without interruption. When all had finished, everyone could intervene freely to probe or comment upon what others had said. Then followed a free-for-all discussion. The format worked well. After precisely two hours, we shut off debate, had a cup of tea, and departed into the night.

I contended that the proposition that agnosticism is the only honest religious position, while useful to provoke discussion, suffered three basic flaws: it is an oxymoron; it is contrary to human experience and therefore likely to be false; and  it is a placebo for the spiritually timid.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines agnosticism as the belief that nothing beyond material phenomena can possibly be known.

Given that definition, the proposition is an oxymoron. It refutes itself. If nothing about religion can reliably be known, then it cannot be known whether anything about religion can reliably be known. If it is impossible to decide the truth or falsity of religious claims, then it is impossible to decide whether agnosticism is a preferable religious claim to even the narrowest or most fanatical religious prejudice.

Like all deconstructionist propositions, it deconstructs itself. It is a variation on the old “All men are liars” conundrum; if true, it must be false. If false — if indeed all men are not liars — then the person making the assertion cannot be believed for he is himself a liar.

An oxymoron does not advance understanding. It serves only to inveigle one into self-contradiction.

Second, if indeed agnosticism is the only honest religious position, this is contrary to human experience in other fields of human endeavour, and therefore unlikely to be true. If it were impossible to decide truth or falsity in other areas, human advancement would be impossible. Take science and medicine, for example; these disciplines would be stillborn. But, you say, these are “hard” sciences. True enough, but agnosticism would also render music, art, invention and philosophy impossible.

Philosophy’s rules of logic are as inexorable as the rules of mathematics; indeed they are often corollaries to the rules of mathematics. Logic stipulates that propositions can be tested for truth and falsity. But the proposition as framed denies the possibility of truth or falsity in respect of one particular area of human inquiry, religion. At very least, a proponent of a proposition so contrary to human experience bears a heavy onus to prove why and how religion is so unusual, so idiosyncratic, that it is the one area in which deeper, truer understanding is, by definition, impossible.

Finally, the proposition appeals to the spiritually timid. Its attraction is that it gives the illusion of a safe harbour in a roiling sea. In fact, it offers no harbour, only spiritual seasickness. It leaves the voyager without a compass (for Christians, the Bible); without a guide (for Christians, Jesus Christ); without a destination (for Christians, heaven); and without a hope (for Christians, resurrection). Other religions, too, have their holy writ, guide and destiny, but I contrast agnosticism with Christianity because it is the religion I profess.

Aimless in a churning sea, the timid agnostic frets that he might put ashore in the wrong harbour. Admittedly, that is a possibility. But perhaps even a false harbour is better than no harbour at all. And, just perhaps, there are no false harbours; perhaps there are only different harbours along a solid coastline.

The psalmist of the Old Testament wrote: “The fool has said in his heart: ‘There is no God.’” More honest, more commendable, is the atheist fool, for he is more likely to be right than the agnostic know-nothing.

(Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.