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  Columnist: Edward Crabtree

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The new agnostics

Posted on Sunday, 26 January, 2014 | 15 comments
Columnist: Edward Crabtree

'Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler, but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat' Sir Julian Huxley. It was the holiday season that brought you into the church this evening. Around you the candles and the gold decorations and the polished flagstones impart a sense of solemnity.

Yet none of this trussed up folklore is for you .The hour is getting late. You light one of the candles out of respect and soon you are out of the church, ready for the comfort of home.

The night air bites and it is dark. Up above, however, you behold the beauty and mystery of the firmament. You take this in for a while before returning home....

The clash of beliefs.

What makes for the biggest fault line of the twenty tens? Could it be that between those who build bridges and those who blow them up? Or perhaps it is hunger for regional identities in strife with free market driven globalisation? Then again, what about those who want all to be treated alike versus those who cling to the ranks of tradition? Maybe all of these play a part, but informing them all is a philosophical cold war. This takes place between those who acknowledge a divine creator and those who do not.

The most potent form of the former has been the monotheism propagated by ancient Hebrew tribes. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle – themselves from a polytheistic background –then refined this idea and so the universe ruling, all-powerful God of the Abrahamic religions became known to us. Since that time, mankind’s relationship with Him has concentrated the minds of all the greatest thinkers.

These religions are still very much present: this is most obvious in the Middle East where two forms of it are at daggers drawn. In North America Christianity and the degree to which it is and should be practiced has become a thorny political matter. In the United Kingdom, probably more so than in the rest of Western Europe, we have developed a culture which is secular in a passive way. The people who go to Church are in a small, and declining, minority. The last imprisonment for blasphemy occurred in 1842; the only time when faith and its relationship with the law arises is when the debate about the 'right to die' is raised, as it is more and more. In the last fifteen years this implicit secularism has hardened into open atheism. Our establishment could once be depended upon to sing from the same hymn sheet, and the song was a (pallid) Christian one. Now, however, and Oxford professor renowned for his work on genetics, one Richard Dawkins, has used his high pitched voice to rally support in his crusade against the 'God delusion'. Joining him has been a gaggle of trendsetting court jesters, the best known of which is Ricky Gervais.

John Humphrys – who we shall meet later –has called our time 'the age of intolerance' where 'apathy has given way to outright hostility' (Humphrys, p-68-70.)

What might have reinforced this new 'intolerance' was the toppling of the Twin Towers by kamikaze pilots spurned on by the promise of glory in an after-life. As much as the new atheists like bait Christians in their rhetoric, such event is the background to it. The Old Questions Return.

One outcome of this is that talk about God has once again animated the reading public. Books and websites for and against the Lord have multiplied. A chat show philosopher, Andrew Pessin, has condensed millennia of debate around Theism into digestible morsels in The God Question (2009). How about this: if God is all powerful then he must have the ability to make a rock which is so heavy that no-one can move it. If God, however, is all powerful then he himself would be able to move this 'immovable' rock – which means that the rock is not in fact immovable. Ergo God cannot create an immovable rock and is therefore not all-powerful after all....Over to you.

Then atheists have resurrected an age-old child’s question: why would a loving creator sit back and watch tragic events happen to decent people? God may have granted us the freewill to do bad things but what about, for instance, those families in the Philippines whose lives were wrecked by natural forces?

Atheists lay claim to science as their own (Dawkins has even elevated Charles Darwin to high priest status). They say that science is at work to help with calamities such as occurred in the Philippines but that most of the other world problems are the result of religious belief.

Believers reply that, at worst, religions have only sanctified human conflicts and not started them. They also point about that there are Godless regimes every bit as brutal as any inspired by religion: North Korea, for example.

Besides, the materialism preached by the non-believer crowd does not lead to the gentle humanism which they profess; more often it encourages a tawdry consumerism in which 'do what thou wilt' becomes the only law. Whole swathes of human experience, in the meantime, get ridden roughshod over: the need for solace and to contemplate the infinite.

The beginnings of an 'Agnostic Faith'.

In this ideological meltdown a new approach is being smelted: Positive doubt. In a recent survey 10% of Americans defined themselves as agnostics. There are reasons to believe that more are to be found in Western Europe. The agnostic refuses to make a final judgement as to the existence of God. To the theist and atheist alike he says 'a pox on both your houses'.

Agnostics, says John Humphrys, 'are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of god unprovable...and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of faith undeniable' (Humphrys. P-335.)

This comes from In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist which caused a stir six years ago in the UK. This conveyed the thoughts not of a philosopher or even a gag writer but a hard-nosed journalist-cum-Grand Old Man of broadcasting. Having conducted a series of radio interviews with clergymen, rabbis and imams he had found their answers to be wanting but still felt that the new atheists were missing something too. He concludes:

'As for me, it is difficult to understand the existence of conscience without accepting the existence of something outside ourselves' (Humphrys, p-268.)

The term 'agnostic' came to be coined by T.H, Huxley - 'Darwin’s bulldog' -in the late Victorian era, when he was looking for a way to define his position in relation to both the clergymen and scientists who went head-to-head at the Metaphysical society in London. It makes doubt the guiding principle. Nowadays, it is a reply to the cocksure village atheist as much as the devout.

At present, says the agnostic, there is no cause to make a definite claim to the existence or non-existence of God .A theist says he knows God but in the same breath tells us that this God is beyond time and space and hence unknowable to us; the atheist is positive that there is no God, but the science which he champions seems to seek a substitute in the form of immutable laws and prime movers: the 'God particle' and the 'Big Bang' etc.

Besides, some agnostics add, can this argument be as important as we assume? In what ways would our lives really change were the issue to be resolved?

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell identified himself on more than one occasion as an agnostic. He caught the spirit of it when he was asked what he would say to his maker if he met him after his death. 'Why did you not provide better evidence for your existence? ' Would be Russell’s (non-rhetorical) plea.

Another prominent agnostic was Charles Darwin. All too aware of the brutishness of nature, he could not conceive how any God would oversee the suffering of ignorant animals. Nevertheless, he felt that there must be a first cause behind the universe, including natural selection.

'The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us', he said. 'And I for one must be content to remain an agnostic' Dawkins take note!

The comfort of unknowing.

Could agnosticism ever hope to equal the appeal of certainty that both believers and disbelievers profess? If you look at websites devoted to agnosticism you will see posts by atheists who leave room for doubt followed by doubtful proponents of the possibility of God. Indeed, agnostic theism was foreshadowed by Soren Kiekergaard who regarded uncertainty as central to the religious experience.

In his footsteps comes Don Cupitt. A one-time Anglican priest, he began to ask himself how, in a globalised world without 'global religious vocabulary' is 'the individual religious person to get by? ' (Cupitt. P-89.) He anticipates a type of religion which will 'not be a supernatural doctrine but an experiment in self-hood' (Cupitt, p-82.) God, for this agnostic Christian, is dead, but conspicuous by his absence. He argues that we might 'one day visit churches in order to be prompted to talk to God in the same way that we visit graves'. He adds: 'Love for a god who is dead is a very pure and religious kind of love. (Cupitt. P-87)

Filling The God-Shaped Hole.

Cupitt takes one crucial step further: he suggests that the very absence of god can itself become the focus of our spiritual yearnings: '...we should use the Discipline of the Void, meditation on the underlying emptiness and nothingness, as a background against which to set and see the flux of our life...thus replace the old metaphysical God' (Cupitt, p-89.)

This is a nod to Eastern styles of thought and should come as no surprise to those acquainted with the Westernised form of Zen Buddhism that Alan Watts preached. Some have called this 'atheist spirituality'.

As we negotiate the twenty first century it becomes clear that neither blind worship nor nihilistic materialism can meet the demands of our times. Organised religion seems to be an impediment to the Type 1 Civilisation that we find ourselves impelled to build; mechanistic science, meanwhile, is being leapt over by 'fuzzy' post-Einstein physics. Agnosticism, easily derided as a muddy third position, starts to look more like one of the stars that could guide us through this cold dark night outside the church.

Edward Crabtree.


Cupitt, Don After God: The Future of Religion (London: Weidenfield & Nicholson.1997)

Humphrys, John In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist (G.B, Hodder & Stoughton, an Hachette Lure UK company, 2007)

Pessin, Andrew The God Question (Oxford, Oneworld Publications, 2009)

Smart, J.J Atheism and Agnosticism (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Online), 2011)

Article Copyright© Edward Crabtree - reproduced with permission.

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