Believing Without Proof
“You can’t be both a believer in God and an agnostic,” I am told.
“Well then,” I reply, “which am I not? Because I think I’m both. I believe in a personal God who created the world and cares about his creatures, and I pray to him daily – often hourly. Am I not a believer?”
“If you say so, I guess you are. But then you’re not an agnostic.”
There, I think, is the nub of the dispute. Most people think an agnostic is one who does not believe in God. And most people who call themselves agnostics probably don’t. But agnosticism per se does not exclude belief. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “agnostic” as: “A person who holds the view that nothing can be known of the existence of God or of anything beyond material phenomena.”
“Agnostic” Does Not Mean “Unbeliever”
Here's my simple working definition: “An agnostic is one who says we can’t know whether there is a God or not. His existence can’t be proven, and it can’t be disproven.” This does not conflict with the more formal language, above. To state, as OED does, that nothing can be known of the existence of God is not to say God doesn’t exist. It speaks of the limits of our knowledge, not the limits of reality.
OED gives eleven definitions of “know.” The one most on point for us – and most revealing -- is the tenth: “Comprehend as fact or truth; understand with clearness and certainty. Freq[uently] opp[osed to] Believe." To know is to have certainty, and that’s often seen as the opposite of believing. To say we can’t know of the existence of God is not to say we can’t believe in it. I say we can’t know of the existence of God, which makes me an agnostic. But I believe in it – very strongly.
A. Philosophical Position
We’re not just parsing words here; we’re touching on the complexity of human nature and a distinction (almost a dichotomy) that even philosophers often miss. We are many-faceted creatures. When my rational mind – after utmost exertion -- concludes that we can’t know whether there is a God or not, that his existence can’t be either proven or disproven, my mind has done all it can. In terms of philosophical position I’m an agnostic.
B. Personal Belief
But it doesn’t end there -- because I’m not a disembodied mind. I’m a human being with a physical, emotional, social, and – I submit – even a spiritual life. Here I am, on an obscure planet, adrift on the great sea of time, trying to figure out who and what I am and where I’m going, in the short term and the long term. And wondering if the long term ever ends. I have to move on. Get from here to there. Plot a course, form strategies, make assumptions, and draw conclusions from limited evidence. In evaluating my situation, mundane and cosmic, the question of whether God exists has profound relevance. Philosophy and science don’t answer it. In that department I’m an agnostic. But the imperatives of a reflective human life require that I form an opinion on what I can’t know, that I proceed as if there is a personal and loving God or as if there is not.
At age twenty I came to believe that there was no God. That was my chosen creed. So I was an agnostic philosophically, and an atheist in personal belief. Years later, without changing my philosophical position, I embraced theism and later still the Christian faith. So I am in fact an agnostic and a Christian.
Do I contend that agnosticism is the only right philosophical view and that everyone, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims, should be philosophically agnostic? Here I’m a little inconsistent. I do hold that agnosticism is the most reasonable view. But if believers in God think they can prove his existence, I won’t argue against them. I would be glad if they’re right and I’m wrong. I will argue against atheist claims that they can prove God does not exist. As one who has chosen to believe, I have a strong bias in favor of the God hypothesis. I would not impose it on anyone, but I will defend its reasonableness against attacks.
Uncertainty and Faith
The last point I will make here is important though not novel. The essence of believing is to hold as true what you cannot prove. OED in its nine definitions of “believe” uses such phrases as “have confidence or faith in… hold an opinion, think… give credence to… hold as true the existence of….” All imply an element of uncertainty.
We don’t believe in the existence of the house we live in. We know it’s there; our senses confirm its reality. We don’t believe in the law of gravity. We experience and deal with it all the time. I contend that we can’t believe in God if God’s existence is an absolute certainty. If that were so, we would be knowers, not believers, and our religion would be a body of knowledge, not a faith. When in the gospels Jesus urged people to believe, he was asking them to hold as true something unproven – often something that seemed incredible. That challenging fusion of belief with uncertainty is what makes faith a virtue. And it should make believers tolerant of philosophical agnosticism, even if they think God’s existence as provable as gravity.