What is an Agnostic?
Oleh: Bertrand Russell
What Is an agnostic?
An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.
Are agnostics atheists?
No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.
Since you deny `God’s Law’, what authority do you accept as a guide to conduct?
An Agnostic does not accept any `authority’ in the sense in which religious people do. He holds that a man should think out questions of conduct for himself. Of course, he will seek to profit by the wisdom of others, but he will have to select for himself the people he is to consider wise, and he will not regard even what they say as unquestionable. He will observe that what passes as `God’s law’ varies from time to time. The Bible says both that a woman must not marry her deceased husband’s brother, and that, in certain circumstances, she must do so. If you have the misfortune to be a childless widow with an unmarried brother-in-law, it is logically impossible for you to avoid disobeying `God’s law’.
How do you know what is good and what is evil? What does an agnostic consider a sin?
The Agnostic is not quite so certain as some Christians are as to what is good and what is evil. He does not hold, as most Christians in the past held, that people who disagree with the government on abstruse points of theology ought to suffer a painful death. He is against persecution, and rather chary of moral condemnation.
As for `sin’, he thinks it not a useful notion. He admits, of course, that some kinds of conduct are desirable and some undesirable, but he holds that the punishment of undesirable kinds is only to be commended when it is deterrent or reformatory, not when it is inflicted because it is thought a good thing on its own account that the wicked should suffer. It was this belief in vindictive punishment that made men accept Hell. This is part of the harm done by the notion of `sin’.
Does an agnostic do whatever he pleases?
In one sense, no; in another sense, everyone does whatever he pleases. Suppose, for example, you hate someone so much that you would like to murder him. Why do you not do so? You may reply: “Because religion tells me that murder is a sin.” But as a statistical fact, agnostics are not more prone to murder than other people, in fact, rather less so. They have the same motives for abstaining from murder as other people have. Far and away the most powerful of these motives is the fear of punishment. In lawless conditions, such as a gold rush, all sorts of people will commit crimes, although in ordinary circumstances they would have been law-abiding. There is not only actual legal punishment; there is the discomfort of dreading discovery, and the loneliness of knowing that, to avoid being hated, you must wear a mask with even your closest intimates. And there is also what may be called “conscience”: If you ever contemplated a murder, you would dread the horrible memory of your victim’s last moments or lifeless corpse. All this, it is true, depends upon your living in a law-abiding community, but there are abundant secular reasons for creating and preserving such a community.
I said that there is another sense in which every man does as he pleases. No one but a fool indulges every impulse, but what holds a desire in check is always some other desire. A man’s anti-social wishes may be restrained by a wish to please God, but they may also be restrained by a wish to please his friends, or to win the respect of his community, or to be able to contemplate himself without disgust. But if he has no such wishes, the mere abstract concepts of morality will not keep him straight.
How does an agnostic regard the Bible?
An agnostic regards the Bible exactly as enlightened clerics regard it. He does not think that it is divinely inspired; he thinks its early history legendary, and no more exactly true than that in Homer; he thinks its moral teaching sometimes good, but sometimes very bad. For example: Samuel ordered Saul, in a war, to kill not only every man, woman, and child of the enemy, but also all the sheep and cattle. Saul, however, let the sheep and the cattle live, and for this we are told to condemn him. I have never been able to admire Elisha for cursing the children who laughed at him, or to believe (what the Bible asserts) that a benevolent Deity would send two she-bears to kill the children.
How does an agnostic regard Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Holy Trinity?
Since an agnostic does not believe in God, he cannot think that Jesus was God. Most agnostics admire the life and moral teachings of Jesus as told in the Gospels, but not necessarily more than those of certain other men. Some would place him on a level with Buddha, some with Socrates and some with Abraham Lincoln. Nor do they think that what He said is not open to question, since they do not accept any authority as absolute.
They regard the Virgin Birth as a doctrine taken over from pagan mythology, where such births were not uncommon. (Zoroaster was said to have been born of a virgin; Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, is called the Holy Virgin.) They cannot give credence to it, or to the doctrine of the Trinity, since neither is possible without belief in God.
Can an agnostic be a Christian?
The word “Christian” has had various different meanings at different times. Throughout most of the centuries since the time of Christ, it has meant a person who believed God and immortality and held that Christ was God. But Unitarians call themselves Christians, although they do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and many people nowadays use the word “God” in a much less precise sense than that which it used to bear. Many people who say they believe in God no longer mean a person, or a trinity of persons, but only a vague tendency or power or purpose immanent in evolution. Others, going still further, mean by “Christianity” merely a system of ethics which, since they are ignorant of history, they imagine to be characteristic of Christians only.
When, in a recent book, I said that what the world needs is “love, Christian love, or compassion,” many people thought this showed some changes in my views, although in fact, I might have said the same thing at any time. If you mean by a “Christian” a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then, certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian. And, in this sense, I think you will find more “Christians” among agnostics than among the orthodox. But, for my part, I cannot accept such a definition. Apart from other objections to it, it seems rude to Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and other non-Christians, who, so far as history shows, have been at least as apt as Christians to practice the virtues which some modern Christians arrogantly claim as distinctive of their own religion.
I think also that all who called themselves Christians in an earlier time, and a great majority of those who do so at the present day, would consider that belief in God and immortality is essential to a Christian. On these grounds, I should not call myself a Christian, and I should say that an agnostic cannot be a Christian. But, if the word “Christianity” comes to be generally used to mean merely a kind of morality, then it will certainly be possible for an agnostic to be a Christian.
Does an agnostic deny that man has a soul?
This question has no precise meaning unless we are given a definition of the word “soul.” I suppose what is meant is, roughly, something nonmaterial which persists throughout a person’s life and even, for those who believe in immortality, throughout all future time. If this is what is meant, an agnostic is not likely to believe that man has a soul. But I must hasten to add that this does not mean that an agnostic must be a materialist. Many agnostics (including myself) are quite as doubtful of the body as they are of the soul, but this is a long story taking one into difficult metaphysics. Mind and matter alike, I should say, are only convenient symbols in discourse, not actually existing things.
Does an agnostic believe in a hereafter, in Heaven or Hell?
The question whether people survive death is one as to which evidence is possible. Psychical research and spiritualism are thought by many to supply such evidence. An agnostic, as such, does not take a view about survival unless he thinks that there is evidence one way or the other. For my part, I do not think there is any good reason to believe that we survive death, but I am open to conviction if adequate evidence should appear.
Heaven and hell are a different matter. Belief in hell is bound up with the belief that the vindictive punishment of sin is a good thing, quite independently of any reformative or deterrent effect that it may have. Hardly an agnostic believes this. As for heaven, there might conceivably someday be evidence of its existence through spiritualism, but most agnostics do not think that there is such evidence, and therefore do not believe in heaven.
Are you never afraid of God’s judgment in denying Him?
Most certainly not. I also deny Zeus and Jupiter and Odin and Brahma, but this causes me no qualms. I observe that a very large portion of the human race does not believe in God and suffers no visible punishment in consequence. And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.
How do agnostics explain the beauty and harmony of nature?
I do not understand where this “beauty” and “harmony” are supposed to be found. Throughout the animal kingdom, animals ruthlessly prey upon each other. Most of them are either cruelly killed by other animals or slowly die of hunger. For my part, I am unable to see any great beauty or harmony in the tapeworm. Let it not be said that this creature is sent as a punishment for our sins, for it is more prevalent among animals than among humans. I suppose the questioner is thinking of such things as the beauty of the starry heavens. But one should remember that stars every now and again explode and reduce everything in their neighborhood to a vague mist. Beauty, in any case, is subjective and exists only in the eye of the beholder.
How do agnostics explain miracles and other revelations of God’s omnipotence?
Agnostics do not think that there is any evidence of “miracles” in the sense of happenings contrary to natural law. We know that faith healing occurs and is in no sense miraculous. At Lourdes, certain diseases can be cured and others cannot. Those that can be cured at Lourdes can probably be cured by any doctor in whom the patient has faith. As for the records of other miracles, such as Joshua commanding the sun to stand still, the agnostic dismisses them as legends and points to the fact that all religions are plentifully supplied with such legends. There is just as much miraculous evidence for the Greek gods in Homer as for the Christian God in the Bible.
There have been base and cruel passions, which religion opposes. If you abandon religious principles, could mankind exist?
The existence of base and cruel passions is undeniable, but I find no evidence in history that religion has opposed these passions. On the contrary, it has sanctified them, and enabled people to indulge them without remorse. Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed. The persecuting character of present day communism is exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier centuries. In so far as Christianity has become less persecuting, this is mainly due to the work of freethinkers who have made dogmatists rather less dogmatic. If they were as dogmatic now as in former times, they would still think it right to burn heretics at the stake. The spirit of tolerance which some modern Christians regard as essentially Christian is, in fact, a product of the temper which allows doubt and is suspicious of absolute certainties. I think that anybody who surveys past history in an impartial manner will be driven to the conclusion that religion has caused more suffering than it has prevented.
What is the meaning of life to the agnostic?
I feel inclined to answer by another question: What is the meaning of `the meaning of life’? I suppose what is intended is some general purpose. I do not think that life in general has any purpose. It just happened. But individual human beings have purposes, and there is nothing in agnosticism to cause them to abandon these purposes. They cannot, of course, be certain of achieving the results at which they aim; but you would think ill of a soldier who refused to fight unless victory was certain. The person who needs religion to bolster up his own purposes is a timorous person, and I cannot think as well of him as of the man who takes his chances, while admitting that defeat is not impossible.
Does not the denial of religion mean the denial of marriage and chastity?
Here again, one must reply by another question: Does the man who asks this question believe that marriage and chastity contribute to earthly happiness here below, or does he think that, while they cause misery here below, they are to be advocated as means of getting to heaven? The man who takes the latter view will no doubt expect agnosticism to lead to a decay of what he calls virtue, but he will have to admit that what he calls virtue is not what ministers to the happiness of the human race while on earth. If, on the other hand, he takes the former view, namely, that there are terrestrial arguments in favor of marriage and chastity, he must also hold that these arguments are such as should appeal to the agnostic. Agnostics, as such, have no distinctive views about sexual morality. But most of them would admit that there are valid arguments against the unbridled indulgence of sexual desires. They would derive these arguments, however, from terrestrial sources and not from supposed divine commands.
Is not faith in reason alone a dangerous creed? Is not reason imperfect and inadequate without spiritual and moral law?
No sensible man, however agnostic, has “faith in reason alone.” Reason is concerned with matters of fact, some observed, some inferred. The question whether there is a future life and the question whether there is a God concern matters of fact, and the agnostic will hold that they should be investigated in the same way as the question, “Will there be an eclipse of the moon tomorrow?” But matters of fact alone are not sufficient to determine action, since they do not tell us what ends we ought to pursue. In the realm of ends, we need something other than reason. The agnostic will find his ends in his own heart and not in an external command. Let us take an illustration: Suppose you wish to travel by train from New York to Chicago; you will use reason to discover when the trains run, and a person who though that there was some faculty of insight or intuition enabling him to dispense with the timetable would be thought rather silly. But no timetable will tell him that it is wise, he will have to take account of further matters of fact; but behind all the matters of fact, there will be the ends that he thinks fitting to pursue, and these, for an agnostic as for other men, belong to a realm which is not that of reason, though it should be in no degree contrary to it. The realm I mean is that of emotion and feeling and desire.
Do you regard all religions as forms of superstition or dogma? Which of the existing religions do you most respect, and why?
All the great organized religions that have dominated large populations have involved a greater or less amount of dogma, but “religion” is a word of which the meaning is not very definite. Confucianism, for instance, might be called a religion, although it involves no dogma. And in some forms of liberal Christianity, the element of dogma is reduced to a minimum.
Of the great religions of history, I prefer Buddhism, especially in its earliest forms, because it has had the smallest element of persecution.
Communism like agnosticism opposes religion, are agnostics Communists?
Communism does not oppose religion. It merely opposes the Christian religion, just as Mohammedanism does. Communism, at least in the form advocated by the Soviet Government and the Communist Party, is a new system of dogma of a peculiarly virulent and persecuting sort. Every genuine Agnostic must therefore be opposed to it.
Do agnostics think that science and religion are impossible to reconcile?
The answer turns upon what is meant by `religion’. If it means merely a system of ethics, it can be reconciled with science. If it means a system of dogma, regarded as unquestionably true, it is incompatible with the scientific spirit, which refuses to accept matters of fact without evidence, and also holds that complete certainty is hardly ever impossible.
What kind of evidence could convince you that God exists?
I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence. I can imagine other evidence of the same sort which might convince me, but so far as I know, no such evidence exists.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Agnostic)
Agnosticism (Greek: α- a-, without + γνώσις gnōsis, knowledge; after Gnosticism) is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims — particularly metaphysical claims regarding theology, afterlife or the existence of God, gods, deities, or even ultimate reality — is unknown or, depending on the form of agnosticism, inherently unknowable.
Demographic research services normally list agnostics in the same category as atheists and non-religious people, using ‘agnostic’ in the newer sense of ‘noncommittal’. However, this can be misleading given the existence of agnostic theists, who identify themselves as both agnostics in the original sense and followers of a particular religion.
Philosophers and thinkers who have written about agnosticism include Thomas Henry Huxley, Robert G. Ingersoll, and Bertrand Russell. Religious scholars who wrote about agnosticism are Peter Kreeft, Blaise Pascal and Joseph Ratzinger, later elected as Pope Benedict XVI.
“Agnostic” was introduced by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 to describe his philosophy which rejects Gnosticism, by which he meant not simply the early 1st millennium religious group, but all claims to spiritual or mystical knowledge. This is not the same as the trivial interpretation of the word, and carries a more negative implication for religion than that trivial interpretation.
Early Christian church leaders used the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) to describe “spiritual knowledge.” Agnosticism is not to be confused with religious views opposing the doctrine of gnosis and Gnosticism—these are religious concepts that are not generally related to agnosticism. Huxley used the term in a broad sense.
In recent years, use of the word to mean “not knowable” is apparent in scientific literature in psychology and neuroscience, and with a meaning close to “independent”, in technical and marketing literature, e.g. “platform agnostic” or “hardware agnostic”.
Enlightenment philosopher David Hume contended that meaningful statements about the universe are always qualified by some degree of doubt. The fallibility of human beings means that they cannot obtain absolute certainty except in trivial cases where a statement is true by definition (as in, “all bachelors are unmarried” or “all triangles have three angles”). All rational statements that assert a factual claim about the universe that begin “I believe that ….” are simply shorthand for, “Based on my knowledge, understanding, and interpretation of the prevailing evidence, I tentatively believe that….” For instance, when one says, “I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy,” one is not asserting an absolute truth but a tentative belief based on interpretation of the assembled evidence. Even though one may set an alarm clock prior to the following day, believing that the sun will rise the next day, that belief is tentative, tempered by a small but finite degree of doubt (the sun might be destroyed; the earth might be shattered in collision with a rogue asteroid or that person might die before the alarm goes off.)
Many mainstream believers in the West embrace an agnostic stance. As noted below, for instance, Roman Catholic dogma about the nature of God contains many strictures of agnosticism. An agnostic who believes in God despairs of ever fully comprehending what it is in which he believes. But some believing agnostics assert that that very absurdity strengthens their belief rather than weakens it.
The Catholic Church sees merit in examining what it calls Partial Agnosticism, specifically those systems that “do not aim at constructing a complete philosophy of the Unknowable, but at excluding special kinds of truth, notably religious, from the domain of knowledge.” However, the Church is historically opposed to a full denial of the ability of human reason to know God. The Council of the Vatican, relying on biblical scripture, declares that “God, the beginning and end of all, can, by the natural light of human reason, be known with certainty from the works of creation” (Const. De Fide, II, De Rev.)
Agnosticism can be subdivided into several subcategories. Recently suggested variations include:
- Strong agnosticism (also called hard agnosticism, closed agnosticism, strict agnosticism, absolute agnosticism)—the view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable.
- Weak agnosticism (also called soft agnosticism, open agnosticism, empirical agnosticism, temporal agnosticism)—the view that the existence or nonexistence of any deity is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable, therefore one will withhold judgment until/if more evidence is available.
- Apathetic agnosticism (also called Pragmatic agnosticism)—the view that there is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of any deity, but since any deity that may exist appears unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic anyway.
- Agnostic theism (also called religious agnosticism)—the view of those who do not claim to know existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence. (See Knowledge vs. Beliefs)
- Agnostic atheism—the view of those who do not know of the existence or nonexistence of a deity, and do not believe in any.
- Ignosticism—the view that a coherent definition of God must be put forward before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition isn’t coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of God is meaningless or empirically untestable. A.J. Ayer, Theodore Drange, and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept “God exists” as a meaningful proposition which can be argued for or against.
Thomas Henry Huxley.
See also: Thomas Henry Huxley
Agnostic views are as old as philosophical skepticism, but the terms agnostic and agnosticism were created by Huxley to sum up his thoughts on contemporary developments of metaphysics about the “unconditioned” (Hamilton) and the “unknowable” (Herbert Spencer). It is important, therefore, to discover Huxley’s own views on the matter. Though Huxley began to use the term “agnostic” in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time before that date. In a letter of September 23, 1860, to Charles Kingsley, Huxley discussed his views extensively:
I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter…
It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions…
That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.
I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I—who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds—have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.
Of the origin of the name agnostic to describe this attitude, Huxley gave the following account:
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.
So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.
Huxley’s agnosticism is believed to be a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, when clerical intolerance was trying to suppress scientific discoveries which appeared to clash with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and other established Jewish and Christian doctrines. Agnosticism should not, however, be confused with natural theology, deism, pantheism, or other science positive forms of theism.
By way of clarification, Huxley states, “In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable” (Huxley, Agnosticism, 1889). While A. W. Momerie has noted that this is nothing but a definition of honesty, Huxley’s usual definition goes beyond mere honesty to insist that these metaphysical issues are fundamentally unknowable.
Robert G. Ingersoll.
See also: Robert G. Ingersoll
Robert G. Ingersoll, an Illinois lawyer and politician who evolved into a well-known and sought-after orator in 19th century America, has been referred to as the “Great Agnostic.”
In an 1896 lecture titled Why I Am An Agnostic, Ingersoll related why he was an agnostic:
Is there a supernatural power—an arbitrary mind—an enthroned God—a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world—to which all causes bow? I do not deny. I do not know—but I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme—that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken—that there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer—no power that worship can persuade or change—no power that cares for man.
I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all—that there is no interference—no chance—that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects.
Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.
In the conclusion of the speech he simply sums up the agnostic position as:
We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know.
Bertrand Russell’s pamphlet, Why I Am Not a Christian, based on a speech delivered in 1927 and later included in a book of the same title, is considered a classic statement of agnosticism. The essay briefly lays out Russell’s objections to some of the arguments for the existence of God before discussing his moral objections to Christian teachings. He then calls upon his readers to “stand on their own two feet and look fair and square at the world,” with a “fearless attitude and a free intelligence.”
In 1939, Russell gave a lecture on The existence and nature of God, in which he characterized himself as an agnostic. He said:
The existence and nature of God is a subject of which I can discuss only half. If one arrives at a negative conclusion concerning the first part of the question, the second part of the question does not arise; and my position, as you may have gathered, is a negative one on this matter.
However, later in the same lecture, discussing modern non-anthropomorphic concepts of God, Russell states:
That sort of God is, I think, not one that can actually be disproved, as I think the omnipotent and benevolent creator can.
In Russell’s 1947 pamphlet, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? (subtitled A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas), he ruminates on the problem of what to call himself:
As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.
On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.
In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell states:
An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.
However, later in the essay, Russell says:
I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence.
Religious scholars, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, affirm the possibility of knowledge, even of metaphysical realities such as God and the soul, because human intelligence (“intus”, within and “legere”, to read) has the power to reach the essence and existence of things since it has a non-material, spiritual element. They affirm that “not being able to see or hold some specific thing does not necessarily negate its existence,” as in the case of gravity, entropy, mental telepathy, or reason and thought.
According to these scholars, agnosticism is impossible in actual practice, since one either lives as if God did not exist (etsi Deus non daretur), or lives as if God did exist (etsi Deus daretur). These scholars believe that each day in a person’s life is an unavoidable step towards death, and thus not to decide for or against God, the all-encompassing foundation, purpose, meaning of life, is to decide in favor of atheism. Even if there were truly no evidence for God, Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal offered to agnostics what is known as Pascal’s Wager: the infinite expected value of acknowledging God is always greater than the expected value of not acknowledging his existence, and thus it is a safer “bet” to choose God.
These religious scholars argue that God has placed in his creation much evidence of his existence, and continues to personally speak to humans.
Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli write about a strong, cumulative case with their 20 rational arguments for God’s existence. And, these scholars state, when agnostics demand from God that he proves his existence through laboratory testing, they are asking God, a superior being, to become man’s servant.
According to Joseph Ratzinger later elected as Pope Benedict XVI, agnosticism, more specifically strong agnosticism, is a self-limitation of reason that contradicts itself when it acclaims the power of science to know the truth. When reason imposes limits on itself on matters of religion and ethics, this leads to dangerous pathologies of religion and pathologies of science, such as destruction of humans and ecological disasters. “Agnosticism,” said Benedict XVI, “is always the fruit of a refusal of that knowledge which is in fact offered to man… The knowledge of God has always existed.” Agnosticism, stated Benedict XVI, is a choice of comfort, pride, dominion, and utility over truth, and is opposed by the following attitudes: the keenest self-criticism, humble listening to the whole of existence, the persistent patience and self-correction of the scientific method, and a readiness to be purified by the truth.