A De-fencing of Agnosticism amid the Imprisoning Structures of (Ir)Religious Semantics

3ojbe6There is a certain well-known social media site where one is asked to declare ‘religious status,’ giving one the opportunity to ‘come out’ in a spiritual sense and hoist a particular creedo flag in all its splendour. Of course, many who don’t know quite what to put simply lump themselves under the vague spiritual coinage known as ‘Agnosticism’  – although it has to be said there are variant more deliberate usages of the term that would have provoked a dust-up in the old Acadameia. Me? I hate labels; I believe they only stick by faith and semantics, both shifting sand in my case. But I plumped for ‘Agnostic Pagan’ anyway, soon to be met with howls of derision from defenders of both appellations – you know them, those pouncing nomenclats with their barbs of online wisdom. “Agnostic Pagan?  Impossible! A contradiction in terms surely!”

welles-beliefs-religion-atheism-agnosticism-welles-religion-1364859729Indeed, ‘Agnostic’ has become a designation to be whipped with, derided by scorns of atheists and deists together in some unholy mob. Agnostics are fence riders, blithering spiritual cowards, blessed-assurance escapists hiding in the squalid corners found between faith and reason. For many, they are an anathema to pagan pantheism as decriers of ancient polytheistic traditions and therefore incapable of authentic shamanic moments. Unsureness, or unwillingness to the ultimate declarative, is seen as a weakness, an unsightedness, a falling short of the blessed self-salvific mark demanded of human existence. Sure, for some, it has become that cubby-hole of non-committance, an etymological escape-hatch by which to dodge the difficult questions and not have to wrestle with systemic conviction to the point of choosing a side. But there are some that have come to subscribe to the uncomfortable label through a lot of inner wrangling. Quite simply, they don’t believe in absolute truth – or they don’t believe it can be known in absolute form. For them, atheism is just as much an expression of faith as is theism. Much like those twin-goading antagonists the Agnostic has only experiential truth to know with absolute surety. Rather than escapist then, it is merely an honest and humble position to state that one is not in possession of certifiable knowledge as to the origin of the universe or the existence of a pre-historical God. An Agnostic takes the brave position to live life as the ultimate mystery, willing to cede the possibility of ever knowing the answers. This should not be seen as some sort of foreclosure but a multiple investment in life’s anagogical prospects.

UnknownFor the Agnostic, the word itself is the problem as it implies some defiant opposition to gnosis, to knowledge itself. But Agnosis is not the same as Anti-gnosis, neither does it exist without gnosis on multiple points – save one – that god cannot be ‘known’ in the scientific sense. The term was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley, an English biologist, to posit that belief in truth values of certain claims – especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, as well as other religious and metaphysical claims  – are unknown. As conceded above, it has become a blurry, misunderstood, inadequate and abused position. You get all sorts of agnostics – humble ones that admit they don’t know – cocky ones that demand you can’t know – scared ones that hide behind not knowing – the possibilities within agnosticism itself are endless. How endless? Well, believe it or not you can get all sorts of hybrids from the philosophically astute to the rationally absurd: the Agnostic Atheist does not believe in the existence of any deity but refuses to claim to know of that non-existence – the Agnostic Theist does not claim to know of the existence of any deity but believes it anyway – the Apathetic or Pragmatic Agnostic believes there is no proof of either the existence or non-existence 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. Oh God, where does it end? Then we have the Permanent Agnostics (also known as ‘hard,’ ‘closed’ or ‘strict’) that gleefully conclude that the existence or non-existence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. Of course, there must be an opposite position and these are referred to as Temporal Agnostics (also ‘soft,’ ‘open’ or ‘empirical’) who state that the existence or non-existence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until evidence, if any, becomes available.

Agnosticism_cba795_2955386This is maddening! It’s a position – and yet the lack of a position. Agnosticism is a paradox; a claim to know what you don’t know. How can anyone be happy with that vainglorious kop-out? I’d much rather be a ‘Gnostic,’ a worshipper of knowledge, an ancient apple-eater choosing to learn and progress rather than remain in an automated state of unknowing. But I can’t because the epithet has been nicked and sullied with pseudo or perhaps pre-Christian associations. Sure, acquiring a knowledge that contains philosophy, metaphysics, curiosity, culture, knowledge and the secrets of history and the universe sounds fab (and I’m down with the Buddhists on the old ‘enlightenment’ chase too) but there’s that dodgy bit about lower and upper worlds, demiurges and erm… primal urges, perfected souls and sainted wholes, that sounds precariously close to the usual palaver. So, ‘Agnostic’ is unsatisfactory and ‘Gnostic’ is off the ontological table – and for the same reason I can’t refer to myself as ‘Prognostic’ – but perhaps ‘Prog-gnostic’ is workable?  Like Prog-Rock?  But then how does the Pagan bit fit in?

agnostic-2Well, that might be a bit easier. By my albeit hazy definition of Agnosticism I consider most pagans to be at least a bit Agnostic. Most, not all, defer to the divine (or the pantheon) as allegorical or symbolic in that they don’t have to have an absolute belief in physical deific states. There are a growing number of pagans that don’t do the godhead thing at all – just concentrate on nature and the sacred cycles. All tend to believe you can have a numinous experience whether you have an articulated godhead or not, which might be seen as indecisive dithering from without, but is actually an attractive attribute of Paganism. One might also argue that there is room for some form of esoteric Christianity within this reasoning, the belief that there is a recognizable single-source made ‘true’ on a wholly personal and subjective level  – but still exuding presence as a mystical symbol or allegory on some hyperreal plane. Of course, this Neo-Platonist approach, one which willingly allows a ‘supra-rational’ path to the divine by way of personal ecstasy, is well within the bounds of what we have called ‘Agnosticism.’ None of these positions are without gnosis, philosophical conviction or spiritual bravery, and at the end of the day it really does come down to semantics.

In that case, I declare myself a ‘Subgnostic,’ a special branch of the advanced order of ‘works-for-me’ Gnosticism! 

© Daniel Staniforth/2014

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About Daniel

Writer & Musician
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5 Responses to A De-fencing of Agnosticism amid the Imprisoning Structures of (Ir)Religious Semantics

  1. How about ‘superstitious atheist’? That’s me!

  2. adamsmith2009 says:

    I feel your consternation, be it waxing, or waning, since for me it is never static. I reserve the right to change my mind based on updates or discoveries in science, technology, etc…(etcetera is MY cop-out word for ‘whatever’ ). Sub-gnostic might just work as a description of how you may think/feel, however being comfortable with agnosticism, or not knowing, is something i’ve found to come with time. For as long as we’ve been trying to “know”, or “gno-“, it seems some folks will insist that THEY know, and we should just “fall in line and pick a belief, dammit!”, and yet, we still don’t really know. I guess i can always be an epistemological solipsist…then again, agnostic is much easier to explain to those who bother to ask. Nice blog!

  3. Great post! Like you, I’ve always found it bizarre that agnosticism is seen as wishy-washy and weak, when in fact it is really the most logically-defensible position on anything about which we lack clear evidence. I suspect it’s because we are predisposed by evolution to trust others based not on their reasoning but on signs of their commitment, which can be seen from the child’s dilemma: parent is telling them something that doesn’t make sense to them, but they can’t ask for reasoning on everything or the reasoning may be beyond their current ability to understand, so they must look instead for signs that the parent is committed to what he/she is saying and actually practices what he/she preaches. This kind of psychology seems to carry over into adulthood for most issues for which we don’t have the time, skill, or desire to explore in depth. Thus, you see politicians at pains to stake out a clear and unequivocal stance, and getting heckled as “waffling” if they ever deviate from that stance (which is absurd – circumstances will always dictate a more nuanced approach). I suspect agnosticism is disrespected for the same reasons – it *looks* like you are constantly waffling, even though you are not.

    I’m not sure about calling the kind of esoteric approach described in the last paragraph “Neo-Platonist” – as I understand it Neo-Platonists generally asserted a reality beyond the wholly personal and subjective – but otherwise this post was getting nods the whole way through. 🙂

  4. TJ Bradders says:

    “I invented the word “Agnostic” to denote people who, like myself, confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence” ~Thomas Huxley
    QUIZ:
    Who invented Agnostsim?
    Why was Agnostsim invented?
    Agnosticism stands in contrast and disagreement with whom?

    “I have a sort of patent right in “Agnostic” (it is my trade mark); and I am entitled to say that I can state authentically what was originally meant by Agnosticism.” ~Thomas Huxley
    QUIZ:
    Who is the ultimate authority concerning what Agnostsim is meant to mean?
    Extra credit: does the modern Atheist interpretation of of Huxley’s original meaning of Agnostsim constitute deliberate misinformation, or is it simple ignorance?

    When asked: “Is Agnosticism in accord with modern science?” – Huxley answered, “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.”
    QUIZ:
    According to the statement above:
    Does Agnostcim deal with knowledge leaving Atheism to deal with belief?
    Does Agnostsim dismiss unjustified beliefs?
    Is Agnostsim asserting scientific method be seen as an integral component when accepting or dismissing various belief systems?

    When asked: “What is its [Agnosticisms] relation to popular theology?” – Huxley answered, “Consaquently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the “bosh” of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.” ~Thomas Huxley
    QUIZ:
    According to Huxley, what is more offensive Theisim or Atheisim?
    Why?
    Based on the statement above, is it at all likely that Huxley intended that his Principle of Agnostsim ever be seen as a type of Atheisim?

    When asked: “Is Agnosticism destined to supplant religious supernaturalism?” – Huxley answered, “I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution of existing religions. On trial of any so-called miracle the verdict of science is “Not proven.” But true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which “are not dreamt of in our philosophy.” The theological “gnosis” would have us believe that the world is a conjuror’s house; the anti-theological “gnosis” talks as if it were a “dirt-pie” made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.”
    QUIZ:
    Previously Huxley discussed “scientific grounds” as an arbitrator of knowledge and beliefs, do Agnostics entertain miracles or the supernatural claims made by various religions?
    Does Huxley communicate any confidence in the knowledge or “gnosis” of Theist or Atheist?
    In Huxley’s Principle of Agnostsim is it possible for man to discern knowledge or justified beliefs if the ultimate truth could lie beyond phenomena?

  5. Daniel, I’d like to republish this at HumanisticPaganism.com if that is alright. Shoot me an email when you get a chance. humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com

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