The Rational Agnostic

Recently someone said to me:

All rational agnostics are atheist by default.

This contrasted greatly with my own experience of becoming agnostic and thus I had to correct him. Let me explain my story and this will lead to a conclusion that will make very good sense to a ‘rational agnostic’.

I grew up a God-believing person, I use the capital G because I was brought up believing in a god that was called ‘God’. Thus I use the term as a name in this context. I do not actually remember a time where I did not believe in God, which considering I have memories going back to the age of 3 is reasonably significant. This is not surprising, my father was in church ministry and both my parents come from Christian households, so the introduction of God to my life at an early age is naturally likely. In fact, for me not to know about God would be a criticism of my parents. Any parent spending time with their children will naturally impart their beliefs on their children.

Of course, I was not understanding at a young age of the complexities of Christianity. It was not until I was about 7 that I fully understood sin, forgiveness and Jesus’ meaning in the Christian religion. I knew of these concepts and the person, but I did not connect them all until that age. However even then I really did not question my beliefs, not for about four years, when I was 11.
The year I turned 11 my father was a pastor in a small church, my mother was a physiotherapist and I was excelling at a public school. My parents encouraged me in science and exploration of my world, our holidays often included gem hunting, nature walks, learning about Aboriginal culture, fossil hunting, and gem hunting. I had a broad learning at home as well as school. It was this broad understanding of the world my parents fostered that developed into a very questioning mind. And I began at age 11 to set this questioning mind to my religion.
I asked questions like “Why do we pray if God already knows what we want?” and “Did Jesus really exist?”, “How is the world made in 7 days and yet look billions of years old?”. These are good questions, but I am not going to cover the answers here. What is mroe relevant to this topic is the question that I really delved into “What if I believed something else, or didn’t believe in God at all?”
It was this question I pondered over for most of the year as an 11-year-old. A lot of the thoughts revolved around how Christianity had no absolute proof like other things in my world had. I can know absolutely what happened this morning because I experienced it. I can see from a footprint that someone walked the ground recently, but the Bible was another matter. It relied upon only upon what people have said. Something that was awkward because other people have said different things as well. How can I believe one bunch of people compared to another? How can I believe any of them? There was no absolute proof of any of them. Even mroe so, there was no absolute proof that they were wrong. I had entered a quantum state where god could both exist and not exist in a provable way.
I had become agnostic. I determined there was nothing that I could know absolutely about God’s existence or person using absolute proof. Proof that could not be debated did not exist in the world around me.
So, I reflected on it non-biasedly as an agnostic. My 11-year-old mind took a step back and viewed it from the outside. Instead of weighing the evidence, I weighed the implications. I determined that when all options are equally viable then the decision stops being one on evidence and starts to be one consequence. After consideration I had these conclusions:

  1. I already believe in the Christian God, thus require a reason for altering my life from how it is now.
  2. Other religions, ignoring that they have less ‘witnesses’, do not provide advantages over Christianity both spiritually or physically. 
  3. Atheism has no advantage to theism and thus is not a reasonable option. Atheism is pointless in an infinite time frame that contains death.

Blaise_Pascal_Versailles.jpg
Blaise Pascal, his philosophical argument opened up some crazy mathematics.

 

That last point is the most important one I considered. I did not realise it at the time, but this is something called “Pascal’s wager”, which can be summarised as the following:

 

“And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.”

Blaise Pascal,  Pascal’s Pensées

Or in simplistic words:

If you get a free loterry ticket you will not win anything if you throw the ticket away.

pascal
A visual representation of Pascal’s concept – Wikipedia


As I said, I was not aware of Pascal’s Wager, but at age 11 I had come to the same conclusion as Pascal. I determined that reason was not sufficient for belief in God, thus the wisest, most logical thing to do was to believe in God, or in my case, continue to believe in God.

I had come to the realisation that reason was insufficient to claim a belief in God. could not know absolutely that he existed, nor what he was like, however despite my not knowing absolutely, it made logical sense to believe that the bible provided that knowledge. I believe the bible contains knowledge on God, but also understand it does not provide evidence that can provide absolute proof that is not debatable. Other factors have to apply.

 

I had become an Agnostic Theist.
I understand that at an Earthly level I can not rely on any absolute proof for God or his personality, however, I recognize I have a personal belief that God and his personality is revealed in the Bible. I recognise this as a belief not based upon pure reason, but something else.
In this sense, I am a pure theist, although arrived there by agnostic principles and repeat that agnosticism in order to debate myself and cycle back to theism.

And this is where I return to the original quote that I disagreed with:

All rational agnostics are atheist by default.

I was a theist, became true agnostic, then became an agnostic theist, ultimately becoming a theist (that returns regularly to agnosticism to debate myself). In my case, my rationality of agnosticism led to theism, and the reason for this was covered in my first rational point:

I already believe in the Christian God, thus if there is no logical reason for changing then it is of the most sense to maintain my current belief.

I became an agnostic theist because I was already theist. It made rational sense.

Let us take an atheist that becomes agnostic.

Such a person would likely think of Pascal’s Wager, just like I did. They would identify that believing in a certain god makes perfect sense. They may even identify that Christianity seems the safest as it provides automatic salvation as opposed to having to work to a standard for the equivalent in other religions… however Pascal’s Wager may provide a reason to become an Agnostic Theist, but it does not provide the belief. An atheist would thus be conflicted by the rational argument provided versus the current non-belief. They would thus not believe in a god simply through this argument, yet still see the merits of such a belief. They may come to such a belief later, but not at that moment. This is because belief requires more than just a rational aspect.

Thus my argument would say that:

A rational agnostic would be by default whatever their belief was before they became a rational agnostic. An atheist would become an agnostic atheist and thus an atheist, and a theist would become an agnostic theist and thus a theist… at least at that moment of rationality.

I would also argue that

An agnostic whom is of the belief that agnosticism automatically leads to atheism is not rational. They are irrational. Agnosticism does not automatically lead to atheism and the idea that it does shows a failure to have taken agnosticism seriously.

Blaise Pascal agrees with the atheist Richard Dawkins on an important point: Permanent agnosticism is “fence-sitting and intellectual cowardice”, although Pascal is a bit more polite in the phrasing:

“You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?”

Blaise Pascal

 

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Daniel says:

    It would depend on what you declared yourself to be agnostic about. To be agnostic is to not know something about a particular subject or, in other words, to be ignorant (which is the meaning of the Greek root of the word).
    In essence we are all agnostic because we cannot and will not ever be fully knowing. The difference is whether you are willing to admit to what you don’t know.
    In Plato’s Apologia Socrates defines wisdom as precisely that – the willingness to admit that you don’t know. Socrates was the wisest then because he knew, and admitted, that he knew nothing, that he was essentially agnostic. The remainder of Plato’s Socratic dialogues show the outworking of that in Socrates as he questions everything everyone proposes in order to determine the faults of their beliefs, their failure to admit to not knowing everything. And incidentally, Socrates was not an atheist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joel Reid says:

      Youa re right that agnostic can mean the absence of knowledge on any topic, however the quote I referenced in the beginning set that context and thus is obvious that the knowledge in question is about a god.

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  2. I think that your position here is interesting, but I don’t think you’re giving agnosticism a full exploration. If agnosticism regarding deities means being without knowledge, then as a consequence there can be no evidence of any deity (or non-existence of deities). One’s prior beliefs are simply mistakes of knowledge, and there is nothing which bootstraps one belief over another.

    To be agnostic is to do more than just admit there isn’t a satisfactory justification for one or more deities. It is to admit that there cannot be a satisfactory justification for any deity. In this context, Pascal’s Wager makes no sense because there’s no way of knowing if a wager exists, or even the rules of a wager.

    You could take it to the other extreme, and say that all wagers are equally valid. Once again, there’s no knowledge which points to one over the other, so anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s. Still, it requires the admission that preferring one wager over another is just preference.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joel Reid says:

      I agree that when you “become” agnostic then you have to admit that all previous knowledge is thus wrong. This applies to the concept that the is a god and the concept that there is not a god. To lack knowledg eon the existence of a god is to deny both aspects. I think, however, that it is those past concepts that shape what your agnosticism shapes into.I have always had a broad exposure to both theology and science and thus have developed an agnosticism about most things, however in order to operate I must make a decision between things. This can often be very frustrating as I am aware it is possible to be wrong, however it is also rewarding becasue I can alter my beliefs easily. On the issue of god, however, it occurs to me that there is an advantage to continue to hold that belief that I had previously. If I were an atheist before I become agnostic I am reasonably sure I would have become atheistic.
      Pascal’s wager may indeed be obsolete if there is no god… however that is the very point of the wager. Let me put it another way using lottery tickets.

      If I give you a lottery ticket then you can keep it or discard it. The trick is that there might not be a lottery at all! This means that you could keep the lottery ticket and when you go to hand it in you get nothing. The problem is that you do not know if there is a lottery. Thus you either keep the lottery ticket and hand it in later on the chance there is something to win, or you discard the lottery ticket and guarantee you do not win. By discarding the ticket you can be positive of the result. by keeping the ticket you can not (at least not by reason).

      Really it comes down to being able to live a life of unsurety, versus surety. Atheists do have the advantage that they know absolutely what is not going to happen to them… they are not going to be rewarded upon death. That knowledge can be comforting to a person who does not like to deal with worry. To not know something absolutely can be quite disheartening. A ational agnostic that has been a theist previously has already lived with this situation and thus can do with far less concern.
      When you have already lived a part of your life without absolute surety then it is not hard to continue that life.

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      1. Your point about the wager is fine, but what I’m driving at here is the question of is it rational to believe in something without any knowledge of it?

        To fairly apply the lottery ticket analogy, there are no rules, no prizes, and no tickets. All that there might be is the speculation a lottery might exist somewhere. Is it rational to try to play it? What about the speculation of many different lotteries? Is it rational to try to play them all? What if the speculation conflicts, allowing a person to only play one or the other?

        That’s what a person is looking at with regards to a fully agnostic view of deities. No ticket can be handed out; at best it’s the word of a person who doesn’t even know what’s going on. In order to maximize the chances of success in the wager, a person would have to play according to as many different rules as possible.

        To take up your point about prior beliefs shaping post-agnostic beliefs, how would you account for people who switch from theism to atheism or vice-versa? Are they being rational, or is something else going on?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Joel Reid says:

        It is not possible to live life without belief. That is what an agnostic, in all senses of the word, says.
        I also believe that Antarctica exists, despite never seeing it. I have seen photos and many people claim it. But they could all be false.

        The final conclusion of the article above makes it clear that you can not sit in the middle, you must fall on one side or the other. In order to sit in the middle perpetually you must never consider it. There are many people that fall in this category where they have never considered something, but they are not the type of people that just read this article. All those that consider it must, however choose one side or the other.
        I am not arguing that rational agnostics become theists. i am arguing that rational agnostics maintain what they are.

        As to those that switch between theism and atheism, i do not think that is due to agnosticism, I think that is due to other factors.
        Many people are frustrated with their religious beliefs and are seeking a reason to leave it. Likewise many are seeking a religion and seeking a reason to change their life. Neither of these are rational, they are emotional.
        Not that this is bad. Religion is an emotional thing to be a part of, sometimes good and sometimes bad. As is life in general.

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