I have read the works of several atheist writers who appear to pour scorn on ‘agnostics’ for not having the courage of their convictions to go all the way in holding an atheistic view of there being no God – no real surprises there. However, what came as a real surprise was when I attended a theology lecture a few months back and found that the religious view on offer was even more damning of agnostics than it was of atheists. It was almost as if they could understand and debate the atheist position, but the ‘agnostic’ position confused them, and so it was easier to belittle than debate the issues.Am I ‘agnostic’? Yes and no – I am in the broadest term, but agnosticism is not a catch-all term which should be used. It is akin to taking a Hindu, a Christian, a Scientologist, a Muslim, a Mormon, and a Jew and treating them as a unified religious group. There are many types of agnosticism, yet this is rarely acknowledged by either the religious or atheist sides of the argument. I believe that this is largely because some forms of agnosticism are actually far more healthy, and realistic, than the alternatives.
I consider myself to be a temporal agnostic (otherwise known as empirical agnosticism). Quite simply, I am open-minded about there being a ‘God’ or higher power, haven’t been convinced by the evidence available so far, but would like to find out one way or another. That is extremely different to the common assumption of agnosticism as a ‘we cannot know’ viewpoint (varying between a ‘strong agnostic’ and ‘agnostic atheism’ stance). I don’t mind others having a belief, I won’t go off suing people if they try to bless me or say a prayer for me (although I might put my point of view to them!), I don’t want Christmas changed to ‘Winterval’ or some rubbish like that. If anything, I would quite like to learn more, on all sides, in order for me to continue to learn and explore.
So why is it that both of the (relative) extremes of the argument are so anti this form of agnosticism? They can’t say they are not, as they are both guilty of stereotyping of all forms of agnosticism into this one-size-fits-all category which does not encompass the depth of belief within the group. The cynic in me feels that there is almost a complicit agreement between the two sides that they actually need to encourage the rift between agnosticism and atheism in order to sell books and tickets, and agnosticism stands as a mid-ground which benefits neither. At all of the theology and atheistic lectures which I have been to, it has been striking how little evidence is presented in support of one’s own side of the argument, and how much time is devoted to attacking the opposing view without viable alternative explanations.
It seems to me that the temporal/empirical agnostics need to stand up for themselves against both groups and say ‘ok, convince me – not by attacking the opposition, I’m not interested in them. Show me what you’ve got’. We are in the position to do this, but rarely do it – we let the extremes continue a futile argument which can never be won. If they won’t come to the middle ground, we have to take the middle ground to them… and define our own middle ground, not let them define it for us.