The popular understanding of agnosticism is that it is a weak disbelief in god(s), and to a larger degree disbelief in the supernatural. Those who embrace agnosticism are accused of being uncommitted or intellectually-lazy atheists. They may counter that they have consciously arrived at their understanding of agnosticism and attempt to define it in such a way that it is distinct from atheism. I would like to suggest that agnosticism is more than that.
The trouble with seeing agnosticism as a “lack of belief” in certain beings or claims of truth is that it misses the point of the term. Gnosis means “knowledge” or “knowing.” Agnosticism, then, means “not knowing” or more accurately, that knowledge regarding certain aspects of reality are truly unknowable. Agnosticism is not a claim about belief or disbelief, but a claim about what can be known – about knowledge. The distinction is not merely a semantic one; it is fundamental to the nature of agnosticism.
In an earlier post, I defined faith as only being possible when doubt is present. I would like to refine this even further here by suggesting that this understanding of faith requires agnosticism. To understand faith as being beyond reason means that matters of faith are unknowable. This is the central claim of agnosticism. Unfortunately, this understanding of truth leads many to the conclusion that since certain aspects of truth (or perhaps Truth as a universal concept) are fundamentally unknowable to humans therefore faith and spirituality is impossible. I’m suggesting here that agnostic spirituality is possible – and even advisable. But what does it look like?
Agnosticism as a spirituality embraces mystery in the sense of the Greek word – “that which must be revealed.” Just because certain truths are unknowable to us does not mean that they are unknowable to greater beings than ourselves, nor does it mean that these truths do not exist. We cannot possibly know for certain whether or not god(s) exist – unless this knowledge is revealed to us from a being with greater capacity for knowledge than humans possess. Theoretically, if god(s) do exist and possess a greater capacity for knowledge than humans, then it is possible that we could come to “know the unknowable” in a sense. True, we could not understand fully these truths, nor could we have arrived at them by our own means.
Whereas a typical person of faith feels that he or she “knows” to a certain degree that what they believe is true, an agnostic knows that such claims are impossible and foolish to make. Nobody can know whether god(s) exist, what they might be like, why the world came into being, what the purpose of life or intelligence may be, or any other question or issue which philosophers and theologians have debated for millennia. But this does not need to stop an agnostic from embracing spirituality. The key distinction is that an agnostic must always be first an agnostic. They may be an agnostic-atheist, an agnostic-humanist, an agnostic-Christian, or any other flavor of belief or nonbelief, but being an agnostic is primary because it influences how they perceive any truth-claims such as those espoused by various religious, philosophical, or non religious systems of thought.
Mystery then becomes central to agnosticism. That which is unknown and unknowable becomes holy. The beauty of life, of music, of art, of the universe are all mysteries. We can explain them to a certain degree, but cannot comprehend them completely nor can we explain why these things are. The experience of life which brings a sense of wonder and satisfaction becomes worship. Meditating upon nature, the self, a mathematical problem, or a song becomes prayer. Everywhere we go is a sanctuary. All of life is available to become a deep well for agnostic spirituality, but like any practice of faith it must be cultivated and nurtured.
Agnosticism is an appealing and satisfying way of perceiving the world, but it can easily lead to a meaningless existence. If Truth is unknowable, why bother seeking it? If all meaning is subjective, why bother with meaning? For most humans, this is an utterly dissatisfying and discouraging way to live. Human beings are wired for pattern-recognition, meaning-making, and pursuit of knowledge – including knowledge about the ultimate questions of life and existence. Although the agnostic acknowledges that such pursuits will ultimately never be successful, they are still worthwhile. Humans desire meaning and truth. This is fundamental to who we are and cannot be changed no matter how hard we might try to convince ourselves otherwise. I suggest that those who are agnostic continue to pursue truth and meaning while maintaining skepticism about universal claims of truth and skepticism toward their own understandings of reality. The pursuit of meaning is one of the greatest strengths and one of the greatest liabilities of being human. It is a strength because it propels us forward to seek understanding and to challenge our assumptions about reality. It is a weakness because we seek to answer questions which are orders of magnitude beyond our ability to comprehend. But we should attempt the impossible, because to be human is to seek truth, even if those truths are impossible to find.