Though the vast majority of people accept without much reflection or questioning the assertions of traditional religious texts and preachers regarding the transcendental principle, the hereafter, reincarnation, day of judgment, etc., quite a few have often doubted if all this is really true. In other words, people have doubted some of the details in the religious faith.
All through the ages and in all societies, some have wondered aloud about all this. These are people who reject all the religious narratives about the distant past and religious prognostications about what is to come in the very distant future, let alone about God, angels and such. More in realization of the limits of the human intellect than in frustration or antagonism, they say that they really don’t know about these matters. These are the agnostics. The term was coined by Thomas H. Huxley in the nineteenth century. In his own words:
“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 am ignorant, and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it to our society, to show that I, too, had a tail like the other foxes.”
Huxley’s agnosticism was another formulation of skeptical doubt, for he said: “In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any consideration… Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This is not unlike what Thomas Jefferson had said much earlier: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
Keen and enlightened thinkers have been enunciating for millennia the most divergent theses as to the nature of God and the hereafter, and voluminously and vociferously arguing about their respective contentions. Sometimes, their followers have even been provoked to mutual verbal and physical abuse. Corporal punishment for wrong doing, however unfortunate, may be understandable. But to burn fellow beings on the stake, or maim their bodies because they had different notions of what constitutes God or afterlife, when the executors themselves don’t have incontrovertible evidence as to the correctness of their own contentions: this strikes many as very unfair and unconscionable. In this context, to say, “I’m afraid I don’t know,” seems more modest and reasonable, and less prone to instigate vehement attack
Yet, like the words faith and doubt, agnosticism too has sometimes been misunderstood. Religious thinkers reject agnosticism because it hesitates to affirm a reality beyond what we know for sure to exist here below. Some have argued that one consequence of agnosticism is meaninglessness because it adamantly refuses to attach long-range significance to anything. It is said to lead to hopelessness because it confesses that one is totally lost as to what life is all about; and to atheism because it says, directly or indirectly, that there is not sufficient evidence to believe in a God.
It has also been argued that agnosticism could lead to paralysis of action, meaning that if one is not sure of Heaven or Hell, of a punishing or a rewarding God, one cannot choose between moral options. It is not clear that uncertainty about the aftermath should necessarily instigate naughty behavior, or that honesty, decency, truthfulness and other such virtues should be linked to or hinge upon expectations of a bonus after life is done.
Agnosticism arises from the conviction that ultimate questions such as the nature of God, the relevance of man and slime and slug in the larger cosmic scheme, the long-range meaning of life and love and laughter, let alone the post-mortem persistence or otherwise of currently kicking consciousness, are interesting to speculate upon but impossible to answer unequivocally.
Agnosticism is also the reluctance or inability to be persuaded by answers to such matters, offered by religions or even by keen and insightful philosophers. The inability or reluctance often arises because those answers lack unshakable logical support, and sometimes because of one’s own limitations in the capacity to accept proclaimed truths, even if these are backed by time-honored prophets and holy books. Making matters more difficult is the fact that there are significant differences of opinions among the originators of the religions of the world to whom Ultimate Truths are said to have been revealed.
There are myriad moral, humanitarian, political, and other issues on which an agnostic can speak with at least as much intelligence and conviction, and act with at least as much impact and compassion, as those who are cocksure about the nebulous issues pertaining to the Supreme and the hereafter.
An agnostic does not say, “You are wrong,” but only that “I don’t know for sure,” and adds, “probably neither do you.” An agnostic is less likely to impose with force his or her lack of answer on others than a true-believer would impose his or her own answer. An agnostic may be amused, and a true-believer will probably be upset, by those who hold different views.
Agnosticism is not a call to refrain from making an assertion regarding any subject or a reluctance to take a stand on any issue, and a consequent standstill or indifference on important issues affecting the human condition. Rather, it is the expression of supreme humility in the face of very difficult and apparently intractable questions pertaining to origins and ultimate future. It is the enlightened recognition of ultimate mysteries.