An Agnostic Manifesto
Does God exist? I don’t know — and tell me, why does it matter?
~ Dedicated with gratitude and love to Gretta Vosper, a courageous visionary ~
Early in my life the river of my conscience and life experience carried me into an agnostic world. This was not a choice or destination. It is simply the landscape where I reached the shore.
Agnosticism for me is not about doubt but certainty.
In the absence of useful evidence to the contrary, I can safely treat God and higher meanings, and everything related them, as irrelevant: to my life, to my work and to my world.
We humans face great unknowns. The shadow of death, the endless expanse of the universe in both space and time, and our fear of the future, terrify and unsettle us. And we are biological predators who strategically withhold information and resources from each other in order to advance our own interests. Our greatest unknown is each other.
Some people respond to these unknowns by investing faith in a Creator.
Could it be that a Creator is a convenience? As long as we can justify our behavior based on what we think this Creator wants us to do, or the Word we believe this Creator has spoken, our responsibilities to each other are ended.
Without a God we must make the effort to see — and accept — others for who they really are. Is this a burden many of us would rather not deal with?
Richard Dawkins once claimed that an agnostic is someone who thinks that the probability of God’s existence is approximately 50%. So in his view, if you believe the probability is more than 50% you’re a theist, and if you think it is less than 50%, you’re an atheist.
But — what do we mean by God?
God could be any force beyond our current understanding, that has either shaped our identity and the meaning of our universe, or could do so in future. In our universe there about 100 billions galaxies with an estimated 300 sextillion stars, of which many may have habitable planets around them.
To our best estimate, universal evolution has been taking place for about 13.8 billion years. Given how far humans have advanced in the past 100,000 years, since we began communicating is very rudimentary languages — it is entirely possible that an entity we cannot distinguish from God has evolved in our universe, even if one didn’t exist when it started. It is entirely possible, as Nick Bostrom argues, that we and the planet we live on are a ‘simulation’: the product of algorithms written by a far more advanced civilization in its own quest for progress.
For me any estimate on Dawkin’s spectrum from 0–100% is pure faith, without even a sliver of logic, empiricism or science to found it on.
It was 19th century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley who coined the term ‘agnosticism’, which means ‘without knowledge’. He described ‘the agnostic faith’ as follows.
“Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”
Huxley is perhaps best known for his relationship with his older contemporary, Charles Darwin. In June of 1860, less than a year after Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Huxley famously rebutted the critique of Samuel Wilberforce, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford at a conference to discuss evolution.
At Darwin’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1882, Huxley carried the coffin and eulogized his great friend. By then eugenics — a disturbing corollary to the theory of evolution — had gained wide acceptance. Three years before his death, Huxley wrote:
“I doubt whether even the keenest judge of character, if he had before him a hundred boys and girls under fourteen, could pick out, with the least chance of success, those who should be kept, as certain to be serviceable members of the polity, and those who should be chloroformed, as equally sure to be stupid, idle, or vicious.”
The progress of our knowledge matters. But Huxley’s point — that what we don’t know matters just as much, as does knowing that we don’t know it — is as important today as it has ever been. And the greatest mischief continues to come from those who insist that they know what they really don’t.
In this era, still recovering from centuries of religious intoxication, the idea of ‘faith’ is tainted. We tie the phrase ‘person of faith’ to someone who believes in some sort of God or higher power — as if it can have no other meaning. Yet faith simply means that we believe something that we cannot — at least, not yet — prove scientifically: something that reasonable people, drawing on the best available evidence, may reasonably dispute.
Reason and science themselves rest upon faith, and the rationalist Huxley freely acknowledged this. “The ground of every one of our actions, and the validity of all our reasonings, rest on the great act of faith … From the nature of ratiocination, it is obvious that the axioms, on which it is based, cannot be demonstrated by ratiocination.” Faith is not just the human fuel that flies airplanes into skyscrapers: it is also the root source of the energy and creative imagination that designed the airplanes and skyscrapers in the first place. Inventors, social activists and visionaries of every type are driven by faith in possibilities few others accept or even imagine.
But if progress results from curiosity about the world, it also results from curiosity about our faith — our unexamined assumptions. Faith is the greatest investment we can make in our lives. We can invest - often unconsciously - in the faith handed down by our mother culture. Or we can explore — honestly and with some discipline — exactly what we believe and why.
An Agnostic Faith Statement
We are all entitled to faith. But no one — from the Pope to Dawkins or Trump — has the right to assert faith as fact. This habitual human practice is by no means confined to religious zealots. It is one of the principal forms of human-on-human predation. It short-circuits social accountability, and is a source of great social confusion and mischief.
My own agnostic faith includes the following tenets.
· That unproven ‘higher meanings’ and ‘higher powers’ are totally irrelevant to human life, society and our world. Those who introduce them into discussions and actions affecting non-believers are — consciously or not — holding back human progress. This is as true of (atheist) assertions of ‘non-being’ as it is of (theist) assertions of ‘being’.
· We should treat all human beings with dignity and respect, never killing, enslaving or dehumanizing each other. We know that proclivities towards both dehumanization and cooperation are hard-wired in our DNA. We face a dangerous disconnect between space age technology and a medieval understanding of how to relate to one another.
· That our survival and our very identity depend on our mother culture. Cultures cannot evolve at the speed of technology. Asserting Western cultural superiority in non-Western cultures triggers defensive reaction, not adaptation or learning. We must respect the timescale required to build a global human identity. It requires patience, dialogue and mutual growth.
· The planet is our home and we don’t respect it enough. We are not on the cusp of knowing everything, and while technological advancement is usually a good thing, everything cannot be fixed by more technology. We must recognize this hubris for what it is and shake it off, urgently.
· In most matters related to human nature and society collective wisdom is, and will likely remain for a long time, our most reliable guide. We must urgently invest in improving democratic processes and deepening the culture of democracy that nurtures civic-minded leadership and discourse.
I have been very lucky in my life. My mother tongue is English — a language that hundreds of millions of people make enormous sacrifices to achieve very rudimentary proficiency in. I was born in Canada, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and benefited from one of the best education systems on earth. Our government is not perfect, but the scandals and corruption we face here are trivial beside those that destroy lives regularly in much of the world.
Under these circumstances I feel that I owe the less advantaged in this world as much as I can find. I am not speaking of any formal debt. But we live on one planet, and we are all inter-connected. The only alternative to collective human progress is to leave billions of people behind. But anyone convinced they will be on the privileged side of the line in the moment of truth is ignorant of history.
It often took a great deal of sacrifice for our ancestors to create our institutions for us. Our institutions are committed to certain truths that may have been our best estimates in an earlier era, but are now often outdated.
Agnosticism teaches us a healthy skepticism about received wisdom — not because none of it is right, but because no generation — least of all ours — can afford to assume that nothing has changed.
Seeing each other as we really are — beyond the boundaries and judgements set by our culture — is freedom and it is the path towards personal wholeness, as well as towards greater peace and unity.