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Agnosticism

David Hume was the archetypal agnostic. Though his philosophical musings brought him to the conclusion that nothing could be known for certain and that even cause and effect could not ultimately be relied upon, and though these musings wrought in him a deep melancholy, he nevertheless played backgammon and entertained friends with relish.

What his intellect could not provide him, he says, nature offered—freedom from the despair to which his radical skepticism seemed to sentence him. If this seems like a bit of intellectual trickery, that's because it is. How can Hume's logic (which he seemingly trusts to bring him to a correct view of the world) conflict so thoroughly with the testimony of nature?

The answer is not perhaps as obvious as it should be. Reformed thinker and apologist K. Scott Oliphint calls all secular philosophy "articulate unbelief," and this is our key. Hume wasn't ultimately interested in airtight arguments defending his views, or even in total consistency of thought or life (obviously); what Hume wanted was a worldview free of God and divine responsibility.

Agnostics have been described as atheists without conviction (or impolite variations on conviction). At first this seems like a good description, until one compares the claims of atheists to St. Paul's assurance in Romans 1 that everyone has a knowledge of God put there by God himself. Atheists aren't intellectually honest, they're more like children with their fingers in their ears and their eyes closed who think you can't see them because they can't see or hear you.

Is agnosticism any better, then? Not really, unless you think prevarication is better than wilful ignorance. The difference between atheism and agnosticism is the difference between a desert mirage and a fever dream—both of them are false, and both of them are impossible to prove to other people.

It's no wonder that agnosticism would develop and become prominent in a society that almost universally embraces naturalistic materialism in the form of Darwinism. If people think that the cosmos just appeared unintentionally, there's no way to know where we came from or how, so agnosticism seems like a logical position to take.

But God's Word cries foul. People can come up with whatever fables they want to explain the world, but as the Creator of all things God alone can provide us with the true information concerning all things. Agnosticism is an attempt to circumvent God's authority and provide a way for people to behave as they please, not an honest intellectual position.

Do we then just dismiss agnostics out of hand, denouncing their lack of intellectual integrity and calling them liars in front of the whole world? Not unless we don't want them to listen to what we have to say. No matter how blind or wilfully ignorant our opponents may be, belittling them or simply tossing aside their arguments is never a good idea.

That doesn't mean we agree with them or don't call them to account. It simply means we preach the truth in love, and with the respect we are called to show all those who bear the image of God as his creation (i.e., everyone). It also means that we actually do preach the truth in love, not that we just say we will and then play XBox.

Magician and gadfly Penn Teller calls himself an atheist rather than an agnostic, but he maintains a position that we should bear in mind when addressing members of both groups. The only people he claims to have any respect for are Christians who try to evangelize him. Not that he puts his faith in the Christian message, but why should he respect those who think he's going to burn in hell for eternity, but don't offer him the Gospel?

This also isn't to suggest that everyone with whom we share the Gospel will respect us. Many will hate us for it, some with be indifferent, and others will simply think we're insane. But Jesus doesn't tell us to gain followers for ourselves, he tells us to sow the seed for the Holy Spirit to work through. Whether those to whom we preach claim to know anything or not, we have been given the truth, and it is our duty as children of the Most High to share that truth with everyone, agnostic or otherwise.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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