Skepticism and Agnosticism as Ideology

By Roderick Hindery

Symbols of extremist views? 'Better orderly error than complex truth!?'

Symbols of extremist views? “Better orderly error than complex truth!?”

Abstract.  This article strives to present one central point: religious skeptics and agnostics may be as liable to indulge in excessive certitude and ideology as those who make religious claims. In a positive sense, skeptics simply require that religious or opposing claims be backed up with evidence and reason. Agnostics differ from skeptics by adding one more critical and liberating acknowledgment, “at present we don’t know.” Skeptical overstatements about who controls the mass media are offered as an opening example of how healthy skepticism can cross over into ideological excess. In spite of its disclaimers about certitude, agnostic skepticism can fall into similar traps. The paper concludes by discussing three concrete thought experiments about how such excesses might be avoided. These experiments seem less likely to elicit a “return of the repressed” in the future, if they are confronted forthrightly in the present. Whatever one’s preference in these formulations, it needs to emerge not as ideology nor as indecisiveness, but as reasoned freely, without indoctrination by others, and without pretense from
within.

Indoctrination and self-deception may contaminate the grounds of religious skepticism and agnosticism as much as they infect the roots of religious and political beliefs. Tell-tale signs of such infection surface in the unsupported and inflated certitudes typically claimed within ideologies. Examples of inflated certitude are found in overblown assertions that all media pronouncements are totally manipulated by the political right, the political left, or by excessive focus on the profit motive. Even declarations that news media distort news to maximize audiences for commercial gain can be overstated. As much as the media may engage in hyperbole, emotional as well as verbal, the sin of hype falls short of conspiracy in the measure that different centers of political and economic power compete with and balance one another.

In any case, wherever manipulation festers, its early symptoms include the use of ideological absolutes, for example, skeptical pronouncements that the transmission of news is always conspiratorial. Such skepticism may verge on paranoia. To remain healthy and productive, skepticism needs to be refracted on itself to identify the points at which conspiracy theories lose touch with reality; for example, whenever they offer emotional comfort which is grounded on gratuitous assumptions, yet fails to locate real problems and solutions.(1)  Like skeptics, agnostics in religious and other matters search for truths which are uncontrived. In addition to their positive skepticism, agnostics acknowledge that their search is as yet unproductive. Like skeptics in general, agnostics function with pluses and minuses. On the plus side, they rein in excessive and misleading certitude. On the minus side, their own declarations may become as inflated, dogmatic, and ideological as those of some religious claimants. Even for agnostics the path is slippery from the agnostic “we don’t know” to the ideological “no one can ever know.”

Like healthy forms of skepticism, agnosticism proceeds not from temperamental ambivalence, but from a rejection of compulsive or phony decisiveness. Healthy agnosticism is further distinguished from its unproductive forms by its avoidance of ideological absolutes, such as unwarranted claims that agnosticism excludes all forms and instances of belief. Honest acknowledgments about uncertainty are lacking not only within ideologies which are religious, but also within those which are agnostic. A touch of realistic agnosticism about one’s own agnosticism is especially beneficial during contemporary epidemics of self-certitude, which thrive, ironically, on self-deception.

Honesty trumps certitude, even about agnostic assumptions, especially in an era when the “principle of uncertainty” in the quantum world is laden with transfer-value. While quantum uncertainties are not literally encountered in common experiences, their corollary about the “impact of observers on whatever is observed” precedes both Heisenberg and Kant and is laden with transfer-value for many fields. This paper makes a case, at the same time as it invites counter-positions, that today’s special need among humanists, “non-religious” as much as “religious,” is not more self-certitude, but less; not a fundamentalist pretense to self-infallibleness, but a more realistic and modest acceptance of the uncertainties within religion, agnosticism, and science alike. Agnostic admissions that “we don’t know” do not necessarily mean “we don’t care,” but “we do care.” Just as premature or bogus claims to certitude can impede ongoing quests for truth, the phrase “we don’t know” can make further inquiry possible, both in personal and in scientific matters. Understood in this manner, the agnostic assertion that the existence of God is neither verifiable nor falsifiable does not preclude the utility of future discussion, as it seems to in some agnostic positions, like the one convincingly reasoned in 1998 by Michael Shermer.2

In physics little is known about the smallest quantum components of mass and energy apart from assumptions derived from wishful thinking or science fiction. Similarly, many professional theologians and mystics, East and West, have long asserted that by definition ultimately little, if anything, can be understood about divinity which is alleged to be infinite and mysterious in its very nature. In science or religion, agnosticism functions more effectively when it acknowledges its own limitations. Comparatively speaking, atheists, who profess certainty that divinity does not exist, have been criticized for not grasping the belief-quality in their atheism; that is, for not discerning that only agnosticism is accountably scientific, not atheism. Atheistic certitude, being neither verifiable nor falsifiable, itself relies on a kind of faith. By contrast agnosticism puts such faith and certitude in brackets. However, a similar criticism applies to agnostics whenever they disguise feelings of insecurity with masks of infallibility.

Religious believers and agnostics alike remain mortally dangerous, to themselves and others, if they do not measure both faith and agnosticism in terms of logic and practical consequences. Just as individuals have to bracket the ultimate sincerity of themselves and others in daily life, they may also need to bracket the authenticity of more ultimate claims to religious faith or agnosticism (unless, of course, the allegations are probably or obviously phony or self- and other-destructive). In sum, because the basic assumptions of both religious and non-religious teachings are often gratuitous, they need to be tested in terms of fully disclosed assumptions, logical coherence, consequences, and relevant evidence.3  Pascal’s wager also remains relevant.

The seventeenth-century French philosopher and physicist, Blaise Pascal, described how much safer it is for non-believers to live as if God exists and rewards them, because little is sacrificed, in Pascal’s opinion, compared to the loss of eternal happiness. Describing this position as “Pascal’s Wager,” religious critics have read into it religious opportunism, egoism, and perhaps self-deception. In so doing they may have condemned more believers than they realized, given the pervasive opaqueness of human motives. Perhaps the dysfunctions of “Pascal’s Wager” are far more widespread among believers and agnostics than has yet been imagined. It would be equally perilous to allege certitude about religion or agnosticism, simply to please Pascal’s critics. Are matters really so black and white? Are religious agnostics categorically separate from believers who live and breathe with doubts? Crowding everyone into opposing boxes of agnosticism and belief creates only the illusion of clarity, as boxes and categories so often do. Better to risk lack of lucidity, however, than to achieve the mere illusion of clarity through failure “to think beyond the box.”4

Ongoing discussion is necessary as to ways in which religious agnosticism can
avoid self-deceptions into which religious claimants have often fallen.
It is continued here in somewhat devotional genre with which thought about religious agnosticism and belief might be expressed in real life rather than in largely abstract speculation. At the verbal surface, the juxtaposition of prayer with agnosticism appears oxymoronic. Yet in the light of the foregoing reflections, here are some thought experiments on how such formulations of prayer might manifest conversations either with the self and the world at one end of a spectrum or with some perceived divinity at the other end. In the latter case divinity might be perceived theistically, non-theistically or in dazzling dialectics which allege to reach beyond both theist and non-theist perceptions (as proposed by the renowned Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, 150-250 C.E.) In the following three examples, some agnostics may sense that such attempts at prayer communicate less with divinity than with fellow human beings. Others may be reminded of what the Jewish mystic, Martin Buber, described as the searching agnostic’s unnamed prayer from his garret window. In either case, these experiments in thought seem less likely to elicit a “return of the repressed” in the future, if they are articulated and confronted forthrightly and directly in the present.

  1. Divinity, real or imagined by any name: it is not clear whether or not you exist in the ways human intelligence perceives other beings to exist. Assuming that you do exist in some manner, that you can be addressed by and even communicate with human beings through very ordinary manifestations, such as the smiles of children or the beauty of sunsets, we do not understand how literally to take beliefs within various religious traditions, ancient and new, that you somehow intervene in human lives. Perhaps your “interventions” are less extraordinary than constant-in the ordinariness of human lives and in the normal care and love which humans, animals, and other beings seem to share with one another.

    That horrendous evil and suffering exist are due in part to human beings, if never to omnipotent deity. But they may also derive from the way a finite world has to be, if it is to exist at all. Galactic collisions thrive as new stars, planets, and lives emerge and die. Paradoxes about deity described as infinite, yet limited in its interactions with the universe, are as age-old as traditional notions that divine omnipotence is limited by divine intelligence and even yields to human persistence. Given such limitations about divine intervention to prevent inevitable disaster and suffering, not everyone is sure that it makes sense to pray, especially if prayer principally means “appeal to divine intervention and favors.” But if prayer also signifies articulations of wonder, worship, thanksgiving, sorrow for faults, or affirmations of love and justice for others, then chances edge forward that religious believers and agnostics alike may be remiss not to pray. Specifically, they may be less inclined not to worship (an) intelligent being who may pervade this and other universes or dimensions. They may be less intent not to state their appreciation to an ultimate reality without whom any life and consciousness may be impossible; not to express sorrow for sins of omission, weakness, cowardice, and malice; or not to declare love for others and willingness to work for justice at every level.

  2. Divinity, real or imagined: we wish neither to pray nor to avoid prayer, simply because of skeptical trends or mass suggestion, because others have so ordered, or because of what others might think of us. We do not wish to use divinity like a “God-machine” (Deus ex machina). Mystery beyond comprehension, we refuse to think of you as some cosmic vending machine, ready to respond to petitions if they are phrased correctly. Although it would seem contradictory not to feel angst before divinity conceived to represent infinite power and mystery, responses to such divinity may rise less from fear and trembling, than as expressions of common sense, respect, justice, and love.

  3. Divinity, real or imagined: even when alone, we do not wish to pray merely as single individuals, but as members of human societies and other families who co-habit this world and perhaps other planets. Frankly, we do not grasp clearly if or how it matters that we pray, when we think of all those equal to or more important than ourselves who, due to various circumstances, are unable to pray-infants, the ill, the elderly, and especially the indoctrinated, whose prayers are not really their own.

    Persons whose prayer emerges not freely, but solely or primarily from the context of their indoctrination and never supercedes it, join the ranks of those who pray for the wrong reasons, even if through little or no fault of their own. True, various traditions, scriptural and otherwise, confirm the value of prayer, even for unbelievers, as in “I do believe, help my unbelief.” Yet adherents to religious traditions are not always sure how literally they are to take and apply their teachings in different historical contexts. They are also aware of how widely, grossly, and frequently devotion has been abused, as in prayers of racial, sexual, nationalist, and other bias; or in prayers which emerge out of pride, hatred, selfish acquisition, or revenge. Given these limits, believers and agnostics alike may wonder if the impulse to pray is generated more by biological urges than by religious traditions, written or oral. Perhaps prayers often express largely biological responses which surface in the face of dire need, suffering, and death, as well as in the encounters of daily living

***

For religious believers and agnostics alike, the impulse to pray finds confirmation in age-old practices of peoples everywhere, from past to present. Perhaps the unanimity of this impulse emerges less from biological origins or indoctrinated acculturation than from little understood pre-conceptual conditionings which influence much human thought and action. Confirmation by antiquity and ubiquity is contradicted or limited, of course, by the co-existence of prayer with acquisitive greed and superstition. Just as prayer should not be shunned because of such abuse or because of the energy and perseverance it requires, neither should it be put into practice simply in blind obedience to tradition, to alleviate fear, or to satisfy the ethos of acquisition.

In the face of enormous, tragic, and incessant suffering among so many human beings, much of it without apparent meaning, for agnostics the impulse to pray may remain as puzzling as the inexorable search for religious belief. Religious indoctrination likely plays a more pervasive role in religious belief than has yet been acknowledged.5 Indeed, from the perspectives of both skeptics and agnostics, prayer may embody the most quixotic self-deception and hoax in history, leading to antithetical religious and agnostic impulses whose opposing assumptions are similarly doctrinaire.

At the same time, to maintain that religious skepticism and agnosticism necessarily preclude prayer may conceal one or both of two undisclosed, unsupported, and therefore ideological presuppositions, that no mystery exists within or beyond human capacities; and that prayer with doubt is always prayer without value. To pray, not to pray at all, or to pray with doubt, each decision may be influenced by self-deception or by indoctrination from others. Whatever the choice, it needs to emerge neither as ideology nor as indecisiveness, but as reasoned freely, without intimidation or indoctrination by others, and without pretense from within.

  1. George Case, 2005, “The Truth is Out There.Way Out There: Three Major Patterns of Conspiratorial Thinking,” Skeptic, Vol. 11, No. 4, 42-43. In addition to patterns considered by George Case, Phil Mole writes that the need to explain unpleasant realities in emotionally appealing terms may contribute to the origins of anti-Semitic and other conspiracy theories. Phil Mole, 2003, “Blame it on the Jews: Anti-Semitism and the History of Jewish Conspiracy Theories,” Skeptic, Vol. 10, No. 3, 28-37.
  2. Michael Shermer, 1998, “Do You Believe in God: The Difference in Your Answer and the Difference It Makes,” Skeptic, Vol. 6, No. 2, 74-79. This analysis advances previous discussions with its directness and its clarity. The nuance in Shermer’s usage of the term “nontheist,” as not functionally believing, differs from the term’s more traditional application to Theravada Buddhist and similar beliefs to express belief in a non-personal aspect of divinity.
  3. The growing dismissal of intelligent design theories as univocally masked formulations of creationism neither discusses nor excludes explorations about an immanent or coincident divine intelligence which may emerge from within. If the existence of God is neither verifiable nor falsifiable for agnostics generally, the same applies to divine immanence. The question then remains: is this the case as though it were a permanent dogma, or might it be reopened in future exploration? Richard Dawkins, 2006, “The Illusion of Design,” Skeptic, Vol. 12, No. 2, 51-53; and David Birn, 2006, “The Other Intelligent Design Theories,” Skeptic, Vol. 12, No. 2, 60-63.
  4. The coexistence of doubt with agnosticism as much as with religious faith traverses a broad spectrum, which may include its two extremes The healthy “joy of doubt” which Jennifer Hecht prescribes for believers arguably profits the thinking of agnostics as well. See Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, esp.484-494.
  5. I have elaborated on the roles of self-deception and indoctrination in “The Anatomy of Propaganda Within Religious Terrorism,” The Humanist, March-April 2003; in the seventh chapter of my book on Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought; in “Advocacy in Academe,” ­CSSR Bulletin, Feb. 2003, pp. 18-19; and in several academic papers published at my website: Propaganda vs. Critical Thought.

Roderick Hindery is retired professor in comparative and social ethics at Temple University, Philadelphia; was adjunct professor at Arizona State University until 2008, and has taught in the departments of history, religious studies, and public administration California State University at Fullerton and Northridge. His major publications include the books,

Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought? and Comparative
Ethics in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions
.

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