Are there agnostics on a crashing plane? Agnosticism in general

Such was the title of the philosophy debate held at Sherborne school between two teachers, one who believed that agnosticism didn’t exist and the other who believed it did. I would like to offer my comments on the subject from an agnostic atheist prospective. We hit an immediate problem however. Theism and Gnosticism are totally different things.


As we see from the picture above there is a separation in fundamental meanings. Theism is about belief and Gnosticism is about knowledge. A gnostic, regardless of their theism claims to have knowledge. For example a gnostic atheist not only lacks belief in God but claims to know that God doesn’t exist. Likewise a gnostic theist not only has belief in God but claims to know that God exists. So it seems from the very start that the debate was not going to go anywhere since you can have both an atheist and a theist agnostic. The title of the debate is flawed in that agnosticism on its own isn’t really a thing, a concept. Agnosticism is simply the claim that I do not know. This is not particularly helpful because I make myself out to be a simpleton. There needs to be a predicate of theism to make Gnosticism meaningful. I suppose in this sense there aren’t agnostics on a crashing plane because the concept on its own does not exist but this is not a meaningful statement to make.

The very premise of the debate was founded on shaky grounds. If I was asked on a crashing plane if I believed in a God, there would be a high chance that I might say yes out of desperation for my own life and in the vague hope that a God might exist who could save me. This seems to me a silly argument to make and a logical fallacy, argument to emotion. We do not make rational and thoughtful decisions under such stress as our lives coming to an end fairly quickly. Instead we make quick snap decisions and this does not lend much help to the question in hand. The debate about God is one that needs rational thoughtful and discursive arguments and logic which would be distinctly lacking on a crashing plane. Simply because I say yes to the question under the given pressures does not portray my beliefs. The questions seems to be a leading question.

Lots of the subject matter in the debate is still relevant if applied in the correct way however. I think that we should take agnosticism out of the equation and merely have theism and atheism, the belief or lack of belief in a God. Why isn’t there a middle point? Philosophy suggests that you either have to believe in a God or not believe in a God. I challenged the proposing teacher in a class and asked why one cannot be simply unsure and say ‘you know what? I simply don’t know and am not going to pretend that I do just to make someone happy’. That is not my actual belief but I think it is a perfectly reasonable one. I’m not sure if I agree with the viewpoint that belief is a two way street.

Wittgenstein might have the answer perhaps. His writings about language games suggest that in order for one to participate in a conversation, one must know the rules about that conversation, for example being in a group of people talking about a sport they have just invented and you have no idea how it works. It might seem that to say I don’t know whether I believe or even have a belief in God is not participating in the language game of God. Coppleston might also agree. In his radio debate with Bertrand Russell he criticised his opponent for being too dogmatic by saying that the universe is there and that’s all there is to it. The proposing teacher argued that by backing out of the question in its entirety, we loose our place at the table. By saying ‘I don’t know if I believe in God or not’ suggests that you have nothing more to say in the matter and are not important in such a debate. One good point he made was that there is a difference in ‘believing something’ and ‘knowing if you have a belief in something’ which purports the argument that you must know if you believe something and therefore cannot be an agnostic in the edited term for the purpose of the debate.

For me though this is not necessarily the case. While it may not be particularly helpful to the God question, to admit that you don’t know if you have a belief is somewhat refreshing. we’ve been arguing, debating, fighting and killing over this question for hundreds of years now and we are nowhere closer than where we started. If anything science has swung the pendulum to the non-belief side slightly but has not, and perhaps never will finally answer the God question. the theism atheism question seems to me to be rather intuitive. it is quite rare to find someone who has weighed up both sides of the argument and gone with a particular side. most of the time due to social and environmental factors we are brought up in a certain way. if we look at this from a rational perspective then perhaps it is ok just to say’ I have weighed up both sides of the God question and I cannot decide between the two’. This is not saying that I don’t know if I have a belief, but saying there is not enough evidence and argument one way or the other to convince me.



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