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The 10 Agnostic Commandments
Agnostic literally means `without knowledge', and it commonly describes a position on the existence of God. However, lacking knowledge covers a broad spectrum of skeptics who may possess beliefs about God's existence without claiming to know their beliefs are true. For example, agnostic atheists sometimes believe gods don't exist, while agnostic theists believe in one or more gods.
The following 10 commandments are meant for pure agnostics; meaning stringent skeptics who aren't inclined to combine the word with a statement about belief. In these commandments, God can refer to any deity; not just the Abrahamic god.
1. An agnostic doesn’t know if God exists and has no reason to think anyone else does.
Be careful, this isn't equivalent to “I don’t know and neither do you”. An agnostic cannot know about all the evidence that exists in the world; they can only know they haven’t observed evidence that is credible.
2. All beliefs and asymmetric judgments of probability are irrational if not supported by relevant evidence.
It would be presumptuous for an agnostic to say any more than “God might exist”. Agnostics know of no evidence for or against the existence of God; meaning there is no reason to form any degree of belief in either proposition. A claim about the likelihood or unlikelihood of God’s existence must also be supported by relevant evidence. If something in a theist’s holy book is right or wrong, or the fossil record is convincing, or there's evil in the world, this should have no bearing on whether a deity exists.
I do not have enough faith to believe there is no god.— David Hume
3. The scientific method is currently the best way to answer questions about life, the universe, and everything.
Through observation, experiment, and inductive reasoning, we can embark on a fruitful search for truth. Psychological experiments can help us understand the evolutionary origin and function of morality, as well as our cognitive attraction to religion. Physics can unearth the wonders of the universe. Biology can expose the secrets of life.
4. There are no extant scientific instruments known to the agnostic that can provide evidence for or against the existence of God.
If such an instrument existed, evidence that is relevant to God’s existence could be obtained. To the best of an agnostic’s knowledge, there is no such instrument and, thus, no evidence.
So what people are really after is, what is my stance on religion or spirituality or God? And I would say, if I find a word that came closest, it would be agnostic.— Neil deGrasse Tyson
5. The burden of proof is on whoever is making a claim.
Dismissing an unsupported claim about the existence or non-existence of God can be done in an equally unsupported way. Saying the opposite claim must therefore be true cannot.
6. Agnostics rarely believe what they don’t know.
The more reason there is to doubt something, the less reason there is to believe it, and the less reason there is to think you know it. As skepticism increases, the level of doubt that makes belief impossible gets closer to the level of doubt that makes knowledge impossible. In most cases then, the word `agnostic' should cover a pure agnostic’s position on belief as well as knowledge. As such, it becomes foolish to believe what can't be supported to the level of knowledge, and to suggest an agnostic has no stated position on belief is equivalent to asking if they're a fool.
7. Argumentum ad populum is a logical fallacy; even if you’re talking about unicorns, fairies, and teapots.
Bertrand Russell’s space-faring teapot, pink unicorns, spaghetti monsters, and fairies are alleged by many atheists to be so unlikely that they reduce agnosticism to absurdity. However, if the veracity of the Bible isn't supported by billions of believers, then the falsehood of fairy tales isn't supported by billions of disbelievers. These are both examples of argumentum ad populum, or an `appeal to the people' fallacy. If something seems absurd because it commonly appears in fiction or a different cultural context, this has no bearing on the possibility of it appearing in another context. Acknowledging this doesn’t require agnostics to consider fairies or deities as causes of unusual events. Without evidence for their presence (see the 1st commandment), there’s no reason to consider them.
Though Bertrand Russell proffered his own brands of absurdity (the Homeric gods and a space-faring teapot), he recognized the philosophical failings of argumentum ad populum:
If I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.— Bertrand Russell
8. Agnostics are not divided between those who believe an answer will be found to the question of God’s existence, and those who believe it is unanswerable.
Richard Dawkins respectively defined these two positions as temporary agnosticism in practice (TAP) and permanent agnosticism in principle (PAP). Why an agnostic should rashly discard their skepticism by forming an unsupported belief of this kind is unclear. The God question might be resolved or it might be impossible. The agnostic position is that we don’t know. Attempts by prominent atheists to implant faith into agnosticism so they can mount a criticism of it are straw man fallacies.
9. Agnostics usually aren't wishy-washy, conformable, yielding, theists or atheists in waiting.
Agnostics often have a way of looking at the world that would take a considerable amount of evidence to change. This is because agnosticism is strongly grounded in skepticism, which can lead to vehement criticism of any unsupported belief; theistic or atheistic. Thus, an agnostic can and often will criticize religion as much as any atheist.
My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn't believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I'm agnostic.— Carl Sagan
10. There are differences between atheism and agnosticism.
Atheism is a blanket term that includes several non-theist positions, including pure agnosticism. Some of these positions, such as having an unsupported belief in the non-existence of God, are contrary to the skeptical stance that many agnostics adopt. Therefore, agnostics sometimes wish to clarify their position by separating themselves from other brands of atheism. Though agnosticism is also a blanket term, it may be the clearest way to communicate an agnostic’s specific position on the existence of God, and the best way to avoid being misrepresented. Criticism of this position by atheists (such as described in commandments 6-9) is another reason why many choose to distance themselves from blanket atheism.
I should prefer the word Agnostic to the word Atheist.— Charles Darwin
Do you agree with these commandments?
Why is agnosticism criticized?
Uncertainty causes anxiety; a universally unpleasant emotion. The purpose of the unpleasantness is to motivate people to extinguish uncertainty in any way they can. Generally, this is because certainty is a safer state of being than uncertainty. In practice, however, our instinctual dislike of uncertainty biases how we attend to the world. It disposes us to see certainties or likelihoods where none exist. Whether the end result is religion or committed atheism, we cling to worldviews that bring some level of order to the chaos.
To be agnostic is to completely disregard our instincts by tolerating uncertainty and accepting it as an inevitable response to questions we can’t answer. As such, agnosticism increases anxiety, making it the least comfortable theological position to endorse. This may be why it’s routinely criticized and misrepresented by theists and atheists alike, and why it’s safely filed away under blanket definitions of atheism that, on average, tend to convey a greater degree of certainty about the God question. Furthermore, by dissolving the middle ground, theism and atheism appear less extreme, giving followers of both positions more confidence in their impartiality.
This natural desire to obscure the middle ground may be why theological debates often degenerate into polarized discourse, emotionally charged, sectarian thinking, and unsupported assertions by people who are more concerned with winning an argument for their personal pride than arriving at the best possible truth. Indeed, while scientific research is cited by both groups, it is rarely read; with each side happy to use it as a weapon when times suit.
You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.— Albert Einstein
Please leave a comment if you agree, disagree, or would like to discuss the 10 agnostic commandments outlined in this article. I'm open to editing the commandments in response to constructive criticism. As an agnostic and a scientist, nothing here is set in stone!
© 2015 Thomas Swan