Against Agnosticism

By: Joe Pettit

Among my non-religious neighbors and colleagues, agnosticism, rather than atheism, seems to be the preferred position to take.  To be clear, I do not go around quizzing people on their attitudes about God, but when they find I that I teach religious studies and philosophy, they will often let me know where they stand (or don’t stand) on matters of ultimate reality by telling me, “I’m an agnostic.”

Perhaps they tell me this to discourage any inclination I might have to bring up the question of God in casual conversation, not realizing that I am far more likely to discuss poker than religion.  I think at least some self-identify this way because they think that religion is irrational, but atheism seems too combative.  Being nice people, they do not want to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities by explicitly denying the existence of God, but being thoughtful people, they just can’t bring themselves to associate with any given religious tradition and the extraordinary and often extraordinarily incoherent claims all religions seem to affirm.  Additionally, they may simply identify as agnostic because they really think the question of God’s existence is best answered with, “I just don’t know.”

However, I find that many of my neighbors and colleagues are more theistic (one is a theist if one affirms God’s existence) than they think because many of them are happy to affirm an objective, as opposed to subjective, difference between good and bad actions.  I think they need God to make sense of this.  Such people are implicitly theistic, a position at odds with their expressed agnosticism.

What do I mean by an objective difference between better and worse actions?  First, I mean that the difference is not purely subjective.  Subjective goodness is relative to the purposes that an individual chooses to pursue.  Because subjective goodness depends on the purposes that I choose, purposes that I can change at any time, what is good for me right now may not be good for you.  If goodness is only subjective, then goodness is a word without meaning.  Additionally, judging the goodness of others only in relation to my own purposes amounts to moral narcissism, an embarrassingly contradictory state of affairs.

Consider all those things most of us think of as bad: stealing, abuse, assault, murder, ignoring the suffering of others.  If these things are bad only in relation to the purposes chosen by individuals, they might be good relative to purposes that I choose.  At worst, my calculations of better and worse will have to include the costs of being caught making such choices.  This only makes the actions bad if I get caught, and, in the case of ignoring the suffering of others, there is never much cost to many of us.  In what sense, then, is ignoring that suffering bad?

Objective goodness requires a way to make sense of the real difference between better and worse actions that does not solely depend on the purposes pursued by individuals.  I contend that the best way to explain this real difference is the existence of God.  God measures the difference between better and worse, and our purpose in life is always to seek what is better and avoid what is worse.  That is, our purpose is to act as God would have us act (actually knowing what God wants, however, is far less obvious than many would claim).

No doubt, this is a very contentious claim, but let me give two reasons why I think it is true.  First, whatever makes choices good or bad, better or worse, needs to have been real before we were on this planet and will need to still be real when we no longer exist.  Real goodness could not wait to be created out of nothing, if only because that very creation could never itself be good.  Second, even the most compelling ideals are invariably only partial, or approximate, expressions of what makes choices good.  But their very partialness implies a fuller reality of goodness toward which those ideals point us.  Thus, the ideals themselves cannot constitute objective goodness.

Is it possible that objective goodness does not exist?  Of course it is.  It is possible that our perceptions of better and worse are merely evolutionary tricks designed in our brains by natural selection to give our genes a better chance of being passed to the next generation.  Perhaps reality is entirely indifferent to the difference between better and worse.

The denial of objective goodness is true atheism.  Atheism is not just the denial of God’s existence.  There are so many bad ideas of God that many people would qualify as atheists if denying the existence of those gods was all that atheism requires.  For example, I do not think that God directly intervenes in the world.  God does not move bullets, for if God moves even one bullet, then God is on the hook for failing to move every bullet.  God does not cure illness, for if God cures even one illness, then God is on the hook for failing to cure every illness.  If belief in God requires the belief that God directly intervenes in the world, then I am an atheist.

If atheism is possibly true, why then isn’t agnosticism the better position, after all?  The answer to this question is that how we understand the world influences our actions in the world, and we should understand the world as if the difference between good and bad is real.  Anyone who does so, I contend, has faith in God.

Faith is that part of our understanding of the world for which we do not have clear evidence.  I do not need faith that I am typing on this computer or sitting on my couch.  I do need faith that my children do not steal from others.  I cannot clearly demonstrate this in a way that requires others, or even myself, to believe that is true, but what I do know about my children seems consistent with that faith.  If I were to discover evidence to the contrary, then my faith would have to change.

All of us have faith because each of us fills in the gaps in our understanding of the world.  Even atheists have faith because the absence of objective goodness in the world cannot be clearly demonstrated.  It must be affirmed by faith.  Faith is not opposed to reason.  If our faith is challenged by evidence or reason, then we may end up with a new faith.  It is never a question of faith or no faith, but rather which faith.

One reason that I cannot be an atheist is that I find that the moral narcissism required by the denial of objective goodness is just too embarrassing to endure.  I simply cannot go around urging people to act this way and not that way just because I want them to, and just so that they will agree with my view of the world.  I am not that important.

I need to think that I am beholden to something greater than me.  I need to think that if I fail to do good, if I fail to be kind or fail to seek justice, then I have really failed the heart of reality, and not just some occasional inclination in my brain.

If there is any truth to my argument, then the most interesting question anyone can ask is, “What would God have me do?”  I think the answer to that question amounts to some version of “Enjoy the world, and help others to enjoy it, as well.”  However, defending that answer will have to wait for another month.

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