Are You an Agnostic?
IF YOU are an agnostic, you come somewhere between an atheist and a theist. The atheist is convinced that God does not exist, while the theist has a firm belief that God does exist and that he is involved in human affairs.
The agnostic does not feel that there is enough evidence to say that God does or does not exist. Rather, he reserves judgment or says that if God does exist he is unknown and unknowable.
Do you have friends who are agnostics? Or are you an agnostic yourself? If so, why? Perhaps you feel that agnosticism is the most reasonable position to take in this rationalist 20th century. If that is the case, we invite you to consider the words of certain men who have helped to shape the thinking of people in this century and see what they believed about God, and why. It may help you to understand a little better the reasons for your own beliefs.
Because of the Churches
The term “agnostic” (from the Greek word agnostos, “unknown”) was coined by the 19th-century British scientist Thomas H. Huxley, who also helped to popularize the Darwinian theory of evolution. Huxley noted that the churches claimed to have a special gnosis (knowledge) about God and the origin of things. He gave one reason why he could not accept this gnosis, and hence was an agnostic:
“If we could only see, in one view, the torrents of hypocrisy and cruelty, the lies, the slaughter, the violations of every obligation of humanity, which have flowed from this source [the churches] along the course of the history of Christian nations, our worst imaginations of Hell would pale beside the vision.”
Doubtless Huxley’s faith in the existence of God was shaken by his acceptance of the theory of evolution. Nevertheless, his faith was further shaken by the conduct of those who should have been in a position to help him, the churches. Their record through the centuries was no recommendation for belief in God.
Socialist Harold Laski, political theorist and educator, wrote in a similar vein. “I was brought up in an orthodox Jewish household; but I cannot even remember a period in which either ritual or dogma had meaning for me,” he confessed. Why? He explained: “Both in England and America I have never been able to see in any of the organized churches a faith in its principles sufficient to make it do serious battle for justice.”
Again, he said: “I cannot see, in the historic process, that the churches have been other than the enemies of reason in thought and of justice in social arrangements.”
Has the conduct of the churches caused you, too, to doubt the existence of God? It is true, their hypocrisy and wrong conduct are a matter of historical record. Note, however, that the Bible, the foremost source of information about God, foretold the rise of just such a perversion of the Christian faith: “They will preserve all the outward form of religion, although they have long been strangers to its meaning.”—2 Timothy 3:5, Knox.
In fact, the shortcomings of established religion are no reason to conclude that God does not exist. If a sick person has been cheated by a quack doctor, he should not thus conclude that no cure is possible. Rather, he should look around for a genuine doctor. Similarly, the fact that the established churches have turned many people away from God does not mean that God cannot be found. It merely means that you have to look somewhere else for him.
Unknowable or Unknown?
Some say that Huxley based his word “agnostic” on a word that appears in the Bible. According to the record in the Bible book of Acts, the apostle Paul when preaching to the Athenians reminded them of an altar in Athens inscribed “To an Unknown [Agnosto in Greek] God.” (Acts 17:23) Was Paul saying that this God, unknown to the wise men of Athens, was unknowable? Far from it. In fact, he went on to explain to the Athenians how they could come to know him.
Today, too, although God is unknown to many, he is not unknowable. The Bible indicates one way that we can learn something about him: “His invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made.” (Romans 1:20) The comments of those whose profession it is to study “the things made” support this statement.
Albert Einstein, the foremost scientific theorist of the 20th century, did not believe in the God of the Bible. Nevertheless, his researches into the nature of the universe inspired in him a sense of wonder that came close to acknowledging the existence of God.
In his book Out of My Later Years, Einstein discusses the experience of learning about the underlying unity of nature. He then said: “Whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain, is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence.” He went on: “By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind towards the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man.”
It is not a long step from acknowledging the “rationality made manifest in existence,” and “the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence,” to accepting that behind it all there must be a great Reasoner or Source of rationality. One who made that step was A. R. Wallace, contemporary with Darwin and promoter of the evolution theory and the doctrine of survival of the fittest.
Although he firmly believed in man’s descent from the beasts, Wallace saw something in man that proved to him that Someone higher than man must exist. That “something” was man’s high sense of morality and his intellectual potential.
“I cannot impute this in any way to ‘survival of the fittest,’” he wrote. Rather, he maintained, these qualities “afford us the surest proof that there are other and higher existences than ourselves, from whom these qualities may have been derived, and towards whom we may be ever tending.”
The researches of Oxford University mathematics professor E. A. Milne strongly convinced him that God exists. Modern science shows with increasing clarity the complexity and beauty of the laws governing the universe. Milne felt that we have to accept the existence of God to explain both where matter came from and who originated the laws of nature that control that matter. “If there is a mystery about the creation of matter,” he maintained, “there would be a still greater mystery about the creation of arbitrary laws to govern it.”
Hence, said mathematical physicist Milne, “Though I have had my periods of agnosticism, I have always recovered from them. I do most fervently believe that this universe was created by Almighty God.”
The Plight of an Agnostic
It has been noted that man by nature has an instinctive need to worship. Those who hold the position of agnostics or atheists may find something lacking if they consider their position closely—rather like a child who is brought up in an orphanage and who feels a sense of loss at never having known his parents.
Even such a convinced unbeliever as the great mathematician Bertrand Russell admitted late in life: “I am strangely unhappy because the pattern of my life is complicated, because my nature is hopelessly complicated. . . . The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite—a beatific vision—God—I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found.”
It is to be found, though. Not only do millions of people today strongly believe in God but they know him, trust him, and have a personal relationship with him. They are grateful to science for the deeper insight it has given them into God’s “invisible qualities.” (Romans 1:20) However, they have found their faith deepened even more by studying the book that contains a record of God’s dealings with mankind, the Bible.
The Bible does not build in us a mere credulous belief in God. Rather, it encourages us to develop a proved faith. “Faith is the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld.” (Hebrews 11:1) Belief in the reality—though unseen—of God can be obtained through examining the “things made,” and, especially, by a study of the Bible. If you are an agnostic, we encourage you to examine the evidence again. Jehovah’s Witnesses will be happy to help you do so.
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“I cannot see, in the historic process, that the churches have been other than the enemies of reason in thought and of justice in social arrangements.”—Harold Laski
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“Though I have had my periods of agnosticism, I have always recovered from them. I do most fervently believe that this universe was created by Almighty God.”—Professor E. A. Milne