The New Agnosticism

The trouble with so many of our contemporaries is not that they are agnostics
but rather that they are misguided theologians.
—E. Gilson (E. Gilson, God and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941), p. 137).

The atheist says that no matter what definition you choose, “God exists” is
always false. The theist claims only that there is some defi nition which will
make “God exist” true. In my view, neither the stronger nor the weaker
claim has been convincingly established. . . ..
. . . But the true default position is neither theism nor atheism, but agnosticism—
that is to say, the position of one who does not know whether or not
there is a God. A claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated; ignorance
need only be confessed.
— Anthony Kenny (Anthony Kenny, What I Believe (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 21).

Having described and demonstrated the problematic nature of atheism as It has been articulated by some leading atheistic philosophers, and having provided an even more detailed picture of how and why the atheism of a popular evolutionist goes terribly awry in that, among other things, it exaggerates the conflicts between science and religion, it is important to describe in some detail the New Agnosticism by juxtaposing it to various kinds of atheism, on the one hand, and theism, on the other. And this will be accomplished without providing self-serving categories of these genera that inherently support the New Agnosticism. The taxonomy that has been provided of kinds of atheism, theism, and agnosticism conforms to common sense or “folk” understandings of these categories and seeks to inform us of more nuanced understandings of these notions.

The fact is that “the subject of agnosticism has not received the philosophical attention it merits . . . agnosticism is a perfectly possible position, and it raises a variety of questions that deserve subtle consideration.” (Piers Benn, “Some Uncertainties about Agnosticism,” International Journal forPhilosophy of Religion, 46 (1999), p. 172). It is hoped that it will provide agnosticism the philosophical attention it deserves, and that the New Agnosticism will stand as the most plausible, however tentative, position on the problem of God’s existence.

My argument herein will constitute a defense of agnosticism, which has received far less attention in the philosophy of religion literature than either theism or atheism. The “New Agnosticism” (as I shall call it) supports and deepens considerably Bertrand Russell’s agnosticism. It is unlike the “new” agnostic humanism or “secularism” of G. J. Holyoake, whose view amounts to a kind of dogmatic or doctrinaire empiricism and humanism. (G. J. Holyoake, The Origin and Nature of Secularism (London: Watts, 1896). The New Agnosticism seeks to be dogmatic about nothing except, perhaps, the fallibilism that accompanies our need to employ reason as best we can in order to discover the truth about God’s possible existence, as it subscribes to no basic beliefs. (Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge, 2nd Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), Chapters 3–4).

While my agreement with atheists that the orthodox Christian notion of the nature and function of God is problematic for many of the same reasons that have already been provided throughout centuries of discussion, my argument is that atheism (even J. L. Mackie’s balancing of probabilities type) is untenable unless it is the case that there is no plausible notion of God worthy of the name. While this hardly constitutes—nor is it intended to be—an apologia for traditional Christian theism, it does serve to soften signifi cantly the threat of atheism for honest, truly devout, Christians and other theists for whom “rational” and “scientifi c” are not offensive. For the arguments shall demonstrate that the jury is still out on the question of God’s existence. However, this hardly supports the inference drawn by Hans Küng that arguments for and against the existence of the orthodox Christian conception of God are equally inconclusive and that this entitles one to “make a free decision” in favor of orthodox Christian theism that is rationally justified. (Hans Küng, Does God Exist? E. Quinn (trans.) (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1980), pp. 540, 544, 568f., 646, etc). Furthermore, the evidence for “God exists” and the evidence for its denial are to a meaningful extent incomparable such that at the present time a fi nal verdict on the God hypothesis is not possible absent reasonable doubt about the existence of God. And this is precisely where a good agnostic ought to find herself. This much is consistent with, if not inspired by, Russell’s view. But the New Agnosticism shall deepen Russell’s position on the problem of God, and in interesting ways for both philosophers and theologians alike.

It is helpful to note that the New Agnosticism differs from the agnosticism expressed in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion wherein agnosticism amounts to “a total suspense of judgement.” (David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, N. K. Smith, Editor (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947), p. 186). Instead, a judgment will be made by the New Agnostic, namely, that of recognizing whatever truth-value there is to the theistic arguments, on the one hand, and also whatever truth-value there is to the atheistic critiques of them, on the other. But it will also insist that due to certain supernaturalistic biases of the theist and certain naturalistic ones of many atheists, that the incomparable nature of such sets of evidence makes it presently too difficult, though not in principle impossible, to make an adequate and final decision between the two opposing positions.

The New Agnosticism is consistent with John Stuart Mill’s statement that “From the result of the preceding examination of the evidences of theism . . . it follows that the rational attitude of a thinking mind toward the supernatural, whether in natural or revealed religion, is that of skepticism as distinguished from belief on the one hand, and from atheism on the other.” (Quoted in Stephen L. Weber, Proofs for the Existence of God: A Meta- Investigation (Ann Arbor: University Microfi lms Inc., 1970), p. 217). So the New Agnosticism shares with Mill a kind of neutral skepticism that simply cannot reasonably choose, all relevant things considered and at the present time, between theism (properly construed) and atheism (properly understood). The difference between the New Agnosticism and the agnosticism of Mill and Russell lies in the fact that the New Agnosticism refuses to rest assured (as atheists tend to) that the refutation of traditional Christian theism in particular spells the demise of theism more generally, a point left untouched by these (and other) philosophers. Rather, it seeks to delve into modifi ed and more plausible forms of theism that evade concerns about God’s hyperbolic qualities in light of certain real-world realities, and it holds atheism to the task of providing a defense of itself. For as noted in a previous chapter of this book, the mere refutation of a position is not in itself an epistemic entitlement to accept its denial. If I lack suffi cient reason to accept the claim that X is evil, I am not entitled to accept that claim that it is not the case that X is evil, though I may, al la Mackie, accept a probability judgment that in light of the available evidence it is more likely than not that it is not the case that X is evil. However, this position is not atheistic, but agnostic.

If I am correct in my characterization of atheism, there seems to be a rather chronic presumptuousness of atheism. Yet this is no minor error in reasoning, as it points to a dogmatic rejection of theism itself in that some of the atheists are philosophers and scientists and ought to know better than to reason so poorly. If theism is to be genuinely refuted and atheism made plausible, it must be true that the strongest (not the most extreme or hyperbolic) form of theism available must be refuted. It makes no difference that some weak form of theism overloaded with several doctrines of faith is shown to be impoverished—no matter how popular it is.

In the interest of fairness and truth, I address the problematic arguments made by some leading atheists in refuting some of the poor arguments made in defense of the traditional Christian notion of God. And in light of my criticism of atheism, I bear the burden of demonstrating that there is an analysis of the nature and function of God that is plausible and evades the formidable objections to the traditional Christian notion of God.

I shall argue that, while the orthodox Christian notion of God falls prey to the standard objections raised by various philosophers, there is a more plausible process-liberationist conception of God, one of the ideas of which can be mined from the likes of Alfred North Whitehead, (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Humanities Press, 1929); Religion in the Making (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957)). Charles Hartshorne, (Charles Hartshorne, Anselm’s Discovery (LaSalle: Open Court, 1965); The Divine Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948); The Logic of Perfection (LaSalle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1962); Man’s Vision of God (Hamden: Archon Books, 1964); Natural Theology for Our Time (LaSalle: Open Court, 1950)). John Cobb, Jr., (John B. Cobb, Jr, God and the World (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969); John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffi n, Process Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976)). David Ray Griffin, (David Ray Griffi n, Evil Revisited (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991); God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976)). and liberationists such as James H. Cone, (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1975); Risks of Faith (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999)). Gustavo Gutiérrez, (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1973)). among others. Moreover, I shall further develop the process notion of God and briefl y note how it evades the criticisms of the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. Then I shall explain how some of the essentials of liberation theologies can be made congruent with those of process theologies in constructing a hybrid minimalist theism (a process-liberation theology) that can evade all or most of the problems facing orthodox Christian theism.

It should be borne in mind that Mackie’s famous article, “Evil and Omnipotence” (J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), Chapter 9).—not unlike Russell’s critique of traditional Christian theism—is not intended by Mackie to refute all forms of theism, but only the traditional one in which God is construed as being omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, and omniscient. In response to Mackie’s ingenious argument against orthodox Christian theism, I shall argue that the process-liberationist conception of God provides a plausible answer to the problem of evil, as well as answers to basic religious matters of prayer and respect for self, others, and nature. In the end, while it may be true that traditional Christian theism does not survive rational scrutiny as so many philosophers have argued, atheism fails to demonstrate at this time that it is not the case that God exists or, even more strongly, that the existence of God is impossible. If all available versions of theism fail and atheism worthy of the name is inadequately justified, what is viable at this time is agnosticism. I write “at this time” to accentuate the fact that the argumentation about God’s existence is predicated on what we know now based on arguments from the past, and we must remain open to the possibility that further argumentation might well provide a good reason for us to be dissuaded. Atheism will remain in doubt so long as some conception of God genuinely worthy of the name is plausible, all relevant things considered.

One benefit of my analysis of the existence of God is that, unlike most philosophical accounts, mine is better-informed theologically. And unlike most theological accounts, mine is well-informed philosophically and places no restrictions on the employment of reason in this context of of the ideas of which can be mined from the likes of Alfred North Whitehead,9 Charles Hartshorne,10 John Cobb, Jr.,11 David Ray Griffi n,12 and liberationists such discourse. My account makes signifi cant use of some of the best works in theology as well as in the philosophy of religion. In so doing, my account evades a rather common error committed by many atheists, namely, part of what I have referred to as the “errors of atheism”: That since the traditional notion of the nature of God is highly problematic, there is no God. In arguing that there is a more plausible and religiously viable notion of God available to us, I insist that the atheist bears the burden of demonstrating her position in light of this information. For what the atheist actually refutes is a straw person notion of the nature of God.

So it is not only that, as even some theologians claim, following Friedrich Nietzsche, that the God of traditional Christian theism is “dead,” (Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966). though, as I argued in the Introduction, it is rather queer, if not nonsensical, to refer to something as “dead” if it never existed in the fi rst place! (A similar point is made in Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, p. 8). Of course, the “God is dead” movement in Christian theology is a call to relinquish the orthodox notion of God in favor of one that is secularized and meaningful to a scientifi c world.(Paul van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963)). It is not a denial of the obvious fact that the orthodox notion of God “lives” in hearts and the minds of religious people. Indeed, it has taken up seemingly permanent residency in such quarters!

Thus the debate continues, but now with the way cleared of the debris of unnecessary and hyperbolic religious language about God and religious experience in favor of a conception of God’s being that makes better sense of genuine religious experience, absent the nonsense. Thus the atheist now has a new burden to bear, a challenge to refute this more plausible idea of God. It does not follow, however, that traditional Christian theism gains any plausibility in light of these facts. Conceptually speaking, it is not a “live option,” to borrow a phrase from William James. For it has long since been defeated in argument, despite the great and noble efforts of some of
its most astute minds to defend it.

Earlier I noted that I shall pursue and further develop a processliberation conception of the nature of God. I shall do this in a rather eclectic manner, however. For I shall borrow ideas from existentialist theologians such as Paul Tillich, Christian kerygmatic theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, liberation theologians like Cone (James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990); God of the Oppressed (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975)). and Gutiérrez, (Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation liberation) theologian activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., religiously motivated political activists like Malcolm X, and combine them with the basics of process theology outlined in the major works of Whitehead, Cobb, Jr. and Griffi n, respectively. Moreover, the immanentism of process theology will be appropriated, one which fi nds its roots in, among others, American Indian religions wherein the divine is seen in nature, and where humans are part of nature and enjoy no special privilege among natural beings or objects and should strive to always live in harmony with the natural world.(Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red (Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994).

American Indians, taken generally, believe in the “great web of life, the interconnectedness of spirituality and the environment,” the mutual relatedness of all things and mutual responsibility among humans.(Phil Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 40). Contemporary environmental ethics, philosophical or religious, are rooted in Indian religious thought and practice, unbeknownst to most in the U.S. who consider themselves ecologically sensitive. And as Winona LaDuke states, “. . . there is only one law. That is the Creator’s law, the Breathmaker’s law, or natural law.” (Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, p. 46). So the very notion of natural law may well have its roots in Indian religions. It is a presumption of grand proportions to think that the ideas of environmentalism and natural law originate with Western thinkers.

Moreover, the very conception of God had by Indians is quite philosophically rich, reminiscent of Anselm and Tillich. As Charlotte Black Elk tells us,

We have a word, Wakan, that is our word for God. In our household language Wakan would mean sacred or mystery, and Takan would be magnificent, great. So you could get the expression Wakan Tanka, “Great Spirit,” in the household language. But in the formal language, Wakakagano, Wa-ka means “that which is that it is.” The word “Ka” means “that which makes it what it is.” And Ga means “that with no beginning and no ending.” So it is a philosophical concept that contains our word for God, but within that is the word for sacred—“that which is that it is.” (Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, p. 61).

While this Indian conception of God sounds quite similar to that of the Christian notion of God, Black Elk notes that the grave dissimilarity lies in the different ideas of nature. According to a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation, the transgression of humans led to banishment to nature, while in Indian religions nature is our Mother, hardly something to conquer, but that which is to be revered as God Herself and with which to live in harmony. Furthermore, she continues, “All things that live on Earth are children of the Earth, and they are our relatives. I don’t have a greater right to live than a tree does. An elk doesn’t have a greater right to life than a fi sh does. We all have equal rights”. (Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, p. 66. Also consult the words of Chief Oren Lyons (pp. 173–174).

“We have a responsibility not to change the Earth in ways that we can’t repair. Such changes are violations against God.” (Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, p. 68. Also consult the words of Douglas George-Kanentiio in Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, p. 83). And it is in the very ritual of the Sun Dance that Indians give back to the Earth out of respect to it.(Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, p. 69). Rather than the disunity between humans and nature as depicted in orthodox Christian theology, Indian theology teaches that “when the universe was created, each piece of it was given a song. When we go there and do our ceremonies we bring that whole song into play. When the song of the universe is being sung, then all Creation can rejoice”.(Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, p. 72. Compare this notion with the idea of humans as symbionts having reverence for nature, found in Arthur Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 298–299). Note how Black Elk capitalizes “Creation” whereas orthodox Christians capitalize “Creator.” This alone signifies by implication the supernaturalism of orthodox Christianity and the immanentism of American Indian religions. The distinctions between orthodox Christian theology and Indian theologies is further captured in the words of Douglas George-Kenentiio:

Here is the fundamental division between the Iroquois and the Christians. It is that we believe the Creator speaks through all the natural elements. We don’t worship the different forms of Creation. We realize that the Creator speaks through those elements of Creation. We realize that life is fundamentally good, that we are given all the blessings to enjoy this Creation, and that we have to act as custodians. (This American Indian idea is expounded in terms of humans being “priests of creation,” stewards or managers of it, having reverence for creation because God is in it as interpreter of the natural world and co-sufferer with it (Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, pp. 295–312)).

We believe in an infi nite number of Creators, not just a singular God, that when we return to our spiritual world, it is not a time of trauma for us but one of great release. Our primary role on this Earth as human beings is to act as custodians and to extract whatever beauty from this world will enable us to return to the Creator in peace and
harmony. (Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, pp. 90–91. Also consult the words of Tonya Gonnella Frichner in Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, p. 137. In particular: “When you violate the natural world, you will pay for it in proportion to your violation” (pp. 137–138). Also consult the words of Chief Leon Shenandoah: “We must live in harmony with the natural world and recognize that excessive exploitation can only lead to our own destruction” (p. 169).)

This is hardly the heathenistic view of a savage people that orthodox Christianity sought to persuade the world of in its support of the violent conquest of the Americas from their indigenous peoples. To these can be added the Indian beliefs in peace, an ethic of sharing, justice, and a responsibility to the future, (These are discussed by Chief Oren Lyons in Cousineau, Editor, A Seat at the Table, pp. 180–182) each of which are concepts copied by several Western thinkers usually without the least bit of recognition of their indigenous origins. These are some of the shared beliefs of the myriad of organizations referred to as the “Native American Church.”

Categories: atheism

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