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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 11/29/2010

In praise of agnosticism

By Michael Krasny
Guest Blogger

About this blog: In our hotly polarized world, it’s difficult to talk about anything these days, particularly religion. In his book “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest,” Michael Krasny discusses the explosive issue in a temperate and thoughtful voice. An agnostic who envies those of faith, Krasny has been unable to answer the God question for himself because he harbors so many unresolved questions. Here, Krasny, an English professor at San Francisco State University and host of a public radio talk show, explains the agnostic’s dilemma.


Author and linguist Deborah Tannen defined our national political discourse as what she aptly called an argument culture. It often seems as though liberals and conservatives speak different languages, and expectations of common ground or civil compromise are tantamount to pipe dreaming.

The inability to speak with respect or to listen to the other side is also evident in the dramatic division that exists between the new brand of self-styled militant atheists who focus utterly on science and the religious adherents who rely on their faith and its religious teachings.

I made a cry-to-the-wilderness appeal in my book, “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest,” for both the religious who love their God and hate anyone who decries his existence and the atheists who are contemptuous of religion to show a widely cherished American respect for what each believes or refuses to believe.

But agnosticism, as it has come down to us from Socrates on through the Darwinian T.H. Huxley, who provided the name, offers another way that makes sense to many. Why? Because, unlike the true believers tied to religion and the other true believers tied to science, the agnostic simply says, “I don’t know.”

This is not necessarily cowardice or lack of conviction, as is often charged. It can take courage to conclude that there is an insufficient basis for religious belief, and there is a strong case to be made for what we don’t know in realms of unverifiable faith and science yet to be revealed or proven.

There is a wide spectrum of agnosticism, but agnostics, unlike some atheists who excoriate religion, can and often do participate in organized religion and enjoy what it has to offer apart from faith – ritual, community, music, dance, food, a link to one’s past and ancestors.

Agnostics, unlike many of the religious zealots or the new dogmatic brand of atheists, have no need to proselytize in order to find salvation or to lead others into their fold out of the dogmatic certainty of godlessness. In fact, the polarized debate about the role and function of religion versus science in America begins to recede when we look back to the trinity of scientific agnostics of the last century – T.H. Huxley, Robert Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell – all men willing to admit their lack of knowledge or dearth of answers to questions beyond our understanding but all attuned to the possible empirical proof of scientific investigation and the potential new illuminations that can and do emerge from scientific discovery.

So here is another cry from the often desolate wilderness of agnosticism to all true believers and dogmatic absolutists and all of you swelled with the certainty of faith or unshakeable in your atheism -- and let me add as well, all cocksure political ideologues: Be humble. Be fearless. Be unafraid to believe or say “I do not know.”

By Michael Krasny  | November 29, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  religious debate; agnostics vs. believers  
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An excellent article, however I would take issue with the working definition of an agnostic as being somewhere midway between theist and atheist. I consider a more accurate definition to be that theism refers to one's belief while gnosticism (agnostic) refers to one's certainty of knowledge.

I can be a theist/agnostic (I believe in God bu do not claim to know for sure that God exists)...or any of the other combinations. atheist/theist and gnostic/agnostic are not mutually exclusive and in fact must be paired together.


Posted by: kkemerait | November 29, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

This is a topic where true "debate" and discussion is rarely seen.

This book is definitely on a subject matter that myself and many others can relate to. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Posted by: jessiemeehan | December 1, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

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