What to Do With Agnosticism

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 90-91.

Copleston discusses the fifth century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Protagoras, who was a Sophist. You’ll get a taste of what a Sophist is as you read this quote:

In a work, [Peri Theon], Protagoras said: “With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are or that they are not, nor what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the course of human life”…Such a sentence might seem to lend colour to the picture of Protagoras as a sceptical and destructive thinker, who turned his critical powers against all established tradition in ethics and religion; but such a view…would doubtless be mistaken. Just as the moral to be drawn from the relativity of particular codes of law is that the individual should submit himself to the traditional education, so the moral to be drawn from our uncertainty concerning the gods and their nature is that we should abide by the religion of the city. If we cannot be certain of absolute truth, why throw overboard the religion that we inherit from our fathers? Moreover, Protagoras’ attitude is not so ordinary or destructive as the adherents of a dogmatic religion might naturally suppose, since, as Burnet remarks, Greek religion did not consist “in theological affirmations or negations” but in worship.

Protagoras the Sophist was skeptical about the existence of absolute truth, including religion. Yet, he wasn’t trying to overthrow the religion of society, for he encouraged people to accept the religious worship of their cities. Since nobody could be certain about the truth of religion, why ditch it?

I actually like this quote. It reminds me of something I once said in a Christian chatroom. People were discussing why they were Christians, and I said, “Well, I think it’s a good idea to pick a religion, and Christianity is the one that’s most familiar to me, so I picked that one.”

Their response wasn’t mean, but I could tell that they weren’t too crazy about my answer (not that I expected them to break out in song!). One of them responded, “James, how long have you know the Lord?,” as if my answer was spiritually immature. And tons of people chanted the evangelical mantra of “Christianity’s not a religion, but a relationship.”

But, to be honest, I’m somewhat in the same position as the Sophists. There are tons of beliefs out there, and I don’t know which one is right. I’m often not convinced by the efforts of Christian apologists to substantiate the Christian religion, for I think that evidence can be read in a variety of different ways. And I have a hard time saying that Christianity is the most moral religion, since all religions and philosophies have good and bad elements.

I’m not a complete relativist, as were the Sophists, who thought that people should simply go with the flow of their local laws and customs. The Holocaust was wrong. Certain Muslim countries’ treatment of women is wrong. But there are things in the Bible that don’t strike me as particularly fair, either, yet defenders of the Christian faith want me to be charitable in those cases. “We have to remember the historical and cultural context of the biblical writings” is one defense that I’ve heard, as fundamentalists suddenly transform into the cultural relativists they ordinarily scorn.

But, even though I don’t know which religion or philosophy is right, I choose the religion with which I grew up: a Christianity that includes some “observance” of Jewish customs (though many Jews would laugh off my “observance”!). I don’t believe all of Armstrongism. I also don’t rigorously practice all of it, for I order a ham footlong when I go to Subway. But I cease from my ordinary work and spend time with God on the Sabbath and holy days. That gives me time for reflection, which hopefully centers me and helps me to become a better person. Again, there are so many religions out there, and I’m not sure if I can know for certain which one is the right one. So why not fall back on what I know?

But not everyone goes that route. For some, things like biblical contradictions, challenges to Christianity, or alternative belief systems are quite liberating, since they no longer need to be shackled to religious bondage. A professor once asked me, “There are so many religions out there, and we don’t know which one is the right one, so what’s wrong with the person who decides not to follow any of them?” Bart Ehrman in an NPR interview called himself a “cheerful agnostic,” or something like that.

Part of me identifies with this perspective. The Bible has a lot of “you’ll go to hell if…” In the Sermon on the Mount, lust and hate appear to be damnable offenses. Galatians 5 lists works of the flesh that can bar a person from the kingdom of God, including jealousy. The last chapter of Revelation excludes the “fearful” from the holy city. And then there’s the command to witness, and the way many Christians exhort us to worry about everyone’s eternal soul going to hell…unless we do something!

I’m somewhat at the state where the fundamentalist or evangelical God doesn’t appeal to me that much. I’d like to be a religious pluralist a la John Hick, but the Bible doesn’t strike me as too pluralistic of a book. Rather, it’s “believe and act this way, or the highway!” Generous Protestants like to say “You are saved by faith alone!” But there are plenty of times when I don’t have faith in the Christian religion. In those circumstances, “we don’t know which religion is the right one” actually comforts me. There’s something freeing about agnosticism!

But that’s something else that I like about Copleston’s quote on Protagoras: the Greek religion wasn’t so much about dogmatism, but about worship. I can do, even when I have problems believing. For example, regardless of my spiritual state, I go to church every Sunday. There’s something about coming to church and reading the inspiring words in the bulletin and kneeling with the congregation and listening to the music and hearing the homily that centers me, reminding me of who God is and my mission as a Christian (to serve in whatever capacity I can find, which doesn’t mean I have to be Superman). At this season in my life, I’m not so bitter against Christianity that I avoid prayer or devotional reading. I’m reading books about Jesus, hoping that they will kindle within me some love for him.

One book I’m reading is Ellen White’s Desire of Ages. It gives me a nostalgic feeling, since I attended an Adventist church many years ago. That was a time when I felt sure and comfortable about my faith, when I enjoyed fellowship, when my future was ahead of me and looked bright. Maybe I’m trying to recapture some of that good feeling from the past, without falling into a complete and shackling dogmatism. This reminds me of another part of the Copleston quote: “the religion that we inherit from our fathers.” I had a snug feeling when I encountered that quote, the same that I have when I read Ellen White, or hold to the customs and beliefs that my family passed down to me, or listen to Ron Dart every day. There’s comfort in belonging to a “we,” or in something greater than myself.

There’s something cozy about belonging to a religion, and yet there are also clear downsides, at least as far as I’m concerned.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to What to Do With Agnosticism

  1. Pingback: Posts I Wrote Engaging Ron Dart’s Thought | James' Ramblings

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