Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: The impossibility of agnosticism

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: The impossibility of agnosticism
Rev. Ian Markham

By Very Rev. Ian Markham, PH.D. 

One cannot, simply cannot, be an agnostic all the time.

The term ‘agnostic’ was first coined by the English biologist T.H. Huxley. Huxley took the view that it was impossible to know what the ultimate cause of the universe was. So, while theists believe in God and atheists don’t believe in God, the agnostic is the person who does not know whether there is a God.

Since then, agnosticism has caught on. It feels like a middle way between theism and atheism. It is where the moderate person lands – one who is open-minded to good arguments and new possibilities.

What Huxley ignored is that faith is not simply a set of beliefs. More importantly, it is a set of practices. Faith is doing. Faith is deciding to live your life aware of the transcendent; faith is deciding to set time aside for prayer; faith is deciding to join a community committed to worship; and faith is deciding to discern with the creator of the universe the best and most appropriate way to live a moral life. In short, faith is a set of decisions about doing.

And when it comes to doing, no one can be agnostic. You are either going to pray or not pray; if you decide not to decide you end up not praying. You are either going to go to a place of worship or not go to a place of worship; if you decide not to decide then you don’t go to a place of worship. Most agnostics don’t end up participating in the practices of faith – although I grant some seekers in discernment might have partial practices. However, overall, most agnostics tend toward living lives indistinguishable from the atheist.

The principle of decision mak- ing is a crucial one to learn in other spheres of life. For example, if you are young, in love and trying to decide whether to get married, every second you decide not to decide – leave options open, still trying to decide – you don’t get married. And if the person you love wants to get married, then soon the option of marriage disappears as that per- son will likely move on.

What is true about marriage is true of job moves or house moves or moves into a retirement community. You are either going to do these things or not do these things. If you decide not to decide, then you decide against.

One needs to shift one’s head. Agnosticism is not a middle way. Agnosticism, at best, is a season when one is trying to decide what one wants to do. Granted you are allowed a season to think through what you want to do, but remember, during that season you are living as a person who is deciding against that action. The season of “deciding” is not a season of neutrality.

Studies of human behavior have established that decisive people are happier than indecisive people. This data comes as a surprise to many. Surely, keeping options open is much more satisfying than closing options. But partly because keeping options open is a lifestyle decision against the option of change, it is not that satisfying.

And, more importantly, humans have a remarkable capacity for self-rationalization of their decisions. In other words, we become happier because we cross the Ru- bicon, make a decision, and find a million reasons why we made the right call. So, view agnosticism as a temptation: perhaps for a season it is helpful, but overall it is not a good place to be.

The writer is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.