I do not know if there is a personal God. I do not see how I can know; and I do not see how my knowing can matter. What does matter, I believe, is how I deal with myself and how I deal with my fellows. I feel that I can practise a conduct toward myself and toward my fellows that will constitute a basis for an adequate religion, a religion that may comprehend spirituality, beauty and serene happiness. — James Weldon Johnson
The story of the free human spirit from its beginning has been largely the story of the endless struggle between dogma and doubt. We build our systems of thought, set up dogmas and creeds, and then we come to doubt them, finally outgrowing them as we go in search of new truth. Our questionings thus have been among the most powerful, effective allies of the free spirit. Without the persistent acid of the inquiring mind eating away at the iron chains of belief which have held human minds, spirits, and bodies in captivity, our beliefs would continue to seem eternal and unchangeable, our prejudices would go on masquerading as truth, and our proud dogmatic systems would forever persuade us that we possess the final, unquestionable truth about man, life, and God.
Doubt was the knife-edge that cut the matted undergrowth of our mental jungle so that a clearing could be formed free of the clinging vines of ancient prejudices and hallowed superstitions whose chief virtue was their age. Without that first insistent questioning that could not be satisfied with the old answers, without that initial clearing away of intellectual rubble, without that honest doubt that challenges even the most sacred belief to show its credentials and give reason why it should be believed, no change or growth would have been possible. Those systems were questionable — and they were questioned. The result has been revolt after revolt as the insurgent human spirit has inquired into that which claimed most confidently to be ultimate wisdom.
It is in this setting of the eternal struggle between crusted belief and the fresh outreach of the mind that the special kind of doubter we call agnostic appeared to make a lasting contribution to the liberation of the human spirit. The agnostic has not been the only questioner of entrenched dogma — always more numerous and powerful have been those who like Luther and Calvin have attacked one stony system only to set up another equally rigid and monolithic. But the way of the agnostic has been along a different path. He has not destroyed one prison-house merely to build another; he has preferred digging away at the foundations of all prison-houses of faith because he has never believed that prison-houses are fit habitations for the human spirit. Age after age the agnostic has quietly reminded his fellow men that belief is not knowledge but merely opinion strengthened by emotional conviction, and that one of our favorite human habits has been claiming to know what we really do not know but merely hope, believe, and want to be true.
In the face of the most powerful religions and philosophies, the most and appealing creeds that have promised everything from peace of soul on earth to a golden harp in heaven, the agnostic has had the courage to ask that most uncomfortable of questions: Do we really know? He has gone further and affirmed that many of the things we have been most dogmatically certain of, we are actually in no position to know anything about. Should we honor this spirit as a liberating influence, or guard against it as a danger to our spiritual security and social cohesion? This is certainly as dogmatic an age as any, and what part does the agnostic have to play in it that may be of value?
Every philosophy has its dangers and weaknesses, and we can admit that, even with the profound service it has rendered mankind, agnosticism is no exception. There is a valuable lesson in the story of the agnostic: that when you take even the brightest idea and make a fixed system of it, you soon find yourself in the grip of just another dogmatism. This danger is especially well illustrated by what happened when the agnostic attitude first made its appearance in Western tradition as the Greek school of Skeptics. They had grown weary of the endless battling between rival dogmatic philosophies about the nature of the universe, and came to the conclusion that all these conflicting explanations about life merely prove that man is unable to know anything for certain.
This philosophy, starting out with a healthy agnostic position as to whether the more dogmatic thinkers really knew what they were talking about, gradually developed into a very different position: not only that we do not know the truth, but that we cannot possibly know it (which the agnostic must reject as another dogma). Soon we find the Skeptic school saying “Nobody knows, and nobody can know anything.” This negative dogma was applied not only to philosophy and cosmology, but to matters of daily life and moral choice.
At the heart of the matter is a simple, direct question which should be put to every philosophy, religion, and idea which claims to offer a better way: does it encourage the quest for broader truth and deeper knowledge? Not does it answer all our questions, but does it spur people forward to achieve more than they have yet achieved? The agnostic down through the ages has confronted mankind with the often timely and necessary reminder that there are large matters upon which we must suspend judgment — “we do not really know” — advising people to be careful in treading the thin ice of their ignorance. This frank confession of human limitations can lead in three directions. First, we can come, as the early skeptics did, to the conclusion that because there are many things we do not know, therefore we cannot ever know them. This is dogmatic doubt, and has no more place in the truly agnostic spirit than dogmatic assurance on any undemonstrated matter.
The second possibility is that we can conclude, because there are some important problems on which we know very little, that we must intensify our efforts to add to our meager store of knowledge. This type of agnostic attitude has inspired the rise of the sciences and has extended the quest for truth into every department of life and out into the Unknown surrounding us.
And the third fruit of agnosticism: if we confess that there are many things in human life on which we cannot now expect to have genuine, verifiable knowledge — ancient questions about God, immortality, and human destiny which religion has always sought to answer — if we do not really know and cannot expect to know very soon, then let us be more generous and tolerant toward all people’s honest efforts to find the answers and to believe according to what seems to them most reasonable in the absence of actual knowledge!
It is in the second and third avenues that we find the true value of this philosophy. Yet here, oddly enough, its contribution has been least appreciated, for its critics have been so worried about the safety of the sacred truths upon which the agnostic casts doubt that they have been unable to grasp the fact that, besides emancipating people from dogma based on ignorance, the agnostic way has spurred them into paths of growing knowledge where they now have little, and into ways of warmer understanding and appreciation of others where now we have only feverish opinion and fervent belief. It is the agnostic, above all others, who has helped us see the profound truth in Gilbert Murray’s insight that “the essence of religion is the consciousness of a vast unknown.” In this spirit the agnostic has been a liberator from frozen dogma and a seeker for more truth than we yet possess.
And is there no need for an inquiring, skeptical mind today, in the midst of thundering propaganda, cries of hate, calls for unthinking violence, and the thousands of tons of opinion ground out for our consumption, taking the place of thinking? A helpful antidote would be a return, in part at least, to the essentially agnostic attitude toward all areas of knowledge yet to be explored: skeptical but receptive; questioning yet expectant.
Today we must vastly extend the reach of the persistent search for truth which we do not yet possess. We must apply that searching spirit courageously in all our affairs, public and private, where passionate opinion masquerades as proven knowledge, where inherited prejudice walks in the garments of eternal truth. Although our times confront us with fateful decisions that will not wait and which no responsible citizen may sidestep, it will always be a mark of the mature human spirit to admit that there are limits to what we know and to refuse the pretense of knowing what we have not yet attained to — but withal to be brave enough to act upon such tested truths of life as we have so far achieved and to live to the fullest within the little patch of light we have illumined against the surrounding darkness we have yet to penetrate.
(From Sunrise magazine, Summer 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)