is an Agnostic?
Bertrand Russell (1953.)
Wait a minute, there's a snag somewhere; something disagreeable.
Why, now, should it be disagreeable?...Ah,I see; it's
life without a break. (Jean Paul Sartre - huis clos)
Are agnostics atheists?
No. An atheist,
like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is
a God. The Christian holds that that can know there is a God; the
atheist, that we can know there is not. The agnostic suspends judgement,
saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial.
At the same time, an agnostic may hold that the existence of God,
though not impossible, is very improbable; he may hold it is so improbable
that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is
not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher
would have toward the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove
that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist,
I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An agnostic may think
the Christian God is as improbable as the Olympians; in that case,
he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.
Since you deny "God's
law", what authority do you accept as a guide to conduct?
An agnostic does not accept
any "authority" in the sense that religious people do. He holds that a man
should think out questions of conduct for himself. Of course, he will
seek to profit by the wisdom of others, but he will have to select for himself
the people he is to consider wise, and he will not regard even what they
say as unquestionable. He will observe that what passes for "God's law"
changes from time to time. The Bible says both that a woman must not marry
her deceased husband's brother, and that, in certain circumstances,
she must do so. If you have the misfortune to be a childless widow with
an unmarried brother-in-law, it is logically impossible for you to avoid
obeying "God's law."
How do you know what is
good and evil? What does an agnostic consider a sin?
The agnostic is not quite so
certain as some Christians are as to what is good and what is evil. He does
not hold, as most Christians in the past held, that people who disagree
with the government on abtruse points of theology ought to suffer a painful death.
he is against persecution, and rather chary of moral condemnation.
As for "sin", he thinks
it not a useful notion. He admits, of course, that some kinds
of conduct are desirable and some undesirable, but he holds that the punishment
of undesirable kinds is only to be commended when it is deterrent or reformatory,
not when it is inflicted because it is thought a good thing on its own account
that the wicked should suffer. It was this belief in vindictive punishment
that made men accept hell. This is part of the harm done by the notion
Does an agnostic do whatever
In one sense, no;
in another sense, everyone does whatever he pleases. Suppose,
for example, you hate someone so much that you would like to murder him.
Why do you not do so? You may reply: "Because religion tells me that
murder is a sin." But as a statistical fact, agnostics are not more
prone to murder than other people, in fact, rather less so.
They have the same motive for abstaining from murder as other people have.
Far and away the most powerful of these motives is the fear of punishment.
In lawless conditions, such as a gold rush, all sorts of people will
commit crimes, although in ordinary circumstances they would have been law-abiding.
There is not only actual legal punishment; there is the discomfort of dreading
discovery, and the loneliness of knowing that, to avoid being hated,
you must wear a mask even with your closest intimates. And there is also
what may be called "conscience": If you ever contemplated a murder,
you would dread the horrible memory of your victim's last moments or lifeless
corpse. All this, it is true, depends upon your living in a
law-abiding community, but there are abundant secular reasons for creating
and preserving such a community.
I said that there is another
sense in which every man does as he pleases. No one but a fool indulges
every impulse, but what holds a desire in check is always some other desire.
A man's anti-social wishes may be restrained by a wish to please God,
but they may also be restrained by a wish to please his friends, or to
win the respect of his community, or to be able to contemplate himself
without disgust. But if he has no such wishes, the mere abstract
precepts of morality will not keep him straight.
How does an agnostic regard
An agnostic regards the Bible
exactly as enlightened clerics regard it. He does not think that it is divinely
inspired; he thinks its early history legendary, and no more exactly
true than in Homer; he thinks that its moral teachings are sometimes good,
but sometimes very bad. For example: Samuel ordered Saul, in
a war, to kill not only every man, woman, and child of the enemy,
but also all the sheep and cattle. Saul, however, let the sheep
and cattle live, and for this we are told to condemn him. I have never
been able to admire Elisha for cursing the children who laughed at him,
or to believe (what the Bible asserts) that a benevolent Deity would send
two she-bears to kill the children.
How does an agnostic regard
Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Holy Trinity?
Since an agnostic does not
believe in God, he cannot think that Jesus was God. Most agnostics
admire the life and teachings of Jesus as told in the Gospels, but not necessarily
more than those of other men. Some would place him on a level with the Buddha,
some with Socrates and some with Abraham Lincoln. Nor do they think that
what He said is not open to question, since they do not accept any authority
They regard the Virgin Birth
as a doctrine taken over from pagan mythology, where such births were
not uncommon (Zoroaster was said to have been born of a virgin; Ishtar,
the Babylonian goddess, is called the Holy Virgin). They cannot
give credence to it, or to the doctrine of the Trinity, since neither
is possible without belief in God.
Can an agnostic be a Christian?
The word "Christian" has had
various different meanings at different times. Throughout most of the centuries
since the time of Christ, it has meant a person who believed in God and
immortality and held that Christ was God. But Unitarians call themselves
Christians, although they do not believe in the divinity of Christ,
and many people nowadays use the word "God" in a much less precise sense than
which it used to bear. Many people who now believe in God no longer mean
a person, or a trinity of persons, but only a vague tendency or power
or purpose immanent in evolution. Others, going still further,
mean by "Christianity" only a system of ethics which, since they are ignorant
of history, they imagine to be characteristic of Christians only.
When, in a recent
book, I said that what the world needs is "love, Christian love,
or compassion," many people thought this showed some changes in my views,
although, in fact, I might have said the same thing at any time.
If you mean by a "Christian" a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide
sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the
cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then,
certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian. And,
in this sense, I think you will find more "Christians" among agnostics
than among the orthodox. But, for my part, I cannot accept
such a definition. Apart from other objections to it, it seems rude
to Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and other non-Christians,
who, so far as history shows, have been at least as apt as Christians
to practice the virtues which some modern Christians arrogantly claim as distinctive
of their own religion.
I think also that all who
called themselves Christians in an earlier time, and a great majority
of those who do so at the present day, would consider that belief in God
and immortality is essential to a Christian. On these grounds, I
should not call myself a Christian, and I should say that an agnostic
cannot be a Christian. But, if the word "Christianity" comes to
be generally used to mean merely a kind of morality, then it will certainly
be possible for an agnostic to be a Christian.
Does an agnostic deny
that man has a soul?
This question has no precise
meaning unless we are given a definition of the word "soul". I suppose what
is meant is, roughly, something nonmaterial which persists throughout
a person's life and even, for those who believe in immortality, throughout
all future time. If this is what is meant, an agnostic is not likely
to believe that man has a soul. But I must hasten to add that this does
not mean that an agnostic must be a materialist. Many agnostics (including
myself) are quite as doubtful of the body as they are of the soul, but this
is a long story taking one into difficult metaphysics. Mind and matter alike,
I should say, are only convenient symbol in discourse, not actually
Does an agnostic believe
in a hereafter, in heaven or hell?
The question whether people
survive death is one as to which evidence is possible. Psychical research
and spiritualism are thought by many to supply such evidence. An agnostic,
as such, does not take a view about survival unless he thinks that there
is evidence one way or the other. For my part, I do not think that
there is any good reason to believe that we survive death, but I am open
to conviction if adequate evidence should appear.
Heaven and hell are a different
matter. Belief in hell is bound up with the belief that vindictive punishment
of sin is a good thing, quite independently of any reformative or deterrent
effect that it may have. Hardly an agnostic believes this. As for
heaven, there might conceivably be evidence of its existence someday
through spiritualism, but most agnostics do not think that there is such
evidence, and therefore do not believe in heaven.
Are you never afraid of
God's judgement in denying him?
Most certainly not. I
also deny Zeus and Jupiter and Odin and Brahma, but this causes me no qualms.
I observe that a very large portion of the human race does not believe in God
and suffers no visible punishment in consequence. And if there were a God,
I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended
by those who doubt His existence.
How do agnostics explain
the beauty and harmony of nature?
I do not understand where this
"beauty" and "harmony" are supposed to be found. Throughout the animal kingdom,
animals ruthlessly prey upon each other. More of them are either cruelly
killed by other animals or slowly die of hunger. For my part, I am
unable to see any very great beauty or harmony in the tapeworm. Let it not
be said that this creature is sent as a punishment for our sins, for it
is more prevalent among animals than among humans. I suppose the questioner
is thinking of such things as the beauty of starry heavens. But one should
remember that stars every now and then explode and reduce everything in their
neighborhood to a vague mist. Beauty, in any case, is subjective
and exists only in the eye of the beholder.
How do agnostics explain
miracles and other revelations of God omnipotence?
Agnostics do not think that
there is any evidence of "miracles" in the sense of happenings contrary to natural
law. We know that faith healing occurs and is in no sense miraculous.
At Lourdes, certain diseases can be cured and others cannot. Those
that can be cured can probably be cured by any doctor in whom the patient has
faith. As for the records of other miracles, such as Joshua commanding
the sun to stand still, the agnostic dismissed them as legends and points
to the fact that all religions are plentifully supplied with such legends.
There is just as much miraculous evidence for the Greek gods in Homer as for the
Christian God in the Bible.
There have been base and
cruel passions, which religion opposes. If you abandon religious
principle, could mankind exist?
The existence of base and cruel
passions is undeniable, but I find no evidence in history that religion
had opposed these passions. On the contrary, it has sanctified them,
and enabled people to indulge in them without remorse. Cruel persecutions
have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify
persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in
proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion,
namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems
of dogma, the agnostic is opposed. the persecuting character of present-day
communism is exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier
centuries. In so far as Christianity has become less persecuting,
this is mainly due to the work of freethinkers who have made dogmatists rather
less dogmatic. If they were as dogmatic now as in former times, they
would still think it right to burn heretics at the stake. The spirit of
tolerance which some modern Christians regard as essentially Christian is,
in fact, a product of the temper which allows doubt and is suspicious of
absolute certainties. I think that anybody who surveys past history in an
impartial manner will be driven to the conclusion that religion has caused more
suffering than it has prevented.
What is the meaning of
life to an agnostic?
I feel inclined to answer by
another question: What is the meaning of "the meaning of life"? I
suppose that what is intended is some general purpose. I do not think that
life in general has any purpose. It just happened. But individual
human beings have purposes, and there is nothing in agnosticism to cause
them to abandon these purposes. They cannot, of course, be certain
of achieving the results at which they aim; but you would think ill
of a soldier who refused to fight unless victory was certain. The person
who needs religion to bolster up his own purposes is a timorous person,
and I cannot think as well of him as of the man who takes his chances, while
admitting that defeat is not impossible.
Does the denial of religion
mean the denial of marriage and chastity?
Here again, one must
reply by another question: Does the man who asks this question believe that
marriage and chastity contribute to earthly happiness here below, or does
he think that, while they cause misery here below, they are to be
advocated as a means of getting to heaven? The man who takes the latter
view will no doubt expect agnosticism to lead to a decay of what he calls virtue,
but he will have to admit that what he calls virtue is not what ministers to the
happiness of the human race while on earth. If, on the other hand,
he takes the former view, namely, that there are terrestrial arguments
in favour of marriage and chastity, he must also hold that these arguments
are such as should appeal to an agnostic. Agnostics, as such,
have no distinctive views about sexual morality. But most of them would
admit that there are valid arguments against the unbridled indulgence of sexual
desires. They would derive these arguments, however, from terrestrial
sources and not from supposed divine commands.
Is not faith in reason
alone a dangerous creed? Is not reason imperfect and inadequate without
spiritual and moral law?
No sensible man, however
agnostic, has "faith in reason alone". Reason is concerned with matters
of fact, some observed, some inferred. The question whether
there is a future life and the question whether there is a God concerns some matters
of fact, and the agnostic holds that they should be investigated in the
same way as the question, "Will there be an eclipse of the moon tomorrow?"
But matters of fact alone are not sufficient to determine action, since
they do not tell us what ends we ought to pursue. In the realm of ends,
we need something other than reason. The agnostic will find his ends in
his own heart and not in an external command. Let us take an illustration:
Suppose you wish to travel by train from New York to Chicago; you will use
reason to discover when the trains run, and a person who thought that there
was some faculty of insight or intuition telling him to dispense with the timetable
would be thought rather silly. But no timetable will tell him that it is
wise to go to Chicago. No doubt, in deciding that it is wise,
he will have to take account of further matters of fact; but behind all
matters of fact, there will be the ends that he thinks fitting to pursue,
and these, for an agnostic as for other men, belong to a realm which
is not that of reason, though it should be in no degree contrary to it.
The realm I mean is that of emotion and feeling and desire.
Do you regard all religions
as forms of superstition or dogma? Which of the existing religions do
you most respect, and why?
All the great organized religions
that have dominated large populations have involved a greater or less amount of
dogma, but "religion" is a word of which the meaning is not very definite.
Confucianism, for instance, might be called a religion, although
it involves no dogma. And in some forms of liberal Christianity, the
element of dogma is reduced to a minimum.
Of the great religions in
history, I prefer Buddhism, especially in its earliest forms,
because it has had the smallest amount of persecution.
agnosticism, opposes religion. Are agnostics communists?
Communism does not oppose religion.
It merely opposes the Christian religion, just as Mohammedanism does.
Communism, at least in the form advocated by the Soviet government and the
Communist party, is a new system of dogma of a peculiarly virulent and persecuting
sort. Every genuine agnostic must therefore be opposed to it.
Do agnostics think that
science and religion are impossible to reconcile?
The answer turns upon what
is meant by "religion". If it means merely a system of ethics, it
can be reconciled with science. If it means a system of dogma, regarded
as unquestionably true, it is incompatible with the scientific spirit,
which refuses to accept matters of fact without evidence, and also holds
that complete certainty is hardly ever attainable.
What kind of evidence
could convince you that God exists?
I think that if I heard a voice
from the sky predicting all that going to happen to me in the next twenty-four
hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable,
and if all these events proceeded to happen, I might perhaps be convinced
at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence. I can imagine
other evidence of the same sort which might convince me, but so far as I
know, no such evidence exists.
qu'on fait n'est jamais compris mais seulement loué ou blâmé.
Nietzsche, Gay Science