One dictionary defines an agnostic as "a person who holds that the ultimate cause (God) and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable." That is, an agnostic is somebody who does not know whether God exists. And really, he doesn't much care anyway.
Now not being either a believer or a non-believer is one thing (or two), but not to even care? Is the agnostic that uninterested? Is it OK that he swings his legs uncaringly on the fence, particularly over a question as profound as the existence of God?
In a word: Yes. Because being agnostic puts your life squarely where it belongs: in your hands. Being agnostic urges you to take responsibility for your every action.
In contrast, religion's greatest weakness is that it pushes you to give up responsibility. Which is why religion has so much to answer for: the misery and bigotry it has caused through history. Those can always be blamed on somebody else. God, sometimes. The rest of the world, some other times.
But me myself, even if only for being blind to misery? Never.
"It's God's will," some will say. "He works in inscrutable ways, don't you know?" Christianity takes this argument down another path: it argues that suffering is a cleansing of sin and thus good for you -- which explains horrible disasters, or needless deaths, or crippling poverty.
Actually, it doesn't explain. It only forces convoluted ethical compromise. Bertrand Russell once wrote, "No man who believes that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses for pain and misery."
After all, if a God has decided that millions must live in poverty, well, we mere mortals can hardly fight that, can we? There will always be poor people. We had better accept that because God designed the world that way. Yes, we might take up the occasional programme to alleviate poverty, but there's no reason to be more than half-hearted about it, because God doesn't really want it to work.
I don't mean thinking like this embellishes every well-meaning social worker's efforts. What I mean is an attitude -- an acceptance, perhaps, where there should be outrage. But outrage comes from personal involvement. Religion detaches me instead, gives me a scapegoat. If I do get outraged, it is only when I am persuaded to see the followers of other Gods as the cause of my problems.
When some external, if still sacred, entity is the reason for miseries, I am off the hook. I don't need to feel outraged. I don't even need to feel responsible.
It's no stretch to see how this renunciation of responsibility explains wrongs around us. Institutions crumble, criminals win elected office, cities get more polluted, violence becomes endemic: all this happens and we feel helpless, pressed into inaction by the sheer weight of these issues.
Besides, God has willed it all anyway.
Agnosticism addresses the helplessness in the most direct way: by telling you to leave God alone. When you don't care about that any more, you are left with no choice but to grapple with problems yourself. That's the only chance they will ever get solved.
In fact, grabbing responsibility with both hands is the best reason of all for agnosticism.
Beginning a 1948 radio debate with a Father Copleston, Russell pronounced himself an agnostic. Copleston then asked him: "Would you agree with me that the problem of God is a problem of great importance?"
Russell replied: "Roughly speaking, yes."
Or: it may be important, certainly, but is it really important enough? Do I care? Russell's words, it seems to me, capture the essence of being agnostic.