September 11, 2004

I Don't Care, I'm Agnostic

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.


ak said...

Why be an agnostic? Why not atheist?

ak said...

"I didn't believe in God, until I saw a mirror."
One of my favourite lines. Hehe!

Dilip D'Souza said...

Why not an atheist? Because saying "there is no God" (which is what atheists do) is just as irrational a position as "there is a God and his name is X" (which is what religions people do). How do I know whether there is a God or there is not? More important, why should I care? This is what agnostics say.

ak said...

Well, God is something created by people. There is no clear idea what 'he' or 'it' is. Why should I believe or say "I don't know" for something that isn't even defined apart from by a statue of some sort. Yeah, if some one wants to call science, God, because it's giving us the laws of the universe. Or literature, because it's giving us an explanation of human nature. Or psychology, philosophy, art, music, anything...but I'm not going to say "I don't know" when somebody claims that there's a guy sitting up there, cross-legged, watching all of us. Yeah, one can never be sure but one can say, "Most probably not". That's what I'm going to do.
And why should not one care? It is an interesting topic for discussion.
I would have argued further but for a paucity of time.

Anonymous said...

An athetist doesn't believe in God; an agnostic doesn't believe in faith...I rather have faith than have a god.


Zaki said...

If God exists and wants us to know that exists then would not have the power to let us know that.

If, in fact, exists and has not yet let us know exists, then perhaps figuring out God's existence is not something you really ought to care about.

I am damn sure Russell would have got this down in algebric and Boolean expressions before he chuckled "Do I care?" :-)

Under the influence of mind altering substances, electric poet and rocker James Douglas Morrison once famously said, "There are things known and there are things unknown..."

I could add to that with "there are also things unknowable".


ak said...

Like Shantanu, I also miss those anti-Dilip (unfortunately, anti-"a lot of other things" too) people at rediff. Reading their comments was fun indeed.

ak said...

Like Shantanu, I also miss those anti-Dilip (unfortunately, anti-"a lot of other things" too) people at rediff. Reading their comments was fun indeed.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Shantanu, if it matters, my father turned agnostic 50+ years ago; my ma is Hindu; the three of us kids (well, not so kids any more...) were brought up really without religion. These days, I look around at the hatred religion causes, I'm grateful every day that it doesn't interest me, and I know I will never feed it to my kids.

Patrix, I'd rather have faith than God too -- that's a good point. Faith in your fellow human beings. Why not?

Zaki, I get the sense that you're a fellow Russell fan too? What a man (well, you AND him). Crystal clear writing, impeccable logic. "Why I'm Not a Christian" is essential reading.

And Sameer, sure the world needs atheists. But I'm not sure they'll ever cleanse the world of religion. I don't think that's possible. Besides, if it happened, who would someone like me foam at the mouth against?

As for the rediff comments, much as Shantanu and Ani enjoyed them, I have to say that I probably enjoyed them more!

Melaina RN, PHN, MS, CNS, ACHPN said...

You have some very thought-provoking points, though I don't necessarily agree with all of them. I am not 'religious' and do not follow any organized religion. In fact, I would consider myself agnostic as well. However, I am interested in contemplating the idea that there may be a higher being. I believe... if there is a higher being, it is not outside myself to accept this world as it is. It is inside me, giving me inspiration and inner peace, as I mull over how to make this world a better place.

ankan said...

My beliefs are similar to being agnostic. I dont know whethere there is any God. However I dont say it is unknowable since many people claim to have seen/experienced presence of God.

I agree with the statement that saying that there is no God is as irrational as saying there is God. I wonder if such kind of people can really establish that there is not God.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dilip,

The problem doesn't lie with religion, but with its interpretation by humans. Of course man is responsible for his actions, that's cause and effect, also known as karma. To point the finger at mysterious forces or God, is a cop-out, something to lessen our guilt. Like you said, leave God out of this. Grab responsibility with both hands.

As to why there is poverty - well, let's see. I'm writing a response to your blog on a $500 PC. That money could provide lunch for hundreds of people anywhere in the world. But it didn't, did it? Beacuse I hoard it, because I don't feel their hunger, becuase I don't care enough.

The problem is selfishness and apathy. I don't know if I could adopt a child when I'll be ready to be a parent.

So you may be agnostic, but you're not apathetic. If everyone could be 'agnostic' like you, a lot of this mess would be cleaned up.

Anonymous said...

I'm an out and out atheist. I used to be an agnostic in my younger years, till I realised that as long as you maintain a standard definition of God, I can logically argue that it can't exist or that there are contradictions to counter the definition. An example is the Judeo-Christian God.
( )

Incidentally, Yazad (, Ravikiran ( are atheists too.

- MadMan

seaferns said...

hey D-Cube
Great blog!!!
I only came across it today and have been devouring the archives for the better part of my working day :)

However I must submit that the line of reasoning displayed in this particular post is uncharacteristically skewed.

Its overly simplistic to argue that organised religion encourages us to wash our hands of suffering by offering us the scapegoat of a greater being with an over riding purpose.

Its equally one sided to overlook all that organised religion has done to alleviate human misery.

Look forward to hearing more - once again, an excellent blog


Anonymous said...

"IF" there is a god, why doesn't she simply end all evil, after all she is all powerful. Simply look around you at the evil that exists, Iraqi,Darfur, Rwanda, starvation, disease, and on and on it goes. What god can sit on some "throne" looking down at this mess and not stop it? Only the religious nutcases will see that its "right". Just look at the 'mega churches' and see what its all

Anonymous said...

agnostics, from what ive read sound like sociopaths. my X was a sociopath and didnt have many views on god and spoke in a bostfully negative manner about him. THEY are no different to us, when you think about it, we all have our doubts about god and the exitance of him, agnostics just have a worser case. they have a faith but its just not in god, they have a faith in the existance of them or the human race.
i have my doubts about god and i dont mid carlessly swinging my feet against the fence, its somthing that we do. an agnostic is nothing special or nothing to hate. We must not put such a negative light on them...they have feelings you know..ahem