Quotes about Agnosticism

Today I posted a page called Quotes about Agnosticism. I have also collected quotes about theism and about atheism, which are posted on separate pages.

If you’d like to “nominate” quotes of up to 100 words about theism, atheism, or agnosticism, please include the author you are quoting, the source, and the page number or URL. Thanks.

Here are the current contents of Quotes about Agnosticism:

From Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, p. 99:

“Theism and atheism are two ways of articulating our responses to ultimate mystery. And here is a key idea that is obviously true but difficult to fully accept: There is no objective place where we can stand and say, ‘Now I can see who is right about deity.’

“Of course, many people believe they have attained objective truth about God. Some say it is quite clear that God is real. Others find it equally clear that atheism is correct. But there is no ‘tie-breaker,’ no super-objective vantage point that settles this dispute…. We want to avoid this unsettling but undeniable conclusion. Honestly admitting that no one knows the truth about God is likely to make us squirm (unless we happen to be agnostics).

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have certainty about such an important question, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree? But that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss the testimony of either believers or unbelievers.”

In my book I also mention a videotaped exchange between philosopher Daniel Dennett and conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, debating God’s existence. At one point D’Souza stated that God’s existence cannot be conclusively proven. In that sense, he said, both he and Dennett are agnostics. “I don’t know, and still I believe. Dan doesn’t know, and therefore, he doesn’t believe. What unites us is both of us don’t know. We’re actually both ignorant…. We are both reasoning in the dark.” (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw7J15TeDG4&feature=PlayList.)

Ian Markham, a Christian theist, has offered a wonderful insight about our current theological confusion. The diversity of our world-views shows that reality is (for human beings) inherently ambiguous. We say we “believe” in some doctrine precisely because we cannot know it is true. “We are all … making assumptions that we cannot prove….” Markham concludes that God evidently wants us to have multiple orientations. He therefore speaks of “an inevitable provisionality that God has built into the creation.” “It is partly because this is the way that God made creation that I am confident God will be merciful to those who opt for a different [i.e., non-Christian] interpretation of the world.” “We need to learn to live with divinely intended pluralism….” (Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong, pp. 141-42).

The Christian philosopher Eric Reitan states that “… however the facts are arranged, it is possible to interpret them in theistic or atheistic terms” Is God a Delusion? p. 114).

And here’s a remark by Clarence Darrow:

“I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure – that is all that agnosticism means”

One of the best-known books on agnosticism is Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy. Here are several quotes from that publication:

“God is unknowable and so, for the present, is the universe …” ( p. 90).

“Though most agnostics eschew organized religion, many, even in their cloud of uncertainty, often take comfort in religious ritual, practice, ceremony, and community” (p. 6).

“Wishy-washy agnostic! I felt on the one hand as if I should give thanks for blessings and what seemed the miracle of birth, and on the other that I was being absurdly primitive and irrational, even cowardly, in having such mixed emotions” (p. 152).

“There is no rah-rah power in agnosticism. It enters through the intellect, not through the emotions. Stories or chants or affirmations of belief have emotional effects. Stories of uncertainty usually do not” (p. 223).

“The answer is that, until further notice, there is no answer” (p. 199).

Finally, a passage from the last chapter of Bridging the God Gap, which notes that some forms of agnosticism only ask “whether Christian theology is right about God. Such a narrow focus leads to odd logic, such as the claim that since the Christian God either does or does not exist, we can start by assuming that the chances are 50-50 and then see which way the evidence moves us.

“This would be like a simple card game, turning over a playing card after betting on red or black, but this is no two-card wager. Visualize instead a Las Vegas style “shoe” holding six decks or more – and some of these decks contain cards we have never seen before. Instead of the King of Diamonds we may be dealt the Count of Rubies and have no idea how to play it. The theological possibilities before us are vast and unknowable” (p. 191).


A Highly Recommended Article — “Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents”

I recently read a practical and insightful essay by Michelle Richards on communication between people who disagree about religion. Although Michelle was writing for Unitarian Universalists, her ideas would work well in all sorts of settings.

Michelle points out that if we reject the religion of our childhood, our parents may take this as a personal rejection. She suggests focusing on similarities more than dwelling on differences, and I certainly agree. In my book and in my blog I am trying to show how people with “opposite” views about religion have more in common than it seems.

She goes on to say that “the arrival of precious grandchildren raises the stakes even higher.” Grandparents who were looking forward to celebrating their grandchild’s life passages in familiar ways may be deeply disappointed. Michelle draws upon her own experiences, describing her parents’ responses to her daughter’s life passages.

“Holidays: Time for interfaith dialogue with your parents” is well worth reading. Here’s the link:



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Karen Armstrong on God, Part Two

In Part One I discussed ideas from two of Karen Armstrong’s publications:

A History of God, Gramercy Books, 1993

The Case for God, Knopf, 2009

Both books discuss the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and deny that these traditions emphasize the idea that God is a supernatural being. Instead, Armstrong suggests that these religions have often maintained a respectful silence about what God is like. Today, on the other hand, “People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who ‘he’ is and what he thinks, loves, and expects” (The Case for God, p. ix).

Armstrong notes that whereas Christianity has focused on doctrine, Judaism has not enforced theological orthodoxy: “Any official doctrine would limit the essential mystery of God” (A History of God, p. 74). And in Islam, “the Koran is highly suspicious of theological speculation, dismissing it as zanna, self-indulgent guesswork about things that nobody can possibly know or prove” (p. 143).

On p. 126 of A History of God Armstrong mentions an approach to theological reflection in which one first affirms what God is, including God’s existence; then denies those affirmations, saying for example that God does not exist; and then denies the denials. This conceptual discipline is intended to disintegrate our use of typical words and concepts in speaking of the Ultimate.

Armstrong definitely rejects some common teachings about deity, such as the idea that God created plants and animals. Life originated because of natural selection, and not because of divine planning:

“Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course – at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death, and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core” (WSJ.com, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html).

Furthermore Armstrong does not think most religions emphasize immortality, and she herself is completely agnostic about this issue. She made that statement September 9, 2009 in a radio interview with Michael Krasny (http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R909241000). Her view is that only Christianity and Islam have made the afterlife central, and even there it is often seen as some-thing like a parable rather than a definite statement of fact. She contends that religion should be about transcending our egos, not ensuring our own survival.

When Armstrong says that God is indescribable, here are three things that this might mean.

1. Something is indescribable if we can say virtually nothing about it. For instance, some think the Big Bang must have had a cause, but they haven’t a clue what that was.

2. On the other hand, “indescribable” may just mean we lack a good description. In some cases we can make many accurate statements about something, but even in combination these statements are pitifully incomplete. Suppose someone grabs an elephant’s leg in the dark and thinks it’s a tree. Even if the beast held still long enough for this leg-seizer to make 50 accurate statements about this massive limb, those statements would not add up to a good description of the elephant.

3. Finally, “indescribable” may be mere hyperbole, dramatic exaggeration for effect. After one’s first sexual encounter, one may exclaim, “Words fail me! All I can say is ‘Wow!’” – after which one scrawls pages of intimate descriptive detail in a diary.

So God could be utterly indescribable, partially describable, or “indescribable” as poetic exaggeration. I am not sure which of these fits Armstrong’s approach. If pressed I would bet on #2, but perhaps she would select #1 instead. In any case, there is a big difference between:

“We can say nothing about deity.”

And: “We can say many things about deity, but these statements are quite incomplete.”

I would hazard a guess that Karen Armstrong would affirm some things about the Ultimate, including qualities such as creativity, transcendence, and goodness. And I certainly applaud her effort to correct overly-literal theologies. Her many books have conclusively proven that spiritual teachers throughout history have considered God beyond human comprehension. That is such a refreshing contrast to those who think they know everything about deity except (perhaps) the Lord’s favorite pizza toppings.

Since she denies that the Abrahamic faiths require belief in a supernatural deity, Armstrong thinks contemporary atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins are attacking the wrong target. She charges them with having “an extremely literalist notion of God. For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it’” (The Case for God, p. 304). (For her critique of the new atheism see pp. 301-09.) She maintains that this concept is woefully out of date.

Atheists could reply that if Armstrong is correct, even liberal congregations are chock-full of literalists. Believing that God designed and created the universe is middle-of-the-road Christianity, not extreme literalism. Although many theologians no longer think of God as a super-powerful being, Armstrong admits that contemporary theology has “rarely reached the pews.”1

One more point: In A History of God, Karen Armstrong shows that virtually all spiritual communities emphasize compassion (p. 391). She has now followed up on this theme with Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I saw her lecturing about this book last June, and it sounds excellent.


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Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One”

Since completing Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, I have read a book that might interest both theists and atheists: Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter.

When Americans talk about spiritual matters they tend to focus on the majority religion, Christianity. However I have found it helpful to look at religious issues from a long-term, world-wide perspective, and reading Prothero’s book is a fine way to do that.

God Is Not One is well-researched and well-written. I have studied comparative religion for some time, but this book taught me new things about traditions such as Islam, Confucianism, Daoism, and the African-born Yoruba faith.

One of Prothero’s insights is that “What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world” (p. 11). That makes sense, and I find that theists, atheists, and agnostics can often agree about what is most challenging about the human condition. Furthermore there is often quite a bit of agreement about how we should treat each other, as Prothero observes: “The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics” (p. 3).

I was also enlightened by the book’s discussion of Hinduism. I had thought that Hindu concepts of deity tend to be impersonal, describing God as an It rather than a Thou. I knew that Hindus who lack formal education often view God in personal terms, but I thought this contradicted mainstream Hinduism.

Prothero says that at one time Hindus did worship an impersonal deity. “Philosophical Hinduism was functionally atheistic; while the gods existed, they were largely irrelevant to the task at hand. [Liberation] was something you achieved by yourself, not something handed to you from on high” (p. 152). But today Hinduism emphasizes bhakti yoga, meaning loving devotion to one or more gods. For Hindus, “The notion that God is impersonal and ineffable is now confined to the rare philosopher” (p. 153).

The book also includes “A Brief Coda on Atheism,” dealing mainly with science-oriented atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The author is quite critical of this approach, and he sometimes makes sweeping, stereotypical statements, e.g., “Atheists argue that the human problem cannot be solved by religion, because religion itself is the problem” (p. 318). That’s true of Dawkins and Harris, but I have known many atheists who would deny that religion is “the” core problem. To his credit, however, Prothero says there are many different approaches to rejecting God’s existence, and not all atheists are angry and rigid. Taking a swipe at Dawkins et al., he notes that ” . . . most atheists today are far less dogmatic than the high priests of the New Atheism” (p. 327).

I thank Stephen Prothero for this eye-opening survey of the world’s faith traditions, a book that gives us the gift of greater understanding.