I was recently asked by a friend to help them respond to someone who had moved towards agnosticism. My advice was so poor that I thought I should share it with everyone!
Agnosticism is found in the space between atheism, ‘there is no God’, and theism, ‘there most certainly is’. It is the view that God’s existence is simply unknowable. The agnostic, therefore, is unwilling to exercise disbelief or belief; they have resolved to live in doubt. The degree of skepticism varies from person to person, but all agnostics are the same in that they have taken respite in uncertainty.
The majority of agnostics are led there, by their apathy. These are the men and women who have not given much thought to the presence of God. Their inability to believe or disbelieve is due to thoughtlessness, they don’t care and this makes their official position, ‘I dunno’. These proponents are rarely entrenched in their agnosticism—it is merely a convenience.
Then there are those who have moved towards agnosticism because they have experienced an epistemological crisis. Epistemology is the fancy word used to describe ‘what we know’ and ‘how we know it’. These agnostics may have held some form of faith, only to have their trust shaken by uncertainty. The question, “How can I truly know what is real?” never seems to have a satisfactory answer. Earlier convictions are assaulted by doubts and their confidence is eroded. Over time they grow weary of wresting with their misgivings and have sat down in indecision. These people have my sympathy.
How do we respond to those who struggle with uncertainty? Firstly, we must not overreact. Doubt is not denial, it is not unbelief—it is suspended belief. Secondly, we must address the issue at hand; their inability to believe is a result of bad epistemology. Everybody (atheists included) live and reason according to faith. Every conviction about goodness and purpose, justice and love, are all rooted in some faith claim. Alister McGrath says it well in his book, Doubting:
Everyone who believes anything significant or worthwhile about the meaning of life does so as a matter of faith. We’re all in the same boat. And once you realize this, doubt seems a very different matter. It’s not a specifically Christian problem—it’s a universal problem. And that helps set it in its proper perspective.
When a person recognizes that we all must, and do, function by faith, they will realize that they are not being fair with their doubts. And when they impose the same degree of scrutiny on their doubts as they have on their convictions, they may not be so easily led by them. And then, they can discover that of all the available options, it is Jesus who is most worthy of our trust.