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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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In the twentieth century a distinct element comes
to the fore which counts in favor of agnosticism but
also gives it a particular twist. This new turn leads
to a reformulation of agnosticism. It states agnosticism
in such a manner that it becomes evident how it is
a relevant response to one of the major elements in
contemporary philosophical perplexities over religion.

We have hitherto been talking as if God-talk is used
in certain central contexts to make statements of whose
truth-value we are in doubt. That is, there is no doubt
that they have a truth-value but there is a doubt which
truth-value they actually have. Theists think that at
least some of the key Jewish or Christian claims are
true, atheists think they are false, and traditional agnos-
tics, as H. H. Price puts it in his Belief (London, 1969),
suspend “judgement on the ground that we do not have
sufficient evidence to decide the question and so far
as he [the agnostic] can tell there is no likelihood that
we ever shall have” (p. 455). But in the twentieth
century with certain analytic philosophers the question
has come to the fore about whether these key religious
utterances have any truth-value at all.

A. J. Ayer defending the modern variety of em-
piricism called “logical empiricism” argued in his
Language, Truth and Logic (London, 1935) that such
key religious utterances are devoid of cognitive mean-
ing. Such considerations lead Ayer to deny that he or
anyone taking such a position could be either a theist,
an atheist, or even an agnostic. In a well known passage
Ayer comments that it is very important not to confuse
his view with agnosticism or atheism, for, as he puts

It is a characteristic of an agnostic to hold that the existence
of a god is a possibility in which there is no good reason
either to believe or disbelieve; and it is characteristic of
an atheist to hold that it is at least probable that no god
exists. And our view that all utterances about the nature
of God are nonsensical, so far from being identical with,
or even lending any support to, either of these familiar
contentions, is actually incompatible with them. For if the
assertion that there is a god is nonsensical, then the atheist's
assertion that there is no god is equally nonsensical, since
it is only a significant proposition that can be significantly
contradicted. As for the agnostic, although he refrains from
saying either that there is or that there is not a god, he
does not deny that the question whether a transcendent
god exists is a genuine question. He does not deny that the
two sentences “There is a transcendent god” and “There
is no transcendent god” express propositions one of which
is actually true and the other false. All he says is that we
have no means of telling which of them is true, and therefore
ought not to commit ourselves to either. But we have seen
that the sentences in question do not express propositions
at all. And this means that agnosticism also is ruled out

(p. 219).

Ayer goes on to remark that the theist's putative claims
are neither valid nor invalid; they say nothing at all
and thus the theist cannot rightly be “accused of saying
anything false, or anything for which he has insufficient
grounds” (ibid., p. 219). It is only when the Christian,
so to speak, turns meta-theologian and claims that in
asserting the existence of a Transcendent God he is
expressing a genuine proposition “that we are entitled
to disagree with him” (ibid.).

The central point Ayer is making is that such reli-
gious utterances do not assert anything and thus they
can be neither doubted, believed, nor even asserted
to be false. With such considerations pushed to the
front, the key question becomes whether such religious
utterances have any informative content at all.

There is something very strange here. Ayer, as we
have seen, does not regard his position as atheistical
or agnostic, for since such key religious utterances
could not even be false, they could not be intelligibly
denied and since they make no claim to be intelligibly
questioned, they could not be sensibly doubted. But,
as Susan Stebbing rightly observed, “the plain man
would not find it easy to see the difference between
Mr. Ayer's non-atheism and the fool's atheism” (Steb-
bing, p. 264). But before we say “so much the worse
for the plain man,” we should remember that to believe
that such key religious utterances are unbelievable
because nonsensical is even a more basic rejection of
religious belief than simply asserting the falsity of the
putative truth-claims of Christianity, but allowing for
the possibility that they might be true.

Because of this altered conceptualization of the situ-
ation, Price, Edwards, and Nielsen have characterized
both agnosticism and atheism in a broader and more
adequate way which takes into account these problems
about meaning. A contemporary agnostic who is alert
to such questions about meaning would maintain that
judgments concerning putatively assertive God-talk
should be suspended for either of two reasons, depend-
ing on the exact nature of the God-talk in question:
(1) the claims, though genuine truth-claims, are without
sufficient evidence to warrant either their belief or


categorical rejection, or (2) their meaning is so problem-
atical that it is doubtful whether there is something
there which is sufficiently intelligible or coherent to
be believed. Where God is conceived somewhat an-
thropomorphically the first condition obtains and
where God is conceived non-anthropomorphically the
second condition obtains. The contemporary agnostic
believes that “God” in the most typical religious
employments is so indeterminate in meaning that he
must simply suspend judgment about whether there is
anything that it stands for which can intelligibly be
believed. His position, as Price points out, is like the
traditional agnostic's in being neutral between theism
and atheism (p. 454). He believes that neither such
positive judgment is justified, but unlike a contem-
porary atheist, on the one hand, he is not so confident
of the unintelligibility or incoherence of religious ut-
terances that he feels that religious belief is irrational
and is to be rejected, but, on the other hand, he does
not believe one is justified in taking these problematic
utterances as being obscurely revelatory of Divine
Truth. Neither atheism nor any of the several forms
of fideism is acceptable to him.

The contemporary agnostic sensitive to problems
about the logical status of religious utterances simply
stresses that the reasonable and on the whole justified
course of action here is simply to suspend judgment.
His doubts are primarily doubts about the possibility
of there being anything to doubt,
but, second-order as
they are, they have an effect similar to the effect of
classical agnosticism and they lead to a similar attitude
toward religion. There is neither the classical atheistic
denial that there is anything to the claims of religion
nor is there the fideistic avowal that in spite of all their
obscurity and seeming unintelligibility that there still
is something there worthy of belief. Instead there is
a genuine suspension of judgment.

The thing to ask is whether the doubts leading to
a suspension of judgment are actually sufficient to
justify such a suspension or, everything considered, (1)
would a leap of faith be more justified or (2) would
the overcoming of doubt in the direction of atheism
be more reasonable? Or is it the case that there is no
way of making a rational decision here or of reasonably
deciding what one ought to do or believe?

It may indeed be true, as many a sophisticated theo-
logian has argued, that religious commitment is per-
fectly compatible with a high degree of ignorance
about God and the nature—whatever that may
mean—of “ultimate reality.” But, if this is the case and
if our ignorance here is as invincible as much contem-
porary philosophical argumentation would have us
believe, natural theology seems at least to be thor-
oughly undermined. In trying to establish whether the
world is contingent or non-contingent, whether there
is or can be something “beyond the world” upon which
the world in some sense depends, or whether there is
or could be an unlimited reality which is still in some
sense personal, theological reasonings have been no-
toriously unsuccessful. About the best that has been
done is to establish that it is not entirely evident that
these questions are meaningless or utterly unan-

Here a Barthian turn away from natural theology
is equally fruitless. To say that man can by his own
endeavors know nothing of God but simply must await
an unpredictable and rationally inexplicable self-
disclosure of God—the core notion of God revealing
himself to man—is of no help, for when we look at
religions in an honest anthropological light, we will
see, when all the world is our stage, that we have
multitudes of conflicting alleged revelations with no
means at all of deciding, without the aid of natural
theology or philosophical analysis, which, if any, of
these putative revelations are genuine revelations. It
is true enough that if something is actually a divine
revelation, it cannot be assessed by man, but must
simply be accepted. But the agnostic reminds the reve-
lationist that we have a multitude of conflicting candi-
date revelations with no means of reasonably deciding
which one to accept. In such a context a reasonable
man will remain agnostic concerning such matters. To
simply accept the authorative claims of a Church in
such a circumstance is to fly in the face of reason.

The most crucial problem raised by the so-called
truth-claims of Judaism and Christianity is that of
conceivability—to borrow a term that Herbert Spencer
used in the nineteenth century and thereby suggesting
that there are more lines of continuity between the
old agnosticism and the new than this essay has indi-
cated. The incredibility—to use Spencer's contrasting
term—of these central religious claims is tied, at least
in part, to their inconceivability. “God” is not supposed
to refer to a being among beings; by definition God
is no finite object or process in the world. But then
how is the referring to be done? What are we really
talking about when we speak of God? How do we or
can we fix the reference range of “God”? God surely
cannot be identified in the same manner we identify
the sole realities compatible with existence-monism.
There can be no picking God out as we would a dis-
crete entity in space-time. Alternatively there are theo-
logians who will say that when we come to recognize
that it is just a brute fact that there is that indefinitely
immense collection of finite and contingent masses or
conglomerations of things, we use the phrase “the
world” to refer to, and when we recognize it could
have been the case—eternally the case—that there was


no world at all, we can come quite naturally to feel
puzzled about why there is a world at all.

Is there anything that would account for the exist-
ence of all finite reality and not itself be a reality that
needed to be similarly explained? In speaking of God
we are speaking of such a reality, if indeed there is
such a reality. We are concerned with a reality not
simply—as the world might be—infinite in space and
time, but a reality such that it would not make sense
to ask why it exists. Such a reality could not be a
physical reality.

In sum, we have, if we reflect at all, a developing
sense of the contingency of the world. The word “God”
in part means, in Jewish and Christian discourses,
whatever it is that is non-contingent upon which all
these contingent realities continuously depend. God is
the completeness that would fill in the essential incom-
pleteness of the world. We have feelings of de-
pendency, creatureliness, finitude and in having those
feelings, it is argued, we have some sense of that which
is without limit. “God” refers to such alleged ultimate
realities and to something richer as well. But surely
this, the critic of agnosticism will reply, sufficiently
fixes the reference range of “God,” such that it would
be a mistake to assert that “God” is a term supposedly
used to refer to a referent but nothing coherently
specifiable counts as a possible referent for “God,”
where “God” has a non-anthropomorphic employment.

Surely such a referent is not something which can
be clearly conceived, but, as we have seen, a non-
mysterious God would not be the God of Judeo-
Christianity. But has language gone on a holiday? We
certainly, given our religious conditioning, have a feel-
that we understand what we are saying here. But
do we? Perhaps, as Axel Hägerström thought, “contin-
gent thing,” “finite thing,” and “finite reality” are
pleonastic. For anything at all that exists, we seem to
be able to ask, without being linguistically or con-
ceptually deviant, why it exists. “The world” or “the
cosmos” does not stand for an entity or a class of things,
but is an umbrella term for all those things and their
structural relations that religious people call “finite
things” and many others just call “things.” What are
we talking about when we say there is something
infinite and utterly different from these “finite realities”
and that this “utterly other reality” is neither physical
nor temporal nor purely conceptual nor simply imagi-
nary, but, while being unique and radically distinct
from all these things, continuously sustains all these
“finite things” and is a mysterious something upon
which they are utterly dependent? Surely this is very
odd talk and “sustains” and “dependent” have no un-
problematical use in this context.

These difficulties and a host of difficulties like them
make it doubtful whether the discourse used to spell
out the reference range of “God” is sufficiently intelli-
gible to make such God-talk coherent. An agnostic of
the contemporary sort is a man who suspends judg-
ment, oscillating between rejecting God-talk as an
irrational form of discourse containing at crucial junc-
tures incoherent or rationally unjustifiable putative
truth-claims and accepting this discourse as something
which, obscure as it is, makes a sufficiently intelligible
and humanly important reference to be worthy of

One reading of the situation is that the network of
fundamental concepts constitutive of nonanthropo-
morphic God-talk in Judeo-Christianity is so problem-
atical that the most reasonable thing to do is to opt
for atheism, particularly when we realize that we do
not need these religions or any religion to make sense
of our lives or to buttress morality. But agnosticism,
particularly of the contemporary kind specified here,
need not be an evasion and perhaps is the most reason-
able alternative for the individual who wishes, concern-
ing an appraisal of competing world views and ways of
life, to operate on a principle of maximum caution.