Agnosticism has a certain appeal as a more moderate form of atheism. Agnosticism, for our purposes, refers to the belief that the existence (or lack thereof) of god is unknowable. I’ve generally found that theists tend to have more respect for agnostics due to their holding of a more “reasonable” position. However, this is misguided: When it comes to the belief in god, agnosticism is logically unsound at best and intellectually cowardly at worst. Many agnostics are cowardly in the sense that they use agnosticism as a cop-out for not thinking hard about religious questions. Many agnostics do not actually deal with the epistemological question of whether we—as humans with reason—can know whether there is a god; Rather, they deal with the subjective personal question of whether they believe in a god: “Do you believe in god?” “I don’t know!” And, because agnosticism is a more socially acceptable position to hold, there is an incentive not to think.
However, there are agnostics that actually make arguments for agnosticism. Past thinkers have demonstrated that these arguments are flawed but agnosticism has been popular enough that it is valuable to be reminded of the argument against agnosticism. Agnostics believe that the existence of god is neither provable nor disprovable. Thomas Huxley wrote how he came to develop the term:
“When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble…So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of ‘agnostic.’ It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the ‘gnostic’ of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.”
The most effective way to respond to agnosticism is through reductio ad absurdum. If we ought to be agnostic on the existence of God because there is no way to disprove his existence, then we ought to be agnostic towards a lot of seemingly ridiculous things. We could start in the domain of religion: For one, if we are agnostic regarding the existence of a single god, the same argument holds for multiple gods. So, we must, to be consistent, be agnostic toward polytheism. Additionally, what about the argument that gravity is not simply caused by a really large number of ridiculously strong invisible fairies dressed in drag pushing down on you and other objects? Using the argument from agnosticism, this cannot be disproved so we need to maintain an agnostic stance…which is absurd.
The problem is that agnostics misapply the scientific method. Bertrand Russell puts it best when discussing his famous teapot example: Russell offers the example of a small (basically invisible given current technology) teapot between Earth and Mars revolving around the sun. Russell claims, “But if I were to go on to say that [the teapot exists], since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.” The presumption underlying Russell’s argument is that the burden of proving a deity’s existence lies with the theist. It makes little sense that the nonbeliever has a burden to disprove seemingly absurd arguments, whether they refer to a teapot, invisible beings, or a belief in god. In all other realms of science, the burden of proof lies with the individual who is making the assertion. Why should it be any different when it comes to religious matters?