Bertrand Russell – Statement of Agnosticism
Bertrand Russell’s pamphlet, Why I Am Not a Christian, based on a speech delivered in 1927 and later included in a book of the same title, is considered a classic statement of agnosticism. The essay briefly lays out Russell’s objections to some of the arguments for the existence of God before discussing his moral objections to Christian teachings. He then calls upon his readers to “stand on their own two feet and look fair and square at the world”, with a “fearless attitude and a free intelligence”.
In 1939, Russell gave a lecture on The existence and nature of God, in which he characterized himself as an atheist. He said:
The existence and nature of God is a subject of which I can discuss only half. If one arrives at a negative conclusion concerning the first part of the question, the second part of the question does not arise; and my position, as you may have gathered, is a negative one on this matter.
However, later in the same lecture, discussing modern non-anthropomorphic concepts of God, Russell states:
That sort of God is, I think, not one that can actually be disproved, as I think the omnipotent and benevolent creator can.
In Russell’s 1947 pamphlet, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? (subtitled A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas), he ruminates on the problem of what to call himself:
As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.
On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.
In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell states:
An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.
Later in the essay, Russell adds:
I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence.
Demographic research services normally do not differentiate between various types of non-religious respondents, so agnostics are often classified in the same category as atheists or other non-religious people. Some sources use agnostic in the sense of noncommittal.
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that about 16% of the world’s people, the third largest group after Christianity and Islam, have no religious affiliation.
In the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, 55% of agnostic respondents expressed “a belief in God or a universal spirit”, whereas 41% stated that they thought that they felt a tension “being non-religious in a society where most people are religious.”
Agnosticism is criticized from a variety of standpoints. Some religious thinkers see agnosticism as limiting the mind’s capacity to know reality to materialism. Some atheists criticize the use of the term agnosticism as functionally indistinguishable from atheism; this results in frequent criticisms of those who adopt the term as avoiding the ‘atheist label’.
Many theistic thinkers repudiate the validity of agnosticism, or certain forms of agnosticism. Religious scholars in the three Abrahamic religions affirm the possibility of knowledge material, spiritual element.
They affirm that “not being able to see or hold some specific thing does not necessarily negate its existence,” using gravity, entropy, reason and thought as examples.
Islam tends to completely disregard agnosticism. Religious scholars such as Brown, Tacelli, and Kreeft argue that it does not take into account evidence that God has placed within his creation.
And for this, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli cite 20 arguments for God’s existence. They assert that any ‘demand’ for evidence testable in a laboratory is in effect asking God, the supreme being, to become man’s servant. They argue that the question of God should be treated differently from other knowable objects in that “this question regards not that which is below us, but that which is above us.”