My response to the article, Agnosticism is for Wimps


Agnostic, Independent (politically)
Staff member
Oct 1, 2020
While roaming the internet, I came across an article entitled, Agnosticism is for Wimps. The article starts off accusing agnostics of being pretentious, and then goes on to respond to another article that is written about agnostics. I noticed that the former article (the one I'll be responding to) talks about a type of agnostic that is not representative of all agnostics. To be fair, I won't respond to the article by showing how the author's view of agnosticism is wrong, since he is not addressing my brand of agnosticism, but I'll simply offer my perspective on each of his points. Before I begin, I'll start off by explaining two profiles of agnostics who don't accept the atheist nor theist label. I recently transitioned from one type to another so I can say I have personal experience with being both types.

Two types of non-theist/non-atheist agnostics:
The first and most commonly known agnostics are the ones that hold the position that God is unknown or unknowable. These agnostics tend to be open-minded, undecided, noncommittal, and tend to avoid extremes or polarizing positions or views. This attitude may come about as a result of research, but it can also come about as a result of not caring for the issue and/or engaging in little to no research on it either way.

The second type of agnostic doesn't stick with the unknowns or unknowable, but instead, he or she is open to taking any position on God just as long as logic and evidence supports it. This falls in line with Thomas Huxley's brand of agnosticism. While Huxley held that God's existence was unknown, however, he did not see the "unknown" as being some default or necessary characteristic for agnosticism. Instead, he advocated for the agnostic principle which admonishes the agnostic to follow reason and science in an unadulterated way (i.e. not mixing the unproven belief with knowledge/ avoiding unwarranted certainties - dogmatism, etc.) As a result of applying the agnostic principle, you'll tend to find that these agnostics are open-minded, nonpartisan, won't commit to views and ideologies (political, philosophical, religious, etc.) that aren't fully proven (with the exception of logic and science), etc.

The latter type of agnostic best describes my agnosticism. Although, there are some overlaps between the two types, but I consider the latter one to be more assertive since they are more willing to progress to positive or negative conclusions where the former type may decide (perhaps as a matter of principle) to remain undecided.

Now, let's proceed to addressing the article I brought up earlier.

Remember that scene in A Fish Called Wanda, where Kevin Kline, talking to a British woman who has cornered him in rhetorical combat, says, with maximal sarcasm, “Oh, you British are soooooo superior.”

That's pretty much how I feel when I read essays written by agnostics. By all means make whatever arguments it amuses you to make for not taking a stand on the God question. But please stop acting like you're soooooo superior. You're not the sensible middle ground between two extremes, and you're not the clear-thinking pluralist calmly sifting the evidence. You're just a wimp.
The type of agnostic the author brings up speaks to the first type, which is the most commonly known type, of agnostic I brought up earlier. However, I will not defend that type of agnostic since that doesn't fit my brand of agnosticism. I will say though, based on the logic and evidence that I've read and seen from debates, I've seen nothing that provides a clear-cut case for or against God's existence. The only way I would call an agnostic or anyone else as being some intellectual wimp would depend on why they refuse to take a position. If the agnostic is just wanting to remain undecided or not take a stance or hold some middle ground to preserve some peace or out of principle, then perhaps that can be called wimpy or unassertive. But if that middle ground position is based on good reasons and evidence, then I wouldn't call that position or anyone holding it a "wimp". To do so, without consideration, fits right in with the stereotypes of some atheists being intellectually arrogant. Atheists (nor anyone else for that matter) do not have a monopoly on reason and science.

jrosenhouse (author of Agnosticism is for Wimps) said:
The latest case in point is this essay from Gary Gutting in The New York Times. We pick up the action in the fifth paragraph:
Gary Gutting said:
A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them. Often this love is understood, at least partly, in terms of a moral code that guides all aspects of a believer’s life. Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular. Among other things, it typically helps believers make sense of the group’s moral code. Religious knowledge offers a metaphysical and/or historical account of supernatural realities that, if true, shows the operation of a benevolent power in the universe. The account is thought to provide a causal explanation of how the religion came to exist and, at the same time, a foundation for its morality and system of understanding.

There are serious moral objections to aspects of some religions. But many believers rightly judge that their religion has great moral value for them, that it gives them access to a rich and fulfilling life of love. What is not justified is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading of this belief, implying that the life of a given religion is the only or the best way toward moral fulfillment for everyone, or that there is no room for criticism of the religion’s moral stances.
But why, exactly, is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading not justified? Let us take evangelical Christianity as an example. It is part of their teaching that the Bible is inerrant and lays out the basic truths of the human spiritual condition. To the extent that it provides the basis for community or helps believers make sense of their world, it does so by uniting them around a series of factual propositions. Exclusivity and infallibility are built into those propositions. You can't have one without the other.

That's precisely the problem. Either the metaphysical and historical accounts a religion provides are accurate, in which case they should be exclusive, or they are not accurate, in which case they provide a poor basis for community.
I agree with jrosenhouse's response. Philosopher Gary Gutting simply asserts that an exclusivist and infallibilist reading is not justified, but it would have been more reasonable to say that even if the author intended it as such, does not prove that it applies to reality (beyond opinion) as such. I might intend for or believe that my moral standards are objective and should be followed without exception, but just because I intend or think that doesn't make it reality.

I'm not even sure yet how all of this applies to any agnostic perspective unless it is presumed that agnostics are pluralists when it comes to religion.

jrosenhouse (author of Agnosticism is for Wimps) said:
Gutting's next paragraph is better:
Gary Gutting said:
Critics of a religion -- and of religion in general -- usually focus on knowledge claims. This is understandable since the claims are often quite extraordinary, of a sort for which we naturally require a great deal of evidence — which is seldom forthcoming. They are not entirely without evidential support. But the evidence for religious claims — metaphysical arguments from plausible but disputable premises, intermittent and often vague experiences of the divine, historical arguments from limited data, even the moral and intellectual fruitfulness of a religious life — typically does not meet ordinary (common-sense or scientific) standards for postulating an explanatory cause. Believers often say that their religious life gives them a special access (the insight of “faith”) to religious knowledge. But believers in very different religions can claim such access, and it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.
That's more polite than I prefer (I would have said the metaphysical arguments for God are based on very disputable premises, while the historical arguments rest on laughably limited data), but I think that paragraph looks pretty good.
I agree with mostly everything philosopher Gary Gutting has said in this excerpt. The only slight disagreement I may have is I'm not just concerned about knowledge claims or claims made about the natural world. I focus on all claims, and knowledge or proof is one way of getting to the truth, whether it be a truth about the natural world, about morality, about spirituality, etc. If such proof or knowledge isn't available nor even possible, then I think that's a justified reason to remain undecided.

jrosenhouse (author of Agnosticism is for Wimps) said:
Alas, things go downhill from there:
Gary Gutting said:
Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false. Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them. The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.
The comparisons to Santa Claus and whatnot might be overly snide, but the atheists are absolutely right with regard to the basic principle. When one side of an argument claims a certain entity exists, bearing attributes that are utterly contrary to anything with which we have regular experience, the burden of proof lies with that side. Gutting, I suspect, would accept this principle with regard to virtually every other sort of supernatural or paranormal entity. I don't believe he is agnostic with regard to ghosts and poltergeists. The reason for actively disbelieving in such things, as opposed to remaining agnostic about them, is precisely the lack of evidence for them, coupled with the affront they pose to our best scientific understanding of the world. Those are precisely the reasons for not believing in God. That is an argument. Unless Gutting thinks people who deny the existence of ghosts and poltergeists are just dogmatic and unreasonable, then he does not have much of an argument here.
Here I finally find some real disagreement with jrosen. He claims that all of the burden of proof lies with a side when that side makes an extraordinary claim. He then goes on to say that someone should reject God and ghosts because there is a lack of evidence for them and because they go against our scientific understanding.

As a follower of Huxley's brand of agnosticism (refer to my above profiles of the two agnostics), and even just as a follower of logic, I have to say that every claim should be proven, whether it be a positive or negative one. Lack of positive evidence does not automatically prove or mean that God does not exist. As a follower of science, I can say that if something lacks scientific evidence or is contrary to current scientific knowledge, then that alone does not make the claim false. The simple reason for my last statement is that scientific knowledge is tentative, in that it can contain errors and/or limitations and as such, all of it is subject to being updated or replaced. If a claim lacks proof or disproof then I remain undecided.

But even if we were to go beyond just the nature of scientific knowledge, then I can also bring up how ghosts are very plausible if we consider that they are nothing more than a disembodied consciousness. To date, scientists have not shown the form or function of consciousness. For instance, does consciousness need a brain to survive given the fact that scientists are working to produce consciousness in non-neural matter or the fact that conscious activity has been detected in those with minimal body functions (e.g. patients in vegetative or coma states), or perhaps even in moments where conscious function is supposed to be minimal (anesthesia awareness and NDEs). Does the brain or body even need consciousness to function given the fact that complex human behavior has been shown to be carried out without consciousness (i.e. sleep walking, etc.) All these findings opens the door to consider that consciousness can exist without brain and that brain does not even need consciousness. If all of this is true, then an afterlife is not as far-fetched as some may think it is.

jrosenhouse (author of Agnosticism is for Wimps) said:
Gary Gutting said:
But the no-arguments view ignores the role of evidence and argument behind the religious beliefs of many informed and intelligent people. (For some powerful contemporary examples, see the essays in “Philosophers Who Believe” and “God and the Philosophers.”) Believers have not made an intellectually compelling case for their claims: they do not show that any rational person should accept them. But believers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, to cite just a few examples, have well-thought-out reasons for their belief that call for serious discussion. Their belief cannot be dismissed as on a par with children’s beliefs in Santa and the Easter Bunny. We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.
Now, I don't agree that Plantinga, Swinburne and van Inwagen are making well-thought out arguments. I've read all three gentlemen, and I think their arguments, while certainly expressed with greater elan than most religious apologists can muster, are not very good at all.

More to the point, serious discussion is all well and good, but the fact is that we've already had those discussions. Readers who like that sort of thing (and I happen to be one) can certainly find careful, scholarly refutations of the major arguments made by Gutting's paragons. Most philosophers are atheists, after all, and I would think that atheists who are not academics could reasonably infer that if these arguments were any good, more philosophers would endorse them. Life is short, and atheists don't have endlessly have to reinvent the wheel.

For example, recently I read Jordan Howard Sobel's book Logic and Theism. It's a large, dense tome, and is definitely one of the most detailed and scholarly attacks on religious arguments ever written. Sobel devotes something like 130 pages to the various ontological arguments, and he kills them all stone dead. Is it really necessary, then, that the average atheist on the street wade through all of this material before feeling confident that the ontological argument does not work? Or can he confidently maintain his atheism knowing that properly trained scholars have done that work for him?
From my experience of debates, refutations are a way to discredit an argument but refutations can also go on and on if the person with the original claim responds to the refutation. Jrosen states that there are refutations to Swinburne and Platinga's arguments, but I question if he's continued looking to see if Swinburne's and Plantinga's have offered any counters or responses to those refutations. Did this even take place in a debate or is it just one author responding to another author, and perhaps Swinburne and Plantinga don't even know about it?

jrosenhouse (author of Agnosticism is for Wimps) said:
Gary Gutting said:
The cases intellectually sophisticated religious believers make are in fact similar to those that intellectually sophisticated thinkers (believers or not) make for their views about controversial political policies, ethical decisions or even speculative scientific theories. Here, as in religion, opposing sides have arguments that they find plausible but the other side rejects. Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can’t merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion. Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative. The no-arguments argument for atheism fails.
But, again, we don't claim simply that there is no “decisive” evidence for the claims of religion. We claim instead that there is no credible evidence at all for those claims. If we're talking about God as an abstract intelligent designer, then I don't know what else atheists can do beyond noting that there is not the slightest reason to believe such an entity exists. If we're talking about the Christian conception of God specifically, then we add the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness, both of which pose serious challenges to Christian faith. Gutting's “no-arguments” characterization of atheist thought is just a silly caricature.

His analogy with political arguments is also very weak. Yes, of course, people on opposite sides of a political dispute make arguments that are persuasive to them while not convincing the other side. But I'm willing to bet that Gutting does not think that's a reason for remaining agnostic on hot political issues. I'm sure he doesn't say, “Democrats say one thing, Republicans something else, and since neither side has decisive arguments I guess we just have to remain agnostic.” No way! I'm betting he dives right in and says, “My side makes better arguments and the people on the other side are just wrong!” That's all atheists are doing.
I can't say that there is not the slightest reason for believing that a god(s) exist, but I'd rather say that there is no scientific evidence. I'm also not a fan of using philosophy or logic alone because that often amounts to theorizing, and I like to consider explanations that are backed by empirical testing/verification.

I also can't dismiss Gary Gutting political analogy, because it can play a role. Why should I not consider the possibility that the Christians and atheists view the arguments from their side the same way that liberals and conservatives do? In other words, a bias or ideological commitment may factor in here when it comes to being convinced of arguments. Not to make agnostics sound too "superior", but this is one bias that tends to not effect them when they follow Huxley's standard of not committing to unproven ideologies.
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