This isn’t about religion, it’s about the way we talk about religion. Words are the mind’s tools. If we don’t have the right words, we can’t do a proper job of thinking.
The word “agnosticism” is useful because it helps to deal with the false dichotomy that would otherwise exist — at least linguistically — between the options of theism and atheism. In Wikipedia’s article on Agnosticism, we’re told that Thomas Huxley coined the word in 1869.
Although the word may be new, the general idea to which it applies has been drifting around for millennia. Agnosticism is said to be the view that the truth of certain claims — especially claims about the existence or non-existence of deities — is unknown or unknowable. As expected, Richard Dawkins has spoken lucidly on the subject, and Wikipedia mentions that here.
Huxley’s word is useful, not only for religion but also for other metaphysical claims. Nevertheless, we think it’s insufficient because there are more positions than merely belief, unbelief, and undecided. Many issues offer a continuum of possibilities. We’ve previously discussed this in connection with The Creation-Evolution Continuum.
Maybe philosophers have already created a vast literature that covers our topic today, but we’re unaware of it. Therefore, we’re working this out on our own. The problem we’re having is that Huxley’s coining of the word “agnostic” didn’t really help that much. Yes, he seems to have solved the false dichotomy problem, but the three positions we’re given (theist, atheist, and agnostic) create a false trichotomy. If we understand agnosticism correctly, it’s some kind of philosophical waiting room that must inevitably lead to one of two doors — theism or atheism.
The agnostic is usually described as one who can’t make up his mind. The reasons for his indecision may vary (not enough evidence, doubts about this or that dogma, paradoxes like the problem of evil, etc.), but the unspoken assumption is that if he somehow could make up his mind, then he will choose either theism or atheism.
This means, at least to us, that the middle position of agnosticism doesn’t solve any problems. It still leaves the whole business as a dichotomy, with those who are undecided occupying the limbo labeled agnosticism. It’s as if the vocabulary were created by theists, and is designed to convey a “for us or against us” mentality. But is that all there is?
We think there are more options available. What we have in mind is an individual who is not at all interested in theology. He’s probably very much aware of it and the disputes involved, but he’s not concerned enough to choose one path or the other. What’s the word for that person? He’s not a denier, or a doubter, or any kind of detractor. What he’s really saying is: “You people are all boring; I’m outta here!”
Although there are numerous adjectives to describe the condition of being unconcerned or uninterested, there is no noun for such a person, and we need one. The need is not just in the field of theology, but for many other areas as well. Consider a trivial example — baseball. There are fans who follow the game, and they usually favor one team or the other. But there is no word for a person who stays away from the stadium because he couldn’t care less which team wins, and he has what he thinks are better things to do with his time.
We’ve spent time looking for a word that would fit the “aware but unconcerned” person, the person who knows about the issue but who has no enthusiasm for it. We haven’t found a word that works because everything we find fits into a “friend or foe” mentality. The closest, conceptually, are words like “civilian,” or “noncombatant,” but even those words imply that although one isn’t an active participant, he probably does have a side that he favors.
Continuing with the sports analogy, and assuming one isn’t a team owner or player, it’s not unreasonable if he doesn’t care whether the Tennessee Toads defeat the Kansas Kangaroos in today’s big game. He’s not hostile to the sport, he doesn’t deny its existence, he doesn’t haunt the stadium and harangue the people buying tickets. He’s just not a fan.
What do we call such a person? The concept of agnosticism doesn’t apply, because one who literally doesn’t care about the game isn’t even thinking about which team to choose. His choice is that he won’t participate in any way because he’s unconcerned about the game. What’s the word for such a person? “Civilian” doesn’t begin to do the job. Why is our language so impoverished?
You might think of the non-fan’s attitude as the Alfred E. Neuman position. He’s saying: “What, me worry?” But that’s not it either. Newman is regarded as a bit of a dolt, whereas our uninvolved person may not be a dolt at all. Indeed, he may be the wisest of all.
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