The Problem with Agnosticism
You’ve likely experienced this. You speak to someone and it becomes apparent that you’re a Christian and they are not. Instantly you’re viewed as strange and maybe even backwoods in light of their enlightened secularism. Now, they probably won’t put themselves out there and say, “I don’t believe in God,” or “God doesn’t exist.” They live as atheists, but they prefer to identify as agnostics.
What is agnosticism? An agnostic is one who claims they don’t know about God’s existence, or the truth of any religious claims, whether true or false. Agnosticism can come with a religious veneer (“spiritual but not religious”), but is usually tied pretty close to a secularist and naturalistic worldview. For this type of person it is self-evident that religious claims, and usually specifically Christian claims, are absurd and Christians hold to magical or childish views of the universe. Christians can often feel frustrated speaking to folks like this because it is always they who are on the defense. The agnostic isn’t claiming anything, so it is believed. In fact their views are just natural. It’s simply what any rational person should hold.
The truth is agnosticism is in fact a view of the universe. It does reflect a worldview, and that worldview, whatever its stripe, is anti-Christian and should be shown to be so. But there are some important tactics we should remember when engaging these kind of agnostics. First, we ask clarifying questions, questions that agnostic may not have thought of themselves.
Ask, “What kind of agnostic are you?” There are essentially two kinds of agnostics, hard and soft. Hard agnostics believe that we cannot know religious truths. It is not within the ability of man to pierce through the veil of metaphysics. This is clarified when contrasting them with soft agnostics. A soft agnostic does not claim we cannot truth religious truths, only that they themselves have not come to know religious or metaphysical truths. Hard agnosticism is an epistemological claim about what is true for everyone. Soft agnosticism is merely a statement of where the person is at that moment.
Make the agnostic aware of this distinction. This distinction gets you out of the hot seat, stuck defensively answering all questions, turning the tables on any potential secularist superiority complex. Depending on their answer, we can move the conversation in an apologetic direction.
Hard agnostics. Hard agnostics are actually committed to truths about the nature of reality. They are married to views, whether self-consciously or not, of what is possible and impossible. For them, the religious cannot be known to be true, so whatever reality is like, we cannot know if God exists, whether he is Trinitarian, whether man is morally opposed to him, etc. etc. But this is in fact a denial that God is as the Bible portrays him. The Bible depicts God as a speaking God, a God who isn’t hidden. The Biblical God is one who is revealed in every fact of creation. To deny this by a universal appeal to mystery or ignorance does not change the fact that it is an anti-Christian bias.
To draw out the hard agnostic, ask questions. What about our knowledge makes them believe that we simply cannot know religious or metaphysical truths? In answering your questions, you will help draw out their actual beliefs. Don’t necessarily call them on their consistency (starting with an appeal to ignorance at first, only to divulge their beliefs upon questioning), at least not yet. If you’ve got them talking this is good enough.
Soft agnostics. Again, ask a question: When you admit ignorance about religious truth claims, are you open to seeking the truth? Would you say there’s a chance Christianity is in fact true, even if you don’t have certainty just yet? Again, draw them out. Hostility or aggression is a surefire way to kill dialogue. Ask them: When it comes to religious claims, you say you don’t know. Would you like to know?
On the other half, a person might self-identify as a soft agnostic, only to be revealed as a hard agnostic upon questioning. Again, ask questions. Once you shift the burden of proof back on to the agnostic by asking about the hard/soft agnostic question, you have placed them in the position they so often what you to be: The hot seat.
Always keep in mind that you aren’t the only one who needs to account for what you believe.