What is an Agnostic?
Are agnostics atheists?
No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not
there is a God. The Christian holds that that can know there is a God; the
atheist, that we can know there is not. The agnostic suspends judgement, saying
that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At
the same time, an agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not
impossible, is very improbable; he may hold it is so improbable that it is not
worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from
atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have toward
the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and
Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a
loss to find conclusive arguments. An agnostic may think the Christian God is
as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at
one with the atheists.
Since you deny "God's law", what authority do you accept as a
guide to conduct?
An agnostic does not accept any "authority" in the sense that
religious people do. He holds that a man should think out questions of conduct
for himself. Of course, he will seek to profit by the wisdom of others, but he
will have to select for himself the people he is to consider wise, and he will
not regard even what they say as unquestionable. He will observe that what
passes for "God's law" changes from time to time. The Bible says both
that a woman must not marry her deceased husband's brother, and that, in
certain circumstances, she must do so. If you have the misfortune to be a
childless widow with an unmarried brother-in-law, it is logically impossible
for you to avoid obeying "God's law."
How do you know what is good and evil? What does an agnostic consider a
The agnostic is not quite so certain as some Christians are as to what is good
and what is evil. He does not hold, as most Christians in the past held, that
people who disagree with the government on abtruse points of theology ought to
suffer a painful death. he is against persecution, and rather chary of moral
As for "sin", he thinks it not a useful notion. He admits, of course,
that some kinds of conduct are desirable and some undesirable, but he holds
that the punishment of undesirable kinds is only to be commended when it is
deterrent or reformatory, not when it is inflicted because it is thought a good
thing on its own account that the wicked should suffer. It was this belief in
vindictive punishment that made men accept hell. This is part of the harm done
by the notion of "sin".
Does an agnostic do whatever he pleases?
In one sense, no; in another sense, everyone does whatever he pleases. Suppose,
for example, you hate someone so much that you would like to murder him. Why do
you not do so? You may reply: "Because religion tells me that murder is a
sin." But as a statistical fact, agnostics are not more prone to murder
than other people, in fact, rather less so. They have the same motive for
abstaining from murder as other people have. Far and away the most powerful of
these motives is the fear of punishment. In lawless conditions, such as a gold
rush, all sorts of people will commit crimes, although in ordinary
circumstances they would have been law-abiding. There is not only actual legal
punishment; there is the discomfort of dreading discovery, and the loneliness
of knowing that, to avoid being hated, you must wear a mask even with your
closest intimates. And there is also what may be called "conscience":
If you ever contemplated a murder, you would dread the horrible memory of your
victim's last moments or lifeless corpse. All this, it is true, depends upon
your living in a law-abiding community, but there are abundant secular reasons
for creating and preserving such a community.
I said that there is another sense in which every man does as he pleases. No
one but a fool indulges every impulse, but what holds a desire in check is
always some other desire. A man's anti-social wishes may be restrained by a
wish to please God, but they may also be restrained by a wish to please his
friends, or to win the respect of his community, or to be able to contemplate
himself without disgust. But if he has no such wishes, the mere abstract
precepts of morality will not keep him straight.
How does an agnostic regard the Bible?
An agnostic regards the Bible exactly as enlightened clerics regard it. He does
not think that it is divinely inspired; he thinks its early history legendary,
and no more exactly true than in Homer; he thinks that its moral teachings are
sometimes good, but sometimes very bad. For example: Samuel ordered Saul, in a
war, to kill not only every man, woman, and child of the enemy, but also all
the sheep and cattle. Saul, however, let the sheep and cattle live, and for
this we are told to condemn him. I have never been able to admire Elisha for
cursing the children who laughed at him, or to believe (what the Bible asserts)
that a benevolent Deity would send two she-bears to kill the children.
How does an agnostic regard Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Holy
Since an agnostic does not believe in God, he cannot think that Jesus was God.
Most agnostics admire the life and teachings of Jesus as told in the Gospels,
but not necessarily more than those of other men. Some would place him on a
level with the Buddha, some with Socrates and some with Abraham Lincoln. Nor do
they think that what He said is not open to question, since they do not accept
any authority as absolute.
They regard the Virgin Birth as a doctrine taken over from pagan mythology,
where such births were not uncommon (Zoroaster was said to have been born of a
virgin; Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess, is called the Holy Virgin). They cannot
give credence to it, or to the doctrine of the Trinity, since neither is
possible without belief in God.
Can an agnostic be a Christian?
The word "Christian" has had various different meanings at different
times. Throughout most of the centuries since the time of Christ, it has meant
a person who believed in God and immortality and held that Christ was God. But
Unitarians call themselves Christians, although they do not believe in the
divinity of Christ, and many people nowadays use the word "God" in a
much less precise sense than which it used to bear. Many people who now believe
in God no longer mean a person, or a trinity of persons, but only a vague
tendency or power or purpose immanent in evolution. Others, going still
further, mean by "Christianity" only a system of ethics which, since
they are ignorant of history, they imagine to be characteristic of Christians
When, in a recent book, I said that what the world needs is "love,
Christian love, or compassion," many people thought this showed some
changes in my views, although, in fact, I might have said the same thing at any
time. If you mean by a "Christian" a man who loves his neighbor, who
has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from
the cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then, certainly,
you will be justified in calling me a Christian. And, in this sense, I think
you will find more "Christians" among agnostics than among the
orthodox. But, for my part, I cannot accept such a definition. Apart from other
objections to it, it seems rude to Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and other
non-Christians, who, so far as history shows, have been at least as apt as
Christians to practice the virtues which some modern Christians arrogantly
claim as distinctive of their own religion.
I think also that all who called themselves Christians in an earlier time, and
a great majority of those who do so at the present day, would consider that
belief in God and immortality is essential to a Christian. On these grounds, I
should not call myself a Christian, and I should say that an agnostic cannot be
a Christian. But, if the word "Christianity" comes to be generally
used to mean merely a kind of morality, then it will certainly be possible for
an agnostic to be a Christian.
Does an agnostic deny that man has a soul?
This question has no precise meaning unless we are given a definition of the
word "soul". I suppose what is meant is, roughly, something
nonmaterial which persists throughout a person's life and even, for those who
believe in immortality, throughout all future time. If this is what is meant,
an agnostic is not likely to believe that man has a soul. But I must hasten to
add that this does not mean that an agnostic must be a materialist. Many
agnostics (including myself) are quite as doubtful of the body as they are of
the soul, but this is a long story taking one into difficult metaphysics. Mind
and matter alike, I should say, are only convenient symbol in discourse, not
actually existing things.
Does an agnostic believe in a hereafter, in heaven or hell?
The question whether people survive death is one as to which evidence is
possible. Psychical research and spiritualism are thought by many to supply
such evidence. An agnostic, as such, does not take a view about survival unless
he thinks that there is evidence one way or the other. For my part, I do not
think that there is any good reason to believe that we survive death, but I am
open to conviction if adequate evidence should appear.
Heaven and hell are a different matter. Belief in hell is bound up with the
belief that vindictive punishment of sin is a good thing, quite independently
of any reformative or deterrent effect that it may have. Hardly an agnostic
believes this. As for heaven, there might conceivably be evidence of its
existence someday through spiritualism, but most agnostics do not think that
there is such evidence, and therefore do not believe in heaven.
Are you never afraid of God's judgement in denying him?
Most certainly not. I also deny Zeus and Jupiter and Odin and Brahma, but this
causes me no qualms. I observe that a very large portion of the human race does
not believe in God and suffers no visible punishment in consequence. And if
there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy
vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.
How do agnostics explain the beauty and harmony of nature?
I do not understand where this "beauty" and "harmony" are
supposed to be found. Throughout the animal kingdom, animals ruthlessly prey
upon each other. More of them are either cruelly killed by other animals or
slowly die of hunger. For my part, I am unable to see any very great beauty or
harmony in the tapeworm. Let it not be said that this creature is sent as a
punishment for our sins, for it is more prevalent among animals than among
humans. I suppose the questioner is thinking of such things as the beauty of
starry heavens. But one should remember that stars every now and then explode
and reduce everything in their neighborhood to a vague mist. Beauty, in any
case, is subjective and exists only in the eye of the beholder.
How do agnostics explain miracles and other revelations of God
Agnostics do not think that there is any evidence of "miracles" in
the sense of happenings contrary to natural law. We know that faith healing
occurs and is in no sense miraculous. At Lourdes, certain diseases can be cured
and others cannot. Those that can be cured can probably be cured by any doctor
in whom the patient has faith. As for the records of other miracles, such as
Joshua commanding the sun to stand still, the agnostic dismissed them as
legends and points to the fact that all religions are plentifully supplied with
such legends. There is just as much miraculous evidence for the Greek gods in
Homer as for the Christian God in the Bible.
There have been base and cruel passions, which religion opposes. If you
abandon religious principle, could mankind exist?
The existence of base and cruel passions is undeniable, but I find no evidence
in history that religion had opposed these passions. On the contrary, it has
sanctified them, and enabled people to indulge in them without remorse. Cruel
persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears
to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only
prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic
religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma,
the agnostic is opposed. the persecuting character of present-day communism is
exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier centuries. In
so far as Christianity has become less persecuting, this is mainly due to the
work of freethinkers who have made dogmatists rather less dogmatic. If they
were as dogmatic now as in former times, they would still think it right to
burn heretics at the stake. The spirit of tolerance which some modern
Christians regard as essentially Christian is, in fact, a product of the temper
which allows doubt and is suspicious of absolute certainties. I think that
anybody who surveys past history in an impartial manner will be driven to the
conclusion that religion has caused more suffering than it has prevented.
What is the meaning of life to an agnostic?
I feel inclined to answer by another question: What is the meaning of "the
meaning of life"? I suppose that what is intended is some general purpose.
I do not think that life in general has any purpose. It just happened. But
individual human beings have purposes, and there is nothing in agnosticism to
cause them to abandon these purposes. They cannot, of course, be certain of
achieving the results at which they aim; but you would think ill of a soldier
who refused to fight unless victory was certain. The person who needs religion
to bolster up his own purposes is a timorous person, and I cannot think as well
of him as of the man who takes his chances, while admitting that defeat is not
Does the denial of religion mean the denial of marriage and chastity?
Here again, one must reply by another question: Does the man who asks this
question believe that marriage and chastity contribute to earthly happiness
here below, or does he think that, while they cause misery here below, they are
to be advocated as a means of getting to heaven? The man who takes the latter
view will no doubt expect agnosticism to lead to a decay of what he calls
virtue, but he will have to admit that what he calls virtue is not what
ministers to the happiness of the human race while on earth. If, on the other
hand, he takes the former view, namely, that there are terrestrial arguments in
favour of marriage and chastity, he must also hold that these arguments are
such as should appeal to an agnostic. Agnostics, as such, have no distinctive
views about sexual morality. But most of them would admit that there are valid
arguments against the unbridled indulgence of sexual desires. They would derive
these arguments, however, from terrestrial sources and not from supposed divine
Is not faith in reason alone a dangerous creed? Is not reason imperfect and
inadequate without spiritual and moral law?
No sensible man, however agnostic, has "faith in reason alone".
Reason is concerned with matters of fact, some observed, some inferred. The
question whether there is a future life and the question whether there is a God
concerns some matters of fact, and the agnostic holds that they should be
investigated in the same way as the question, "Will there be an eclipse of
the moon tomorrow?" But matters of fact alone are not sufficient to
determine action, since they do not tell us what ends we ought to pursue. In
the realm of ends, we need something other than reason. The agnostic will find
his ends in his own heart and not in an external command. Let us take an
illustration: Suppose you wish to travel by train from New York to Chicago; you
will use reason to discover when the trains run, and a person who thought that
there was some faculty of insight or intuition telling him to dispense with the
timetable would be thought rather silly. But no timetable will tell him that it
is wise to go to Chicago. No doubt, in deciding that it is wise, he will have
to take account of further matters of fact; but behind all matters of fact,
there will be the ends that he thinks fitting to pursue, and these, for an
agnostic as for other men, belong to a realm which is not that of reason,
though it should be in no degree contrary to it. The realm I mean is that of
emotion and feeling and desire.
Do you regard all religions as forms of superstition or dogma? Which of the
existing religions do you most respect, and why?
All the great organized religions that have dominated large populations have
involved a greater or less amount of dogma, but "religion" is a word
of which the meaning is not very definite. Confucianism, for instance, might be
called a religion, although it involves no dogma. And in some forms of liberal
Christianity, the element of dogma is reduced to a minimum.
Of the great religions in history, I prefer Buddhism, especially in its
earliest forms, because it has had the smallest amount of persecution.
Communism, like agnosticism, opposes religion. Are agnostics
Communism does not oppose religion. It merely opposes the Christian religion,
just as Mohammedanism does. Communism, at least in the form advocated by the
Soviet government and the Communist party, is a new system of dogma of a
peculiarly virulent and persecuting sort. Every genuine agnostic must therefore
be opposed to it.
Do agnostics think that science and religion are impossible to
The answer turns upon what is meant by "religion". If it means merely
a system of ethics, it can be reconciled with science. If it means a system of
dogma, regarded as unquestionably true, it is incompatible with the scientific
spirit, which refuses to accept matters of fact without evidence, and also
holds that complete certainty is hardly ever attainable.
What kind of evidence could convince you that God exists?
I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that going to
happen to me in the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have
seemed highly improbable, and if all these events proceeded to happen, I might
perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence.
I can imagine other evidence of the same sort which might convince me, but so
far as I know, no such evidence exists.