When I offer an apologetics seminar that I call “Know Why You Believe,” I find that the skeptical attendees have a preferred label for themselves. “So I’m an agnostic,” says the first person to raise his hand, and that is the preface to his question. A few others nod their heads eagerly.
I’m not sure if I believe him or not. But I’ve finally come up with a good, brief answer.
Aristotle writes in On The Heavens that it wouldn’t be possible for a person to stand equally distant from both food and drink and remain unable to move because he couldn’t decide whether he was more hungry or thirsty. Imagine I walk famished into a Chick-fil-A, seeing a delicious, crispy, hot, crunchy chicken sandwich to my left, and those salty, crisp, golden waffle fries on my right, and then starve to death. It’s just not all that likely. But the agnostic claims to be in exactly that position. To her left she sees a life of meaning, purpose, direction, and love, brought into the world with intention and called home in the end. To her right she sees emptiness, raw assertion of the will, and, at best, mystery, and realizes that if she goes that way she will have to launch out into those stormy seas on the vessel of self-reliance. The agnostic claims that neither option is compelling.
That just doesn’t seem to be how life works. Every day we decide between those two, and we decide clearly.
Albert Camus considers a situation in his profound work, The Fall, where a man passes over a bridge at night and hears someone thrashing in the cold and dark waters beneath. He can choose to dive in and save the drowning victim, or he can scoot on by and carry on with daily life. Either way he has made a fundamental choice about the value of life and our moral responsibility to it. I doubt very much that we can escape the issue like Woody Allen did by claiming that we just aren’t a strong enough swimmer to have an option. Every day we decide whether or not life has value. Camus’ friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, said something similar, claiming that anyone who faced moral decisions “cannot but choose a morality, such is the pressure of circumstances upon him.” We are inescapably forced to decide whether or not we will live as though life has purpose, and it’s awfully hard to have purpose without a designer.
So now when I offer apologetics seminars, I start with agnosticism, and make sure we’ve ruled it out as a viable option before we get to point number two. And I’ve noticed that once we do that, the stakes are a lot higher. The skeptics pay much closer attention. They’ve been assuming they could just stay neutral on the subject and be off the hook. Now they realize that they’re going to answer for a commitment that they thought they were avoiding.
I suspect that many so-called agnostics are suffering from a Judeo-Christian hangover. They are anticipating that should the unfortunate event occur that they actually do show up at the heavenly gates on the other side, they have an out.
“Why didn’t you believe in me?” God will ask.
“Well, I didn’t NOT believe in you,” they plan to say.
Like God is going to say, “Oh, my bad. You’re right. Come on in.”
Once you rule that option out, people start to get nervous about what they assumed was a get-out-of-jail free card.
So here’s my quick answer to the agnostic. “I just don’t know whether God is there or not,” he says, assuming it’s a safe, unobligated neutrality.
“I totally understand,” I answer. “It’s a hard decision. So rather than trying to decide, just tell me how you live. Do you live like life matters or not?” And with that, he realizes he already has the beginnings of belief. Just a week ago at the seminar someone came in claiming agnosticism, and walked out agreeing to try praying for the first time.
Rev. Dr. James W. Miller is the author of the apologetics book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know (Abingdon, 2013).