Chapter 3: Why Not Be an Agnostic?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 3: Why Not Be an Agnostic?

Dear Mr. Brown:

I am not surprised at the position you take in your recent letter. While I hope it does not represent your final stand, it is a logical next step. You say that you still find any confident belief in God impossible, but at the same time -- partly because of my last letter -- you find an atheistic, materialistic explanation of the universe and of man’s life in it equally incredible. You write that one of your professors recently quoted Lotze: "Chaos cannot have cosmos for its crown." You agree that, starting with a chaotic mass of physical particles, it seems unbelievable that this law-abiding cosmos and man’s life, rising into goodness, truth, and beauty, should have issued from their blind, accidental operation. So, unable to be either a theist or an atheist, you write, "Why not throw in the sponge? Why not acknowledge that the understanding of this universe’s source is beyond our ken? Why not say frankly that we do not know? Why not be agnostic?"

Let me say first that, as contrasted with a know-it-all dogmatism, agnosticism can be a very healthy attitude.

Can you find out the deep things of God?

Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?

-- that is from the Book of Job in the Old Testament. "Now we see in a mirror dimly." "How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" -- that is Paul in the New Testament. John Calvin has a reputation as a stern dogmatist, but he said about God, "His essence indeed is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought." All intelligent faith in God has behind it a background of humble agnosticism. The ultimate truth about this universe cannot be caught and cabined in our limited minds. Even with regard to knowledge of the physical universe Sir Isaac Newton compared himself, despite his marvelous discoveries, to a boy playing on the seashore, "whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." To put it mildly, a similar modesty befits those who try to formulate their faith in God. Insofar as your agnosticism expresses intellectual humility before the unfathomable mystery of the universe, I applaud it.

Something tells me, however, that standing between theism and atheism you are going to find it very difficult to be permanently neutral. The matter at issue is not merely abstract and speculative; it is intensely practical: What does life basically mean? Listen to the atheist! "The outstanding fact that cannot be dodged by thoughtful men is the futility of it all" -- that is Clarence Darrow. "Life, fundamentally, is not worth living. . . . What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive?" -- that is H. L. Mencken. They both were able, successful, distinguished men, frankly candid about the logical consequences of their atheism. Life born accidentally from the dust, no ultimate meaning or purpose in it, and no destiny ahead of it except annihilation -- that on one side; and on the other what Benjamin Franklin called "Powerful Goodness" at the heart of things! Do you really think that you can live as long as I have and not at least drift toward one side or the other? Agnosticism about the basic meaning of life is difficult to maintain. You may hold your mind in suspense, but how can you hold your living in suspense? Your life inevitably tends to get made up one way or the other.

If only faith in God were a parenthesis in the sentence of life, one could drop it out and forget it. But instead faith in God, or the lack of it, determines the meaning of the whole sentence. Of course, there is plenty of trivial religion that can well be forgotten, but God stands for Intelligence behind the universe, Purpose running through it, and a worth-while Destiny for its outcome. When Dr. Irwin Edman was professor of philosophy at Columbia University he wrote about nontheists: "They find that this God whom they have read out or presumed to be read out of the universe has carried with him into oblivion any discernible direction of things, any significance of life or any logic of destiny."

I grant that some people are so shallow and superficial that they apparently can live without thinking about the ultimate meaning of life, but I do not believe that you can. You are going to be haunted by something above yourself. When my friend, Robert Wicks, was dean of the chapel at Princeton University he came upon a student who insisted emphatically that he had no religion. Dean Wicks by-passed the youth’s statement and asked him what it was in college that so far had given him deepest satisfaction. He answered that probably it was managing the baseball team and trying to do it as perfectly as it could be done. Said Dean Wicks: "Managing the team as perfectly as it could be done -- you were not paid for that." "Of course not," said the student. "So," said Dean Wicks, "you have not simply horizontal relationships with other people, but an interior, perpendicular relation with an Ideal, so that at your best you love to do good work as perfectly as it can be done." "Well," continued Dean Wicks, "let’s start talking about religion right there." That is an excellent place to start, for there is nothing in us more profoundly significant than this strange perpendicular relationship, so that we cannot help looking up to something above us. We never are at our best until we are carried out of ourselves by something greater than ourselves to which we give ourselves. Your agnosticism is going to be haunted by that fact.

Listen to this from H. G. Wells, who called himself an agnostic: "At times in the silence of the night and in rare lonely moments, I experience a sort of communion of myself with Something Great that is not myself." That sounds strange from an agnostic, but he is talking about something profoundly human. Theologically such a man may say that he does not believe in God, which generally means that he disbelieves in some particular idea of God, but psychologically there is no escape from this inward, vertical relationship, which expresses itself in varied ways -- admiration, reverence, worship, devotion, selfcommittal, sacrificial loyalty. Here is a mysterious fact, which you will find it very difficult to explain on a materialistic basis. It is bound to haunt your agnosticism.

In my generation, Robert Browning was widely read. Perhaps in your generation he seems old hat. But once in a while he surely does say something profoundly true. All right! Try to be an agnostic, but --

Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset touch,

A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,

A chorus-ending from Euripides,--

And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears

As old and new at once as nature’s self,

To rap and knock and enter in our soul,

Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,

Round the ancient idol, on his base again --

The grand Perhaps!

Yes, as long as you try to be an agnostic, that "grand Perhaps" will haunt you.

You see, while philosophically we may doubt God, psychologically we always have a god. Each of us is instinctively a worshipper, giving himself to something, making a god of it and serving it, so that even when we get rid of God philosophically, we never get rid of him psychologically. As Martin Luther put it, "Whatsoever, then, thy heart clings to, I say, and relies upon, that is properly thy God."

Many people, giving up God philosophically, have concocted all sorts of psychological substitutes for him -- saying, for example, that God is like Uncle Sam or Alma Mater, a picturesque, imaginative symbol of our group devotion, so that, when at commencement time we go back to our college and sing praise to Alma Mater, that is exactly like religious worship. God is not actually real, they say, but the idea of God is useful as an imaginative picture of our social loyalties. That leaves a man, so it seems to me, with his noblest, inward needs pulling in one direction and his intellectual convictions pulling in another, wanting a transcendent object of loyal devotion in a universe where he thinks there is nothing to be transcendentally loyal to.

I for one cannot escape the conviction that there is at the heart of this universe a "Powerful Goodness," deserving our supreme loyalty. During World War II the Midshipmen’s Corps, training at Columbia University, held their services of worship in the Riverside Church. To me the most moving moment in the worship of the midshipmen came when, at the close of the service, the color-bearers entered the chancel to get the flags -- the flag of the corps and the flag of the nation -- and then turned in solemn silence toward the altar and dipped the colors before the cross, as though to say that above all earthly devotions there is in this universe One to whom our supreme loyalty belongs, and that the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

On the contrary side listen to one atheist, describing what he believes!

In the visible world the Milky Way is a tiny fragment. Within this fragment the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and of this Speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot tiny lumps of impure carbon and water crawl about for a few years, until they dissolve into the elements of which they are compounded.

Can you believe that? Can that explain the law-abiding cosmos, the beauty of nature, history’s creative minds and towering characters? Can that account for man’s long, evolutionary, upward climb, and for all the best that he has done and been? Was Christ just a tiny lump of impure carbon and water? Even when one states atheism in less blunt and offensive terms, can any purposeless, mindless, physiochemical mechanism, accidentally coming from nowhere and headed nowhither, explain anything like beautiful family life, superb music, or the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians? I know all the difficulties which confront theism -- especially the problem of evil -- but I am sure that Professor William Montague was right when he said that the chance of atheistic materialism’s being true would have to be represented by a fraction, with one for the numerator and a denominator that would reach from here to the fixed stars. So, as between theism and atheism I cannot be neutral. Agnosticism is at best a temporary retreat.

Agnostics commonly seem to suppose that their attitude is a modest and harmless neutrality. No! Faith in God and the experience of his sustaining presence -- "strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man" -- are positive matters which have to be positively chosen if we are to possess them. Agnosticism leaves us empty of them just as truly as atheism does. I hope that sometime you will marry a lovely girl. When you do you will, of course, believe in her fidelity. Suppose now that something happens which makes you suspect her of infidelity. Then suppose that, unable to prove that she is either faithful to you or unfaithful, you decide to be agnostic about the matter and say, I don’t know. You see what will have happened: you will have lost all the positive values of a happy marriage. That, I am sure, is a true analogy of what happens when a man, facing theism vs. atheism, says that he is going to choose indecisive neutrality.

Let me briefly list a few of the positive contributions which faith in God makes to a man’s life.

First, a basic confidence in the soundness and security of the universe. On shipboard sometimes an individual is decidedly uncomfortable. The wind is high; the sea is rough; the ship is rolling; dishes fly; ankles are sprained and arms broken. For all that, however, everybody knows that the ship is sound. It will arrive. Around the individual discomfort is the encompassing security of the voyage as a whole. So with life. Our personal problems are often exceedingly severe. But to a man who has faith in God the universe is sound. It will arrive. The captain is on the bridge. The bearings have not been lost. The agnostic must live without that confidence.

Second, a basic confidence that there is spiritual meaning and purpose in the universe -- not simply the meanings and purposes which we put into life, but also those which we discover in life because the Creator put them there. How can a man live in a world which he believes to be fundamentally meaningless? It was not a preacher but England’s man of letters, John Addington Symonds, who said, "Such skepticism is like a blighting wind; nothing thrives beneath it." Astronomy makes us think about the size of the universe, geology about its age, physics about its atomic structure, but religion makes us think about the moral meaning of the universe. How can a sane man avoid facing that issue? To be sure, plenty try to avoid it. Some try on a mediocre level. They say, Why worry about the universe? Here are baseball and television, liquor and love-making -- let the universe wag! And some try on a loftier level. They say, Here are art and music, scientific truths to discover and philanthropic causes to serve, much to read, think about, and do -- why concern oneself with the fundamental meaning of the universe? Nevertheless, only the intellectually blind can fail to see that towering interrogation: Is there an undergirding purpose in the universe? The believer in God, like Robert Browning, says,

This world’s no blot for us,

Nor blank; it means intensely and means good.

The agnostic must live without this confidence.

Third, the experience of interior resources so that, as Paul put it, "in him who strengthens me I am able for anything." Have you ever steamed along a waterway until you came to a change of level, where they shut you in a lock, closed the great gates behind you, opened the sluiceways above, and the water from above poured down and lifted you? You never could have made it by your own motor power. Life is like that. To me that kind of experience -- inward, replenishing power to do and to endure what by myself would have been impossible -- is at the very center of religion’s meaning. When Dr. James Pratt was head of the department of philosophy at Williams College he sent out a questionnaire to friends of his, asking them what, if anything, God meant to them. Here are three typical answers: "He is as much a necessity to my spiritual existence as the elements of pure air are to my physical system"; "If I were convinced that there is no God, I fear a sense of loneliness would become intolerable"; "As for any repose, or ability to face life and death with composure, any incentive to be perfect in things hidden from outsiders, any exhilaration in living and trying to do my best -- I cannot conceive it without the idea of God." I cannot write off the countless millions of men and women across the centuries who would bear similar witness to this experience of God’s sustaining power. But, of course, the agnostic must live without it.

There are many other positive contributions which faith in God makes to a man’s life and which agnosticism misses -- all the way from confidence that this is really a universe of moral order where no lie can live forever, to confidence that death is an open door into life eternal. So I return to something I said before. Conceivably you may keep your mind in suspense as between speculative theism and atheism. But with regard to the involved meanings and experiences, which the question of God or no-God raises, how can you keep your life in suspense? At any rate I have not been able to. As Frederic Myers pictures Paul saying, so say I:

Whoso has felt the Spirit of the Highest

Cannot confound nor doubt Him nor deny:

Yea with one voice, O world, tho, thou deniest,

Stand thou on that side, for on this am I.

Sincerely yours,