Agnosticism or Naturalism?
Many Spiritual Naturalists, Religious Naturalists, and others in our community also consider themselves agnostics. Some have expressed questions to me about this, wondering if agnosticism and naturalism are compatible. Therefore it seems appropriate for us to address this. I’ll give my take on the matter, but we are a community so I welcome your comments and discussion! We always try to make sure our articles are not merely theory or abstract, but be applicable to personal practice, so I’ll link this back into something you can use in a real way toward the end.
What is agnosticism?
In common usage, the word agnostic is misused – at least compared to it’s technical meaning. Many people imagine agnosticism to (a) be about, or mainly about, God; and (b) to be some kind of intermediary on the spectrum between theism and atheism. It could be that people associating naturalism with atheism is why they then wonder if it is compatible with agnosticism. However, this is not an accurate understanding of agnosticism.
Agnosticism is not necessarily about belief in God, but about all beliefs in general. It is one’s approach to knowledge. Gnosticism is the claim that knowledge can be inherent or come to us through means other than experience and evidence. Agnosticism is in opposition to this – it is the claim that knowledge can come only through experience and evidence. And, that without such evidence, we simply cannot know something. So, if I am an agnostic, I will not claim to know how many coins are in your pocket, unless I have some prior evidence to give me an indication of that. Agnosticism is not a position on any given fact (gods or otherwise) but an approach or method for deciding when and how we know things (anything).
Agnosticism is also not on any kind of spectrum or position between atheism and theism. To be clear, let’s begin with the root term – theism. Theism is not the belief that God is possible, or even very likely. Theism is the belief that God is real and exists. If one puts God in the same category as dogs, clouds, the sun, and cheeseburgers – all things that are a true part of reality – then they are a theist. If one does not hold that belief, for any reason or for no reason, then they “lack theism” and are “a-thesitic” or an atheist. It doesn’t really matter if they hold some belief similar to or ‘almost’ like theism (such as ‘God is very possible’). If they don’t hold the belief that god/s exist, then they are not a theist and those who lack theism are atheists.
Now, that is a very strict and technical outline of the terms. Surely, people use them in different ways informally so conducting a poll by the technical terms would yield misleading results. Often a person using the term atheist may mean a ‘hard atheist’ – one who also holds the belief that God does not or cannot exist. Or, they may mean a person who is very boisterous about their lack of theism. But these are social connotations, not technically what the terms mean in philosophy.
Understanding this, one can see there is no ‘spectrum’ on which people move up and down based on their personal guesses as to how likely god/s are. There are two categories with respect to theism. Where does this leave agnosticism? Well, since agnosticism is not a position on God but an approach to knowledge, it can be superimposed right alongside either theism or atheism (just as it can be superimposed alongside cheeseburgerism and acheesburgerism, or any other claim someone might think is important).
This yields four basic categories: gnostic theists, agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and agnostic atheists. The most common people seem to be gnostic theists. These are people who largely agree there is no scientific evidence for God, but believe it anyway because of faith (other ways of ‘knowing’). Then there are agnostic atheists – those who believe knowledge only comes by evidence so they do not claim to know if God exists. This is most atheists – even most of the very famous so-called ‘rabid atheists’. Even the likes of Richard Dawkins has admitted that he cannot know for certain that no god/s of any kind exists, as such a thing is inherently unknowable. But those who are assertive that gnostic theism is irrational often come off as sounding assertive that they know there is no God. This is just based on the general feeling they project, but not really a part of their argument when pressed. Then there are the gnostic atheists. These would be people who believe that one can know something without evidence, and they they somehow know there is no God. One logically consistent version of this would be someone who believes they can astrally project their soul to all dimensions of existence, and have returned to find there are no god/s (a very rare category of persons). Atheists who claim to base their knowledge on evidence, but yet claim to know there is no God are simply not well studied on these issues, or not very mindful of their internal contradictions. But as stated, there are far fewer of these folks than most people imagine. If they are rational then they can be pressed to admit there cannot be material evidence of the non-existence of immaterial beings.
What about Naturalism?
With this clearer understanding of agnosticism, we can now look at naturalism. Some might say that naturalism is the belief that only the natural universe exists. But I don’t find this a very tenable or useful approach to the word, or really representative of what most naturalists actually think. A better way to frame it would be to say that naturalism is a worldview that includes only the natural universe, operating by natural laws. In other words, we exclude supernatural claims in our worldview, but the reasons for this may vary between individuals.
And, again, naturalism is not so much about a laundry list of things that exist and things that don’t exist. It is about an approach that, (1) looks at us and everything around as as one interconnected web or whole, and (2) with all of those parts interacting according to natural laws. These two observations about reality – monism and natural law – connect directly to the importance of evidence and reason, respectively and what makes science possible (see my article, Understanding Evidence & Reason in Spiritual Naturalism, for more on that).
So, it’s not that things outside that natural web couldn’t possibly exist. It’s that we know of no way to access them if they did, since ‘accessing’ happens thanks to interconnectedness and natural law. Therefore, we exclude supernatural claims from any of our assertions, worldview, or (in the case of Spiritual Naturalists) as a basis for any of our spiritual practices.
A person could believe there is nothing supernatural and be a naturalist, or they could be a naturalist because they don’t hold any supernatural beliefs. You might think the former is the more common, but think again. What would a ‘gnostic naturalist’ even look like? How could one claim that knowledge can only come by physical evidence (inherently a part of the natural web of phenomena and natural law), and yet claim to know there is no supernatural phenomena? How did they get that knowledge? It seems to me there is no tenable way to be a naturalist without being agnostic. To be otherwise would be to claim some means to knowledge beyond natural law, physical evidence, and the senses.
The link between naturalism and agnosticism is pretty fundamental. Naturalists don’t purposely or consciously make claims without evidence (though we are all imperfect). This is why one will find, in practice, that most naturalists are agnostics (virtually all of them technically, even if they don’t prefer the term).
What this means for Spiritual Naturalist practice
If the technical use of these terms seems uncomfortably mismatched with how most people understand them, I can sympathize. This may be one indication that we are on cusp of some deep changes of approach. I am attracted to the idea of transcending the old theism/atheism dichotomy. We need to stop being held back by preconceived notions, reactions, and hangups about words and start focusing more on the meaningful concepts behind them. Whether we call something ‘god’ or ‘religion’ or we go by this term or that is not really essential. We should be able to switch between lexicons in different subcultures and traditions as needed to better communicate with one another, reach understanding, grow, and find wisdom.
When a person wonders about the compatibility of naturalism and agnosticism, what they are most likely focusing on is the question, “Do I have to be adamant there is no God to be a naturalist? Because I’m not sure!” Or, they may be thinking, “If I’m a naturalist, do I have to seriously entertain the notion of gods because you say naturalism and agnosticism are integrally linked?” The answer to these questions is no and no.
With Spiritual Naturalism, we turn the principles of reason into spiritual practices and values. Essentially, this is where the value of humility comes into play. We believe in a humble approach to knowledge and claims. That means we try not to make claims (either in our personal life or in organizations) that we cannot provide to others some kind of confirmation of reasonable backup. We try to recognize our limits as human being to know all things.
In practice, this means we can use all of the shared consensus with our fellow human beings (the common sense reality we see around us – they ‘way of the world’). With the less obvious facts, we can defer to those who do the hard work of gathering them through careful observation (scientific consensus). We can use the countless hours of deep thought, personal experience, and observations made by ancient philosophers up to our time, when they make sense with current observation. We can be in awe of all of the other wondrous possibilities of existence and continue learning and searching. And we can use all of this to find our way through helpful practices. When it comes to boisterous claims about this or that entity, powers, or other things existing or not existing, we can practice humility and admit we don’t know anything about such things. And then we can offer instead our loving compassion to our fellow human beings, no matter where they stand.
This is spirituality, this is agnosticism, and this also turns out to be naturalism.
Other articles along these lines may also be of use:
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