What I Mean When I Say I’m an Agnostic (and Not an Atheist or Theist)

I think that my agnosticism extends, when it really comes down to it, to keeping an open mind to the possibility that MIND (or telos) somehow preceeds MATTER in some fashion—or even that there might be something recognizably human at the end of the rainbow, something that delivers POETIC JUSTICE and makes the universe a COSMOS and not, ultimately, a CHAOS.

Emotionally, it’s just very hard to accept that at the center of the universe is a spider.

I don’t think it is likely, but being embedded in the system that I am trying to comprehend, and (to echo Woody Allen) as ignorant as I am with regard to even how my toaster works, I wouldn’t be surprised if my half-assed figurings out about the universe turn out to be completely WRONG. 

And (as a survey, say, of my relationships with women over my lifetime have borne out) I have exercised SPECTACULARLY bad judgment before. So I guess I just don’t trust myself enough to be an atheist (let alone a theist).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to What I Mean When I Say I’m an Agnostic (and Not an Atheist or Theist)

  1. Gent says:

    “Trusting” yourself has little to do with Atheism. Furthermore, your definition of agnosticism, while not terribly usual, suffers from the same misfortune as more traditional theistically toned agnosticism.

    Do you also “keep and open mind” when it comes to defying gravity? Walking through walls? etc.

    I would argue there is nothing closed minded about atheism, quite the contrary, if an actually solid proof of God did exist, I would assume most atheists would soon be theists of one sorts of another. The problem is, the evidence is lacking.

    I once had an agnostic attempt to tell me (on the issue of defying gravity) that if it were not for some level of an “open mind” we would not have airplanes. While it may be true, the “open mind” was not open on the actual issue of defying gravity, but flying in spite of gravity — and it didn’t have to be very open as we already had examples of flight from these crazy things called birds.

    In short, the point is, one need not IGNORE evidences in order to have an open mind, and to do so and then claim it is the means by which one maintains an open mind is contrary to any sort of development of knowledge.

    For this reason, I actually tend to be a bit harsher when I listen to agnostics explain their religious or superstitious, or at the very least, supernatural views then I do with theists.

    It is more likely that an open-minded theist will discover proof that god does not exist, and an open-minded atheist will discover proof that god does exist than it is for an “open-minded” agnostic to ever find proof of either, why? Because an open mind that accepts no final answer is not really open at all, quite the contrary, it’s closed to everything.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I’m not sure how you drew the conclusion (from what I wrote) that I must, as an agnostic, be agnostic concerning everything (such as gravity). I am not agnostic about gravity. I’m agnostic about whether mind preceeded matter (or vice versa) at the “beginning” of the universe. I think that you are confusing agnosticism with radical skepticism (the idea that we can’t know anything).

    There are a lot of ideas about God that I am not agnostic about. For example, I don’t think that any of the popular monotheisms are true, or that their gods, as they have defined them, exist. I’m not agnostic about these at all. And I’m not in the least agnostic about the existence of hell (I don’t think there is a hell and have no agnostic worries that I’m wrong about this).

    My agnosticism has to do with the ontological mystery at the beginning of “time.” I think there is lots of room for surprise there. I think that the conventional theist and the conventional atheist could be wildly wrong about what’s really going on.

    If you disagree, then what, might I ask, is your starting premise? And how do you know it?


  3. novelgentry says:

    (*** Please delete my earlier post which was cut off due to the horrid size of this netbook’s keyboard)

    I don’t draw a conclusion that you are agnostic on gravity… it was a rhetorical point which developed into an anecdote to prove a point.

    I admit fully you are not what would traditionally be considered agnostic if the extent of your agnosticism is summarized by the possibility that mind preceded matter.

    My point is that as a form of agnosticism, it suffers from the same flaw. What we know is what we know, and what we know yesterday is not what we know today, and what we know tomorrow will not be either.

    The problem with an agnostic argument is that it always focuses on the semantics. “How do you KNOW that?” Well that is easy, we know it because we have evidences to support such a claim. When we have evidences to contradict it, we will no longer know that, or perhaps we will know something contrary depending on the strength of the evidence.

    You state, “I wouldn’t be surprised if my half-assed figurings out about the universe turn out to be completely WRONG.” Nor would I be surprised, but for a totally different reason. I wouldn’t be surprised because you start from an agnostic position which totally refutes the premise that you can have any “figurings out.”

    If you actually do have any figurings out about anything, then to claim you are agnostic is a misnomer.

    On the specific topic at hand, it is obviously deeply philosophical. Perhaps the mind is the infinite thing, and everything we perceive to be reality (materialism) is the imagination of our “brain in a vat.” But where is the evidence for this? Where is there any evidence of this what-so-ever? There is plenty of evidence of matter over mind (hence the walking through walls bit).

    The ontological mystery at the beginning of time as you put it may, very well, at some point NOT be a mystery. While I too think there will be surprises for both atheists and theists alike on this issue, to resign myself to equating evidence to the contrary of the current understanding with “keeping and open mind” is a stretch.

    What will your position be when much more of that mystery is solved? That there will STILL be surprises? And when even more of it is solved? Will there STILL be surprises? There is a fine line between the admission of not knowing and the claim that we will never know. The agnostic pretends that the issue is about not knowing… yet… but then defends that position by statements which support a claim that we will never know.

    I don’t disagree that there will be surprises. I certainly disagree that we will never know, or cannot know.

  4. santitafarella says:


    Your commitment to the idea that claims must have reasonable supports is thoroughly admirable. I don’t quarrel with it. I want to live in a world where more people are committed to the hard won achievements and victories of the Enlightnment. And I am much closer to atheism than theism (thus accounting for my assertion that I have, at least tentatively, engaged in an act of half-assed “figurings out”).

    What I don’t trust (in myself or others) is an overconfident language, or a singular language, that cannot—or will not—see the value in other languages. I think that theists see a great deal about human existence that many atheists miss—and vice versa. I’m also tolerant of postmodern languages (like those used by Derrida). I just value diversity and don’t think that any of us speaks a language that encompasses “the elephant” of the universe (to use a metaphor of the Hindu sage, Ramakrishna).

    Perhaps to be more accurate: I’m an agnostic with regard to languages—I want to keep lots of languages going and not just “speak” dawkinism etc.

    I just like the idea of keeping lots of languages in play—it feels narrowing (intellectually) to commit to “speaking atheism” and not sometimes reading religious books and thinking in that language.

    The key (for me) is maintaining a degree of irony with respect to any language that I might speak (so as not to fall under its spell in such a way that I become blinded to other possibilities).

    I also think of John Keats’s notion of NEGATIVE CAPABILITY. It’s an important concept for me—and from my viewpoint, an admirable quality possessed by people like Shakespeare, Whitman, and Obama. Staying in mysteries, tolerating ambiguities, and walking in the shoes of others is what I think it means (in part) to call oneself agnostic.


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