Why I’m an Agnostic (and Not an Atheist or Theist)

I would liken my agnosticism about God and the afterlife to someone who is agnostic about life on Mars. At this point in the 21st century, we have enticing Martian clues about methane on the planet, but nothing definitive (it could be the product of life or volcanism). And Mars, like death, is (to put it in Shakespearean language) an “undiscovered country”. Martian life, if it exists, is an enigma for which there are clues from which we can draw inferences, but there is no definitive evidence one way or another. And yet, like with God and the afterlife, we have people who express near certainty about life (or nonlife) on Mars. Indeed, we even have some enthusiasts in the UFO community who have persuaded themselves that there is not just life on Mars, but that God or aliens may have placed a 2001-like monolith on the small Martian satellite of Phobos. Here’s Buzz Aldrin hinting at this wild idea:

In other words, we have claims about Mars that are no less elaborate than claims about heaven (and equally without foundation). And yet, we all know what is the sensible response to both believers and disbelievers in life on Mars: agnosticism. Likewise, claims about God and the afterlife inhabit precisely the same “epistemic space” as positive and negative claims about life on Mars. When dealing with an undiscovered country, it’s best to keep your perplexity, not your certainty, at the fore.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Why I’m an Agnostic (and Not an Atheist or Theist)

  1. Matt says:

    Hi Santi,
    I don’t think it’s an equivalent comparison between the claims of theism and the claims of (say) life on Mars.
    The claims of theists (particularly those of the Abrahamic religions) are more on par with claims about fairies and unicorns.
    Life on Mars is a hypothesis, but it’s a hypothesis with a logical underpinning, some objective physical evidence in its favour, and it’s something that we all agree can be objectively known given sufficient technological resources.
    To my mind, the Abrahamic faiths have had two millennia to make their case, and have comprehensively failed to do so.
    So let me ask you this question: at what point would you, Santi, consider God to be a failed hypothesis? Personally, I’ve already reached that point, which is why I’m an atheist.

  2. santitafarella says:


    You ask a good question. I think that the Abrahamic religions are akin to UFO enthusiasts’ claims about Mars (far more elaborate than I could ever subscribe to). I think that the simplest questions associated with theism (does the mind survive death, is there some sort of telos behind things) are still in play for me. I’d like to see a more plausible materialist accounting for matter itself (why it would exist at all), for the laws of physics, for qualia, for the first cell, and for mind and free will. I know these are high bars, and science may not reach them in my lifetime (or in several generations), but those (to my mind) are the big issues that keep the God hypothesis, at least for me, in play.

    I have an intuition (and I admit that’s all it is) that when we die we’ll be surprised. I think there might be something after death that’s going to make sense of what we’re experiencing now. I find, for example, near death experiences intriguing. I think something may be going on that reductionism and traditional materialism are missing.

    If you can get the video, Baraka, or watch a few segments at YouTube, that kind of explains my intuition. Something’s happening, and it ain’t just time and chance. There’s an ontological mystery, something sublime at the heart of things.


  3. Arius says:

    Agnosticism, by itself, can be problematic–as in any form of fundamentalism propelled towards an entity, one can worship the question mark (?) just as well. In this sense, I endorse theological Non-Cognitivism–cogitation must be obtained to disclose, quintessentially, what’s presented by the proponent.

    The fallibility of the Abrahamic religions is this: it promulgates anthropomorphism–a classic fallacy before it gets out the gate–declaring human attributes on an non-human entity is dichotomous and incoherent.

    The lack of knowledge leads me to Agnosticism–howbeit, the unbelief in anthropomorphism leads to atheism–thus making me an Agnostic Atheist. I believe Agnosticism is a thought process endured by all–albeit, it should not be held as an actual position.

    Nice post by the way.

  4. santitafarella says:


    Thank you. I like your thought about worshiping the question mark. I immediately thought of an agnostic like myself crucified on a question mark. Hmm. That feels existentially and aesthetically interesting.


  5. Honestly? I think you far more represent a theist who hasn’t found a god to his liking yet. I mean, really. Look at the things you believe in. You take stories of so-called out-of-body experiences at face value rather than look for simpler, far more reasonable explanations (autoscopy is a well-known disorder which can be brought about through brain injury or CNS disease).

  6. santitafarella says:


    I’m a free-floating theist? Hmm. There’s a passage in Acts about an altar dedicated to an unknown god. I suppose I would put a candle there. I’m still agnostic, but I guess that there are gradations to agnosticism, and I’m certainly sympathetic to some elements of theistic longing. I don’t think that’s inconsistant with agnosticism. If you don’t know, then you’re open to things, right?


  7. josefjohann says:

    Bertrand Russell said:

    I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

    In that sense, I am a common sense atheist. According to the everyday standards that knowledge claims are subject to (I know my car is in the parking lot), I am an atheist. But on a stricter standard, I’m an agnostic.

  8. Maybe I’m getting you wrong Santi, but it looks like you claim to be an agnostic but you are not indiferent, you WANT to believe. And that’s why you are so hostile (much more than to theists it semms) to vocal atheists.
    Atheism and agnosticism are not imcompatible. Gnostisim and agnosticism are about to know things:I know there is a God/I don’t know if there is a God. Atheism abd theism are about to believe: I don’t believe in god/ I believe it. You look more like an agnostic deist.
    Personaly I am, like Arius above, an agnostic atheist, or atheist agnostic: I don’t know if there is a god, but I don’t belive there’s one, or many BTW. But that’s the same position Dawkins, and problably all the so called “new” atheists have AFAIK.
    I competely agree with Matt too. We have compelling evidence that Mars exists, and we know life is possible because, welll…we are alive. So life on Mars is not a methaphysical question but one for which we’ll have a conclusive answer, sooner or latter. Mars had life or it hadn’t. So this is a bad analogy.
    For the other questions, I think they are becoming more and more less methaphysical as we increase our knowledge. No matter how likely the dualism and the idea of an afterlife is, all the evidence points to the oposite: this we call conscienceousness seems to be a product of the brain and completely depends on it. Sorry. But even if it wasn’t, dualism doesn’t imply theism, or deism for thet matter.
    As for the questions of why do exists matter, the laws of physics, etc., if these questions make sense, I don’t see why we can’t have naturalistic explanations.
    You are not agnostic to the God of The Gaps after all. 🙂

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