An Agnostic Really Can Know

What do you know? What do you not know?

T.H. Huxley’s notions about gods and knowledge notwithstanding, the invocation of the term “agnostic” with respect to anything but knowledge in general or in principle misses the point about the limitations of human perception and investigation.

Assertions about gods really have little, if anything, to do with knowledge, per se. These assertions have, rather, almost everything to do with the interpersonal structures of hegemony (benign or not); institutional structures of imposition, and mechanisms for group control — if one is taking the top-down approach. Examining the psychology of religious opinion — from a “bottom-up”, individual view — would, I think, show that these assertions of knowledge, in the best sense, are little more than ways of identifying with other people and particular modes of habit. In the worst cases, they are expressions of personal neurosis, of impotence, and a desire for easy answers. We could examine these connections between god, religion, culture and psychology and might conclude that we understand something about what “god” is or the validity of religious imposition.

Such an examination would show that these assertions and connections exist nowhere outside of pure narrative.  This kind of knowledge is indistinguishable from knowledge about any other narrative. Where else is knowledge of god(s) found with respect to descriptions of the deeds and attributes? Where with respect to assertions of miracles or behavioral codes and threatened consequences? I would say that you certainly can know a story well enough, but the story maps to reality in no meaningful way. In this comparison, though, we can identify the purported connections and show that they are false.

Well, that identification of psychological and social structures would seem to approach something like extensible knowledge. But, you will discover right away that you cannot know something which cannot then be interrogated or manipulated! This is where people begin to conflate an inability to investigate with Huxley’s agnosticism.

All stories have the same opaque feature: It is true that, yes, you can know what is said about the Wolf character in the story, Little Red Riding Hood. Knowing that, can you also ask Wolf what he thought about his situation up to that point? In another story: Can you take a side path off the Yellow Brick Road to investigate the topography of Oz? As long as the option to interrogate and manipulate remains unavailable — as it is in all narrative — no knowledge about the supposed “true nature” of the Wolf or the “hidden” topography of Oz can actually be known. Similarly for the abstract cultural notions of “god” or the concrete descriptions from which the overly generalized abstractions are derived: These all exist nowhere outside of their respective narratives.

If you want to know about the personalities found in literature and cultural lore, then investigate the minds, cultures, and circumstances that invented and promoted the ideas. But do not claim to be agnostic, unable to know, since you can know that these gods come out of a human experience, but don’t actually exist in reality, even if they tenuously exist within narratives and are ubiquitously sublimated within social power structures.