Are Religious Agnostics being Inconsistent?

Agnosticism is the view that the balance of evidence for and against the existence of God is roughly equal, and so neither belief nor unbelief in God wins out. With the evidence so finely balanced either way, what’s an agnostic supposed to do in the meantime? About a year ago I was on the phone with a friend who said that agnosticism excluded any form of religious practice. “Suspending belief,” he said, “means you don’t really believe in God, so how can someone attend church, pray earnestly, and take part in a community of faith without living in a practical contradiction? Living as if God exists when you really don’t believe it amounts to living a lie.”

I went away from that conversation feeling unsettled and angry, probably because my friend had very little experience engaging actual people who struggle with the question of God and come up short of belief. I personally know agnostic seekers who desperately want God to exist and keep searching in hope that God will make his existence and presence more evident. These colleagues of mine are frequently tormented by the inner tension generated by (1) their desire for God and (2) their sense of duty to believe in proportion to the available evidence – even if they are tempted to do otherwise. They deeply hope for God and express that hope by praying to a God who might be there, studying religious texts diligently, and contributing within a community of faith. I call these people “religious agnostics.”

The existence of religious agnostics became most apparent to me while reading an article by Paul Draper, a philosopher of religion from Purdue University. He writes,

“Since…I regard God’s existence as a real possibility, I wholeheartedly agree…that it is reasonable – indeed, I would say rationally required – for me to behave differently than I would if I were an atheist. For example, I ought to pray – unlike the atheist, I believe there just might be a God listening. More generally, I ought to do what I can to cultivate or at least prepare for a relationship with God. Also, it is not unreasonable for me to spend a considerable amount of my time looking for new evidence and reexamining old evidence both for and against theism.”[1]

Draper makes a strong claim when he uses language like “rationally required” and “ought” to describe his predicament – as if he has obligations to prepare for a relationship to a God who might exist. But surely, a more modest claim will do the trick: he could argue that it would be foolish, or very imprudent, for an agnostic in his situation to avoid religious practice!

Clearly, Draper would disagree with what my friend said during the phone conversation I mentioned. Do you think Draper is on the mark here? Or are religious agnostics being inconsistent?


[1] Paul Draper, “Seeking but Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays eds. Moser and Howard-Snyder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp.210-11.

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