In Agora, a post on this site about the movie by the same name, we mentioned two bits of dialogue which provide an insight into modern agnosticism. The movie is not set in modern times, of course, but it is certainly written for modern audiences. The protagonist Hypatia mouths words that have no doubt been repeated thousands of times in ordinary conversation in modern times, in which an agnostic reveals the preconceptions that he brings to the God proposition.
Belief in Seeking Truth
Here is the first bit of dialogue in context:
CHRISTIAN: The majority of us here… have accepted Christ. Why not the rest of you? It’s only a matter of time and you know it.
HYPATIA: Really? It is just a matter of time? …As far as I am aware, your God has not yet proved himself to be more just or more merciful than his predecessors. Is it really just a matter of time before I accept your faith?
CHRISTIAN: Why should this assembly accept the council of someone who admittedly believes in absolutely nothing?
HYPATIA: I believe in philosophy.
The Christian is accusing Hypatia (not the real one, of course, but the movie version) of being agnostic. How does he do that? By suggesting that she is not trustworthy because she believes in “absolutely nothing.” Obviously he means that she does not accept Christianity as true. And neither does she believe in the pagan gods, or the absence of any supernatural reality – materialism.
We’re expected to find her retort clever, because she does too believe in something: “philosophy.” She means science, of course, but in those days science would have been called “philosophy.” Whether her belief is in science or in philosophy, however, it is a process, not a substantive belief. She is saying that she believes in a certain process for arriving at truth; not that she believes in some truth thus arrived at.
So, in reality, the Christian in this bit of dialogue is right, if in fact the only thing this fictional Hypatia believes in is “philosophy.” She might as well have answered: “I believe in seeking truth.” If that’s all she believes in, then the Christian was right: she does believe in nothing.
Now to the second bit of dialogue:
SYNESIUS: Lady… we are all good people. And you are as Christian as we are.
HYPATIA: Synesius, you don’t question what you believe. You cannot. I must.
Here, the fictional Christian (Synesius) is equating Christians with “good people.” A common mistake among Christians who don’t understand Christianity 101 is that they’re basically “good people” because they’re Christian. Given that many Christians make this stupid mistake, it’s not surprising that many agnostics do. Probably not in the 4th century, but certainly today.
But here’s the larger point. The fictional Hypatia, being the protagonist in this movie, stands in for modern agnostics when she says, about Christians, that they don’t question what they believe. And not only that, but that they “cannot.”
Let’s take those two points in order. Is it true that Christians “don’t question” what they believe? Well, it’s possible that a Christian might be so convinced of the truth of the things he believes that he no longer seriously questions it. But it is certainly not a general characteristic of Christian belief that its adherents never question it. Why would an agnostic say something so puzzling?
Consider this as the answer: Because the agnostic misunderstands what faith is. Faith is taken to mean accepting something as true without any evidence for it. If we believe something with no evidence for it, then it would make sense that it’s something never questioned.
But that’s not what faith is at all. And we don’t have to engage in mental gymnastics to figure out what orthodox Christianity holds to be “faith,” because it’s right there in black and white: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). The object of belief is hoped for and it is unseen. We’re told that something is true, and we hope that it is true. That something is not a material thing, that we can see, but something supernatural.
There is nothing about this understanding of “faith” that requires accepting something as true with no evidence to support it. To the contrary, the things hoped for and unseen are evidenced by God’s revelations to us. One can reject this evidence, of course, just as one can reject any kind of evidence. But the belief doesn’t lack evidence altogether.
Why would the writers of Agora have the fictional Hypatia say that Christians don’t question what they believe? Of course they question. They have to question, in order to evaluate the evidence for that belief. To suggest otherwise is, at best, to misunderstand, and at worse, to deliberately insult the mental faculties of Christians.
Inability to Question Belief
And what about the rest of the fictional Hypatia’s slur? That Christians “cannot” question what they believe? Why can they not question what they believe? Of course they can; and do. To say such a thing, a modern agnostic has to believe that it is a part of the Christian belief system that once a Christian accepts the truth, he is somehow incapacitated from thereafter questioning it. That is obviously not true. If it were, apostasy would be impossible. And in the other direction, deeper knowledge of the truths of God would be impossible, too.
What the makers of Agora are presenting is the proposition that open-mindedness like that of the fictional Hypatia’s requires that one not settle on any belief at all. Open-mindedness is thus elevated to its own guiding principle. It’s acceptable to always be searching for the truth, but it’s not acceptable to find it. On the fictional Hypatia’s ethic, one must be in a state of perpetual wandering, in order to be authentic.
There’s deep irony to this point of view. The Christian can follow the evidence where it leads. He has done so, and accepts Christianity. He could have as well rejected it. Once he’s accepted it, he can still reject it. He is not precluded from anything, in the exercise of his reason.
For the agnostic whose thinking the fictional Hypatia represents, by contrast, the evidence cannot be followed. Such an agnostic cannot follow the evidence if it leads to Christianity; nor can he follow it if it leads to embrace of materialism.
Hypatia says she must question what she believes. But she’s already told us that the thing she believes is only philosophy (or we would say, science). These are truth-finding processes for arriving at beliefs; not objects of belief themselves.
By saying this, Hypatia does at least express a commitment to finding truth. But if she finds truth, she can’t accept it. So what is the point of seeking it? What good is philosophy, or science, if this be one’s attitude? It’s only an exercise. Running in place, and going nowhere.