The man best known to history as “Doubting Thomas” might seem an unlikely choice for the title of agnostic. And yet, there’s little in his story to suggest that he wasn’t. But to explain that, it’s necessary to clear up a common misconception about agnosticism.
The classic idea of the agnostic is of a person who is indecisive and cannot commit to any one belief. Some interpretations (not those made by actual agnostics) are based on the idea that agnostics are forbidden to believe.
That’s an oversimplification. Agnostics are not forbidden to believe – we simply choose not to believe without proof. Now, if your entire belief system is based on belief without proof, I can see where this is a fine distinction that may seem unimportant to you. But the story of St Thomas is an excellent illustration of how important it can be.
Thomas is mentioned only one time each in the Gospels of Luke (3:18), Mark (6:15) and Matthew (10:3) – and in each of them, it is in a listing of the calling of the twelve apostles. Only in the Gospel of John does he get much time on stage.
His first mention is in John 11:16, when he persuades the other apostles to go with Jesus to resurrect Lazarus. Interestingly, it’s Jesus who in this story wants the apostles to witness the miracle so that they will have proof.
Next, in John 14:5, Thomas tells Jesus that despite his assurances to them, the apostles do not know what will happen to anyone after death. Jesus responds with a complex explanation of how the afterlife works, and no more is said on the subject. (In Australian political terms, Thomas fed Jesus a dixer here.)
Finally, in chapter 20, there is the story for which Thomas is best known, when Jesus begins appearing to people after his resurrection, and Thomas keeps missing him. It would qualify as a running gag if it were better told. Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has come back from the dead – not an unreasonable position, although given that he has already seen Jesus resurrect Lazarus, and the lack of any history showing the apostles playing practical jokes on each other, his doubt is somewhat obdurate. One gets the impression it has less to do with rigid adherence to proof and more with feeling left out.
In any case, Jesus finally appears, and tells Thomas to examine his scars – and how I love that every analysis I can find makes a point of mentioning that it is not clear whether or not Thomas touches the scars, because touching scars is, y’know, icky and all. Thomas does, and is convinced, and Jesus reverses his earlier position on proving resurrections, telling Tom that he should have believed without proof.
So, given all this, why do I think Thomas can be seen as an agnostic? First, he wants to see the miracle for himself when Lazarus is resurrected. Next, he is the only one to point out that no man knows what the afterlife is like. And finally, of course, he demands proof of the resurrection of Jesus. In the first and third cases, it’s made clear that he believes after seeing. In the second, it’s less clear what he believes, but the fact that Jesus successfully predicted his own return to life surely lends credence to his other remarks on the subject.
And despitethe remarks made by Jesus about belief without proof, it’s clear that requiring proof for one’s beliefs is no disqualification for sainthood. St Thomas may not be the most popular of the saints, but there is still no shortage of churches named for him. By implication, the church does have a place for those who adhere to a higher standard of evidential proof – although there’s very few Christian sects who’d come out and say so.
There is, and need be, no contradiction between doubt and belief – they can be seen as the absence and presence of proof, respectively – and as such, I think it’s no great stretch to claim St Thomas the Doubter as a proto-agnostic.
As the title suggests, it doesn’t have a lot to do with agnosticism – although it does treat doubt with more courtesy and respect than Dawkins seems capable of. It’s a fascinating read, too, which again scores it above “The God Delusion” – and it has some interesting ideas about both faith and doubt, and the historical context of both.
But I feel it misses the point of its own arguments.
So after yesterday’s Blessay, I got to wondering what a chapel designed for the use of agnostics would be like. Here’s what I came up with:
There’s a number of common misconception about many systems of polar opposites.
The most prominent of these is to conceive of all pairs of opposites as purely binary, a philosophical hangover dating back at least as far as Aristotle, and still absurdly prevalent in our culture today – see any discussion of US politics, for example. In our heads, we know it’s not really that way. We think of night and day as opposites, but most of us are aware that there are periods of twilight at the transition between them. But in our hearts, there’s something satisfying about the simplicity of Us and Them – satisfying, but ultimately inaccurate , reductive and destructive.
Another, less well recognized one, is the idea that the middle ground of any argument consists only of the precise middle. It works in mathematics to think this way, but real life is somewhat messier. In fact, the best example of it I can think of comes from that messiest of all parts of real life: human sexuality.
It’s been pointed out to me that last week, I failed entirely to actually clarify what I thought the difference was between beliefs and assumptions. So this week, I’m backing up a little to define my terms.
Like I should have done in the first place. Continue reading
Or at least, I do. I think most agnostics would probably agree on that point – indeed, I daresay that not a few of us would add that those four words are pretty much the basis of the scientific method.
But doubt can leave one with little in the way of reliable facts. And action can only be based on reliable facts. Well, those or assumptions.
So starting here, I’m going to spend the next few entries of Militant Agnostic talking about the assumptions that I, as an agnostic, find it necessary to make in order to act with any particular certainty in this world. A lot of this is going to seem like philosophical hair-splitting to a lot of you, I suspect, but I make no apology for that. After all, I don’t see very many people at all apologising for their beliefs, so why should I?
Okay, so last week, I covered how I got here. But I know I didn’t really say where here is.
Understand, I can’t really say what all agnostics believe (or don’t believe) – I can only say what I hold to be true.
On the plus side, this isn’t very much, so this will probably be relatively short 🙂
Although I have a whole lot of plans for this particular column, I find that starting it is the hardest part. Funny, huh?
So I figured I’d just start at the beginning. This is the beginning for me, how I came to be where I am. These are my two stories about this: the story of how I became an agnostic, and the story of how I became militant about it.