The Great Right Hope


It is human nature to desire truth – especially the most fundamental truths of our existence. Like, why are we here? Where did we come from? Is there life after death?

And humans have pursued the answers to these questions for as long as we’ve been able to ask them.

It always seems a bit strange to me the number of people who don’t even bother fooling about with such questions. And even more strangely that the number of such people in our culture seems to be growing.

Such people often call themselves agnostic. Although, I’m not sure that’s really what they mean.

Agnosticism is a belief that certain truths, specifically about our existence, are unknowable.

Now, I know first hand that it often takes quite a bit of study and effort to come to know many of the truths about God. It seems it would be an even greater challenge to convince one’s self of the absence of God (proving a negative) – atheism. And it seems like still an even greater challenge to determine that such truths are themselves unknowable – agnosticism.

This is why I don’t think the current agnostic fashion is truly all that agnostic. What I really think most people are saying when they call themselves agnostic is that “they don’t know – therefore they don’t believe.”

And that’s fair enough I suppose. And it’s probably an honest answer. But what doesn’t seem to add up is their response to “not knowing.”

Let’s take atheism. An atheist believes there is no God and therefore no eternal life. There is nothing more. So a natural behavior for an atheist would be to live in the present, enjoy every moment, do whatever they want, be as selfish or as selfless as they want, shoot themselves and end it all right now, do this…do that, etc. It really doesn’t matter.

In fact, nothing can truly matter for an atheist in the end. There is no such thing as good or evil. There is no such thing as justice, honor, or moral objectivity. Our finite life is reduced to exactly nothing in the eternity of time. Everything we do and say, every pleasure and every pain, are absolutely and utterly meaningless. So virtually any behavior by an atheist, whether we like it or not, is at least consistent with their world view.

Theism is entirely different. If one believes in God, now everything we do is potentially meaningful. And if we believe in eternal life then anything we do could potentially affect our eternal state. And even just being mathematical about it, our eternal state is exactly infinitely more important than our current temporal state.

A theist who believes in eternal life should behave in a way that positively affects his or her eternal state. And of course, in order to behave properly, we must first spend time learning how to do so. So, rationally, the priority of a theist’s life is that of first understanding what will affect their eternal state, and second, behaving in that way.

In the middle we have the true agnostics and those that “just don’t know.”

Being a true agnostic, one who believes that the truths about God are unknowable, seems problematic to me. I don’t see how anyone can come to the conclusion that such knowledge is unknowable by us? Simply because one may not yet know is no basis for then assuming that we cannot know. All one could conclude is that they simply don’t know.

And it seems that if a person did not know for sure about the existence of God or the future of their eternal state, this would greatly affect their behavior. Right?

I see two rational responses to such a situation:

1) Assume that there is a God and act accordingly (see “theism” above). Certainly at the very least Pascal’s Wager would apply.

2) Drop everything you’re doing and spend the very next moments of your life trying to figure it out. Don’t stop until you do.

That’s it. If there is eternal life after death then there is nothing else more important than figuring it out. And if there isn’t eternal life after death, then absolutely nothing you do has any meaning whatsoever anyway(see atheism above).

But then why do the vast amount of people out there who “don’t know” or proclaim themselves as “agnostic” not behave in this way? If you don’t know, then the first thing you should do in the morning is cancel all your plans for the day, go to the library and work on figuring it out. Scratch that. Drop what you’re doing and do it this very moment. There is nothing more important. Nothing. This isn’t religious fervor, this is mathematical probability!

And that’s exactly what we’d all do if we were perfectly rational. But we’re not. Instead we get lazy, distracted, and apathetic. And worst of all, we lose hope. When we lose hope, we don’t care about anything…not the present moment and especially not our eternal future.

This is not a new cultural problem, it’s a human one that’s always existed. Even St. Augustine recognized it in the late 4th century:

“It seems to me that the hope of finding the truth must be restored to humankind.” – St. Augustine

It’s not that people don’t want to find truth. And it’s not that they won’t search it out. It’s that they don’t even know that they are able to do so. They look at all the division and disagreement and they assume that there must be no way to know for sure. They’ve lost hope in even being able to find the truth. So it’s no surprise that they don’t even think to bother looking.

But we can indeed know this truth. And those that are willing to honestly search for it will eventually find it. But it starts not with an exercise of the mind – but with an opening of the heart. It starts with Hope.

17 comments Add comment

Matthew Catalano January 7, 2009 at 8:24 am

Good post, Matthew.
Ultimately, agnosticism is a self-refuting proposition and therein lies it’s downfall. By claiming that knowledge of God is unknowable, they are making a claim of knowledge.

andrew milliner January 7, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Thanks, this is great!

John January 7, 2009 at 9:42 pm

I head into this knowing that the ultimate endpoint will be that we will “agree to disagree,” but I am struck by the inherent bias and incorrect slant of your base assertions.

*re: agnostics – you likely know that “agnosticism” is as a much-debated philosophical concept, and as such is viewed differently by different parties. Much of theology and philosophy agree that agnosticism is the viewpoint that certain truths are not known for certain by the agnostic themself and humanity in general, which is very different than saying that they are “unknowable.” Certainly, some agnostics do believe that such truths are unknowable, but that is not representative of the viewpoint as a whole. My fallible impression is that they are not the majority, but in any case, to distill that concept down the way you did is purposefully negative to serve your argument, and not reflective of reality.

(I will mention that in my life and education, I have met many self-identified agnostics, and they have all had the viewpoint that said truths are, in fact, knowable, but just that we don’t fully know them yet. These anecdotes don’t count as epidemiology or evidence, however. :) )

*re: atheism – your description of the “natural behavior of an atheist” is based on the idea that without the promised reward of heaven and threat of hell, humans are incapable of moral behavior. This not only is a dreary view of humanity, but has nothing to do with reality.

-continued in the next comment, for space–

John January 7, 2009 at 9:43 pm

-continued from above-

Many atheists believe that since this life is all we have, we must live and interact with others in as moral of a framework as possible, because there’s no second chance. You describing their “natural behavior” as you do is akin to saying that a Catholic doesn’t need to avoid sin and can commit most minor sins with impunity if they immediately seek forgiveness and penance afterwords – which is to say, obviously wrong.

There’s room here for excellent discussion of the Catholic faith and it’s positive merits in comparison to agnosticism and atheism, but not without objectivity and intellectual rigor to the non-Catholic non-theistic viewpoints. If one doesn’t honestly assess “competing” (for lack of a better term) views, the merit of the argument just isn’t there, and the chance for true insight is lost.

I welcome any thoughts, of course. :)

Andy January 7, 2009 at 9:58 pm

My brother-in-law, an atheist, asked me once, “Imagine, Andy, living your whole life thinking there is a God and then when you die, you find out there isn’t one?” To which I replied, “Imagine, Dennis, living your whole life thinking there isn’t a God and then when you die, find out there is”. It got real quiet after that. Living your life in a way that honors and respects a greater being than ourselves, will always be a more righteous and positive approach to living no matter what we discover in the after-life. Have Faith.

Matthew Warner January 7, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Well said, Andy! That encompasses my overall point.

John, here are my thoughts:
*re: agnostic:
Def of agnostic: a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.(

This is the top definition and the original definition taken from T.H. Huxley who coined the word. That’s the one I used.

Aside from that, I admitted very clearly in the post that most people use the word agnostic in a broader sense to mean that “they simply don’t know” – agreeing with you in fact that most people use it this way these days. So I’m not sure how I “distilled that concept down”? I apologize if I did.

*Re: Atheism –
I’m confused w your response. Perhaps I just didn’t write very clearly. I did not describe any particular behavior for an atheist other than to say that ANY behavior is consistent w their world view. It has nothing to do with what “many atheists believe.” It has to do with the fact that no matter what they do or think, in an atheistic world view, there is no ultimate meaning – cuz in the end we’re all dust and wind…and that’s it.

The point of the post is not to discuss theist and non-theist viewpoints. It was to point out that if one is “agnostic” and is uncertain about our eternal destiny, that RATIONALLY they would drop everything they are doing and do everything they can to find the answer.

Matthew Warner January 7, 2009 at 10:19 pm

The suggestion I give as to why most, in fact, do not act in this way is a lack of hope. That was the point of the post.

John January 8, 2009 at 12:00 am

The point of my reply is that people who identify themselves as agnostics and atheists DO actively desire to seek the basic truths of life, and DO have hope – said hope does not derive from a greater being or the promise of eternal life, but from the fact that humans can work together to overcome our subjective and fallible natures to better ourselves, work towards understanding our world, and build a good and moral society.

Characterizing agnostics and atheists the way you have is simply inaccurate.

I take issue with your firmly stated definition of agnosticism as the viewpoint that ‘certain truths, specifically about our existence, are unknowable.’ Yes, you say that many currently use it in a broader sense, but you state this by way of saying that they are wrong – they are not. Huxley’s own writings on the matter are layered, and are very much in line with the idea that said truths are not currently known… but not impossible to know in the future. In any case, not being an “agnostic” by your or Huxley’s definition doesn’t invalidate it as a viewpoint.

Do you mind explaining your “RATIONALLY dropping everything” statement a bit more? It’s… odd.

I’m sorry if my response about atheism is unclear; I’ll try again. Not believing in God is NOT the same as saying “anything goes.” (That would be nihilism.) Many atheists have an excellent moral code that they live by, because without eternal life, this life and how they interact with the people in it are all that matters.

Matthew Warner January 8, 2009 at 9:26 am

John – I didn’t suggest that atheists don’t pursue truth. THe point is that Atheists and theists BELIEVE (more or less)in some type of certainty (there is a God or there isn’t). They believe definitively in whether or not our lives should be lived IN REGARD or WITHOUT REGARD to an eternal state.

Again, I did not characterize atheists as all believing that “anything goes” at all – please read what I wrote. I just said that whatever they believe (whether they believe they should act morally, immorally, or ANY WAY) is consistent with their world view (a complement).

Getting caught up in characterizing all atheists or agnostics is a distraction to the post and point. I was not attempting to do such.

The weight of my point is made using rationality and basic probability. ANd then questioning the response of agnostics to their uncertainty.

From a mathematical, and therefore rational, point of view – if somebody is uncertain of whether or not they have an eternal destiny (agnostics), they should drop everything right this moment and try and figure it out. Even the smallest CHANCE that we have an ETERNAL soul that could be affected by current actions is INFINITELY more important than the alternative…that we don’t. And I don’t say INFINITELY to just mean really big. I mean it literally in a mathematical sense.

So RATIONALLY anyone who is uncertain of eternity should drop everything this minute and spend the rest of their time trying to figure it all out. [continued…]

Matthew Warner January 8, 2009 at 9:39 am

…there is nothing more important they can do. No FINITE life here that lasts a literally infinitely small amount of time when compared to eternity matters AT ALL unless we are also eternal. So a rational response to such a situation is to either assume there is a God and go with it, or treat it as the INFINITELY more significant possibility that it is and prioritize as such in your life.

When we’re speaking of mathematics and probabilities here, think of LIMITS back in math class.

The only reason I even mention theists and atheists is to present the two extremes of some type of certainty (there IS an eternal life or there ISN’T – and we act accordingly to that belief).

I appreciate your desire to flesh out some of these semi-related issues and tangents, of which there are many. But I think you misread the post.

One of the main take-aways is summed up in Andy’s comment above.

I was not presenting proofs of God or no God. I was not characterizing what all atheists or agnostics or theists do. I was presenting three basic world views (We have an eternal state; we don’t; or I’m not sure if we do). And then applying what I believe to be a rational response to believing either one of those views in light of the possible outcomes (There is eternal life or there isn’t).

Phil January 9, 2009 at 12:52 am

Interesting conversation going on here.

If human life is 75 earth years and eternal life is infinity, yes, from a mathematical perspective it makes sense to pursue it. But no more than it would make sense for one to pursue the fountain of youth. If someone were to tell you they have spent their entire earth-life chasing some magical fountain you may take issue with how they are spending their time here. But if it is rational for agnostics to pursue what could potentially be infinite life via God then it should also be considered rational for folks to search for a fountain of youth for eternal life. After all, if there was even the slighest possibility that it exists, then STATISTICALLY it would be worth pursuing. But WOULD it really be RATIONAL to do so?

Speaking of pursuing – you suggest that it’s the agnostics that need to ‘drop everything….and figure it out’. I presume you mean whether or not God exists, i.e. whether eternal life exists. Ummm…how? Can you elaborate? I would seriously drop everything ASAP. Please advise! Or is it the ‘tree falling in the woods’ thingy…

Athiests believe in no eternal life. They claim there is NO evidence of such and THEY are right.

The faithful believe in eternal life. They claim the evidence WILL someday be there and THEY are not wrong.

Doesn’t really clear it up for the agnostics! How do we figure it out when it seems as those who say they know for certain don’t even have it figured out? Both can’t be right!

Matthew Warner January 9, 2009 at 1:37 am

If I were still unsure whether or not such a fountain of youth existed, then yes it would still be rational to search for it – of course.

I don’t believe it does. So, it makes sense that I am not searching for it. Call me a non-fountainian.

For the sake of this argument, I am not arguing the rationality of the position itself (believing in God, no God, a fountain of youth, or magical dragons). I’m only questioning what the rational response one who holds those beliefs should have.

There are plenty of arguments and evidence that support the existence of God. There are plenty of documented miracles. Plenty of Saints who have lived extraordinary lives on numerous levels. There are endless philosophical arguments. There is always the experiential aspect of actually trying to believe certain things and see if they ring true.

If I were agnostic, investigating or trying any of these things seem like a good first step. Example: I would read every documentation on Padre Pio and how he suffered the stigmata that nobody can explain. I would read scripture. I would read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I would read history. I would read plato. I would read the lives of the saints. I would try out some of these religions that claim to offer this “eternal salvation.”

Matthew Warner January 9, 2009 at 1:43 am

And I would try to have as open of a mind as possible. If we are intent to explain away the truth, we will have no trouble doing so. If we are open – then it is amazing what we come to know. That’s my experience anyway.

I just don’t see that kind of response by most people that are “unsure as to God’s existence or our eternal life.” I see them more often find every way to try and explain it all away or quickly discount it so that they are free from having to consider or bother with it. And then they don’t think about it much after that. That’s not everyone of course. Just many. My perception of course.

But to me, if we are being rational about the potential importance of such a task (theists end up being right), it would merit a “dropping everything to find out what we can.” If theists are wrong…well, then it doesn’t matter anyway.

Phil January 9, 2009 at 10:33 am

Good post.

“If theists are wrong…well, then it doesn’t matter anyway”.

Actually, in my post I was actually trying to disprove this thought. Spending, what could be, your ONLY existence, trying to sort out whether or not you BELIEVE that it will indeed BE your only existence, can be a never-ending saga. I suppose you could dedicate every man-hour of your life to try to acertain this. But most likely if you were look at it from a ‘rational’, scientific (proof seeking), non-theoligical perspective you would likely come to the same conclusion you would chasing a fountain of youth. And waste important life time.

If you open your mind, and look at things from a theoligical aspect, perhaps one could determine that their must be eternal life, whether it be from a fountain of youth OR God.

But to say why take the chance on missing eternal life as Andy put it, is living scared in my opinion. I don’t walk down the street worring about planes falling out of the sky on my head. Could it happen, yes. Do I stay in m y house all day worrying about it, no. Statistical evidence does not support it will happen so why worry about it. To devote one’s life to God out of fear of the ALTERNATIVE of eternal life is not the proper way to live, just my opinion. I guess you could argue again that the smallest probablitiy of eternal life would be worth pursuing. But I think I will wait until I know for sure. I may regret that decision on the ‘other’ side. But I won’t have any regrets here

Phil January 9, 2009 at 10:42 am

But I will try to keep an open mind. I dicusss things here with you. I am reading books, both pro and con God. I try to do some independant thought on whether God exists every so often. I try to pray. I am trying. But I refuse to spend every minute of my man-hours here on Earth trying to figure it out.

One thing I am learning through all of this ‘research’ is that there just aren’t a ton of answers out there. Some books say evolution and natural selection disprove God, in that we all came from common ancestry. Pro-God books claim that Darwin’s theory was faulted and has not yet been substantiated and there is no way that natural selection could have created complex DNA/RNA structures. Problem is neither get me very far because they are both theoretical. But I will keep trying…

Matthew Warner January 9, 2009 at 12:01 pm

And waste important life time.

My thoughts are that if there is no eternal life and no God, then there is nothing truly “important” about this life at all.

And the argument Andy used is to make the argument of probabilities and “wagering” based on that. I don’t think it’s supposed to justify living as a result of fear.

And Phil, it sounds like you are putting forth an effort, which is awesome. Ultimately, as a Catholic, I believe that ianyone who is honestly following their conscience (one that they’ve made an honest attempt at properly forming) then God will reward that, regardless of how many answers they have come to fully find in the end.

That being said, this post was not really aimed at somebody like you. It is aimed at those that don’t make honest attempts at it and are intellectually lazy at pursuing what I see as a rational response to their stated belief system.

Ultimately, I had the thought that this is due to a lack of hope on their part. Perhaps they have no hope that there are answers to be found. It sounds like you have at least some hope, therefore you are making an active and rational attempt to find answers.

And I think that is most important. God bless you sir!

John January 20, 2009 at 5:34 pm

@Matt – I took the time to re-read what you wrote about the atheist viewpoint, and it still comes across the same to me. In any case, I agree that we became too bogged down in specifics, although my initial reason for doing so remains – it seems to me that you are over-simplifying things like atheism and agnosticism in a negative way to suit your argument, which doesn’t reflect reality.

I do see what you are driving at, but you are assuming that when an agnostic is pondering whether or not God or an afterlife exist, that it is the Catholic understanding of God or heaven/hell. We both know that there are many different thought and beliefs pertaining to those concepts outside of the Catholic paradigm. It’s not a simple continuum of “yes to no.”

This ties in directly to Andy’s comment – his story only works if you believe that it is impossible to live a good, respectful, and moral life without recognizing God’s existence. That’s separate from the tacit assumption on this blog that when you say “believe in God” that you mean “being Catholic,” which we all know is quite a bit more that simply believing that there is a God.

In the end, Phil hit it right on. The search for truth is not a manic “drop everything” affair, but a long-term process that has communication at it’s core – communication with people of different beliefs and perspectives… much like what happens in this forum on occasion. ;) It’s also something that ALL people should engage in.

Previous post:

Next post: