From a religious point of view, agnostics are no better than atheists. From an atheist’s point of view, agnostics are wishy-washy. Both of them have it all wrong about agnostics and agnosticism. If one stops to think about it — which we’re about to — it turns out agnostics are the most honest thinkers among us. They’ll politely smile while the religious try to indoctrinate them and while their atheist friends try to “undoctrinate” them, knowing the whole time that THEY KNOW what their religious and irreligious friends don’t know: that, on the subject of the divine, none of them can, in fact, “know” anything, PERIOD. Agnostics are the ultimate “receipt collectors”. They’re the ones keeping the rest of us honest.
In this podcast, Alan and Randy welcome guest DAVE WERTLEB. A microbiology teacher at a community college near San Diego for 34 years (he also chaired the college’s biology department for 25 of those years), Dave labels himself an “agnostic Jew”. Today, he’s a member of a Reform Jewish congregation in San Diego. As Alan has pointed out, neither agnosticism nor atheism are incompatible with being Jewish. Alan’s atheism, he’s said, was nurtured by his religious education — for real. But, what if Alan (contrary to what he thinks) was never, in fact, an atheist but, has always been an agnostic in atheist’s clothing?
But, just as an atheist can’t claim to know the unknowable, neither, really, can a theist like Randy.
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher PROTAGORAS was the first person to “spell out” the idea that “Man is the measure of all things” — that everything (EVERYTHING) we know is entirely (ENTIRELY) subjective — including divine inspiration and received knowledge. The faithful may have received knowledge in hand but they cannot prove in any way where it came from. Pointing at the sky doesn’t prove anything. Receipts, on the other hand… Faith, after all, is always a matter of “faith”.
So — today’s podcast is an interview with an honest person — where matters of spirituality are concerned. Who knows where this could lead?
Of, if you prefer to watch —
Here’s a short bio of today’s guest, Dave Wertlieb —
Short bio for Dave Wertlieb
I received a Ph.D. in microbiology, but decided to opt out of a research-oriented position at the university level. Instead, I had a wonderful 34-year career teaching at a community college in the San Diego area. I taught microbiology to nursing and respiratory therapy students, as well as evolution and genetics in a general education course. I was Chair of the Biology Dept at that college for 25 years.
I label myself an agnostic Jew, who came to understand my Judaism after I became a parent. I am currently a member of a Reform Judaism congregation in San Diego; also, as a show of support, I am a member of an independent Reform congregation in Burbank, where my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson are members.
In the back of my mind, agnostics are always the ones shaking their heads and shrugging at me and my atheistic certainty. My certainty about uncertainty, that is. That’s the funny irony: atheists are certain about uncertainty while agnostics are uncertain about uncertainty. Theists need to know. That’s why they’re theists. They find uncertainty intolerable.
Agnostics themselves can be a little “agnostic” about agnosticism. There are, more or less, three kinds of agnosticism:
PERMANENT AGNOSTICS would tell you “I can’t know whether a deity or deities exist or don’t exist and neither can you.”
TEMPORAL AGNOSTICS would say “I don’t know if a deity or deities exist but that’s only right now; if there’s evidence in the future, I’ll reconsider.”
APATHETIC AGNOSTICS would look at you like you’re nuts for asking the question. They’d groan, “I don’t know if there’s a deity or deities and I don’t care!” But, they’d also groan, even if a deity did exist, he, she or it couldn’t care less about us.
Plato — who we consider a great thinker — considered Protagorus a great thinker. His idea of “individual reality” (subjective reality) was considered radical at the time in Ancient Greece — but not unacceptable. The idea had been around long before, in India. The word “agnostic” means “unknowable”; interestingly, it aligns with the sanskrit word (this is from Wikipedia) “Ajñasi which translates literally to “not knowable”, and relates to the ancient Indian philosophical school of Ajñana, which proposes that it is impossible to obtain knowledge of metaphysical nature or ascertain the truth value of philosophical propositions; and even if knowledge was possible, it is useless and disadvantageous for final salvation.)
This school of Hindu thought traces its roots back thousands of years. What can we really know? — that question has haunted us forever.
In “Agnosticism: A Symposium, The Agnostic Annual” (written in 1884), biologist and anthropologist Thomas Henry Huxley (known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”) wrote:
“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently, agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the “bosh” of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.”
I’ll let that be the “last word” on it.