Western Society—particularly that of the United States—prides itself on its scientific agnosticism. But the “scientific” attitude of the ordinary layman is in no way like the attitude that has accounted for the advances made by the physical sciences in the past few decades. His agnosticism is not the questioning of the seeker, but the prejudicial disbelief of the skeptic. As a scientific agnostic, he is only playing a part, and one he understands no better than the football hero acting Socrates. The skeptic who prides himself on his scientific knowledge usually has no conception of the scientific method, but credits himself with knowledge of science simply because he uses its fruits in his daily living. He usually conceives of agnosticism as something like the viewpoint of a sophomore from Missouri. And, finally, he is quite capable of straining at religious gnats while swallowing technicological camels.

Beyond Dogmatism

There was a time when scientific men were likely to claim for their science the answers to all questions, or to discount any questions for which their science gave them no answers. But that was in the adolescence of science. Now that the physical sciences have reached the maturity that sees itself in proportion, more and more top-ranking scientists are convinced and outspokenly religious men. They seek in their own field only the knowledge that is inherent in that field, and know that there are realms to which their science gives no entry. As the social sciences reach the same kind of maturity, their top-ranking men will be found, no doubt, claiming for their own fields of interest only such things to which they actually do pertain.

To the usual layman, the scientific attitude is one of disbelief, but the true scientist is actually a man who believes any possibility until it is carefully ruled out. The skeptic pre-judges. The scientist suspends judgment. Far from being a doubter, he is a believer, albeit a cautious one. He may be a questioner, but his question is “what is the truth?” and he looks for the truth into whatever unlikely corners he may be led. Scientific discoveries are made by the painstaking examination of the most far-fetched hypotheses. To the scientist, anything can be true, and thus must be tried. Any other attitude would preclude all discovery, except by sheer accident. The real scientist attempts, above all else, to be an unbiased man, at least in so far as his science is concerned. He must not even allow himself to be biased in favor of his own working hypotheses. It is a point of honor with him never to claim knowledge that he does not have, whether that knowledge be negative or positive.

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This is science in its mature state, and this is the stature and attitude of the scientist, by his own ideal,—a far cry from the layman exercising what he considers to be “scientific skepticism” and from the megalomania of the partially informed.

Beyond Skepticism

But true agnosticism also has nothing to do with prejudicial skepticism. A man is not an agnostic simply because he rejects certain religious dogmas which he finds unappealing or distasteful. Agnosticism is never so easy, so simple, nor so self-serving as that. The true doubter is one who, hearing news reports, or the expert opinions which rain down on us as the ashes of Vesuvius rained upon Pompeii, says, “Is this fact? or opinion? or prejudice? or propaganda?” In short, the agnostic greets every pronouncement, from no matter how official or awesomely professional a source, with three questions: Is this the truth? Is it all the truth? Is it more than the truth? An agnostic is not so much a man who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus as one who doesn’t believe in oracles.

Beyond Agnosticism

Agnosticism has been put in cold storage for generations by being confined to religion (where it is pointless) and thus kept isolated from politics, economics, education, social welfare, international relations, and community gossip—all places where it might render invaluable service to the state and the individual. We have, as a culture, developed a supreme and unquestioning faith in man and an impudent doubt of God. Do not the gentiles the same? But the present need is to combine a real love of our fellow men (a very different thing, and still in short supply) with a healthy skepticism about their perfection, moral or intellectual.

Agnosticism in religion is pointless because religion, like love, cannot be other than a matter of faith, anyhow. Here some sort of commitment has to be made, and without proof, even though it is best aided by the intelligence. Love that waits for proof is unlove, and the rejection of all creeds is a creed-of-rejection.

But the very man who struts his doubt of the tenets of the ecclesiastics will give blind assent to the tenets of the illuminati. The man who jests at the Law handed down from Sinai or the Grace handed down from Calvary will clasp to his bosom the wisdom handed down from a bureaucracy, or a philosophy, or a public lobby.

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The man unmoved by the language of religious devotion will genuflect at the jargon of a technology. The man who looks down his nose at a religious explanation of his origin will meekly bow his neck to the yoke of any one professional explanation of his nature. Parents who refuse to indoctrinate their children religiously will rear them according to their own indoctrination in some infallibly-pronounced theory of child-training. The contradictions of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures are cited against their validity, but year after year philosophic and social and psychologic pronouncements contradict one another in bewildering succession, yet men’s faith in them remains unshaken.

Beyond Credulity

Is ours an agnostic society? And is the scientific approach the pathway of our culture? Hell, no! And hell is precisely the right word, for the pathway we really march runs through a hell of bewildering credulity for many and conflicting gods, an inferno of frustrating strain in trying to live by a thousand creeds. When intellectual enlightenment casts away religion, except as social convention, superstition in a new guise replaces it with the weight of many strata of religions called by new names.

Man doesn’t presently suffer so much from lack of belief as he does from belief in the wrong things, from reliance on gods that constantly betray him. The sickness of our society may well be chiefly nausea that result from swallowing too many things whole, in too rapid succession, without even the preservative and flavor of a healthy grain of salt!

The sore need now is not only for a new birth of religious credence to stabilize and keep sane a rising religious sentiment, but for the unlocking of agnosticism from its ecclesiastical prison, for its release into secular affairs. God, however he has been understood throughout the ages, has always been a jealous God, which only means that he has been a logical God. Any renewed belief in God has to include the thing he has in all religions demanded: disbelief in all rival godlets.

We should bring down the poor scientists and technologists from the Olympus to which we have forcefully elevated them, that they may simply work their own works in their laboratories, human and fallible and helpful as they really are. We should bring the social scientists down from Sinai, where the best of them never desired to be, and put them to work among men, in full recognition of the inevitable incompleteness of their knowledge, and of their own inevitable partaking in the weaknesses among which they work. For if the world ever has found or ever shall find a truly saving knowledge, it will come from beyond human intelligence, and it will be spiritual in nature. If the world has ever had, or ever does have, a saviour, he may be a man, but he must also be God.

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Anything less than that demands the exercise of a healthy agnosticism. Any voice less than God’s demands the test of the three questions: Is it the truth? Is it all of the truth? Is it more than the truth? The world suffers enough, unavoidably, from human sinfulness. This much at least we can do to rid it of the primacy of the doctrinaire, the megalomaniac, and the demagogue.


Out of






To stride across the lightless wastes of temporality; Deeper were his footprints and bloody when he walked into



of the


to die;

but yet

to live







leaving in his wake a lighted trail to his eternal home


Mrs. Edward A. Heffner grew up on the campus of one of America’s foremost medical schools and married a medical student in his sophomore year. Now a priest of the Episcopal Church, ordained in 1948, her physician-husband practices his ministry full-time and his medical specialty (ophthalmology) part-time in Ellsworth, Kansas. Mrs. Heffner is author of The Way of Light, Intercession, With All Our Hearts, a devotional speaker and the mother of four children as well.

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