To say one is “agnostic” is to say one does not know – eg. whether a god exists or not.
If one does not know that a god exists, one cannot be in a state of belief that he does. A person who says “I am an agnostic” is, at that moment, an atheist. He might be leaving open the possibility that one day he will know for sure whether or not there is a god, but he does not know it now. For now, he is without belief in a god. For now he is an atheist.
To call oneself “an agnostic” is, we think, an attempt to make a statement of unbelief softer, less challenging; to put a little powder on the bare face of atheism.
Robert G. Ingersoll called himself an agnostic. Although we would argue over the implications of that self-description, we like much of what he wrote and said.
Here is the conclusion of Ingersoll’s lecture, Why I am an Agnostic (1896):
One Sunday I went with my brother to hear a Free Will Baptist preacher. He was a large man, dressed like a farmer, but he was an orator. He could paint a picture with words.
He took for his text the parable of “the rich man and Lazarus”. He described Dives, the rich man – his manner of life, the excesses in which he indulged, his extravagance, his riotous nights, his purple and fine linen, his feasts, his wines, and his beautiful women.
Then he described Lazarus, his poverty, his rags and wretchedness, his poor body eaten by disease, the crusts and crumbs he devoured, the dogs that pitied him. He pictured his lonely life, his friendless death.
Then, changing his tone of pity to one of triumph – leaping from tears to the heights of exultation – from defeat to victory – he described the glorious company of angels, who with white and outspread wings carried the soul of the despised pauper to Paradise – to the bosom of Abraham.
Then, changing his voice to one of scorn and loathing, he told of the rich man’s death. He was in his palace, on his costly couch, the air heavy with perfume, the room filled with servants and physicians. His gold was worthless then. He could not buy another breath. He died, and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torment.
Then, assuming a dramatic attitude, putting his right hand to his ear, he whispered, “Hark! I hear the rich man’s voice. What does he say? Hark! ‘Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame’.”
“Oh, my hearers, he has been making that request for more than eighteen hundred years. And millions of ages hence that wail will cross the gulf that lies between the saved and lost and still will be heard the cry: ‘Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame’.”
For the first time I understood the dogma of eternal pain – appreciated “the glad tidings of great joy”. For the first time my imagination grasped the height and depth of the Christian horror. Then I said: “It is a lie, and I hate your religion. If it is true, I hate your God.”
From that day I have had no fear, no doubt. For me, on that day, the flames of hell were quenched. From that day I have passionately hated every orthodox creed. That Sermon did some good.
We cannot understand how Christians can believe that their god loves every human being but will condemn anyone who offends him to everlasting torment.
But then, we fail to understand how anyone can believe anything that Christianity teaches, from the triune god all the way down.
For those readers who are interested in how Christianity (regarding it as we do with fascinated distaste) arose and spread, and who shake their bemused heads (as we do) at what it claims to be “the truth”, here is another in our series on its history. (See our posts: A man named Jesus or something like that, September 23, 2011; The invention of Christianity, October 28, 2011; Tread on me: the making of Christian morality, December 22, 2011; St.Paul: portrait of a sick genius, January 7, 2012; Pauline Christianity: a mystical salad, February 26, 2012; The fictitious life of Jesus Christ, April 7, 2012.)
Theology is the study of – nothing. Of a figment, a rumor, a superstition. “God-study”.
For hundreds of years it has preoccupied studious persons, and still does. Through most of the last two millennia, brilliant men of the sort that in our time are scientists and inventors, concentrated on the intricate vapidities of Christian theology.
Most medieval universities had four faculties: Arts, which all students entered, and three of “higher learning”, Theology, Law, Medicine. Until the Enlightenment, Theology was the most esteemed. This was the case whether the university was under the authority of the Catholic Church (as at Paris), or of the students themselves (as at Bologna), or of the state (as was Oxford). Philosophy came under Theology. Christian theology, of course.
And yet Christian theology had sprouted out of philosophy. Greek philosophy. Not out of the unsophisticated polytheistic religion of the Greeks; and not out of rabbinic Judaism. No, Christian theologians had to take the fuzzy idea launched by St Paul – that a man he called “Jesus Christ” was the divine “Son of God” – and try to make sense of it. They found a paradigm in Greek metaphysics, the “science of the immaterial”. 
Among the first converts to Pauline Christianity, and among those who received the first three gospels, there must have been some who found questions arising inevitably out of Paul’s idea. Even the odd intelligent slave might ask some of the more obvious ones, such as: if Jesus was God how come he didn’t save himself from his agonizing death on the cross? And: if he was God he didn’t really ever die, did he, so he couldn’t have actually died for our sins, could he? And: come to think of it, if he died for our sins how come we can still be punished for them in hell? And: if being all-knowing God he knew everything in advance, he must have known he was going to be crucified, he must even have planned it, so why is everyone who played a part in carrying it out blamed for it?
And again, if he was God, then from the time he was born (or conceived) were there two Gods, one above the earth and one on it, and if so why do you say there’s only one God? Some might even have gone so far as to ponder the question: if God has always existed, and if Jesus Christ is God, where was he before he was born? Which is to say, when and how did he come to be God, and how and why did he come to be a man?
These last questions seriously bothered the intellectuals of the age. They were the very questions that set Christian theology going; the ones that sent great minds searching in Greek philosophy.  Although there were many versions of Christianity in the first few centuries after Paul’s idea began to catch on, all the various theorists – Paulinists, Gnostics, Marcionites … the list is long – stumbled over the same questions and found their answers in the same shop. They adapted them variously to suit their individual theologies, with wild fantasy and astonishing dramatic flair. 
The Catholic Church’s answer to how the Son came into existence is stated in the opening verse of the gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And it goes on to say that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” This is the big point of Christian theology: “The Word was made flesh”.
Now what would your average Christian converts – for the most part probably slaves, women, illiterates – have made of that? They would no doubt have accepted it as a mystery that they couldn’t understand but their betters could; like the mystery of how God was simultaneously up above and down here; how he’s immortal yet he died; how he died but didn’t stay dead; how bread and wine, ritually blessed, became the body and blood of Jesus when it got inside them (another of St Paul’s strange ideas, but one which theologians have not overstrained their brains to explain).
“The Word made flesh”. What can we make of it? It makes no sense. And even when we‘ve found where the idea comes from, it will still make no sense. But we’ll look for its source anyway.
By the time of the Roman Caesars, starting with Augustus in 1 BCE in whose reign Jesus was born, Greek philosophical ideas about the origin of existence – ontology – had become very elaborate. Faithful though the Greek and Roman sages were in their daily lives to the many gods and goddesses of their culture, when they set themselves the task of explaining how What Is came to be, these polytheists were philosophical monotheists – of a sort. Their ontological narrative had to start with a single source of the universe, a God who was One.
Why? Because of what Plato had propounded. Plato said that the things of this base world, so many and various, are not “real”, but the mere reflections of existences in a higher reality, an immaterial heavenly sphere. We everyday folk say that what we can touch, hold, see, eat is real, while what we imagine is unreal. Plato said, Oh no, it’s the other way about: the things of this world are unreal, mere illusions, shadows of the things in the really real world which is somewhere else and which we can only know in our thoughts.  In Plato’s real world there was The Perfect Form of everything. In our unreal world, he said, things of a particular kind – let’s take stones and fish – are manifestations of a single essence – an essential stone-ness or fish-ness – the Perfect Form of which exists in the immaterial sphere where nothing perishes. Just one perfect form for each sort of thing we see on earth furnishes that heaven. Why only one? Because there can only be one stone-ness, one fish-ness. There can be only one essence of anything. Only one essence of ideas, the Idea of ideas. Only one essence of existence itself. And the essence of existence is God.
So God is singular. He is everlasting. Those attributes are implicit in the concept of him. But other than that we can know nothing about him. So we can say nothing about him. He is “ineffable”.
Yet billions of words have been poured out, and continue to be poured out about this ineffable concept.
Platonists of the early centuries of our common era held that the One is simple and unmoving. Which means that he does nothing. He does not act. He does not create. How then, out of such a one, have many come? How can one, doing nothing, be the source of all things that exist?
Ah, now it gets canny. His existence emanates existence, as a lamp emanates light, as a fire emanates heat. He thinks, and thinking, he emanates a First Thought. That Thought is a second being, an hypostasis.  In some schemes (or cosmogonies) the One emanates a pair (“syzygy”) of beings: First Thought (Ennoia in Greek), and Mind (Nous). And there, lo!, is a Triune Godhead.
From the first pair may descend more hypostases in syzygies, for instance, Truth (Alithea) and Word (Logos). Disputes over which scheme was true were many and often bitter, and by their nature of course totally incapable of resolution. Did they all agree at least that everything came from the One Simple Source? Well, no. Some say not everything. Not – surprisingly? – matter. Generally in Greek philosophy matter was already there. Matter was eternal. It had no beginning and would have no end. It was always there, just as the One was always there. What then happened to matter so that it became the material things we know? It was worked by an agent in the heavenly hierarchy. Just where this agent was placed in a hierarchy varied from scheme to scheme. But wherever he stood, he was called the Demiurge: the craftsman; the big holy smith. He took matter and shaped it into the things we know: our base world and all that’s in it; our base material bodies; the whole “unreality” which we imagine to be real.  In John’s scheme, there is no agent who makes the Word flesh. The One emanates the Logos, and the Logos is made flesh as Jesus Christ in the passive voice.
Perhaps with the appearance of John’s gospel there was silence among intellectual Christians for a quarter of an hour or so as they digested the information that Jesus Christ was the Word made flesh.
And then a clamor of argument broke out which was to last for hundreds of years, and has still not ended though it has become more muted. Not one argument but a babble of arguments, of arguments within arguments. And so passionately did the arguers feel that they often killed those who would not agree with them. Those who had the power to order the killing of dissenters from their own point of view did so with all the zeal of righteousness. Those who could claim to be orthodox according to one or another ruling at one or another congress on a point at issue, accused the rest of heresy. War broke out between factions defending what might seem to us teeny-weeny points of difference that could affect nothing in actuality. And all, remember, about entirely imaginary existences and processes; nothing that could be ascertained by going to the thing itself and testing it, experimenting with it, analyzing it, since it – the divinity – wasn’t there.
For example: a controversy arose because, in the Christian scheme, God the Father emanates his Son the Logos and the Holy Ghost, the three together composing the Triune Godhead of Christianity.
But does the Holy Ghost proceed from the Father only, or also from the Son? Can two beings emanate a third being simultaneously? It was considered an immensely important question: Is the Holy Ghost an emanation of the Father only, or of the Father and the Son? The Latin for “and [by or from] the son” is “filioque”, so this rancorous disagreement is known as the filioque question. It was one of the disputes over which Christians mercilessly persecuted other Christians.
Another conflict of even greater importance in Christian history was – and is – over the question of just how divine Jesus Christ was when he lived as a man among men on earth. When he was a mewling puking baby, a toddler, a boy, an adolescent, a young man, a mature man, one who ate and digested and sweated, hiccupped and sneezed, got headache and toothache, clipped his nails and combed his hair, was he God? Were those nail clippings and hairs and feces and drops of sweat dropped by Jesus on the soil of the Galilee bits of God? When he was crucified, and cried out to ask his God why he had deserted him, was he himself then not God?
There was no escaping the questions. Once declare a man to be the ineffable unknowable invisible God made manifest, and you’re inevitably stirring up a hornet’s nest of logical difficulties.  They groped for answers.
Perhaps his human nature was illusory, his real nature always and only divine? Or did he become divine at a certain moment, when he was baptized, or when he “died”, or when he “rose again”? Or could he have been simultaneously wholly human and wholly divine?
The answers to these conjectures depended, the theologians said, on whether his “substance”, or nature, was the same as the Father’s or only similar to the Father’s. In Greek terms: were God the Father and God the Son homoousios or homoiousios?
That “i” in the middle of homoiousios – the iota from which we derive our word “jot” meaning a very little – made the most enormous difference to Christian theologians. Great councils were held to ponder that iota. Should it be there? Same or similar? It was one of the biggest bones of contention in Christian history. Wars were fought over it. Countless men and women and little children died because of it. But over what, in sober judgment? Two versions of a fiction, a figment, a rumor, a superstition.
Jillian Becker December 24, 2012
1. If, however, one looks back far enough, Greek philosophy – as in Pythagoreanism – was inseparable from religion.
2. All respectable intellectuals of the time had to take account of Greek philosophy, to endorse it or to argue with it. The Jewish philosopher Philo was a contemporary of the crucified Jew on whose life and death “Jesus Christ” was based, though the philosopher gives no indication of ever having heard of him. Philo believed neither in the Messianic promise, nor in the bodily resurrection of the dead. He lived in the important and thoroughly Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt, where many famous schools of philosophy flourished for centuries. He tried to show how some Greek philosophical ideas could be compatible with Jewish teaching. He said, for instance, that the Logos was the first-born son of God, Wisdom being the Mother; and that the Divine Logos had two natures, human and divine. He understood Logos to be the capacity of reason, so human beings possessed logoi, and “the Divine Logos” was the essence of human reason.
3. See for example our post Valentinus, February 14, 2011.
4. With this invention of higher and lower worlds, the one divine the other profane, the one pure the other impure, Plato imposed a pattern on Western thought from which neither the Enlightenment nor modern science has yet been able to set it entirely free.
5. Its first-ness does not mean it came first in time. None of this happens in time. Nous, or Logos, or whatever is named as “the first -born of God”, is first in the hierarchy of divine hypostases.
6. In some schemes (of Platonists, Middle Platonists, and Neo-Platonists), Nous or Logos directly emanates the Demiurge as the third being or hypostasis. The Gnostics put him much lower down, and identified him with the Creator God of the Jews, some regarding him as evil, some as “merely just”.
7. Though for pagans, god-men or man-gods were not problematic. Caligula, one of the Roman emperors in St Paul’s lifetime, blithely declared himself “Zeus made manifest”. As Zeus he knew he could change his mind and on a whim take some other form, human, animal, vegetable, or vental (becoming a wind). He was a bright satirical young man and in claiming to be a god incarnate he was doing nothing out of the ordinary, as his family counted several deified emperors among their close ancestors.