The Pope Is An Agnostic

Sally Quinn is an enigmatic figure. She was a religion column writer for many years at the Washington Post, is a Washington D.C. socialite, and most recently the author of, Finding Magic: A Spiritual Memoir, a book in which she reveals several things about herself including casting hexes on at least three people who died soon after.

Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer and Luther, is a public figure and radio host who leads with his evangelical faith. He recently had Quinn on his radio program to talk about her memoir and her faith.

Very early in the conversation Sally Quinn begins to make claims about religion and science that provoke further questions from Metaxas. In response she begins to express a view about faith and knowledge that has a lot of popular support but is, in fact, extraordinary. At about the 8:00 minute mark in the linked podcast she makes the claim, “The Pope is an agnostic.”

What a curious phrase. The Pope, of all people, certainly believes in the existence of God! So, what does she mean calling him an agnostic? It is actually a clever, and logically consistent, expression of her view of how knowledge works. And in the conversation that follows that statement, she and Metaxas flesh it out.

The key to her comment lies in understanding what we mean when we talk about knowledge. Very roughly, knowledge is a justifiable belief about reality that is true. I may be able to guess how may rivets are in a commercial 727, but I don’t know how many there are until I do something like count them or hear from an expert how many there are. Then, and only then, do I know. Now my answer about rivets is a belief I hold, a belief I can justify (I counted them), and that belief is true.

For Quinn, and so many others, religious beliefs are not knowable. They are mere beliefs, or only opinions. The claims of the hard sciences can actually be known. But when we talk about God, we cannot count anything about him and the experts don’t tell us anything that is actually knowable about God, so all we have are beliefs and opinions. It would be like saying that anyone can believe anything they wanted about the number of rivets in a 727, there is no way of verifying how many there actually are. Add to this the definition of an agnostic as someone who does not have enough evidence to know one way or the other, and you have her conclusion about the most notorious believer in the world.

Thus, she can say with all internal coherence intact, “The Pope is an agnostic.” What can we do with that? Often the first move we can make when analyzing such a provocative claim is to disagree with the assumption. The assumption is that we cannot actually know anything about God.

We Can Know God

One thing that strikes me about a claim like Quinn’s is its blasé attitude toward all the significant philosophical and scientific work done in fields that address this issue. It is false that we cannot know anything about God and thus are left with mere beliefs or simple opinions. A couple of examples will have to do.

I can know that God exists both through scientific investigation and philosophical work. Even though it is often dismissed and misunderstood by many (for many illegitimate reasons), the work being done in the broad field of Intelligent Design uses the findings of science (from biology to engineering to  astronomy and many fields in between) to plausibly argue that some intelligence, or mind, or maybe even God, must exist. Intelligent Design is not a “god of the gaps” theory and it is not synonymous with “creationism.” It is a positive argument made from evidence.

Several philosophical arguments for God’s existence are powerful. Two that are worth reflection are the Kalam Argument (recently updated by William Lane Craig) and Alvin Plantinga’s update of the Ontological Argument, often called his modal argument. The first posits a fairly straightforward argument for the existence of God given the existence of the universe, and the second is a more complicated way of talking about the necessary existence of God.

These lines of reasoning, plus so many more, are evidence against the claim that believers in God have to be agnostic because we cannot know anything about God or religion.

Quinn’s point of view is probably very popular in many circles, but in the end it fails the test of scrutiny. We can actually know things about God and be confident in them.

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