FAITH AND DOUBT

Introduction

Among the different planes on which science and religion come into conflict is in the context of faith and doubt. Faith is an essential ingredient of any religion, as doubt is of the scientific enterprise. Indeed sometimes the word faith is used as a synonym for religion, as when we refer to a group of people sharing the same religion as a faith-community. Likewise, people sometimes describe a doubting posture as a scientific attitude.

However, whereas most working scientists  will not be embarrassed about their skeptical attitude, indeed may even vaunt their questioning modes in many contexts, religious thinkers, especially as theologians,  tend to underplay the faith component in their religion, arguing instead that there are logical and rational modes by which faith can be justified. Thus, for example, Thomas Torrance explains in his Belief in Science and in Christian life [1980] that "faith is correlated with the intrinsic rationality of the object and its self-evidencing reality and revealing power…"

In fact, there is a respectable branch of theology, called apologetics, whose avowed purpose is to defend the doctrines and dogmas of a religion on the basis of reason and rationality, either to combat opposing and dissenting theses, or for persuading uncommitted souls to join a particular faith community. Though this art has been refined and brought to a high level of sophistication  in the Judeo-Christian tradition, similar efforts had been made in ancient Greece, and have been undertaken in the matrix of other great religious traditions as well.

Faith and doubt are often not so much consciously adopted philosophies of knowledge, as states of conviction and experience of which the human mind is capable. In this essay I propose to discuss their role and relevance in science and religion,  as  also their respective strengths, weaknesses, and consequences.

Three types of faith

Faith is the implicit trust one has in a person, thing, or idea, often without requiring or asking for proof. The naïve scientist imagines that there is no element of faith in science, and the naïve religionist retorts by saying that scientists too work on the basis of faith. Both are vaguely right in so far as the word faith is used without clarification in their contentions.  In this context, it is useful to consider three types of faith.

First, consider the following examples: We accept on faith who our father is. When we are young, we take our teacher's word for granted and trust she has right knowledge of what she is teaching. We drink fruit juice or milk from the carton we bought at the supermarket, trusting that no on had added  drops of cyanide in it. We board a plane, trusting the pilot's skill and sobriety.  Indeed it is impossible to go through life without accepting certain matters to be true without getting first hand confirmation about them. We may describe  this type of faith as quotidian or of type A. This is essentially what we call trust. Trust could be misplaced, but we often feel that the probability of this is extremely small. In this sense, quotidian faith is an assumption that is not rationally or empirically fully justified, but whose probability of being correct  is  so high that we are willing to take the risk in the trust. In many instances, we simply don't have a choice.

Next consider the following beliefs: The workings of the world are, or will eventually be, intelligible to the human mind, i.e.  every phenomenon in the physical world can and will be explain in rational and coherent terms. Nothing happens all by itself, i.e. every observed event has a cause. What has been observed to occur again and again for enormously large number of times will occur again: for example, the sun will rise tomorrow. None of these statements can be proved on logical grounds to be unassailable. Yet, the scientific enterprise accepts them as true. These too fall under the category of faith. We may call these as examples commonsensical faith, or of type B. Commonsensical faith serves as a basis for the scientific enterprise. It is taken to be true because it seems most reasonable even to an unprobing mind, and it has served us very well in the scientific quest.

Now consider the following beliefs: The Vedas  have existed all through eternity.  Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from God. Christ, the Son of God, came to save all humankind. Mohammed received God's word from Gabriel, and is the only Prophet of the Almighty. This type C faith may be called religious faith, because it becomes relevant in the religious context. Such faith in the undemonstrated validity of a proposition is explicit in the teachings and doctrines of  traditional religions. Such  unquestioning trust is not something that one is ready to, or might, abandon if there are indications that it might be wrong, as is the case with type A faith. Nor is this accepted because it conforms to common sense or is very useful in understanding something, as with type B. Type C faith is related to cultural upbringing, historical traditions, and most of all, it is often associated with the spiritual dimension of an individual. Religious faith is necessary to be a sincere member and practitioner of any organized religion. This type of faith is  the spontaneous, voluntary and cheerful acceptance of what one may or may not be able to prove. In what follows I will mean type C faith when I use the word with a capital: Faith.

Faith

As I stated above, Faith is an essential element in any religious affiliation.  Usually, but not always, Faith refers to unquestioning belief in a transcendent principle, most often called God. Even in the so-called atheistic religion called Buddhism, one talks of various Bodhisattvas who have trans-corporeal existence. But it also implies other  elements associated with such a belief, such as hope for the future, possibility of post-mortem persistence, and the value of goodness. Thus, Faith is implicit belief in something that is not material and obvious, tangible or easily recognizable. As it states in Hebrews (xi, 1), "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Yet, some, like Hugh Ross, have argued that "Faith is founded on fact and on what God has clearly done." [Hugh Ross, "The Fingerprint of God," p. 14.] People who take note of deaths from natural  disasters and unanswered fervent prayers may find it difficult to accept this assertion.

There is, in fact, an important distinction between science and religion in this context: In science one believes what one sees, whereas in religion one sees what one believes in. However, we must understand here that in the scientific realm seeing refers to all the convincing data one can get through the sensory faculties, and through reason; whereas in religion it means recognition through intuition and deep conviction.

There are, and there have always been, any number of people with Faith who have benefited enormously from possessing it.  Countless numbers of people with Faith feel enriched in their spiritual experience and religious commitment, whether they be church-going Christians, Mecca-going Muslims, bhajan-singing Hindus, or whoever. Harold Koenig said [Russell Stannard, ed. , God for the 21st century, p. 107]

: "Systematic research indicated that in some parts of the United States, 90 percent of persons with serious medical illness use religion at least to some degree as a coping resource, and approximately 50 percent of those persons report that religious faith is the most important factor that enables them to cope (i.e., it is more important than family, friends, work, or any other known coping resources."

When it says in Revelation, (ii.10), "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give there a crown of life," it is of Faith that one speaks. 

Again, we read in the Bhagavadgita (XII-20),  "Such devotees are boundlessly dear to me who are focused on me with faith.."

It is to Faith that the Holy Qur'an refers when it says (III-126), "Those who reject Faith… will be companions of the Fire, dwelling therein."

On the other hand, when Robert Ingersoll declared that "investigation is better than unthinking faith," he was having a different kind of faith in mind. It is important to recognize that the Faith one speaks of in the context of religion has nothing to do with the scientific quest.

Some have wondered how faith can be good in Religion, yet be totally destructive in Science? Or again, how could great modern scientific minds like Newton and Euler, Cauchy and Maxwell  have been  religious? How can faith be good in Religion, yet be inappropriate in Science? The paradox is cleared up if we distinguish between different types of faith. Indeed, faith of types A and B are  necessary for the practice of science, while Faith (of type C) is quite unnecessary for science, and is, in fact, quite neutral in its impact in the context of scientific progress.  It is important to distinguish between science as an enterprise and religion as an experience, and to recognize that scientific faith goads us to further research, whereas religious Faith could give us inner peace. Every scientist who works hard on a theory has full faith in its correctness which is as yet only partially established, but this faith is very different from a committed Catholic's faith in Christ as the Savior. The scientist's faith often comes from suspicion or deep reflection. In religion, as John Calvin pointed out, "Faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit" or its equivalent.

When one fails to make this distinction, arguments and impasses arise. If we do not, we will have difficulty differentiating between fundamental science and metaphysical theology. And when we cannot do that we are persuaded to conclude like John Barrow, "Sight must give way to faith." ["World within the world," p.373]

Doubt

Doubt is a state of mind, some would say an affliction of the mind. In refers to a condition in which one is unable or unwilling to accept, on the face of it,  a given statement as true. When we say we are in doubt, what we mean is that  we are not altogether certain about the correctness of a proposition, the reliability of an person, the existence of something, etc..

Like faith, the word doubt is also used in a variety of contexts with varying shades of meaning, leading to what may be needless and avoidable controversies between science and religion. I will therefore consider, as I did with faith, three different types of doubt in my discussion of the topic.

Consider a salesperson who extols a product which he or she is eager to sell. One may not be prepared to accept everything that the person says. Or again, if a doctor were to tell a close relative of a seriously ill patient that  that there is a very good chance of recovery, one may have some doubts about what the physician says. Finally, when a very probable suspect who is questioned by the police asserts that he or she is really innocent, one may not accept the statement as absolutely true. These are instances of what may be called type A or quotidian doubts. In a type A doubt, there is reason to suspect that the proponent of a proposition is most probably not telling the truth, and,  may even have reason to do so.

Next, consider a preacher who tells his audience that those who commit sins are bound to suffer one way or another, here in this world or in the hereafter. Or again, there may be an expert in economics who says that if certain steps are taken certain economic problems would be solved. Finally, let us take up the assurance of those who say that if one accepts Jesus Christ as the savior, or Allah, or some equivalent entity in another religion, one will attain salvation. In these instances too, one may doubt that the claimed propositions are a hundred percent reliable. These I will call skeptical or type B doubt. A type B doubt arises, not because one distrusts the credibility of the source, but because it may seem very improbable to the doubter. Skeptical doubt need not be associated with lack of respect for or disregard for the honesty of the source. 

When it says in Romans, (xiv.23) "He that doubteth is damned," it is of type B doubt that the New Testament is speaking. When it is declared in the very first chapter of the Holy Qur'an (Ch. I) that "There is no doubt in this book," what is implied is that one should not approach it with type B doubt. When the Bhagavadgita says (IV.40) that for the doubting person there is happiness neither here nor in the next world, it is again of this kind of doubt that Krishna speaks.

Type B doubt is detrimental to religion. Many thinkers have recognized this since the most ancient times. Heraclitus warned that non-believing would cost us knowledge of divine things. Tennyson said it beautifully in his In Memoriam, that sowing such doubts in times of prayer would spoil the richness of the experience:

      Leave thou thy sister, when she prays

   Her early heaven, her happy views;

      Nor thou with shadowed hint confuse

      A life that leads melodious days.

Finally, consider the announcement that some chemists have produced  nuclear fusion reactions at  ordinary temperatures. Upon reading this report, the general public may be impressed and excited, but the scientists who know something about nuclear fusion and in particular, those who are working in the field, will have serious doubts about the correctness of the report or the claim of the chemists. They will immediately set to work to reproduce the reported result. Or again, suppose an astronomer communicates that he or she has spotted a comet or a new galaxy at such and such a celestial location. Now also, other astronomers will direct their instruments towards the reported coordinates to check if this is indeed true. This gesture, from a truth-content point of view, is also an expression of doubt in what one has been told. Finally, take the case of a student who is performing an experiment in a physics laboratory to verify a certain law of physics which was stated in a lecture. Why should he do it? Does he not trust his professor or the text book? In principle, a student  learning the techniques of science, must not (in principle) trust what the teacher says. The act of doing the experiment is a scientific ritual by which the student says: "Yes, my teacher may be right in what he says, but unless I do the experiment myself and verify it to be true, I really cannot accept its validity."

These are examples of scientific or type C doubts which I will indicate by using a capital D: Doubt. Such a scientific Doubt arises not so much by distrust in the integrity of the source (type A), or even necessarily from the implausibility of what is stated (type B), but rather from two other considerations:

(a) The source could be mistaken, and scientific results need to be validated by people beyond and away from the source through independent observations and repeated.

(b) No matter how reliable the scientific authority who proposes or propagates a scientific truth, unless it is tested out as best one can, using all the available resources, one should not accept it as such.

Thus, Doubt is a necessary component of the scientific enterprise. There is an old French saying: Seeking to know is looking for doubts (Chercher à connaître, c'est chercher à douter).  But Cicero had put the scientific mode in a nutshell when he said: By doubting we arrive at the truuth (Dubitando ad veritatem pervenimus). Centuries later, Bertrand Rusell wanted to preach "the will to doubt," for, as he put it, "what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out…" [B. Russell, Skeptical Essays, p. 155.] 

Contextual relevance of Faith and Doubt

The value in distinguishing different types of faith and doubt lies not only in the clarifying the concepts of the related  attitudes, but no less in recognizing their importance and relevance in different contexts. Thus, for example,  singing hymns in church is a great thing to do, but doing this in a physics colloquium may not be appropriate, and even laughable. Telling a joke at a party may be appreciated, but not where people are mourning. In like manner, Faith, no matter how fulfilling it is to an individual, may not be helpful in the formulation or elaboration of a technical theory in physics or biology or whatever, just as doubting the sanctity of a scripture becomes inappropriate, if not offensive, during the performance of a sacrament or religious ritual. 

Generally speaking, type A faith plays a role in personal attitudes  decisions, and actions,  and these do  not carry weight in the public (science) domain. Thus type A faith comes to the fore in behavior towards people one loves, buying things from a source we trust, etc. They do not need proof or justification to colleagues or community.

This is not to say that Type A faith does not come into play in science. In fact, this kind of faith that inspires scientific investigators as they pursue the perfection of a theory they are developing.  For example Einstein and others spent many years trying to formulate a unified theory of gravitation and electromagnetism, goaded by a conviction that the two must be different manifestations of one and the same deeper reality. This conviction was nothing short of faith of the type A.  For, contrary to the normal undertaking in science which is to try to explain an observed phenomenon, attempts at unifying the two fields was an intellectual struggle to formulate a theory that had no observational basis whatever. This faith-based effort did no bear any fruit. On the other hand, the hypothesis of the wave-particle duality, proposed by Louis de Broglie on the basis of his faith (of type A) in symmetry in nature, turned out to be successful.

Similarly, a hot pursuit to detect an aspect of nature that is predicted by a scientific theory is often inspired from faith in the theory. This again may lead to success or may not. Thus, the search for the neutrino bore fruit, but that for the tachyon did (has) not.

On the other hand, it is failure to see the difference between type B faith and Faith that leads to statements like: "Whereas religions normally make a clear statement on their articles of faith, science introduces its assumptions more surreptitiously." [B. Alan Wallace, "Choosing Reality" (1996) p. 12] Contrary to the implication, science is not here to sneak into anybody's territory surreptitiously. It just marches on, with its triumphs and errors, letting the rest of the world benefit from and be enriched by its fruits, or discard it as per one's taste and talent, inviting all, but  compelling no one to accept its findings.

It is sometimes said that one cannot or should not compartmentalize religion and science. Thus, physicist-priest  John Polkinghorne stated [God's action in the world, CTNS Bulletin, 10.2 (1990)]:

"… I want to hold together my scientific and my religious insights and experiences. I want to hold them together, as far as I am able, without dishonesty and without compartmentalism.. I don't want to be a priest on Sunday and a physicist on Monday. I want to be both on both days."

It depends on what one means by holding together. To most people it would be difficult to bring one's faculty for Doubt in the presence of a sacred altar during the performance of a ritual, and equally hard to bring in one's Faith while doing a scientific experiment or elaborating a scientific theory. As long as it is recognized that Doubt and Faith are reserved for different categories of experiences, it is certainly possible to ignore or keep aside one faculty while being engaged in another. What is important is to understand the contexts are appropriately. To be religious and scientific does not mean that one has to bring into action both Doubt and Faith in all contexts, much less at the same time.

Attitude to Authority

Over 2500 years ago,  Gautama Buddha is said to have counseled his disciples: "Do not believe in something simply because it is tradition and old.  Do not believe in anything on the mere authority of myself or of any other person".  This injunction was in connection with religious truths and practices.  But it also sums up the motto of the scientific community to truth.  Indeed the suspicion that what is declared by a higher authority to be true may not necessarily be so, is not a discovery of the scientific enlightenment, as we see from the quotation from the Buddha.  All through the ages, independent thinkers have expressed such views; some of them have had to face rather unpleasant consequences because of this.

But it is impossible for any human being to arrive at all the truths by relying on one's own efforts alone. When children learn, they trust everything the parents and teachers tell them. They have faith in their elders, and recognize their authority. Even as adults we need to trust, have faith in doctors and bankers and governmental institutions, or else we cannot survive in society.  And when we learn about the world, we do accept without questioning and testing what recognized individuals declare to be true.

In the world of science, the idea is not that we should reject what others have said or taught, much less that authorities must necessarily be in the right.  Rather, the view is that nothing is true simply because it originates from a long respected indi­vidual, text, or institution.  In fact, the chances are that the longer a scientific authority has held sway, the more vulnerable his or her theories and conceptions are.  This is be­cause, as the years roll by, the bulk of human knowledge is also increasing.  Need refinements and modifications of long held notions become a matter of routine in science. Enthusiastic advocates of ancient world views who plead for the science of their ancestors sometimes have difficulty comprehending this.

Yet, the scientific community is not without its authorities.  In every field of science and at every period of its history not one, but several authorities hold power.  These are individuals who, by virtue of detailed study and years of research, have not only mastered all the available information of relevance to a particular field, but have also contributed personally to its advancement.  Hence an authority in science is respected and relied upon for depth of knowledge and understanding, never for infallibility.  The potential for erring is considered so human that no one is regarded as being im­mune to it.  As I pointed out earlier, when a student performs an experiment in the laboratory to verify a result that was expounded in a lecture, the act is, in fact, equivalent to an expression of distrust of what he had been told by a learned professor.  "You may be right," the student is essentially saying, "but let me double check, just in case..." This may be dis­respectful in any other context, but it is a virtue in science.

Authorities in science are generally referred to as experts.  The real authority (in the sense of one who holds power) in science is not an individual, but a body of ex­perts in the field.  This body is not elected, nor vested with special powers, but it forms itself by dint of the efforts and accomplishments of its members.

Gnosis and sciencis

Gnosticism refers to certain worldviews and practices in the ancient  Christian world. It had pre-Christian roots and non-Christian influences. Its essential components included mysticism and esoteric practices. It was built on the conviction that by these means the human soul could pierce through the intervening opaque worlds between us and the realm of the Divine, and ultimately reach the heavenly world beyond.

The word Gnosticism is derived from the Greek for knowledge: gnosis (jnyana in Sanskrit). It is no etymological coincidence that the Greek word for knowledge led to one kind of knowledge (esoteric, Faith-based knowledge), whereas the Latin world for knowledge (scientia) gave us the word science which is an entirely different kind of knowledge. For both claim to have acquired knowledge.

One of the tenets of Gnosticism was that it embodies higher knowledge which has come down to the practitioners from God Himself, perhaps via Jesus Christ. Moreover, this knowledge is to be accepted without proof or demand for proof, as all revealed knowledge ought to be. Then again, this knowledge is about God and His Kingdom, about divine transcendence, about the esoteric origin of the world according to which the world is the result of some corruption of the divine (reminding one of the symmetry-breaking of modern cosmology). Gnosticism is also about ways of finding our way back to where we came from, and about the ultimate dissolution of the world.

Though the word and practice of Gnosticism per se in the technical sense are no longer as widespread as they once used to be, the underlying Gnostic view of an unfathomable mystic undercurrent, the concept of higher knowledge, and an indescribable transcendence are still very much present,  implicitly or explicitly, often in transformed language and modes,  in all Faith-based systems.

If we coin a word sciencis to refer to knowledge gained through the mode, methodology, and framework of science as an enterprise, then it may be said that science-religion dialogues are  exchanges between sciencis and gnosis.

Analyzing believers and unbelievers

At one level of the religion-science dialogue, skeptics try to analyze why many millions believe in a God and in the religion of their family or ancestors. They have come up with various theories to explain this phenomenon which strikes them as unfortunate. Some have attributed Faith in God to fear of death and to awe about the hereafter, others as a continuation of the childhood need for a father figure, while yet others look upon it is a vestige of the herd-mentality which was already present in the pre-homo-Sapiens stage. Some have suspected that it is due to some genetic coding.

Conversely, ardent religionists have analyzed the mind-set of unbelievers. They have equally convincing (to them) arguments as to the sad plight of those who are blind to the magic of divinity, or stone-deaf to the call of the Almighty. Their explanations are often quite simple: The deluded unbelievers have succumbed, they say,  to the temptation of the devil or have fallen under the spell of some evil spirit; that the poor creatures haven't yet received the Grace of God, or that the inability to sing God's glories is a consequence of evil deeds perpetrated in past births.

Both groups choose to ignore whatever may be inconvenient for their thesis to the effect. Hence the conviction that unlike their own, there is something intrinsically wrong with the opposite camp. They discount the fact that many positive things have arisen in human history by belief as well as by doubt, that there have been great scientists and thinkers who have been men and women of deep faith, and many horrible acts have been committed in the name of Faith.

There is a famous statement by Thomas Huxley to the effect that "irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors." Huxley's affirmation fails to old in the following cases. That we will go to Heaven by serving the poor and the sick and the helpless is an irrationally held truth. At one time, it was a reasoned error to state that certain races were inferior to others, and needed to be subdued for their own benefit. Quite the contrary effects have resulted in these cases.

Likewise, Alexander Smith's declaration that

The saddest thing that ca befall a soul

Is when it loses faith in God and woman

simply is not true for many people, like Robert Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell, for example.

It does not seem to  occur to either group that essentially they both share certain common features: Both are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that their own understanding of whatever may or may not lie beyond the world of perceived reality is the right one, that there is an implicit arrogance in their attempts to analyze and explain the innermost beliefs of the opposite group, that if one is obsessed with explaining everything, the other mistakes experiences of  hopes, ecstasies, and transcendental visions with physical reality. If true believers regard unbelievers evil, the pure rationalists look upon faith-followers as fools.

Agnosticism

I digressed briefly into Gnosticism because that is what inspired Thomas Huxley in the 19th century to coin the word agnosticism. Though the vast majority of common people accept without much thought or questioning the assertions of traditional religious texts and preachers regarding the mystical world, the hereafter, eventual judgment day, etc., quite a few have often doubted if all this is really true. In other words, many  have had some doubts about some of the details in the Faith of religions, but they have often either not pursued the matter seriously, or simply accepted it all so as not to rock the boat.

However, all through the ages and in all societies, some have wondered aloud about it all. These are people who unsympathetically reject outright all the religious narratives about the distant past or its prognostications about what is to come in the very distant future, let alone about God and angels and such. Nor can they accept to be literally true what strike them as soothing stories. More in realization of the limits of the human intellect than in frustration or antagonism, they simply say that they really don't know about these matters. These are the agnostics. The term was coined by  Thomas H. Huxley. In his own words [Agnosticism, Nineteenth Century, February, 1889}:

"I took thought and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic." It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "Gnostic" of Church history who professed to know so much about the very things of I am ignorant, and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it to our society, to show that I, too, had a tail like the other foxes..."

Huxley's agnosticism was simply skepticism in science, for he said [C. Bibby, ed., The Essence of T.H. Huxley: Selections from His Writings (1967) p. 19], "In matters of  the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any consideration… Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable." 

It is an incontrovertible fact of human history that for millennia now the keenest minds and the most admirable human beings have enunciated the most divergent theses as to the nature of God and the hereafter, argued about their respective contentions endlessly, their followers have even been provoked  to mutual physical abuse. Corporal punishment for wrong doing, however unfortunate, is understandable. But to burn fellow beings on the stake, sever their heads or maim their bodies because they had different notions of what constitutes God or afterlife, the executors not having the slightest evidence as the incontrovertible correctness of their own contentions: this is incredible to those who have advanced somewhat from medieval mentality. In this context, to say, "I'm afraid I don't know," seems far more reasonable. 

Though many thinkers have adopted the agnostic attitude, like the words faith and doubt, this too has sometimes been misunderstood. Religious thinkers, especially, reject agnosticism because it refuses to affirm a reality beyond what we know for sure here below. Indeed, some have argued that one consequence of agnosticism is meaningless, because it adamantly refuses to attach long-range significance to anything; to hopelessness because it confesses that one is totally lost about what life is all about, and of course to atheism because it says, directly or indirectly, that there is not sufficient evidence for one to believe in a God.

It has been argued sometimes that agnosticism could lead to paralysis of action, meaning perhaps that if one is not sure of  Heaven or  Hell, of a punishing or a rewarding God, one cannot choose between moral options. It is not clear that uncertainty about the aftermath should necessarily lead to naughty behavior, much less that the practice of honesty, decency, truthfulness and other such virtues should be linked to or should hinge upon a bonus sooner or later.

Agnosticism is not refraining from making an assertion about any subject or a reluctance to take a stand on any issue, and a consequent paralysis to act. Rather, it is the expression of supreme humility in the face of very difficult and (apparently) intractable questions pertaining to origins and ultimate future.

Agnosticism arises from two factors. First, a conviction to the effect that questions pertaining to the nature of God, the relevance of Man, slime, slugs, etc.  in the larger cosmic scheme,  post-mortem persistence (if any) for currently kicking consciousness, etc., let alone the long-range meaning of life and love and laughter: such questions are interesting to speculate upon but impossible to answer unequivocally. This view  is often based as much on the history of human thought and religion, as from personal reflections.

Secondly, agnosticism if often also  an inability to be persuaded by answers to such matters, offered by any of the traditional religions or even by keen and insightful  philosophers, whether because those answers lack unshakable logical support, or because of one's own limitations in the capacity for accepting proclaimed truths, even if these are backed by time-honored prophets who are (alleged to be) messengers of an Almighty God. [Incidentally, there are significant differences of opinions among the prophets of the world to whom Ultimate Truths are said to have been revealed.]

 There are a myriad moral, humanitarian, political, and other issues on which an agnostic can speak with at least as much intelligence, and act with at least as much impact and compassion as one who is cocksure of the nebulous and complex issues pertaining to the Supreme and the Ultimate.

 An agnostic does not say, "You are wrong," but only that "I don’t know for sure, and probably neither do you." An agnostic is less likely to impose with force on others his or her lack of answer than a true-believer would, his or her own answer. An agnostic may be amused, and a true-believer will probably be upset, by those who hold different views.

A concluding thought

As along as skeptical unbelievers who tend to think they are the only scientifically enlightened members of the human family, regard traditional believers as misguided, irrational, and worse,  there really can't be healthy dialogue between science and religion. Generally speaking, deeply religious thinkers tend to recognize the value and merits of science as a knowledge seeking enterprise. But when they usurp the role of science in formulating hypotheses or resurrecting ancient world views as scientific truths that they tend to irritate hard-nosed scientists. Yet, it is ironic that scientists who preach and embrace multiculturalism (which at its best calls for sincere sensitivity for the cultures and  practices of groups other than one's own) also tend to be contemptuous of, and intellectually intolerant towards  the religiously inclined, especially of their own heritage and tradition.