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The ‘Grantee Voices’ series features contributions from our remarkable grantees. This article was written by T. Ryan Byerly, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at the University of Sheffield. 

A growing number of people today consider themselves agnostics about God. They’re on the fence about whether God exists. 

It’s not hard to see how someone would land in this position. Arguments for and against God’s existence might seem to cancel each other out. The supposed experts on the topic disagree. And for many of us, we are yet to have a compelling personal experience to decide the issue one way or the other.

It might seem that a person in this position couldn’t have faith that there is a God, and so couldn’t engage in practices that reflect such faith. If you’re on the fence, you don’t take the kind of stand that faith requires. You’re stuck in the middle.

This may come as bad news to some agnostics for multiple reasons. First, some agnostics may genuinely want to live a life of faith. Perhaps they feel that they once had a relationship with God, depending on God and living for God. Now it may seem that the best they can muster is to go through the motions, rather than lead a sincere life of commitment.

Second, in the absence of faith, the agnostic may also be missing out on associated benefits in terms of their mental health and personal development. Recent studies suggest that the relationship between religiosity and mental health is curvilinear—there is a U-shaped curve for well-being, with confident and committed atheists on one side and confident and committed theists on the other, each enjoying higher well-being than agnostics, who sit at the bottom of the U in comparative misery.

Yet, several of my fellow philosophers have claimed that agnostics are not necessarily doomed to a life bereft of the benefits associated with faith. A person could be on the fence in one respect, but not on the fence in another. When philosophers talk about agnostics, what they have in mind is someone who is on the fence specifically with regard to belief. The agnostic neither believes there is a God, nor believes there is not; they suspend belief about God.

Perhaps a person who suspends belief about God can nonetheless take a stand on God’s being there in a different way.

My own favored approach to this issue involves the idea of making assumptions. Consider an analogy. The defensive captain on a football team might feel that they don’t have enough to go on in order to form a belief about which play the opposing offense will call, but they might nonetheless be able to make an assumption about which play the offence will call and guide their behavior on the basis of that assumption. Did they believe the quarterback would call a run? No. But they assumed this would happen, and blitzed the gap. The agnostic might be able to do something similar, assuming that God is there and loves them even if they lack the quality of evidence they would require to form a belief about this.

This idea is not original to me. But what I’ve wanted to do in my recent research is test out whether it is anything more than a philosopher’s thought experiment. Do people who identify as agnostics differ with respect to other attitudes that might involve taking a stand in favor of God’s existence and love for them? If so, do these differences make a difference for agnostics’ well-being, potentially helping to overcome the disadvantage agnostics have in this area compared with theists and atheists?

To assess these questions, I’ve run two studies. In the first, I recruited 360 agnostics and asked them to complete questionnaires to assess their self-esteem, satisfaction with their lives, depression, demographic features, and personality traits. They were also asked to what extent they agreed with statements such as “I assume that God really loves me”, “I act as if God really loves me”, and “I have faith that God really loves me”. Although all of these people had said that they neither believe there is a God nor believe there is not a God, they varied in their responses to these latter questions.

The variation also mattered. People who were more inclined to agree with these statements also reported higher self-esteem and life satisfaction and lower depression. They also reported being more grateful people than their counterparts. These results remained even when controlling for other variables, such as participants’ demographics, personalities, past experiences with God, and the importance of religion and spirituality to them. The results seemed to be indicating that agnostics with more of a faithful orientation toward God experience greater well-being. 

A second study used an experimental design. I recruited 230 agnostics and divided them into two groups. Each group viewed a series of awe-inspiring images and was instructed to contemplate these images using prompts that were supplied to them. For one group, the prompt was neutral and the same for each image: “Focus on the details of the image.” For the other group, the prompts made use of ideas about God. For example, when viewing an image of a lightning strike, the prompt was “The lightning strike displays God’s magnificent power”; when viewing an image of a newborn, the prompt was “Every creature is treasured and loved intimately by God”.

What I found with this study was that again it made a difference for agnostics whether they reported a more faithful orientation toward God. Agnostics who were more inclined to agree with statements like “I assume God really loves me” also tended to experience greater increases in feelings of connectedness when contemplating the images using the prompts about God rather than the neutral prompts. This is significant because feelings of connectedness are not only overwhelmingly pleasant, but are known to lead people to treat others more kindly and benevolently. Even though these agnostics reported not believing that God exists, their more faithful attitude seemed to matter for how this meditative practice affected them in a way that might make a difference for their lives and the lives of others they encounter.

Agnostics have often been overlooked by empirical researchers.

And when the possibilities of agnostic spirituality have been studied, it has often been that researchers have investigated whether agnostics might substitute something else for God in their spiritual practice. While the studies discussed here are limited, they offer some support for the idea that agnostics may be able to engage in a salutary form of faith toward God. I personally hope to see many more studies investigating this intriguing possibility that may bring good news to those of us on the fence. 

Learn more about T. Ryan Byerly’s John Templeton Foundation-funded project.