December 22, 2023 Reading Time: 4 minutes

The basic problem with each side in today’s culture wars is that they know too much. Progressives self-consciously seek “progress,” (and they know what that means) and conservatives seek to “conserve” valuable forms from the past (and they, too, know what that means). The problem, of course, is that they’re both full of baloney. Neither side is inclined, shall we say, toward intellectual humility. The fact is, nobody knows precisely what “progress” should look like, nor is anyone wise enough to know precisely what traditions are worth keeping in the long run. Despite this, the majority of us non-extremists are caught out on an artificial teeter-totter of political divisiveness, struggling to stay sane in the demilitarized zone between two camps that presume to know more than we do.

A third way (which might be termed “centrist,” or “classical liberal,” or “libertarian”) is built on a foundation that presumes there is no way to know, in advance, what exactly society should be collectively aiming for. Call us agnostics if you like, aware of, and indeed embracing our collective lack of knowledge. That’s right: no presumption of directionality either Forward (as in Hillary Clinton’s “Forward Together” campaign) or Backward (as in the “Again” in Donald Trump’s MAGA slogan). Agnostics distrust dirigiste political structures, partly out of innate cussedness, but mostly from a position of informed historical experience; it’s not at all clear to an even-headed observer that grandiose plans for the directed structuring of society have turned out very well in the past.

Sure, a card-carrying progressive might argue that “progressive” doesn’t mean a complete dump of all things traditional, and even a stuffy conservative is unlikely to advocate for a rollback of, say, women’s voting rights. Despite their quibbling, however, each side acts as if it uniquely possesses the foresight to know where the body politic should move — forward or backward, according to their internal lights. Progressives today are certain, for instance, that society should morph toward a blurring or even inversion of ancestral gender identities, while conservatives are likewise certain that no such evolution can be tolerated.

In this vortex of competing certainties, the agnostic position emerges as a sanctuary for those who are not driven by a dogmatic insistence that they already know the way. Agnostics recognize that the future is uncertain, that the complexities of society cannot be neatly fitted nor steered into ideological boxes. Intellectual humility, they find, is a better posture than the arrogance of knowing what is best for others. The agnostic stance appreciates the need for change but is skeptical of radical, dogmatic transformations. It recognizes the value of tradition but questions a blind adherence to the past.

Importantly, in both the political and cultural sense, agnosticism is not a passive or nihilistic “know-nothing” position but an active one — aggressively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, open to diverse perspectives, and willing to adapt in the face of new information. While progressives and conservatives duel in the arena of certainties and are willing to place individual liberties on hold in support of their social ambitions, agnostics navigate an ever-shifting political landscape with a compass turned always toward the polestar of individual liberty. The agnostic recognizes that a nuanced, iterative, results-based approach to societal evolution must allow for personal freedom. It is a perspective that acknowledges the fallibility of human knowledge and that the only corrective is to allow for billions of individual experiments to play themselves out. The world improves when keeping what works and incrementally altering what doesn’t.

Yes, there is a paradox of teleologies at play here: Many progressives would say this iterative, world-improving approach is exactly what they stand for, but as modern campus dynamics demonstrate, there is a vast difference between welcoming change when it arises and enforcing change to follow certain preset guidelines. Try to advocate for preferential treatment of men in enrollment you’ll see what I mean.  Likewise, within conservative circles the claim is that they aim to improve the world by hewing to time-tested principles, but suggest the use of the Genesis-derived “first breath” doctrine for determining a baby’s Natural Right, and you’ll have a fight on your hands.

The agnostic recognizes that diversity of thought and approach is not a threat but a strength — a mosaic of perspectives that can contribute to a more resilient and adaptable society. While progressives and conservatives batter one another, agnostics emerge as the true champions of a dynamic, inclusive, and rational society. They reject the false dichotomy of choosing between extremes and embrace the nuanced reality that progress and tradition are not mutually exclusive. The agnostic perspective invites a collective journey of discovery, where the destination is not predetermined but emerges from a continuous process of learning, adapting, and evolving.

Theodore Roosevelt is said to have “always believed that wise progressivism and wise conservatism go hand in hand.” If by “wise” he meant intellectually humble and agnostic about ends, then he was very much on the money (though in his case it seems highly unlikely). Hand-in-hand progressivism and conservatism would, properly understood, generate the agnostic position. Agnosticism is not a surrender to indecision but a courageous embrace of the unknown, fostering a society that is not beholden to rigid ideologies but instead is free to explore the vast possibilities of an uncertain future.

Paul Schwennesen

Paul Schwennesen is an environmental historian. He holds a Doctorate from the University of Kansas, a Master’s degree in Government from Harvard University, and degrees in History and Science from the United States Air Force Academy.

He is a regular contributor to AIER and his writing has appeared at the New York Times, American Spectator, Claremont Review, and in textbooks on environmental ethics (Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill). He is the father, most importantly, of three delightful children.

Get notified of new articles from Paul Schwennesen and AIER.