Sunday, February 18, 2018

Adventures in Spirituality, Part I: The Nature of Agnosticism

[This is the first post in a long series.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

The other day I was pondering what it means to be agnostic.  I often think of myself as having that outlook, although of course it’s a slippery word that means different things to different people. says:1

a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

And that’s sort of what I mean when I use the term, but not exactly.  I absolutely feel that there’s an aspect of “unknowable” to the universe.  As evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane once said:2

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine.  Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

and I certainly agree with that sentiment.  The certainty of religion has always struck me as being a bit naive; to trot out a few more quotes:

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.  — Bertrand Russell

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.  — William Shakespeare

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.  — Confucius

To imagine that we fully grasp the nature of the universe because we’ve read a book or two that some other (equally fallible) human has designated as “holy” strikes me as the very height of human hubris.  Surely the universe really is stranger than we can imagine.

On the other hand, “agnostic” is often taken to mean “indecisive.”  That, rather than choosing religion or atheism, I just can’t make up my mind and am constantly dithering between the two.  Interestingly enough, in my experience it is only those truly dedicated to one side or the other that seem to hold this opinion.3  Well, speaking as a confirmed agnostic, I can assure you that I’m not having any trouble making up my mind.  It’s already made up: I believe there is some sort of force running the universe, but I don’t know what it is, and I probably never will.  And I’m okay with that.

That’s what “agnostic” means to me: that, while the concept that we can understand everything there is to understand about whatever Higher Power runs the universe, and can influence Its decisions by means of arcane chants and rituals, is certainly absurd, the concept that there is no Higher Power at all and everything just happens by sheer chance is equally absurd.  My experience of the world has taught me that neither of those concepts meshes with reality particularly well.  So I prefer to live in the middle.

The amusing thing about being an agnostic is that you get to see both sides in an unflattering light.  The devoutly religious are often dismissed by atheists as believers in fairy tales, which honestly has a grain of truth to it, but is far too haughty.  Contrariwise, the entrenched atheist may be disdained by religious types as being amoral: obviously, without a Higher Power telling them right from wrong, they would have no moral compass whatsoever.  And, while there may be a tiny bit of truth lurking there too, it’s an almost perversely obtuse attitude to take.  What both sides seem to want to conveniently ignore is that the other side has millions (if not billions) of devotees, many of which are remarkably intelligent and learned individuals.  So any explanation that involves the other side being “not too bright” or “not too principled” is severely lacking.

I admire people of faith, and I also admire atheists with strong science-based convictions.  But they can go to extremes, and then it’s not as much fun being in the middle.  When it’s more like being a spectator at a tennis match, watching the logical arguments fly back and forth, one can afford a wry amusement.  When it’s more like cowering behind a rock while the bullets are flying, then it starts to be a bit scary.  My pet name for Christian extremists is “CCFs,” which stands for “crazy Christian fucks.”  This might make it sound like I have something against Christians, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The majority of them are wonderful people—just as are the majority of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and so forth.  But there will always be bad apples.  Did you know that Genghis Khan was a Buddhist?4  When I first learned that, it kind of broke my brain.  On the one hand you have a religion which holds all life as sacred—a religion in which some monks will not even kill an insect.  And, on the other, you have a conqueror who started out by killing his own half-brother and ended by killing (by some estimates) 1.2 million people in a single massacre, after he had already won the battle.  He was known to build pyramids of human heads as a symbol of a victory.  Also, he was a practicing Buddhist.  Now, of course, any Buddhist will no doubt point out that he wasn’t a “real” Buddhist, that he wasn’t actually practicing the “true” tenets of Buddhism.  Which is exactly what the average Muslim would say about a suicide bomber, or what the average Christian would say about people who bomb abortion clinics.

So it can get tricky.  When I see someone on television holding up signs saying that gay people are going to go to Hell, I can’t help but feel like that’s explicitly contrary to the message that Jesus was trying to get across when he said things like “love your enemy.”  Even worse, it really undermines the whole argument that religion provides a moral code to live by and atheists are therefore amoral.  If my choice is hang out with a bunch of people who have to hate entire swaths of the population because “God told them so,” suddenly the atheists are not looking so bad.

But of course the atheists have their extremists too.  In 2010 the government of France outlawed burqas (among other things); this was on top of the 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools.  Measures like this seem (to me) to stem from a misguided attempt to stem overt religion, on the grounds that religion breeds intolerance.  Which is of course true: historically Christians in particular have been remarkably efficient in exterminating people whose religion they disagreed with, even other Christians (see e.g. the Anabaptists).  If I may offer up one more quote:

To know a person’s religion we need not listen to his profession of faith but must find his brand of intolerance.  — Eric Hoffer

And yet, is forbidding Christian children from wearing crosses in school the way to solve that problem?  This now undermines the other side: the atheists are supposed to be the calm ones, the logical ones, the rational ones, but this starts to smack of hysteria ... and on top of everything else, it’s pointless and ineffective, as history should have taught us by now.  The Romans forbade the Christians from displaying their symbols and meeting in their churches, but it doesn’t seem to have done much to stem the tide of Christianity.  And then the Christians took over and tried to forbid—or, even worse: co-opt—the symbols of Druidism and paganism, and yet we still have Wiccans and many other flavors of neopaganism.  It just plain doesn’t work, so why are we still trying to do it?

So my position as a self-confessed agnostic often puts me firmly in the middle, or perhaps in a sort of no-man’s land, not really able to identify with either side.  I’m often put in the position of sending out emails (or blog posts) that try to straddle this line; for instance, when writing about my son’s heart surgery, I included this line:

For those of you who know us personally—and/or who just feel so inclined—we will gratefully accept your positive energies, be they in the form of prayers, rituals, spells, or just good vibes, should any of those be a thing you believe in.

This was a very carefully crafted sentence, one that I put a lot of thought into as regards how to best appeal to those of my friends who might be so inclined to want to pray for us—and I will gladly take all the prayers you care to give, regardless of whether I subscribe to your brand of “God” or not—as well as to those of my friends who might be inclined to roll their eyes at the concept of begging an invisible man in the sky for favors.  But, you know, there is now ample scientific evidence to support the idea that positive thinking can impact your health.  Oh, sure: they call it “dispositional optimism,” because that sounds fancier and more science-y, but it all comes down to the same thing.  So I’m happy to receive positive energy from any and all who are willing to send it my way.  And, if you don’t believe in that sort of crap no matter what the scientific studies say (or you’d just like to point out that extrapolating the power of positive energy from studies on one being optimistic for oneself to beneficial outcomes for being positive on behal of others is not really supported by the extant evidence), that’s fine too.  I’m okay either way.

You may recall ever so long ago that I said that I believe most fervently in balance and paradox.  And that’s no less true of my approach towards spirituality than anything else ... in fact, it’s probably more true.  After all, I sometimes (somewhat flippantly, granted) claim that “baladocianism” is my religion.  So, as a baladocian, I certainly believe that the truth lies somewhere in between religion and atheism ... and also that they’re both true.  My approach to spirituality is somewhat complex, and it’s been shaped by my experience (naturally), and, as I pondered what it meant to be agnostic, I also thought about what brought me here, and I thought that maybe it might be interesting to share that journey with you.

Next time, I explore the flavor(s) of Christianity I inherited from my parents, and where I left them along the way.


1, if you’ve ever wondered, is based primarily on the Random House Unabridged, although it includes content from other sources as well.

2 In 1927, in Possible Worlds and Other Papers.  Thank you Wikiquote.

3 Just as, in my experience, only the most staunchly heterosexual or homosexual adherents will condemn bisexuals as fence-sitters.  But I suppose that’s a sentiment belonging to a very different blog post.

4 This is a mild exaggeration—he was raised a tengrist, which is a form of animism.  But he often practiced Buddhism, and consulted Buddhist monks, and so forth.

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