02 March 2010

Agnostic Is Kind Of Like Atheist, Right?

A question frequently asked is, "Agnostic is kind of like atheist, right?" This is usually asked with some degree of very deliberate masking of discomfort or fear, probably partially because those asking it are thinking of these cantankerous and destructive sorts when they think of "atheist" (not all atheists are alike), partially because they either can't fathom or are dismayed by the idea of not believing in the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, all-just, all-watchful, all-involved God they have grown to love and worship, and partially because they're afraid of what it means if you don't believe in God, an issue I may address later. I get that. But the answer to the question is "no".

Agnosticism is not a declaration of a creed or assertion of unprovable belief, including the belief that there is no God (some atheists dispute that denying the existence of God can be called a 'belief' but is rather a rejection of the hypothesis that there is a God...semantics: you still can't "prove" there isn't one in the same way you can prove your left hand is not an elephant). Agnosticism is, by definition, the admission that "I don't know."

There are many "kinds" of agnosticism. Many lean atheist, not really believing in a God but acknowledging that trying to prove non-existence of God would probably be a futile effort, and an unnecessary one in light of many more pressing or productive questions and problems to solve. Many are religious in their own way, describing themselves as agnostic Jews or agnostic Mormons, believing the main principles of their respective religions, maybe even the core doctrines, and valuing the general values and social structure they offer but perhaps questioning, disbelieving, or rejecting specific doctrines, creeds, or practices. Many are "spiritual" in a sense, not religious but following mystical thought or believing in a great, universal, cosmic force and finding meaning and direction in seeking out positive energy and harmony in themselves and their relationships. In other words, agnostics come in a wide variety of forms, the common thread being the concession that there are some significant things we probably can't "know", and that's OK.

Agnostics get hit pretty hard from both theists and atheists alike (even though agnostics can also be either). They're called "lukewarm" for not committing to religious order despite doubt or for being a "cafeteria Mormon", or intellectually lazy for not committing to the lack of evidence of the existence of a God as proof that God is a myth. It's the wishy washy stance to take, even no stance at all, some insist. As I see it, though agnosticism can be a copout, the kind of agnosticism I'm talking about has required a lot of intellectual effort to come to terms with and has required swallowing pride and letting go of the need to "be right" about something or sanctioned by a religion. It's not easy to look at the world around you and try to assess what you really are confident about or believe in vs. what you have just accepted because you've seen no acceptable alternative explanation or option. Of course, that's kind of all any of us is ever doing, and we just are more confident about some things than we are about others, but that's no excuse for lacking conviction about anything. ...But now I'm getting into some ideas that aren't going to be easy to articulate, so I'll back up a bit.

Short version: it takes effort and brutal intellectual honesty to actually choose not to take a side when taking sides would be much easier socially or much more comfortable intellectually. If agnosticism is lazy, I must be going about it all wrong because it's not been an easy ride. Seems it'd be a lot easier to just embrace everything taught by church leaders and make my decisions based on that or to reject everything about the church and insist I will never change my mind. That, to me, would be lazy. It would also be easier to say, "I believe the core doctrines but not necessarily the stuff that doesn't make sense to me," because then I could retain the respect of those who will applaud me for at least "trying to hold on to my testimony" or holding on to the Church despite doubt. But that's probably another post. But I've had to face reality: I don't think I believe any of it. I don't feel it. I don't even really have a desire to believe it. I don't need it to explain the world and life. Other understanding has supplanted the void left by "what if it isn't true?" I never thought I believed it only because I needed some crutch but because I believed it was true: period. But now more than ever, if I am to believe it, it will be because I actively choose to, not because I feel a need to or haven't honestly given an alternative a fair chance.

I no longer feel compelled to pronounce belief in that in which I am doubtful or don't believe. It's enough to say, "I don't know," not in a dismissive or shirking way but in a very matter-of-fact way. I believe firmly in principles and in being the best I can and being productive and making the world better, a subjective idea, I admit. I remain open to the possibility that I might have a spiritual reawakening someday. A testimony might be rekindled. But for now, though I believe in many of the principles which I believe underlie the doctrines, I don't know whether I will again believe in the doctrines I used to believe in, not even the "core" doctrines, and that's OK with me. I know believers can't accept that it's "OK", but I don't need them to.

That's one of the beautiful things about agnosticism: the defensive need to justify belief dissolves because you're unafraid to say, "I just don't know," and you're then free to truly explore the answer with far less bias, without the overarching need to "prove" something to a particular group, but to honestly seek the truth the best you know how and try to be open to whatever that is. Contrary to conservative religious thought, this does not free one to act however one wishes, nor does it necessarily make life inherently meaningless. But again, that's another post for another time.


D-Train said...

The words "I don't know" scare the hell out of religious people. I am not a social scientist but from my experiences, religion seems to stem from two things: (1) a fear that when we die there is nothing more, and an overall hope that there is something more; and (2) a desire to answer the "I don't knows" of life.

I'm like you, I don't know a lot of these answers, but I no longer feel that my beliefs and/or existence are threatened by the unknown. Many religious types are afraid of science disproving what they have always wanted to believe, or are quick to integrate what science proves into their beliefs claiming that they believed that all along.

Many people ask me where I think the world came from, inferring that they Big Bang theory seems pretty far-fetched. I am inclined to agree with them that it is hard to grasp, but that more importantly, I don't know how the world came into existence. But I no longer believe in the mysticism of an all-powerful being creating the world because the other explanations seem unreal or difficult to understand.

For thousands of years, we as humans have not known where the world came from, and instead superstitious ideas have shaped human beliefs. For me, I am no longer afraid to sy that I don't know, but I refuse to fall back on the popular ideas of our time just because it is easy to do.

Bravone said...

I may get blasted in one of your future posts, but having been atheist for a few years, I have no problem admitting that I don't know the answers to everything or even many things. I believe in the basic principles of the gospel as taught by Christ. Doctrine is another story. Some I understand and believe and some I have to say, "I don't know." I keep studying and searching, but not longer am troubled to 'not know.'

blj1224 said...

D-Train -- I was never athiest, but I was an avowed agnostic, with which I was very comfortable and had NO desire to be shackled by any organized religion. Now, like Bravone, I believe in the basic principles of the gospel as taught by Christ, but don't fully understand some of the church doctrine, and it's fine with me to say "I don't understand" or there are things "I don't know". Now as an active and committed church member I have no fear of what I don't know, I love science, I love the gospel, I'm fine with unanswered questions, and I am quite able to think for myself.