Am I just a polite atheist?

It seems that I am born to doubt. After all my doubting of religion and atheism that led me to proudly defend the agnostic way, I now find myself doubting my agnosticism.

There are times, not all the time but times none the less, when religion just seems to me to be utterly ridiculous. I mean, it doesn’t really make sense does it? All these stories and mythologising. I realised the other day that most of my friends are atheists. If pressed, I think they’d probably say they find religious belief fairly absurd, and I can understand that. I don’t feel the need here to repeat all the arguments for the case against God. At a head level atheism is an easy choice. As John Humpries says in his excellent book In God we Doubt:

“Anyone with the enquiring mind of a bright child can see that the case made for God by the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is riddled with holes.”

And so, I begin to doubt myself (again). What if this whole agnosticism thing really is just about me not wanting to upset or get into a confrontation with religious people? Am I just a polite atheist?

Well, no. When I look at things honestly I know it’s not as simple as that. For all that I find the idea of a personal, interventionalist God impossible to believe in; and despite the fact that I think taking the bible (or any religious text) literally is a bad and often dangerous idea; even though I have, in the past, felt angry about the way some religious people have spoken of those who do not follow the same religion as them; in spite of all these things, I still find myself going to church. I go every week, religiously, and I love it.

There is no external pressure forcing me to go to church. I don’t go for social reasons, I don’t go for the music, I don’t go out of habit or to please my family. Today I listened to Tom Shakespeare on the radio encouraging people to be religious but not spiritual. He made a lot of good points about the potential benefits of being part of a religious community; encouraging people to look beyond their own wants and needs and offering an opportunity for them to connect with each other and with the world. He recommends religion because it provides tradition, discipline and a sense of belonging. I agree with him on this, being part of a religious community does provide me with this, and I value it greatly, but it’s not the real reason I go to church.

I go simply because it nourishes my soul.

This is something I can’t fully explain with reason. Who even knows what a soul is? But whatever it is, I’ve got one and it likes going to church. There is a spiritual spark inside me that needs to be expressed. Religion gives us a language to do this, albeit clumsily.

“Religious language clothes itself in such poor symbols as our life affords” William James

So yes, the religion and spirituality in my life is fluid and riddled with holes and doubts, but I’m ok with that. It’s the fluidity that allows me to grow and the doubt that helps me remember to be humble and try to understand others who think differently to me.

I love reason too much to be a decent christian believer but I love spirituality too much to be a decent atheist, even a polite one.

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Passionate Agnosticism

“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.”
Henry James

Agnosticism is not a belief, but a way of seeing the world and a framework from which to approach life. Some would say that the agnostic takes the easy option, sits on the fence and refuses to commit. But is it not more likely that certainty is, in reality, the easy option? Agnosticism is a refusal to settle, a refusal to stop questioning, a commitment to a search for meaning, knowing that that search does not end, but feeling that meaning can be found in the search itself. It is this passionate agnosticism which excites and inspires me.

I once went past a church with a sign in its window promising Freedom From Doubt. A comforting offer? There was a time when I desired nothing more. But as time goes on and I grow more comfortable with the ever-changing, ever-moving dance that is the spiritual life as I know it now, I find that what I want from church is not freedom from doubt, but freedom to doubt.

I love the words of Rainer Maria Rilke which encourage us to embrace uncertainty:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart

and try to love the questions themselves…

Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now

because you could not live them.

And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps one day, far into the future,

you will gradually, without even noticing it,

live your way into the answer.”

 

Socrates and Scientists

A discussion of agnosticism could really begin nowhere else than with Socrates. His famous phrase:

“I know one thing: that I know nothing.”

is perhaps the best starting point for any agnostic. And it is just that: a starting point.
Socrates did not see his admission of ignorance as a defeat, it was a realisation that he celebrated. Socrates did not despair of his ignorance, he loved it. He was, by his own description, a lover. A philosopher, a lover of wisdom, and he loved the search.

Nowadays, philosophy and science are often considered very separate fields but I think Socrates would have approved of the attitude of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“The not knowing is the actual attraction of it. So many people only want answers. To be a scientist you have to learn to love the questions. You’ll learn that some of the greatest mysteries of the universe remain unanswered, and that’s the fun part. That’s the part that gets you awake in the morning and running to the office, because there’s a problem awaiting your attention that you might just solve that day. You have to embrace the unknown and embrace your own ignorance.

So I don’t get overwhelmed, because I don’t think about what I don’t know as oppressive to me. If you think of it as oppressive, or if you have a measure of your ego that’s larger than nature provides for you, then it’s possible that you could end up quite depressed, seeing how small we are on Earth, [orbiting] around an ordinary star in an undistinguished corner of our galaxy between a hundred billion other galaxies. That’s upsetting to some people, because it destabilizes their sense of self-worth. I would assert that it’s not inherently destabilizing to learn this—it’s only destabilizing if you walked into the room with an unjustifiably high ego to begin with. If you come in with a humble enough ego, all of this is kind of enlightening instead of depressing.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

As we heard there, Tyson and Socrates are linked not only by their passion, but also by their humility. To be agnostic, to admit that you don’t know, that some of what you say might be wrong, puts you in a vulnerable position. We live in a world where to back down is a sign of weakness. Politicians rarely dare to publicly change their opinions for fear of being lampooned. Sticking to your guns is admired while doing a u-turn is shameful. The art of debate involves winning by proving that you are completely right and your opponent completely wrong. Of course there are times when sticking to your principles and not being swayed by those around you is vital and admirable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t listen.
Nor do I have a problem with debates, it is important for society that ideas can be challenged in this way. But when all discussions of serious subjects become like battles where the loser is humiliated and the winner rewarded with a feeling of smug satisfaction, I do think we have a problem.

Socrates likewise believed in the importance of debate in the political sphere. However he knew an alternative form of discussion was also necessary, one where the focus was on learning and broadening the minds of all involved. Such learning requires the humility I have already mentioned. It also requires a personal commitment to test one’s own principles, to be ready to let go of pre-conceived notions, to question and re-question lessons learnt throughout life. Put like that it may sound exhausting. But my own experience has found it to be liberating. Once we get over the ego issues associated with admitting we’re actually not really sure we’re right about anything, we can get on with living and loving all the mysteries of the amazing world we live in.

In fact, realising the greatness of the mysteries of life can be a religious experience in itself.

“The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who has never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and who’s beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is”

Albert Einstein

God

I’ve got this far in my discussion of agnosticism without mentioning God. What can God mean to an agnostic? Can God mean anything to someone unwilling to pick a side in the great Does God exist? debate?

Well, to this question I am willing to answer absolutely yes. In fact, it is my feeling that the Does God exist? debate is one on which too much time is wasted. Particularly as the word God has so many meanings to different people. Discussion of what God is, is fraught with difficultly. Mystics from various religious traditions have come to the conclusion that God is something that cannot be described, but can only be experienced. Mark Vernon writes:

“If someone’s thoughts on God seem logical, reasonable and clear, then only one thing can be said for sure: the meditation is not on God, but on some concept of a reduced divinity”

So if we can’t describe and define God where does this leave us? As a typical agnostic I can proudly say I don’t know for sure. But I’d like to finish by sharing the last verse of an agnostic prayer by Arthur Hugh Clough. I hope you’ll agree that its passion and truth of feeling are not in any way diminished by the writer’s agnosticism.

“Do only Thou in that dim shrine,
Unknown or known, remain, divine;
There, or if not, at least in eyes
That scan the fact that round them lies,
The hand to sway, the judgement guide,
In sight and sense Thyself divide:
Be Thou but there, in soul and heart, –
I will not ask to feel Thou art.”

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