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6 Varieties of the Agnostic Experience

Few spiritual labels know such ambiguity. Now for some clarity.

by
Dave Swindle

Bio

February 27, 2012 - 2:30 pm

The Huffington Post reported last week that New Atheist firebrand Richard Dawkins conceded that God might exist:

In a 100-minute debate with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins surprised his online and theater audiences by conceding a personal chink of doubt about his conviction that there is no such thing as a creator.

But, to the amusement of the archbishop and others, the evolutionary biologist swiftly added that he was “6.9 out of seven” certain of his long-standing atheist beliefs.

Replying to moderator Anthony Kenny, a noted English philosopher, Dawkins said, “I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing (is) very, very low.”

So we can call Dawkins an “agnostic-atheist” now. Among the varieties of the agnostic experience this one’s the worst — the opposite of my agnostic theism:

1. Agnostic-Atheist-Materialist-Scientist: “God probably doesn’t exist but I won’t say so absolutely because that would reveal that I’m as dogmatic as the Jesus Freaks I live to mock and that I’m using science as a rhetorical device to dupe people into respecting my materialist theology.”

Agnostic-atheism’s logical conclusion? Nihilism. If there’s no God and no afterlife and if eventually all evidence of humanity’s existence disappears when the sun transforms into a red giant engulfing the first four planets of the solar system… then nothing matters. You can lie, defraud, abuse, and intimidate whomever you want — we’re all just space dust anyway. That’s where we came from billions of years ago and that’s where we’re all going to end up again. So I can be an evil person.

For the Agnostic-Atheist no power exists greater than his own intellect. Morality and ethics are well and good for the common, stupid man but meaningless in the long run. He’s more advanced than every believer throughout history. Thus, the agnostic-atheist has no check on his own innate arrogance. He is God.

The next degree of agnostic-atheism improves somewhat but still generates more smoke than light.

2. Agnostic-Atheist-Postmodern-Contrarian Jerk: “I don’t know if God exists and I’m not interested in finding a real answer. Instead what I care about is telling others how stupid they are for sharing their religious beliefs. Both atheists and Christians need to shut up in their dumb fight so they can listen to me and realize that I’m so much more humble and advanced than both of them.”

The Contrarian in our political culture acquired an overinflated reputation — mainly sustained by the late Christopher Hitchen’s endearing talents as a performer. This is the guy who steps in and seeks to elevate himself above the emotional zealotry “on both sides” (as though only two answers existed to every question.) In politics such people often advocate for “centrist” third parties or leap back and forth ideologically every couple years. They try and perpetuate themselves using the myth of the bold truthseeker with the courage to stand apart from the crowd, even if iconoclasm isolates them from the “ideologues.”

Give me a break.

Such people wear ideas like clothes — picking up what’s fashionable (and profitable) at the time — and then parade around like peacocks for all of us to marvel at their elegant prose and “edgy” positions.

In the religious world this habit emerges as the agnostic eager to debate and cast himself above others. The root of this behavior: the agnostic’s religious belief in postmodernism. Nothing can be known and every life-sustaining institution of Western Civilization awaits deconstruction until each component of American life lies at our feet like shards of a broken Christmas toy.

This variety of agnostic takes nihilism in a less destructive direction. Instead of obliterating other people’s lives with his amoral behavior, he pollutes the intellectual world with nonsensical jargon which by his own admission shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Having abandoned the rituals of the religious world the agnostic-contrarian must find doctrinal engagement through provocations. In arguing with believers and trying to convince others their religion false, the agnostic pursues a quest justifying his own conclusions. He’s not arguing to convince anyone really — except himself. That’s all the discussion is about — not honest truth-seeking or friendly intellectual engagement, but another notch in the agnostic inquisitor’s belt to prove to him that he’s the mental superior. Such a person still worships his own insecure ego, just not quite as explicitly as the agnostic-atheist-scientist.

This temperament manifests in internet comments consistently. You see it in its purest form when commenters copy and paste large chunks of articles and then rebut it sentence by sentence. I spent about 8 years — most of the previous decade — in varying degrees of this intellectual stage, both religiously and politically.

3. Agnostic-Indifferent: “I don’t know if God exists and it’s not really something I think about much.”

Now we’re about to the middle of the agnostic spectrum. Neither the agnostic-atheism of the two previous, or the agnostic-theism of the next three. Here we have people who shack up in a spiritual Switzerland. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) the category “no religion” grew the fastest in the United States over the past 20 years.

Take this claim at face value, you should not.

What percent of this alleged “no religion” category would put down “Jedi” or “Reality TV” or “Hobbit” or “Celebrity Gossip” if given the opportunity? Pop culture, hobbies, and sports can fulfill the same role as religion for many “non-religious.” I invite skeptics to revisit the militant responses to Kathy Shaidle’s fun house of geek sucker punches “Five Reasons Star Wars Actually Sucks.”

With the opiate of orthodox religion unavailable, then the methadone of pop culture can still suffice to a lesser degree. I say this, of course, as one who refers unapologetically to the twice-a-month “DisneyLand Sabbaths” he takes with his wife. Pirates of the Caribbean can count as a hymn, right?

4. The Christian Agnostic: “Something amazing happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.”

When I traversed through my crisis of Evangelical Christian faith during the last year of high school I asked someone close to me who was both a devoted churchgoer and a science-minded Ph.D. what he thought actually happened with Jesus. Miracles? Virgin Birth? Did He really die and rise from the dead? How much of the New Testament could we take as fact and what was just metaphor? And am I really supposed to just turn my brain off regarding all the dying-and-rising god narratives in religions throughout history? (There’s that postmodern pick-it-all-apart tendency from the 2nd variety.)

And this strong Christian, who has spent decades attending Bible study classes, who has collected shelves full of Bible commentaries, and who knows so much more than me said, “Well, I think something amazing happened in Jersualem 2000 years ago.” Just what the specifics of that “something amazing” were he knew no one could prove to a satisfactory level. Then he recommended this book above, Leslie D. Weatherhead’s The Christian Agnostic.

A growing comfort with mystery — not needing an answer to every question — seems a constant among many of my friends who remained conventional Christians while I spent my college years wandering in the mystic-agnostic wilderness. More than a decade later, those I’m still in touch with usually express less literalist interpretations than they did when we attended youth retreats together in the late ’90s.

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5. The Mystic Agnostic: “Maybe there’s something spiritual going on — there probably is — I’m just not sure what it is yet.”

During my first year of college I discovered the countercultural, mystic-agnostic philosophy of Robert Anton Wilson. The central teaching RAW advocated for 40 years in novels, nonfiction books, screenplays, and lectures: Don’t just be agnostic about God, be agnostic about EVERYTHING, especially yourself and your own abilities to find the truth.

To some this may sound too close to the agnostic-atheist’s postmodernism. However, mystic agnosticism doubles back around on itself: doubt your own belief system, doubt your own BS. So the mystic agnostic should not have the level of certainty needed to argue forcefully against others. And humor is important. Don’t take yourself so damned seriously.

But at this stage there are still a few components missing before returning full-circle to an agnostic theism. And the perpetual state of doubt never allows the agnostic to delve deep enough into a spiritual discipline so that religion can really work its magic to change one’s personality and character. Thus, a final correction to the agnostic experience must come next.

- J.R.R. Tolkien

6. The Mystic Agnostic Inter-Faith Ethical Monotheist Seeker: “There’s something spiritual going on and if we want to label it ‘God’ then that works. My agnosticism is not in whether God exists, but which God(s) are best and what it means to worship them.”

It took a decade but by now I’m over my “Christian and Social Conservative Derangement Syndrome.” This intellectual psychosis can descend upon anyone ever wounded at a young age by religious hypocrisy. The individual deflects blame to religion when they should target the hypocrites themselves. But enough time out in the “real world” reveals human nature unchecked as the universal poison of all endeavors.

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The cure for religious hypocrisy is religious sincerity and the past few years blessed me with sustained dosages in the form of friends and colleagues. From Catholics to Baptists to Pagans and Objectivists and Jews from Orthodox to secular in their observance — those committed to engaging with their tradition’s teachings and becoming a better person through them are the most inspirational people on the planet.

And they’re better people than I am. My friends who take their spiritual practice seriously experience happier, kinder, more decent, friendlier, and generally more financially successful lives than those who do not. The key reason why they’re good people is because their religion teaches them that they’re not. Those who believe in God sincerely see their own human frailties with eyes wide open — and through years of engaging in prayer, ritual, and their religion’s mystical practices their personality gradually starts to heal. And with many of these friends they have decades of practice ahead of me — of course they’re going to be better people.

This is the opposite of the Dawkins-style agnostic-atheists who have no reason to consider themselves bad people in need of fixing. Let’s take Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley at face value for a moment:

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“I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.”

Go forward with that mentality — an unintended side effect of the irreligious life — and you will find no great need to correct your own character flaws. (And worshipping pop culture usually doesn’t do the job, even when it’s wholesome fare like classic Disney.) Because why fix what’s already good enough when the world is filled with so many other problems?

A tentative conclusion I submit for debate: whether God exists may remain a great mystery, but no doubt remains that worshipping the abstract, faceless god of ethical monotheism makes people better. Life is happier, more comfortable, and more beautiful when we all agree to pretend that life matters.

So the new question that dogs me now as an agnostic theist is not whether God exists, but how best to worship him and thus fix my own personal failings. Which religion’s prescriptions, culture, community, and ritual traditions are most fulfilling and effective? I find myself growing jealous when my Jewish friends talk about their Kosher recipes or my Catholic friends discuss what to give up for Lent and even when my Objectivist buddies celebrate their mock holidays by selling Ayn Rand memorabilia.

Religious rituals have the power to reprogram us into the people we need to become to life satisfying lives. So where to begin?

Send your book suggestions and ideas to DaveSwindlePJM{@}gmail.com.

David Swindle is the associate editor of PJ Media. He writes and edits articles and blog posts on politics, news, culture, religion, and entertainment. He edits the PJ Lifestyle section and the PJ columnists. Contact him at DaveSwindlePJM @ Gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DaveSwindle. He has worked full-time as a writer, editor, blogger, and New Media troublemaker since 2009, at PJ Media since 2011. He graduated with a degree in English (creative writing emphasis) and political science from Ball State University in 2006. Previously he's also worked as a freelance writer for The Indianapolis Star and the film critic for WTHR.com. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their Siberian Husky puppy Maura.
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