I recently engaged in an e-mail exchange with a reader who had sent me an invitation to join in a petition drive to reaffirm America’s long-time motto, “In God We Trust.” I rejected the offer in no uncertain terms, which led to an exchange of views: she is a devout Christian; I (hopefully this revelation comes as no surprise to my long-time readers) am a committed agnostic.
Our exchange culminated in her wish that God would bless me and show me how much He loves me. She also said she would pray for me, to which I replied that she didn’t need to do so, as I am content to be ignorant of the existence of the God she believes in or any other reasonable facsimile thereof.
Let me be clear: the idea of God is eminently appealing, especially if that deity is one who hears all prayers and responds favorably to those that are well-delivered, and even more especially if He (or She, but let’s stick with the male version for purposes of simplicity) also maintains a heavenly place that is open to all who live good lives in the here and now, when they depart this earthly existence.
That God, more or less, is the one I grew up believing in. He was the one I prayed to, the one I understood was all about love, the one I hoped would judge me good enough to allow entry into his kingdom when I died. He was all those things to me, even to the point that I seriously considered the ministry until wiser counsel prevailed.
That counsel, the accumulation of learning and experience, led me to question and, ultimately, to reject the beliefs I had held so dear in my youth. Forever since, I have been something of a spiritual explorer, searching for answers that will allow me to know what to this point in my life I do not and cannot know.
Agnosticism is not atheism, and as a firm advocate of the former, I earnestly reject the latter. Atheism is smug and obnoxious in its rejection of anything resembling the God in whom America trusts. Agnosticism is equally rejecting, but only from the perspective of ignorance (and it’s hard to be smug and obnoxious when you admit you are ignorant).
That the two “isms” are often lumped together (often to be joined with one or two others – like communism and socialism) disturbs me probably as much as devout Catholics are disturbed to be lumped with all the many Protestant sects in being called Christians. But as with the differences between Catholics and Protestants, the distinctions in views of matters spiritual between atheists and agnostics are significant.
Atheists do not believe in God (again here defined as anything resembling the deity of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths; we’ll leave some of the more exotic views such as the pantheist Gods of the Hindus and the humanist god of the Zen Buddhists for another day); neither do agnostics. But atheists are certain of their non-belief, while agnostics are open to all possibilities on the subject.
The evidence points against a God who hears prayers and abides over all from some spiritual nirvana. Atheists absolutely know that such a deity cannot possibly exist, and they heap scorn and derision on all who profess belief in such a concept.
Agnostics, on the other hand, accept that all evidence available to them strongly suggests that such a belief is ill-founded, but they allow that they can’t know for sure, because they haven’t been to the “other side” to observe what’s there.
Put another way, perhaps in terms that will be more accessible, agnostics accept that they don’t know what they can’t know, while atheists claim that they can know, by a process of simple deduction, what they haven’t yet themselves experienced.
The ultimate question that both those with faith and atheists claim to have the answer to is this: What might exist in the non-material world? True believers claim to know absolutely that there is a God who abides in it. Atheists claim to know absolutely that there is no non-material world and hence no God who rules over it.
Agnostics are not so convinced. True, we say, the evidence available to us indicates that a non-material world is unlikely, but, we quickly add, we can’t know for sure. How, for example, we are inclined to ask, did we get here if there isn’t a non-material force that willed us to be here? Put another way, what created all of this (the world, the universe, life in all its perfection and imperfection)?
It is these imponderables that afflict the mind of the agnostic. We’d love to know and be able to hold absolute beliefs, but we can’t, or at least we haven’t figured out how to know what we’d need to know. And so we declare in favor of the most likely result of our experiences and intellectual abilities and hold that we cannot believe in this all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God that our true believer friends cling to so fervently.
Faith is too easy for us, even as it is impossible for us to achieve. It is too easy, because it sweeps under the rug all the difficult questions our intellect forces us to ask, and for that very reason, it is impossible for us to achieve, because our intellect won’t allow us to hold it.
And so, when the true believer reader with whom I exchanged views told me she wept when she read of my “falling out of grace with God,” I tried to reassure her. Yes, we are troubled souls because we don’t have the assurance your faith gives you. But we are nonetheless content, because we know that if there is a God, He knows that He created in us this very ability that causes us such vexation: to think and question everything until we find the truth.
And if He doesn’t exist, then we are exactly where we should be: unknowing and content to be so.