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why i am an agnostic fideist

Over at his blog, Tony Jones has a series of “questions that haunt” – tough questions sent in by his readers (who include a full spectrum from orthodox Christians to atheists), which Tony invites everyone else to discuss, and a few days later offers himself. It makes for some very interesting, almost haunting, conversation. And this week’s is an interesting one. I thought I’d take a stab at it. :-)

Judi asked:

Recently have read a number of your blog entries. Grew up evangelical. Dealing with doubt. I’m trying to figure out why progressives hold to Christianity at all. Why not just be agnostic? I hope this question makes sense.

It’s a question I’ve been asked before, both by other people and even by myself. I talk a lot about God being beyond my ability to completely figure out. Heck, I’m writing a dissertation on (among other things) what we can say about a God so great he can’t quite be conceived by us humans.

First, just what do we mean by agnostic? Linguistically, it just means “not known.” I can be agnostic about lots of people – who will win the 2016 election, whether intelligent aliens exist, or (to borrow Bertrand Russell’s example) whether a magical teacup exists just on the far side of Jupiter that magically grows smaller than our best telescopes can pick up on, no matter how good they get. In fact, I am agnostic about all of these things right now, and I expect to stay agnostic about them until one option becomes more likely than the other. (I suspect I’ll have a more definite opinion in October 2016 than I do now over who will win that election.) Sometimes, there are also questions we simply can’t know no matter what evidence we gather. And we can – and should – be agnostic here as well.

Of course, when most people talk about agnostics they’re talking about religion. As I understand it, in this context, agnosticism is kind of like an atheism lite.* Agnostics recognize that theism is a logical possibility – they can’t prove God doesn’t exist – but they don’t see a good reason to believe in God either. We can think about lots of things we can’t disprove without taking them seriously. In the Harry Potter books, there’s a train platform at King’s Cross station where you can catch a train to Hogwarts. There’s nothing per se impossible about this, but that doesn’t mean I need to fly to London and run into the platform barrier to decide I don’t believe it really is. Some possibilities are worth taking seriously, and some aren’t. So many agnostics will admit they can’t prove God doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean they’ll build their life around that possibility.

I actually am an agnostic in the first sense. When it comes to God’s existence, I have to admit I don’t know. That’s because knowledge means I can completely wrap my head around the concept, completely understand it and develop an argument that proves things about it. One of the real difficulty you run into in philosophy of religion (and I assume theology, though that’s not my bailiwick) is with trying to come up with ideas of what God really is. Without that, we can’t really develop arguments to prove God does exists, but how do you get a concept that humans can understand, that truly represents God?

This is where faith comes in, and I do choose to believe God exists. Is this irrational? That’s a huge question in philosophy, whether you can believe something without evidence and that still be a good belief. Ask me in thirty years and I may have worked out my answer. But if it’s irrational, it’s not irrational in the same way as (say) 9/11 truthers or Obama birthers are. There, you have counterevidence – the video of planes hitting the towers, the released birth certificate and newspaper announcements – that those groups just deny exists. With God, I don’t think we have evidence one way or the other.

But is this knowledge? I don’t think so. That means I can’t say I know God exists, though I have faith, I hope, I believe. God is just too big for human knowledge. That means I’m an agnostic, at least the first sense, but I’m also in no rush to give up on Christianity. If you know me, you know I talk about religion and theism a lot, probably more than a lot of people want to hear. But if I’m an agnostic, why am I so involved with religion? I have three answers: the good, the bad, and the personal.

First, the good: Judi’s question was directed to the ex-evangelicals, which isn’t me. I grew up in the United Methodist Church, in what I thought of as the mainest of mainline Protestant churches. We read the Bible and took it seriously, and I was expected to change my attitudes and beliefs to reflect it rather than the other way around. But I also grew up with the idea that the way we interpreted the Bible should be guided by reason and experience along with church history and the literal meaning of the Scripture. (This is basically the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.)

My faith encourages me to take science and philosophy seriously even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s integral to Methodist Christianity that, if you want to know God and live the bes kind of life, you need to understand the world around you, too. And morally, a lot of my social progressivism – my feminism, my commitment to economic justice, my pacifism – starts with the idea that all humans are uniquely worthwhile, not just those I know personally. I’m sure you can fight for these causes without being religious, but in my case it’s taking my religion seriously and thinking hard about the Biblical stories and church history that drives my position on these issues. I don’t want to lose this.

(By the way, I don’t think this is just me. Connor Wood recently blogged about a spike in suicides among the elderly in South Korean. One reason: the nation has become increasingly secularized and has lost a lot of its Confucian underpinning, leading to elderly people spending their golden years isolated from their children in a culture where this was pretty well unheard of a generation ago. Religion provides useful ways to structure your life, and when we try to do away with religion, this can harm people if not done rightly.)

Next, the bad: I’m not blind to all the harm done in religion’s name. I’m perfectly aware that it was a Christian pastor (John Piper) who encouraged abusive women to submit to their husbands, and another (Doug Wilson) who defended American slavery. There was also the non-pastor journalist who argued the Bible encourages us to own and be willing to use guns. And of course we’ve all heard about Christian groups fighting against gay marriage, gays in the military, anti-bullying laws, and other things in this vein. These people use the same Bible I do, and they use it to fight – often quite effectively – for the exact opposite of my moral ideals.

So why share their name? Because I believe they are misusing Christian theology. One of the things I try to do with my blog is show how the Bible supports racial equality, gender equality, economic equality, resistance of violence, and other ideals I value are consistent with – even draw upon – Biblical themes and texts. It’s the work of a lifetime, probably more than one lifetime, and I won’t claim to be there yet. But if I simply renounced Christianity because it was anti-woman, anti-LGBT, whatever, that actually helps people like John Piper and Doug Wilson by letting them define the terms.

If you tell a Christian she must choose between supporting (say) feminism and calling herself a Christian, that the two don’t go together, suddenly you make it harder for her to support women’s rights. Because in this situation she can’t make that choice without giving up something important to her. So I have two options here: I can fight against religion, try to get people to become more secular, or I can fight for a better kind of religion, one that helps people fight for a more just world. For some people, the first option makes more sense. But for me, given that I actually see a lot of value in religion, it’s door number two.

Finally, the personal. I’ve actually tried to give up on God. I went through some things some years back that would have been a lot simpler if I hadn’t believed the universe was so ordered that things happened for a reason. I actually prayed to lose my faith, once upon a time, as odd as that may sound. But for some reason I can’t quite nail down, I’ve never been able to manage this. I can think about God not existing, of course, but that’s just never seemed real to me, no matter how hard I’ve tried. It seems like an interesting fiction, an intellectual exercise, but not the kind of thing I could truly accept.

Maybe that’s the cultural conditioning we all get as children at work. Maybe some people are simply more inclined to believe in something beyond themselves. Maybe I’m so intellectual, I need an excuse so I don’t have to work everything out myself. (I have a powerful drive to figure things out and solve all the world’s problems). But for whatever reason, at some point I had to make my peace with this belief. It’s about managing the belief, so I can use it for good rather than have it be a weight around my shoulders.

So there you have it. That’s why I’m an agnostic – and also why it hasn’t driven me away from Christianity. I’m sure my atheist friends will disagree on some points, like my assertion that theism isn’t irrational, or that religion has at least some good parts to it. And maybe some of my religious friends think you can know things about God – that you don’t have to be an agnostic, or maybe even that you shouldn’t be one. For me, though, agnosticism is about recognizing there are some things that are beyond my ken.

For me, my agnosticism is ultimately about faith. Maybe it’s not so surprising      I can believe this and still call myself a Christian.



*Above I described agnosticism as atheism lite. After discussing it with my friend Aearwen over at LiveJournal, I’ve decided this phrase probably sounds dismissive. I don’t mean it that way, and apologize if anyone was offended.

I’ve encountered two types of atheism in my life. Some are trying to participate in a spiritual or religious tradition but for whatever reason don’t think they can say they know God exists. These people are every bit as committed to doing the serious work of being a conscientious member of their religion. Sometimes they have philosophical issues with religion and knowledge-claims (like the making-room-for-faith aspect I described above); other times this is just about being intellectually humble when it comes to fundamental questions. I’m happy to identify as this kind of agnosticism as a label. I don’t consider it derogatory, nor do I think of it as putting me outside my own faith tradition, which is Christianity and in particular Methodism.

I’ve also encountered another kind of agnostics, who tend to act more in line with what I’d describe as atheists – people who don’t see any reason to suppose that God exists and quite often (but not always) think religion harms society and want people to become less religious. They may have philosophical reasons for thinking we can’t know God exists or they may simply consider it the more moderate form secularism that keeps them from having to call their religious neighbors wrong or ignorant. And in many cases, it’s simply a desire to get on with their life rather than becoming a philosopher of religion. They don’t feel compelled to explain why God doesn’t exist but instead point out they don’t see any compelling reason to think God does exist.

When I read Judi’s question, I thought she was talking about this second type of agnosticism. In particular, I imagined her asking a disillusioned ex-fundamentalist Christian who clung to protestant Christianity, if she was so disappointed with Christianity why not go to the logical extreme and give up on religion as a whole? Become a de facto atheist without having to bother with whether God existed or not, and live the more secular lifestyle your movement toward progressive Christianity seems to point you to. That was the context I referred to agnosticism as atheism lite. But even there, that’s more dismissive than I should have been. I know many agnostics within the freethought movement who are conscientious and intelligent and working hard to form reasonable beliefs and are not practicing simply a watered down atheism. I’ll try to be more careful with how I use my descriptions in the future, and I really do apologize to anyone who found that offensive.

I’m not changing the phrase because I try not to make substantive changes after posting. But hopefully this note will explain what I did and didn’t mean by that phrase?


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 27th, 2013 03:20 pm (UTC)
My faith encourages me to take science and philosophy seriously even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s integral to Methodist Christianity that, if you want to know God and live the bes kind of life, you need to understand the world around you, too.

EXACTLY why I am a Methodist still.

Faith and proof do not co-exist. Once I have proof of something, I no longer need faith. Faith and evidence can and do co-exist; that evidence may be subjective and of no use to anyone else, or it may be objective and quite useful to other people--though it may or may not convince.

I think that you and I are in the same boat; I too, can't not believe in God, and more to the point, I can't not believe that Christianity is the best and most reasonable expression of God in this world that I know.

Yes, it has flaws and flawed people as a part of it. Yes, there are those who misuse God's message and God's Word; there are those who are proponents of things that are diametrically opposed to what Jesus himself said and call it "Christianity". This does not invalidate it, however.

And I like your thoughts on religion and philosophy, so I hope you continue to post them.
Feb. 28th, 2013 06:37 am (UTC)
Thanks for the encouragement, Dreamflower. It's not that you guys don't comment on these posts - that's not the only reason I write, and you guys comment plenty. Sometimes it just feels like entirely too much of my life centers around this stuff for someone who's not a fundamentalist. ;-)

And your description of what you love about Methodism? Spot on. That's a good part of why I stay, too.
Feb. 27th, 2013 05:37 pm (UTC)
Most agnostics that I know are in the "I don't know" or the "it's impossible to know the exact details of" category, and to be honest, to be heaped willy-nilly into a pile you refer to as "atheist lite" is a bit... irking.

Yes, there are those lazy folks who believe in "something" because "everybody else does". But I seriously doubt they would call themselves anything other than merely "unchurched."

I am not an "atheist lite". There's nothing "lite" about the position I take now. I came to my agnosticism over a very rough road that led from faith to absolute atheism and only finally to the glimmer of maybe there's something there; but what that something might be certainly can in no way fit comfortably inside a box labelled "Bible" or "Quran" or "Veda". I would even hazard that there are few self-avowed agnostics who would consider themselves "atheist lite" either. Most who admit to agnosticism have arrived in that place after a great deal of thought or meditation.

There was a scene in the old TV show Babylon 5 that I believe illustrates exquisitely my agnosticism. G'Kar (major character) puts out his finger and an ant crawls onto it, and in the dialogue that follows, he compares our relationship to God (or "The Old Ones") as being similar to that of the ant to him. There is absolutely no way the ant can comprehend what it is to be a Man (or Narn, in that case).

In the same way, I cannot comprehend what it is to be God, or be able to know where to draw the lines or which details to use to fill in the definition of the Only True Absolute. Buddhism, a faith that doesn't even attempt to define divinity at all, much less dictate whether there is or there isn't divinity in the first place, was and is therefore the most comfortable "-ism" for me in my reluctant agnosticism.

I'm very glad you write about your faith and religion and experiences; they lead me to remember the really good things that came of all those years in that Interfaith email forum. I may not always reply to your posts, but you may be certain that I read them with interest, as they never fail to make me think.

It's always good to get to know fellow spiritual travelers.

Feb. 27th, 2013 06:08 pm (UTC)
That was a really bad word choice on my part. I did NOT mean to come across as dismissive. I'm writing from a tablet which doesn't lend itself to deep thought and I want to reply more once I get home, or maybe tomorrow depending on how exhausted I am. But I wanted to apologize for the insult and tell you that's not what I meant. I'll reply more when I can.
Feb. 28th, 2013 06:14 am (UTC)
Aearwen, I really am sorry I used that phrase "atheism lite" the way I did, as it really was dismissive. I should do better than, and will definitely try in the future!

I actually edited the post to talk a bit about why I used that label and why it's inappropriate. I wanted to include it in the original post since that's where the "atheism lite" phrase is, but I hope you'll read it. It's everything under the "ETA:" bit at the end. Part of the problem is that the atheists I spend time with (who I know are atheists) are almost all adult bloggers, whereas the agnostics I've met are mostly eighteen-year-olds in my philosophy class who are a little too unsure of themselves (or too unconfrontational) to want to call religious people wrong. That's just my experience, though, and I need to remember that it's hardly true of all agnostics.

I really should look into Babylon 5 one of these days. I've had more than one person recommend it to me as a good meditation on these issues.
Feb. 28th, 2013 06:16 am (UTC)
Btw, Aearwen, if you're interested you might want to check out the comments at Tony's post. A lot of people are talking about what they mean by agnosticism, and some of them are interesting.
Feb. 28th, 2013 08:20 am (UTC)
A couple of things...

First off, I hope you realize I wasn't angry when I wrote my response - I just felt the label you had used was a bit dismissive and generally unwarranted. FWIW, apology accepted and, given your experience as described, I can understand your thinking.

Secondly, I think it might be helpful to point out at this point that the opposite of agnostism/atheism isn't Christianity per se, but rather a very generic theism. Actually, there is no definitive line that divides someone from being agnostic to being a generic theist; it's really very much a question of degrees. I believe one could put up a continuum with Theist on one end, Atheist on the other, and Agnostic in the middle and have it be pretty close to an accurate depiction.

It's only after one has made this fundamental choice (of believing, not believing, or being comfortable not knowing for absolute certain) that one generally begins to think about which religion one might choose to "clothe" one's theistic beliefs in - which culture, dogma, system of ethics and morality, etc. one chooses to adopt as the most "comfortable" for the way one sees and relates to one's belief about the nature of deity.

This is, I think, why so many who self-identify as progressive Christians may privately admit to not knowing/not being capable of knowing with absolute certainty. Christianity, like all other religions, is more than just dogma and doctrine; it is a human social construct and shared spiritual language. Judeo-Christianity is the underpinning of a good deal of what constitutes our Western Civilization. It's in all of the languages of the Western world - I can't tell you how many times I had to explain to my kids what a certain set phrase meant, as they were being raised Buddhist and had no frame of reference for the saying.

I can also tell you from experience that deliberately moving away from and/or turning one's back on that social contact and everything - everything - else it entails is neither an easy nor comfortable process. It's a daunting and very frightening process that generally takes a truly catastrophic spiritual upheaval to place one even just slightly outside the "box" enough to even contemplate taking that step, much less carrying through with it.

One of the commentators on Tony's post illustrated this point quite succinctly when s/he said that s/he had once questioned things enough to find a reason to entertain not believing for a moment - and then said a prayer of thanksgiving after going back to more comfortable beliefs. At first, not believing is definitely scary - suddenly there's no God to give credit, to plead to for help or to get angry at; just one's own being and actions and the consequences thereof. There's no Satan to blame, no Heaven or Hell as final reward, and no free ride with salvation. For a Christian, that's pretty thin ice to attempt to skate on.

That's why I believe many progressive Christians - such as yourself, perhaps, in a way - may find it comfortable, convenient and even meaningful to remain safely ensconced in the religion they have practiced from childhood while very privately holding certain doubts. Now I don't mean to make this sound dismissive, but merely to point out that there is a certain understandable security in staying with the fold that shouldn't be ignored when dealing with the question of "why not just be agnostic?" By sticking with the familiar, one can also continue to use a familiar language, celebrate familiar holidays (whether the meaning remains as strong or not) and do any number of other social activities that would be otherwise lost. It's lonely outside the box; I know.

*To be continued in next comment - I really hate character limits...*

Edited at 2013-02-28 08:22 am (UTC)
Feb. 28th, 2013 08:21 am (UTC)
*continuing from previous comment*

In the end, it comes down to a question of what is important to the individual. Some will see their doubts as so fully undermining belief that they can't continue with comfortable social interaction within a religious framework any longer without feeling themselves made into hypocrits. Others find reasons to remain which, to them, are just as meaningful and valid as anything - and which are just as deserving of respect from others IMHO.


P.S.: I most definitely recommend you watch Babylon 5 - one of the things the writer (J. Michael Straczynski) did many times over was to pose moral and ethical questions without attempting to dictate the "right" answers. As a philosopher and spiritual traveller, it's a series definitely worth your time.

Edited at 2013-02-28 08:25 am (UTC)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )



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