Posts Tagged ‘Agnosticism’

I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he trusts them too deeply. I seek not death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and the stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let the teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

-Robert E. Howard, from “Queen of the Black Coast.”

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Like I said in my last post, I’m extremely hesitant to just come out and say that I flat-out don’t believe in God in the typical atheist sense.  This isn’t hedging my bet; I absolutely don’t believe in hell, I’m skeptical about an afterlife anyway (and even if there is one, I doubt very strongly that the particulars can be known), and a quick scan of the state of the world tells me that it doesn’t look like people who believe in God are getting all the breaks.  Part of it is an agnostic approach to epistemology: I don’t see how humans can know anything for sure at all.  All our sensory input is filtered through the double-filter of sensation and perception, and there’s no particular reason to trust that either one of those filters feeds us objective data.  We can’t really be sure that we’re not in The Matrix, so we certainly can’t be sure of something as attenuated from our direct empirical experience as the existence or nonexistence of God.

As far as we know, there is a God who is simply cleverly making the universe look to us like there is no God (I call this “Fossil-Hiding God”).  How would we know?  If an omnipotent or even mostly-potent supernatural being with more or less total control over the universe wanted to cover his tracks completely, I imagine he could do it pretty well.  Either way, like I said in my last post, I’m not actually convinced by the logical arguments of atheists for the nonexistence of God.  Despite all out efforts to reason him out of existence, I think it possible that he nevertheless exists–C. S. Lewis’s fantastic novel, Till We Have Faces, had a proufound the way I thought about the existence of deity and made me extremely reluctant to flat-out deny that the divine exists, even if it is totally unlike the traditional Judeo-Christian conetption of Yahweh.

So in terms of the existence versus nonexistence of God, I’m really more of an agnostic with a theoretically rebuttable presumption God’s nonexistence, at least inasmuch as we’re talking about God as a distinct transcendant supernatural personal entity, with or without a flowing white beard.

That’s not the end of the story, though.  the word “God” can be stretched to fit an amazing diversity of theistic and quasi-theistic concepts, many of which aren’t anything at all like the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of the supreme being, and it turns out that I actually do believe in something that if pressed, I could call God (although I would be reluctant to do so because the label “God” would confuse most people by implying that there’s a beard in there somewhere).  I think it’s worth explaining what I mean by all of this, especially since I’m actually trying to get to a point eventually, but I’m not going to make this post more confusing than it already is.  So hold your horses a bit and wait for the next post.

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I remember a poignant moment in one of the vignettes from Steve Martin’s book, The Cruel Shoes, in which the narrator tells about how his uncle told him he was sorry that he (the narrator, as a young person) had ever heard of the word “God.”  This resonated intensely for me when I first read it, which was something else considering I was a true believing Mormon at the time.

I wonder is life really isn’t easier, simpler, and better without God in it at all.  I’m not making any kind of vast prescription for society or the world here, and I’m not even really advocating atheism (certainly not the strong kind).  I just think maybe existence might be a hell of a lot better if I just completely stopped worrying or even thinking about God and just got on with living my life.

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If God exists, I think God is so far out of our field of experience and frame of reference as to be essentially incomprehensible to humans.  All of the world’s religions appear to be obviously objectively false.  However, I think that humans make sense out of the insensible by thinking in metaphor, sort of like putting masks that we understand on God so as to deal with something which we do not understand.  I think religion, religious belief, and religious practice can be positive, productive, and extremely useful both to society and to the individual, even if it is not objectively true.  In fact, sometimes I am inclined to think that people can actually in many ways be better off with religion (though not all kinds of religion: a sort of Taoist awareness that “the thing that can be talked about is not the actual eternal thing” is incredibly important, and serves to neuter our dangerous–perhaps even insane–fundamentalist impuses).  Since all religions are false but religion is nevertheless positive, I should be able to simply pick the one that appeals most to me and self-consciously run with it.  However, I seem to be completely incapable of doing so.

(For what it’s worth, alternately, if God does not exist outside the human psyche, then none of this changes.  We can label the unfathomable parts of our own existence and psyche “God” and essentially move on.)

Why am I incapable of picking one and just enjoying it?  All kinds of reasons, really.  Fear of commitment as a holdover from bad experiences with Mormonism (and a knowledge that “just trying it out” is actually a kind of commitment that can result in sliding down to total conversion if you’re not careful).  Persistent gut feeling that the objective truth of religion matters (another holdover from Mormonism).  A nagging feeling that all religions are equally, pitifully inadequate when it comes to accounting for all of life and existence’s complexities (even leaving cosmological models completely out of it), and a concurrent distaste for the idea of flavoring my entire life with any particular religious belief’s seasoning.  Nervousness about the ease of self-brainwashing.  The desire for some kind of mystical experience as a catalyst.  And plain old reluctance, like when you’re about to jump off of something tall and your legs seize up and your body just won’t let you do it.

There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about any of this, either.

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I don’t love the idea of agnosticism, but I think it’s where I’m going to end up.  I like religion, and think it would be great to have one, but it seems like they all do such a terrible terrible job of coming even anywhere close to capturing the ups and downs and complexities of “life, the universe, and everything.”  They’re all too simple.  Existence is too complex.

I don’t really think I’ll ever be able to simply adopt a belief system, and I don’t think it’s really possible for me (or anyone else, for that matter) to figure one out on my own that would be anything other than a sham.

I spent my whole life with a solid belief system to fall back on, and now I don’t have one and I don’t think I’m going to find one.  I don’t think Christianity’s going to work for me.  As much as I would love Druidry to work, I don’t think it will either.  I’m sure religions can work and do work for some people, and in fact I honestly think people are better off when they do, but I just don’t see how it can happen.

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So, the fact that I’m not posting much on here isn’t really indicative of a lack of thinking in the religious/spiritual vein. In fact, I’ve been thinking in overdrive, but not coming to any conclusions and not really going anywhere with it. My brother, Racticas (he comments here somewhat infrequently) is now in a Religious Studies masters program, so that’s added an interesting academic element to both of our searches.

I’m not going to church now, but it’s a deliberate thing. I feel like participation in church gives me a kind of uncomfortable vertigo-like feeling. Like the merry-go-round is going awfully fast for someone like me who’s not even sure he wants to be on the playground. I don’t know if that metaphor makes much sense. I feel like participation in church means moving in a direction, whether or not I know I want to be moving in that direction, or indeed moving at all.

In my head I’m going back and forth and around and around: Christianity-Asatru-Agnosticism-Atheism-Paganism-Christmas-Asatru-Christianity-Agnosticism-Frustration-Druidry-Christianity-Frustration-Anger-Christianity-Asatru, and I like Christmas. I don’t really know what to do with any of it. Every religion in the world is repugnant to me for some reason, but so many of them are attractive to me for so many other reasons. At the same time, I just don’t know if I can, or if I am willing to, simply will myself to believe. I find myself yearning for a catalyzing spiritual experience, but they just don’t seem to happen. Indeed, I don’t know if mysticism has ever really happened for me.

In other words, I’m no better off than I was nine months ago. Look at my archives; you’ll see what I mean. I know some of the Christians out there would say that my problem is that I’m trying to connect to a religion instead of connecting to Jesus, but for all practical purposes that still just sounds like gobbledygook. I have yet to figure out what “being in a relationship with Jesus” even means. But I still really like Christmas, and I am hesitant to even consider giving it up, and the religious significance in particular.

Maybe I’m just afraid to commit, mentally and emotionally. Or maybe I really just want a reason to believe that’s greater than just my preference. I’m not interested in atheism, and I don’t think I could ever be happy with atheism. But I don’t know if I could ever be happy with Christianity, Asatru, Druidry, or anything else. And I sure am never going to be happy with agnosticism. And I’m absolutely sure that I’m never going back to Mormonism.

I feel more desperate about it than I ever did before, partially because of simply being frustrated at how long this has gone on, and partially (mainly) because of major, earthshaking, terrifying life changes that are coming very soon during which I think faith could probably be a great source of strength.

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One of the funny things about this blog, wherein I document my spiritual journey to some kind of truth or meaning or whatever, is that whichever twist or turn I take, there’s always a chorus of cheerleaders telling me I’m doing the right thing. That’s why when my journey then takes me away from whatever detour it had me wandering through, I’m often reluctant to say so, in fear of disappointing the people who were excited that I stopped by.

I first noticed this with paganism. When I was looking into neopaganism and druidry, I attracted many neopagans and druids who were excited by the path my journey was leading me down. When it then led me back away from paganism, they mostly kind of faded into the woodwork (with some exceptions- I’ve picked up some good friends along the way). And I was sad to say that I didn’t think paganism or druidry was going to be where I ended up, because I knew those people would be let down in a sense. On the other hand, pagans tend to be really nice, nonjudgmental people, and as long as I’m not making fun of them or damning them to Hel, I’m pretty sure they’ve still got my back.

However, this dilemma was much more acute with atheism. When I ultimately spiralled into nonbelief, I was greeted with accolades and cheers from some of the internet’s atheists, for finally freeing myself from the shackles of atheism and being a mature human being who didn’t need deities as crutches anymore. When I decided that atheism wasn’t going to really work for me, I was reluctant to say so. For starters, accolades are nice. And the opposite of accolades is scorn, and I didn’t really want that.

Of course, I wasn’t really going to let how other people decide how I believe or don’t believe, but there was a minute where I was at least a little bit cagey about saying anything. I was getting so much support for declaring my atheism, and when I recanted, that support would probably vanish.

I say all of that by way of introduction tot his post. My goal hereis to explain why I stopped believing in God and why I started again. This might be a long post, so hang on to your hats.

When I first started seriously questioning the Mormon church last summer, my initial criticisms were centered around my feeling that Mormonism wasn’t Christian enough- Mormonism and Mormon scripture didn’t track closely enough with what I thought Christianity was all about (based on the New Testament, Church history, and the true Christians that I had come across over time). I felt like Mormonism was not leading me closer to Christ, but actually keeping me away from Him. Thus, in leaving Mormonism, my initial question was “what kind of Christian should I be?”

When I started this blog, my wife and I had only recently decided to actually leave Mormonism behind us, after struggling with it for some six months. I had also just read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and I felt like becoming a Christian was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. For some reason I didn’t feel like I already was a Christian, like I was already really committed to Jesus.

The problem was that my reasons for believing in Jesus, and in fact my reasons for believing in God at all, were basically the same reasons I believed in Mormonism. That is, I had simply been raised to assume that they were true, and this assumption was backed up by emotional “spiritual” confirmations. In deciding that those bases were insufficient for continued belief in Mormonism, I also took out the foundation, as flimsy as it may have been, for my entire belief in God. In other words, the same conclusions that made me question my belief in Mormonism made me ultimately question my belief in Jesus Christ and in any kind of God whatesoever.

I was waiting for some kind of mystical experience, some kind of contact with the divine that was the real deal, not the easy “warm fuzzy” self-delusion of Mormonism’s Holy Ghost. I was waiting for God to reach out and shake me, to let me know that he was real, to give me some kind of contact. But it kept not happening.

With that in mind, I began giving a loud voice to my innner skeptic. I started reading Ebon Musings’s essays on atheism, which are honestly extremely compelling and very difficult to dispute. Eventually, I was in a place where I had to admit that I had no real reason to believe in God other than wishful thinking, and if I was to be honest with myself, I would have to admit that I simply did not believe.

It seemed like a destination of sorts. It wasn’t what I was shooting for when I set out towards Byzantium, but maybe the place we intend to be is often a lot less realistic than the place we really wind up. I wasn’t a nihilist or anything; I still had some core beliefs that I was more or less confident in. But I could not say that I affirmatively believed in God.

The thing was, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t really want to be an atheist. I actually like religion! Specifically, I was (and still am) convinced that while an aheist can be a very good and moral person, and that a religious person can be a complete jerkwad, nevertheless for me personally, religion in general and Christianity in specific were going to have a much greater potential to make me the kind of person that I wished I was. I could be a good person and an atheist, that was never in question. But no atheist philosophy was going to actually transform me into a New Man. And Christianity made that promise.

But my problem was that if I was going to believe something, it would have to be more intellectually honest than my beliefs had previously been. No putting doubts on the shelf. No convincing myself until I was convinced. Nothing like that. I wanted to believe, but I didn’t want it so bad that i was willing to delude myself into believing.

So I went about tentatively trying to figure out how I could believe in God despite my loud internal skeptic (but without squashing him and pretending he didn’t exist) and despite the very good and compelling logical arguments against God’s existence, and the generally weak and limp logical arguments for God’s existence.

I read some Kierkegaard. I thought about how God and logic would interact, if there was a God. I thought about doubt, and whether there was a place for it within faith. I read Brian McLaren’s Finding Faith. I thought about hope.

In the end, I made a place where I thought I could theoreticaly believe in God. I had room for God in my framework again. However, having room for God, i.e., acknowledging the possibility of God, doesn’t equal belief in God. If, at that point, I had simply declared myself a believer, I would have been guilty of doing the very thing I was most loathe to do: talking myself into believing. Instead, I let it simmer for awhile.

At the same time, I started thinking seriously about Jesus Christ, and I found him extremely compelling. Christianity still kind of gave me the heebie jeebies, so I was still reluctant to even express interest in the religion. But the man? The more I thought about Jesus, the more I felt like there was something to him. Something more. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I knew I liked it, and maybe I even needed it.

I then let this stew for a bit. The more I thought about God, the more I thought that maybe God exists after all, despite my efforts to logic him out of existence. And the more I thought about Jesus, the more he seemed electrifying, powerful, important. Much more so than a simple wise moral philosopher, however great he may have been.

When I read C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, I finished the book and realized that after reading it, there was no way I could ever say that I do not believe in God. I can’t explain it very well, because the book touched me on an extremely personal, maybe even primal level. But it completely evaporated all of my defenses. It didn’t resolve my concerns or wipe away all of my doubts or anything, but it spoke loud and clear to me: nevertheless, there is a God. It was a life-changing experience that I can’t do justice in writing or even in speaking- it was so strange and powerful that I have a hard time articulating exactly what it was about the book that changed my whole way of looking at God.

Once I had made room for the possibility of God, Till We Have Faces showed me that God was a sure thing.  All of my anger, my logic, my insecurity, my waffling, and my careful arguments are made completely insignificant when faced with God’s existence.

In any case, that’s where I am now. I am sure that there is a God, and I suspect that Jesus might actually have been God. I’ve not got a lot more than that. I suppose it’s a start. I can’t really be the poster child for honest atheism anymore, but I probably never should have been. I’m not at my destination yet- in fact I don’t know if I’ll ever really “have arrived”- but I like where I’m sailing right now, and I’m interested and excited to see what’s ahead.

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I know I promised that I’d come back and try to articulate exactly why Till We Have Faces was so significant to me, but I’ve been at a loss for the last week.  I’ve tried to explain it to my mother, my wife, and to my brother, and each time I’ve ended up saying, “Trust me; you’ve just got to read this book.”

The best that I can manage is to say that after reading it, there’s no way I could say I don’t believe in God.  I felt like the narrator’s struggles with deity often were very close to mine, and I found myself identifying with her anger, angst, and anguish.  I particularly was moved by her first trip to the valley, and her frustration at not being able to see divine things, but almost being able to see them- just a glimpse, but not enough.  But the resolution of the novel so completely wiped all of that away, and not in a cheap or trite way, but in a way that seems like the kind of thing that would be true about a god.

When her charge against the gods answered itself, I was reeling.  When the Fox admitted that he was right about how religion missed the point entirely, but at the same time he was so horribly wrong, I felt like I was experiencing revelation.

All of my concerns about God are resolved on at least a basic, primal level by the mere fact that despite all I have to say, God is.  I guess that’s the best that I can do.

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I think I may have provisionally decided to be a Christian.  It boils down to this: I don’t prefer any of the other choices.  I’m certainly not going to choose a different religion over Christianity.  I’m also not satisfied with being nonreligious, irreligious, or just throwing up my hands and saying “I don’t know!”  I don’t want to be an atheist, so I don’t have to be one.

This realization might not be an entirely logical one, but I am not Mister Spock.  I am simply not governed entirely by logic, and I am not willing to govern myself entirely by logic, because I am not happy, satisfied, or fulfilled by so doing.  Nor do I believe that anyone is driven entirely by logic and reason.  I’m not saying that logic and reason are unimportant or irrelevant, just that they’re not the only factor that comes into the calculus.

Given all of that, the simple fact is that I like Christianity best.  Given the choice, I pick Jesus.  I am comfortable with Christianity, I find it culturally relevant, and I find it good.  Christianity is the standard by which I judge other religions… and so I shouldn’t be surprised when I pick Christianity.  At least I’m recognizing that the game was rigged from the start and acknowledging the answer I was ultimately going to come to anyway.

It’s like Wolverine, you see.  Of all Marvel superheroes, I like Wolvering best.  Whenever I play a Marvel Universe RPG, or HeroClix, or X-Men Legends on my GameCube, I pretty much always play Wolverine.  If I don’t, I’m sad because I’m playing the wrong character.  I like all of the other superheroes, too, but I’ve liked Wolverine the best since I was eleven years old.  I’m always going to like Wolverine best, and admitting that was a big step for me.  I know that he’s kind of a caricature, and he’s in every Marvel comic now, even Avengers, and it borders on ridiculous, and everyone likes Wolverine so it’s not cool to like Wolverine, but all of that doesn’t seem to matter much.  The fact is, picking a different superhero to play means not-picking Wolverine, and that’s not going to happen.

Christianity’s like that.  Other religions, belief systems, etc. are fine and good, and there’s a lot of genuine truth out there that’s worth finding, studying, and grabbing hold of (and not just paying lip service to, “truth everywhere, blah blah”).  But I’m not going to not-pick Christianity, so the sooner I face that and get on with things, the better.

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My problem when dealing with the existence of God isn’t about logic or reason, it’s about experience.  All my life I have been taught that you can talk to God through prayer like you can talk to a person, and that God will answer.  But I haven’t seen it happen in my life.  I’ve never felt like there was someone “on the other line,” and I’ve never felt answers to my prayers that were more than near-imperceptible subtleties, or “confirmations” of what I wanted to do anyway.

I was thinking, though… one of my issues is that I’m expecting God to reply to me in the same way that I speak to him, i.e. with words or something approximate.  I wonder is, assuming the existence of God, my expectation isn’t a tad unrealistic.

I mean, we’re talking about God here, right?  We’re talking about something that’s too big to wrap our minds around, and I’m expecting it to use human language?  I’m a law student with some linguistics background; I should know as well as anyone that human language is not really a very perfect method of communication.  Why would God resort to an imperfect and highly problematic method of communication when he ahs all existence to work with?  He’s not limited the way we are, so why should he restrict himself to the limits we’re subject to?

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say, and symbol can speak so much louder than words.  They may be  problematic in their own way, and harder to understand, but they can carry so much more meaning, and deeper, multileveled meaning, than words can.

Maybe that’s the problem with scripture- you have someone trying to hammer concepts into words that aren’t really made to be expressed in words.  Anyway, my point is that God isn;t a person, so why should I expect God to communicate with me the way a person does?

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