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.
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?