Saturday, November 05, 2011


Why I Am an Agnostic

PZ Megahertz has been running a series of posts by people recounting why they became atheists, so I thought I'd give my history (as best I know and can remember) why I stopped being a theist. The caption is a bit misleading. I'm not going to explain why I consider myself an agnostic rather than an atheist and comments by atheist-imperialists will be dealt with severely. Suffice it to say that certain "definitions" of agnostics as "over-philosophized fussbudgets who insist that they're agnostics, not atheists, because they aren't 100% positive there aren't any gods, only 99 44/100ths positive" ain't close.

This whole exercise may be somewhat futile since, as I have already explained, I'm not sure I ever saw the point of religion and may never have been a "theist" in the first place. Still, there was a pretty definite time and place when I no longer assumed the form of a theist.

It was in high school, an institution I roundly hated, not least because it was presided over by the Brothers of Holy Cross, a group of men who were "dedicated" enough to religion to adopt celibacy but either not dedicated enough or, more likely, not talented enough, to become priests. Putting the disappointed in charge of the helpless with few, if any, rules against physical and psychological abuse is a recipe for adolescent disaster. I should make clear that neither I nor anyone I knew suffered sexual abuse. It was solely of the bullying sort, intended to achieve the maximum humiliation, particularly of those who were not in the favored athletic elite.

Needless to say, such an environment hardened the students with the ethos of "survival of the toughest" and woe betide any teacher not able to wield the lion tamer's whip and chair with aplomb.

Enter a very nice man ... a priest, for a change ... whose name has escaped into the mists of time. He was gentle and caring and had genuine humility, uninterested in dominating or controlling others. By this time, I had been struggling with the problems of evil and free will (yes, I was a philosophy geek at age 17) with little success.

His classes were, literally, a joke ... for the budding barbarians, at least. Paper airplanes flew at the turn of a back; messy spitballs were incoming during any audiovisual presentation; there was absolutely no respect displayed by the students to this man. And, yet, he never lost his temper; never struck back; never used his position to intimidate us into civilized behavior. He tried to lead us by argument and example ... to persuade the unpersuadeable.

That's when it struck me. Here was a man who, as far as I could see, was the epitome of the purported attributes of Christ ... kind, patient, willing to suffer the indignities of the world for a higher purpose. If you had to be like him to be a good and true believer, I didn't want that. If you had to be that good to be a good theist, I wasn't willing to pay the price.

The thing that convinced me that I was not a theist was meeting a man who was too good for this world.

I had the Irish Christian brothers in an all male school. Good education, but I liked girls.
I'm not a theist because I don't believe there can be scientific proof of a god active in the natural world. And I think that's OK, because if there is a God science shows that's the way he/she wants it, IMO.
I'm not an atheist because, in spite of their professed skepticism, many of my atheist friends will nonetheless believe in things like encounters with ghosts or (shudder) multiverse theory - things without scientific proof. I'm a better skeptic than them. In one sense, I'm not sure if it's possible to be an atheist.
That kind of leaves agnosticism by default.
That's interesting . . . actually I moved from atheism, then to agnosticism and finally to becaming a theist because of people like the priest you mentioned.

I thought, "If being a theist means you can live with that kind of radical freedom, not being a slave to others' reactions; and being a theist means you can live out that kind of inner peace no matter what's around you, sign me up!!!"

I have a long way to go, though, before I'm that free.

-- pew sitter
Reasons why I am not a theist

a. Too many selfless(i think) unanswered prayers.
b. a lot of friends from diverse religions lots while growing up forced me to do a rudimentary comparative analysis.
c. parents and a grandmother who believed that religion is a personal thing even if one of them was deeply religious. So not much brainwashing.
d. Some examples of bad behavior from people who I would certify as good - due to their religious prejudices.
e. the concept of worship seems alien to me from when I can remember. Respect/Love etc I could understand. Worship/Surrender not so much.

I still think of myself as agnostic because I don't know and I don't care(except when I have to). I'd rather the distinction be religious(in the sense religion has something important to tell us) and not religious.
@Anonymous Pew Sitter
becaming a theist because of people like the priest you mentioned.

So if tomorrow you meet good and kind atheists, you'll revert back?
"The thing that convinced me that I was not a theist was meeting a man who was too good for this world."

Did that also convince you that there is not another world? Do you know what you don't know? Your logic is your own, and only your world can refute it. But could it be that you are being tested in ways that you don't understand, and you failed?

nope... I know several good and kind atheists, and I like to think I was one, myself.

-- pew sitter
@Anonymous pew sitter
so how does the reasoning hold then ?(ofcourse I understand that you are relating what happened)

For whatever reason, those (few) religious people I met who impacted me so much seemed to me to have something going beyond ordinary goodness and kindness.

It was that, plus a kind of freedom they had, plus being and living out a kind of radical goodness, willing to extend themselves in extraordinary and often personally costly ways. It was just beyond anything I've personally seen in the secular people I've known, and they did these things precisely because of their religious practices and convictions.

I've also known plenty of religious people who were real jerks, and nonreligious people who are just wonderful.

So in my case, it's less about a universally applicable reasoning process than personal experiences with people I hope to become more like, in the short time I have to walk this earth.

-- pew sitter
@Anonymous pew sitter
ok. I wont push it :)
I don't see how a single issue could push one over the edge. Perhaps it just takes a while to integrate the many aspects that, when taken together, make religion untenable.

I reminds me of something I wrote as a young pup, not quite clear on the concept of blogging:
And, finally, this leads me to wonder how the state of the world today compares with Medieval times. So many “average” or “typical” people are burdened with the same kinds of superstitions that our uneducated ancestors suffered. How often do we see a movie or read a book, or hear a report from a distant land, and think, “How silly and naive those savages were (are)!”

We all know it's silly when a shaman bangs on a log, expecting the gods to send rain. Yet we join Rick Perry in banging on another log, hoping our god will send rain to Texas. In the end, I think it all boils down to "I don't want to die and enter oblivion."



I would suggest that anyone banging logs with Rick Perry has already entered some kind of oblivion.

-- pew sitter, formerly Texan, wishing Molly Ivins could be resurrected
"wishing Molly Ivins could be resurrected"

Amen. She'd have had fun with The Hair.
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