Posts Tagged ‘skepticism’

When I hear fundamentalists preaching hate and atheists ranting against organized religion, I am proud to be agnostic. It seems the only intellectual and moral position with any integrity. It seems the simplest position to take – the only one that avoids obsession and allows me to appreciate the Christian culture of the past while neither overvaluing it nor repudiating it. In fact, agnosticism has a sub-culture of its own that is more satisfyingly complex — and therefore closer to the real state of humanity — than fervent belief or unbelief.

When I call myself an agnostic, I mean that I take no position on the question of whether a deity exists. Given the existing evidence, I tend to doubt it. However, I reserve the right to change my mind if any evidence worth considering comes along.

I suppose that if you define deity as the underlying structure of the universe, I might grudgingly call myself a pantheist. But, while that structure deserves my admiration, I see no reason to worship it, or to think that it is sentient and would receive or want my worship. So, on the whole, I remain an agnostic.

One of the major advantages of this position is that I can put aside all questions about religion and get on with my life. This is something that neither the religious or atheistic can manage to do. On the one hand, the religious obsess over what their creed would have them to, abdicating personal responsibility for their morality, as if they are overgrown children.

On the other hand, most of the atheists I know obsess over religion at least as much as the faithful — and often more. Like alcoholics, they are pre-occupied about what they have given up, so much so that the average atheist could be described in the language of addiction as a recovering Christian or a recovering Buddhist.

By contrast, as an agnostic I no longer concern myself with faith or lack of it. Both are equally irrelevant so far as I am concerned, and if I am somewhat closer in outlook to an atheist than to a believer, unlike both I let go.

That is not to say that religion holds no interest to me. Nothing that occupied so much of humanity’s attention for so many centuries can be unimportant if you are interested in history. Over the years, I have read a variety of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish texts as well as some Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Sufi and Zen texts. But I approach them from a scholarly perspective. For the most part, they are not instructions about how to live and think, but rather a record of how people believed they should live and think in the past.

Encountering these beliefs can be fascinating, but I have no more urge to imitate them than I do to wear a toga or carry an assegai.

The same is true of art and history. Although religion has clearly inspired great art, I do not look for prove of my convictions in that inspiration. Nor do I expect archeology or newly discovered documents to confirm the truth of what is presented in the Bible or any other religious text.

Yet, at the same time, I feel no need to repudiate my culture’s religious past. I accept and appreciate it as an interesting example of the varieties of human experience, recognizing that it has probably shaped my thoughts to an extent – even in a post-Christian era – and see no need to dismiss the outlooks of my ancestors. As an agnostic, I have not repudiated my past so much as repositioned myself in relation to it.

To others, I know, this perspective is intolerable. Nor, in fact, is it always easy. But I have concluded that my two-way doubt is an accurate perception – or at least a more accurate one that faith or non-faith. There is a terrible certainty about faith or non-faith alike that too easily becomes strident and simplistic.

What I appreciate about agnosticism is that it encourages perception and acceptance of ambiguity. That is why, I suspect, that the English language novel did not manage to come into its own until the skepticism of the nineteenth century set in. Strong convictions make effective polemics, but they discourage observation and meditation. That is why there is such a rich sub-culture of agnosticism in the works of writers like George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. In such writers, the uncertainty of belief leads to a closer examination of people and their habitual behavior – and, ultimately, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, to psychology.

Agnosticism has no grand statements about human existence. If it did, then by definition it would not be agnosticism. But as a perspective, as a stance in relation to the rest of the world, it seems less self-deceiving and more self-correcting than either faith or atheism can ever hope to be. Agnosticism has no pre-conceived perspective, which makes it the philosophical position of choice for those who prefer to know the world as it is rather than how they would like it to be.

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I am not a Christian. Nor am I follower of any other religion, or even a theist. For years, I have wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But I thought I had made my peace with being a non-believer in a culture whose origins were Christian, making myself tolerably familiar with the Bible and the history and philosophy of belief throughout European history.

Then, some years ago, I was blind-sided by a statement of the obvious.

Although I hadn’t been Christian since puberty, I had always thought that the most recent parts of the Bible had a historical background. Probably things hadn’t happened quite as described in the New Testament, but I assumed that the descriptions were roughly true. After all, the New Testament accounts mentioned historical figures like Pontius Pilatius and Herod Antipater.

So didn’t it follow that a historical Jesus had existed? Of course, he probably bore about the same relation to the stories as the historical King Arthur bore to the writings of Thomas Malory, but after you discarded the religion doctrine and traditions like the sacrificed god, there would be a core of truth.

Then, I read a book called The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty. The book is poorly written, and has the obsessiveness that marks a crank, but it introduced me to the idea that the whole of Christianity was a neo-Platonic myth, most likely originating among the Jewish population of Alexandria that had started being taken literally.

I learned, too, that there were reasons to question external references to Christianity like those in Josephus, and that reputable references to Christianity did not occur until well into the second century of the common era. Even some of the references to the modern story of Christ in the later books of the New Testament were metrically suspect.

These ideas are not universally accepted. But the fact that they can be reasonably held at all shows how shaky the conventional views actually are. More importantly, they give reasons for some aspects of Christianity that I had never heard adequately explained, such as the neo-Platonism on the gospel of John, and some of the references to the Christ figure that seem strangely vague if they are supposed to be about a man who had lived. Although not proved, the ideas were at least plausible.

To my surprise, I found myself reacting as though I’d been tackled by someone I hadn’t seen. I suspect that belief in a historic Jesus is the last refuge of an agnostic or atheist who used to be a Christian, a minimal adjustment of their thought that allows them some continuity with their past and cultural history. Even in our disbelief, we cling to a sense that the stories of Christianity must have some degree of reliability. But, suddenly, even that minimum belief seemed questionable.

I realized, too, that I was angry. I’d been lied to, which always makes me self-righteously indignant, told false certainties were established fact. The fact that, on reflection, I realized that the liars had probably lied to themselves first did not make me any less angry.

If my reaction could be summarized in three words, those three words would have been: How dare they?

But the closer you look, the more dubious the founding legends of Judaeo-Christianity become. Despite the record keeping of the Egyptians, no evidence of anything remotely resembling the Exodus has ever been found. What evidence exists points to the Ancient Hebrews being offshoots of the Canaanites – locals rather than invaders. Similarly, no reference exists in any of the surrounding cultures of the empire of Saul, David, and Solomon. The few references to the kingdoms of ancient Israel that have been found suggest that, at best, for most of its history it was a satellite kingdom of the surrounding superpowers, a fact that should have been obvious from one look at a map.

Yet I remember seeing maps of Solomon’s empire when I was growing up, and other maps showing how the twelve tribes settled Palestine (in fact, look up Judea, and you can still find this map on Wikipedia). The maps, that are supposed to value accuracy, are works of fantasy, charting as certainties facts that are questionable and unsupported by the archaeological record. In fact, the more archeology that is done, the more the Biblical accounts look like fiction embellished with a few sprinkles of fact for verisimilitude.

Was anyone surprised when the James Ossuary, allegedly the container for the bones of Jesus’ brother, proved suspect? I wasn’t. It was exactly the same as every other effort to reconcile fact with the Bible: unproved, the product of wishful thinking at best, and of outright fraud at worst.

And when I consider that European culture is built on such foundations – well, don’t come trying to convert me is all that I can say. Because if you try, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do.

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