Please weigh in, agree or disagree, thoughtfully and respectfully. Ferocity and passion are encouraged; disrespect is not. Thank you for reading, and seeing this as a conversation rather than a monologue.

April 17, 2011

Why I am an Agnostic Rather than an Atheist

I’d like to begin by turning over a hunk of this post to a passage from Stephen Batchelor’s book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. It begins around page 197. (For those who wish to skip my philosophical musings, there is a brief update on goings on here in Freiburg below)

“Siddhattha Gotama did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalized them. . . .

“I once spent a couple of hours trying to persuade a learned and intelligent Tibetan lama that the world is spherical in shape–but with little success. I would have had even less success had I tried to convince him of other beliefs I held: those about the Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, or the neural foundations of consciousness. I believed these things on much the same grounds that he believed in disembodied gods and spirits. Just as I unquestioningly accepted the authority of eminent scientists, so he accepted the authority of eminent Buddhist teachers. Just as I trusted that what the scientist claims to be true can be backed up by observation and experiment, so he trusted that what his teachers claim to be true can be backed up by direct meditational insight. I had to recognize that many of my truth-claims were no more or less reasonable than his. . . .

“...apart from these primary perceptions, intuitions, inferences and bits of information, the views that I hold about the things that really matter to me–meaning, truth, happiness, goodness, beauty–are finely woven tissues of belief and opinion. These views enable me to get by in my workaday world but would not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny from someone who was not sympathetic to them. Depending on how crucial they are to my integrity and credibility, I am prepared to defend some of them with greater vigor and passion than others. I drift and swim through life on a tide of derivative beliefs that I share with others who belong to the same kind of cultures as myself.”

Elsewhere in the book he enlarges on the first sentence quoted above. He says his atheism conforms more to the meaning of the original Greek, meaning not so much AGAINST theism as WITHOUT theism or gods. I find that to be both a corrective to my own impulse toward a combative agnosticism (an amusing juxtaposition of words, at least) and a concept that permits me to find a cozy spot a short distance from the angry atheists with whom I still feel some ideological affinity when it comes to the desire to combat fundamentalism.

As a layperson, and not a scientist, I have to admit to a level of dependence on authority in matters of the physical sciences. I have been drawing boundaries between the different claims to knowledge and wisdom, allotting each their fiefdom (fifedom – the place to which one can effectively “pipe” one’s followers or those of like mind – would also work). Science is a reliable, and still growing, authority on matters of how the physical world works and has developed, but not a great contributor on its own to questions of ethics or morality. Religion, philosophy, mythology and metaphysics are good sources for stories with which to make sense of the chaotic impressions with which the world bombards us, but no good at all with understanding how things other than humans work, and they have to be applied carefully outside of, or even within, their culture and time of origin. (Yes, I know: there is lots of room for quibbling on both counts, and I could spend time defining these boundaries better: but you have time only to read a blog, not a book, and I have time only to write a blog entry.)

In a nutshell, Batchelor seems to be saying that, yes, his and his Tibetan interlocutor’s ideologies will bear their respective weights; but he wouldn’t recommend jumping up and down on them.

I am not saying (nor, do I think, is Batchelor) that everything from every ideology is equally reliable or unreliable. He tends toward the utilitarian, as he discusses in the pages following the quoted passage. I tend, still, to believe that there are plumb lines, that beliefs and practices can be more or less in keeping with something resembling truth with a capital T, but the truth I imagine may be a projection of my own strivings toward Better. My idea of truth may simply be a longer-lasting or more broadly applicable version of utilitarianism. And it may be something to which we, in our times and places, have no access. We can only read history, learn about other cultures in our own times, and do the best we can. The next few generations will have to sort out what we did right from what we did wrong, in the context of their own times.

Which leads me to why I am an agnostic rather than an atheist. “Atheism” – as commonly used rather than as used by Batchelor – is a limited  term, defined by its aversion to and rejection of a deity. Batchelor’s use of the term comes closer to my idea of agnosticism: he says, in effect, “Ahh, God – interesting idea, anthropologically speaking, that I don’t buy. Let’s move on.” The question of god(s) is marginalized, seen as a distraction, at best, and set aside so other, more pressing, concerns can be addressed. Not worth getting red in the face about. What I like about agnosticism is its implication that all of what we know, however vast, will always be bounded by an ocean of context and information that we do not and cannot know and/or that conditions what we do know. For me, Wendell Berry’s essay, Letter to Wes Jackson, with which his book Home Economics opens, is the best 3 page synopsis of this view that I ever hope to read. (I would quote it at length, if not in its entirety, here, if either Google Books or Kindle had an electronic version.)

* * * * *

In other news, classes are going well. This weekend was spent going to the Münsterplatz Market (fruits, veggies, wood crafts, plants, etc.), taking some photos, and reviewing the Dative and Accusative cases, and my Past Perfect tenses.

The big news this week is that I was honored to be asked to contribute a short piece to the Goethe Institute’s booklet celebrating their 40th anniversary. I believe it will come out next month. Someone on staff had read this blog and liked what I said about my experience here.

I asked that a representative from the Green Party, which won a big election here a couple of weeks ago, come and speak to us about their plans and policies, the realities of German politics and green business initiatives, und so weiter. I am hoping that that might happen next month as well. There are folks within the Institute who know people in the Party.

Lilacs are big here. See photographic evidence:

My favorite German word of the week: das Chaos, spelled just like the word with the same meaning in English. I like it because it is pronounced very much like “cows.” Which makes my imagination go all Far-Side-meets-Picasso. Cubist Cows everywhere!

On that high note, auf wiederbloggen.


  1. Here's why I am:

    Because I recognize it as a possibility. That's all.

    Is there a "God"?

    Well, maybe. Could be. Sure. It's within the realm of possibility.

    If there is, I think he/she loves us. And if that's the case, he/she is probably going to take us somewhere positive.

    That whole negative, "going to hell" thing?

    I call b*llsh*t.

    It makes no sense.

    And if there isn't a "God"/Creator?

    It just doesn't matter.

    It goes back to the whole thing---all we have is now.

    Peace. Out.

  2. One of the things I find important again and again when discussing religion and/or the existence of a Creator is to emphasize the absence of emotionalism in all the parties involved. If that can happen--and I contend that, with either mature or intelligent adults (hopefully they're both)--it can happen. When that does happen, then good, constructive conversations can take place. The moment emotionalism overtakes either the believer ("There is TOO a God!") or the non-believer ("You're an idiot!"), the conversation and the possible constructive reason for the conversation is utterly lost.

    Religion without emotionalism, unfortunately for too many, is like toast without jelly.


  3. John, years ago I read an essay by someone whose name I don’t remember about why he was not an atheist and found myself agreeing with his point which was that atheism requires belief without evidence just as theism does. So he concluded that agnosticism is the only tenable position. I think there is a spectrum of investment in this position by its holders, from proselytizing, like, “I don’t know and neither do you,” to, “I ‘never’ think about it but when I do I remember there is no evidence either way.” I’d put myself at this latter end of the scale. But for those who maintain, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” I can understand that no appeal to rational argument will ever satisfy. Oh well, as long as they don’t kill me for my lack of belief I’m fine with that.

    Jim P


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