Defending “Nothing in Particular”

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the rise religious non-affiliation in America. While everyone expected the usual angry rants from the conservative right, a lot of material has been put forward by the “Nones” (I know the term is offensive to some, but I kind of like it). Being unaffiliated, and having had a rough time of it when I was a kid, I’ve tried to look for stories about my own experience. So I was surprised when I found nothing out there.

Or, at least, I have found practically nothing from the agnostic point of view, but plenty from the atheist and militant anti-religion camp. A few months ago I read Alternet’s Greta Christina’s “Christianity’s Faith-Based Freakout: Why Atheism Makes Believers Uncomfortable” which resonated with me, for the first half at least, and was compelled to write the following. I was reluctant to publish it because talking about my faith makes me uncomfortable, but I’m tired of reading gems like this, which is basically hateful trash and makes all of us Nones look bad. Moreover, I haven’t read anything expressing my point of view. Then I read Christina’s article and thought I’d found a voice I liked, but was mistaken.

Christina relates several stories about professed Atheists and other Nones being asked, and sometimes forced by friends and family, to “go through the motions.” They weren’t allowed to not practice religion. This fit my own experience, and I appreciated finding out I wasn’t alone.

But I take exception is the second half of Christina’s essay where she says,

“Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. But the simple act of coming out as an atheist denies it this consent. Even if atheists never debate believers or try to persuade them out of their beliefs; even if all we ever do is say out loud, ‘Actually, I’m an atheist,’ we’re still denying our consent. And that throws a monkey wrench into religion’s engine.”

Her point is that atheism is objectively better than theism. That belief in God, or any religious dogma, crumbles before skepticism and dissent.

Defending your beliefs is admirable, but using that to de-legitimize someone else’s is just mean-spirited.

Anyway, her argument is flawed because it works both ways: if an atheist’s nonbelief should be threatening to a theist, so should the reverse. I know a lot of rational, well-informed believers (and there are a whole hell of a lot more of them than us Nones), but that doesn’t make me uneasy about my convictions.

That said, I’ve never felt oppressed for my lack of religiosity – just insulted. I don’t harbor ill-will towards religious people, and I know I’m privileged to have grown up in a town where expressing my differences didn’t get me ostracized or make me the target of a hate crime.

Still, I don’t like narcissism, or evangelism, or the glib way anyone with firm beliefs denounces someone else’s. And I’m really skeptical of absolutes.

Since the nineties, it’s become less stigmatized to identify as non-affiliated – whether that means calling yourself atheist, agnostic, indifferent, or just nothing in particular. I’ve noticed a lot of articles written by atheists, especially responding to a late-2012 Pew Research study that found that one in five Americans identify as “none,” which is an all-time high (in 1990, it was 8%). Most spend a lot of time dwelling on “why?” Why is non-affiliation becoming so popular?

Explanations range from the rise of the internet to mainstream American religion’s intolerance of gay marriage. Others argue that because media has given us so much access to atrocities all around the world, and the ability to talk about it, that it’s hard to believe in an all-loving god. No matter what the reason, there seems to be a consensus that religion, not God, is dying in America

I’m skeptical. Written language has been around for a long time, but remembering things hasn’t gone out of style, like Plato feared. That may be a bad comparison, but my point is that people always think the world is ending and it never is.

I feel there’s a simpler explanation: there have always been a lot of atheists/agnostics/desiring–non-affiliates and it’s only now become socially acceptable to be openly None. I’ve got nothing to back that up, so it’s just a hunch.

Here, I’m tempted to draw a parallel between Nones and a plethora of innate but formerly unrecognized identities, but I’m not entirely sure that’s fair. You choose religion, not sexual identity.

Or do you? Beliefs, I mean, not religion (which you can choose) or sexual identity (which you can’t choose). Can you choose to believe in something? You can choose to put your faith in a political party, but could you make yourself believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Or Russell’s Teapot?

I cannot bring myself to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. The idea strikes me as absurd (no offense meant to believers). My rationality prohibits it, because I can’t reconcile the idea of an OSPB God with the Problem of Evil (or Suffering). I’ve been fair to the apologists and looked for arguments against me, and the most compelling one I’ve found is that Good necessitates Evil, but that doesn’t seem right because of the whole omnipotent thing.

And I’m frankly insulted (and believe others should be, too) by Pascal’s Wager, which basically says “if God exists you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by believing in God.” It makes Belief into an act of ultimate (literally) selfishness.

Similarly, I can’t convince myself not to believe in God. That may be a vestigial sympathy from my upbringing and cultural heritage, but it’s about as entrenched as my belief in causality and the intrinsic worth of human life.

So, I’m an agnostic, which is the reason I’m writing this in the first place. Plenty of atheists and theists have thrown in to this debate, but I haven’t seen anyone give a passionate defense of agnosticism. Moreover, a lot of the authors who’ve discussed the Great War between non-affiliation and religiosity talk about agnostics and the other Nones who don’t identify as atheist with bafflement and contempt.

Somebody’s got to stand up for the “nothing in particulars.”

Agnostics get a bad rap. In the Life of Pi, the narrator says, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” Richard Dawkins feels the same way, calling agnosticism “intellectual cowardice.” (I like to think agnosticism is even more hardcore than atheism, because it even finds the certainty that there is no god suspect. In that way, atheists actually have more in common with theists than agnostics do.) Most people seem to think the philosophy is milquetoast at best or, like atheism, heretical/sacrilegious/irreverent (choose your term) at worst.

But, we’ve got the majority (of the minority) on our side. The Pew Study divided the “Nones” into three groups: atheists, agnostics, and ‘nothing in particular.’ Seventeen percent identify as agnostic and “Among the ‘nothing in particulars,’ about eight-in-ten (81%) say they believe in God or a universal spirit – and a plurality of those who believe in God say they are ‘absolutely certain’ about this belief.”

Religious affiliation is declining in the United States, but that doesn’t mean spirituality and faith are, too.

I think that most of the Nones would agree that faith is complicated and emotional and there are more immediate things begging our attention. That’s how I felt about it for years. For most of my adult life, I’ve just side-stepped the problem and not thought about it. The technical term here is apatheism (functional indifference to religion and theism) or, in my case, pragmatic agnosticism.

Those are the terms that probably best describe most Nones. Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies writes a pretty good sum-up, “I guess I’m an atheist. Or I would be if I identified as anything, except — like a lot of my peers — I don’t… The only thing that unites us is the belief (if you can even call it that) that there is no god. This is also why (for me), the idea of an atheist convention is so stupid.”

I included that last part because I do think atheist conventions are anything but stupid. I’m sympathetic to her definition of identity (or lack thereof), but conventions and institutions like the Secular Coalition of America are important. The religious majority throw us together into one big pot and are distrustful of non-theists. By virtue of other people’s prejudices, it’s important to have an advocate to prevent and combat discrimination (or worse).

Back to my original point, just because I choose to be unaffiliated doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to the conversation. I’ve studied religion and philosophy, but, until recently, I haven’t asked myself how I felt. I can, of course, only speak for myself, but I think that my sentiment is shared by a lot of the Nones out there.

The English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnosticism” in 1869, and defined it thus,

“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

Wikipedia offers a more technical definition that goes, “Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, as well as other religious and metaphysical claims—are unknown or unknowable.” I prefer the former, but the latter describes what most people think of as “agnosticism,” that the existence of god (OSPB or otherwise) is impossible to prove to disprove.

There is a political angle to this. Bertrand Russell has a terrific short piece about how rationalism cuts two ways. Basically, he says there are limits to human knowledge, so everyone needs to calm the fuck down and stop doing things like burning people at stake.

For me, agnosticism means embracing skepticism, humility, and pragmatism.

It’s an attitude more than a method or view. Treat other beliefs with respect and listen carefully, because you might find some new ideas useful and appealing. Realize that there’s a sliding scale of certainty. There are things we can be pretty certain about (like that you’re reading an article about agnosticism right now) and others that are basically impossible to prove (like the non-existence of, well, anything).

That suits me. I write grants for a living, so structured arguments based on documented facts are kind of important to me. But I have also experienced transcendental feelings, have spiritual leanings, and am frequently afflicted with sensawunda.

And this isn’t all to say I don’t have firm beliefs or that agnosticism prohibits them (like not burning people at stake for disagreeing with me). I believe education and health care are rights, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is ridiculous, we have a responsibility to care for our environment, that people are mostly good but capable atrocities, and a plenitude of other things. Moreover, I think I have pretty legitimate reasons for believing all of it. And if you disagree, then I’m more than happy to fight you on the issue.

I’m not evangelizing here, or trying to denounce anyone else’s firmly held convictions. It seems to me that in all the angry clamor someone needs to point out that there’s a middle ground and you don’t need to submit entirely to one dogma or another to lead the Good Life.

Sometimes, it’s fun to just marvel at how interesting the world can be without absolute truths.

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Filed under Progress, Progressivism, Rant, Religions, Things That Happen, Uncategorized

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