Saturday, 21 September 2013

Why an agnostic gets his cake and eats it?

Some years ago, I read a book entitled In God We Doubt: Confession of a failed atheist by John Humphrys.

I read the book in order to better understand the mind of an agnostic. Notwithstanding the shortfalls in that position, I discover that there are some apparent benefits to being an agnostic. And to give them the well-deserved byte-space here, I would like to take this opportunity to summarize their stand.

Of course, my summary is not a representative of agnosticism as a whole and I think most of them couldn't be bothered anyway. It is very much a subjective assessment. Further, I am quite sure that what I am going to write here will grate against the nerves of some fundamentalists/militants on both sides of the fence, that is, theists and atheists. So, let me just take this preemptive stand and qualify that this is a provisional exercise tempered with a little self-indulgence on my part.

Now, before I outline the five benefits of being an agnostic, I think a little background is in order here.

In case you are wondering who or what is an agnostic, well, it is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves the existence of the ultimate cause of all things, that is, God. He remains uninvolved with or apathetic to things immaterial and unseen. He endorses learning only through personal experiences as the ultimate source of knowledge. So, it is not too far from the truth to say that an agnostic is someone who straddles in the middle of all things, that is, he avoids either extremes. He is neither religious nor irreligious. He is neither a devotee nor a skeptic. He is neither hot nor cold. That’s one way of seeing it.

Another way of seeing it is that an agnostic is neither at either extreme nor is he in the middle of it all. He just doesn’t have an opinion about all things spiritual or supernatural. He lives his life in the here and now. He sees his birth as the start of personal surviving and thriving and he sees his death as the end of it. In between, he makes the most of his life by keeping his nose clean, his mind clear and his hands busy.

You can say that in the century-old debates about religion, where atheists and theists are arguing their hearts out, an agnostic is either a spectator in the crowd or he is someone who is not even in the crowd because he has better things to do at home or at work. I guess if an agnostic were asked about what he thinks about religion or atheism, he would simply reply, “Well, the atheist has the most convincing argument but the least inspiring. And the theist has the most inspiring argument but the least convincing.” Therein ends my definition of an agnostic.

So, without further ado, let me unfold the five basic benefits of being an agnostic as I see it.

1)           He avoids the silliness of religion and the bullheadedness of atheism. If you think about it, an agnostic is the smarter of the two extremes. He doesn’t go around looking for the face of God in a plate of spaghetti or interpret a single beam of sunlight, which manages to escape through the swirling mass of dark menacing cloud, as some kind of supernatural sign meant only for him. At the other atheistic extreme, he doesn’t close his mind to the beautiful wonders that this world has to offer. He is open to change his mind when changing his mind is justified. So, if one day, a supernatural being, like ET, would to descend from the sky with his index finger outstretched to make  the connection with an agnostic, the latter would readily and willingly embrace it. However, a bullheaded atheist in the same situation, I suspect, would readily rush off to make an appointment for a brain scan (uncannily, seen from this angle, an agnostic almost resembles a mature Christian minus the headless fanaticism or a level-headed atheist without the tightfisted militancy).

2)          The second benefit is this: An agnostic doesn’t really need to contend with one of the ultimate conundrums of life, that is, Why is there something rather than nothing? As far as the agnostic is concerned, there is clearly something rather than nothing because he himself is that something that no amount of nothingness can ever deny. And if there were really nothing to start with and it stayed that way, consistently and unchanging, then no amount of somethingness can deny that fact either (I know...semantic chaos). By plain logic, only one state can exist at any one time as they are clearly mutually exclusive. So, for an agnostic, he is satisfied just to enjoy the somethingness that is himself and the world around him and he is neither concerned with the “Why” of it all nor the “how come this way and not the other way” kind of existential highwire act that vexes most religious and irreligious people. In a nutshell, an agnostic chooses to travel light even if traveling light means depriving himself of the inspiring aspects of believing and the self-endorsed freedom of denouncing.

3)           The next benefit of being an agnostic is what I would like to call the blissful state of nonchalance. An agnostic understands that it takes a lot of hard work and discipline to stay an atheist or a theist. To be a full-blooded atheist for example, you must be able to stick to your guns and to daily repeat this Hitchen’s mantra taken from his book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, “Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive towards children.” Any lesser sentiment or passion would not make the cut of being a bona fide, dye-in-the-wood atheist. And to be a full blooded theist, the never-say-die, stick-in-the-mud kind, you must always be looking to the clouds for the end of days, that is, the apocalyptic countdown to both universal destruction and selective deliverance - all happening at the same time.  So, both cemented and almost ossified positions (atheism and theism that is) are mentally and physically exhausting for an agnostic who honestly just want to punch out after work, enjoy a hearty family dinner, and have a good night sleep.  

4)   An agnostic avoids the disappointments of unanswered prayers and the disillusionments of unbelief. At least, when prayers are not realized, an agnostic (in the shoes of a theist) is not compelled to give some of the trite excuses (not that they are not credible but at times, they are too self-referential and arbitrary to be credible to an agnostic). Here are the usual excuses: “He has better plans for you”, “Keep believing, don’t give up”, “You are asking amiss”, “It’s not the right time”, “Any unconfessed sins?”, and this last one, “Maybe it’s redemptive suffering that you are going through, and so instead of taking this bitter cup away from you, you should be asking for a second helping?” To an agnostic, instead of coming up with the above excuses to squeeze the faith elephant into the theological fridge, he merely attribute them to random luck for things he has no control over and character flaws for things that he has. It’s all quite black and white for him actually. As for the disillusionment of atheism, the agnostic can do no better in explaining this than to endorse this sagely words of the great physicist Freeman Dyson, “Science and religion are two windows that people look through trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leaves out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.” Well, for an agnostic, he is not exactly going to be looking at both windows at any time soon since the only “window” he is looking at is the tv screen in his living room. However, Dyson’s quote still somehow resonates with him because it is about keeping both windows open instead of shutting them tight and thereby compromising the amount of light that is illuminating his mental room.

5)           Finally, and this is obvious, an agnostic gets the best of both worlds. He gets to remain un-religious, mostly uncommitted, free from the hypocrisy of religiosity and the clutters of its practices, and yet he can quietly savor or immerse himself in the rich historical culture and community of organized religion. In other words, to borrow a biblical phrase, he gets to be in the world of religion but not of that world. At the other extreme (atheism), he gets to embrace the latest scientific discovery, learn to accept and adopt, revise and update his storehouse of knowledge continuously. And yet at the same time, for those subjects that science has a short reach, like the mystery of our origin and the perplexity of our conscience, he can relate intimately to the sentiments implied in these words by John Humphrys, "Many atheists...say that people believe because of the way they were brought up: children are credulous and accept what they are told. As they grow older they get rid of their comfort blankets and often the beliefs with which they were inculcated. But not everyone does that - and even those who do may return to belief, in one form or another, in later life. There remains what the atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling calls "the lingering splinter in the mind...a sense of yearning for the absolute."" In other words, the agnostic keeps his options open. Therein ends the five main benefits of being an agnostic.

I guess it is this same “lingering splinter in the mind" and this "sense of yearning for the absolute" that led the once formidable atheist philosopher Antony Flew to come to this public declaration in 2004, “I now believe there is a God!” Personally, I believe an agnostic still sometimes crosses over to the supernatural just so that he could take a sneak peek into the void in case the divine decides to make a special, if not brief, appearance. Cheerz.

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