Why I’m an Agnostic: Believers, Nonbelievers, and the Waving of Intellectual Garlic

The existence of the universe is a mystery. And we are, all of us, embedded in that mystery, and so we need to keep talking about it, like Jacob wrestling the angel, and not drive it away as if it were a vampire and we are the possessors of an intellectual garlic that “tames” it. I think that those of us who call ourselves agnostics or atheists can armor ourselves against the “ontological mystery” (the mystery of being) as effectively as any religious fundamentalist.

The religious fundamentalist intellectually arms herself and controls the ontological mystery by pretending, for example, that the Bible settles all questions about it once and for all. She says prayers to ward off the dangers of the ontological mystery, and reads books of apologetics. These are her garlic waving gestures. 

But we agnostics and atheists wave the garlic too. We read, for example, Richard Dawkins’s books and echo his answers in response to every uncomfy question raised about the ontological mystery. Once we do this, and we have arranged our tidy arguments, and identified our targets and classified them, we imagine that we have “settled” something. But the the mystery of existence still sits out there, resisting our “answers.”

And it won’t go away.

What, for example, is this thing called love?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Why I’m an Agnostic: Believers, Nonbelievers, and the Waving of Intellectual Garlic

  1. Jared K. says:

    I guess I am always confused by this brand of agnosticism. I definitely despise fundamentalist certainty. But it sounds like a strict line is being drawn between fundamentalism and the nobility of asserting that one cannot have any understanding whatsoever about “the mystery of being.” Isn’t there actually a spectrum of approaches, with fundamentalism being on the fringe?

    Wouldn’t it be rational to believe contingently that God probably does or does not exist–while always reminding one’s self that one could be wrong? In fact, it seems much harder to constantly and permanently balance the evidence (at least what evidence we have) “just so” so that one doesn’t lean one way or the other on the question. As long as one is honest about her limitations and knowledge, and admits that she could always be wrong, couldn’t she go ahead and believe one way or the other in an honest and contingent fashion? Does that mean she necessarily has to fall in with Pat Robertson or Richard Dawkins?

    And if it is necessary or healthy to lean one way or the other in a modest and sensible way, then isn’t insisting that no one take a position one way or the other really just a different kind of absolutist fundamentalism? And isn’t it sort of reactionary? The kind of thing we would expect to see from someone who, for example, used to be the other kind of fundamentalist?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    I don’t really think that our positions are that far apart. I obviously lean toward the “no God” position and live my life without its attendant practices and comforts (prayer; hope of heaven). You lean toward the God position and (no doubt) practice prayer and hope for eternal life in heaven.

    I think that both of us are agnostics in the ways that matter. Neither of us shut ourselves off from hearing the other side, or reading the other side’s books. And I think that both of us are impatient with the formulaic apologetics that accompany both sides.

    Wouldn’t you call yourself a religious agnostic in this sense—or would you completely reject an agnostic label for yourself?

    I’m not advocating radical “I can’t really know anything” skepticism. There are lots of things that I think I know, and am not agnostic about. I’m just suggesting that there is more than enough mystery about things to keep us all on our toes.

    —Santi

  3. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    I wonder if you would buy this analogy. Let’s pretend that we are scientists. Neither you nor I, in 2009, know whether or not, beneath the surface of Mars, there is multicellular life.

    Perhaps we think that there is some evidence that could go either way. Given our uncertainty, one of us nevertheless decides to devote his life to Mars, and to researching the question. He takes a job at NASA. He is, in short, COMMITTED, but nevertheless maintains his agnosticism. He WANTS a particular outcome (that there is life to be discovered), but he also keeps his mind fully open that he may be disappointed.

    The other researcher thinks the evidence points AGAINST multicellular life on Mars and devotes himself to other projects, becoming an oceanographer, and focusing on life on earth.

    One is devoted to the heavens, and one is devoted to the earth, but BOTH are agnostics about multicellular life on MARS. They have made a commitment in terms of devoting their lives to one project or another, thinking it the most likely to be fruitful, but they also, when asked, say, “I don’t know if there is life on Mars, but I think that whatever answer arrives at the end will be interesting, and I’m doing my best not to be dogmatic about it, one way or the other.”

    By contrast, we would have enormous disrespect and contempt for anyone who says: “I am close to 100% certain about this: There is life on Mars! And Martians speak to me in my head and tell me this by direct revelation. I have a ‘sensus martianus’ in me, and you do too, if you’d just listen to your heart. And if you don’t listen to your heart, and come to my conclusion, it is a sign of moral depravity, and you are going to hell!”

    —Santi

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