What Agnosticism Means to Me (and Why I’m Not an Atheist)

I think my agnosticism extends, when it really comes down to it, to keeping an open mind to the possibility that mind precedes matter in some fashion—or even that there might be something recognizably human at the end of the rainbow, something that delivers poetic justice and makes the universe a cosmos and not, ultimately, a chaos. Emotionally, it’s just very hard to accept that at the center and beginning of the universe is a mindless spider. I don’t know if God’s existence is likely, or even probable, but being embedded in the system that I am trying to understand, and as stupid as I am with regard to even, say, how a lightbulb works, I don’t think that it is impossible that my current guesses about the universe are incorrect—even wildly so. I have been spectacularly wrong about things before. I guess I just don’t trust myself enough to be an atheist (let alone a theist), and that’s what agnosticism means to me.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to What Agnosticism Means to Me (and Why I’m Not an Atheist)

  1. jonolan says:

    Sounds surprisingly sane.

  2. santitafarella says:

    It’s a rare impulse in me. Watch for another moment of it several months from now.

    —Santi

  3. yodz says:

    a perfect definition of personal agnosticsm, I feel this way too.

  4. jonolan says:

    I’m a bit different. I’m a staunch theist and have utter faith in my God and Goddess. However, I’m well aware that I’m a mortal and therefor limited. I sincerely doubt that I have a true understanding of their nature, their will, or what exactly they’ve done – much how they’ve done it.

  5. Dead Guy Blog says:

    The Confession of the Agnostic

    “I Cannot Tell Whether There Is a God or Not”

    Without dogmatically affirming that there is no God, the Agnostic practically insinuates that whether there, is a God or not, nobody can tell and it does not much matter—that man with his loftiest powers of thought and reason and with his best appliances of research, cannot come to speech with God or obtain reliable information concerning Him, can only build up an imaginary picture, like an exaggerated or overgrown man, and call that God—in other words, can only make a God after his own image and in his own likeness without being sure whether any corresponding reality stands behind it, or even if there is, whether that reality can be said to come up to the measure of a Divine Being or be entitled to be designated God. The agnostic does not deny that behind the phenomena of the universe there may be a Power, but whether there is or not, and if there is, whether that Power is a Force or a Person, are among the things unknown and unknowable, so that practically, God being outside and beyond the sphere of man’s knowledge, it can never be of consequence whether there be a God or not—it can never be more than a subject of curious speculation, like that which engages the leisure time of some astronomers, whether there be inhabitants in the planet Mars or not.
    As thus expounded, the creed of the agnostic is open to serious objections.
    1. It entirely ignores the spiritual factor in man’s nature,—either denying the soul’s existence altogether, or viewing it as merely a function of the body; or, if regarding it as a separate entity distinct from the body, and using its faculties to apprehend and reason about external objects, yet denying its ability to discern spiritual realities. On either alternative, it is contradicted by both Scripture and experience. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible proceeds upon the assumption that man is more than “six feet of clay,” “curiously carved and wondrously articulated,” that “there is a spirit in man,” and that this spirit has power not only to apprehend things unseen but to come into touch with God and to be touched by Him, or, in Scripture phrase, to see and know God and to be seen and known by Him. Nor can it be denied that man is conscious of being more than animated matter, and of having power to apprehend more than comes within the range of his senses, for he can and does entertain ideas and cherish feelings that have at least no direct connection with the senses, and can originate thoughts, emotions and volitions that have not been excited by external objects. And as to knowing God, Christian experience attests the truth of Scripture when it says that this knowledge is no figure of speech or illusion of the mind, but a sober reality. It is as certain as language can make it that Abraham and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, Samuel and David, Isaiah and Jeremiah, had no doubt whatever that they knew God and were known of Him; and multitudes of Christians exist today whom it would not be easy to convince that they could not and did not know God, although not through the medium of the senses or even of the pure reason.
    2. It takes for granted that things cannot be adequately known unless they are fully known. This proposition, however, cannot be sustained in either Science or Philosophy, in ordinary life or in religious experience. Science knows there are such things as life (vegetable and animal), and force (electricity and magnetism for example), but confesses its ignorance of what life and force are as to their essence—all that is understood about them being their properties and effects. Philosophy can expound the laws of thought, but is baffled to unriddle the secret of thought itself, how it is excited in the soul by nerve-movements caused by impressions from without, and how it can express itself by originating counter movements in the body. In ordinary life human beings know each other adequately for all practical purposes while aware that in each there are depths which the other cannot fathom, each being shut off from the other by what Prof. Dods calls “the limitations of personality.” Nor is the case different in religious experience. The Christian, like Paul, may have no difficulty in saying, “Christ liveth in me,” but he cannot explain to himself or others, how. Hence the inference must be rejected that because the finite mind cannot fully comprehend the infinite, therefore it cannot know the infinite at all, and must remain forever uncertain whether there is a God or not. Scripture, it should be noted, does not say that any finite mind can fully find out God; but it does say that men may know God from the things which He has made, and more especially from the Image of Himself which has been furnished in Jesus Christ, so that if they fail to know Him, they are without excuse.
    3. It virtually undermines the foundations of morality. For if one cannot tell whether there is a God or not, how can one be sure that there is any such thing as morality? The distinctions between right and wrong which one makes in the regulation of his conduct may be altogether baseless. It is true a struggle may be made to keep them up out of a prudential regard for future safety, out of a desire to be on the winning side in case there should be a God. But it is doubtful if the imperative “ought” would long resound within one’s soul, were the conclusion once reached that no one could tell whether behind the phenomena of nature or of consciousness there was a God or not. Morality no more than religion can rest on uncertainties.

    – R.A. Torrey 1856-1928

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