How I Combine Richard Rorty’s Atheist Pragmatism with My “Spiritual Agnosticism”

It ain’t easy, and it requires a bit of Kant and Kierkegaard to get there, but below is what I believe at this point in my life, and how I have arrived at believing it. First, here is what I believe (my two-point private catechism):

  • I believe that there is no correspondence theory of truth out there in the universe that can tell me what is the best language to speak to it or about it (Dawkins-speak, Nietzsche-speak, Calvin-speak, Rush Limbaugh-speak etc.). The universe is as paradoxical, enigmatic, and silent as the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001—but I still have to choose what language song that I will sing in my life. As a contingently evolved ape flung into an absurd universe—a universe that apparently does not have purposes and does not answer to my desires—how I choose a language has a good deal to do with how useful and therapeutic the language is to me. This first affirmation in my catechism is, of course, Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism in a nutshell. And without a definite ground of Being to authorize my speech, it implies atheism. As Rorty puts it (toward the beginning of his essay, “Naturalism and Quietism“):

The claim that human beings are alone in the universe, and that they should not look for help from supernatural agencies, went hand-in-hand with the admission that Democritus and Epicurus had been largely right about how the universe works [as blind atoms rustling in the void]. . . . [Contemporary intellectuals] do not require either a sophisticated metaphysics or a fancy theory of reference to convince them that there are no spooks.  

  • But wait. As an agnostic, and not an atheist, I think that there might well be “spooks” in the universe. At least I’m not as closed to the idea as Rorty, Democritus, and Epicurus were. I think that we might well be haunted bodies (with nonreducible-to-matter minds that have real free will). And I think that we might well be in a genuinely paradoxical universe that is not just a very complicated problem (as atheists posit), but a real ontological mystery with a nous, a logos, a telos—something nonmaterial that we might call an “uber-mind”—behind it.  If you want, call it God, a ghost, or a “spook”, but I have qualms concerning strict materialism—doubts that tug at me and won’t go away—and, therefore, I am not an atheist.

So how, then, do I make my two seemingly irreconcilable catechal affirmations go together? I start with something that the early 20th century Catholic essayist, G.K. Chesterton, observed concerning pragmatism (in the third chapter of his 1908 book, Orthodoxy ):

[T]hough I . . . should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever. My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute. This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.

I think that Chesterton has hit the nail right on the head. The atheist pragmatist is not pragmatic enough, for she has forgotten the destination: to coherently bind together and make sense of the meaning of one’s existence. To echo a scene from one of Woody Allen’s films, one does not, in announcing to friends that you’re getting a divorce from your husband, then glibly say, “Now let’s eat!”

How does one pragmatically eat after such sobering news?

Likewise, the great divorce of human life from the Absolute—from any hope of ultimate meaning (as atheist pragmatists are wont to do)—cannot be coherently coupled with business as usual (as in, “Now let’s go have a nice lunch!”). Atheist pragmatism requires a degree of cognitive dissonance that, at least for me, seems ridiculous to try to practice to its bitter conclusion. It is not the bread of life, but a stone.

So where does that leave me? With theism or deism? No.


Because even though I feel the pragmatic need for hoping that the ontological mystery exists (and is not a mere problem), it does not strike me as coherent to make, by faith, non-empirical propositional statements about it. Hell, I don’t even know if it’s actually there! By all appearances, we seem to live in a blind, contingent, material universe that paradoxically either just made itself or has always existed, and has flung a bit of life and consciousness up along the way. No big whoop.

But this, for me, is where Kant comes in (and, if you will, Plato, and ultimately Kierkegaard). I’m thinking of the seemingly contradictory and shadowy phenomenal world that we live in (and that no human language is likely to ever bring into satisfactory correspondence) and the sunlit noumenal world that might—and I emphasize might—shine behind it. The flat screen of dancing appearances could conceal a projector, and the very thought of this, even if it might prove ultimately false, makes me happy and gives me some optimism (in the way that Barack Obama’s favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, described optimism, in his 1940 essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith”):

Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.

Now I know that there are atheists who insist that they feel no such need for Niebuhr’s “primary religion”, and thus don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. I agree that he’s overgeneralizing—and that not everybody needs to ground meaning for themselves in this way. I also think that the quote of G.K. Chesterton that I am about to offer below is an overgeneralization as well, but it is an overgeneralization that bears the kernel of a profound truth—at least for me. It comes from the second chapter of Orthodoxy (1908):

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in the earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. . . . It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.

Putting Chesterton’s quote in secular terms: If we have different problems, we address each with different language tools. We don’t worry ourselves over producing an artificial consistency that might hold our conflicting languages together. “If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.” Neither Richard Rorty nor Isaiah Berlin could have said it better. Chesterton’s gloss on pragmatism is simply to affirm “mysticism.” In other words, the weaving of our contradictory realities and languages is God’s task, not ours. And in a brilliant analogy, Chesterton (in the conclusion to his second chapter of Orthodoxy ) likens the Absolute—what I’d call the ontological mystery, the mystery of Being—to the sun. The sun is something that one feels and sees by, but when you attempt to look at the sun itself, you cannot comfortably even discern its outline. It is a blur. Chesterton contrasts looking at the sun with looking at the moon, which is a dead, clearly outlined circle (akin to the tidy naturalist enterprise, which Chesterton likens to the psychological narrowness of the madman, to a “lunacy”):

The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world. But the Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god both of imagination and of sanity; for he was both the patron of poetry and the patron of healing. . . . [T]ranscendentalism . . . has . . . the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.

Okay, now that was quite a rhetorical flourish on Chesterton’s part, and I do not endorse the implication that atheists are lunatics, but his larger point, that the sun is a symbol of the ontological mystery—and the moon of a narrowed rationalism that provides, at best, a derivative picture of what’s going on—may be true.

And this is why I like to combine Rorty’s pragmatism with agnosticism. If you like, call my agnosticism “spiritual agnosticism” or “pragmatic agnosticism.” Within this position, I can acknowledge, to the very last letter, the bleak materialist appearance of things that science reveals, as well as our inability to ever settle on the right language to speak to it and about it—even as I engage in a Kierkegaardian leap of hope at the end of hope that something outside these devastating and deadly syllogisms exist. In positing this hope, I nevertheless do not fall into the trap of Chesterton and embrace propositional statements that exceed the empirical. As a spiritual—or pragmatic—agnostic, I can light a candle to the ontological mystery without pretending to know, as Chesterton pretended to know, whether it actually exists. I don’t know whether the presence of the ontological mystery that I sometimes feel is there, or notices my candle, or prefers my candle to other candles. I only know that the thought of the ontological mystery’s existence makes me smile. I am, like the anonymous person in Athens in the Book of Acts, happy to build a catch-all altar “with this inscription, To the unknown God” (Acts 17:23).

Paul, by the way, seeing this altar, and apparently annoyed by it, said to those gathered (Acts 17:24-25):

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshiped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.

Paul went on to say more, but he should have stopped there. As I will.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to How I Combine Richard Rorty’s Atheist Pragmatism with My “Spiritual Agnosticism”

  1. Roger Salyer says:

    Respectfully, this seems less Spiritual agnosticism as Spiritual Cartesianism.

    There is belief. Then there are grounds of belief.

    Correct me if I am wrong: To sincerely propose of the “ontological mystery” is impossible, you say, unless it is conversely not possible to ask an empirical question of a spiritually-held proposition. You may see why I think that this is a pseudo-epistomological matter. What would Hume say, I wonder?

    Or: You oppose any propositions of the ontological mystery because such propositions cannot be made of the mystery’s essence (as GK would have certainly admitted, indeed would have asserted). If this is the case, I would have to object that it goes too far down the rabbit hole because one cannot make propositions of any thing’s essence at a similar level (of quiddity?) either. In this, the Creation is just as good as the Creator. You know what you do, and how you are. You know who you are not.

    But who are you?

    One can de-fine things. One cannot in-fine things. Yet one makes propositions all the time about things.

    Or are we defining the word proposition right out of existence?

    No pun intended.

  2. Roger Salyer says:

    “And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God, For I who am curious about each am not curious about God.”

  3. Heuristics says:

    Ah, mystery, most enjoyable of irritations. We follow our own mysteries where they lead us, I hope we do anyways since it can be quite the guide to do so.

    I sometimes tend to want to see the journey as being on a dark precipice, surrounded by all sides with uncertainty, but also a land on the other side of the gulf, free of all the uncertainty and filled with all kinds of colorful thought constructs, all standing sturdy on the rock solid foundation of that land. Every once in a while one can take a jump from the uncertainty only to have to climb back up to where one came from.

    I think there is value to be had in not trying to kill the experiences one collects during the jumps. If one ends up with experiences of having a living atheism, agnosticism and theism all in play at the same time then so be it. Where does this idea that man can only ever have one ball in motion at a time come from? This singular labeling of only being one thing strikes me as a bit odd.

  4. santitafarella says:


    I like your observation—especially the idea of jumping, failing, learning, and climbing back out to square one again. The failed jump is as valuable as the successful one. And I agree with you that the alternations (atheist, agnostic, theist) can be a path just like sticking to one of them. Call it the crooked path of alternations. It’s Blake’s non-straight path (at the beginning of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”), and if you’re staying awake you can learn as much as the person absent-minded on some other “straighter” path.


  5. santitafarella says:


    There is also beef. And there are grounds of beef.

    Theology grounds the beef. It kills the cow. It is not the beef itself.


  6. Roger Salyer says:

    Very illuminating.

    You succinctly delineated the difference between Liberalism and Illiberalism. The former desires choice. The latter desires the objects of choice.

    Try to eat a live cow on your hamburger some time. I’ll have mine killed and ground, thank you.


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