Because every other year or so I teach the Bible as literature course at my college, I was asked to be on a panel discussing how to deal with religion in the classroom. The event was held last night and one of the instructors wanted to know how I might respond to a student who asked me point-blank about my religious orientation.
I said that I would not dodge the question, but answer directly:
I am not part of any particular faith community, but I am a member of the doubting community, and it’s a rich tradition that—to echo Christopher Hitchens—goes back in Western culture to Socrates, and includes Spinoza, Voltaire, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and Emily Dickinson.
I said that I thought that atheists and agnostics shouldn’t be in the closet about their orientation toward religion: just as there is a gay liberation movement, there must be a doubt liberation movement as well (and, of course, there is), and I’m a part of it.
And I didn’t mention it at the panel, but any student curious about my ideas concerning religion would have little difficulty finding my blog. It’s not like I’m a person who hides. I think that the moment people hide from one another, communication and dialogue break down. And if going to a liberal arts college in a democracy means anything, it’s about getting ourselves, in all our diversity, out on the table—instructor and student alike—and in a spirit of equality, having a human conversation.
And so, as opposed to just saying I’m an agnostic, I prefer calling myself a member of the doubting community. I think that the term agnostic implies community isolation—as if I don’t quite fit in anywhere—and so it functions to separate me from the broader cultural tradition and commonalities that I, in fact, share with atheists, deists, and liberal theists. I also think that, by designating myself as a member of the doubting community—as opposed to one of its factions—that it gives the position heft against those asserting themselves—as a cultural bloc—as members of the faith community. Shelley was an atheist and Benjamin Franklin was a deist, but they belong to me. And even the doubting Jesus of the Gospel of Mark belongs to me. Mark, afterall, was the first gospel written, and so why should those who profess faith imagine that they own Jesus? In Mark, Jesus is a doubter: on the cross he is a member of the doubting community. The doubting community, as I say, has a rich tradition.