What is it, really, that separates the atheist from the agnostic?
I would argue that the ultimate dividing line between the atheist and the agnostic is over the issue of mystery. For the atheist, the ontological mystery—the mystery of being—is merely an unsolved problem (think of Scooby Doo here). For the agnostic, the ontological mystery may be genuinely, well, mysterious. There might be, in other words, some sort of incomprehensible—or, at least, near-incomprehensible—telos (mind, purpose) behind existence.
Then again, there may not be. The cosmos may be wholly an accident—a contingency—within a greater chaos. The atheist, in other words, may be right that what is felt as the presence of a spooky mystery at the core of our very being and universe is really just a (very puzzling) material problem that will one day yield its ambiguities and paradoxes to science.
But the atheist also might be wrong.
That’s what makes an agnostic an agnostic: he or she doesn’t know if the atheist’s surmise is correct or not. The agnostic says:
I simply don’t know whether the ontological mystery is really a mystery, or just a very complicated problem.
Perhaps it is my coming at life via the humanities (as opposed to the sciences) that makes me want to keep the ontological mystery in play. Maybe that’s one of the things that keeps me in the agnostic camp.
But another, perhaps more substantial, thing that keeps me in the agnostic camp is this: to my mind, the atheist substitute of wonder for mystery doesn’t quite work. Wonder is a pale exchange for mystery, and probably not sufficient for integrating the psyche to the universe as a whole.
I’m also sobered by the ancient Greek tragedians. They have had a long and lasting effect on me and the way I see the world. Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes are always at my shoulder, whispering to me not to get too confident about my anti-religious views.
One of the lessons that I take, for example, from Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus is this: do not ignore the Eumenides (the Furies); in other words, give the Furies their due: a place in the life of your mental Athens. After being chastened and blinded in Thebes, Oedipus—now in exile and led by the hand by his daughter, Antigone—rediscovers, at Colonus, the feminine sacred, and some degree of wholeness. I want that as well. It is possible to become too top-heavy, living in the deconstructive mind. And to balance this, I think that the ontological mystery can have a candle lit to it once in a while, and a grove with a little altar, without irrationality (or all the fundamentalist literalism and superstition that so typically gets attached to it).
And if the ontological mystery is, like free will, an illusion of presence and depth, it is a vivid one (at least for me, and at least intermittently). And I don’t think that I’m wasting my time trying to attend to it on occasion. Percy Shelley, who was an atheist, didn’t dismiss it. He even had a name for it: Intellectual Beauty. And he wrote it a poem. He called it “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1816), the first stanza of which reads thus:
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us,—visiting
This various world with an inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower,—
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,—
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,—
Like memory of music fled,—
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
And there does, indeed, seem to be the presence of an ontological mystery that you can intuit from things (if you just, like Shelley, give them some attention). For example, put before you an object (like, say, a pineapple), and simply look at it for a while. It might start to speak (of course, not literally). But with a bit of attention, the strangeness of that object, it’s very absurdity, and your own relation to it, might begin to invade your consciousness, as if to say, “Aren’t you and I weird things in the universe? What are we doing here? Aren’t we beautiful and holy?”
Now, maybe this feeling of oddness, of even a mysterious presence or sacredness to things, is an illusion (as free will may be an illusion). But the feeling is, nevertheless, interesting, sometimes even overwhelming. When my first daughter was born, for example, I had what can only be described as a liminal experience: when she came out of my wife, umbilical cord cut, flailing like an astronaut separated from her mothership, I felt heaven and earth had come together in some way. If the Buddha had his moment of insight sitting still under his Bodhi tree, I had mine in the birthing ward. He had nothing on me, for I too had my route in. When my daughter was born, it seemed that something profoundly meaningful was at work in the universe, and not just in me. I was as in awe of my daughter as the wide-eyed and unblinking astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey was in awe of the Jupiter monolith. Existence itself can overwhelm, and the puzzles and paradoxes raised at such moments seem more than merely perplexing.
And so the question—Why is there something rather than nothing?—is not a trivial or nonsensical question to me. Whether life, mind, and the universe are just very complicated problems or genuine mysteries keeps life, well, interesting.
Here’s another reason I’m an agnostic: I think that there is a sickness of soul at the heart-center of atheism, and that is hubris. In other words, the same problem that afflicts Oedipus, Creon, Pentheus, Agamemnon, and Orestes (in Oedipus the King, Antigone, The Bakkai, and the Oresteia Trilogy) also afflicts atheism. All five of these tragic figures, in the name of masculine reason, dominated or killed their symbolic Dionysian mothers (the Sphinx, Antigone, the maenads, Iphigenia, Clytemnestra), and wouldn’t, as it were, burn a candle to their mysteries or give them their proper places in their lives. Oedipus, for example, turned the mystery of the Sphinx into a tidily solvable children’s riddle:
Sphinx: What goes by four legs at morning, two at noon, and three at evening?
Oedipus: Man, who crawls in infancy, walks in adulthood, and uses a walking stick in old age!
Oedipus’s answer vanquished the Sphinx, and drove the sacred being over a cliff in suicide. Of course, this did not make the Sphinx go away, but transformed her into a psychological and social spectre that haunted the rest of Oedipus’s days, for Oedipus had only superficially solved the riddle of the Sphinx. For example, the Promethean instrument of the night—the walking stick, a technological extension of man—can also function as a weapon and thus, like fire, be a symbol of both support and destruction. But by losing perspective, and being done with the Sphinx, Oedipus—and this is true of the other Greek tragic characters as well—arrested the very fecundity of nature and the psyche, unleashing the Eumenides: the Furies (both outward and inward).
Fast forward to today. Where is the symbolic mother hiding and haunting now?
I would argue that one of the places that she resides is in religion—including even the patriarchal religions. Contemporary religion, however crass and flawed, has taken over the protection of the ontological mother from the hard rays of the Anglo-French Enlightenment. Whether we are talking about Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or some new and frenzied cult, they all have taken to functioning as courtyard guardians for the eternal Sphinx. They might name the Sphinx ‘Father’ or ‘Mother,’ but each cathedral, each temple, each little New Age bookstore in the world, is a vagina designed to trigger in the heart of all who enter there a recognition of some aspect of the ontological mystery. Atheism misses this song for its often intellectually ridiculous and clashing words.
And like atheists, literalist religious believers are tone-deaf as well, missing what the psyche is pointing toward. The result is—whether you are an atheist or a fundamentalist—a crassness in the heart: a masculine desire to strip fecundity from the earth and pave it with perfect rationality and certainty. It’s “drill, baby, drill” applied to the psyche. This rationality, however, is not measured, and so it’s ultimately dead: it chokes off the cycles of life. It lacks perspective. Neither atheism nor fundamentalist literalism is in accord with Attic tragic wisdom.
I think the ancient Greeks saw it right: life’s tension really is between the Prometheans—Oedipus, Creon, Pentheus, Agamemnon, Orestes etc.—and the opaque mother Sphinx—the holder of the riddles of existence. Think of the art that depicts Oedipus before the Sphinx: that’s where we are at as human beings. Both our rational, problem-solving side, and our mystery side demand attention, and they carry a heavy price when they are ignored. Atheists imagine themselves as noble Oedipus, taking down mysteries with the unassisted reason—but without perspective and wisdom it leads to a plucking out of the eyes. Likewise, fundamentalists imagine themselves to be guardians of the Sphinx, but pluck out her very mystery with shrill and literalizing pretenses and doctrinal certainties.
The ancient Greeks, by contrast, offer balance. Their tragedies are meditations on how to reach some sort of compromise and integration between these contending forces in the psyche and in society. For me, agnosticism is where that difficult balance can at least be attempted.
Visually, my argument is embodied in the film Baraka. That film, to my mind, can function as a device for awakening to the ontological mystery. What is depicted in Baraka is what is literalized by fundamentalists and reduced to a mere problem by atheists.
Below are three images. One is of an eighteenth century sculpture of the Sphinx (at La Grange in Spain), and the other two are paintings depicting Oedipus confronting the Sphinx:
Here’s Gustav Moreau’s Oedipus and Sphinx:
And here’s Ingres’s Oedpius and Sphinx:
Image sources: Wikipedia Commons.