Agnosticism and the Uncanny

Imagine that you find a stranger attractive, and each time you see that person, you notice that he or she in turn notices you. Now let’s imagine you approach that person and say the following: “It’s uncanny how we keep bumping into each other at the post office! Why always the post office?”

If the person replies, “Because I work here!” the mystery is solved, and it ceases to be uncanny. But if the person says, “Gosh, I don’t know,” then the uncanny continues to be in play. Are the two of you unconsciously drawn to the post office at a particular time of day because you anticipate that the other will be there at that time? Perhaps you will become lovers—or start a political movement together and change the world. Or perhaps your chance meetings are just that—a coincidence.

The canny is what belongs in your psychological house. It’s homey (in German, heimlich); it’s what you recognize and can readily account for. But there are a lot of hidden things in your house—things not above the radar of your conscious awareness. When one of them begins to enter your awareness in a form that is simply not recognizable to you, this is the uncanny (unheimlich).

Improbable as this might seem, there may be a very old and beguiling oil painting in your house that you don’t know about. Should you be rummaging in your basement one day and find it, you’ll be stunned and perplexed—how did that get there?!! This is what the uncanny is like. The uncanny is the surprise and unaccountability of a phenomenon, and your feeling that it somehow belongs—and yet doesn’t belong—in your house. If, at some level, you think its presence there was known by you all along, or that it ought to have been known by you—though you don’t have a clue as to why—then you’re in the realm of the uncanny.

Freud sees the uncanny as arriving in two forms: (1) the return of the repressed; and (2) the return of what was thought to be surmounted by the progress of reason.

If Sarah Palin, for example, were to ever come anywhere near to becoming president of the United States again, that would be uncanny in both senses that Freud means. If it should happen, we would all ask why the nation keeps letting her get so close to the highest office in the land, and the question would haunt us.

The uncanny is a haunted house.

Neither theists nor atheists live in haunted houses. The phantoms of their enemies are thoroughly exorcised. They live in clean houses, and all their respective objects are out in the open and accounted for. Theists and atheists are masters of apologetics. They have ready answers, not questions, concerning what they believe. Neither the theist nor the atheist admits to having an uncanny relationship to the other.

Of course, this is a stereotype of theists and atheists. Few people honestly maintain unwavering confidence on matters metaphysical. They might pose that way, but it’s truth-hiding. Most theists and atheists are at least mildly agnostic about what they say they believe, and sometimes they even feel themselves haunted by the uncanny ghosts that visit them from the other side.

Agnostics are a little bit more open and honest than theists and atheists about the true nature of the human condition, which is uncertainty. We collectively inhabit a haunted house where repressed spectres come and go regularly.

Sometimes, for example, the curious and uncanny coincidences that suggest God exists enter consciousness (such as via thinking about the cosmological constants). And sometime the horrors that suggest God doesn’t exist enter consciousness (such as via thinking about the Holocaust). Agnostics, being rationalists, don’t settle the ambiguity of these “haunting ghosts” by leaps of faith. Instead, they foreground them, keeping open to what others might be more inclined to strongly repress. Agnostics, in short, work with the uncanny. The uncanny is the agnostic’s chief religious emotion.

When I think of the uncanny, the below song by Tracy Chapman somehow speaks to it for me (fittingly, I’m not exactly sure why).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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