Why I Am an Agnostic and Not an Atheist

As Thomas Aquinas formulated it, I think the first cause argument is sound. To stop the infinite regress, there must be a first cause that has no cause and a first condition that has no conditions, and, as Aquinas puts it, “We call that God.”

But it’s that latter move I balk at. I don’t know whether or not the first cause has any personality or forethought or mind. It’s why I call myself an agnostic, not a theist or atheist. I don’t have any idea how I would find out whether it is mind or matter (or some combination of the two) that is the brute and unconditioned fact at or from the beginning.

I very much hope that it is mind and that mind knows and loves me, and that there is an afterlife. It is pleasant to think so, but that is very different from knowing that this is the case, or of having any proof that it is the case. It’s the issue of what to do about the “unknown God” in Acts 17. Do you light a candle to the first cause, just in case? Does it or She even care? What do you say to it? Is there any evidence that it specifically designed humans for its pleasure or knows anything?

We are so alone. Perhaps you saw recently the new image of Earth and the moon from 900 million miles away, from Saturn, as taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Our planet appears as a tiny starburst alongside an even smaller dot (the moon), all surrounded by inky blackness. And we know that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that we are late-comers to the game (a distinct species with our current menu of traits, mental and physical, for perhaps only 50,000 years). We also know that our galaxy has about 200 billion stars, and that it floats in a sea of other galaxies. It’s hard to discern a point to any of this, except perhaps no point–an expression of divine play ala Shiva’s dance. But contra the first chapters of Genesis, it certainly doesn’t appear that a “supermind” is directing the game with special attention on us.

It’s why I think that all the major religions as conventionally practiced are faking what they say they know. They don’t know much of anything. Each has made some guesses and then institutionalized those guesses into practices and dogmas for group cohesion and success. That’s a very different process and result from actually getting at the truth of matters.

Existence is an ontological mystery–the elephant in every room. Rather than ignore it, one feels an impulse to gesture toward and acknowledge it (at least I do). And I think that, philosophically, the intellectuals in each major religion have done their best to get a hand on this or that aspect of the ontological elephant, and with some success. Aquinas is worth reading. The Tao te Ching is worth reading. The Hindu gurus Patanjali and Ramana Maharshi are worth reading. The Buddha is worth reading. In philosophy, Heraclitus, Descarte, Hume, Nietzsche, and Heidegger are all worth reading, as are so many others. The atheist poet Lucretius, rhapsodizing strict atomism, is certainly worth reading.

But in all honesty, it’s hard to know how to move forward. Who are we? Where are we? What are we? There are all sorts of logical possibilities, but each ultimately ends at a wall to which appeals to evidence and even logic stop. It’s why Zen resorts to paradox. And yet we are urged by confidence men from numerous camps, both theist and atheist, to choose a path. Why?

Maybe adulthood entails learning to say “I don’t know” more often. Maybe adulthood is about doubt; a movement from innocence to experience; of being on the cross with the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, crying into the heavens to an invisible and hidden God that maybe isn’t even there: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Maybe the triumphalist resurrectionists who proclaim and know–rather than dialogue and doubt–are not the followers of Jesus (at least the Jesus of Mark’s gospel; I’ll leave the hyper-confident Jesus of the other gospels aside for the moment). The Jesus of Mark said to his followers to take up a cross, not a resurrection. So maybe the ones who take up the cross of doubt are the followers of the Jesus of Mark, the ones focused on an honest encounter with what is; a world where incomplete information and ambiguity are everywhere.

Mark’s gospel curiously breaks off at 16:8, whether on purpose or not. And that seems right to me. Not knowing for sure whether God exists and the resurrection happened, we go on. It’s our existential situation.

I love the image of Jesus on the cross for that reason. Jesus is all of us, exposed, suffering, befuddled. It’s hard to think clearly in the midst of trauma. Once you have a body and consciousness in this world, you’re strapped in for a very difficult ride. It’s one reason I’m looking forward to seeing Woody Allen’s new film, which is, apparently, full of traumatized female Jesuses bearing (neurotically) their crosses in a harsh and cold world.

And Monty Python always had it right.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Why I Am an Agnostic and Not an Atheist

  1. colinhutton says:

    @ David Yates (re your comment on Santi’s post of July 21, 2013 – expressing ‘disappointment’ in Stephen Barr – which prompted this post by Santi). If you follow through all the links in that post, I don’t think you can reasonably conclude that Barr suggests that advances in science negatively “affect the issue of God’s existence”. Are you perhaps overreacting to his remark about atheists’ caricaturising of religion? (on which I think he is mistaken; but really it is only an irrelevant aside). I think, in fact, that he is one of the better apologists for religious belief. As an atheist, mind you, I read/listen to what he has to say, curious to find out how an obviously highly intelligent and educated mind sets about rationalising, to itself, the holding of delusional beliefs. I suppose you could say that my approach shows a ‘dis-confirmation bias’!

  2. colinhutton says:

    Santi – nothing in this post of yours that I feel I should take issue with!

  3. D R Hosie says:

    Here is the brief path I recounted in “How I came to know there is no God” – beginning from an agnostic point of view. http://sldailyissue.com/2013/07/12/how-i-came-to-know-there-is-no-god/

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