New Agnosticism?

After a few hours of puttering about online, trying (somewhat futilely) to catch up on my blog subscriptions, I’ve found something quite worth a few minutes’ attention: an essay on “the new agnosticism” over at Killing the Buddha.

Nose still a little running, head still a little cloudy, I still have the energy to disagree, but respectfully. My philosophical agnosticism is closer to Auguste Compte’s than anyone’s, in that I think taking a position on the “theist/atheist” question is simply taking a position on a rather closed, circular little binary of possibilities. Why would the universe be limited to just two possibilities? Why is there either The God of The Hebrews or nothing at all?

My own suspicion that “nothing” is the truth aside, I do think that a lot of suppositions do not logically follow when it comes to what people believe in.

For example, why does it follow that there are souls and an afterlife, if there is a God? Why should there necessarily be any afterlife at all? Or souls? Or, on the other hand, if there are souls, why would we take it as a given that there must be a deity?

It seems to me quite strange that most people in the world don’t seem to find these doubts so alarming, so relevant, that they begin to question any and all dogma and folk-theology. (For, after all, a lot of what we call religion isn’t in the real theology, it’s in the folk-religion that surrounds it and which is practiced by communities or cultures.)

Here’s a small example: a large number of extremely conservative Christians exist in Korea. Many of them hold as an article of faith that alcohol is bad, in any situation and in any amount. A good number of them are completely teetotal. How they can arrive at this amuses and bewilders me. Sure, I understand that a lot of drinking culture in this country is of the extreme, bingeing sort and I think anyone encouraged away from that is a good thing.

But in a religion where the God incarnate performed his first miracle by creating wine out of water… essentially, conjuring alcohol… I don’t get how alcohol can be so absolutely evil. He even instructed his followers to drink wine in his memory. Yet if you ask a Korean Presbyterian why they don’t drink, the answer is most often quite simple: “I’m a Christian.” Being Christian means not drinking, somehow.

And so it is with a lot of other beliefs. If there is a God, there is also a heaven. There is such a thing as evil, and here’s a list of evil things. Plenty of people don’t ask how this or that got onto the list of evil things, don’t question whether it makes sense or not. For that matter, a lot of people don’t seem to question what’s on the good list, or how it came to be that things so divisive as some found on those lists are good. How is profit—which is a major part of all kinds of religious enterprises—a good thing when it causes so much corruption, strife, and discord? It seems like the step of questioning that is too far for the majority of people.

But me, I’ve always had a fondness for those faithful Catholics who thought the Church wicked, who rebelled against the Popes and declared the Vatican a den of sin and wealth (as a dirty thing). The Pearl Poet did it, Chaucer occasionally implied it, the Pilgrims as well. And every once in a while in the modern world you find those who do it.

If my own questioning of how this or that became bad, or whether or not one theological concept necessarily follows from another, has led me to agnosticism, it’s more out of a rejection of the whole dichotomy of “available choices” than it is from any doubt.

It’s one thing to say, “Yes, I believe in the existence of God,” or to say, “No, I don’t believe in the existence of God.” It’s another to encounter the question as I do, as a bit of an alien artifact, something you can puzzle with for a bit until you realize it makes no sense to you. Yes, that’s agnosticism for me, a kind of quiet response of, “Look, could you rephrase the question in a way that makes sense to me, please?” Because it seems so far-fetched to me that as the question is asked now, the way we commonly ask it, could properly and adequately describe the universe we live in.

But anyway, that’s my thoughts on agnosticism. I’m clearly not of the same bent as this essay suggests agnostics today are. But the article is worth reading anyway.

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