Spritzophrenia

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Posts Tagged ‘agnosticism’

The Age of Doubt (and The Day of Hope). Christopher Lane’s New Book on Agnosticism

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 7, 2011

Christopher Lane has recently released a book, The Age of Doubt, on doubt and agnosticism (surprise!). He’s adapted a chapter for New Humanist (UK), which I’ve excerpted below. But first, for those who saw my last post, an update on my sister, Carol.

Carol had her surgery yesterday, and the news post-op is much better than we thought. The colon tumor has been removed, and the ??? in her ovary was not, in fact, cancer. It was removed and her ovary is still intact. No other new signs of cancer were found, so that’s good news too.

She’s walking around a lot today, as that’s a requirement to aid the healing of the colon. Apparently it heals very fast, perhaps in 48 hours. In a couple of weeks she’ll be starting chemotherapy to get the small tumors in her liver. So all in all, the news is very positive.

That’s the hope. Here’s Christopher Lane on doubt:

Our culture has become impoverished by certainty. In our overheated climate of polarised public debate, we give less credence to uncertainty; yet the crises that preoccupy us – including religious extremism – demand that we tolerate increasing amounts of it.

Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.

Ironically, it was the Victorians, often dismissed as prudish and uptight, who led the way to an open-mindedness and engagement with ambiguity that stands in stark contrast to the impoverishment of contemporary thinking about religious doubt and belief.

Fifteen years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the Scottish editor, writer, and publisher Robert Chambers anonymously brought out a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In it he argued that the progressive evolution of species was fully compatible with God-given laws. Vestiges reached a transatlantic and cross-European audience far larger than David Hume could secure with broadly compatible claims in the mid-18th century. Among Chambers’ fascinated, sometimes horrified, readers were Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Florence Nightingale, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Darwin. The book became a widespread topic of conversation across Britain in particular.
[Interesting: Darwin wasn’t the first to have a concept of evolution, only one of the first to come up with a successful model of how it might work. Apart from Chambers, there was another chap who’s often regarded as a co-inventor of evolution, whose name escapes me. Can anyone remind me?]


[As a sociologist, I find Herbet Spencer’s inclusion illuminating:] One of the most prominent thinkers to advance [the agnostic] claim was Herbert Spencer. The polymath sociologist, philosopher and biologist argued in First Principles (1862) that religion and science must grapple with “the Unknowable”, a blind spot in human understanding that faith had once seemed to fill.

Despite his forceful defence of Darwin and agnosticism, however, [Thomas] Huxley did not embrace full-blown atheism. He acknowledged “a pretty strong conviction that the problem [of existence] was insoluble”, a position that asks doubt and intellectual inquiry to replace hedging, complacency and anything resembling easy acquiescence.

A more astute contemporary thinker than Dawkins on the issue of agnosticism, in its broadest, existential sense, is the American playwright John Patrick Shanley. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt (also a film), he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

Lane’s full essay is here and the book The Age of Doubt is at Amazon.

Even in the last day I’ve had new subscribers to this blog– thankyou. It really flatters me that forty-five people value my thoughts enough to want to be updated when there’s something new. If you haven’t yet subscribed, it’s easy, just enter your email in the box at the left.

Doubt, Hope; let me conclude with the trivial. Today we hired a car seat for the impending arrival of baby (7 weeks or so away), test played the new board game my son Master T is working on and I bought some new clothes. It’s strange how new clothes can make one feel so much better. Not that I was feeling bad, I’m refreshingly happy these days. (Note to self: Get new depression meds on Monday.) Sometimes maybe it’s best to ignore the big picture and enjoy the small things in life.

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Split Enz | Poor Boy

Posted in agnostic, hardship, personal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Crowd of Unknowing

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 23, 2010

A while back I wrote a brief summary of my life story for Crystal’s blog which I’m re-posting here. There was a word limit, so I condensed a lot. You earn extra points if you can pick where my title above comes from 😉

My Agnostic Journey

It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while… But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
~ Yann Martell, Life of Pi

I used to agree, so how did a born-again Christian become agnostic?

After university I became bored with a church culture inherited from 19th century Europe. I read about rave churches, picked up the newly published Post Evangelical and tried to do church from within my own culture. These days we call this “emergent”. I love techno, extreme metal and folk music. We support contextualisation for other cultures, why not our own, right?

Skipping ahead a few years, divorced and drifting, I decided to return to a more conservative faith. I prayed, “God, I don’t understand why, but I’m gonna try and do things your way,” specifically praying for a Christian girlfriend.

question

Shortly afterwards, I met a Christian woman and considered this an answer. Long story short, I fell in love but she’d been lying all along. It ended with my suicidal despair after discovering her multiple betrayals. I raged at divine betrayal too; I was angry at God for years.

I know that compared with the suffering others go through, mine seems incredibly trivial. But we can only experience our own suffering, and for me it was shattering. My departure from churchianity was caused by three archetypal problems: Why prayer isn’t answered, the problem of evil, and the hypocrisy of Christians. Ironically, I’ve always been an intellectual and spent many hours wrestling with these arguments. Conclusion: It would have been so easy to make a couple of small changes in my life without violating anyone’s freedom or requiring miracles. God failed and a twenty year faith died. Or did it?

I’m not sure I could honestly claim to be an atheist after God let me down. For a few years I simply ignored God. I still find nihilism compelling, if I were convinced there were no God I think I’d become totally self-indulgent, and for a while I was.

When I came to think about spiritual things again, I found myself not knowing if God is there or not. I’d become agnostic. Agnosticism is about knowledge, and is a solid belief, rather than an in-between state. I’m an open agnostic, but it seems the majority are atheists in practice. I’m not satisfied with standing back and assuming God isn’t there, I’m still searching. There are even Christian agnostics, though I don’t count myself among their number. I’ve written that all believers are un-knowers.

What’s it like being agnostic in day to day life? I never pray, lost the habit. After reading through the entire Bible every year- even the boring bits- I never pick it up. Occasionally I’d like to find a local group of similar souls, but this is hard. And I’m SO over meetings. Wiccans have a concept of the solitary practitioner, perhaps Christians need to recover that practice, based on the desert fathers?

Do I feel guilt? Well, one of the really good things I took from Christianity is the concept of grace, something that seems to be lacking in most public Christian proclamations.

My gateway to God was always the mind; reading Antony Flew’s biography and a book on the Mystics inspired me recently. My girlfriend gave me the three volume Integrative Theology, I love that stuff. At this point I’m closer to believing in a g0d than for some time, but it’s an expansive g0d, a beautiful Mind behind the universe. If I do return to Christianity, it will be on my terms. I cannot believe in a God who condemns gay people, treats women as second-class or tortures people eternally.

I’m agnostic but I’m genuinely seeking truth. I find the search wonderfully fresh and am surprised at the progress I’ve made. I don’t know if God is there, and maybe I never will. I do know that love is more important than belief. I think I’m OK with that.

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Paul Collier | Facing the Unknown

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Why I Will Always Be Agnostic

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 15, 2010

I came to the conclusion a little while ago that even if I adopt a particular belief, I will technically have to call myself an agnostic. The reason is that “agnostic” is about knowledge, what we can know. This is different to belief. Agnostic means “I don’t know”

We tend to place belief as an on/off black/white yes/no question. I think there can be shades and nuances, in terms of my own experience. Some time ago I came up with the Agnostic Scale. (We can argue about whether it should be called the “belief scale” or the “knowledge scale” 1) It looks like this:

Both zero and ten are not possible for us. We cannot “know” there is no God. Equally, we cannot— in this life at least— “know” there is a God. So let’s add to the diagram:

The best we can do is be at position one— “I strongly believe there is no God”, or position nine— “I strongly believe there is a God”. I strongly believe Morocco exists, even though I’ve never been there 2. Also note that position nine doesn’t specify what kind of God, a Deist could also be at position nine.

All believers are un-knowers. Having a concept of belief rather than knowledge allows me to move up and down the scale, as my beliefs change over time. At times in the past I’ve been at position nine. A few years ago I moved to about a three, which would be something like “It’s not very likely there is a God”, or perhaps “I have strong doubts about whether God exists.”

Pascal made me think about the distinction of belief versus knowledge. My other example is Bertrand Russell, who called himself an atheist but if his audience were more savvy would call himself an agnostic, as he couldn’t say he “knew” God didn’t exist.

My point is that even If I decide there is a Being behind the universe, it will always be a belief, not knowledge, however strongly I may feel about it.

Right now I’d put myself at about a 7, something like “I think it’s likely God might exist”. I may move back towards the zero, or up towards the 10. But no matter what, I’ll always be an agnostic.

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[1] In conversation Phrenic Philosophy pointed out that Richard Dawkins published a similar scale in his book The God Delusion. I’d forgotten that, but my scale was conceived independently, so sucks to you, Dawkins 😉

[2] Philosophy alert: Language enthusiasts can amuse yourselves trying to finesse what the statement “Morocco exists” means. The study of how we know something is called epistemology. The classic definition of knowledge is “justified, true belief”. To be extra snarky: Do you “know” YOU exist?

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , | 80 Comments »

How to Find God

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 30, 2010

Before setting out on a journey, it would be wise to decide how you will travel. Having a good map will help. I’d like to explain a little about my map.

If you’re going to find g0d, how will you know what she is like, and how will you know when you’ve found her? Broadly speaking, there is the way of the intellect and the way of experience. My method is twofold, I need both. I value truth, and I value connection.

By the way, that word “God”, has lots of baggage, so please substitute Brahman, spiritual reality, or another term if you prefer. In this post I’m not too particular about the nature of the goal I’m seeking. Reality, or Truth will do. I’ll use g0d.

Desert landscape

Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play. ~ Kant

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. ~ Albert Einstein

I value the intuitive mind, or “experience”. I’ve been dipping into Carlos Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan, an ethnography of his time with a Yaqui shaman, taking peyote, datura and magic mushrooms. I like the idea of going into the desert, getting high, and meeting g0d. After all, I like deserts, and I like getting high. This seems like an experiential path that would be good for me. The problem is, how could I trust I was experiencing true Reality, rather than just curious experiences in my mind? Experience without reason could quickly lead me astray.

Most religions have a mystical element, a part that allows an experience of g0d. I’ve learned quite a lot about all kinds of approaches, and there is one thing I can guarantee— if you follow a spiritual path, you WILL have an experience. People all over the world, in significantly different faiths have had very trippy experiences. What I cannot guarantee is that your experience will be True. It’s quite possible that many mystical experiences, or even all of them, are false. Nice experiences, sure, but not experiences that actually connect with eternal Beauty. I think if the society of our time makes any mistake, it is this one.

Alternatively, it may be that I can discover “the g0d of the philosophers” through reason – science, philosophy, psychology, history, sociology… In brief, through the doorway of the mind. I’m not looking for proof. As I’ve written, we rarely get that kind of strong proof for most things in life. But I AM looking for reasonable evidence. Just because guru Mudinmipants says he experienced it does not mean it‘s true. (Do you think it would help to think about what “reasonable evidence” might be? I have a sense of it, but haven‘t written out explicit details.)

I ended up in this “mere intellectual” state the other day, saying to myself, “OK, so right now, intellectually, it looks like g0d might really be there. What now?” If there is good reason to think that g0d exists then it seems natural to try and make contact with this Reality. A dry assent that the Infinite exists, followed by life-as-usual, seems somehow flat.

Now, there are some assumptions I’ve made which you’ve probably spotted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter which path I take, all of them will lead me up the mountain? I think the evidence points away from this, but that’s for another time. It’s also possible that g0d is there, but we are not able to experience him. Mystical experiences on their own prove very little. These ideas are worth considering.

For me, I need both mind and heart. I hope that a path can be found which improves my life beyond mere intellectual satisfaction. And I cannot follow an experience that is not supported by reason.

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What about you? Are there any ways of finding Reality that I’ve missed?
I generally start with reason and end with experience. Should I try the other way around?
Are there problems you can see with my chosen method?

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A wonderful song that reminds me of what‘s important
Alan Parsons Project | Cant Take It With You

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, God, god | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Agnostics and Labels: Video Blog

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 10, 2010

WooHoo!

I can’t recall, but I may have hinted that new things were afoot at Spritzophrenia. Now for the first time I’m proud to present an Audio (Video?) Blog courtesy of Iain at Phrenic Philosophy. Maybe you could call it a podcast, but it’s not audio alone – yet. Iain’s a regular contributer here at Spritzophrenia and has become a friend, so if you’ve wondered about the human face behind the text…

Edit If you don’t want to view the video, Iain’s made a transcript here. What a great guy, huh?

The idea, impetus and all of the work to produce this has been done by Iain at Phrenic Philosophy, so please go visit him there and tell him Hi. This is just a start, of course it can be improved, but what do you think? Suggestions?

Also, what do you think of labels, or the idea of being a “committed” agnostic? What about being “fired on by both sides?”

Posted in agnostic, Philosophy | Tagged: , | 22 Comments »

Agnostic Attitude

Posted by spritzophrenia on July 9, 2010

Agnosticism manifests itself best as an attitude. It is a way of life driven by the desire for ultimate things. It is a love in the way that philosophy was a love of wisdom for Socrates. It is a ‘passionate commitment’ to a certain form of life, in Wittgenstein’s phrase. What marks it out is a confession of ignorance – a confession both in the sense of an admittance and in the sense of a framework.

Dr Mark Vernon, After Atheism, p 137

I like this. Vernon is an agnostic christian, rather than at the atheistic end of the scale.

Posted in agnostic | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »