An Agnostic’s View of Society and the World

A Grand Rants Op/Ed

Hey… How about that for a concise and laser-beam title? Way to narrow down the subject matter, ay?

Truth be told, the title, “An Agnostic’s View of Society and the World” isn’t all that “universe-encompassing”… (At least not for me, and I’d imagine that there are other agnostics who would sign on to what I’m about to type…)

Does it ever occur to anybody (religious) out there that maybe, just maybe, their “Holy Book” is a crock? Maybe it’s just a 2,000 (+/-) year old urban legend gone horribly righteous and viral? Take your pick… Bible, Koran, scrolls, sayings… Whatever… Kind of reduces the humongous to the minuscule, pronto, doesn’t it?

Here’s the deal… When I was an engineering student, I watched two brilliant teaching assistants (both working on their masters degrees in electrical engineering) battle it out over the nature of gawd… One claimed that proof of gawd was someone rising from the dead, and the other claimed that gawd had something to do with a snake… And both men were damned serious about their views, and each had their “Holy Texts” to back up their claims…

Ummm… Did it ever dawn on anybody that so much of existence, cognition, love, physics, mathematics, self awareness, astronomy, blah, blah, blah are wildly complex and way beyond the machinations of the human gray stuff? It is irony lost when simple under-grad fodder like calculus, differential equations, and thermodynamics challenge (if not vanquish) the vast majority of us, yet we en masse continue to claim that because of our “Immaculate Tomes” we can somehow have insight into the mind and maneuverings of gawd. (Or perhaps better yet “know” that there is no gawd.)

A couple of days ago, a bomb blast in the Pakistani city of Peshawar killed more than 100… All because someone(s) firmly believed that he/they had a direct line to gawd and wallowed in the powers attached.

As an agnostic, I’m of two minds… The first is that of profound sadness – the senselessness of it all. But the second thought falls along the lines of a mix of anger and indignation. How dare you impinge your indoctrinated beliefs on me or others. I don’t care about your, “Well, I just believe…” or, “My<insert your sacred transcript here> says…” Fine. If you want to believe in Jesus, Allah, or even the Most Right Reverend Ultra  Salty Potato Chip… Fine…  Just keep it to yourself. And no matter what, don’t attack me physically or intellectually because I don’t buy into your brainwashing, and Pollyanna-ish denial of the harsh reality of it all. Sorry… I don’t buy into arks that can hold all gawd’s creatures and I don’t buy into afterlife rivers of honey and virgins… Call me irascible…

Look, I understand the want for religion… probably more than most. I dare say I’ve had more than my fair share of tough times, and it would be nice to be able to lean on a higher power… As just one example, my father’s death rocked my world… but not my logic. To be an agnostic (or atheist) can be damned lonely. Still it’s the intellectual disingenuousness of, and often violent nature of, faith that keeps me away. Simply put, it doesn’t make any more sense to me than does atheism. As if I could be so smart as to grasp the gears of gawd.

Often, I think back to my two teaching assistants and wonder whatever became of them on 9/11. What did they think of the omnipresence of their gawd (or lack thereof) when they watched 3,000 people being incinerated, broken, and crushed to a paste.

Anyway… As an old engineer and an agnostic, about the best I can do is marvel at the whirring of the universe and the gall of those who claim to understand the “Man Behind the Curtain”, or pronounce authoritatively that there is no “Man” at all…

Alan Speakman

19 Responses to An Agnostic’s View of Society and the World

  1. Solana2012 says:

    What amazes me is that the bible says once upon a time, God and his angels battled and God won and since it’s in the bible it’s fact.
    Mythology says the gods battled and Zeus won, but that’s just simple-minded myths from a primitive people.
    The Mayans say that first-father battled the whatever and won and that’s just simple-minded myths from a primitive society.
    The bible says Noah built an ark and since it’s in the bible, it’s fact.
    The Epic of Gilgamesh says he built an ark and we’re told it’s a wonderful fictional story.
    I’m amazed that christians (and I’m a catholic) quote the bible and tell me Christ preached and argued their holy scriptures at 12 years old….and they don’t understand that those “scriptures” did not even mention Christ. It was a different ‘book’ than the one they carry around today.

    My theory is that it’s the elementary-school-game “Telephone”.
    In “Telephone”, all the kids sit in a circle and the teacher whispers a sentence to the child on her left; something like, “Abraham Lincoln was a great president.” Each child, in turn, whispers it to the student to their left until it reaches the end, at which time, that last student says it out loud. It becomes morphed into something like, “A brick’s a great present.”
    Long ago, something important happened, but like with anything (I caught a fish thiiiis big), it becomes embellished, distorted, language-barrier-inaccurate, etc.
    We’re arrogant to dismiss the legends as complete myths when they don’t suit our “advanced” agendas; we’re arrogant to think we know it all.
    We’re arrogant to use ‘history’ and legends as a justification to kill those who prefer a different history book.
    Someday, our advanced, civilized, accurate history books are going to say Barack Obama was the greatest president in history because he was a slave who became the president and won the Nobel Peace Prize for working directly with Allah and personally removed our murderous military personnel from the peaceful country of Afghanistan.

  2. Mike says:

    Solana2012, the biggest fiction presented in your post is the claim that you are Catholic. If you had the slightest familiarity with the Bible, you’d realize that most stories are allegorical in nature. But instead, you’d prefer to present them as fables that Christian (and Jewish) fools have believed for thousands of years.

    Go bother someone else, you pest.

    • Solana2012 says:

      Mike,
      For thousands of years, “fools” believed in multiple gods. You call their ancient faiths fables. Tell today’s Native Americans they are fools. I love their legends and their songs.
      Who da pest?

    • Hi Mike,

      Years ago, I worked with a brilliant young man who was a Christian… He insisted that the Bible was NOT allegorical in nature, and that in fact he would see Jesus descend from the clouds… Was he wrong? Are you right?

      Alan

  3. Mad Dawg says:

    What amazes me is that people who question Christianity assume without evidence that they not only are WAY smarter than Christians but also WAY more original.

    Would it surprise you, Solana, to know that my standard intro lecture to looking at the Bible includes an invitation to students to do a “compare and contrast” of the flood stories in Genesis and in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” a probably Semitic but definitely polytheistic work? (I’m not a professor, just a guy who reads sometimes.) Sure, both stories have floods and such, but the theology is certainloy different. In Gilgamesh “the gods hovered like flies” over the sacrfice of the Noah analog. THAT’s where the important difference lies.

    A lot of thought, from as far back as 150 AD (Justin Martyr) has been spent on the similarities (and differences) between our “story” and “theirs”. It’s good. You might want to study it sometime.

    To take your “telephone” analogy, the point for many of us is not in the facticity or no-facticity of the Flood, but in the way, as the story is passed on the theology becomes, well, magnificent. We pass from gods like flies, through a local henotheism, to the universal God of Isaiah. Simultaneously we pass from a sense that might makes right, through a wonderful anguish over the conflict between justice and mercy to the sense that in Christ justice is perfected in mercy and love.

    If you discuss great matters without people who don’t study much and if you don’t study much yourself — with a focus on those of different opinions, you will come up with, well, unstudied opinions. And you’ll miss a lot of exciting thought.

    • Solana2012 says:

      Mad Dawg,
      I didn’t mean to offend you personally. I’m not stating that I’m an expert in Christianity. I’m not proposing that Christianity is “bad”. What I am saying is that people who believed in gods (plural) are today considered primitive while people who believe in one god are today considered advanced. My contention is that it’s arrogant to “make fun” of those ancient beliefs now that we know “the truth”. They also thought they knew “the truth”. My contention is that it’s awful and terrible to use your (any) written scriptures to wage war with someone solely because they don’t follow the same “bible” you do.
      I am very unknowledgable. I learn new things every day. But darned if many bible stories don’t sound like the mythology stories to me, with the names, places, and reasons modified to….fit the times?
      You said that it amazes you that people who question Christianity assume without evidence that they not only are way smarter than Christians but also way more original…
      I don’t think I’m way smarter than Christians; I just don’t have your personal blind faith. It has to make sense to me. Your evidence (the bible) has been written, and then rewritten again and again. Gospels have been left out and removed to fit some agenda I don’t understand. If they used to be holy and important enough to be in the bible, why aren’t they now? Men make mistakes. Men also lie. So do women. People long ago, like many in our government today, have/had an agenda of their own. It has been that way throughout history. Your evidence is written by men, not by God, himself. Yes, I question without “evidence”. Your evidence is unprovable without blind faith. Why are there so many Christian faiths? Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, Methodist…they all follow the same bible but each one is “different”. That makes no sense to me. You look down on me for questioning and call yourself a Christian. I don’t look down on you; I envy you.

      The terrorists study their “bible”. They are very knowledgeable about their religion, their God, their instructions. That’s why they have waged war on us infidels. That’s why our twin towers don’t exist today. That’s why innocent lives have been lost. That’s why our soldiers are fighting. I love this country and our freedom to believe what we want while we don’t murder our neighbor because he practices a different faith. I feel sorry that you think this is acceptable.

  4. Pat says:

    Alan, Have you read any CS Lewis? You would probably relate to him very well. It’s an explanation of why Christians believe what they believe. Lewis is very logical & down to earth.

    • Hi Pat,

      Thanks for the comment… Yes, I have looked at C.S. Lewis… As I remember, he had a particularly strong argument for the existence of God… But not a clincher… Nothing that I would bet my life on (or anyone else’s for that matter.)

  5. Pat says:

    Left out the name of the book – “Mere Christianity” – sorry!

  6. Mad Dawg says:

    Alan,

    It often seems that agnostics doubt the existence of an entity or type of entity in which few Christians believe.

    There are philosophical discussions about some kind of “supreme being” which at first seem just a wee bit bogus, but which after deep consideration become difficult to despise.

    What is lovable about some agnostics is their love for truth and their unwillingness to give themselves to a dubious conjecture. What is frustrating for us theists is their seeming laziness in looking for the thoughts of wise and good people on the very thing which concerns them.

    It’s good to ask oneself things like: Can I speak the truth?
    Does it matter whether I can speak the truth?
    How does one relate to the truth?
    Is there right and wrong in human actions? What would that mean?
    IF it’s just a matter of opinion, then why is it wrong to inflict one’s opinion on others? That is, if there’s no objective right or wrong, then what does it matter if I require, under threat of pain or death, you to act and speak as if you were a Christian? So I’m inconsistent — so what?

    At least get to know the proposition the truth of which you doubt. Who knows, it might just matter …

    • Hi Mad Dawg,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Here’s my approach to it all… I just don’t know about gawd… But I do know my own suffering, and it ain’t pleasant. And via intellectual honesty and fairness, I assume that others suffer and that ain’t good either.

      I think the bottom line is simply this… What does it mean to “know” something? As an engineer (and former philosophy major) I embrace the classical definition of knowing as having a true, justifiable belief. “True” brings into the ring issues of accountability and reproducibility. I know the truth in calculus because it has been tested millions of times. (As you read this, calculus is being put to the test and holding up very well… With no calc there would be no PC or Internet.) And it’s that “true” part that rattles me about gawd… Its existence may or may not be true, and if gawd does exist, whose gawd? Like I said, I met some brilliant people in the engineering program (I also have degrees in comp tech and psychology and met a ton of brilliant people in those arenas as well), and there were different beliefs all over the place. If gawd exists, who’s right about the nature of gawd??? My only answer is, “I don’t know.”

      Mad Dawg, I wrote a piece some time ago for a birdseed company of all things. I hope you read this carefully and come away with a slightly different take on gawd, existence, and my agnosticism… http://www.ebirdseed.com/blog/2007/05/birds_and_the_nature_of_the_un.html.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      Alan

  7. Mad Dawg says:

    Alan,
    Nothing personal taken.

    Interested in the idea of “blind faith”. I don;t derive it from the Bible. On the contrary the confidence I have in Scripture comes from my faith, rather than the other way around.

    I mention this because that’s the kind of difference in outlook which seems to block communication on these things.

    BTW, you are mistaken about books being declared in and then out of the Bible. it’s more like some groups, most of which died out, included stuff which most Christians concluded was not reliable. The history of “the canon” (the list of books which are “in the Bible”) is interesting in itself. But the “Gospel of Thomas” or the “Acts of Pilate” were never in an surviving list of okay books. They were written, considered, and rejected.

    You write about inter-religious conflict,”I feel sorry that you think this is acceptable.” How did you conclude I think it acceptable? Where did THAT come from. I am perfectly capable of thinking that the Catholic Church is, well, on the money without approving of murdering either Protestants or Muslims.

    (However, if they come after me or mine, I will fight back, generally.)

    This, to me, is another example of somebody arguing against something I don’t think but thinking he’s arguing against me. If you’re going to claim agnosticism, at least try to make sure you “don’t know” something worth not knowing, not something you made up.

    • Solana2012 says:

      Mad Dawg,
      This has been a great conversation – I appreciate your debate!
      I never claimed I was agnostic; I said I was Catholic…but, as with many things in life, some things just don’t make sense.
      The books being left out; I was referring to the Hebrew bible (which is what Christ quoted and debated) as opposed to our Old Testament as opposed to our New Testament. I also have to wonder why, when the bible was written, some of the writings of the apostles were deemed worthy of being in the bible, while others weren’t; seems like the ‘word’ should be the ‘word’. Seems like “everything” that happened should be important enough to be included, not just “some” of the stuff. Ezekiel has chapters in the Hebrew bible; a few sentences in ours. Lilith has paragraphs in the Hebrew bible; one slight reference in ours – I don’t know of any Christian religion that teaches about Lilith…to me, it’s some double-standard perpetrated for the agenda of the times. It’s a fact that everyone thought Mary Magdalene was a prostitute because of the way she was stuck in there right below the actual prostitute; only a few decades ago has it become accepted that she wasn’t (and I’m not talking Dan Brown fiction).
      I have 3 kids. When they brought their kindergarten artwork home, I saved some that I enjoyed; I didn’t save everything. I decided what I wanted to save and display and, when they had their own apartments I decided what to keep and what to “give back” to them.
      Some person (people) decided what to include, what not to include in the Christian bible. I question their motives. I question the 50-or-so miles of storage in the Vatican; why isn’t that stuff displayed? Why is it so important to keep it hidden? The Bishops and Cardinals and the Pope were once little boys in kindergarten; they’re no smarter or ‘aware’ than you or I. Just because they chose to study theology and I chose to study linguistics doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate truth and beauty and knowledge. There is so much history/knowledge/artifacts that should be put in museums for all to enjoy. I have to question their motives.
      As far as Christianity, itself, goes; I have a ton of respect for the Jewish people and admire them greatly. They do not believe Christ was the son of God. They believe he was a ‘good’ person. Are they horrible? Are they ‘wrong’? They ‘diss’ the Christian belief of much of the population of the world. You, being a true Christian; how can you associate with these people? They publicly dishonor your religion, your beliefs, your faith. Islam dishonors your faith; are they ‘wrong’? Buddhists dishonor your faith; are they ‘wrong’?
      Believing in the beauty of mathematics; believing in the beauty of life-cycles;
      believing in the beauty of the revolution of the planets around our sun, the miracle of the universe, tangibles that astound a logical mind – there is something supreme about the complexity yet simplicity of it all. A wise, powerful figure similar to our image ‘commanding’ it? – I sorta like “the force” idea better.

  8. Mad Dawg says:

    oops, I addressed to Alan what should have gone to Solana.

  9. Doug says:

    Interesting dilemma, from time immemorial religion has established morality. Governments based on religion have sometimes been harsh like those bent on sharia.

    Atheist secular governments like socialist and communist states have been known to throw some pretty impressive necktie parties and such.

    Since America began attacking any public display of religion it is an easy case to make that society is declining to some. For others we are becoming enlightened.

    If you don’t believe in a higher power or an afterlife, then what’s the point of living a moral life. Only fear of punishment remains and that won’t hold the thin blue line.

    Me, I believe that man is not at the top of the ladder. An Agnostic? Perhaps. Never met a religion I couldn’t find something to be skeptical of.

    Do I know as a matter of faith that there is an existence beyond incarnate worldly stuff? Absolutely. Is there a God? For me there is. Do I believe what others do? Probably not.

    Take a religion – try hard enough and therein lies a license to eradicate some group of folks.

    Whenever people get together to decide what is Godly it scares the living crap out of me. That doesn’t stop me from having a spiritual life, it does keep me from settling into any sort of established religion.

    I got hospitalized once. They asked me about medical conditions and allergies. Then they asked me about my religious preference. I told them to put that under allergies.

    So I guess that I can draw fire from all sides. I believe in God, I don’t have much use for religion as we know it.

  10. Josie says:

    Boy, did you open a can of worms! And my 2 cents is hereby offered:
    I firmly believe there is a power greater than any material/earthly power and therefore it must be spiritual to be greater. Religons are groups of similar beliefs held by groups of mortals who believe in a similar type of spiritual power which they worship. The big problem is the nature of the God you believe in and worship. Religions based on love do not seek to kill all non-believers. (I know that, in the past, almost all religions have had to fight and kill to survive, but only a few still hold that as a law.) The solution, of course, is tolerance. And tolerance and compassion are born of love. (Anything further would be three cents!)

  11. Mad Dawg says:

    This is a remarkably high quality discussion for an online forum. Thank you all!

    <>

    That is Hysterical!

    Alan: The calculus is true, but it’s what I call a “boring” truth. It’s beautiful (the little that I’ve done), but when the doc tells you your kid is going to die, it doesn’t do a whole lot for you. (The doc was wrong, my kid lived.)

    <> His own. That’s important for all us theists to remember. We are His; He is not ours. So the question becomes, “Whose TAKE on God?” It’s an important distinction.

    It’s interesting the you bring up the calculus. I COULD NOT progress in the calculus until i read some DeMorgan and thought HARD about infinitesimals and began to get a clue. So I “get” that belief sometimes precedes understanding, or at least there is a kind of give and take relationship between the two.

    Alan and Doug: I get with distress the relationship between religion (especially monotheis,) and violence. May I suggest that there is a similar relation between prosperity and obesity. Yet prosperity is not bad in itself, is it?

    I read your article, Alan, and it’s nicely written. To a theist, I think, it misses the point. Lewis in his “science fiction” (not very scientific) is good about this: Big numbers get humans all bent out of shape. Sagan’s argument cuts no ice with me.

    If the world was created last week and terminated a few miles north of, say, Trenton (I’m in Virginia) it would still be (to me) a miracle that humans have moral values which they affirm at the same time they fail to live up to them.

    What WOULD you bet your life on? Why?

    I think we’d acknowledge that there are different sorts of truth and therefor of knowledge. We can “prove” the New York is a big crowded place by taking a look. We can prove the calculus by demonstrating the argument. I don’t know how to prove I love my wife and kind. It is basic to scholastic theology that while SOME kind of Flying Spaghetti Monster can be proved (though the proof is very different from the other kinds of proof) it is only by revelation that He can be known – and even that knowledge is partial, analogical, blah blah. We think we can’t even talk about the Flying Spaghetti Monster without conceding that what we say, though not useless, is more incorrect than it is correct.

    What are we to make of our lack of concern if some jerk says New York does not exist or is verdant and empty. But if somebody goes after our family ….

    So, well as I am being oracular this AM, I suggest it’s fun to consider that in English, “Truth” is related to “troth” and refers etymologically to commitment and fidelity as much as to “objective” reality.

    Thanks for this excellent conversation.

  12. Mad Dawg says:

    Hiya Solana! Thanks for your kind words. This IS good.

    What you need is a good RCIA course, like, the one I’m teaching. We’re a Dominican (I’m a lay Dominican) and a University parish so we have GREAT conversations with smart and intense people.

    When I was in (episcopal) seminary, one of the things we wrestled with is that the Gospels are not “history” and even less “journalistic” as we understand the terms.

    That is, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all had agendas and “spin”. One clue is that all the gospels fit the description “passion narrative with an extended introduction.” The week of the Crucifixion gets WAY more “airplay” than any other similar chunk of time. Only two writers mention the Nativity.

    If you read Paul and/or look at the Creeds you can see that the actual life and teaching of IHS are skipped over for the core: Born, suffered, died, rose, will come again.

    “The Acts of Pilate”(AOP) (which I enjoy) and the “Gospel of Thomas” (GOT) have other spins or styles. The GOT is, to me, clearly gnostic. The AOP is less so, but it makes no attempt to be historical. It really blows up the “harrowing of hell” which is really disguised theological speculation.

    And, one thing that’s, I think, undeniable in Paul is that the early Church was full of controversy — from “free love” to unreasonable asceticism and apocalyptic hopes (The Lord is coming, so I’m gonna quit work!), so Paul thought it his job to keep the Gospel intact and uncorrupted. And in the Corinthian letters we can see that there was even a “Why should we listen to THAT jerk?” conflict in Corinth.

    When you compare and contrast the 4 Gospels, it’s easy to pick out the various slants or points the writers wanted to emphasize. E.g. Luke is all about the poor, Matthew – Jesus is the New Moses, and so forth.

    In other words, the earliest documents (the Epistles) and the later ones (Gospels) already have a theological slant. It’s hard (impossible?) and controversial (and maybe not that important?) to drill down to the Life of Christ as it might appear in a cinema verite film.

    In still other words, whatever we do, we are stuck with the early Christian community as the bearers I (and even editors, in a good sense) of the kerygma, the proclamation. And in the Church’s judgment, stories about Jesus making clay birdies and giving them life or stretching a board Joseph cut too short seem to miss the point, which is that in Jesus, and especially in His death and rising, the whole universe is turned upside down.

    Finally, not as persuasive but as explanatory: We KNOW the cardinals and at least many of the popes are 8-cylinder, cast-iron jerks. After all, Peter even after Pentecost sometimes wavered and was chicken. We think it’s God who protects the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact it’s often said that when one considers what Belloc called the “knavish imbecility” of the leaders of the Church, one has to conclude that it has only lasted as long as it has because God was keeping it from destroying itself.

    Yes, my wife thinks I’m long-winded too … Sorry.

    Dawg

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