Thursday, October 7, 2010

157. Agnostic does not equal unsure

As part of Leadership Lorain County a few years ago, our group visited a beautiful Elyria church. While discussing religion with the preacher, each member of our group was asked about his or her religious beliefs. It might be surprising that someone as open as myself about religion actually froze for a moment . . . wondering how my answer might be perceived by others in my group. I mean, I have a column, a website, and I was president of a Freethought organization-- it's not like there is any going back. Still, the announcement is often met with uncertainty, distrust and confusion-and I feel like there is a time and place where that discussion is best received.

I stuck to what I believe and told the preacher that I was agnostic. His reply, however, was both accurate and a bit offensive. He said, a little surprised and in concerning brevity, "Oh, still searching." His accuracy was tied to the idea that something someday may happen that changes my perspective. However, his inaccuracy was the presumption that maybe I hadn't looked hard enough, that I had not reached a belief system-- when, in fact, I had probably spent more time on the subject than most people.

The common definition of an "agnostic" is one who is uncertain as to whether a god or gods exist. This uncertainty is tied to the premise that it is impossible to prove his, her or its existence, that the concept is unknowable to man. The idea that whether a god exists is unknowable subsequently lends itself to the premise that man cannot, based on current ideology, understand what is beyond the scope of our universe. In other words, the idea that something, at some point, arose out of nothing, is beyond the extent of human understanding.

However, one ought to be careful in the presumption that because I do not know whether or not there is a god that, therefore, I believe that the chances that god exists are equal. Based on my personal experiences, analysis of religion(s), methodology of reason and sheer number of possibilities, I find it more likely that no god exists. At the same time, while I find it more unlikely than likely, to take the assertive step that god doesn't exist moves one closer to atheism. And it's here where the line between agnosticism and atheism (which literally means "without god,") gets blurry-and I've used both terms interchangeably depending on the audience.

Many people do not know what agnosticism actually means, and inquire with genuine interest.

The first question people often ask is if I do not believe in god, where then do I get my morality? It's interesting, because I have never struggled with general issues of morality. Most issues, like the "cornerstones" of the Ten Commandments, are somewhat obvious-and my adherence is the product of being raised by responsible parents.

Other issues, however, like the death penalty and abortion go much deeper-and the freedom I have in my personal morality is that I am able to step beyond the religious teaching of it's right or wrong because god says so. I can consider these and other difficult moral issues from a multitude of perspectives-the principles of science, sociology, philosophy and law. It's actually a liberation to be afforded the ability to consider each issue beyond preconceived notions-- where I can juxtapose arguments and consequences and reach my own conclusions.

The second question I get is what do I "believe" in if I don't believe in an eternal salvation. This is actually my favorite question, because it is what defines me as a person. I believe in life, I believe that we are each afforded one opportunity to experience this that we know as life. For that reason, I hold that life is precious, and should not be sacrificed needlessly (which is why I oppose violence and almost all wars), I think that people should work together to make the world a better place for everyone, not just themselves (which is why I believe in fairness, justice and opportunity). Finally, I believe in kindness, that it is not only our one opportunity here on Earth, but that it is also the only opportunity for every living being on this planet (which is why I am a vegetarian/vegan and environmentalist).

Thus, what I believe in is "life" and that everyone should live it to the fullest and, most importantly that we ought not to waste this life, or sacrifice this life, waiting for the next.

A final question that people often ask me, though there are many more, is what if you are wrong. My response is that I live my life, the life I know exists, to the best of my ability, with kindness and principle, and that if there is a god-- I hope that's good enough.