19 May 2009

here come the agnostics!

Anytime I walk into a bookstore, there are three sections that have a kind of gravitational pull on me: travel, politics, and religion. (Sorry, literature. Sorry, science.) The travel section is always a happy place, but I've found myself increasingly turned off by the shrill debates in the latter two sections. You can tell just from perusing the covers that the politics section consists mainly of two factions of people calling each other stupid--think of the Ann Coulters vs. the Al Frankens. In the religion section, outside of the study Bibles and scores of fluffy spiritual books, you have more of the same. On the one side we have the so-called "new atheists," headlined by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and on the other side, we have a new cottage industry of pro-religion writers proclaiming the stupidity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. There's always been lots of money in God; now there's money in godlessness too.

Nowadays if people ask me about my religious stance, I usually describe myself as "culturally Catholic and metaphysically agnostic," meaning that I still identify with my Catholic upbringing but can't honestly sign onto belief in anything supernatural. Even in my uber-Catholic days, I think it was always the ethical dimension-- the social Gospel, Dorothy Day, St. Francis -- that kept me going. And let's be honest, the politicization of Christianity by the Republican Party has put a real bad taste in my mouth. And I'm the first person to point out that the fact that hypocritical politicians want to legislate sexual morality while approving government-administered torture has no bearing on whether God exists or Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead.

That said, I don't put much stock in the "new atheist" crowd either. The main complaint of Harris and Hitchens, at least, seems to be that religion makes people do awful things to each other: see 9/11, the Inquisition, etc. But I think if human beings had evolved to be irreligious instead of religious, we would still be killing and be doing bad things to each other. We would just find non-religious justifications for doing so. (When I made this point to my brother, he directed me to this awesome South Park segment. Other than some blood & guts there's nothing too offensive...unless you happen to be an atheist who takes him/herself far too seriously.) The real problem, I think, is the human lust for power, property, and control; religion has just served as the most convenient justifying idiom for most of history.

So when I wandered into the Cambridge Borders recently, I was amazed to find a third strand emerging in the debate: the agnostics are in on this book-writing thing too! Books such as In God We Doubt and After Atheism are offering up a fascinating propsect: agnosticism as a defensible position, rather than a refuge for those wishy-washy folks who won't commit one way or the other. I've often felt like religious and irreligious folks alike treat me as if where I am now is just some kind of "phase" or transitional state, and before too long I'm going to come down on one side (theirs, naturally) over the other.

But what if agnosticism can be a home, and not just a hotel room? In this column Mark Vernon, the author of After Atheism, proposes that one can be a "principled agnostic." He makes the distinction between (i) "whatever" agnostics, who don't really care for the debate; (ii)atheistically-inclined agnostics, who tend toward nonbelief but think we can't know for sure that God doesn't exist; and (iii) religiously-inclined agnostics, who don't believe that settling the God question is within our capabilities but see something of value in religiosity. Vernon thinks that "principled agnosticism" makes the most sense for those in camp (iii); personally, I tend to waver between (ii) and (iii). Unlike Vernon, I don't think religion deserves credit for Bach or benevolence any more than it deserves blame for terrorism and war.

I doubt that the "principled agnostics" are going to win lots of converts. But perhaps they can rescue us from this inane debate between the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens camp and their critics? Science only knows.

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