An Agnostic at the Vatican Museums

DSC_0366I recently visited the Vatican Museums in Rome, Italy. It was a revealing experience as an agnostic and ex-Catholic. I was surprised to see so many antiquities related to the mythological religions of the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. Viewing them with the related collections of Catholic antiquities served as a visual allegory revealing the underlying truth of religions. All of the Christian art and symbology fit well with the rest of the collection to tell us that it was all developed from human imagination. They simply stand together as the mythologies of our ancestors. We’re often told by religious people that we just need to open our eyes and the truth will be revealed to us. I was open to whatever messages were around me and this is what I took away from my Vatican visit.

sarcophagus relief

Sarcophagus front for a married couple with Hades door ajar from 240/250 AD

Our tour guide told us this rich couple had this sarcophagus front made to depict their journey to death escorted by Zeus and Hera. It’s not unique to claim the gods have a personal interest in our lives and deaths. This couple believed they were special and they had the money to memorialize it. Doesn’t this center of the universe viewpoint sound familiar? Don’t we see echoes of this human vanity over and over again in other religions where the god or gods exist relative to our own simple existence?

The tour guide said the partially open doors symbolizes we don’t know what’s beyond the doors in death since we can’t see what’s through those doors. The partially open doors are a fitting allegory for agnosticism describing our lack of knowledge about death until we pass through the doors. I saw many Christian depictions of crossing over to death in the rest of the museums, St Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel. They also spoke to me about our lack of true knowledge regarding our deaths.

We’re not allowed to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel but you can see and read about Michelangelo’s paintings including the Creation of Adam and Last Judgement elsewhere. I was told he used real people as models for these scenes. Once again we see how we project our common selves into grand stories and mythologies. How this art was created serves as an example of this.

Traditional art of Michelangelo’s time depicted people dressed according to their social status. He reveals a deeper truth by stripping humans bare and equalizing us in our nudity. The Last Judgement showed final journeys into heaven and hell but I didn’t feel any profound revelation by this any differently than the sarcophagus above. Reading the Bible describing this scene is as revealing as reading about the ancient mythologies. You can not only see but also feel the similarities of these beliefs when you physically put them together like this. The experience deepened my feeling of agnosticism if it can be described in those terms.

I didn’t find any profound truths when I viewed all of these things together through the lens of agnosticism. We’re often told by the religious that we just need faith, but we shouldn’t view reality through the lens of blind faith. We should judge reality with impartial logic. Needing faith to believe in religious claims perfectly describes a lack of verifiable facts or truths in those claims. I put my faith in knowledge and visiting the Vatican only served to strengthen that faith.

Death & Reincarnation

There’s a new website being built by an Agnostic called The Nurtured Agnostic. Check it out for it’s quick little overviews of beliefs and keep an eye on it for contributing to the agnostic dialog and our collective exploration of truth.

The author claims to be an agnostic deist so there are already a few beliefs there that go beyond the bounds of primary agnosticism. I always find religious people cherry-picking what they believe with their faith so I shouldn’t be surprised to find agnostics selectively adding faith-based beliefs to their acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge. The Nurtured Agnostic believes in Near Death Experiences and Reincarnation.

Well, what do we actually know about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)? The first thing I imagine is that a Near Anything Experience isn’t an achievement of that state. Could I feel almost like a vapor or a vampire? I wouldn’t be a full vapor that pulled myself back into a human form like Dracula or become the actual bloodsucking undead just because I almost feel like it.

What about an out of body experience? I’ve woken up feeling like I fell back into myself but the feeling in my body doesn’t prove anything happened outside of it. We often take something we don’t understand and project something we know over it. My brain can throw the sensation of falling over some odd feeling in my body or my mind I was having as I slept and dreamed. I do know that dreams aren’t physical realities and NDEs could be something from a dream state.

The state of nearly being dead is the same state as still being alive with at least a partially functioning brain. Complete brain death is when our synapses are no longer firing. Electricity and chemicals in the brain no longer flow and the storm of consciousness and thoughts ceases to exist.

If the laws of thermodynamics are correct then the energy of our consciousness is returned to the universe. It doesn’t make sense to me that it retains any sort of cohesion when we die since it currently exists in a physical structure (the brain) and appears to require that structure to work. I honestly don’t know because I haven’t died yet. I imagine being near death is the slipping away of that cohesion while still having a hold on consciousness. A NDE could be the sense of self on the edge of losing cohesion, which should give us some interesting feelings about it once we snap back to a fully alive state.

NDEs, out of body experiences, and anything else that contributes to understanding the relationship of our consciousness with our physical bodies are good areas for scientific study. These things could really expose the truth of our existence and relationship to the natural universe so they shouldn’t just be dismissed as unbelievable. They could help prove or disprove what some consider to be in the realm of the supernatural that just may be parts of the natural universe we don’t understand.

We don’t truly know what happens after we die and return our materials and energy back to the universe. That leads me to believe that reincarnation is unknown since it’s based on knowing we retain something of ourselves when we die. I can’t say that it’s disproved even if I personally consider it unlikely. If we die and the energy of our consciousness can maintain some cohesion of self, then what remains of that consciousness could be reused in another form. It’s a weak house of cards to build a belief on. There’s a lot there that’s well beyond human understanding and isn’t something we can turn into a verifiable truth. It’s not worth stating a definite belief for it even though we should remain open-minded about the possibilities in that area.Welcome Back mat to Reincarnation Studies Center

US Air Force Forcing Atheist to say “So Help Me God”

USAF Enlistment Oath

USAF Enlistment Oath

This is the oath of enlistment for the United States Air Force as presented on the Air Force recruiting website. The Air Force recently “corrected” the required oath to align with Title 10 of the United States Code (USC), which is public law written by Congress. You can read more about this at several Air Force Times articles: Atheist airman must swear ‘so help me God’ or get out in November (9 Sep 2014) and Air Force stands alone in requiring atheists to say ‘so help me God’ (10 Sep 2014).

The General Counsel at the DoD level is reviewing the matter and I’m sure they’ll have to reverse this back to an optional requirement. It violates the constitutional prohibition on religious tests as well as other laws in the USC concerning discriminatory hiring practices based on a person’s religion. The laws of the US are as imperfect and conflicted as the people that wrote them. Hmm, that sounds like another set of writings I struggled with as a child.

God should be optional in the oath and nobody should be forced to say it. God signifies a singular deity so this doesn’t work with several religions and obviously doesn’t work with the lack of religion. A real irony of this oath situation is it serves as a perfect example of how the US isn’t an exclusively Christian nation even though a majority of it’s citizens are Christian.

The oath doesn’t function with god in it and it makes the oath internally inconsistent. I swear to support and defend the Constitution which includes the freedom of religion. I can write tons about the superiority of the Bill of Rights over the 10 Commandments including the first amendment trumping the first commandment. Freedom of religion is superior to the command to not have any other gods before the jealous Judeo-Christian god. Oh wait, the defenders of the “so help me God” phrase say it isn’t that specific god. Well, if the oath god isn’t that God then the phrase is non-specific and unnecessary as a mandatory statement. It still wouldn’t jive with an overall freedom of religion we guarantee ourselves in our Constitution. The first amendment is obviously not derived from biblical origins because it defies the bible’s first commandment. Which one do you want to keep?

I don’t bring much of my personal life into what is really a personal blog here, but this story hits home for me. I’m retired Air Force and started this blog while on active duty as my own little non-religious outlet on the Internet. My dog tags evolved from an initial enlistment where I said “I guess so” for putting Roman Catholic as my religion. I just couldn’t think of an alternative at that time to my family’s religion and didn’t give it any thought. Later, as I began to explore religions, I switched to “No Religious Preference” until I finally settled on and requested Atheist. Soon after that I switched to the more accurate Agnostic and that’s what my record said when I retired. I see myself as an atheistic agnostic with emphasis on the agnostic side of the non-religious belief/knowledge coin.

I never had any issues in the military and flew well under the radar with my lack of religion. Only the few personnelists recording my preference and making my dog tags really knew and they didn’t say anything about it. When it came to taking the oath, I would say “so help me god” or not depending on if I could just quietly slip out of it in a private ceremony. I trusted the few officers that gave me a godless oath and they didn’t have a problem with it. I have said the phrase when the ceremony was more public just to not draw attention to myself. Personally, I had no issue with playing along because it had the same impact on my oath as “so help me Santa Claus” would have on it. I just didn’t feel strongly enough to publicly fight it even though I fully support others that do.

I never bowed my head in prayer during group events and nobody had an issue with it. They weren’t paying attention to me anyway and it was only other nonbelievers that ever noticed me with a knowing wink and a smile. Trust me, there are plenty of us around just quietly standing by as people exercise their freedom of religion. We’re not all out to stop the faithful from believing in an unproven supernatural deity even though we don’t want to join in their godly games.

This is to the people that would try to force us to take an oath to a god we don’t believe in. Why can’t you just make it optional and extend us the same courtesy we give you to leave it in as an option? The oath with an optional ending is really what freedom of religion looks like. We could even go one step further and change it to “Optional: So help me, —insert deity/deities here—” Now wouldn’t that really be freedom of religion?

Agnosticism As Starting Point

Theism (religious beliefs) and atheism (the lack of those beliefs) are hotly debated topics concerning what people are willing to believe. These debates easily devolve into attacks and defense of believing things based on faith. It’s rare that both sides of the argument can focus on an exploration of what can be considered knowledge based on verifiable truths. This is mostly because the subject matter has nothing to do with the accepted norms of science based knowledge.

Atheists may try to bring knowledge into these discussions but both sides miss the point of arguing about beliefs that aren’t rooted in knowledge. The entire theism/atheism debate falls apart because the only attack or defense of firmly held beliefs is vague descriptions for how we feel about them. It’s as useless as arguing about how we love or hate something. It’s fitting that many people describe having a personal relationship with their creator. It may seem like a one-sided relationship with an imaginary friend but it’s still a real relationship that can be described and shared.

Theists and atheists can both try to claim they have the minds of the agnostic. I’m just talking about people using the agnostic label by itself as a noun. The average self-proclaimed agnostic doesn’t usually live under a religious belief. An agnostic Christian is still a Christian, so I’m always confused by people that throw agnostic (lack of knowledge) together with any faith-based belief system. All of those beliefs lack knowledge so the agnostic adjective doesn’t change the meaning of the noun as it has nothing to do with agnosticism.

I see agnosticism as the better starting point regarding religious beliefs. It serves me well whenever I encounter someone else’s belief claims.

Example: Someone tells you there’s a god that says we should or shouldn’t do X. You could throw any rule in this example like not eating pork, sex before marriage, types of hats to wear, etc.

Theist Response: My starting point is to believe as long as it matches my belief system. I have to ask a bunch of questions first. Is this from the same god I believe in? What does the religious text I read say about it? If there’s conflicting guidance then what does my local group think? What do I personally think about following this as a rule or do I see it as more of a suggestion? etc. If my belief holds then I’ll tell others what “our” god says we should or shouldn’t do.

Atheist Response: My starting point is to disbelieve since gods are unbelievable. I’ll tell people they shouldn’t believe it because it came from a god and gods aren’t real.

Agnostic Response: My starting point is that humans lack knowledge of gods and the supernatural, so the source of this information is obviously a human. However, I can look for some knowledge in what is being said by that human. There could be some tribal or societal knowledge wrapped up in the fog of religion. Likewise, it could just be some religious nonsense somebody dreamed up.

Either way, starting with an immediate disbelief would fall into the trap of giving importance to having beliefs. Blind faith in religious beliefs shouldn’t be answered with only disbelief. Knowledge and our lack of knowledge in that area is much more important.

Knowledge is what we really need to focus on and agnosticism is that starting point.

Ingersoll’s Why I Am An Agnostic

This 1896 writing of Why I Am An Agnostic from “The Great Agnostic” Robert Green Ingersoll is one of my favorite historic passages about agnosticism. I’m glad to have found a narrated version of this with a slideshow on YouTube even though it’s incomplete and completely misses my favorite sections of VIII (8 for the roman numeral challenged) to the very end. Hopefully, the creator of this picks up the project again and finishes it.

Why I Am An Agnostic by Robert Green Ingersoll — Part 1 (YouTube)
In the first part of this book Robert Green Ingersoll discusses why people believe in Christianity, heaven and hell, the absurdity and depravity of God, church revivals during the Second Great Awakening, and the horrible lesson of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

Why I Am An Agnostic by Robert Green Ingersoll — Part 2 (YouTube)
In the second part of this book Robert Green Ingersoll discusses the effects that the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment in hell has had on society, and why the New Testament is even more barbaric than the Old Testament. He also discusses his hopes for the future of a secular society, and how he came to be the enemy of Christianity.

Unfortunately #2 was the last of what was to be a 10 part series. Here is the full writing as a public domain audiobook. I recommend starting around the 1 hour mark of it for my favorite parts focusing on the agnostic conclusion unless you’re interested in his deconversion from the Christianity of his ancestors.

Here are just a few gems if you don’t have the patience to read or listen through the whole thing. Ingersoll’s view of the nature of a god:

This God must be, if he exists, a person — a conscious being. Who can imagine an infinite personality? This God must have force, and we cannot conceive of force apart from matter. This God must be material. He must have the means by which he changes force to what we call thought. When he thinks he uses force, force that must be replaced. Yet we are told that he is infinitely wise. If he is, he does not think. Thought is a ladder — a process by which we reach a conclusion. He who knows all conclusions cannot think. He cannot hope or fear. When knowledge is perfect there can be no passion, no emotion. If God is infinite he does not want. He has all. He who does not want does not act. The infinite must dwell in eternal calm.

It is as impossible to conceive of such a being as to imagine a square triangle, or to think of a circle without a diameter.

Yet we are told that it is our duty to love this God. Can we love the unknown, the inconceivable? Can it be our duty to love anybody? It is our duty to act justly, honestly, but it cannot be our duty to love. We cannot be under obligation to admire a painting — to be charmed with a poem — or thrilled with music. Admiration cannot be controlled. Taste and love are not the servants of the will. Love is, and must be free. It rises from the heart like perfume from a flower.

What Ingersoll believes about supernatural power and gods:

Then I asked myself the question: Is there a supernatural power — an arbitrary mind — an enthroned God — a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world — to which all causes bow?

I do not deny. I do not know — but I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme — that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken — that there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer — no power that worship can persuade or change — no power that cares for man.

I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all — that there is no interference — no chance — that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects.

Man must protect himself. He cannot depend upon the supernatural — upon an imaginary father in the skies. He must protect himself by finding the facts in Nature, by developing his brain, to the end that he may overcome the obstructions and take advantage of the forces of Nature.

Is there a God?

I do not know.

Is man immortal?

I do not know.

One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.

We wait and hope.

The final section is poetry to me:

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the “called” and “set apart” — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown or threat — no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain — for the freedom of labor and thought — to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains — to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs — to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn — to those by fire consumed — to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.

Let us be true to ourselves — true to the facts we know, and let us, above all things, preserve the veracity of our souls.

If there be gods we cannot help them, but we can assist our fellow-men. We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend.

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. We can tell the truth, and we can enjoy the blessed freedom that the brave have won. We can destroy the monsters of superstition, the hissing snakes of ignorance and fear. We can drive from our minds the frightful things that tear and wound with beak and fang. We can civilize our fellow-men. We can fill our lives with generous deeds, with loving words, with art and song, and all the ecstasies of love. We can flood our years with sunshine — with the divine climate of kindness, and we can drain to the last drop the golden cup of joy.