Agnostic in the Middle?

Agnosticism isn’t a middle ground between theism and atheism. Theism is the umbrella term for faith-based belief systems such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, deism, and pantheism. Atheism is lacking belief in those belief systems. Agnosticism is concerned with our lack of knowledge about gods and supernatural causes for this universe.

agnosticatheist

comic from stanleycolors.com

I often feel like I’m stuck in the middle of belief and disbelief even though I’m on the side of disbelief as a de facto atheist. I’m criticized by both sides since I primarily define myself by our collective knowledge instead of what I believe today. I just don’t think anyone’s belief position is as important as our views of knowledge.

Sure, agnosticism means holding the creation question open to a certain extent. I have no problem doing that while rejecting the current set of theisms. We should continuously judge available information for anything that rises to the standards of knowledge as verifiable truths. In practical terms, an agnostic should come to an atheist conclusion on a daily basis even though we may not view atheism as the final answer.

Theism isn’t a final set of described beliefs so how can atheism be a final answer? One day we may finally understand some grand truth not currently dreamt of in our philosophies. Applying ignosticism to a scientifically researched variation of pantheism might give us a universal truth about some sort of universal intelligence. I don’t think it’s very likely, but the truth for me in agnosticism tells me it’s still a possibility.

If the universe itself is our creator then it could have used an intellect flowing through energy in a way we may never understand. I’m just a simple human but it’s the kind of idea where I say “sure, maybe there’s something to The Force in Star Wars and George Lucas might be a true prophet.” I’m mostly joking about The Force, but there’s something about the idea that just feels right even though it’s probably an illusion of my simple human senses. I know I don’t have faith enough to become a Jedi.

I don’t have the intellect or senses to know how all of existence simply came to be if it didn’t always exist. There’s new evidence that points to existence without a beginning. See No Big Bang? Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning at phys.org. If this can be proven then hopefully the whole theism/atheism scale disappears in a puff of logic. Atheism isn’t needed without theism. We could still have agnosticism as long as humanity isn’t omniscient.

Back on topic, I still feel stuck in the middle because other people try to tell me I’m not believing or disbelieving correctly. People criticize agnosticism despite the evidence that we’re all just making it all up in the absence of verifiable truths. I can understand theist criticisms since they rarely deal in verifiable truths but atheist criticisms are confusing since there isn’t atheist dogma for me to violate.

Some theists argue with me that they know things about god or an intelligent creator through their faith and I should accept this unproven knowledge they’ve gained. They think I’m more open-minded than self-identified atheists even though I don’t share in their theism either. I’m still an unbeliever, infidel, and heretic but they sometimes get surprised and upset when I won’t see their truth.

On the other side, some atheists try to argue agnosticism is useless so I should fully embrace atheism. They push atheism as an obvious final answer since the current major theism of their focus is unproven. They insist we should define ourselves based on our rejection of other people’s specific beliefs. They say nobody can justifiably call themselves agnostic and sometimes get upset when I won’t see their truth. Would this be an atheist attempt at dogma?

Anyway here’s some examples of “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you” starting with one of the most polite exchanges I’ve had on Twitter with a believer:

‏@lcorbo13  Being in a pitch black room does not mean it is empty. It means U simply can’t see anything. #Catholic #Christian #atheist #agnostic

‏@AgnosticU  “Being in a pitch black room does not mean it is empty. It means U simply can’t see anything” or know it’s empty or not #agnostic

@lcorbo13  Thats why you walk around and search the room rather sit in a corner and keep asking yourself if it is empty or not..

@AgnosticU  Very true, but what if simple us lack the right senses to experience what could be? We may not be equipped to ever understand…

@lcorbo13  U are trying to come up with any solution that eliminates the OPTION of God.

@AgnosticU  God is a specific concept requiring great leaps of imagination and faith. Universe as creator is possible but intellect unknowable

@lcorbo13  U R making assumptions…. If U say God is imagination and that is a fact U share a burden of proof too.

@AgnosticU  I didn’t invent human definitions of “God” so I don’t share in a burden of proof for the unlikely beings described by others

@lcorbo13  I deflect…have a good day..Peace to you

@AgnosticU  have a good life and peace to you as well 🙂

Here’s a recent exchange with an atheist claiming people shouldn’t call themselves agnostic. It wasn’t directed specifically at me but I answered the general criticism:

‏@Zohso  Stop calling yourself agnostic. Everyone’s #agnostic. The question becomes, “What do you believe?” #atheism #Christianity

‏@AgnosticU  Everyone isn’t #agnostic. Believers make knowledge claims of gods & say their faith is proof. #agnosticism says knowledge > belief

‏@Zohso  the guy in the asylum also talks to elves. Just because someone CLAIMS something doesn’t make it so. Default: Christian=agnostic

@AgnosticU  We know they don’t know, but they seldom identify as agnostic which is often a first step for switching to knowledge to find truth.

@Zohso  but see, agnosticism is NOT a middle ground somewhere between belief and disbelief. It’s a position of knowledge. #epistemology

‏@AgnosticU  Agree agnosticism isn’t middle ground. Truth about knowledge is much more important than beliefs/disbeliefs so I emphasize agnostic

@Zohso Let’s first establish we’re both using the same definition of “agnostic.” Is this definition the same? http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/agnostic

‏@AgnosticU  Our definition of agnostic (noun) is same. Most religious people don’t claim to be agnostic and believe ancient books are knowledge.

@AgnosticU  atheism helps very few people see truth about knowledge, #agnosticism helps show the folly of blind faith beliefs

@Zohso  again, everyone is agnostic. Someone’s belief can either be theistic or atheistic. There is no middle ground. It’s binary.

‏@AgnosticU  Not everyone describes themselves as agnostic. Religious don’t care about knowledge. Atheistic agnostic with emphasis on agnosticism.

‏@Zohso  I think @pennjillette gives one of the best descriptions in the first couple of minutes in this interview. http://youtu.be/4_WKlttKRDw

@AgnosticU  non-theists are both we don’t know/we don’t believe. Both are fine if using one to be short, why deny agnostics can be?

‏@Zohso  That’s completely fine… Just answer the question, “As an agnostic, what do you believe?”

‏@AgnosticU  I don’t believe in any religions, but what we know is the better question. atheistic agnostic

This is a recent conversation so it may continue but I doubt anything more meaningful will be said. Penn Jillette is right that we’re both agnostic and atheist depending on the question but we differ in which question we think is more important. @Zohso says we shouldn’t call ourselves agnostic because he thinks we’re better defined in terms of what other people believe. For me, that gives more legitimacy to those human defined beliefs to only define ourselves as a rejection of them.

The same logic that we shouldn’t call ourselves agnostic could be used against humanists. Humanists put their own focus and emphasis on humanism even though they’re also de facto atheists. I’m a bit of a humanist so maybe I’m an agnostic atheist humanist. It’s too many terms so I pick the one that means the most to me.

You could go even further and say human defined theisms are unproven and false so everyone is atheist. Saying there are no true theists means they should just admit the truth and call themselves atheist. See how silly it can get when you try to force definitions on other people?

This is what happens when you concern yourself a bit too much with what other people believe and call themselves. I could see an issue if I tried to redefine the terms but I used the commonly agreed upon definitions. I just try to focus on agnosticism as my core viewpoint, but for some reason there are people that just won’t let agnostics self-identify as such based on historical agnosticism. Please just let agnostics exist if that’s what we feel like using as our label. It doesn’t impact your viewpoint.

Both religious and disbelief viewpoints are capable of being stupid and unreasonable in the areas where we lack specific knowledge to support our views. It’s yet another thing that makes me see agnosticism as the right fit for me. We just don’t KNOW and what’s so bad about proclaiming that viewpoint?

Blasphemy In Our Agnostic Nation

Religious beliefs and our rights of free expression to criticize those beliefs are on my mind lately with the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Fanatical believers tried to enforce religious blasphemy laws with their own hands in countries that don’t have those laws in their government.

I watched with interest as devout Christians in the US supported the right to be blasphemous against Islam even though the same people have cried about the need to restrict free speech when their beliefs were criticized or mocked. Some examples are in this Salon article about 5 times the right flipped out over blasphemous depictions of Christianity.

all great truths begin as blasphemies

Those Christians often try to claim the USA as a Christian Nation despite our clearly secular government. We even have Mike Huckabee claiming the country has become a secular theocracy which he needs to fight. The argument for a Christian Nation usually centers on the beliefs of the founding fathers and the majority of our citizens regardless of what was actually codified in the constitution and laws. It shouldn’t be disputable, but Huckabee claims our country’s laws (from and for the people) are actually the natural laws of his jealous God who demands no other gods before him. No thank you!

The “nation” isn’t actually secular. We have an awful lot of individual religiosity permeating our communities while our government and laws are supposed to remain neutral. We can’t ignore this fact in the unbelieving minority. The laws clearly allow us to not believe as the majority does while they also allow for the free exercise of religions by individuals and groups. This causes much confusion in government and the public square as we balance an overall freedom of religion with individual freedoms to do as they wish while not being forced to go along with other beliefs or disbeliefs.

Mike Huckabee’s call for a God-centered nation with God-given laws is equivalent to Muslim desires for Sharia law. It’s sad that so many Christians don’t see that purely biblical law has no place in our free and democratic society even though they’re free to use it in their churches. They can ban birth control and gay marriage in their church but they should quit trying to push those religious-based rules on the country.

Democracy isn’t compatible with any type of theocracy and that includes Huckabee’s invention of a secular theocracy. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean every public square should be devoid of religious expression. The public square is for the use of the public to come together as communities and hopefully celebrate their differences. Like it or not, a variety of religious expression is a part of being an American and that includes our non-Christian religions and non-religious lack of beliefs.

Tax dollars shouldn’t be directly funneled to support any of these viewpoints. The right model is the town square that allows a variety of privately funded holiday displays. Street parades should be allowed for veterans, ethnic pride, gay pride, Christian pride, science, and everything else we can celebrate in this country! Banning all viewpoints to promote a sterile unbiased secular government is un-American.

In belief or disbelief, we should all be able to honestly agree that nobody truly knows. Nothing on the belief scale rises to the standard of knowledge. If everyone else can claim what type of nation we are then I can propose the most inclusive label. I see the United States as an Agnostic Nation with a secular government full of agnostic theists and agnostic atheists. Let’s have so much religious freedom that we all remain free to believe in ways that are blasphemous against other religions just as our neighbors are free to be blasphemous against our beliefs and disbeliefs.

The Muslim and Mike Huckabee alternatives to our blasphemous freedoms could take our nation to a theocratic society that’s simply too scary to imagine. Yes, Christians, a Christian Nation would be a terrible thing. All you have to do is pick a denomination you disagree with (Catholic? Mormon?) and imagine their religious leaders telling you how to live your life. Would you really want that?

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 which is accepting the limits of human knowledge regarding anything supernatural. We’re often told by the religious that we just need faith. We shouldn’t view reality through the lens of blind faith and accept the mysterious unknown as a truth. We should judge reality with impartial logic. The requirement for faith to believe in religious claims perfectly describes the lack of verifiable facts or truths in those claims. I put my faith in knowledge and visiting the Vatican only served to strengthen my faith in knowledge.

Connecting With Agnostics

connectingI said in a previous post that my life is getting really busy this year with some big changes with my job. I don’t have a lot of time to post new content but definitely want to keep this site up as a resource. I’ll only have the occasional moment and burning desire to say something about agnosticism. I recently had two requests to connect with other sites that give me a small burst of desire to write.

Agnosticism Done Right

I can recommend everyone check out The Black Agnostic. I’ve looked over the articles and that site gets agnosticism right in my humble opinion. The author questions religious beliefs around us without resorting to simple dismissive approaches I often see attached to atheism. Sometimes I think strong atheism is easier. It might be easier to speak of absolute disbelief in theism as a knowledge-based answer. You could easily harden your mind against the mysteries of the universe with strong atheism.

The focus of The Black Agnostic is on what we know and what actually rises to the standards of human knowledge. It does speak of Christianity but the voice is one of an outsider with a critical eye towards Christian claims. If you want more frequent posts about agnosticism then you could watch that site.

Agnosticism Not Done As Well

I also received a request to share blog posts from Jess Hubbard’s Blog. She’s a Christian actively questioning her faith. In posts like ‘Mere’ Christianity and Are You There God? It’s Me, Jessica, she’s obviously focused on Christianity as her religion of choice and doesn’t talk about any other religions. She still clings to the Christian god with her questioning mind. Being an agnostic Christian has as much to do with the agnostic noun as being a left-handed Christian has to do with human handedness. The core of her thoughts remain in the Christian vein. Using agnostic as an adjective doesn’t meaningfully change her Christian beliefs so she may as well continue calling herself a Christian as long as she sees some validity in the belief system.

I use some Christian examples myself because of my own past with that religion but I also try to focus on religious beliefs as a whole. If there was a god, then I’m certain it wouldn’t be anything like the Christian god imagined by our ancestors and I can’t say that such a thing continues to exist or has any care for us as beings in this universe. I’ve moved well beyond the Christian “God” of my ancestors and use my agnosticism to question the entire gods concept as something obviously beyond human understanding and description. I don’t know where this universe came from and just understand the first origin of this universe is the greatest mystery. I don’t even know that this is the only universe that exists and if it isn’t something that was created in a larger natural existence. “Vell, Jeff’s just zis guy, you know?” – paraphrased from HHGTTG describing Zaphod.

Jessica’s focus is on how Christianity is done wrong and not how religions as a whole aren’t based on knowledge. She believes Jesus lived and was the “most enlightened person” even though Jesus supposedly killed a fig tree for not bearing fruit when it wasn’t the season for figs. There are many other problems with the Jesus stories but that one was the first seed of my doubts that woke me up from the fog of human defined religions.

Universal Signs

Jessica simply calls herself an agnostic in the post Signs but then speaks of knowing she’s living the right way because of various signs from the universe. She quotes a friend as saying “all God requires…” well, I won’t bother going on with that quote because I’m sure her friend has no clue what a creator of the universe might actually require. We each experience the universe and what we see as signs are tainted by own perceptions. It’s like when we buy a car and then start noticing all of the other people that share in that same car. Our perception is filled with filters created by our minds.

Everything in the universe is connected by many forces we understand with physics and many other forces we may never fully understand or know. We’re made of stardust and every bit of us will return in some form back to the universe when we die. When you stop and listen to the universe around you then you can pick out the car you own all around you or notice any other thing you’re naturally recognize in the vast noise of existence. You can spot a smiling face in the clouds if you’re looking for a friendly face to smile down on you. Seeing very specific signs in the universe comes from your filtered perception and projecting your own meaning to what’s around. I highly doubt the universe specifically sends us personalized messages. These signs are most likely echos of our own thoughts and desires and that’s a pretty good reason to pay attention to them since they’re actually signs from ourselves.

My advice to Jessica and anyone else struggling to reconcile religious beliefs with reality is to focus first and foremost on reality. It will help you recalculate your filters and biases to live with knowledge instead of blind faith. It will help you exist as a honest being in this universe instead of shrouding your existence with unlikely fantasies about how and why we exist. Quit worrying about what the first cause of existence may think about your one little life (if such a thing existed and could think) and just make the most of the short time you have to live as a human.

A Hallucination is a Fact

A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.

Bertrand Russell

This is an interesting quote from one of the historical agnostics. A hallucination is a perception in the absence of apparent stimulus that has qualities of a real perception. The perception is a factual experience for the person experiencing the hallucination. The error comes when you compare your individual facts to the perception of others and to what’s logical for the circumstances.

Along the same vein, I could say Santa Claus has been perceived and experienced. A child’s perception of the provided stimulus implying Santa Claus is real can develop self-generated biases. I saw this in action many years ago with my young son. The promotion of Santa Claus as a real person caused his very young mind to truly believe my Dad was Santa Claus when he came in dressed up in a red suit and carrying presents.

The perception of Santa Claus was a fact. The belief that it was the mythical character was the erroneous judgement. My son eventually discovered his error when he found out Santa Claus wasn’t real. Other people told him the myth wasn’t real and he was able to better observe the actions of others propping up the illusion for everyone else.

Santa Claus is a training ground for understanding religions. Experiencing and perceiving God and Jesus was as real to me as Santa Claus. Fortunately, I was able to make better judgments about my perceptions as I learned more about religions. I now see the religious hallucinations for what they are even though they are very real to other people that experience them.

Faith isn’t knowledge but faith definitely exist. On the face of it, having a faith in a god is a fact. It’s a perception in the absence of apparent stimulus that has qualities of a real perception. Blind faith without any basis in knowledge is the same as a hallucination.

This is why I don’t tell people they shouldn’t believe in gods simply because I say it’s unbelievable. We have to figure out hallucinations for ourselves since it’s our self-generated biases that have to be corrected for us to stop generating false perceptions in the absence of legitimate stimulus.

For something as important as a proposed creator of the universe, we should compare our perception to the perception of the billions of humans around us. Here’s the top 6 religious perceptions according to adherents.com:

Christianity: 2.1 billion
Islam: 1.5 billion
Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
Hinduism: 900 million
Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
Buddhism: 376 million

There’s an obvious lack of consensus across humanity for any of the current religions to be considered a fact or real perception. Agnostics are sitting there lumped in with the #3 position. I observe many human actions propping up the religious experiences on the rest of the list. Religious groups routinely talk each other into experiencing the same hallucinations just like we do with the Santa Claus myth. I experienced it myself as a child growing up in a religion.

We don’t have to actively reject and prove all of our hallucinations are verified as false. We need to simply admit the true limits of our knowledge and live within the boundaries of what we know. Theism and religious beliefs aren’t knowledge. Not being able to imagine any other cause than a god says more about the limits of your imagination than it does about the truth of the claim.

The only “sin” in agnosticism is to claim knowledge of the unknown and possibly unknowable. We should quit judging our lives and each other on hallucinations and just stick with what we actually KNOW and collectively agree are verifiable truths. For me, this is the essence of agnosticism and the reason why I lack religious beliefs. I’d much rather live using knowledge instead of blind faith.