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.

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.

Agnostic vs Atheist Deconversion

Engaging in conversations through the Internet with strangers is generally useless and futile. This was definitely the case today on Twitter with an antitheist called Flying Free @FlyingFree333. He refuses to let agnostics use the agnostic label. He insists lacking belief is the only important thing for having a label. I tried to explain that knowledge is much more important to me and I’m also an atheist with no problem saying it. He called me a moron, pretentious poser, agnostic twit, and not worth the oxygen I cost. This is a prime example of the ‘angry atheists’ or ‘asshole atheists’ I sometimes read about.

I don’t believe in the religions of the world. I agree with his atheist viewpoints except for anything really antitheist. I can’t prove theism is entirely fiction no matter how much I believe it to be false. Somehow I’m the worst kind of person to him because I use agnostic as my primary label. It’s so hard to get anything meaningful across in short tweets. However, the idea of theists watching that banter made me think agnosticism will always remain a better viewpoint for deconversion from putting faith in mythological fantasies.

Antitheist Deconversion

Based on his tweets, Flying Free’s antitheist response to religious belief claims is to tell them their beliefs are idiotic and unbelievable. I’m sure he’d push the burden of proof on the believer like any good antitheist. However, I’m sure it would be confrontational instead of trying to be educational. He would reject every proof by just calling them an idiot for thinking it’s true. He’d push disbelief as the only answer to any question. He’d push disbelief as what a believer should adopt simply because of his assertion that their beliefs are obviously false to anyone with half a brain. Who would listen to such a person?

Agnostic Deconversion

Yes, I lack theistic beliefs and I’m an atheist regarding theism. My primary label is and may always remain to be agnostic. If you present me with specific theist beliefs then I do respond with agnosticism first. Does what you claim to believe actually rise to the standards of human knowledge and a verifiable truth? If not, then it shouldn’t be believed. I have no real reason to say you can’t believe in your fantasies just as I won’t tell a child to quit believing in Santa Claus as long as the belief remains harmless.

I really enjoy certain fictions and am fond of science fiction. I suspend disbelief as I enjoy it. Maybe you enjoy your life by wrapping your mind in your religious fiction just like I might enjoy thinking of Gandalf as a real wizard. If we each keep our fictional nonsense to ourselves then why should I care about yours? If you bring your beliefs to me and ask me to share in them then I’ll test your hypothesis and reject what isn’t knowledge. I won’t believe it. The faithful see me the same as any other atheist.

My atheism only exists as a continuously examined and tested byproduct of my agnosticism. It’s likely that I will always be atheistic towards every theism my fellow humans try to share with me. But I can’t guarantee that there won’t come some theism that I end up deciding to be true human knowledge. Pantheism and the notion that this universe is god has some plausibility simply because saying there is no “why” for the universe to exist can be unsatisfying. Scott Adams wrote a novella called God’s Debris which was an interesting thought experiment about the universe being a god’s debris. I wrote about it in this blog post: Omnipotence and Scott Adams’ God’s Debris.

There are just so many unanswered questions and limits to our knowledge that primarily being agnostic makes the most sense to me to remain open to a theistic possibility. I’m very sure the truth is nothing like our religions. I imagine the real truth is well beyond anything we could imagine or possibly understand.

If you’re an angry atheist and hate your fellow freethinking agnostics for not fully embracing your preferred label… well then all I can really do is shake my head and say you’re obviously the one with the problem. I don’t see how your views help anyone else in their own understanding of the universe, so good luck with that.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Purpose of Life

To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.

This is the fictional motto of Life magazine in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It was a feel good movie that advocates for making the most out of the lives we have. One key ingredient I think it misses is laughter, but otherwise it’s good advice for freethinkers. It applies to everyone that understands this moment in time, this one physical existence, is all we truly know we have.

Anything beyond this universe is wishful thinking and fantasy. Walter Mitty often zoned out and lived in fantasies beyond his mundane existence. He didn’t fully live and feel his most alive until he went beyond his fantasies and went on true adventures that rivaled the fictions he created for himself. The real moments were so much more vivid, impressive, and satisfying because they were real.

The Sean Penn character of Sean O’Connell really captures the truth about the beauty of life and our existence when he said, “beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” I think that aspect of the movie speaks to the human relationship with religions which don’t just beg for our attention; they practically demand it.

You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure (Worship), You Were Formed for God’s Family (Fellowship), You Were Created to Become Like Christ (Discipleship), You Were Shaped for Serving God (Ministry), You Were Made for a Mission (Mission)

The quote above is Rick Warren’s religious view of a Purpose Driven Life. It really sucks. It distracts people from their reality and tries to refocus them on fantasies outside our universe and wishful thinking outside our actual lives.

Yes, a Heaven and eternal life might be nice. However, it’s the type of thing nobody can give you a guarantee for its existence. It makes little sense that a god would pluck you out of an eternal Heaven to live one little blip of a human life in this universe and reward you with going back to your eternal existence. It makes even less sense that our purpose is to worship an egotistical god and spread a religion among the same souls that were also momentarily pushed into human existence. If we’re really eternal souls, then why bother with this human life?

If that weird fantasy is real then I could also imagine the same god pushing us into a million lives in a million different beings and universes beyond our comprehension. Why not keep doing it to us for the worship and entertainment value? If so, then maybe we’re more entertaining if we don’t blindly worship such a god and the real test is how gullible we are to believe religious nonsense. Maybe “human” isn’t an important form in our eternal existence. Maybe a selfish and jealous god isn’t worthy of our worship… but that would assume such a god is believable.

I really believe that the religions that appear to be an invention of primitive imagination simply are what they appear to be. Each religion is a fiction that proves all others are false and ends up making the whole mess of them false. What we do have is this life and the real moments we live. You may choose to keep to your zoned out fantasies like the early Walter Mitty, but I’d prefer to be the man he became at the end when he really started to live his life to the fullest.

A Criticism of Agnostic Theism

I use the agnostic label to describe my viewpoint concerning the possibility of intelligent creators. I sometimes clarify my viewpoint as an agnostic atheist when communicating with picky people that insist agnosticism is only descriptive of knowledge and doesn’t say anything about beliefs in gods. Agnostics are logically de facto weak atheists lacking theistic beliefs. I say this only if you must insist religious beliefs are worthy of consideration even though they aren’t “justifiable true beliefs” under the common definition of knowledge. Faith isn’t a sufficient justification for belief. The world’s religions aren’t worthy of consideration as faith based claims of knowledge, therefore theistic beliefs aren’t compatible with the agnostic acknowledgement that we lack such knowledge.

I continue to agree with the logic of the historical agnostics when they first invented and promoted the term. You can use the Library link at the top of the page to read some of their writings. Agnostics see knowledge as the standard for evaluating supernatural claims and believe we “lack knowledge” concerning such things as definable gods. The agnostic term means without knowledge, so an agnostic that believes in gods using faith has dismissed the primary reason for defining agnosticism in the first place. Theism is belief based on faith so it really has nothing to do with agnosticism or being an agnostic.

You may then wonder what the agnostic response is to agnostic theism as it’s presented on some websites. Austin Cline over at about.com writes about a myth that agnostic theism doesn’t exist by boiling down a criticism of the term to “no religious faiths allow a person to believe without knowing for sure.” This is a false premise unless religions are gnostic and claim to have justified true beliefs. I haven’t encountered such religions and have only experienced promoters of faith as proof of their beliefs. They may make some knowledge claims about their god but when they’re put through scientific scrutiny they fall back on faith as their justification. Religious belief claims don’t often try to live up to the standards of human knowledge except in circular logic like the Bible proving that the God in the Bible exists.

The about.com article argues that agnostic theism is valid but doesn’t present a good argument for these words to make sense together other than to refute a poorly crafted myth. Admittedly agnostic theism can be claimed just as much as as any combination of terms such as a left-handed man where being left-handed has nothing to do with gender. I could claim to be an atheist Christian if I want to twist logic and insist on a non-belief view of Christians as a tribal label passively accepted from our parents.

The same is true for claiming to be agnostic Christian or agnostic theist in the more general sense. They only work if I insist Christianity and theism aren’t making knowledge claims with their religion or beliefs. They would have to strictly be about their beliefs and not knowledge… but beliefs in what? Religions and theism consists of beliefs in supernatural claims that may or may not be justifiable as truth. These beliefs are weak knowledge claims even if they’re not claimed to be verifiable knowledge statements.

Being a theist is making an unverifiable statement about knowledge and being an agnostic takes a negative position regarding that knowledge. Agnostic theism would be a twisted logic way to say a person fully acknowledges their religion is completely unjustified but they choose to believe in it anyway. Theism already says this simply by using belief instead of knowledge.

Agnosticism doesn’t describe or qualify a belief in supernatural knowledge claims. On the contrary, agnosticism is as contradictory to those claims as the atheist position of lacking theistic beliefs. When presented with new god knowledge/belief claims, agnosticism and atheism come to the same conclusion of falsehood using two different default positions. Agnosticism starts from a default position that we don’t know about such things without verifiable evidence using common standards of knowledge. Atheism starts from the position that we don’t believe based on faith alone, without verifiable evidence, just cause, or whatever it is we generally establish disbelief. I’m actually not sure what atheism uses as a default standard for disbelief. Atheism only means lacking belief so I don’t see it as a useful starting position for why we should disbelieve and that’s why I’m primarily agnostic in my response to god claims.