Agnostic Spirit, Part 2

Posted on 2013 March 18


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As an agnostic, I stand midway between atheists and religionists. Atheists tend to despise religions as superstitions, while religionists tend to despise atheists as godless evildoers. Each side wants to be polite to us agnostics, not because they respect us but because they hope to convert us. Regardless, agnostics are in the unenviable position of diplomats caught between warring parties, trying to keep them from swinging at each other without getting punched in the process.

Worse, agnostics must live with their own doubts, and sometimes that can stress them into abandoning their neutrality and taking sides. My favorite agnostic blogger, at one time a card-carrying, militant Richard Dawkins atheist, has lately been trying to reconcile a lack of faith with a great fondness for the ways of Christianity. In the latest missive, the blogger asserts that Christians, commanded by their faith to do good, are inherently less selfish than atheists.

Now, most atheists can take care of themselves in an argument, thank you, especially the Dawkins group, which holds that religions are evil and should be done away with. Religionists are similarly ready to counterattack. As someone in the middle, though, I felt that this assertion about selfish atheists has flaws. So I threw caution to the wind and waded right in. Here’s my response:

“Atheism is inherently selfish. It teaches no way to live.” — This is like saying, “If I don’t know the answer, then I’m selfish.” Atheism has no ethical viewpoint; if you’re an atheist, you must choose your path. That doesn’t mean you’re selfish. It simply means you’re on your own. 

Religion ought to inspire, not force. Otherwise we’d live in a nightmare of obedient, docile human cows whose only desire is not to make an error. When we say, “I need someone to tell me what to do, or I’ll do bad things,” we’re saying we’re a mistake. God makes mistakes? We must be forced to be kind and helpful? What kind of monsters are we, then?

If, troubled by our uncertainties, we fear being on our own — that without an imposed structure, we’ll waste our lives or, worse, use them destructively — then we’ll turn to an authority for answers. That’s like a child looking for a parent. Yet if we’re smart enough to know there’s no cosmic Daddy but too scared to step out on our own, we become like orphans, wandering around lost. It’s a terrible double-bind that can make us vibrate with confusion. So we bounce back and forth between the safety of religion and the risky freedom of doubt.

There are studies that suggest atheists aren’t as happy as religionists. Much of that effect, though, has to do with the strong social ties engendered in church life. Atheists aren’t wrong; they’re alienated. There is no place in society for them to belong, to contribute. It’s lonely, at this point in history, to be a doubter. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or selfish. Humanists, though condemned by religionists for their apostasies, tend to be high-minded and far-thinking about society and how to improve it. If anything, doubters have more room for tolerance and less impulse to go to war over their beliefs.

Why must we assume that our job is to help others? A Christian’s job isn’t to help, it’s to witness. Beyond Christianity, others say our purpose is enlightenment, or purification, or worship, or even exploration or innovation. Declaring, “Everyone should have as their goal helping others, or we’ll kick ’em in the pants” discards arbitrarily any other purpose.

Our greatest contributions can’t be made when we’re following someone else’s agenda. Our best work comes when we stop trying to fulfill some arbitrary goal, when we “let the spirit move us”. Spontaneity and creativity are where the good stuff comes from. (Sure, there’ll be a lot of crap, too, but that gets discarded during the process.) 

People who act with enthusiasm and joy rarely do harm and usually contribute to others. It makes much more sense to think that our heart’s desires are there for good reasons, than to think our yearnings are bad for us and/or bad for our fellow humans, with whom we need to get along to survive. After three billion years of evolution, human impulses are naturally destructive? That makes no sense. We’d already be extinct.

But the challenge isn’t how to be enthusiastic and joyful; it’s how to get out of our own way so we can discover our enthusiasms and passions. This involves trust, but if we can’t trust ourselves we’ll turn to others for our assignments, and the opportunity for true contribution gets lost. Worse, that’s the moment when destructive things start to happen: our leaders, political or religious, will have their own agendas and will tend see us as cannon fodder in their wars against what they disapprove of in others. Anyone who says, “You’re bad, and I’ve got the cure” is selling snake oil.

Organized religions have poor track records at making the world better. Hundreds of millions have died in their names. An individual, hearkening to the beat of her own drum, rarely causes harm and usually adds to the world. It’s not mass movements that make the world better; it’s people following their hearts.

Some of us, growing up, were told we were unworthy, and we believed our authority figures and tried to please them by denying our deepest wishes. But we’re not bad to begin with; we’re simply us. We’re designed, not to be selfish, but to cooperate with others. That process has its pitfalls and pains and frustrations, yet when we trust it, it leads toward positive outcomes. If we need to, we can believe that God speaks to us through our heartfelt inspirations. But however we come to it, we can learn to trust ourselves. And that’s not selfish at all.

I received a very warm and friendly reply that indicated that, despite my arguments, the blogger was going to stick with the assertion that atheists are more selfish than believers. Now, the blogger does seem to express a deep desire to be helpful and charitable, but simply can’t find guidance among non-believers. Meanwhile, the warmth of churchly fellowship can be alluring. I answered with: “ . . . I can’t help but smile when I see Sunday worshipers pouring out of church into a quad, where they meet and chat. . . .” Still, I added: “There are also quiet, nice, giving atheists out there . . . ”

The unanswered question in all this is: Are we agnostics inherently more selfish than both atheists and believers? For that matter, what if we’re the worst of the bunch? We can sometimes use our wishy-washiness as a stall. We might hang back, when both atheists and religionists would jump in to help.

Hmm. I’ll have to think about that.