Agnostics and Identity: Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right…

…Here I am, stuck in the middle with you. At least, if you consider yourself an agnostic. I’ve mentioned that how we describe ourselves owes as much to identity and which groups we feel comfortable with as to what we actually believe, and this is true for me right now. I feel that I have very little in common with either Christians or atheists at the moment, but even where I do find a point of agreement with either side, I have no interest in associating myself with either extreme. That’s partly because I don’t have that level of confidence in my conclusions and partly because I don’t feel any sense of belonging to either group.

That’s not to say that I think Christians and atheists don’t have anything to offer. I think a reasonable amount of sense is spoken by some on either side – yes, even Christians, although I said “some” for a reason. It’s just that when the subject’s so polarised and my opinions are still fairly unsettled, the positives of aligning myself with one side or other seem to be heavily outweighed by the negatives.

I recently wrote about Christians suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. But I can’t exactly criticise, because I’m guilty of something similar. When considering religion, my reasoning generally all seems to lead me in the same direction. Whether I approach the God issue from the angle of history, biology, cosmology or anything else, the obvious conclusion seems to be full-blown atheism. But whenever I get to that point, I always pull back from the brink.

I’m happy to follow my reasoning to a certain point, but in the end, I throw it out of the window in favour of something I feel more comfortable with, something familiar. I don’t want to sit on the fence forever, but nor do I particularly want to associate myself with either extreme right now. I certainly don’t want to do that if it isn’t necessary. As long as my beliefs and actions can be reconciled with my chosen identification, it looks like a lot of unnecessary hassle to switch to a different label for a slightly increased level of accuracy.

The truth is that it’s much easier for me to sit awkwardly on the edges of the church – cynical, detached, but still more or less there – than it would be to leave, with all the attendant social and family traumas that would cause. So I’m going to carry on living a lie – at least a partial one – as long as there’s any possible room for doubt. Given the subject matter, that realistically means that I’m likely to be a “Christian Agnostic” for life, or at least until I can muster some moral courage.

I just don’t want to have to deal with how my wife, parents, grandparents and especially my in-laws would react if I were to tell them that I’ve left the church completely and am now a certified atheist. I don’t want them to feel awkward about it, and I certainly don’t want them to try to convert me or change my mind. Family gatherings can be difficult enough without recurrent conversations about why I’m wrong, or whether I’ve considered this or that argument, or even awkward silences as people try not to say certain things in case they offend me. Given that secularism is generally a dirty word, I don’t see atheism going down too well.

So I’m a living example of identity being only loosely related to belief, as discussed previously. In my current situation, I find it politically expedient to continue to attend church and identify myself (if anyone asks) as agnostic or Christian Agnostic. It’s true enough, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story, and it ducks the sort of conversation I’d rather not be having right now.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

11 responses to “Agnostics and Identity: Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right…”

  1. unklee says :

    Dear RA,

    Thank you for sharing all this. I definitely feel for you. I think it is a very difficult situation to be in, and I don’t think I could deal with it in the way that you have chosen to. I admire your sensitivities.

    “Whether I approach the God issue from the angle of history, biology, cosmology or anything else, the obvious conclusion seems to be full-blown atheism.”

    This is the part I cannot understand. I can understand how someone would find it more likely that God doesn’t exist than that he does, even though I conclude differently, but I cannot see how the negative conclusion is “obvious”.

    If we just think superficially for a moment, it seems to me that the “obvious” conclusion seems to vary when we consider different facts. For example, it seems “obvious” that the universe couldn’t have just begun to exist out of nothing and for no reason, certainly as well designed as it is, and God must be the best explanation. On the other hand, it seems “obvious” that there is so much suffering in the world that there couldn’t be a God. And so on.

    So the “obvious” conclusion seems to me to be that the evidence is conflicting.

    And when I look at the facts in more detail, consider properly formed philosophical arguments, etc, I think the result is still much the same. So the conclusion isn’t at all obvious, but somewhat difficult – which is why I can understand someone being an agnostic.

    Are you able to better explain why you think the conclusion is obvious?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      All of us obviously approach and view these various issues in different ways. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s little point in debating the big issues like this, because it gets bogged down into endless arguments about all sorts of things. Your mention of cosmology points to a good example – I don’t see any point in discussing it and I’m not going to pursue it because we’re just never going to agree, as everything is apparently framed by our existing suppositions and mindset.

      It’s not easy to discuss without going into fine detail on many different subjects. I’ll just say that I once thought much as you do, but over time, as I’ve examined issues (or often re-examined them) I find theist ideas vanishing under my gaze. Where God is claimed to be necessary for some reason, I find Him entirely unnecessary. Where evidence is claimed for God’s existence, I find it flimsy or non-existent.

      Again, it depends on your definitions and labels. I can easily see myself as a culturally Christian, ontologically agnostic, functional atheist at some point in the future. I would be insane to claim that I could prove a negative, especially one as metaphysical and poorly defined as God’s existence, but I wouldn’t give much weight to the possibility, any more than I would look for Russell’s Teapot through my telescope.

      • unklee says :

        G’day RA,

        “there’s little point in debating the big issues like this, because it gets bogged down into endless arguments about all sorts of things. Your mention of cosmology points to a good example – I don’t see any point in discussing it and I’m not going to pursue it because we’re just never going to agree, as everything is apparently framed by our existing suppositions and mindset.”

        I have come to a similar conclusion. Argument tends to polarise more than unite. Mostly, when I comment on blogs like here, I am not trying to change someone’s basic viewpoint, but rather I am contesting some more factual matter, or pointing out some bias in someone’s assessment (like quoting selective “authorities” or ignoring some facts).

        But the most interesting discussion, I think, would be to work out why people have different suppositions and mindset. You seem to just accept that is the case, which sort of leads to the conclusion that few people will ever change their minds, which is depressing, but I think this is worth exploring. I have had a couple of good discussions on this matter, and the best I can come up with so far is that it depends (at least in part) on a person’s willingness to accept (or not) that there might be more in reality than is obvious to their thinking.

        So I think facts are interpreted, and even searched out, according to a person’s willingness to find them and deal with them. But that is only a provisional hypothesis.

        Best wishes.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I think your conclusion reveals your prior assumptions. To conclude that it comes down to one’s willingness to accept that there might be “more in reality” is to assume that there is more in reality than what we experience directly in the first place.

        I suspect there are various reasons why people have certain mindsets, but it’s a complex issue and one that I’m not going to attempt to tackle in a brief comment.

  2. That Guy says :

    You are definitely NOT alone. Great post.

  3. unkleE says :

    “I think your conclusion reveals your prior assumptions.”
    No it was a conclusion reached after several discussions of the matter. In particular, an atheist who was formerly a christian pastor and I discussed on an online forum why we disagreed at great length. We were good friends and respected each other, and we tried to analyse matters together. It turned out we disagreed about even fundamental things (e.g. I felt the cosmological and teleological arguments had great force, and he simply wasn’t even interested in them), and it was then that I started to think that it was our starting assumptions, and not evidence, facts or reason, which led us to different conclusions.

    “To conclude that it comes down to one’s willingness to accept that there might be “more in reality” is to assume that there is more in reality than what we experience directly in the first place.”
    I don’t think so, any more than to join in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence implies that it exists. One can search with any preconceived belief. It is only those who refuse to search who will never find out.

    So, I think, here. I think some people make assumptions that make it impossible for them to believe in God even if he is indeed there, and I can’t help feeling this is one of the reasons why people can have the same facts but conclude differently. But of course there are probably other reasons as well. Which is why I am interested in discussing it. But obviously not now. Best wishes.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Hmm. Maybe this is another mindset thing. When I hear talk of willingness to accept the possibility of something, I sense an argument being slipped under the radar. I don’t think that’s the same as being prepared to examine the evidence, which I’d expect everyone to do, but that’s probably a purely semantic issue.

      • unkleE says :

        “Hmm. Maybe this is another mindset thing. When I hear talk of willingness to accept the possibility of something, I sense an argument being slipped under the radar. I don’t think that’s the same as being prepared to examine the evidence, which I’d expect everyone to do, but that’s probably a purely semantic issue.”

        I’ll give you an example. Most atheists say they base their views on evidence, unlike christians. So on a forum once I outlined an event I had just heard about that appeared to be a miraculous healing. Some of the atheists responded, quite reasonably, by asking where was the evidence? I invited them to join me in researching the event to see how good the evidence was.

        Not one of them was interested in doing any research, so I did it alone, and found that there was good evidence that a quite unusual recovery had occurred (after the person had been pronounced dead by an experienced medical team), and that it happened immediately after prayer for healing. Of course that didn’t prove it was a miracle, but it was at least prima facie evidence that it might have been. When I reported this back I got the response that they’d need better evidence, Hume had proved we could never believe a miracle had occurred, etc.

        So despite their criticisms of christians not basing their conclusions on evidence, it was them who ignored the evidence and based their conclusion on their preconceived worldview, whereas I was free to accept or reject or remain noncommittal according to the evidence.

        So they were unprepared to consider the evidence, and this determined the outcome for them. That is what I meant. Best wishes.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        OK, I think I see better where you’re coming from.

        But another way of putting it would be that each side has unprovable beliefs (theists in the possibility of miracles, atheists in their impossibility), and that the burden of proof is on the positive claim. I doubt you’d get many takers to investigate evidence for Russell’s Teapot, either.

        It also strikes me that if you believe, after Hume, that miracles are by their nature unprovable, it may even be dishonest to investigate claimed miracles from an atheist perspective, as you’d only truly be looking for evidence for disbelief, and an absence of that evidence would demonstrate nothing.

        Tricky area, as normal rules of evidence break down completely.

  4. unkleE says :

    Thanks for those comments. One explanatory thought.

    We know there are idiots and superficial people on all sides, but we know there are also very intelligent people among both atheists and theists. But most intelligent people believe rational enquiry can establish truth. So how does an atheist explain how an intelligent person can remain a christian, and vice versa?

    One approach is to denigrate the opposition. Many atheists will simply say that theists are dishonest, they’re delusional, or burying their heads in the sand. Christians may say that atheists are rebellious against God or spiritually blind. Sometimes those things may be correct, but the point is that none of us can really say. The comments are better left unsaid.

    Another approach is to say the matters are obviously unclear, we all should be agnostics. But we can say that til we’re blue in the face but it won’t happen.

    My approach is to think there must be something other than evidence and reason which decides this. It may be the factors above, but it may be something else. And I think (tentatively) that it is a matter of our wills (what we are willing to believe or not), our assumptions (which are often untested and unstated) and what we want to be true. I think they are at least better explanations (and less insulting) than the earlier ones.

    Thanks again for the discussion.

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