Thursday, July 31, 2008


In my facebook profile, I call myself an agnostic. I recently got a question about it from a friend of mine, who noted that I used to identify with a particular religion. What happened? Here's an excerpt from my reply, with minor edits for clarity.

Well, for a start, I haven't practiced in years. I did for a while after my divorce, and considered myself religious for quite a while after that. As I drifted away from organized religion, my beliefs gradually shifted, becoming less and less denominational, less and less specific...and, as time went on, less and less theistic at all. Today I'm not even sure I'd qualify as a Deist.

Mostly , it was a process of "Do I really believe this? Not 'do the people around me believe it,' not 'do I get patted on the back for saying I believe it'--do I really and truly, deep down, believe this?" And more and more, the answer came back, no, I don't. And while I've never been a literalist (well, not past the age of 10 or so, but that doesn't really count, does it?) the more I thought about it, the more skeptical I got.

Partly, I think, because so many of the arguments in favor of belief are so awful. I'm enough of an intellectual and skeptic (and all-around horse's ass, at times) that anything I claim as a belief is going to have to stand up to some fairly rigorous scrutiny, and most of the arguments for belief don't come close. And heck, even if Jesus Himself Touched My Heart And Gave Me New Eyes To See, all that would prove would be that I'd had some kind of emotional experience. See any number of previous blog posts for deconstructions & fiskings of various stupid arguments for God.

So, I've pretty much given up on any idea of a magic invisible daddy in the sky who loves me as his very own. It would be a comforting belief, but "Believing it makes me feel better, so I believe it" isn't a satisfying argument. (Though if someone else says they believe something because it comforts them, well, I can't very well argue with that, and need only respect their right to be irrational. When they say believing something comforts them, therefore *I* must also believe the same thing and am a rotten commie traitor who hates Baby Jesus if I don't--that's when I part company with them.)

I went with "agnostic" rather than "atheist" because I'm also not convinced of the atheist position. There's a difference between I don't know what's there and I know for sure there's nothing there. There's no conclusive rational proof of God, but disproof is also impossible. The most you can say is there's no evidence for it, therefore we shouldn't assume it's there unless we have some other good reason to. That's my beef with the Intelligent Design nitwits: "God did it" is not the simplest, most parsimonious, least-assumption explanation. I'm willing to be persuaded, but haven't heard a convincing argument yet.

So how do I reconcile that with active participation in a 12-step program that puts emphasis on reliance on a Higher Power? Almost 20 yrs sobriety has taught me, sometimes painfully, that if I do certain things, life tends to go a little smoother; if I do certain other things, I get a little crazy, and if I keep doing those other things, I'll probably get drunk. Whether or not there's a deity behind them, following certain principles keeps me on an even keel. "God" is a useful metaphor for something pulling me toward those principles, and regular prayer and meditation has put me into the habit of taking a few minutes and calmly reviewing my day before setting out in the morning, and again at the end of the day, and promptly trying to clean up any messes or unfinished business before it festers. It's put me into the habit of thinking of other people rather than myself first (at least, not thinking of myself first all the time), and evaluating my actions by whether I'm living up to the values I'm professing--values that don't necessarily need a magic sky-fairy to be legitimate. Am I being honest with others and myself? Can I disagree with someone without being disagreeable? Am I treating others with respect? Am I meeting my responsibilities as an employee, as a family member, as a citizen? If not, what can I do about those things? If I can't change everything at once, what can I change today? At the end of a meeting, I don't need to go off on magic sky-fairies while everyone else says the Lord's Prayer--that would be rude and disrespectful to their beliefs, even if I don't share them, while maintaining silence costs me nothing.

At the convention last weekend, I talked with a woman whose (non-12-step, no need for one) brother works for Anheuser-Busch in St Louis. They just got bought out, and no word yet on who's keeping their job and who isn't. She asked if he was worried about it, and he just shrugged and said, no, nothing he can do about it either way, so he's just doing his job until he hears otherwise. And she (and I) were boggled--how do normal people do that? How do they get it that simply? We have to bang our heads against the wall several times before we remember the serenity prayer about accepting what we can't change and all that.

So, yeah, "agnostic" is about the most accurate description of where I'm at now. Further bulletins as things develop.

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