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From atheism to ‘agnosticism’

October 12, 2011

First of all, I will admit that in the title, I’m doing something I normally wouldn’t do. I’m using “agnosticism” in a different sense than how I would normally use it. Normally, I would insist that agnosticism is about knowledge (“I don’t know”) but it says nothing about belief. Atheism and theism are about belief.

But today, I’ll use it in the more common colloquial stance…that position of thinking that there is “something” out there, but not being sure what to call it. So in a way, the agnostic believes in something, but since he doesn’t yet feel comfortable calling it God, he is still not a theist.

So, in this way, I’ll say that I am moving from atheism to agnosticism. But why?

Consider my car crash from a while back.

Back then, at no point did I even consider any divine or miraculous intervention. I just thought I had been stupid (I knew I was tired), but fortunately, modern engineering worked out in my favor(airbags, seatbelts, crash testing, etc., etc.,).

But I did question whether I were being unduly ungrateful.

My father once commented on something I had written on Facebook that had really bothered him. I had written at some point, “Things just work out for me, because that’s how I operate.” And he noted that was at the height of arrogance. Things might indeed just work out for me, but that’s not because that’s how I operate.

Looking back now, it’s clear to me that the two parts of that sentence don’t even make sense together. The first part features me as the object of the preposition “for.” The subject of things working out is unknown and unstated. So, then, how can I come back and impute all that to how I operate? Such hubris.

At least at that time, I realized the interconnectedness of people. So, in a very real way, things work out for me because there are lots of people in my life, directly and indirectly, who help me out. I don’t know who engineered the seatbelt for my car, but I owe a great debt to that person. I owe a great debt for my father, who called my uncle, and my uncle, for getting out to the hospital as soon as possible. (And again to my father [who is a nurse and who knows the procedures that should’ve happened], for driving a state away to make sure that everything was ok, when the first hospital didn’t do everything they could’ve.)

What I’ve noticed recently is how many things I owe to other people (both good things and bad things in my life) that I don’t even recognize at the time they occur, and so there’s no way for me even to consider being grateful (or to suspect something’s amiss.) As I wrote about in A Lesson in Grace, the most interesting thing has been learning about the “mysterious political world of adults. Especially of parents trying to be the best advocates for their children while keeping the children blissfully unaware of how much work that can often take.”

As a child, it seems like things go smoothly because that’s how they are supposed to go. Or, even I even notice anything, it seems like it is simply coincidence. Or luck. And if I’m even more perceptive, I might begin to suspect that I have a secret admirer watching out for me. But for the most part, I can be blissfully ignorant of everything that happens.

The other day I tried to apply that analysis to the car crash. Was there something or someone involved with that that I was simply “blissfully unaware of”?

…at that point, I reasoned that that was silly reasoning. How can I attribute my safety to some being when there are so many — people who are doubtlessly better than me, who are doubtlessly more innocent than me, who doubtlessly were less negligent or reckless than I was — who don’t make it out so well?

That’s always what bothers me…when people say God helped them find their keys, then what about the people who starve? Where is God for them?

Or, even with something like life and death…why would you say God saved your loved on from 9/11, when there were others yet who still died? (Or, even worse, why would you say that God helped “save” your loved one before they died on 9/11?)

So, it was the question of fairness that blocked me from considering it further.

I think a car crash is a pretty big deal, and last night, I experienced something that was from all intents and purposes not as much of a big deal. I was at fencing practice, trying to teach someone new something. I was not wearing a mask (ugggh, I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence). After showing the other person a move, his weapon hit my eye-lid.

I was knocked back by the impact. I thought I wouldn’t be able to see (but I have experienced objects poking my eye before, and I didn’t feel that excruciating pain.) When I removed my hand and opened my eye, I didn’t feel any pain…but there was still blood on my hand.

I went to a bathroom mirror, and saw that he had in fact struck my eye-lid right next to my nose. If he had even been a millimeter off, my eye would be gone.

…that event shook me far more. I knew that it was completely my fault…that there was no one else I could blame but myself if something worse had happened…and yet, I had survived it with nothing more than a mark on my eyelid to show that I was in fact hit.

I first thought I was lucky, but then as soon as the thought crossed my mind, it seemed totally wrong and unconvincing. That was the difference between the times before and now. It just doesn’t feel right to say it was just luck or coincidence.

Again, the fairness issue doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t seem fair, but because it doesn’t seem fair, I feel all the more grateful. I don’t understand it. But the most appropriate thing I feel to do is to thank something or someone…but there’s nothing and no one mortal I can really “impute” this one too. I mean, I think people who make fencing swords have engineered a lot of safety mechanisms into them (so that, in case a sword breaks, it will tend to break cleanly rather than jaggedly), but this one really couldn’t be explained to any of that. I couldn’t blame quick reflexes or anything.

It seems to me that if I throw out preconceived notions of fairness, then I can get past previous hangups and be thankful.

…But does that make me a theist? What a lame conversion story!

No, I think that puts me in that agnostic square that I used not to understand or even agree with. I have to admit that in the same way I don’t know whether God exists or not, at the same time, I don’t know who or what it is who is looking out for me. I have never heard it, never seen it, and in the same way I had to throw out preconceived notions of fairness, I have to admit as well that I don’t know anything about it (certainly not what I was taught growing up), yet…here is this trail of experiences that now I find difficult to explain without it serving as a plug figure.

I recognize too that this is all very subjective and personal, but I never had a problem with that to begin with.


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  1. You got in a car crash and you got poked in the eye with a sword — you sound unlucky to me. Maybe Somebody is out to get you, but his aim isn’t very good.

  2. great alternative way at looking at it, kuri.

    unfortunately, the problem is that getting in a crash was *my* fault. Getting poked in the eye was *my* fault. There is 0% chance I could reasonably attribute those parts to luck (or unluck).

    • We all make mistakes; sometimes we get “punished” for them, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we get “punished” many times in a row; sometimes we escape “punishment” many times in a row. It’s probably human nature to look for patterns or reasons for that, but to me it all seems very close to the very definition of luck or randomness.

      • I think my takeaway is…whatever the source is…luck, coincidence, divine intervention, whatever, I need to stop relying on whatever it is to save me from stupid stuff that I do.

        • Well, that’s probably always a good idea.

  3. Seth R. permalink

    One of my favorite fantasy novels in high school (and one I still like quite a bit) was the “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” series. Typical “servant boy thrust into great events who rises to great deeds” medieval-setting kind of thing, but executed very well… but I’m getting off topic.

    Anyway, at one point the boy – after seeing more than his share of human suffering and hardship – explodes at his devout friend with an angry tirade about that world’s equivalent of the Christian god. How he probably doesn’t exist, and if he did – he’d be a monster. His devout friend is quite hurt and stalks off leaving the protagonist feeling confused, frustrated, and also more than a little guilty about taking it out on his friend. At this point another one of his friends, a “pagan” who does not share his gods or beliefs simply notes “it may or may not be foolishness to pray to the gods, but there is certainly being no wisdom in cursing them.”

    I suppose that’s only sort of on topic, but your post made me think of it.

    As for the unfairness of those who are blessed trivially, versus those who suffer cruelly. It’s a thought that occurred to me some time ago. Didn’t seem fair, and it certainly didn’t seem right for the devout to triumph in circumstances that worked to their good, while likely working to the ill of many others.

    So I’ve asked “why” of it all as well.

    But there is something I remember from a book my dad gave me over ten years ago. It pointed out that the purpose of a human being’s life is not to ask a question, but to answer one.

    It’s not our purpose to ask “why God – why this, and not that?” It’s not our purpose to ask him for answers. Our purpose is to ANSWER a question. That’s any true man’s purpose – to answer the questions – with his own life.

    And whether you believe in the Judeo-Christian god or not, the question all men must answer is the same one that God asked Adam in the very beginning – “Adam, where art thou?”

    What is the meaning of you almost losing your eye, or surviving the car crash?

    You tell me.

    Because I can’t provide the meaning of that for you. And neither can God – regardless of the question of whether he exists or not.

  4. Seth,

    I actually remember someone I knew who wrote a personal narrative for a group I was in about “living the question.” which is probably not the same thing you are talking about, but I didn’t get it then…and I don’t really get it now.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    My feeling is that even assuming that God exists, our meanings would be something we create ourselves.

  6. “What is the meaning of you almost losing your eye, or surviving the car crash?”
    There is no meaning, unless one would, for some inexplicable reason, assign one. Of course, there might be lessons associated with these events but they are not sent by the Universe.

  7. I think these are all really good points, and they are getting me back to some existentialist questions. In a universe that seems utterly without meaning, I am disoriented by this…

    Hmm, I guess this gives me a good chance to get into some existentialist basics!

  8. Argus permalink

    Agnostic I may be, but rabid atheist I most definitely am.

    Things have happened in my own life ‘above and beyond the call’ of coincidence too. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that Dibdin got it right—

    “For they say there’s a providence sits up aloft,
    To keep watch for the life of poor Jack!”

    —but whatever form that ‘providence’ may take, it is NOT the God of the Abrahamic religions. Keep an open mind and maybe one day we’ll find out.

    Or not …

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  1. Gratitude toward an uncaring, unconscious universe? « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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