Monday, August 30, 2010

The Agnostic Position in Discourse and Sociality

The last few days [years really] I have felt great uncertainty about everything.  However, the most recent worries include:  Being on the road-and in essence rootless.  My future in academia.  Teaching.  Writing.  Career.  Waitressing.  Spirituality. Politics.  Local and global relations.  Theatre.   Comedy and the true value of whoopie cushions (all the iphone apps of this nature has really ruined the special nature of the well tuned fart), basically the “lot” of life.  Indeed, one memory I tend to reflect upon often is the memory of my mom on her death bed.  Here was a magnificent woman of diverse faith who sought out a Catholic Priest, A Rabbi and a Buddhist to help her pass on.  Before she died, she told me that she was worried about me because I lacked true faith, and an understanding of true faith.  I objected, but she is likely correct.

My general agnostic position has had me down and rather depressed.  If my education has taught me anything, it has taught me that I know just enough to realize that I really do not know anything:  an unsettling actuality, and rather unwelcome position in our mythical American culture.

Some might call this the postmodern blues (Yes, there is a song in this theme-Foucault Funk).  If I lack the certainty of classical realism, then I must be lost in a vat of relativism where certainty is simply a whim brought on by rhetoric, sitcoms, large quantities of beer or satisfying sex (why else would romance novels and soap operas have such mass appeal?).  We are told that the agnostic position is a weak position to hold - If you do not know, then you are lost and we all know that being lost is a bad thing .... or is it?

I admit, I feel terribly lost and I suspect that many people feel the same right now -whether they are comfortable admitting it or not.  Honestly, how can we not feel it?  Bad economy, loss of jobs, opportunities, homes, careers, security, retirement, health care and the list goes on and on.  And yet, we are told to “say it until we are it” (a favorite axiom of my mothers), as if the lies of certainty will turn into reality.  Why not?  It can happen, right?  Maybe.  I simply do not know.

Feeling at sea with this uncertain anthem of “I Just Do Not Know,” I was rather relived to read Ron Rosenbaum’s article “An Agnostic Manifesto: At Least We Know What We Don’t Know.”  Rosenbaum’s article gave me the sorely needed knowledge that there are others who are as clueless as I am (also his side note regarding his exchange with Terry Eagleton after a Harvard luncheon was priceless). 

Rosenbaum’s article celebrated the agnostic position against the so-called new atheism, where a reverence and faith in science, and science’s ability to answer all uncertainty is renewed in a rather insistent way.  They know, these new atheists!  They have no proof, but they know.  Not unlike faith-based religions, they have faith in their beliefs and that is just peachy (one of my father’s favorite axioms).

What struck me about Rosenbaum’s article was the realization that our embracing of uncertainty needs to go beyond the religious debate and enter the arena of everyday life and discourse.  Maybe if we started to accept uncertainty in everyday life, communications and sociality, we would be much better off, and we would need less Prozic.  Lost?  Likely.  But it is not like we are not lost already.  Take a moment and look around.  Things are really a mess, and no amount of bailouts and assurances that “things are looking up!” will change that.  Happy thoughts will only get us so far. There has never been a chicken in every pot, and we might as well stop wishing for it.  Certainty and undying faith in how right we all are in our beliefs causes us much, much harm and indeed, it is counter to our democratic anthem here in the US. 

As Professor David C. Williams, a mentor and a man of wit, expressed to my cohort many times, democracy is institutional uncertainty.  If democracy is about open debate and argumentation, then it is also about letting go of the control of certainty .... indeed the absolute undying faith in your position.  You may be right, but you may be wrong.  Do you really know?  Can you really ever know?  In essence, I argue that Democracy is about the agnostic position (this is Democracy, with a capital “D,” not the faith based “Economic [Market] Democracy,” which is little more than free market mythology disguised as rhetorical economic certainty).  Regardless, if you have absolute faith in your particular position, then argumentation and democracy is pointless - why argue about what is certain.  It’s known after all - move along, there is nothing more to see here. 

Indeed, it is the absolute anthem of certainty that causes much harm in our democratic system.  In Rosenbaum’s article, he mentions John Wilkins’ “Evolving Thought Blog” and a set of objections that Wilkins has regarding the New Atheists’ position.  One important objection was: “Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.”  The partisan politics we see playing out in Washington, on our news channels, at Tea Party rallies, on twitter, FaceBook and globally can be viewed as this so called “tribal” either/or politics.  The either/or pitfall is a theme I come back to time and time again.  Either/or positions require certainty, absolute faith to function and they are deadly. 

In fact, either/or positions only function to divide us all into our certainty corners where faith in a particular position obstructs true democratic argumentation and function.  We yell at each other.  We filibuster.  We invent fictions to continue this division of faith and certainty.  You are with us, or against us, and if you are against us, well you are Looser (with a capital “L” signaled on the forehead).  Certainty is harming, but so is relativism ... yes?  Another tribal either/or?

Rather than fall into the “postmodern blues” of relativism, the pragmatic thinker William James admitted that there might be certainty, but the problem was simple: we have not arrived to certainty yet - if we had, we would all surely know it and move along: “nothing to see here.”  Thus embracing the agnostic position is not embracing a faith based position that uncertainty is the key, rather it is simply the acknowledgement that “I don’t know,” but this lack of certainty will not stop me from investigating - even if it takes a life time.   So I guess I do have certainty about one thing - there is hope in the journey, the process, even if I do not know where that journey will take me.

1 comment:

  1. Just so far as I can help here, check the tab on my blog entitled "Agnosticism and Atheism. Also I have an article just a day ago on "being a dick", which is the present theme of debate about tone.


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