The Wisdom of Agnosticism

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

I was born and raised in an Evangelical Christian home and was taught from childhood that the Bible, from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, is a flawless, divinely inspired, and literal narrative of God’s fractious relationship with his greatest and most tragic creation: the human race.

My perception of reality was shaped overwhelmingly by my family and church community. Over time, however, my exposure to the world outside of that bubble generated increasing cognitive dissonance. Despite embracing the core of Christianity through my adolescent years—particularly its emphasis on acceptance of divine grace in faith as necessary to salvation—I never lost my sense of skepticism and need to reconcile the seeming contradictions concerning God’s nature and engagement in the world, as described in the purportedly inerrant Bible.

Cracks in the Construct

To me, the Book of Joshua was one of the most difficult books of the Bible to reconcile with what I’d been taught about God’s loving and compassionate nature. Essentially, it describes a divinely-sanctioned campaign of genocide and territorial conquest that annihilated various pagan nations, in which God explicitly commands the ancient Israelites to slaughter even women and children (as well as their spiritually tainted livestock). In the 21st century, we are rightly horrified by such conduct as practiced by Islamist extremists, yet this same conduct is embedded in the first six books of the Tanakh, as Jews refer to it, or the “Old Testament,” as Christians refer to it.

Christian apologists have justified these acts of genocide on the basis that the “pagan” nations then populating what would become the land of ancient Israel practiced reprehensible rituals including child sacrifice to their “false idols”. Their logic beggars belief, presupposing that the omnipotent Creator of the Universe for some inexplicable reason could not communicate their ignorance to them and that to stop this practice, it was necessary to kill the very same children whose sacrifice was so repulsive to God.

The Book of Job was another difficult book to integrate into a coherent belief system. In this story, God allows the Devil to test his servant Job’s faith by killing his children and his livestock and cursing him with painful and humiliating physical afflictions. Job maintains his loyalty but when he finally asks God why he’s been punished so severely and arbitrarily despite his faithfulness, God launches into a reproachful, patronizing extended monologue on his omnipotence, in contrast with Job’s diminutive human perspective, essentially evading the question. I believe the lesson the author of this perplexing book was attempting to communicate, in a highly convoluted way, is that we cannot comprehend the mind of the Creator of the Universe and why he allows or causes the righteous to suffer.

As a cadet pursuing a dual bachelor of science degree in Middle East studies and political science at the Air Force Academy, I was deeply immersed, from a bird’s eye view, in the historical and current conflicts of the region. It seemed to me that although God’s ways might be “higher” than ours and that he might “move in mysterious ways”, placing such absolute trust in religious leaders’ interpretations of God’s will could be very dangerous, particularly in the arena of international relations.

In the modern as in the ancient world, this blind faith is one of the critical variables that have made it possible for political and religious leaders to start and perpetuate wars. Religious absolutism is what motivated the barbarism of the Crusades and it is what continues to draw the Judeo-Christian world into the self-fulfilling prophecy of a conflict of civilizations with the Muslim world over control of Jerusalem, roughly a millennium after the First Crusade. I find this profoundly tragi-comical, particularly within the context of an escalating conflict between Iran and Israel, which the US, under the Trump regime, exacerbated and is likely to continue to get sucked deeper into.

Tragedy Catalyzes Cognitive Openings

My grandfather died of cancer when I was 20. The deep sense of grief I experienced from his passage from this life was not the reason why I parted ways with my faith but it did dramatically increase the intensity and urgency of the existential questions I’d been seeking answers to. My reaction felt absurd in a way—all one has to do is read the news to know that suffering and tragedy are constants in the world—but I was no longer able to view human suffering as a relative abstraction or something I could emotionally distance myself from.

I began to ask how God could allow such a good man to suffer, despite all of my family’s earnest prayers for him to be healed. I turned my focus outward, attempting to reconcile my understanding of the Abrahamic deity’s ostensibly loving but deeply enigmatic nature and purported engagement in human affairs on the side of justice with horrific events such as the Holocaust. How could a loving God allow (or cause, according to some highly influential religious leaders) six million of his “Chosen People” to endure such unconscionable horrors?

I asked what the purpose of our existence is. If the world was foreordained to be destroyed because of the sinfulness of the human race, as I was taught to interpret the Book of Revelation, what was the point of creating it in the first place? It seems to me that only the most monstrously narcissistic deity would deliberately do such a thing.

I spent several months feverishly seeking answers to these questions before concluding that existential meaning is something we must define for ourselves. Sartre’s articulations of existentialist philosophy offered a logical, albeit ultimately unsatisfying, alternative to the contradictions of the Bible and served me relatively well over roughly the next decade.

Parting ways with the Abrahamic construct is liberating but is also unsatisfying in terms of answering various ontological questions: Where did this universe that we exist in originate from? Did a vastly higher intelligence create it or did it actually come about from nothing, as some hypothesize or speculate? (I am much more inclined to believe in some form of vastly higher intelligence but am not sure how to characterize it except in contrast with the contradictory nature of the Abrahamic deity, which is a projection of the human (or at least male) psyche.) When we die, do we transition into another form of existence or do we cease to exist altogether?  Will we be reunited with our loved ones who have gone before us?  Will we be judged for the things we have done or not done in this life?

As an agnostic, albeit a spiritually inclined one, my humble answer to all of these questions is, I don’t know, and I’m not sure whether it is ultimately possible to know the answers to them. Scientists have developed a Big Bang theory to describe the formation of the universe, which I accept (to some degree on faith, ironically but necessarily, given my lack of expertise in astrophysics and related disciplines). However, they have yet to explain where it came from, why it happened, or what exists beyond its frontier.  All they have are hypotheses for these deeper questions, which are often conflated with theories; the latter connoting a greater degree of confidence than I think is warranted. I wonder if the exploration—and, critically, scientific analysis—of inner space via psychedelics/entheogens will provide us a more complete picture of these great ontological mysteries.

I don’t know what lays beyond the frontier of this existence but I do know that when I feel a sense of existential dread toward the vastness and perplexity of such questions and in the suffering of this life, I find rootedness in the abundant beauty that also exists within it—of nature, art, music, friendship, love, and of those who passionately struggle to make the world a more just, peaceful and inspiring place.

I often have my doubts but I still believe in us. Who or what else is there to believe in?