I set out to write a book that would help me discover what I believe. I had come across a quote by the British novelist Julian Barnes — who said, "I don't believe in God but I miss him." I didn't know if I didn't believe in God. But I did miss him. Him was the invisible father I prayed to every night as a boy and felt certain was watching over me. Him was the one upon whom I believed I could rely in time of need. Him was invisible to me but with full power over me. Him was who I lost as I got older and began filling my mind with content from books by Darwin, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. I would love to find him once more, to feel his presence inside me or outside of me — to know he is somewhere out there. I wanted him back. But I was devoid of evidence that he is or ever has been. I plead guilty to being wishy-washy — longing for him and calling on him in fear or crisis and pulling away in rationality and good sense. I could never again know him as I had known him as a child with the faith of my parents and ancestors now lost for my lifespan to the pale cast of intellect.
But the hunger and longing do not go away. So, like a good journalist, I went on a God hunt for how, where, and why. Like Joe Friday in the old Dragnet series, I wanted just the facts. Belief, I realized, was about faith rather than facts, and if I was doing any leaping off to faith it was going to be in life's foxholes. I vacillated. Belief or non-belief? Perhaps neither? Perhaps both? I began to investigate agnosticism. What did it mean? Was it a tenable position, one that made sense, or just a way of being inconclusive? Agnosticism seemed a bit of a joke. There is an old joke. An agnostic family moves into a neighborhood and a question mark is burned on their lawn. Agnosticism seemed a way to avoid the necessity of taking a stand and saying simply, "I do believe in God" or "I don't." Studs Terkel told me he called himself an agnostic because he was a cowardly atheist.
But maybe, I began to think, there was a mite of courage rather than cowardice in simply saying "I don't know" and in accepting, until we can discover answers to what we don't know, thatthere is actual wisdom in admitting ignorance. The new atheists seem too certain, even militant, about there being no God when, in fact, it is impossible to prove a negative. The atheists denounce the major religions as hocus pocus and nonsense and see them as the chief reason behind such horrors as the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9-11. Religion to them is the root of much evil as well as the people's opiate. Religion and its zealots have served to bring us crazed and immoderate brands of fundamentalism and the misogyny and terror of the Taliban. Religions, they tell us, are a scourge upon us. But I am as divided on religion as I am on God. Religion can give hope, solace, morality, charity, decency, kindness, purpose, inner peace. Religion was the major force in the creation of the miraculous republic of the United States and has helped to lead the fights for freedom from slavery and for civil rights and social justice. Religion hoisted the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the liberation theology of ameliorating poverty in Central America.
I am certain about a few matters. One is the fact that believers deserve respect so long as they do not push or coerce or try to compel their faith on the rest of us. The other is that I, in the limbo of agnosticism, can nevertheless enjoy the community feeling, the rituals, the traditions that religion offers. Finally, I know that in being a self-admitted agnostic I cannot deny my own hunger for spiritual sustenance and the feeling of envy I have for those fortunate, blessed if you prefer, to have found it. I am a seeker. I remain a seeker. I wait. I wait until I can find answers, if I can find them.
Agnostics wait. But, more important, agnostics need to find a way to fill time and amuse and entertain and invent for themselves while waiting for a higher authority or higher meaning that may not arrive. Like the two Samuel Beckett clochards, Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, we all need to establish a code of some sort that can at least keep us in the game of living. The time-filling activities of Beckett's two tramp protagonists are, for the most part, trivial and inconsequential and replete with frivolous language play. But this seems to be a good deal of what Beckett wants to point out to us about the human condition. As Joan Didion's character Maria Wyeth, in the famous Hollywood novel Play It As It Lays, discovers, you either opt out of the game or you stay in. Camus instilled in me the notion that there is no question more essential than whether to stay in the game or to withdraw from it voluntarily. It seems only sensible, therefore, for one who elects to stay to find a code, a workable — if not adjustable — and nonabsolute paradigm.
The many who adhere to the often vague spirituality of the Age of Aquarius, as well as those fortunate enough to possess the considerable faith of ages past, can resign themselves to death with the comforting notion that everything actually happens for a reason, even if the reason remains shrouded in mystery and the dead tell no audible tales. I knew, unfortunately at a young age, that we were deceived if we believed a guiding hand was behind tragedy or faith could move the cold hand of death, let alone mountains.
We are ultimately unknowable to ourselves and others. Our past and future are mostly unknowable. God is unknowable. For the present the universe — its origins and its destiny — is unknowable, as is whether there are many universes. Infinity is unknowable. These are some of the fundamental reasons why, at least for the present, I call myself an agnostic.
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Michael Krasny, PhD, hosts the nation’s most listened-to locally produced public radio talk show, Forum with Michael Krasny. A widely published scholar and literary critic, he is an English professor at San Francisco State University. He is also the author of Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life, coauthor of Sound Ideas, and creator of the DVD presentation Masterpieces of Short Fiction. His honors and awards include the S.Y. Agnon Gold Medal for Intellectual Distinction and the Eugene Block Award for Human Rights Journalism. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Books mentioned in this post
Michael Krasny is the author of Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest