Bringing Home the Freshest Kill

If you haven’t done so yet, please read “An Agnostic Manifesto,” by Ron Rosenbaum over at Slate. It’s good.

Rosenbaum argues that the complexities of agnosticism shouldn’t diminish its place in religious debate, where “New Atheism” and religious fundamentalism compete regularly to produce the most belligerent quips and sound bites. Enough of that, says Rosenbaum. It’s time to put on our baking gloves and prepare the Agnostic Loaf of Mystery.

He writes:

Agnosticism doesn’t fear uncertainty. It doesn’t cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.

That’s an eloquent statement, whereas a lot of chatter in the atheist world is bratty and juvenile. Atheist discourse often reeks of fraternity/sorority shenanigans; drinking games set against a backdrop of “secular rebellion.” Worse, atheists tend to focus on Bible-bred insanity while avoiding the more prickly domain of Islam. Wimps.

The braver, more honest atheists fess up to this shortcoming. Penn Jillette, for instance, recently went out of his way to praise Christians in a discussion about his TV show Bullshit:

[we] have been brutal to Christians, and their response shows that they’re good fucking Americans who believe in freedom of speech. We attack them all the time, and we still get letters that say, “We appreciate your passion. Sincerely yours, in Christ.”

Jillette explains that Bullshit avoids criticism of Islam for a simple reason, one that offers a sad, illuminating commentary on the world: He (and partner Teller) don’t want to endanger their loved ones.

It’s awful that such a deterrent exists in 2010, isn’t? Complete batshit insanity.

Still, contrast Jillette’s approach with most atheist bloggers, who chortle at Islamist suicide bombers and snake-handling Pentecostals from behind their Dawkins_IZ_Gawd (and, um,  Iced Borscht)  screen names. As a Catholic friend recently observed, it’s not exactly “bold” to participate in “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” from the comfort of one’s Mid-Century modern bachelor pad. (The friend, a journalist who has covered various religious beats in New York State, was unimpressed by my enthusiasm for Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, henceforth known as EDMD.)

While he makes a good point, I disagree with the notion that EDMD was frivolous and sophomoric. Even some of its cowardly aspects contributed to an overriding positive: the mitigation, on whatever tiny level, of a despicable form of intolerance.  (Nick Gillespie makes my point more articulately here, and Paul Berman‘s Flight of the Intellectuals provides a brilliant, if dispiriting, analysis of how Western society — powered by the engine of modern-day “journalism” — gleefully invites Islamism to castrate it).

I don’t mean to suggest that atheism should become a gloomy reservoir for bland introspection. It already has bland introspection in spades; once you get past all the blasphemy board games and kitschy crap, you’re left with an army of killjoys yammering on about epistemological incongruence.

But the killjoys may be on to something. For instance, when I “arrived” at atheism, it didn’t feel like some hedonistic emancipation from God. Yes, I had finally found an “answer,” but the answer was anti-climactic and dull, as many “truths” are. Contrary to popular belief, the road to atheism isn’t a hip grindhouse flick — it’s not paved with priests’ skulls or set to the music of surf rock. Atheism is mundane, normal…unremarkable. But it has a certain undeniable power. Isaac Asimov once said:

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.

Back to Rosenbaum, though. He writes:

I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

Stultifying. But if you peel back the foreskin of this wrinkly catechism, you’ll always be in arm’s reach — and often at the business end — of a sentient creator. Eventually you’ll be tempted by one of several “God-centric” positions, and none of them will be more ironclad than the “certainty” of atheism.

One of my favorite arrows in the atheist quiver is the idea that our minds go straight to the theory of a sentient creator without contemplating esoteric concepts that might be more plausible. We’re stuck on “sentient creator.” That’s the best we can do. Rosenbaum looks into this matter by referencing agnostic blogger John Wilkins:

…there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with as important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are. The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.

I’ll put the brakes on here. While the constraints of life and its short window of opportunity sometimes depress me, it’s not an existential crisis. When my time comes to kiss the gallows, I understand that my corruptible body will transform into a snack bar for maggots.

And I’m fine with that.

More analysis of Rosenbaum’s Agnostic Manifesto is available here, courtesy of rock-solid peckerwood Jacob Grier.

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  • Ricky Sprague

    July 15, 2010 at 5:07 UTC |

    I realized I was an atheist when I was a kid — probably around 6 or 7. I went to a few churches in my hometown, to see what they were like (didn’t have any synagogues or mosques back then — it was a small town [I might be a completely different person today if they’d had any of those!]). The stories they told seemed absurd to me.

    I didn’t want some all-powerful creature knowing everything about me, and judging me based on my every stray thought or whim. And I didn’t like the idea of spending eternity with that all-powerful creature (Christopher Hitchens has written about that quite a bit more eloquently than I ever could). It all grew out of my innate skepticism — it’s the same reason I don’t believe in psychics or the loch ness monster, and why I dislike politicians and the government.

    For awhile I called myself an “agnostic,” because, well, I thought I was being “arrogant” to assume I knew for certain that there was no god. But of course the same logic applies to unicorns and cthulu.

    I don’t mean to disrespect religious people. I know and like a lot of religious people. In some polls, religious people claim to be happier, they have more children, they live slightly longer. Those are all good reasons to be religious.

    But please oh please don’t try to impose your beliefs on me — via government force or bombs or guns or knives or whatever — and I won’t try to impose mine on you.

    I am hoping that they come up with those anti-aging drugs, though. I’m not fine with the maggot snack bar thing.

  • Isid Bortz

    July 15, 2010 at 5:07 UTC |


    Maggots ahoy! The snack bar has arrived! (Well, hopefully my contribution to the snack bar doesn’t arrive until 2055 or so…)

    We’re cut from the same cloth. I remember being an audacious shithead at age 12 or 13 who would prank call the awful/hilarious public access Christian TV show that would come on in the evenings.

    And I recall squealing with glee as a pre-pubescent shithead whenever the likes of Oral Roberts or Al Sharpton came on TV, because I knew Big Laffs would follow.

    How did I get this way? Why am I innately non God-fearing? So wonderful…

    Unrelated: The first draft of pdX-Man is complete. It is going to be a humdinger.

  • Unruly Altar Boy

    July 15, 2010 at 11:07 UTC |

    Hey Mike, I enjoyed this — (esp the “Catholic friend” part!). As an agnostic friend of mine recently pointed out, everybody is basically an agnostic when you get right down to it. I really do believe (wait, I’m think I’m being redundant) that it ultimately comes down to what you infer from your experience of life. As you well know, I have inferred there is a Creator, although I am more than willing to accept that my notions about him/her/it are as limited as the next person’s. I also believe the universe is big enuf to contain those that believe there is no sentient being behind it or that it is a beautiful, albeit completely accidental energy exchange. Strangely, one of the things that most frustrates me is I have come to have an almost casual internal dialogue with God/Jesus/The Sacred Heart (the third being my favorite image) and it informs everything from my interest in astronomy and music to my take on politics and art. But then I find many of my intellectual friends don’t want to go there and many of my more religious friends kind of take the discussion in a direction that leans toward the dogmatic. I’m finding out I may just have to start my own church, but I promise to excommunicate suicide bombers and teetotalers.

  • Unruly Altar+Boy

    July 15, 2010 at 11:07 UTC |

    oh wait, teetotalers except 4 those in southeast pdx!

  • When Falls the Coliseum » Cleaning out the link cage — Coliseum-style!

    July 20, 2010 at 2:07 UTC |

    […] Speaking of Portland, some astonishingly brilliant jackass from our virtuous utopia has penned an insightful essay on agnosticism and atheism. […]

  • Frank Wilson

    September 23, 2010 at 4:09 UTC |

    I linked to Ron Rosenbaum’s piece on my blog and I strongly recommend Mark Vernon’s book Beyond Atheism. Both Ron and Mark understand agnosticism in a more positive — and I think more correct way — as a kind of apophatic theology, the sort that posits that God, being altogether other, cannot be discussed in positive terms. I think the important thing to grasp is that the world and life are together profoundly mysterious. Or, as someone once felicitously put it, we see, as through a glass, darkly.

  • Isid Bortz

    September 24, 2010 at 5:09 UTC |

    Just added it to the ol’ Amazon wish list, Frank. Thanks!

    BTW, the word “apophatic” is awesome…

  • The Agnostic Loaf of Mystery vs. the Glazed Ham of Unbelief | Iced Borscht

    April 11, 2013 at 9:04 UTC |

    […] The Agnostic Loaf of Mystery vs. the Glazed Ham of Unbelief […]

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