2010-03-08

Atheists & Agnostics & Unitarian Universalism

Atheists

One criticism of professing atheism is that it’s presumptuous to claim to know – and that the atheist and theist alike claim to know what is fundamentally unknowable. This criticism is silly. Atheism and theism are not, except peripherally at most, about knowledge. They are about deciding how one is going to live. Are you going to live as if there were a God, or as if there were not one? That’s the question.

It is true that a certain arrogance can sometimes affect a person of either persuasion. Some atheists and some theists will regard you as benighted – ignorant (perhaps malignantly) or stupid (perhaps malignantly) – if you do not agree with them. But let us set aside this issue of hubristic certainty, for theism and atheism come in both arrogant and humble variants, and neither arrogance nor humility is a characteristic of either atheism as such or theism as such.
My complaint to the atheist is not that she presumes an unattainable certainty (after all, who am I to be so certain that her certainty really is unattainable?). My complaint is that “atheism” is not an answer to any question I’m interested in asking. If I am interested in your faith, in your spiritual life, in your religious practices or beliefs, and you tell me you are an atheist, you have only told me what you don’t believe. But what I would be wanting to know is what you do believe. Or, better yet, what you practice. What do you do cultivate in yourself the qualities that you most want to have, to be the person you most want to be? What do you practice to help you develop the spiritual virtues? (I use "spiritual virtues" to refer to: inner peace, equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, joy, intuitive wisdom.) What groups do you join with, or would you consider joining with, in spiritual community to foster together those spiritual virtues? What rituals does that group perform to strengthen the communal connection of its members? What other ethics and values do you adhere to as supportive of your path toward the cultivation of those spiritual virtues? What experiences of transcendence, or one-ness, or interconnection, or wholeness have you had that have had lingering effects on your interest in the spiritual virtues? All of this, I would be interested in hearing about from you. And saying, “I’m an atheist” doesn’t answer any of these questions – or any question that I would care to be asking. “Atheist” leaves all of my questions unanswered, still on the table, awaiting your response. (Saying, “I’m a theist,” if that's what you are, is a little more helpful, but only a little.)

Agnostics

Consequently, “agnostic” is no improvement over “atheist” as a way to identify yourself religiously. Now you’ve told me what you’re not sure about. But I’m not asking what you are or aren’t sure of. I’m only asking what you are willing “to do with your one wild and precious life” (as Mary Oliver puts it) vis-à-vis those spiritual virtues, communities, experiences. Let us grant that we do not have certainty. Now what? What ethic and values shall we live by? What community shall we join and build? What intentional practices shall we undertake to sharpen our perception of the luminous quality of existence? These are questions to which living cannot help but offer up an answer, one way or another, by default or by deliberate purpose.

Unitarian Universalism

Both the self-identified agnostic and the “true believer” have in common that they take as central the question, “What can I know for sure?” “Nothing,” insists the agnostic. Fine. But for Unitarian Universalism that is not the central question. For us, the question is more like: "What shall I be in the world? How shall I practice awareness and bring to the world compassion and wisdom?” Our answer to these questions identifies our religion – and “agnostic” is not an answer to these questions. Saying you're agnostic – just as saying you’re atheist -- answers a question that we're not asking.

To approach the matter another way, once we acknowledge uncertainty – that there's always more to learn, and nothing is permanently exempt from revision – then either we have to say there is no such thing as knowledge, or else we must conceive of knowledge as allowing for change and growth. The latter course seems the better. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition inclines toward a view of knowledge as doing – specifically, as effective doing (while ignorance is ineffective doing). If this is what “knowledge” is, then we UUs are not a people who “don’t know.” We act, and our action's effectiveness is the embodiment of what we know. So, no, Unitarian Universalists are not agnostic, for we do not profess ignorance. Indeed, our knowledge is displayed in all our doing; and our religious knowledge is manifest as our way of living in community, with care, and for justice.