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Adventures of the Polka-Dotted One

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Defining My Terms 4: Radical Agnostic
(...because not all of my defining features are about sex)

Defining my Terms: Radical Agnostic - a part of my essay series talking about concepts that I find important to my life and way of thinking.

(This one will probably be edited repeatedly, though I'll try not to change the sense of it - if I do, I'll make it a new post)

I often refer to myself as a Radical Agnostic, but what does the phrase actually mean?

Agnostic, then - from the root 'a' meaning 'without' and 'gnostic' referring to knowledge. An agnostic person is a person who *does not know*. I'm not saying that there is a God, or gods, but nor am I saying there is not. What I am saying is that it's impossible to know, and that anyone who claims to know that there definitely is or isn't a God (or higher power in the universe of some sort) is, quite frankly, talking out of their backside. This brings me to the 'Radical' bit, which I pinched from Douglas Adams having heard him talk about being a Radical Atheist. Basically I add the 'Radical' to let people know that I really mean it.

Let me expand a bit...

I'm most certainly not a Christian, though I think he was a decent enough chap, for his day, and generally preached some sensible things. Be good to others, feed the needy, that sort of thing. For his day, he was pretty darned enlightened, and good on him. Son of God? I'm distinctly unconvinced. I'm afraid I find myself extremely unconvinced by the Old Testament too, for that matter. The whole idea of an all-powerful deity who 'loves' mankind (but only certain bits of it, depending on who you listen to) and wants us all to obey a rather arbitrary set of rules in order to hop up to the next level of enlightenment, computer game style... well, it all sounds rather far-fetched, to be honest. I'm not much impressed with the concept of most of the other god types out there either. I'm all for love, joy and world peace, but I find I'm incapable of believing in any omnipotent being that particularly gives a damn about the human race, let alone many. It's just too unlikely.

And yet... I can't say for definite that there's nothing out there either. I have a vivid imagination, and can wot of quite a lot of things. For all we know perhaps we are the equivalent of some macroscopic computer game. Maybe there really is a god-like being up there that wants us to jump through these particular hoops because if he* can talk enough people into staying virgins until after marriage or whatever the particular religious oddity, then he'll score 1000 points and get to fight the big boss at the end of the level. I suspect it's not very likely, but I have no absolute proof that this isn't the case... and neither have you.

Science has limitations, and while it can tells us lots of things about the universe - what, when, where, how, which, who and so forth, it fails on a couple of important philosophical questions. One of which is 'why?' what's the point of it all? Science can't say much about that at all. Nor can science say much about what exactly put the universe here in the first place. Where did the big bang come from? What happened *before*? And religion - religion likes to say 'God came before' (occasionally with a slightly more complex backstory involving some being's entrails, and some other being's mischief, or someone giving birth to someone else, or whatever) but this only removes the same question by one more step - where did God come from? What came before God?

It's a question that I firmly believe is unanswerable, because every step further just leads to the same question again. Like the next digit of pi, like prime numbers, the question of what came before, or what comes next only leads to further study. Even if the universe is a loop, as some believe, it's no answer to how it came into being, or what will be afterwards.
My imagination loves the idea that someday there might be a unified God-plus-Universe theory that explains Everything, and somehow involves superstrings, the wiccan rede, and everything being inextricably interconnected, but I'm sure even if that happens there will still be the 'but where did *that* come from?' question.

So my 'religious certainty' is that we can't ever know, and rather than wasting time arguing about it, we may as well get used to living without the knowledge - perhaps even learn to appreciate the mystery. I'm also quite certain that it doesn't matter, because moral behaviour makes very rational sense, and I'll come back to that in a later post.

*Yeah, I know, male pronoun - in the context of giant godlike gamer geek I'm going to stick to the male stereotype, okay?

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Leaving aside the wider issues you raise, WRT whether Jesus was a decent enough chap, you may be interested in Greta Christina's The Messed-up Teachings of Jesus.

"Now. Again. The fact that the philosophy of the Gospels is flawed and inconsistent would not be a problem if you saw Jesus simply as a person: a far-seeing person with many important and indeed radical ideas, but one who was also somewhat limited by the culture in which he lived. If that's how you saw the Gospel teachings, you could easily take what you need and leave the rest... just like you would with any other thinker you admired.

But when you believe that Jesus was/is the divine Son of God, and that the Gospels are a more or less accurate representation of his teachings... then you're in trouble.

Yep. With her entirely. Thanks for the link though, I enjoy Greta Christina's writings but hadn't found that one yet!

"... any omnipotent being that particularly gives a damn about the human race."

Polytheism FTW ;-) Most (numerically) religions contain multiple deities, often with some for and some against humanity, some annoyed by it or other variations ... and the occasional fun one which just likes to screw with people.

I'd suggest checking out Gnostic Christianity, too, which mentioned that Jesus was telling people to do what they needed to do to avoid the Old Testament God, who was in imperfect being and a bit of a butthead.

As for me, spiritual development is something I want to dedicate a lot of time to this year, though I know I have a long way to go.

Oh yeah, my favourite creation myth is from one of the Aboriginal tribes who said one of the Gods from the Dreamtime (ie. before existence) ploughed the world from a big lump of nothing, making the mountains and valleys etc.

Heh, I'm pretty unconvinced by polytheism too, in terms of how the world got made, but the poetry of it certainly appeals to me... especially where there's a Loki type character.

I love creation myths too - I've made up a few of my own even. It's all too easy.

Not quite sure what you mean by spiritual development - if you mean generally learning to be the sort of person you want to be, I'm all for it. If you're talking about finding some sort of 'credo' to live by that someone's written for you, I suggest you go read some books on critical thinking instead.

"Not quite sure what you mean by spiritual development - if you mean generally learning to be the sort of person you want to be, I'm all for it. If you're talking about finding some sort of 'credo' to live by that someone's written for you, I suggest you go read some books on critical thinking instead."

Neither ;-) I've already worked through the former (with Evie contributing significantly by being there and listening) and in the latter I'm soundly theologically and philosophically grounded (try not being when your Mum used to be an Agnostic RE teacher).

What I wish to do now is contemplate my connection to the world, both the seen and unseen parts ... and by unseen parts I mean the power of nature and life. That may draw me towards contemplating the existence of Deities, Souls and so forth.

Actually, I think in replying to this I've had a revelation on why I find London uncomfortable - it's the lack of uncontrollable nature. Maybe that makes me feel disconnected or something ... like I said, I want to do a lot of thinking ...

I mostly agree

But... I think the lack of a 'God' is more likely than the presence of a 'God' so what does that make me?

Re: I mostly agree...

Yup, the above sounds about right. My problem with atheism is that the one certainty I *do* have is that I exist, and I'm fairly sure that the universe also exists because I can experience chunks of it, and I can experience other people talking about its many fascinating features... and despite it not being the sort of thing one can worship, whatever the 'spark' was that kicked the universe into existing - the unknowable thing that came before - I think that might, perhaps, appropriately be called God.

(My essay needs editing!)

Re: I mostly agree...

That is, that atheism fails entirely to explain what put us here, just as much as theism does - and we're definitely here.

Re: I mostly agree...

whatever the 'spark' was that kicked the universe into existing - the unknowable thing that came before - I think that might, perhaps, appropriately be called God.

Thank you, you've really given me something to think about here.

(Deleted comment)
See also Karl Popper's distinction between science and metaphysics. One cannot be rational about metaphysics, as one cannot apply scientific method to it.

I do appreciate his comment, though, that "Even though we cannot have a rational conversation about metaphysics, we should at least be able to have a reasonable conversation." [Possibly paraphrased, it's a while since I read it]

There is no such thing as God/s/desses or Unicorns. It was a lapse of good judgement that led a person to see a Narwhal tusk and decide it must belong in the centre of a Horse's face. It's a similar such lack of reasoning that applies that same centrality to sentience and the infinitely less related concept of the wider Universe.

At least Narwhals and Horses are both mammals. So looking at it that way they got it much much closer.

I self identify as an atheist, but that doesn't mean I'm 100% percent sure there is no god. Just that all the available evidence points that way.

In the real world there is no such think as 100% certainty about anything outside of mathematics. But my personal identification as an atheist is essentially saying "My beliefs are such that I do not accept that any god claims have met their burdens of proof therefore I do not believe. Give me sufficient proof and I'll re analyse and may change my mind". Oh also if god did exist he'd be one hell of a tosser and I wouldn't worship him anyway :)

I guess I'm signed up to the modern way of looking at it as being 2 separate axes. With Theist/Atheist (belief) on one and Gnostic/Agnostic (knowledge) on the other. So under that definition most people are agnostic whether they believe in god or not as they cannot claim to know with 100% certainty. I am however very much of the "agnostic atheist" variety because I can see no logical reason to believe in a god, especially not any of the gods posited by the various world religions.

Edited at 2012-11-15 02:55 pm (UTC)

I can definitely identify with Radical Agnosticism. I also tend towards Pastafarianism, partly because I think the existence of something like the Flying Spaghetti Monster is just as likely as the other creator myths I have stumbled across. Of all the religions I have encountered I have found aspects of 2 that I do identify with, the Wiccan Rede and the seeking nature of the Quakers. I would not participate in either religion, but both seem to me to be on a journey that is worth making whether you believe in their version of a creator or not. Not harming others and seeking to better those in your community ring true to my other beliefs (Safe, Sane, Consensual, Random acts of kindness, etc). Just wanted to add my voice to those saying thanks for putting this out there.

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