An Agnostic Manifesto: Part One

For the last two weeks, I’ve been deeply engaged in what I know to be a futile pursuit.   It’s called writing:  in this case, part of the biography of Muhammad I’m working on.   Specifically, this agnostic Jew has been trying to ‘understand’ the pivotal gnostic moment of Islam – what happened the night on Mount Hira, outside Mecca, when Muhammad had his first Quranic revelation.  In other words, I’ve been trying to fathom, in words, the unfathomable, or what is beyond words.

I was fully aware that this might be a pretty good definition of the absurd, yet even so, I kept trying.  That’s an essential part, for me, of being an agnostic:  that faith in inquiry, in not acknowledging boundaries, in pushing the envelope of exploration.  This may be hubris or chutzpah (or maybe just plain dumb), but it seems to work, at least so far.

Others, though, seem to find it confusing, especially if their image of an agnostic is of someone who can’t make up her mind — someone so bullied by the loud shouts and louder certainties of those who claim to know (both theists and atheists) that she feels guilty for her uncertainty.

So let this be the first in a series of posts, over time, that I’ll call an agnostic manifesto.

For a start:  That wishy-washy hang-dog I-don’t-know-ness is not agnosticism at all.  On the contrary, agnosticism is a solid intellectual position.  I see it as a recognition of human limitation.  A position of great integrity (go on, accuse me of hubris!).  And a fine safeguard against the inhumanity of certainty.

Unless you are under the illusion that the bearded old man up on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is anything other than a visual metaphor, no matter how good his musculature, you really have no idea exactly what God might be.  You might have a sense of it (yes, it, not him or her – let’s stop the anthropomorphism right now), intuit it, occasionally even catch a glimpse of it.  On a mountaintop at sunset, for instance.  Or when listening to music.  Or on a psychedelic drug, or in meditation or prayer, or in the most common “oh God” moment of all, orgasm.  Any of these and more are moments of what Freud called “oceanic consciousness,” of being lifted out of your separate self into a feeling of being without boundaries, part of something greater.  Call them intimations of the divine, perhaps.

You recognize such moments as going beyond your everyday human existence, and thus think of them as metaphysical – literally beyond physics.  Beyond comprehension.  Magical.  Mysterious.

But despite all the attempts of mystics great and small, we have no language for mystery.  We’re stuck with words and images, and so words and images tend to become the thing itself, and this grand intuition of mystery, however you might conceive of it, is reduced to the dismayingly literal.

Being human, that is, we cut our sense of divinity down to size.  (Just think a moment of that small, short name in English, God.  I’ve begun to think of it as “the TLW” — the three-letter word – a disappointing shorthand, almost a pet name, that doesn’t even reverberate on the tongue as does the musical name of Allah in Arabic.)

And I refuse to do this.  The first step in that refusal is to acknowledge not just the limitations of my own knowledge, but more important, the concept of unknowability.   We’re talking (absurdly) about the untalkable, the unknowable.   That’s the mystery of it.  So I don’t say this out of any fake sense of humility or modesty.  No way:  I say it out of pleasure.  I enjoy unknowability.

Some people might think of this as a deeply religious stance, while others might see it as an utterly pragmatic one.   Me?  I feel no need to define it.  I may be engaged in a futile pursuit, but hell, it’s a splendid one.

27 Responses

  1. I with you here. I am often delighted by the unknowability. I have Sam Keen’s “In the Absence of God, Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred,” in my bathroom so I get a couple of pages a few times a day. Today on pg. 97 he speaks of “Reverence.” Your posting was very timely. I feel like I am listening to you and Sam having a very intriguing conversation. Thanks for letting me eavesdrop.

  2. Once again, Lesley, your words on eloquent and on target. I am more likely at least in certain minds to identify the “oceanic feeling” with spirit of some sort, so perhaps my position is Not A-Theist. But it is striking how the idea that one does not know is taken as “wishy-washy.” The passion for certainty, so prevalent in folks like Sam Harris, but also a massive stumbling block in public discourse begs for psychoanalysis: is the West’s Death Drive in fourth gear? Pardon my elaborations on your theme, but your thoughts on this matter spark mine.

    • Feel free to elaborate away. Especially on that passion for certainty — good phrase — as a massive stumbling block in public discourse. Yeats of course — “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” — but maybe that’s not quite it, since it’s the worst who seem to be full of impassioned conviction. Can we be calmly convinced? Just throwing out words here…

  3. Just a high five and a what-the-hell/let’s-eat-Cuban from here. The unknowable and the adventure is what it’s all about after all. Wishy-washy? Wishy-washy is for those who need dogma.

  4. Reminded me of this, from Siddhartha:

    “Nobody attains enlightenment though a teaching. You will not be able to express to anyone through words and doctrine what happened to you in the moment of your enlightenment!”

    It’s ultimately the flaw that Sid sees in following Gotama, that you can’t find the sublime through someone else’s description.

    This is very timely for me as well – I’ve been thinking about writing a manifesto defending belief. I was a total skeptic, atheist, but things weren’t working out, and I also thought it was a stance that did cultural damage. So I asked myself, “What is the benefit of being a non-believer?” (or rather, a believer in only the rational & provable).

    Maybe you can help me answer this question. But my own answer was, “The benefit is thinking that I’m right.” (according to current scientific thought).

    So the big question was: “Why do I think I’m so important that it matters that I be right?”

    Which led me on a new path of faith – simultaneously believing contradictory ideas. It’s fun.

    I just started following your blog after seeing your TED talk (I’m a Seattlite myself) and I’m excited to start taking part in your discussions!

  5. One of the misconceptions that I love is the idea that there is certainty in science and faith, but not in being an agnostic. Or that anyone who is agnostic or atheist is also an -ism.

    The certainty that exists in science is (or should be) the certainty of being on the right track, of working with a foundation of understanding. That’s not to say that it’s a “certainty” that science is known in the complete sense. So, too, is a central tenet of faith, where believers are quite certain of the beneficence of God in good times, and quite willingly interject that one can’t know the will of God in bad times.

    What’s the difference between that and being agnostic? One is certain of what is known, not certain about what isn’t; but a fear of emptiness is easier explained as “wishy-washy”-ness than as valid. Personally, I think it’s a softer means of defense against the fear that that other may have a valid point.

    But then, at the same time I read this Manifesto, I’m also reading Zizek’s “Violence”. At the end of the first chapter, in which he’s rather viciously skewering the unintentional violence of the well-meaning middle class liberals, he diverts to an interesting point about how that tolerance that gives freedom to divorce sex from love, where a public masturbation-a-thon can be seen as good is also a great sign that, just perhaps, the warm and well fed liberal elite are existing as Nietzche’s “last man”. And that makes me wonder about Agnostics who allow too easily the faithful their belief.

    I’m fine with belief when the person lives by what I see as that faith’s central tenets. I’m not fine when they don’t- but I’m quite conscious that it’s me defining what their central tenets should be. I think that I’m justified in doing that as I’m not shrouded in the confusion of belief (I think of it as similar to the first days and months of a new relationship; you can forgive or be blind to many things that come to haunt you later). Of course, I’m somewhat conceited and believe that I have a less biased view of the world.

    Then I wonder what parts of the world I’m missing by not being able to simply wonder at that sunset with the feeling that it was presented to fill me with awe.

    And I realize that they do have a point. By the time I come around that circle, I am wishy-washy in the context of how they define the world.

  6. Religion is the most personal thing in the world. It is nobody’s business to approach other’s belief in any way. Simply put: It is a bet, everybody is betting his life on his belief no matter what it is. When it is time to know if we won or lost there will be no second chances.
    In Quraan God made it very clear that nobody is to be compelled to believe in Him. Why: Because God wants people to believe in Him out of deep conviction which is reached by observing, thinking and researching. Once this happens nobody can remove the belief from the heart no matter what. But those who are forced one way or the other into a belief will come out of it as soon as the pressure is off. A good example is places which were invaded by the so called “Muslim Armies” who turned away from Islam as soon as the armies went away.

  7. When I first read this post I was a bit taken aback. I guess it was because I could see the logic yet disagreed with the premise.
    I”m not sure if I can articulate this properly but it’s 2:06 A.M. and I can’t sleep so I’m going to give it a whirl.
    I have a lot of respect for agnostics, but to me it has a fatal flaw, that being that it is self perpetuating.
    As I see it, a good agnostic is always seeking truth and will always ask questions (a good thing, I think). Also, from the vibe I get here, a good agnostic realizes there can be no certainty, only possibilities so, even if they found what they seek, they would reject it be cause it cannot be empirically proven.
    so, a hungry man is presented with a photograph of a steak and he says, “I cant eat that, it’s only a photograph. When he is presented with some toy sandwiches from a child”s game he says “I can’t eat that, it’s only plastic. when he is presented with real food, he says, “It looks like food and smells like food, but how do I really know? Maybe it’s just an illusion! Fox News tells me that this is poison, or, conversely, Fox News tells me that this is the only real food there is, but can I really trust them?
    I realize it’s a weak metaphor, but like I said, It’s after 2:00 A.M.
    I had a discussion with an atheist once and he accused those who have faith in the unseen of believing in fairy tales. I found that point difficult to counter until I realized that he and I had a common, or at least similar belief in the origins of the universe (I think the beginning is an excellent place to start). He would have said something dry and cold like, “a massive explosion emanating from a single point” etc. etc. while my wording would have included terms like “drifting smoke” and “…clove it asunder” but the mechanics are the same i.e. nothing (much) and then everything (more or less). Here’s where we differ. The atheist believes in science, such as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but the first reaction had no action. I believe the action was an intelligent being saying “Be”. It seems to me that there is evidence that atheists could also be accused of believing in fairy tales.
    So, where does the agnostic fit here? I can understand saying that an intelligent being is not the only explanation, but I can’t understand rejecting the idea without following it through, like “there is a god” or ” there is not a god” if there isn’t, then thats pretty much as far as we can go unless science,( which we can’t really trust anyway) comes up with a theory as to what happened pre big bang. If there is, then we have a lot of possibilities which, if winnowed away, should reveal the truth. And that brings up another question. Do you believe that there is some ultimate truth?
    Maybe a string of random thoughts, but i’m going to post them anyway.:-)

  8. About my last post, I realize that agnostics are as varied as any other group in their beliefs, I’m just trying to generalize. As always, I’m open to criticism or tutorials :-)

  9. @aminrefaat

    Religion is the most personal thing in the world. It is nobody’s business to approach other’s belief in any way. Simply put: It is a bet, everybody is betting his life on his belief no matter what it is. When it is time to know if we won or lost there will be no second chances


    To me it looks like you are conflating the concepts of belief and religion. The former fits basically what you are describing, but is really a “subset” of religion. A short elaboration on the distinction here:
    Check second paragraph.

    Many religions have indeed a number of important structures and mechanisms which act on the “community level”. These, like rites, places for worship, taboos, etc.share some common properties
    across the religions.

    In the quran, the god says a lot of things. e.g. both that the message is clear (take an honest look around you at the “unity” ? in the islamic world!), and that he leads “non-believers” astray (thereby tampering with THEIR free will -and hence responsibility).

    To me it seems like the “revelation strategy” of the judeo-christian-muslim god is a rather peculiar one:

    1) Reveal yourself and your will to mankind at ONE PARTICULAR TIME in history (or one particulare time-period)
    2) Thereafter withdraw and leave the interpretations to the “feeble human mind” :-)

    If there really is an omniscient and benevolent god, this strategy does not look like a very good one. -At least not to me.
    Aain, take alook around in the world of the unity status of ANY larger religion ( I am not only slamming islam).

    In fact, the idea seems so utterly bad it stongly suggest that religion it is indeed not a divine, but a human construct.

    In Cod we trust

  10. “the inhumanity of certainty”

    It is perhaps the wisdom of age to know the full extent to which this is true, to embrace one’s fallibility.

  11. I am just learning here, so please feel free to teach, dear Ms Hazleton.

    The problem with ‘being an agnostic’ is that almost as a principle, you will hold everything in doubt. I call that a ‘problem’ because the idea of truth itself is pretty wide, so the login being, if you can not really, really know the truth, so you’ll always be an agnostic. Nothing wrong with that, but calling oneself an agnostic would have a situation like another commentator up top tried to elucidate upon i.e. you would always be asking question, and never enjoying the answers. Hmm, does that even make sense?

    Seen another way, even the Quran points out to people who have a ‘zanni ilm’ , ‘zanni’ roughly meaning ‘most probable’.

    If I find something to be ‘most probably true’, as far as the agnostic in me is concerned, I SHOULD NOT believe in it. And that is where the ‘ism’ really stops making much sense to me.

    It is most probably true that God very much exists, and there will be a reckoning. I am not 100% on it, but I will take the Pascal’s Wager. Why wouldn’t a ‘declared agnostic’?

    • Stay tuned for more. For now, re Pascal’s Wager, I hate gambling. And incidentally, isn’t gambling considered un-Islamic?

      • hahaha :) OK.

        The thing is, if Mr ABC believes, for whatever argument that satisfies him, that there is a higher chance of God existing than God not existing, then what should Mr ABC do? Wait for 100% confirmation? Or ‘take his chances’?

        But I am tuned in :). Would love to read more of your thoughts.

  12. @Momekh
    If you want a more “open-minded”(sic) analysis of Pascal’s Wager, I’ll recommend this one:

    For my part, the very idea of a (purported) benevolent deity planning to torture me eternally if I somehow refuse to believe in him, is such an self-imploding idea, that I’ll rather put forward another option.

    Any (morally sound) agnostic acquiring convincing evidence for such a deity, should immediately renounce his/her agnosticism and become an anti-theist.

    For my own part, I find the “risk assessment” outlined in Pascal’s Wager rather disingenuous. With the assumed consequence of salvation infinitely good, and correspondingly, the consequences of eternal damnation infinitely bad, any (epistemic) knowledge of (the probability of) god’s existence becomes irrelevant.

    In Cod we trust

    • And for a wonderfully entertaining take on the whole matter, I’d recommend Rebecca Goldstein’s sharp and biting novel, ’36 Arguments for the Existence of God.’

      • hmmmm, I might consider it, -especially if it miraculously(sic) turns up “on sale” in a pavement box along a street somwhere, sometime, in the future. :-)

        However, I am presently not convinced it will match e.g. Raymond Smullyan’s gem: “Is God a Taoist”.
        Admittedly, much shorter, but (and with the caveat the I haven’t read the former) more relevant for life itself….MY life, that is.
        And this leads me to a stab at a rather neglected aspect of literature. It occasionally gives you insight, and often pleasure, but I am also I’m also inclined to think of it as a “life by proxy”. It is the “virtual world” of the author you are “enjoying”.
        I have come to value more immediate “real world” presence, myself.

        In Cod we trust

  13. Ah Lesley,

    You talk to me and hone my uncertainties.

    Except sometimes when i wake in the morning, and I just see the tip of the sun coming up, and my body is still here, and I remember I’ve come some 9 billiion light years with d and the kids and the eleven, in one piece Pantz

  14. Lesley … you INSPIRE me

  15. Ah, Lesley,

    On my journey from passionate believer to humble respecter of mystery, I applaud your manifesto.

    Finding words for those transcendent moments is indeed a challenge, but you’re up to it! I can’t wait to read what you come up with. You’re right that Rebecca Goldstein has some marvelous renderings of the transcendent in “36 Arguments.” Jane Hirshfield’s collection “Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women” has some terrific examples too. We humans have been trying to find words for those transcendent moments for a very long time! The trick, as you say, is to remember that they are all metaphors.

  16. Hi Lesley

    Despite the idea that it’s largely a mystery, the post still claims that god is an it not a he, or that the metaphors are actually about something (as opposed to just being made up wholecloth). This is something I don’t understand about this kind of agnostic position: it still attempts to differentiate “legitimate” religious beliefs (eg. ones that agree that it’s all a metaphor) and “illegitimate” ones (eg. most types of fundamentalism).

  17. The word ‘Gnostic’ does not strictly mean the opposite of the word ‘agnostic’, atleast not when “perfection” is one of the attributes of ‘God’. Infact, the word ‘Gnostica’ (here, i mean phonetically the same word) in many Indian languages means a non-believer in an all powerful God. Because, Islam has an all powerful God, the phrase ‘Gnostic moment of Islam’ is a misnomer.

    This article is a good attempt using the niceties of the English language to somehow link Mohammad, Mysticism,Mount Hira and Divinity. Please dont interpret this as ‘Islamophobic’.

    You also say “You enjoy unknowability” and attribute it to mysticism. People did not know about blackholes about 3 decades back. We did not know about blackholes then, did not enjoy the fact that we did not know about them, but we now know more about blackholes now than what we did 10 years back. Known laws of Physics may not hold in blackholes, but they are not as ‘metaphysical’ as they were before.

    Things not known at the present may seem mystical(and divine),but an open mind is required to investigate the mysteries and then the mystery is no longer one. The Universe is a never-ending collection of mysteries and so is the Human mind. The Human mind contemplating/studying itself is also a never ending mystery by itself. In this contemplation can arise a question – “Who am I?” Answers to these kind of questions can have the potential to look beyond mystery, magic, orgasm, ‘musical name of Allah in Arabic’, limitation of linguistics etc.

  18. Hello Lesley! I just watched your TEDtalk and found it very enlightening. I decided to search for more on youtube but discovered an apparent imposter using your name to lure in people to see their anti-islamic videos. Maybe you’re already aware of it, but if you aren’t then here’s a link:

    Keep up the good work and don’t ever let imposters like that stop you!

    • Yup, there seems to be a whole gaggle of imposters/fakes/pirates out there (the dark side of the Web, I guess), and not much I can do about it except trust to people’s common sense, which may or may not be a rather uncommon quality…

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