How Agnostic begins:
There are some four hundred houseboats in Seattle. Many, like mine, are little more than shacks on rafts, but this may be the only one with a mezuzah at its entrance.
If I were religious, the small cylindrical amulet would hold a miniature scroll inscribed with the Shema, the Jewish equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer or the Islamic Shahada. But mine doesn’t, partly because the scroll kept falling out when I put the mezuzah up on the doorpost, and partly because I don’t believe a word of the prayer anyway. I’m not sure what happened to it. I may have thrown it out in a tough-minded moment, or it may be squirreled away in the bottom of a drawer somewhere. No matter. Most of the time I don’t even notice the mezuzah, and neither does anyone else. But I know it’s there, and that does matter.
Yet why should it? I am firmly agnostic, and haven’t been to a synagogue service in years. Decades, in fact. So is this mezuzah an empty sentimental gesture on my part, or does the word hypocrisy apply? Could I be in denial: a closet theist, or a more deeply closeted atheist? Or am I just a timid fence-sitter, a spineless creature trying to have it both ways, afraid to commit herself one way or the other?
And there’s the problem — right there in that phrase “one way or the other.” It sees the world in binary terms: yes or no, this side or that. It insists that I can be either agnostic or Jewish but not both, even though both are integral parts of this multi-faceted life that is mine, as integral as being a writer, a psychologist, a feminist, all the many aspects of this particular person I am. All are part of the way I experience the world, and myself in it. Take any one of these aspects away, and I’d be someone else.
To be agnostic is to love this kind of paradox. Not to skirt it, nor merely to tolerate it, but to actively revel in it. The agnostic stance defies artificial straight lines such as that drawn between belief and unbelief. It is free-spirited, thoughtful, and independent — not at all the wishy-washy I-don’t-knowness that atheists often accuse it of being. In fact the mocking tone of such accusations reveals the limitations of dogmatic atheism. There’s a bullying aspect to it, a kind of schoolyard taunting of agnostics as “lacking the courage of their convictions” — a phrase that raises the question of what exactly conviction has to do with courage.
We need room, I continue, in which to explore and entertain possibilities instead of heading for a safe seat at the one end or the other of an artificially created spectrum:
What’s been missing is a strong, sophisticated agnosticism that does not simply avoid thinking about the issues, nor sit back with a helpless shrug, but actively explores the paradoxes and possibilities inherent in the vast and varied universe of faith-belief-meaning-mystery-existence. That’s my purpose here.
I want to explore unanswerable questions with an open mind instead of approaching them with dismissive derision or with the solemn piety of timid steps and bowed head — to get beyond old, worn-out categories and establish an agnostic stance of intellectual and emotional integrity, fully engaged with this strange yet absorbing business of existence in the world.
I’ll be posting more extracts in the weeks ahead, but in the meantime… well, you know what to do: pre-order here!