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Finding Value in Doubt, Uncertainty, & Mystery

While recognizing that there is a lot of diversity of opinion among Nones, I thought it might be helpful for some if I presented my own ideas in more detail—especially since I inhabit a range of belief myself. Feeling drawn to an array of ideas in agnosticism, atheism, deism, and pantheism, my own perspective focuses heavily on doubt, uncertainty, and mystery.

Mystery Without Supernaturalism

I am skeptical of what I usually refer to as supernaturalism. For instance, I don’t think intercessory prayer works and I am doubtful about stories of supernatural healings. While I would welcome a joyous afterlife for all (I like John Prine’s imaginative vision!), no realms of heaven, hell, purgatory, or limbo are observable to humans—and it seems likely to me (and perhaps even fitting) that the baffling nature of existence would not be resolved after death. I am also skeptical about the claimed miracles and revelations of Christianity and other religions, and think these stories and ideas are more likely the results of human misapprehensions, delusions, or imaginative thinking than the product of actual divine interventions or communications.

Nevertheless, looking at the beauty and grandeur of the universe I am often struck by its awe-inspiring and even numinous character. It seems that a litany of the universe’s wonders could go on for volumes: black holes, ringed planets, Venus flytraps, talking parrots, flying foxes, whirling pulsars, supernovae, Megalodon sharks, massive brachiosaurs, whirlpools, chameleons, CAT 5 hurricanes, cannibal tribes, volcanic eruptions, DNA replication, fireflies, saber-toothed tigers, nuclear explosions, stick bugs, flying fish, auroras, living trees that sprouted during the Roman Empire, satellite communications, laughing babies, duck-billed platypuses, massive sequoias, Neanderthals and Australopithecines, pterosaurs the size of small airplanes, catapults, electromagnets, howler monkeys, rainbows, robotics, tropical forests, stalactite-invested caverns, tsunamis, symphonies and synthesizers, space shuttles, water striders, blizzards and thundersnow, hieroglyphics, multitudes of microscopic organisms, Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids, Goliath Birdeater Tarantulas, the complexities of human brain function, waterspouts and fire whirls, galaxies that take light itself 100,000 years to cross … . While all these things are made up of matter and energy, they also somehow suggest to me that the universe is more than just a simple sum of its parts. I find this perspective of the American deist Thomas Paine (1737-1809) quite thought-provoking on this general point: “Everything, therefore, is a miracle, in one sense; whilst, in the other sense, there is no such thing as a miracle.”

A Range of Freethought

To put it plainly, I am a skeptic when it comes to traditional forms of religion. I don’t believe in what I regard as the gods of mythology: Zeus, Thor, Baal, Shiva, Amon Ra, Ahura Mazda, Amitabha, Mithras, Tlazolteotl, the Great Mother, and many thousands of other similar deities. While recognizing the extensive intellectual traditions behind Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (not to mention Buddhism and some other religions), I nevertheless include Jesus, Yahweh, and Allah in this same general category. I would hold that all these religions—especially in their traditional and fundamentalist manifestations—are simply improbable. The great diversity of supernatural opinions is also a cause for skepticism for me, and the literally thousands of competing gods, religions, sects, denominations, and doctrines make me question the reliability of divine leadings—and conclude that something else besides revelation is at work.

While acknowledging the often-close historical connections between religion and mythology, I nevertheless have some “inclinations” towards the idea that there may be some sort of intelligence behind the universe. I am thus drawn to ideas in deism (the belief in a non-interventionist god) and rational pantheism (the belief that the divine and the universe are one). I greatly appreciate some of the approaches of thinkers like Benedict Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein, and Paul Tillich—and so I would not claim to be atheistic towards these kinds of more subtle approaches to the divine. In other words, I would not be surprised if something in this spectrum of thought ends up being true (or at least partially true or representative of something that’s true). That being said, these are not firm beliefs of mine—and they are certainly not dogmas. Some questions that trigger my affinities with these perspectives include: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is this “something” so diverse, creative, and awe-inspiring? What happened before the Big Bang? What made the Big Bang occur? (Will the Big Bang theory someday be replaced by some other model?) What are the implications of the fact that there are apparently more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth—and that there may be100 to 100,000 times more planets than stars? If there are indeed two trillion galaxies in the universe, what percentage of the total sum of knowledge in the universe can we honestly say we currently possess? How many universes exist? What questions has science not only left unanswered, but has not yet asked? The popular book on astrophysics entitled We Have No Ideahas noted that humanity’s “mastery applies only to a small corner of the universe, and we are surrounded by a vast ocean of ignorance.” Especially with my own personal levels of ignorance about modern astrophysics (not to mention a host of other subjects), my sense is that I am not able to reach definitive conclusions about the ultimate nature of existence.

As someone who has struggled with dogmatism in the past, I also intentionally want to avoid the strident or overly confident kinds of skepticism that are often connected with more aggressive forms of atheism. If I am only going to use one word to describe my approach, I typically find that “agnostic” is therefore the best one. It seems to be a clear way to communicate that I am skeptical of traditional religions, but nevertheless feel that I have a significant amount of residual uncertainty. (For examples of the value of distinct definitions for atheism and agnosticism, see atheist philosophersGraham Oppy and Julian Baggini.) That being said, Baggini underscores for me how atheism and theism are not necessarily mortal enemies anyway—and that approaching complex topics with humility can reveal unexpected (and even refreshing) points of concord:

I am as opposed to dogmatic atheism as anyone, and I am also opposed to dogmatic theism. Indeed, it is my view that dogmatic views of any kind are in general more dangerous than the views themselves. Intelligent atheists often have much more in common with undogmatic theists than one might suppose.

Part of my hesitation in ascribing any definitive belief in a “philosopher’s god” is my sense that human beings seem to be beyond their capacities when they talk of such matters. In essence, being undecided on this point appears to me to be the most realistic and natural position to hold. I think this sentiment was captured well by Englishman Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), who argued (I think eloquently) that humanity is in essence “out of its depth” on this general topic:

We are a company of ignorant beings, feeling our way through mists and darkness, learning only by incessantly repeated blunders, obtaining a glimmering of truth by falling into every conceivable error, dimly discerning light enough for our daily needs, but hopelessly differing whenever we attempt to describe the ultimate origin or end of our paths …. Till then [when verification might come] we shall be content to admit openly, what you whisper under your breath or hide in technical jargon, that the ancient secret is a secret still; that man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute; and that, knowing nothing, he had better not be dogmatic about his ignorance.

To use a more inclusive term, I fit well into the category of “freethinker.” Merriam Webster defines this word as especially connected to “one who rejects or is skeptical of religious dogma.” I like this term precisely because it is broad and seems to better capture how my beliefs inhabit a range of possibilities rather than a fixed point—and how I find myself frequently drawn towards agnosticism, elements of atheism, and more skeptical religious approaches like those found in deism and pantheism.

Furthermore, a big part of my former journey of faith could be characterized as an attempt to make myself believe things that seemed improbable or unknowable. I now think that this common impulse of traditional religion is actually dehumanizing, encouraging the denial of the stark nature of human limitations and ignorance. Consequently, I now deeply resonate with secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor’s notion that a “detachment from God concepts” is the most healthy psychological approach for finite and fallible people. The ancient Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus provides some further helpful counsel on this point I think. In short, one of the main benefits of doubt is that it can help foster peace of mind through personal honesty. With a gentle form of skepticism, conclusions no longer need to be forced; pretensions to knowledge can be dropped. When evidence seems strong to me, I can accept the conclusion as a natural course of action; when it seems weak or inconclusive, decisions can be regarded as unnecessary.

Sexed-up Atheism?

Richard Dawkins memorably remarked that Albert Einstein’s beliefs in an impersonal God were a form of “sexed-up atheism.” While Dawkins may have a point in his general assessment, this attention to “sexiness”—or to the mysterious or numinous—may in fact be a vital lens for describing the nature of reality. As Einstein suggested, this focus on mystery seems to be an extremely helpful (and for many of us perhaps even necessary) part of expressing the fullness of the human experience:

The most beautiful and deepest experience that a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.

To recap, I am a freethinker. I see uncertainty, doubt, and mystery as defining characteristics of my worldview. I am definitely not a fundamentalist nor a traditional believer; I am skeptical of the miraculous. I tend to call myself an agnostic with some pantheistic or deistic inclinations. Other Nones may regard these things differently, resonate with different definitions, or reject labels entirely—but I’ve found this particular range of belief to be the most compelling way to approach life, the universe, and everything. At least for now. If I learn or experience something new, I may (and perhaps even should) change my mind …

A former Protestant seminarian and ex-Roman Catholic, Barrett Evans is now skeptical of traditional dogmas but retains a fascination with non-supernatural aspects of spirituality. His bookThe Contemplative Skeptic: Spirituality for the Non-Religious and the Unorthodox is an exploration of the benefits of combining doubt with the contemplative path. Follow him on Twitter at @ContemplativeS4.


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