I recently started reading Life of Pi and so far, so good! I plan to write a short review on it at some point in the future, but for now that must wait. I mention Yann Martel’s novel for one of the many interesting and eye-opening insights into life it offers. Two of the main themes the book revolves around are religion and faith. Amongst Martel’s writing on these two topics I came across a brilliant excerpt towards the beginning of the novel. It goes as follows:
I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
The words actually shocked me. The insight into agnosticism was damning. Moreover, it felt like these words had dissected a part of my being. It struck me that I usually class myself as an agnostic and this book claimed I am immobile in my way of life as a result. This caused me some concern, so I immediately decided to do some research into religion, atheism and agnosticism.
Based on what I have read and heard, there is a confusion as to what atheism actually means. The narrator in Martel’s novel believes both atheists and religious people have faith. According to his understanding, they both have their own philosophy of life that can be supported with evidence only so far until they both have to take a leap into the unknown. So according to this view, atheists can point to science, logic and reason; yet they still have no proof that there is no God or gods in some afterlife, looking down (or up) on us. Thus, when they commit themselves to being an atheist, they too believe their view of life and religion on earth is correct based upon their own leap of faith. Similarly, religious people have a faith in God, gods or a certain way of life based on their own belief in the unknowable.
However, this is not the definition that other atheists accept. American Atheists state ‘(a)theism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.’ Martel’s representation of atheism is not a lack of belief but a disbelief. The lack of belief should not be aligned with belief or disbelief, the two are separate. Similarly, about.com’s writer Austin Cline suggests that one should not falsely believe ‘atheism is an ideology rather than simply the absence of belief in gods’, this misunderstanding is often represented as people falsely assume atheism is a proper noun (always use a lower case ‘a’).
Yet, these contrasting definitions left me feeling confused, it was strange to me that there is such disparity in the definition of atheism. As I turned towards agnosticism’s definition, I found similar results. Wikipedia’s agnosticism page states ‘agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether God, the divine, or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable.’ This approach to the metaphysical is further divided into strong and weak agnosticism. Strong agnostics would argue that no one can know whether a God or gods exist. Whereas a weak agnostic would qualify that they don’t know whether God or gods exist but one day, with the right evidence, we might be able to. Weak agnosticism seems similar to the American Atheists’ definition to me, this branch of agnosticism simply suggests that there is a current lack of belief, not that there is any definitive reason to disbelieve in God or gods.
Whether or not one commits to a religion or atheism, it is worth bearing in mind that all are ways of life. We cannot comprehensively state that X way of life is right and Y is wrong, at least not for the moment. So, we have to show respect and understanding for other religions, however obscure they may seem to some. I have met one or two atheists who lamented religious people as stupid and incorrect and religious people who have said the same of atheists. Such slander will only lead to unhappiness and malaise, this guardian article provides a similar sentiment towards these negative approaches.
After researching these different definitions, I would have to align myself to weak agnosticism. Yet, I don’t feel this is earned or deserved. My self-prescription of agnosticism is not through any major meditation on where my faith lies. I have not researched many religions thoroughly, if I had, I might be more inclined to take that leap of faith into a religion. The agnosticism I associate myself with is the culmination of upbringing, media, a youthful dislike for things being forced upon me and an apathy towards finding out where my faith really lies.
Putting how to define and approach faith and other faiths to one side, two questions immediately interested me after reading Martel’s words. “Is it so bad being agnostic?” and “how should I go about finding my faith?” There are two answers to the first question. Yes it is bad being an agnostic, if it is in the sense that I label myself one. I have paid little attention to religions or religious options to reach my decision. Given that religion and spirituality are clearly important parts of many people’s lives, it seems foolish not to extensively research and consider some options for myself. The second answer is no. If I have researched and read a lot about religion and still find myself in a position of weak agnosticism (or potentially even strong) then I don’t think it is so bad. If I have researched and sought deep answers to the questions religion and spirituality ask of a person and come out with an answer I am happy with, then it certainly is not bad.
The second question to ‘finding my faith’ or religious standpoint has already been answered. Research! Read novels, books, holy scriptures, blogs. Talk to priests, yogis and normal people. Approach every answer with an open mind, but a critical edge that allows you to make an informed decision.
Religion is a tricky subject and one that brings about clashing views and confusing definitions, but it is certainly important. Moreover, it is worth everyone’s while to research religions and approach them with understanding. Feel free to comment, ask questions or clarify my shaky understanding of atheism and agnosticism.