Agnosticism Unzipped

A friend loaned me Michael Krasny’s new book Spiritual Envy. My friend and I share a reluctance to buy into any of the conventional religions with which the human race has saddled itself. I consider myself an atheist, while my friend considers herself an agnostic. But I try not to be dogmatic about the schism (if there is one) between atheists and agnostics, so I felt I should give the book a try.

As a boy, Krasny believed fervently in the Jewish faith in which he was brought up. By the time he graduated from college, he had lost his faith — or at least, he had lost the feeling of certainty that had underpinned it in his younger years. He is now among the uncertain: He belongs to the vast and rootless tribe that asks difficult, and indeed unanswerable, questions. He considers himself an agnostic.

Yet, for all his doubts, Krasny remains obsessed with Judaism. The book is full of references to the Ten Commandments, to Moses and Abraham. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that he looks at the absence of God as a puzzle to be solved, and hopes (wistfully, stubbornly, subconsciously) that if he only thinks the right combination of thoughts, the God of Moses and Abraham will appear to him and restore his lost faith.

As a well-educated agnostic, he ranges far beyond Judaism. He makes innumerable references to the ideas of Hemingway, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Sartre, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), among others.

In spite of this smorgasbord of philosophical tidbits, Krasny stands revealed as a shallow thinker. He never takes the time to develop a coherent thesis. But worse, he peppers us with questions that are both irrelevant and downright dumb. “How could the Israelites know the God of Moses when they weren’t even certain what to call him?”  “What did the ancient people see when they saw their one and only God?” “How can we perceive God when we cannot prove God is, and we have only the representations created by others to foster or feed our perceptions?” [Italics in original.]

The question, “How can we perceive God…” presupposes, first, that there is such an entity as “God,” and second, that this entity can, in some manner or other, be perceived. As it stands, then, the question is meaningless, because it rests on two unproven and highly doubtful assumptions. To believe that the Israelites saw anything that could reasonably be described as “God,” we would first have to develop a scientific thesis that defined the term “God.” But even to acknowledge that this step is necessary would require more intellectual rigor than Krasny seems capable of. He just wants to toss out questions because he’s an agnostic, and that’s what he thinks good agnostics do.

He takes a stab at developing a moral code in the absence of faith, but gives up too soon. “Secular humanists,” he tells us, “may believe they are good without God, but they, too, must take it on faith.” This isn’t the case at all. Most human beings have a fairly well developed (though far from absolute) sense of what is moral and what is not. It’s instinctive. The way you figure out whether you’re doing good or doing evil is, you feel your feelings. Your feelings may sometimes lead you astray, but you do have them, and they don’t depend in any way on the presence or absence of belief in God, much less on the actual presence or absence of God as an entity. If you’re paying attention, when you kick a dog you’ll feel terrible afterward. That’s how we can tell good from evil — evil feels bad. But Krasny never troubles to explore this dimension of human experience. Instead, he rushes off to ask more unanswerable questions about Moses.

In his introduction, he dismisses Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and a prominent atheist, as an ideologue. This irritated me, because I had never thought of Dawkins as promoting any particular ideology, so I went back and skimmed a little of The God Delusion. I couldn’t find a speck of ideology anywhere in it. Dawkins is a scientist, and makes no bones about that fact. It’s only possible to believe that science is an ideology if you’re wallowing in sentiment and insist on taking fantasy at face value.

“What refutes atheism,” Krasny tells us, “is the simple fact that one cannot prove a negative.” This is preposterous. No responsible atheist would assert that the absence of God can be proven! Krasny baldly misinterprets atheism in order to dismiss it in a single sentence, without ever coming to grips with it.

Atheism, as I understand it, says this: We have no credible scientific evidence whatever for the existence of any entity whose attributes match or approximate those of any deity (“God”) described or mentioned in folklore, theology, or the writings of mystics. That’s it — that’s the whole show, right there. No scientific evidence. If you care to dispute that, please, go ahead: All you have to do is show us the scientific evidence.

If you don’t have any such evidence — and it seems very unlikely indeed that you do — then your belief in God is grounded entirely in fantasy, sentiment, and wishful thinking.

Dawkins states clearly that if any such evidence can be brought forward — evidence that will stand up to scientific scrutiny — he will change his mind about the existence of God. He contrasts this with a statement from some religious leader or other (I can’t find the page right now, so I can’t give you the fellow’s name) to the effect that no matter how convincing the evidence for evolution, he, the religious leader, will continue to believe the story of creation as put forth in the Bible.

That’s the difference between an ideologue and a scientist.

For all his literary allusions, Krasny knows little of science. “It seems to me now,” he says, “that the question of God and what he might look like is akin to the question of whether intelligent life exists elsewhere [in the universe].” However, those questions are of quite distinct types. We don’t know whether intelligent life exists elsewhere for a very simple, physical reason: If it does, it’s too far away for us to observe it. The “Gods” of Hebrew mythology and other mythologies from around the world have always concerned themselves directly, or so we’re told, in human affairs. They are not, in other words, separated from us by enormous physical distances. They’re right here.

Except, there’s a problem with that hypothesis. Where are they? The fact that we can’t observe such entities can be due to one of two causes: Either there aren’t any such entities, or they are very carefully and effectively hiding from us.

Whether a God who stubbornly and consistently refuses to reveal his presence in any manner whatsoever is of the slightest practical value in the conduct of human affairs is a question that I’ll leave you to contemplate for yourself.

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