Agnostic Belief, Believer's Experience
Firmly an agnostic still, I've found traces of belief in my experience.
Posted July 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Although I am an agnostic, I used to think of myself as a functional atheist: I saw no compelling reason to believe in God (and thus am an agnostic), but I lived my life as if there is certainly no God.
Now I see that I got that backwards. I firmly remain an agnostic, but it turns out there are ways in which I have always experienced the world as if it were a divine creation. I don't believe my experience is actually evidence either way, but I find it interesting that my agnostic belief has long masked my belief-like experience,
Note that I’m talking here about how I experience my life and world, not how I act. I think there’s ample evidence that atheists and agnostics can behave as morally as religious believers — and also as badly, of course.
Examples, silly and not so
Here’s a silly but real example. Like many people, I’m hesitant to jinx a possible positive outcome by stating it out loud. So, for me it’s never “When I get the job…”, but always “If I get the job, not that I think I have a real shot at it…”. I’ve always assumed that that’s a psychological trick to lessen the pain if the outcome is negative. Likewise, it’s a way of acknowledging the chaotic indifference of the universe, which is evidence for the universe’s non-divine nature. I don’t deny any of that. But underneath is a subtle sense of a possible rightness of outcomes that makes disappointment more than a response to a random event. Rationally, I deny any larger meaning to such events, but apparently part of me sees them as part of a meaningful flow.
Let me put it like this: If I experienced life as fully random and chaotic, disappointment would feel very different.
At the other end of seriousness, I, like most people, have a sense of what’s right and wrong. I, like rational atheists, do not need a belief in God to ground that moral sense. In fact, that sense of right and wrong is what grounds my beliefs about what makes something right or wrong. That sounds backwards, but it is in fact the norm in most philosophies of morality: we test our principles and theories against our pre-theoretical sense of right and wrong. For example, a moral theory that says it’s ok to torture children would thereby have shown that it’s a false theory.
Is that prior sense of right and wrong given by God? Good lord, I hope not! That would make me an unerring arbiter of morality, and I have ample lived experience to prove that that simply is not the case. But functionally I operate as if responsibility for what I do has been imposed upon me from elsewhere. While I have non-theistic theories about why that’s so, my experience does not feel derived from a theory. It feels like it derives from a sense of right and wrong that is grounded outside of me in something bigger than my beliefs.
Another example: I personally do not get overwhelmed by natural beauty. I mean, I like mountains, canyons, and sunsets, but they don’t strike me with awe. I instead am awestruck by the recognition of my own “mereness” in the face of the outer universe and in the literal faces of the inner universes — other people — with whom we abide. I’m not suggesting that I see a purposeful hand in that type of awe. But that overwhelming sense of humbleness is a feeling shared with those who see God’s face in it. I am feeling like a believer, without the accompanying set of beliefs.
Being thankful with no one to thank
Perhaps the clearest example of how I am intellectually an agnostic but functionally more like a believer is an argument I proposed way back when I was in college. I would preface it by saying that I know that it’s not valid, but that it expresses a feeling that seemed to me to come from pretty deep within me. The argument is: “If there is no God, then there’s no one to thank. But there is much to be thankful for. Therefore, there is a God.”
Now, that argument is all wrong. I rationally know that my sense of cosmic gratitude is anthropomorphizing the universe. And I never intended it as a real “proof of God,” but as an acknowledgement of finding myself alive in an overwhelming world. Perhaps what I feel in such moments isn’t really gratitude but a sense of the staggering array of accidents that gave me consciousness and landed me in a family and culture in which I am able to flourish and feel loved by the people I care about. You can have all that without God, or so I still believe. So, once again I am intellectually an agnostic but experientially a believer.
All of these experiences of the world can be explained without reference to a deity. In fact, it would be easy to claim that they are the type of superstitious, irrational brain tricks that led to religious belief in the first place. As an agnostic, that’s an active possibility for me, but also as an agnostic I can’t deny that there is some chance — for me, very small — that maybe God is behind them. Recognizing that such questions are too big for us puny humans is at the heart of my agnosticism.
But neither do I want to discard these experiences; I think I’m better as a person and lead a better life by embracing them simply as what they are, while remaining skeptical about their origin.