Blog, Friday's Five Good Answers

Friday’s Five Good Answers: Conversation with a Thoughtful Agnostic

It is unusual for most people (including myself) to take the opportunity to engage in genuine dialogue with those who have completely different world views. I find that we too often do not make the effort to truly listen to the perspectives of others. I have also discovered that many folks outside of ourtradition are justifiably reticent to share their beliefs in a forum like this one. I recently had the chance to sit down with a dear friend of mine to talk about his perspectives on faith.He is a well-respected university professor and renowned criminologist who has been published in the top peer review journal in his field. He grew up in an evangelical Christian home and spent some time later at non-denominational and Presbyterian churches. We have known each other for over twenty years and share an appreciation for the songwriting of Bill Mallonee.

As my friend has grown older, he has been quite intentional in his move away from the church and the Christian faith of his youth. He now classifies himself as an agnostic. I found his truthfulness refreshing and his perspectives on faith engaging because of our shared background. He refrains from theological or philosophical pretension by simply offering his honest opinion. He graciously agreed to allow me to publish his answers anonymously. I am very thankful for his willingness to share his personal journey in a forum that he might deem a little hostile to his worldview (and one that is predominately read by Christians). I want to refrain from suggesting the parts of the interview that had a profound impact on me personally and trust that you will read this like I did: as a candid back-porch conversation between old friends. I hope you will enjoy this “Friday’s Five Good Answers” with my good friend, the Thoughtful Agnostic:

Matt: How would you define your own system of beliefs? What governs your decisions?

Friend: Let me start by saying that I am by no means a theologian or philosopher. Merely someone who has a high degree of educational attainment as a social scientist coupled with a varied and broad array of personal experiences ranging across several cultures. My system of beliefs starts with the simple acknowledgement that the universe is largely an unknown to us as humans. We are really quite ignorant in most respects. With this in mind, I suppose the culmination of my personal experience and education leads me to a broad realization about human nature. This realization is that we as humans tend to initially categorize the unfamiliar and mysterious into one of two categories; good or evil. That is, we tend to either deify or demonize what we do not understand. Not surprisingly, the record of human history has us initially categorizing things that we feared as evil and things that were beneficial or helpful to us as good. So at one time we created gods out of such things that were beneficial to our very existence such as the sun, water, and fertility. Conversely, we treated as evil things that threatened (if only by perception) our existence such as strangers, or other things that frightened us. This seems as ridiculous as believing that the earth is flat to many of us now. Additionally, my training as a social scientist has made me keenly aware of human fallibility. That is, our basic human biases and limited perspectives about most things often lead us to premature, emotionally driven conclusions. Without an explicit acknowledgement of this human condition and a systematic effort to limit its effects, we are in constant danger of being deceived by it. That being said, I don’t deny the existence of the spiritual or some sort of deity. I only acknowledge that any conception we have of such things is of human invention and subject to a considerable amount of error. There are so many competing independent systems of belief around the world, many sharing similar basic elements. I think it takes a large degree of hubris for any group of humans to claim to have cornered the market on spiritual truth at the exclusion (and often condemnation) of everyone else. So, I guess you could say that my decisions are governed by very similar tenets that many Christians claim as their own such as the so called golden rule and just the basic decency of trying to treat everyone as equal and with respect (as you would your own family). The only difference is that I try to stay constantly vigilant to my own fallibility.

Matt: Do you see your choice to be an agnostic as a “leap of faith” — why or why not?

Friend: I would say generally not. This is where my lack of training as a theologian and philosopher will be glaringly obvious to those in your readership who are trained in these respective fields. In a strict sense of the concept as a tacit belief in something without evidence, then I would definitely say no. Similar to my answer above, I would say it is more of an acknowledgement of human fallibility. I would argue that faith, as defined above, is a human convention that allows subjective personal beliefs to be held as universal and generalizable truths without any required basis in observable empirical reality. In that sense it seems that faith can be logically no different than any superstition or fairy tale. So, I would argue that my choice is the exact opposite of a “leap of faith.” It’s a conscious effort to not jump to possibly erroneous conclusions without a preponderance of reliable evidence suggesting its validity.

Matt: I was brought up in the faith and sometimes wonder if I am too close to it to be critical. As a former church goer — tell me what you see happening at a church service?

Friend: In a nutshell what I see happening at a church service is something akin to psychological counseling or meditation at its best, or psychological and emotional manipulation at its worst. I explain the latter in my answer below. As far as the former goes, I see people using religion and ritual as a form of therapy or meditation. People seem to be trying to reconcile the good with the bad, the darkness with the light, so to speak. In this way, we as humans have found a way to reconcile the negative and harmful things we can do to one another. It’s a very “confessional” experience in that we can relieve burdens from ourselves psychologically and maintain a self image defined by the good.

Matt: Do you see any difference between people who say they believe in God and people who don’t?

Friend: In a broad sense no. Both groups have people at ideological extremes that one could argue are irrational or illogical. We are all human and fallible in that regard. In the end, I think that this acknowledgement is really of central importance. It is when a faith, or lack thereof, creates an air of superiority and self-righteousness that it becomes dangerous. If I see any difference at all, it would probably be that on average, people I know who do not believe in God or in organized religion tend to be very highly educated, exposed to a wide range of varied cultural experiences, or both. In general, people that I have known that believe in God, particularly those with a more extreme ideological bent, tend to have very narrow and limited world views and experiences, limited educations, or both. That’s not to say that this is always the case, just a general tendency. There are certainly people in both groups that fit each description.

Matt: Can you pinpoint a specific life experience (or maybe a series of events) that influenced your outlook on faith?

Friend:Yes. Probably the first impactful experience that I can remember seriously opening my eyes happened during my undergraduate studies. At this point I had finished my psychology sequence and had taken some communications courses in public and persuasive speaking. I was keenly aware of how a speaker could structure themes and elements of a speech to maximize the potential for stirring emotion in the audience. Around that time, a high school friend of mine who was attending Evangel College in Missouri came back to Cincinnati. He was scheduled to preach a sermon to the youth group at the church we had attended growing up. I went to see him give this sermon and was really awakened by what I saw, but not in a spiritual sense. For the first time I was watching not as an audience member, but as a critic focused on his delivery to give him feedback on how he had done. I was fairly close to him growing up and had seen him communicate all throughout high school: both in social situations or more formal school and church conversations and presentations. What I witnessed was a transformation. He was using all the same psychological and communication techniques that I had learned in college. He was pulling those kid’s strings like a maestro and in the end had most of them at the altar in an emotional frenzy. It was clear to me that he had just intentionally psychologically manipulated a group of unwitting teenagers into a “spiritual” experience. After that experience, I had a hard time watching a preacher, particularly an evangelical one, delivering a sermon. All I could focus on was the technique of the message delivery and the very intentional psychological manipulation that was taking place. This probably explains why I eventually ended up attending Presbyterian churches for a while before abandoning organized religion all together. So now that I have completely turned your original question about faith into one about organized religion, I will close by saying that what this experience did was awaken a keen awareness in me about how arbitrary and manipulated our human conception of faith can be. I know some Christians may shudder at that notion but just having an awareness of this possibility need not conflict with one’s belief system. In fact, I would argue that a Christian who can maintain their faith in the face of this realization would have a stronger, more pure faith as a result. I will close with relevant quote one of our favorite songwriters, Bill Mallonee;

I bought a crap detector, emptied all my savings.

It’s got a hair trigger feel, for the slightest provocation.

It’s not there to spill blood, or to judge out of line.

It’s just a modern convenience, to save you some time.”

Check back over the next few Friday’s for some wonderful interviews with author Jana Riess, singer-songwriter Gabriel Kelley, and author and professor of theology, Dr. Tripp York.

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